Going to California

Making Magic — 10

Illuminati was one of Steve Jackson’s early games. I think it first came out in 1982. He’d put out board games with tanks shooting each other, successfully leapt into the early post-apocalypse zeitgeist with a great little Mad Max-influenced board game called Car Wars, and before that had re-imagined Dungeons & Dragons with practical, board-game styled combat rules. Illuminati would be his first card game, and it was unlike any other.

Each player controls a secret conspiracy bent on taking over the world. Every conspiracy shows up in the game as a card, on which are numbers for how much basic power and income your Illuminati group can leverage. When it’s your turn in the game, your conspiracy gets however much money it’s due, after which you may choose to use your power performing some kind of action, such as attacking the competing conspiracies, with dice rolls to determine your success. Money spent by your conspiracy, and by your competition, can influence the outcome of the roll, for you or against you.

The basic game offered six different conspiracies, each with a unique victory condition. For example, the Bavarian Illuminati have the most raw power, and they win by further building their power up to a terrific height. The Gnomes of Zurich are like the Bavarians, but in terms of money versus raw power. Then there are the Servants of Cthulhu, who win by completely destroying some number of other groups. Rounding out the list are the UFOs, the Discordians, and the Network, each with their own terrible power and purpose.

But of course the Illuminati are not the only groups in the game. They’re manipulators, our secret societies, so there’s a stack of cards from which each player draws with every turn, representing the various uncontrolled groups which are prey for the conspiracies. Newly drawn cards are set out in the middle of the table, face up. Uncontrolled groups are generally easy for one of the Illuminati to attack to control. If the attack succeeds, then the newly controlled group gets added to your conspiracy’s power structure. Your main card has four outward pointing arrows, one on each edge of the card, so simply take the inbound arrow from a new group and lay it down next to one of your Illuminati’s outbound arrows, describing the relationship: power flows from the controlling card down to the sub- and sub-sub-groups, for as far out as is reasonable to build the branching limbs of your power structure. For example: Big Media controls the Republicans, who control the Boy Sprouts as well as the American Autoduel Association, and all the money made at the leaf nodes trickles back up into the heart of your secret conspiracy. More powerful groups — like the Pentagon, and the Mafia — have a lot of outbound arrows, so they can control several other groups, making it easier to build a network of power from the central card. It’s more difficult to attack into someone else’s power structure, but when you seize a group that controls other groups, you get that entire branch of the power structure, too. You end up with something that looks like a paranoid’s illustration of how different groups conspire to control the world.

It was fun — my favorite game in high school, I think, not the least of which because it led me believe that I had some inkling into why the world worked the way that it does. When — in the game — the Mafia helps the Pentagon to attack to destroy the International Communists, I couldn’t help but think it sounded a lot like the newspaper headlines I used to read over my dad’s shoulder every morning at breakfast. Quickly, I developed a reading list that too few sophomores made themselves push through, initially cribbed from the credits of the original Illuminati game, which gave appropriate credit to everyone who’d walked that route before them. The big one, The Illuminatus Trilogy, was hard to lay my hands on and even more difficult to consume, though I found my high-school copy recently and the degree to which it had been bookmarked was nearly embarrassing. I remember it having a pretty awkward finish, though it spurred me on to figure out how much of that mass of insanity had some germ of truth in it. Because on the face of it, any curious mind’s next reasonable thought has to be: How much of this was true? And how much of this truth was sitting out in plain sight?

I’d not be the first or the last person to tumble down this rabbit hole. Years later, deep in the winter of my senior year in high school, I found myself in a dark cubicle on the campus library of the University of Texas at Arlington, pouring over a photographic projection, via old-school microfiche, a 200-year-old book purporting to be one of the only remaining documents of the historical organization known as the Bavarian Illuminati, who stories from that time report them having moved to infiltrate and then to control local governments to such an extent that the power structure at the time responded quickly and ruthlessly. The book purported to be something of an internal training manual, with the documentation of which specific rituals were to be used for one thing or another, or bullshit titles to give people when you want them to feel important. My feeling was that it was either a fake, or that secret conspiracies are way, way more banal than anything I was capable of suspecting.

As people, we want to look at situations, especially terrible situations, and find some meaning, discover some agency behind what has happened. We want our stories to make sense not only to us, but to the people to whom we’re giving our stories. Because you can blame pretty much anything on a secret conspiracy, the thought will always hold some attraction for some people.

Even better, what all the marketing around Illuminati played up was your role in this, as a player: you are now part of the conspiracy. It was a savvy angle, I thought, selling membership into an enlightened society which as gaming geeks they already belonged to. Steve actually went so far as to sell Illuminati Membership Kits with membership cards and IDs and even things like branded rulers (“Who rules: the ruler, or the one who controls the ruler?”). It was pandering, and people liked it, and the game was really good — slow sometimes, but more than just good. It was great. The eye-in-the-pyramid logo first used in Illuminati was adopted as the primary logo for the company itself. That’s why the bulletin board was called Illuminati BBS, and the Internet Service Provider was Illuminati Online. (Plus, io.com was just sitting there not ever having been registered before, back then.)

So if we were going to do it, we’d have to do it well. It would have to work, and it would have to be on time, or most of us would likely lose our jobs, and Steve would scale back production to a couple of products a year until such time as there was more money in it.

“How many cards will there be?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Steve said, pointing at some strange carriers that he’d hung on the backs of the two doors leading into his office. Each one was about as wide as the door, carrying row after row of little pockets for small stacks of card-sized colored paper. “I have a bunch of cards right now. I’m not sure if we can use them all — for legal reasons, and because they might suck — but there will only be so many cards we will be able to print.”

“And how is that even happening?”

Steve smiled, his eyes closing with the peace of a happy child. “Peter Adkison, to prove that there is not simply a Magic market but a collectible card game market, is willing to loan us the $300,000 we will probably need to print a card game like this. I think Illuminati could make that back and then some.”

“I think you’re right,” I said.

“And what do you actually think?” he asked me, by which he meant did I think we could do it.

“How many cards, about?”

“About 400, plus the Illuminati cards. Maybe a few extra — we don’t know how large the sheets will be, though unless we do something odd with the size of the cards, there will not be much room for anything more than a little bit.” Steve pointed out his office door and toward Andy’s. “He is getting us the answers to those questions.” Andy’s strength as our print buyer would be tested.

“Can we do it?” he asked.

“How long do we have?”

Steve considered the question long enough that I figured he wasn’t going to tell me.

“I can do it in less than three months,” I said. “Ten weeks, maybe another week just for card layout. But less than three months. I can do it.”

He lightly pounded the top of the table in front of him. “Done,” he said.

“We’re going to need a couple of things.”

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Going to California

Making Magic — 9

A year after the release of Magic: The Gathering, the biggest game convention in the year — GenCon, in Milwaukee — had become a very different place. The hallways were crammed with people trying to play quick pick-up games of Magic, the dealer room was well stocked with people buying and selling the rare first print run of the game, and word was in the air that Wizards of the Coast were able to demand that distributors order some of their non-Magic games in order to receive a decent volume of new expansion sets. Small hobby stores were opening up with the sole purpose of selling Magic cards. It was the beginning of a new speculator’s market.

The big company that dominated the industry was TSR, which owned Dungeons & Dragons. With decades of beautiful fantasy art to draw upon, around seven months of Magic they had released their copycat, Spellfire. The graphic design was decent for its day, and the imagery, of course, was fantastic, but the game itself was not great. I found it dull. Initial sales were fairly high, but even though it was still being promoted heavily six months later, by the time the summer conventions had rolled around the game was clearly dead. Many smaller publishers were now getting in the action, though – a wave of small print-run collectible card games was on its way to retail stores, but nothing like Magic.

In a few years, Wizards of the Coast would buy Dungeons & Dragons. That’s how much change was coming. The big summer conventions were great core samples to take of the state of the industry. For me, though, the biggest impact of the cons wasn’t being exposed to a broader view of the industry, but in the friends I made.

Dustin, for example, I’d met already because he’d been a playtester for Steve Jackson Games. A young archeologist by training — looking a lot like a taller, more boyishly faced Eddie Vedder with an extra 25 pounds on him — Dustin also had a broad range of experience across a range of the many game systems on the market. And he was a reflective guy, not inclined to talk about things he didn’t know about, even if he was happy to ask questions when something caught his interest.

As a low-key but not-shy guy, his personality stood out from the crowd of interested if less interesting fans and playtesters. It was always a fun time hanging out with Dustin, which I’d been doing more and more often. Some of his archeologist friends were pretty cool, as well. Some of them were planning to move in together, and asked if I wanted the last unclaimed bedroom. I took it, and a month later we were housemates.

Charlie was someone else who stood out. I met him through Dustin, though he wasn’t another fan — quite the opposite. He ran one of the most popular of the smaller publishers, Chaosium, famous not for their Dungeons & Dragons fantasy-style games but for their Twentieth Century horror games. Chaosium was one of the few publishers I’d known and cared about as a kid, so I loved getting to know Charlie. Dustin was a playtester for Chaosium as well, and like Dustin I found Charlie to be one of the most affable and unpretentious people around in an industry of pretense.

It is true: one of the most disappointing things I saw in my early game industry years was the behavior of some game company employees, who would charmingly engage their fans in playtest sessions then run them down behind their backs when there were only “insiders” around. It wasn’t super common, thankfully, but it did happen. Sadly, game industry behavior at its most false and pretentious was still a slight improvement over the behavior of some fans.

Different people had different opinions about what made for the worst fans. There were the people who thought they deserved a discount or even some free stuff because of some slight, often an imaginary one, or due to some hiccup in the ordering process. There were the really sad guys who literally hadn’t changed their clothes in weeks, maybe longer. These guys often had a hard time understanding when the people around them needed more personal space, a terrible combination.

But for me, the people who triggered my impatience more quickly than anyone else were the ones for whom I’d always thought I’d have the most compassion, the people who’d gone so deep into their beloved game that it was basically all that they could talk about. It’s not like I could find a way to respect these people because of their superior intellects — strangely, it’s not like they had some crazy memory or deeply ingrained sense of the game system or its background. And it’s not like they had uncovered something interesting at the heart of a complex game that could be made accessible to other people. Instead, they’d developed a deep emotional attachment to a character that they’d created in the game, and it was often a character that in many ways served as a reflection of themselves.

At the Origins convention that year, a guy approached me at our booth. “Hey,” he said. “I’m a level 63 Paladin.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. That was Dungeons & Dragons talk, and we had nothing to do with that game, so I was wondering where he was going. I wasn’t curious, I just wondered.

He held up clenching hands. “I have diamond gloves with shields that protect me from any evil. I have a castle and followers and I protect the town.”

“Wow. Hey: do you play any of our games?”

The guy glanced around the booth. He was younger, maybe nineteen, wearing jeans that were too tight around the waist. He didn’t seem comfortable.

“No,” he said. “I only read the books — I don’t play the games.” He opened his mouth to continue — I thought he was going to say something like, “No one wants to play with me” — but he only glanced down, then back up, and said, “I’m a level 63 Paladin, but do you think there’s any way to get to level 100? Or level 1,000?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“You’re dumb. There isn’t even enough experience points in the world to get that far. You could kill all the monsters and you’d still never have enough experience points.” He chuckled. He was enjoying this. “Dummy,” he concluded.

“You got me,” I said, and turned on my heel, surprised by how much the guy had gotten under my skin. At another company’s booth, I shared my story with a woman who worked there.

“Oh, it’s bad,” she said. “That kind of stuff is the worst.” One of her company’s big properties was a game where pilots crawl inside of giant robots called mechs — basically they’re walking, sometimes flying, tanks — and duke it out on big battlefields. You can customize your mech, of course, and people did. She affected a slightly glazed look on her face and said, “‘Let me tell you about my character. I made a mech that no one has ever made before.’ I said, ‘Okay, tell me.’ ‘It’s a bicycle.’ ‘Um, a bicycle isn’t really a mech. I mean, what about armor?’ ‘I don’t need armor, because I’m super-fast! When I’m on my bike I’m, like going — and nothing can stop me.’ ‘Okay there, partner.'” She sighed. “And that guy was nearly okay.”

Another woman from another company — the vampire game company — had walked up behind me. She said, “‘My character is the most special. I’m a vampire-werewolf with daylight protection powers. And I can fly. It’s not part of the rules, but I can do it. Vampire-werewolves break rules.’ Then the guy made a funny symbol in the air and whispered, ‘Rule-breaker.’ Then he walked away.”

“Aw, really?” the first woman asked.

“Really,” she said. “There’s some sad people in the world.”

Even people in the office weren’t always immune to that. Coming back from a coffee break one time that summer, Jeff pulled me aside.

“Hey, I tried something cool last weekend, testing the system,” he said.

“Like what?”

“Well, I made a really interesting character.”

“Oh, man — you are not going to tell me about your character, are you?”

We laughed. “Just listen,” he said. “So, I made a jack-of-all-trades character. He’s got a ton of natural intelligence and the like, and since so many skills are based off your intelligence, then he’s automatically got a really good chance to succeed at nearly everything.”

This summed up nearly everything that irritated me about Jeff. He knew a little bit about a lot of things, enough to get himself in trouble, but outside of writing he didn’t seem to have gone deep enough on any one thing to have truly mastered it.

I hope I suppressed a sigh. “How’d it go?” I asked. He broke down a couple of rounds of game play, and listened with what I hope was patience, though I did finally interrupt to ask him something.

“You know that saying about jack of all trades? You know it ends with, ‘master of none,’ right?”

He smiled, a little lopsided. “That’s the point,” he said. “When you’re good enough, you can just pick anything up and do it.”

I thought, “Are we really only talking about your character, now?” But I didn’t say it. I hope I didn’t. Because that would have been mean.

At the Origins convention, later on the day I’d met the 63rd-level Paladin, I’d walked the floor, hoping I might run into him. I wanted to tell him, “There are other ways to gain experience points besides slaying monsters. You can get experience simply by learning new things — or like how priests get experience by healing people, sometimes you can go up a level simply by meeting just the right new person. So you don’t have to think so much about the monsters. There’s enough experience points in the world to be anything you want to be.”

I never saw him again, as far as I know, which was too bad. I could have used some experience points myself around then.

At the biggest game convention of the year — GenCon, the month after Origins — I was talking with Charlie and Dustin when our sales manager pulled me aside to introduce me to a tall, buzz-cut and blond-goateed German man.

“This is Alex,” she said. He was smiling broadly.

Alex was good friends with one of our biggest foreign licensors, next to the Japanese, a French game company called Siroz — they’re the people from whom we’d licensed the game I’d been working on, the book that I hadn’t gotten off to the printer in time for the biggest convention of the year. I was seething from self-disappointment and wide-band frustration. Thankfully, warmly calm and smiling Alex was more focused on his excitement and anticipation around soon seeing the finished product.

“When would it be out, now?” he asked, after we’d talked for quite a long time.

I didn’t have a good answer, though luckily he didn’t mind much. “Have you been to France?” he also asked.

“No, never to Europe.” I’d hardly been out of Texas.

“You should come to France,” he said. “If you want to see Berlin, I have a flat also there. I let my friends stay there.”

“Sounds interesting.” I did wonder if the invitation would still be good after Steve fired me.

Speaking of, Steve caught me on the afternoon of the last day of the convention. He was walking slowly down an aisle, through the tired energy of the con’s final afternoon. Soon all the booths would be pulled apart, the dreams of modern adventure gaming packed up for another time.

He called me over to where he was handing off a bag of games he’d been given by various competitors to one of our con volunteers to tuck away for him. For me, it had been a long six weeks or so since the bad time had hit hard, and it’d be two more weeks before Cookie would call and ask for help moving. It’d been a tiring week as well, every step pushing the bones of my foot against a layer of skin that had already had all the blood pressed out of it. I felt weak, and I didn’t think I wanted to hear what he was going to say.

“When you get a moment,” he said, “I’d like to talk.”

“No time like the present.”

As we found a quiet place, I narrowed down possible conversations to a short list of different ways I could be fired, or otherwise have so much responsibility taken away from me that I’d be humiliated into leaving under a dark cloud. Someone else would finish my book, and it’d be the success I always knew it’d be, and I’d never get over it, and —

“I had an interesting conversation,” he said, “with Peter Adkison.”

“How’s he?” He was the CEO of Wizards of the Coast, and a really nice guy. We’d had a couple of good long talks on the phone, before their great success.

“He’s rich,” Steve said. “And he’s worried that Magic might be a fad that burns out soon. He wants it to be more than a fad. He wants it to be something that could last for a long time. To do that, he thinks there need to be more good collectible card games soon, to make the argument that there’s a collectible card game market, not just a Magic market.”

“Okay,” I said, no idea where this was going.

“Do you see one of our card games we could make into a collectible card game?”

I thought about it. “I’d do Illuminati,” I said, because it was, in my mind, Steve’s greatest game. It was also one of the only big games in his stable that we had not revisited since going digital.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Steve said, nodding. “Can you see how you would do it?”

“It’s expensive, right?” I didn’t know by how much, but given that my book had been a no-show that year, and we hadn’t had a decent hit for several years before except that vampire game license that Jeff authored, so money was only more and more tight. Since io.com had taken our recent windfall, and not exactly paid itself off yet, we weren’t in a good position. I didn’t know at the time how close we were to shutting a chunk of the business and reducing the staff to a skeleton crew.

Steve seemed thoughtful. “There is an opportunity,” he said. “Can you do it?”

“In how long?”

Steve bugged his eyes out, his personal expression which meant, “I don’t know.” Then he said, “How about right now?”

I thought about it. All the pieces swam around in my head. I knew what most of them would be, but —

“Think about it,” he said. “Let’s talk back in Austin.”

On the plane, halfway home, whatever background process I’d set to considering Steve’s question came back with something for me: all the pieces I had and everything else I’d need to know, how it would work — including ways to tweak the cold-war era game to play for more modern audiences — and what I’d personally have to do, for us to make our own Magic.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 8

The year before, when I was selling ads for the first two issues of Pyramid Magazine, at my boss’s recommendation I’d reached out to a small company that was working hard to innovate in the early 1990s game industry. They were based out of Seattle, something like seven people in a basement studio.

It was a drawback at the time that there were so many role-playing games — they were all so different that it was hard to share monsters and adventures and other material from one game to another. When you wrote role-playing game material, you had to write it for a specific game. This little company had taken a novel approach by putting out a book that focused on cool material, and then including rules for a wide variety of popular games. Sadly, one of the game publishers thought that they should have exclusive control over creating content for their game, and sued the new publisher. I was glad to report in Pyramid #1 that they’d won their case, though it took a real toll on the small company. I was happy to help provide them with an inexpensive promotion, seeing how a full-page black-and-white ad cost something like a couple hundred dollars.

You didn’t have to be a designer to think poorly of them because of the ad. It was crap: a not-great illustration of a thoughtful robot set against a white void, alongside a column of text thick enough to cross your eyes. But buried at the bottom was a mysterious line, encouraging fans to watch out: “It’s going to be a magical summer!” Something about that stood out to me, echoing back over in my head not four months later that summer when Doug Barnes approached me at the Origins convention holding something new.

“It’s interesting,” he said, fumbling with a garishly designed deck of cards — they hadn’t really upped their styling much from where they were with that ad, beyond moving to full color.

“It’s a card game?”

“Sort of. It’s a collectible card game. You can buy a deck, but you can also buy these booster packs of something like eight random cards — sorry, not-random cards. That’s the trick.”

“That they’re not random?”

His face lit up. Something cool to explain! Doug lived for that.

“Yes! There are something like 400 different cards, so you only get some in any given box. Some cards are more common than others. Most cards are pretty common, a good number are uncommon — you get maybe two in a booster pack — and a few very powerful cards are rare, so you get, like, one rare card per booster. Then based on the powers of your cards — see the colors; similar colored cards work together well — you build custom decks optimized for one strategy or another.” He blinked. “Probably the best thing to do would depend on how much you could find out about your opponent’s deck.”

“So this drives people to buy the cards, okay. Is the game any good?”

“I don’t know.”

“The graphics suck.”

He winced. “Yeah. They’re paying their employees in stock right now, though, so there’s probably not a lot of free cash lying around to pay designers. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere — it comes out in a month, so I guess we’ll see. I was talking to them about doing an online version, through io.com. It wouldn’t be too hard to do. It’s a formula that would work even better as a computer game.” He sighed. “They’re all really excited about it over there at their booth.”

Game conventions could be boisterous scenes, large exhibition halls with row after row of game publishers trying to promote their newest thing to all the fans — and generally also to the distributors, who held the keys to the retail kingdom in terms of which companies and products got promoted to the stores, or not. Our company was a fan favorite, and the show was in our home state, so we had a larger booth with a lot of attentive fans. A ways away I could see their booth, small but decently manned enough to make up for the lack of floor traffic they were getting.

“I wish ’em well,” I said, even though it turned out they didn’t need it, not nearly at all. They believed enough in the promise of their game that they were happy to press five or six decks and a bunch of boosters into my hands of the first print run of their game, which if I kept would be worth many thousands of dollars today.

The company was Wizards of the Coast. They called their game Magic: The Gathering, and in a handful of months it had completely transformed the entire gaming industry.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 7.5

For Cookie’s last night in town, she asked me to help pack her U-Haul. I had no problem saying yes — two and a half years dating is worth more than an evening carrying boxes and furniture down a rickety flight of stairs.

There was another guy there helping, a friend of one of her roommates. He was a big dopey dude who kept ducking out on making eye contact with me. I wasn’t surprised, though — in general, they had little but contempt for me, her friends, and I’m afraid I seldom gave them much reason to think differently. Once someone has it fixed in their head that you’re crazy and uncool, any attempt to prove them wrong only proves them right. Plus, they all had what I thought of as real jobs — in marketing, or in video production, or at serious design studios — and probably at least in part because I didn’t take myself seriously, they were never inspired to take me seriously, either.

For example, I was hanging out at her place one day when a guy-friend of hers, a decent designer and a techie with what I considered real vision, dismissed Illuminati Online as not interesting. I said, “The number of people on the Internet is doubling every six months.”

He laughed. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “That’ll never happen.”

“It’s happening,” I said. “It’s gonna make us think about design differently. Get enough people—”

“Oh, please. Doubling can’t go on forever.”

“Sure, but how many more times does it have to double before you’ve got tens of millions of people—”

“Please,” he said, turning away with a scowl. “You’re wasting my time.” And this was a 24-year-old tech-centric, Mac-wielding graphic designer in 1994, who really should’ve known better.

At the beginning of that year, sure, there were 623 Web sites on the Internet. I’ll put that another way: across the entirety of the Internet, there were about as many Web sites as 15 years later there would be apps on the Apple App Store in its first week. Eighteen months after that conversation, there would be more than 20 million people on the Internet, with more than 23,000 Web sites available to visit.

I was always surprised to find myself unable to make a connection with my girlfriend’s friends, though mostly because I kept forgetting how she had been undermining me to them. She was such a nice and sweet girl, everybody said so. She told me that she only half-jokingly referred to me as the anti-Christ amongst her friends. I asked her which half was joking but she wouldn’t say any more.

It began to dawn on me, carrying boxes of her stuff down to the truck, that most people don’t simply decide one day to pull over on the side of the road to break up with a boyfriend of two years over the phone, without an outside prompt — like needing to tell someone, after arriving at their apartment, that you were now officially single.

Later in the evening, as the last few boxes were being tucked away, I caught the dopey dude gently brushing the back of Cookie’s hand while she talked with her roommates. She recoiled, her head quickly darting around the room to inventory who was in it. She didn’t notice me, in the next room, watching her.

Not long after she walked me to my car. We said goodbye, and it was not quite the summation of more than two years together, but it was good enough. We didn’t indulge in a farewell kiss. That wouldn’t happen for nearly a year, yet.

We did hug, though, that precious, jigsaw-piece coupling that had kept me coming back to her time and time again. In a few days she’d be in Seattle, nearly as far away as it was possible to get while still staying inside the United States.

I pulled back and said, “I never trusted you.” It wasn’t a criticism. It was where I’d gone wrong.

She smiled with grim beauty and pulled me close again. “I never trusted you, either,” she said.

Radio on, I drove home. I worked very hard not to care. After all, I needed to focus. I had a move to manage, myself: I couldn’t go on living in that same apartment; I was done with that place for all kinds of reasons. Plus, there was the other thing that had come up.

I’d been wondering when I was going to be fired from Steve Jackson Games, but instead I’d just been given three months to produce something I never could have imagined: Magic, or something very much like it.

Here’s the story.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 7.4

The point at which things began to go less well came when it was my turn. Of the three of us, I went second, after Andy’s girl quickly got her belly button pierced. So I guess it went bad pretty early. We’d met at Andy’s place — I was glad that I liked his fiancé — and had a few of shots of tequila before walking the couple of long blocks to the place that sold sex toys, drug paraphernalia, and also had a room in the back where tattoos and now piercings were being done. I wasn’t nervous. I’d been looking forward to it.

“Okay,” said the guy, the piercer. “Sit down here in this chair. Now, which side of your nose did you want it on?”

I pointed, rather than get into a “my left/right or your left/right” conversation.

He frowned.

“What?” I said.

“You know that’s the fag side, right? HA! I’m only kidding. It doesn’t matter. Hang on.” I shot Andy a look, and he came back with a thumbs-up.

The piercer had a thick piece of tapered rubber. “We’re going to put this inside your nostril to catch the needle. It’s a small needle, really, you’ll hardly feel it. It’ll stick into the rubber, and then I’ll loop in a ring, then you’re basically done. We cool?”

“Cool,” I said.

“Okay. Just keep looking straight forward and hold your breath while I’m doing this, okay?” He readied the needle, just on the edge of my peripheral vision.

“Okay,” I said, and before I’d gotten out the whole word I felt a pressure against my nostril, then some fiddling, and it was done.

The guy looked at me, dabbed the spot with a tissue, and then began to explain to me about how to care for it over the first week or so. “Don’t take it out for any reason. You’d be surprised how quickly it’ll close up. Like, ten minutes. I’m not kidding. If you’re afraid of infection or you just wanna speed up the healing, take some zinc pills or something.”

I nodded, and stood up. The piercer’s face took on a curious expression, though a serious one.

Slowly, he said, “Why don’t you sit back down?” The world around me disappeared into a tunnel, and the last thing I saw was his face, receding from me at high speed, then all was darkness.

As I woke up, I had to go down a short list to figure out where I was. I wasn’t at home, because I wasn’t under covers or anything. Plus, there were bright lights. Was I in a hospital? Opening my eyes, I saw Andy’s worried face looking down at me.

“I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I tried to catch your head.”

After the piercing, I’d forgotten to start breathing again and passed out. Unfortunately, that was not the worst decision I made that week.

Two days later, Cookie called.

“You got your nose pierced?” she said.

“Uh, huh,” I said.

“Can I come over? I got some new boots I want to show you.”

“What?” I checked the time. It was getting late. “Now?” I rolled over on the couch where I’d spent most of the day sprawled out. How the hell she’d heard about the piercing already, I had no idea. “I’ve been taking zinc to help with the healing, but I don’t know if I took too much or what but I don’t feel that great right now.”

“I’ll be right over,” she said, and she was, and she’d never looked better: freshly bobbed haircut and red dye-job, a new lacy good-girl dress, all white, and nearly knee-high black ass-kicking thick-soled lace-up boots. All the best hyphenations in one package of crazy.

She walked in, paced back and forth in front of me a couple of times, then she pounced, straddling me.

“I really don’t feel well,” I said. “I’m not kidding.”

“I don’t care,” she said. I’d never been able to pass up a chance to kiss her, which I know was sending mixed messages, but after a couple of minutes I had to push her off of me and run to the bathroom in my bedroom, where I threw up for maybe a good five minutes. That turned out to be long enough for her to get her boots unlaced.

When I stumbled out of the bathroom, wiping the bile from my chin, my body aching from the effort, she was kneeling on my bed.

“Come here,” she said.

There was no reason for it to be the worst sex we’d ever had, and it probably wasn’t actually the worst — there were so many contenders for the title — though over the years it was the one that rose up out of my mind the most often.

I took a break from kissing her to say, “I really feel bad.”

She nodded. “But you feel good enough to…”

In the moment, I only felt so nauseated.

She nodded again. Good. “Oh, I’m not on the pill anymore,” she added, a little late. “I use — ah, I mean, we should use a condom. Do you have one?”

I didn’t have a condom. I was struck by a terrible vision of my life going forward in a reality where I got her pregnant, and that was it. Fuck-me boots or not, I was through with her.

“I’m not calling you again,” she said, shaking her balled-up dress at me.

I clutched my belly. It turns out I’d taken too much zinc, and my body was simply rejecting the rest of it. I think my body knew more than I did, though. I suspect it wasn’t simply the zinc that it was rejecting.

The next morning, I’d have wondered if it wasn’t all a dream if it hadn’t been for the panties I found wrapped around one of my feet.

She was wrong, though. She did call me again, about six weeks later, to tell me that she needed my help. I stopped breathing again.

“On Sunday,” she said, “I’m loading up. I’m moving to Seattle.”

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Going to California

Making Magic — 7.3

At a barbecue over at Mentor’s place, I’d run into a woman I’d known in high school, someone for whom I’d once nursed a pretty hard crush. She’d begun dating someone who’d gone to high school with Mentor, which made for a nice symmetry.

“Derek?” she said, walking up to me through the party, head-cocked and finger outstretched.

She and Mentor’s old friend were having a proper dramatic relationship, but she introduced me at one point to her roommate, a sharp woman with dark, thickly curly hair and a very femme punk look about her. She was the first girl I’d felt attracted to who had a nose ring; hers hung from the outside of one nostril. Even in counterculture Austin, piercings were only just becoming popular. It felt new, and it helped that she was hot.

Christine’s roommate needed a computer with Internet access to write a paper that was due the next day. She’d called me the night before — got my number from her roommate; we’d passed each other briefly at a party — to ask if I’d be around Sunday night, that she’d heard I had a computer on the Internet at my house, and that since it didn’t cost me anything to be online maybe I wouldn’t care how late she stayed up using it. This was just before when most people didn’t have computers. I’d said sure.

So with my car back, I was even able to pick her up. Actually, I’d planned to hang out a bit with Christine — we hadn’t spent any time one-on-one since high school, so maybe she wanted to check if she still had a good feeling about me before letting her roommate enter my lair — with the idea that we would meet up with her roommate later, presumably if I passed whatever test she had in mind.

I passed. Giving Christine a ride over to campus and swapping her for her roommate, she pointed back at the car and said, “Don’t keep her up too late, Derek, okay? She’s still gotta write that paper.”

Back home, it turned out she’d already eaten, so I set her up with the computer, and she got to it. I know the all-nighter deal, so I set out a blanket and a pillow. My sectional couch would more than accommodate her. To the clickity-clackity of my laptop, a rare creature in that age, I turned in for the night.

Maybe five hours later, I’m awakened by my bedroom door opening. She waves hesitantly, to make sure she’d gotten my attention. Half of her face was lit in dim stripes of blue, moonlight by mini-blinds, and the rest was darkness, with a glint of nose ring to one side.

“Hey,” she said. “Um, do you have a t-shirt I could borrow?”

“Sure,” I said, pointing to my open closet. The top shelf was just stacks and stacks of t-shirts. She grabbed a black one that must’ve looked good to her, holding it out to confirm it was appropriately baggy and long enough. Taking off her shirt and her bra, she slipped the t-shirt over her head before unbuttoning her pants. Still, I hadn’t been expecting her to walk towards me and slide into bed.

“Hello,” I said. We kissed for maybe ten minutes.

“This has got to be the first time that a girl has ever hooked up with a guy simply because he had a computer that was online.”

“I’m not sure that’s strictly true,” I told her. We kissed for a much longer time.

I played with her necklace. She took off the t-shirt. I traced her shoulders, I kissed the crook of her elbow, the tips of her fingers. One finger bore a highly polished ring made from a speckled stone that could have been greenish.

“Nice ring,” I said.

“It’s from my boyfriend,” she said. “I think he wants to get married someday, but I think that’s bullshit — don’t you?”

I didn’t stop kissing her, but when she said the word “boyfriend,” her level of attractiveness fell through the floor. Huh, I thought to myself, that’s a first.

I’d begun dating Cookie while living with another girl, who I began seeing when her boyfriend had gone away for a month as part of a medical testing experiment. That’s a long story. And then my previous girlfriend, Suzanne, the only really serious one in my book, had broken up with me after she’d been seeing someone else for quite a while.

I began to wonder how cool it would be, how much I could accomplish, if only I was coupled up with a girl I could trust.

We woke up with each other, though we didn’t end up sleeping together. She’d put her t-shirt back on. I gave her a floppy disk with her paper on it and dropped her off on campus.

“I’m surprised your professor won’t let you email it to him,” I said.

“Why would someone do that? They want something they can lay their hands on and mark up.”

I shrugged. As we pulled up to her building, she looked at me squarely and said, very seriously, “I like you.”

“I like you, too,” I said.

“Let’s hang out again,” she said.

“You’ve got my number.”

At work, over lunch, Andy was talking about getting one of his nipples pierced with a small ring.

“Hey,” I said, “that’s funny, I was thinking about a nose ring.” I could start many sentences with “Hey” because of the outward rushing air of the H-sound. It started the air moving out of my lungs which was generally key to falling into a rhythm of speech in which I’d be less likely to stutter noticeably. “That’s funny” was another phrase that was pretty easy to say and which would often lead better into sentences less suited to be started with, “Motherfucker.”

We agreed that we would go together — three of us: me and him and his fiancé, who wanted her belly done — and get pierced. It went well, up to a point.

 

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Going to California

Making Magic — 7.2

After less than ten minutes driving my no-longer-stolen car, I was pulled over by a cop. He unsnapped the leather cover over his sidearm as he approached my car. My dad always told me to keep both hands on the steering wheel as a cop’s coming over, so as not to scare him that you might be reaching for something. That was one of the days I had a few moments to reflect, as the officer approached me, on that good advice.

“Hello, officer.”

“STEP OUT OF THE CAR.”

“Mmm-hmm, sure — it’s funny, I bet you think I stole this car.”

“STEP OUT OF THE CAR. SIT ON THE CURB.”

“Yes, sir. I just picked the car up for the impound—”

“SIT ON THE CURB. NOT ANOTHER WORD.”

Without taking his eyes off of me, he walked over to his vehicle and had a long exchange with someone on the other end of a radio handset. I’d never been so grateful to see the police, and after he cleared my story, I told him so.

He wasn’t nearly as happy as I was. “Been looking for this car for nearly two weeks,” he said.

“Thank you, really. ’M impressed you recognized the plates of a stolen car at a glance.”

He scowled, dismissing me. “They found it abandoned behind a furniture store down south of here. After a little over a week, some people who worked there called it in. A few days later it got towed in.” He sighed, scribbling on a piece of paper. “You can go.”

“Thank you so much for keeping your eyes open for my car, sir.”

He grimaced and walked back to his cruiser. Me, I was happy to get on the road. I had a hot date.

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Going to California

Making Magic – 7.1

An hour later found me in the dust and the extreme heat of a Texas impound yard in South Austin.

“Only a matter of time,” said the thin man staffing the place that broiling afternoon. “It was gonna turn up, you shouldn’ta been worried.”

“Fucking where is it?” I asked.

“This way,” he said. His drawl seemed overheated, too. “You might could drive it away. We’ll see.”

The car had a long triangular hole in the roof, matching the scrap of canvas I kept on my desk at work. The back lip of the trunk lid had been crowbarred up all around the latch it protected.

“Motherfuckers,” I said, adding, “Sorry,” noticing the man’s badge. I think he was a deputy of some kind. I was a stuttering Texas boy with a foul mouth, but I had my manners.

He shrugged and spat off to one side. “Gang initiation,” he said. “One o’ them has to cut into the car, then they use a long, thin metal strip, pop it into a slot behind the ignition key hole and kinda jiggle it around—”

My face fell. “That all it takes?”

He nodded and spat again. “Thassit.”

I hopped in the driver’s seat and popped the key in. Don’t be afraid. I turned the key and the engine started right up. It had half a tank of gas left. I revved the engine in astonishment, then killed it.

“Do I need to sign anything?”

“Can I see some ID?”

“Sure,” I said. While he messed with paperwork, I checked the glove box: empty. The center console panel, too. Still, waves of hope lifted me up out of the car to unlock the trunk.

Everything was exactly as I’d left it, all my stupid crap: papers, random electronics, tools, music. They hadn’t been able to get in, though they’d tried.

A friend at another game company had sent me a bottle of tequila, which I’d dropped in my trunk a month before and forgotten about, it was still there, unopened. Something felt appropriately triumphant about popping it open right there and taking a big gulp in the burning gaze of a mid-summer Texas day. If only I didn’t then have to drive away meekly under the watchful eye of an officer of the law.

Drive away I did, though I only made it so far.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 6

That next weekend was the worst, not just because I couldn’t believe how mortally wounded it felt to be dumped by a girl who I cared so little about that I regularly forgot her eye-color (brown); not just because I’d been given an impossibly short amount of time to rewrite the book I’d spent the last year authoring, designing, play-testing, and promoting in articles and on the cover of our in-house magazine, Pyramid; and not just because as part of Steve’s announcement that the book would be late, he also said that we’d both be staying in Austin during the first big convention of the summer, the Origins, second only to the show at which the book was scheduled to ship, which was called GenCon. The previous Origins had been in Fort Worth, a driveable distance for us from Austin, and it had been a blast, the first time I’d really connected with people who worked at other game companies as, well, someone else who worked at a game company and not as a fan. It was much cooler hanging with the game industry people as another industry person.

What pushed that weekend over the top was having to sit around the office knowing full well that there was no way I was going to rewrite a 208-page book in four days, and that I’d be damned if I was going to sit on my ass at home dwelling on my worst fear, that my stutter had returned. And while trying to imagine how to even begin thinking about the problem, I had to sit and watch Jeff poke away on the Web, idly browsing page after page.

“Dude,” he said, chuckling. “You seen this?”

I made a kind of scoffing sound, because it was the best I could do at the time.

Jeff looked slightly wounded, leaning in toward the monitor. “It’s cool.”

I took a shallow breath and said, “That really what you spend your time doing?”

He grinned. “It’s awesome. There’s more stuff here every day.”

“You’re wasting your…” I couldn’t get out “time” or “life,” and as I groped around for another appropriate word. He didn’t seem to notice.

“It’s what everybody’s going to be doing,” he muttered, clicking on the next link, and I think that’s the best prediction he ever made. It made me angry for a couple of reasons, though.

In the online community that Steve Jackson called Metaverse, he had imagined digital storefronts and virtual real estate, and he’d worked hard to get other game companies to set up shop in his text-based online city. But the limitations of having to move a character around in order to get from one store to another was a limitation of the Metaverse as presented in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It was not a limitation of the Internet that was being built before our eyes, and it was not how people actually wanted to do things. People wanted to type in a URL, or click a bookmark or a link, and be taken directly to wherever they wanted to go, the moral equivalent of a teleporter in virtual world. If you don’t have to bother with traveling in order to get from one place to another, then there’s no need to concern yourself with the geography of the world. In fact, you don’t really need the world at all. You just need a browser, and an interconnected Web of pages that could come to encompass the world.

So the age-old geek question had been a terrible waste of our time thinking about. It didn’t matter what the Internet would look like. It wouldn’t look like any one single thing in our lifetimes anyway, it seemed — not the abstract glowing shapes of Neuromancer, not the fantasy metaphors of True Names, and not the edgy, photorealistic virtual reality of Snow Crash. The shape of the Internet was Jeff, and growing millions of people like him, clicking links on crappy pages in buggy, incompatible browsers. For most people, that would be the Internet experience for years to come.

On our end, while the gaming side of our online dreams never happened, the Internet as it was coming to be shaped was definitely a money maker for the basic “get online” side of Illuminati Online. Metaverse slowly faded away, and the venture settled into being a simple service provider rather than a virtual world builder. Toward the end, before Steve acknowledged that the gaming services side of the dream was wearing thin, Doug had been looking more and more haggard. He’d gone from being the guy who’d been living the international cyberpunk dream, the laid-back tech guy who could do anything, to another guy who was just as beaten down as the rest of us from all-nighter after all-nighter. Then Doug got an interview with a local tech company — an actual tech company, Tadpole, who made crazily expensive workstations the size of a laptop; imagine that! — and suddenly, he was gone. Sure, Jim McCoy was still there, and a couple of other people I cared about, like Chris Williams, but the aspirations I heard most often coming out of the io.com staff, when it turned out that they had any aspirations at all, stretched about as high as writing a script to see if there were any three-letter .com domains that hadn’t already been taken — xfc.com, for example. There were still a few of them sitting around waiting to be grabbed, in the summer of 1994.

These people were not looking to change the world. They were solely in it for the money. Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That summer, I understood what he meant.

I refused to waste my time Web browsing.

“Why don’t you try it?” Jeff asked. At the end of the day, he was a sweet, well-meaning guy, and every day it felt as though there were fewer and fewer people there whose company I genuinely enjoyed.

I gave Jeff the most honest answer I could. “Uh-uh,” I said. “Might like it.”

It was diabolical that one of the ways in which my speech impediment hit me the hardest was in trying to say the first-person pronoun “I” — at the beginning of a sentence, at least. Even today, my posts and messages are littered with horrible constructions like, “Might like it,” instead of, “I’m afraid I might like it,” because when I’m rattling text off quickly I have it ingrained to avoid beginning with “I” so that I’d have a greater likelihood of starting to get the sentence out. Otherwise, some times I wasn’t able to get anything out at all.

The longest part of that wretched weekend was the late Saturday night I spent alone at home. I practiced trying to say random things, with varying results. It’s nearly always easier to talk when there’s no one there to hear, of course, though I’d had my bad days. In grade school, on many days I spent hours mutely watching TV, mouthing the catch-phrases, the sayings, the words, all the words I heard. I had some bad days in my twenties, living in Austin, too.

There was, it seemed, a carefully cultivated structure in my mind that I don’t believe I’d consciously realized I’d been building. Maybe everyone does the same thing, only I’ve had to break the seal and void the warranty and manually mess around with the process because of my situation. Or maybe the whole thing’s just the product of my crazy memory.

(I think of my memory as being genuinely crazy because of things like developing a series of epic stories based on the characters I saw when I looked at numbers. For the record, my high-functioning memory is very selective. For example, one day in third grade, on the way to school, I found a small garden snake, dead in the road, so I put it in my metal Star Wars lunch box and forgot about it until lunch time. There, in the cafeteria, to my delight, I remembered it. Squeals all around as I displayed my prize, though somehow my show-and-tell didn’t come to the teacher’s attention until after lunch when the class couldn’t settle down. The teacher said I was being disruptive and sent me to the principal’s office. When the principal asked why I’d been sent down, I explained that I’d been disruptive in class after returning to lunch. The truth was that I could no longer remember why I’d been sent down there; I think I got distracted passing through the library on the way there. He told me not to be disruptive any further and sent me back to the teacher, who was astonished to see me again. “Did you even tell him about the dead snake in your lunchbox?” I slapped myself on the side of my head. After returning to see the principal and adding this crucial bit of context, I was sent home for the day. Because I only lived two blocks from school, they let me walk home, where I watched TV for five hours before dinner.)

It was as though I’d been growing a tree of language out of snippets of phrases, sayings, and whole run-on statements as delivered by characters from the movies and TV shows I’d seen, or from radio programs, or from lines from songs I knew, or from stage plays I’d seen. This tree of associated, reasonably compatible options comprised the scope of what I was capable of saying without risking too much trouble. I’d be fine either because I was merely repeating what someone else had once said, so it wasn’t like I was having to create my own sentences by piecing the words together one by one, a process which felt to me a lot like paving a road while driving down it, or because I’d built into a rhythm, which felt more like having paved a runway just far enough to let the airplane of my voice take off, more like making music than like making a personal statement.

This crystalline tree of language had grown so large that I’d basically forgotten it was there. I’d been pruning it, adding to it, making adjustments almost unconsciously for years. Now something bad had happened, and it had been shaken, and many little leaves might as well have fallen off the tree. I spent hours and hours that weekend, and in the weeks and months to come, watching TV, watching anything and everything, adding back some little leaves, the more discrete units of word inflection which had served me so well in the past.

I don’t even remember a lot of what I watched. Funny that so much of whatever it was probably contributed significantly to the core of how I talk now.

The other thing that helped was cursing. I quickly discovered that falling back into some rather extreme cursing would also smooth the way for pretty much any sentence start, though I’ll spare you from most of it. Still, profanity produced not only instant runway pavement for launching my speech, it also made for high-octane jet fuel. When you start you sentences with, “Motherfucker,” not only do you have no choice but to hurtle onward, but whoever you’re talking to is guaranteed to be all ears. The conversation doesn’t always go well. Still, I figured that I at least got out what I was trying to say without stuttering too badly, so I called it a win.

I saw Felicity that Sunday morning.

She’d gotten a job at my favorite breakfast place, Red River Cafe, where evidently it was appropriate to wear tall black boots and a long, purple crushed-velvet cape over a short black dress. My heart skipped a beat when I registered it was her. She was half a head taller than I was, which I noticed less while looking up at her as she was asking what I wanted to eat.

The crystal tree shuddered. I frowned, burbling a little, pointing at the menu.

“Really hungry,” I explained weakly. She smiled at me.

“How’s it going?” she asked later, sliding into the booth right across from me. I guess it was her turn for a break.

“Motherfucking great,” I said.

She grinned. “All right! Same here. I moved in with Patch. He’s split from his wife, and Doug Barnes had an extra room, so he let the two of us move in with him.”

“Fuckin’-A,” I said, pulling the lever that made my head rock up and down.

“Doug’s got a new job, at a big tech company. They make these workstation computers, the size of a laptop.” Her voice got quiet. “Do you know how fast those things are?”

“Mmm,” I said, hoping to sound impressed.

Getting back from the cafe, there was a message on my answering machine.

“Ah, Mr. Pearcy? This is the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. We have recovered your stolen vehicle. Call us back and you can come pick it up.”

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Going to California

Making Magic — 5

I put the phone to my head.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” Cookie said. I could hear traffic in the background.

“Where are you?”

“I’m out,” she said. “I was running an errand for work, when I realized: it’s over. I can’t go on this way.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“Please,” she said, “just give me this.”

“Why?” I asked, like I didn’t know.

“You have trouble finishing things,” she said. “And even when you do finish something, there’s always the next thing and the next thing. There’s always going to be something else.”

“I always want to be working on something.”

“And you never finish anything, you never do.” She stopped herself before she got too emotional. “Just to be clear,” she said, “the story I’m telling our friends is that I’m the one that broke up with you, and that it was your fault.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I give you that?”

“Don’t say that,” she said. “You don’t get to say that. You never gave me anything.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Just give me this,” she said again.

“Sure,” I said again. “You’re sure?”

“I’m very, very sure.”

“Okay,” I said. “You know, I always loved you,” I added.

“And I love you,” she said with singsongy emptiness. “I just never really cared for all your, you know, all your ideas and everything.” She sighed. “I really only ever thought about how it felt walking down the street with you on my arm.”

That would echo in my head for years to come.

“Goodbye, then,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Did I catch her by surprise? “Oh,” she said. “Goodbye.” Then she hung up.

I sat on the floor of my apartment cradling the phone for a few minutes, unwilling to move from that position. I called Mentor.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said. There was a long pause. “You should come over,” he said. “Andy’s coming by.”
I nodded, as though he could see me. “Later,” I said, hanging up.

As I pulled myself upright, I became aware of how every step took me further away from the place where I’d still been in my relationship with Cookie. I stood on the balcony as the evening leeched away the heat of the day. Staring at my hands, I felt no connection to anything that had happened more than ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

Next thing I remember I was over at Mentor’s. Jeff was there, and Andy, and three or four other people, everyone subdued. I delivered the news, but they already knew — it must’ve been clear by how my shoulders were hung as I walked up to the door.

I didn’t stay long, I thought. I had no interest in getting hammered, and though I appreciated the company, I generally did feel better when I was alone. After a round of “Sorry, man,” I left.

On the way to the car, tripping lightly in the dark — when did it get so dark? How long had I been there? — the strangest thing happened to me.

I know I’m a little crazy, but I also know exactly how crazy I am. Yet, this next thing happened.

A voice spoke to me, as plain as could be — two voices, actually, a man and a woman’s voice at the same time said three simple words: “Don’t be afraid.”

It sounded somehow like the most true thing I’d heard in years. And it sounded like an order.

It really did not seem to have come from inside my head. It seemed to come from just behind me, from my right and slightly above me. I kept walking down the slight incline of Mentor’s front yard, though I slowed, tilting my head back slightly just to check. No one was there.

As I walked around my car, got in, buckled up, I played back my memory of the voice.

It hadn’t sounded like someone trying to sooth me. It hadn’t sounded like someone feeding me a platitude about how everything would be okay. It sounded like what someone would say after they’ve strapped you into the experimental rocket sled of your own unintentional devising, explained to you what you have done, and then walked away to press the ignition when they felt like it. It was the most frightening way you could possibly tell someone not to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid,” I told myself, starting the car, but I was, suddenly I was, I was very afraid.

Three days later, I walked out to my car — which I was still paying for, would be paying on for three more years — to drive in to work to find on the sidewalk two black, triangular pieces of canvas where my car used to be. They’d been cut from the vehicle’s convertible roof. The car had been stolen.

I called my insurance company first. They had cancelled my insurance the day before, because I’d missed two payments. It’s not like I didn’t have the money. I simply hadn’t done it. I’d been too worried about the book.

Two days later, Steve called me into his office.

“We’re not shipping this,” he said, pointing at a printout of the book I’d been working on for the past year. “It’s simply…not good. Take the weekend, and see how much of it you can rewrite. Rewrite the whole thing, if you need to.” He pulled out big chunks of it — the introduction, the fiction that I’d written, the game mechanics that I’d invented myself — and set it all out apart from the rest of it. There wasn’t much remaining.

“I understand,” I said. I stayed late at work. Jeff gave me a lift home. Every time we passed a little red convertible that looked like mine, I’d crane around to get a look at the license plate. They all looked like mine, but they never were.

“That all really sucks, man,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The next morning when I woke up, I found my roommate asleep, half-naked, in the living room, a small stove-pot of macaroni and cheese that he’d cooked himself for dinner the night still resting loosely in his hand, tipped over onto its side, the macaroni so firmly gelled together that none of it had spilled out onto the floor, wooden stirring spoon sticking out at a nearly perfect 45° angle.

The phone rang again. Another grandparent — my dad’s mom — had a stroke. I couldn’t even drive to Weatherford to see her.

So I called Jeff, to see if he could pick me up. When he answered the phone, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. When I pushed, I got, “Juh-juh-juh-juh—”

Oh, no. I bit my lower lip, hard.

“Derek?” he said.

Breathing out very slowly, I said, “Yes,” and then, “Hey.”

“I’m not coming in for a while — maybe an hour? Can I call you then?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said. I could hum just fine.

After hanging up the phone, I reached into my head for the places where I’d hoped that voice — those voices, any voice — might have come from. I’d just spent a year writing about angels, gothic and flashy. The voices I’d heard for that briefest of moments that night, and which I never heard again, had been some other thing entirely, and I couldn’t see how I could hack my way back the feeling of certainty I’d held when it or they had spoken to me. I’d even lost control of my own voice.

I remember thinking: I’d better be learning something.

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