Several years ago, I started writing a story about a man who was flying into Minneapolis-St. Paul and saw a car crash from above. The plane was about a thousand feet up and was descending when he saw the crash. It was late at night, a red-eye flight, so he could only see the headlights and tail-lights, and the faintest silhouettes of the cars. One car began to swerve and careened into the opposite lane, grazing the driver’s side of an oncoming car, which halted. The car that caused the accident stalled for a bit but then accelerated again and kept moving forward. While the hit car was motionless on the road, another car from behind slammed into the back of it, pushing it off the side over a small embankment that the passenger could barely discern. Then that car jerked backwards and kept driving as well.
The road this took place on was just an ordinary road connecting one suburb to another. There were a few buildings–warehouses, maybe–close to where the crash took place, which were unlit. And a pond in the back of one of them, weakly shimmering. This was what the passenger saw, terrified. The plane continued its landing procedure and made a swooping turn toward the airport, flying away from the scene.
The passenger, buckled in, clenched the arms of his seat. No one else seemed to notice the accident. Everyone on the plane was quiet, sleepy. Then the landing gear went down and soon the plane was on the ground.
This was where I had left the story for a few years (twelve, actually): The man stepping out of the jetway and into the airport, which was still crowded with travelers though it was very late at night. I got busy with other things, other stories that seemed more important to finish. I had left the passenger hanging there for quite awhile, in a daze on solid ground. His life was sketchy. In fact I had no idea why he was flying to Minneapolis-St. Paul in the first place. Whether it was the beginning of his journey or the end, or whether he was only trying to make a connection, I couldn’t say.
In a way–if one really thought about it–this suspension wasn’t really fair to him, or the mystery that unfolded a thousand feet below him. Or I guess to the people in the accident. I pretty much forgot about the story fragment, and looking back I’m not sure why that was the case. Maybe something about the story scared me.
But I had found it again when cleaning up some old files on floppy disks. Scavenging the disks for any useful scraps before I recycled them. I actually had to go on eBay to find an external disk drive that would read the damn things. Most of the files were either documents I had transferred over to my Macbook already, or were pieces of ephemera like grocery lists or addresses to fiction magazines, or whatever. What caught my eye about the story of the car crash, though–before I had even read what the fragment was about–was the file’s name: “the_philip_sidney_game.” I didn’t ever remember calling it that, and in fact after reading the file couldn’t begin to think what connection the title would have to that story. I knew Philip Sidney was a poet around the time of Queen Elizabeth, but I was embarrassed that I knew almost none of his work, or what he had to do with a game. I asked my wife Kristin but she had no idea either.
After transferring over the file, I did my best to pick up the thread of the story. I wanted to see where I could take the passenger after he landed. But it wasn’t easy. I had the passenger moving through the airport in a daze, through the Gold Concourse, down to Baggage Claim. (Actually, since I had began the story twelve years ago, the concourses in the airport were renamed after letters instead of colors. I stuck with the colors.) The passenger retrieved his one blue suitcase and then took a shuttle to the rental car lot. Still shaken from what he saw from above, he tried to consume himself in mundane tasks like showing his driver’s license and credit card to the counter agent at the rental car company. Soon enough he was on the road with a map-brochure in his lap. After about ten minutes he was in front of the business-class hotel that was allotted to him for his trip. The unassuming hotel was in one of the outer suburbs, next to a highway junction and the corporate headquarters that he was supposed to be visiting. The next morning, in the hotel’s computer room, he scoured the Internet for any sign of the accident on any local newspapers’ websites, but nothing was to be found. He began to wonder whether he was imagining the entire thing.
It was beginning to annoy me that the story was set twelve years in the past–I couldn’t give him Wi-Fi. At the same time, I felt that I had to be true to the original intent of the story, which I had yet to discover. I was a very different person twelve years ago, more prone to needless pyrotechnics. Back then, I was also much more likely to pepper a story with self-referential and oblique cues to let the reader know at all costs that he or she was reading a story and not to get too comfortable in the story’s illusion. It was fine, as far as it went–a necessary albeit coy stage in my growth as a writer, I guess–but this time I didn’t want to do that, at all.
Anyway, the passenger gave his presentation in a beige-colored conference room and during his lunch hour he decided to go hunting for the scene of the accident. He didn’t know the Twin Cities at all, so he didn’t have his bearings to where the crash would have happened in relation to the airport. What was more, it was raining. Cold for early May, or colder than he was used to. He tried to imagine any feature of the road or the buildings that were at all familiar. Or the pond–but he knew that the area had hundreds of bodies of water. He first drove on the highway. But soon he took an exit and found himself on less congested roads. Every intersection looked like every other intersection, with an equally dispersed amount of gas stations, fast food restaurants, nail salons, and the like. And in between those clusters, houses. Not too large and not too small. Not too opulent and not too desolate. He took roads that wound around knolls, and these gave him hope, because he knew that the second car in the accident–the one that had received the most damage–tipped into an embankment. But nothing looked familiar to him at all.
After a few hours of this, his cell phone rang. Apparently his clients in the suburban headquarters had called his superior back in the home office, because they didn’t have his number. They were upset at his absence. Before much could be said, he turned the phone off.
It was starting to get dark. And the rain wasn’t letting up. At this point in the story, I hadn’t decided whether the passenger was going to find anything or not, any clues about the accident. Or perhaps the accident didn’t happen at all. As the twilight closed upon the passenger, I paused and tried to understand just what he wanted in the first place. It wasn’t really clear to me, this obsession of his. I worried that if I left this matter unsettled, he might be in his rental car for another twelve years before I figured out what should be done.
So with this impasse, I didn’t written anything with this story for a few weeks, and was in danger of losing the thread again. My interest in any particular project always waned or (less frequently) waxed in ways that I never understood. The desire to start something would take over me, but then it always came down to a matter of endurance. I was always impatient, always looking for the next batch of kindling to set on fire until the smoke became thick and redolent, and there were more embers than flames, at which point I would almost always step away, scouring for fresh fuel. It was slash-and-burn agriculture of the mind. Every once in awhile I’d circle back and blow on the embers, throw on a few more sticks, and start the cycle over again.
Oftentimes, this was the best I could hope for.
As it turned out, I had my hand forced on this issue when I received a package in the mail. The package had heavy brown wrapping and many 3 and 5 cent stamps that looked somewhat faded. My address was typed on a mailing label. It had a Minneapolis postmark but no return address. I opened the package and found that inside there was a bubble-wrap lining and a floppy disk. There was no letter or other note in the package and no label on the disk. I was worried about my computer getting infected from the disk, but I decided to take a chance. I couldn’t have very well thrown it away. As the disk whirred in the disk drive, I saw on my desktop that the disk contained three files, named A, B and C. I checked the properties on each one, but there wasn’t any information about an author. The only possible clue was the file creation date, which was in early May twelve years ago. The date the files were “last modified” was the same. I took a deep breath and opened the first file.
The story picked up where I had left it–not where I had left it a few weeks before, but twelve years ago, with the passenger landing in the airport. I thought about calling the police but the idea upon an instant’s reflection seemed absurd. All I could do was read; no matter how anxious this made me, I could do little else.
In this continuation of the story, the passenger immediately took the car out to search the roads for the site of the accident after he landed. He just drove–all night, relentlessly, without stopping, through serpentine suburban roads that he couldn’t name. When dawn was about to come, with faint gray light filling the sky, he found what he was looking for. He pulled over along the side of the closest warehouse, in a weed-strewn parking lot. He got out of his car and looked for any sign of the cars, or the accident.
Nothing was conclusive. He saw skid marks leading off the road, and shards of red and white plastic, and glass. The sun was beginning to come up. Not sure of what he would find, he walked around the warehouse on the western side of the road, finding no signage on the building except for a letter “A” in a white stencil, about the size of his hand, where a doorbell would normally have been. He even tried the lone door, but it was locked. He did the same with the warehouse on the eastern side of the road, which was identical to the other warehouse except for the letter “B” in the identical place.
He went back into his car and tried to decide what to do next. Then he heard a noise that he first thought was from his car. He turned off the ignition, but the sound kept getting louder. It was above him. He rolled down his window and looked out. High above was a silver propeller plane, like an outdated commuter airliner. From the clouds above that plane came another plane, a black jet, in a tailspin. The propeller plane didn’t evade the second–or didn’t seem to know it was even there–as the black plane grazed the tail with its nose and continued downward. There was a screeching sound. A devolutionary was making its sacrifice. (Those were the exact words of the story: “A devolutionary was making its sacrifice.” Which made little if any sense to me.) The black jet, in its chaotic descent, managed to right itself and arc upwards, though still wobbly. The passenger looked in dismay, however, as the silver plane spun around as if drunk. As it fell, the passenger closed his eyes because he knew, at that point, that a third plane would slam into the silver plane and he didn’t want to see that at all. He stuck his head back in and rolled up the window. After a few seconds, with the tornadoes of broken engines getting louder, he heard the debris falling all around him–crashing into the warehouses, in the pond, burning fuel in the damp grass, fragments of planes raining on the road itself.
The passenger was unharmed. The story ended.
After reading this, I stared at the screen for a long while, trying to decipher, in a figurative sense, what I had just read. I worried whether this was some kind of cryptic terrorist threat, an extrapolation from my half-story into the realm of real-life action. However, I had no proof this was the case. I probably wasn’t helping matters by spinning out the worst case scenarios of bodily harm. It could very well have been a prank or an elaborate ruse, though I couldn’t understand how the beginning of my story could have been available to anyone. I had found the original disk, with many others, buried at the bottom of a desk drawer, unused in over a decade.
On the other hand, the story’s ending was such a spectacularly ridiculous idea that I had to give it credit on a storytelling level. The prose was clear; a little plain, but certainly not a disaster. It didn’t have to be the end of the world that someone was completing one of my stories.
Then I remembered that there were two more files on the disk.
I avoided reading them for days. I made excuses, and tried to work on “real” writing projects. But I wasn’t able to make any progress on any of them. The thought of completing my own version of the passenger’s story made me nauseous. Not at least until the mystery had been resolved, or went away, though I had faint hope for the latter.
To bide my time, in a way so that I could deceive myself that I was actually being productive, I Googled “the Philip Sidney Game.” I first thought, before I knew any better, that it was a more-or-less random phrase, one that had no connection to the story at hand as far as I could see. What I found out only complicated matters; I shouldn’t have been surprised about that.
The Philip Sidney Game was a theory of evolutionary selection. There was a legend that, when the knight-poet was being carried to safety away from the battlefield after being shot in the leg, he asked for a water. But then he saw a soldier–a common foot-soldier at that–look at his water bottle with excruciating thirst. And Sidney said: “Thy need is greater than mine,” and gave him the water bottle.
Sidney died twenty-four days later. The story never said what happened to the soldier who received the water. And although I had a hard time believing reality of this situation, the fiction of his martyrdom outweighed what was undoubtedly a gruesome death from a bullet in the thigh. He was a courtier, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, and an altruistic soul.
Moving away from the realm of fanciful yet empathetic anecdote to that of game theory–the dying soldier needed some way to signal that he was thirsty to someone who had water. This required an expenditure of energy. Everything would have to come at a cost.
But what if there were three dying soldiers around poor Philip Sidney, and they all cried out for water? And moreover, the act of crying out put them all in such a poor state that, if they didn’t receive water, each would die. All things being equal in this case, the signals canceled each other out. Sidney would have been unable to find out whose the greatest need was.
It took me a while to realize that this thought experiment had, in the eyes and minds of behavioral scientists, nothing to do with his poetry. And the more I read about the game, the more bewildered I became. There wasn’t anything in either my story or the continuation that seemed to have anything to do with the dictation of need from one person to another. The passenger was alone.
At last, restless from the stalling, I asked Kristin if she would read the remaining files for me. I often had a problem reading an email or letter that I knew would contain bad or unpleasant news, which I tried to avoid more often than not. She knew this about me and said she was waiting for me to ask her. But she would only do that for the second file–I would have to buck up with the third. I agreed. It was a Saturday morning when she started reading the second file. I took a walk around the neighborhood with the dogs–it was a May day that felt like July. When I came back, I asked her whether she had finished the second file and said yes and that I wouldn’t like it. But she also thought it was best to read it myself and make up my own mind.
I stalled for another hour or so, the panic rising, but I ended up sitting down and reading it, scanning it once and then forcing myself to read it more thoroughly.
In this continuation of the story, the passenger retrieved his luggage, picked up a rental car and drove to his hotel–a sequence the same as my own recounting in all but cosmetic differences (which made me shudder). The next morning he gave his presentation and returned to the hotel.
From there, the passenger took a different path. He didn’t go out of his way at all to find out what happened with the crash or to confirm that it even happened. He just did things, performed tasks. He ate lunch, went back to corporate headquarters to lead a follow-up Q&A session regarding his presentation–which was very well-received–and then had dinner with several of his clients in the hotel restaurant, a steakhouse with a steak that was a bit too tough. He was satisfied by the day, although there were several times when he had to push down qualms about not trying to find anything about the accident. But he managed to quash guilt effectively, and concentrate on the matters at hand: steak, purchase orders, shots of Jaeger, and baseball.
At this point, I let my guard down a bit. I was expecting something far worse than a mere twist in the tale. I told this to Kristin and she told me to keep reading. She was beginning to look upset herself.
I kept reading. The passenger, now tipsy, stumbled to the elevator and to his hotel room. It was good he wasn’t driving; he thought briefly of the accident again, that maybe the driver who had triggered the awful chain of events was drunk on a dark road. When he was lying on his bed, trying to think of nothing, a manila envelope was slipped under the door. The passenger sat up, and then ran toward the door. Opening it, he looked both ways in the carpeted corridor. No one was there. The envelope was unmarked. He sat at his desk and opened it up. Inside the bubble-wrapped interior was a text-heavy document printed out on dot-matrix paper. The paper smelled like the spray used in bowling alley shoes. The passenger began reading the text, which was a story called “The Philip Sidney Game” by Alan DeNiro.
I scraped my chair back and stared at the story from a middle distance, as if moving a few feet away from that page would cause my name to transmutate into someone else’s, or disappear altogether. Kristin grabbed my hand, and said that the story wasn’t done. I moved closer to the screen, though not as close as I had been before, and kept reading.
The passenger read with dismay, and then with terror, about his plane ride, his descent into the Twin Cities, his witnessing of the accident, his ensconcement in the minutiae of his business meetings. And while he read, he wondered just who this writer was who had known so much about him. Since there were many pages, he skipped ahead to the end of the voluminous story, in which he found that he, in this particular story, was locked inside a cavernous warehouse. There was also a grievously ill horse in the warehouse with him (though it wasn’t clear what the nature of the sickness was), which was pacing the warehouse floor but did not panic. There were also loud bells clanging in a slow 4/4 time, and blue spotlights that turned off and on in time with the bells, and satin drapes that floated through the warehouse of their own accord.
This character’s reading habits were extremely disappointing for me, needless to say, because the passenger was impatient and only interested in the big finish of his story, and had no inclination to find out what mysterious forces had led him to that end. No matter what would end up happening, those gaps would disturb me. And it was as if the author of this story knew this.
The passenger then took the local phone book out of the hotel room’s desk drawer, and started looking for my name. That was how the second story ended.
I put my laptop on hibernate, and then turned off my cell phone. It was an instinct that took hold of me. I wasn’t sure about what to think about the disk anymore, and the stories on it. I tried to convince myself that they were just stories, and bore no real meaning to my everyday reality. After all, if someone had gone to the trouble to send me this disk in the first place, they must have at some point uncovered my name. In the perverted logic of what had already taken place, this story within a story in which I was a character was perfectly normal.
Of course, I went to bed that night with no feelings of normalcy. As I drifted into sleep, I hoped that in the morning I would have a clearer sense of what should be done.
I didn’t remember dreaming that night, but had a sense after I woke up that I had been put through the ringer. I couldn’t trust what I couldn’t remember. My suspicions were confirmed when Kristin told me that I was mumbling something about “devolutionaries” as I slept. I would often have night terrors that I would never remember. Although the severity of them had lessened after I started taking anti-anxiety medication, every so often I would sit up in bed and try to push away some monster (such as a vicious dog, or crocodile) that I thought was in the covers with me. Or I’d wake up on the verge of drowning, clutching my throat.
Devolutionaries, then. Exasperated, and not feeling rested at all, I took it upon myself to take a walk with the dogs in the early morning light. Kristin was already at work. I needed to clear my head and think about the genesis of the matter: where I was in my life when I had first written the story fragment. To retrace and exhaust every possible step.
As I walked with the dogs through the neighborhood, I ruminated about my life twelve years ago. I had just moved to Minnesota from Virginia to be with Kristin. I was still trying to find my way around the Twin Cities. It occurred to me then that I had begun this story thinking of my own descent into the Twin Cities for the first time, on my first visit, a few months before I had driven up with all the belongings I could fit in a Toyota Corolla. Did I actually witness a car crash from above? I had no memory of such a thing. I had just started writing the premise in my notebook…
The notebook. I had transcribed the story from my longhand scribbles into my computer originally.
When I got back, I tore through my old closet. I had saved all of my all notebooks since college, all of them, even though I rarely looked at them. I was afraid to throw away what might have been considered a part of me. I scoured through the various cheap, spiral notebooks I had at that time in my life until I found the story. Flipping through the pages, I was brought back to that time in the story’s creation: my first bitterly cold winter in years, holed up in a city I didn’t know at all, aching for spring. The story fragment had indeed started in the exact place as the computer document I had originally created.
It didn’t end there, however.
At the end, when the passenger stepped off the plane into the airport, still shaken up from what he saw, he received a call on his cell phone. He didn’t recognize the number. He answered it.
The line was full of static. Then a low voice on the other end told him that the devolutionaries were watching him, and he was not to recite The Words, warning him not to be a fool. Then he hung up.
That was how I wrote it. The Words.
I might not have thought this ending worth transcribing, a dead end, too cloying and conspiratorial. I had no idea what I was thinking with the devolutionaries. Who were they? Did I really write that? It seemed so. I couldn’t help thinking that this warning was meant for me instead of the passenger.
Then poured myself a bourbon on the rocks and sipped it as I sat at my desk, Googling and bookmarking everything I could find on Philip Sidney, to try to immerse myself in the world of this story. I felt like I had a bomb of metal fragments sitting at my desk, and that the only instructions to diffuse it without tearing me to shreds were encrypted in a PhD dissertation on Elizabethan literature. I did in fact try to cull what I could from centuries-old books that were digitally scanned and online. But I wasn’t finding anything that threaded the needle between my original story, the files on the disk I received, and the bridging section that I had orphaned in the notebook. Nothing fit all of this.
I went to his poetry:
For me, alas! I am full resolved
Those bands, alas! shall not be dissolved;
Nor break my word, though reward come late;
Nor fail my faith in my failing fate;
Nor change in change, though change change my state…
I went to his “Apology for Poesy,” his manifesto (before there were manifestos) on how poetry’s value came from the interplay of moral teaching and heavenly delight. Then I Googled “Philip Sidney” and “devolutionaries” together, which I should have done long before. There was the usual Internet detritus of nonsensical spam pages that crammed together both words along with thousands of other randomly generated ones. Philip Sidney cologne for elk $199.99–free shipping, viagara are you feeling your urges devolutionaries? But on the second page of results, I found a page called “Philip Sidney and the Secret Societys of Aeropagus,” which contained a poorly scanned monograph from 1839 in JPEG format on a Belgian server. My hands were trembling as I clicked to the page and started reading the monograph by James Rosemount-Ettiene. In the monograph, James claimed that one of Sidney’s secret diplomatic missions on the continent, when he was governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, was to form a secret society called Aeropagus. Aeropagus I had heard of, albeit only in my recent Googling–a rumoured literary society that included Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Sidney’s boyhood friends and poets-in-arms Edward Dyer and Gabriel Harvey, and a few other minor figures. The goal of the Aeropagus (one of them, at least) was to “classicize” English verse by using Greek and Roman syllabic forms, rather than Anglo-Saxon and Norman rhyming schemes. It was thought in this circle of poets that this form of verse hearkened back to a purer, almost priestly form of poetry, in which the Greek and Romans used verse accompanied with music to predict the future, proclaim terrible truths, and so on.
However, the concrete existence of Aeropagus had been disputed for centuries–many scholars have thought that Spenser’s one reference to Aeropagus in his correspondence was meant to be a joke. And at any rate, this form of verse was only one of Sidney’s interests; he wrote plenty with “conventional” rhyme and meter, cribbing at will from Italian sonnet forms, for example.
In this monograph, though, James claimed that there was another Aeropagus, a secret society within the secret society. There was always a mystical bent to Sidney and the poets in his circle; after all, one of Sidney’s mentors was John Dee, the notorious English magus and favorite of Queen Elizabeth who regularly asserted that he could summon angels. But this inner circle of Aeropagus was a commission by Queen Elizabeth herself, to establish a beach-head of “scientifick philosophy” on the continent. In the guise of a diplomat and governor, Sidney could gather onto him all of the arcane learnings that were flourishing on the mainland of Europe, particularly in Holland, Italy and the German principalities. In this way, Sidney could fine-tune the metaphysics of poetry, in the manner of incantations, in order to fully utilize knowledge of voice, rhetoric, and musical diction to (piously, of course) access the conduits of heavenly wisdom for magical aims.
This was the passage where James had mentioned the “devolutionaries”:
“Sir Philip Sidney had found no small measure of success in his experiments in vatic verse–that purely by metrical speech and on occasion musical accompaniment, a poet could not only speak to the future, but also enter a state of terrible apprehension and, through chant, ‘project’ oneself, theosophically, into past events, and even into the thoughts of others, with physical distance being no impediment whatsoever.”
I read that again, and once more, and tried to wrestle with what James was proposing, or whether he was even being serious. But I had to trust that he, at least, believed it–or if the connection was there, that whoever sent me the package believed it as well.
I kept reading:
“Sidney thought these experiments to be both diviniely inspired and verifiable by careful observation and study.
“Truth be told, his coterie of German alchemists, disaffected Jesuits who had stolen away monastic tomes from the time of Charlemagne, and troubadours from Toulouse all looked to Sidney for moral guidance and an extended patronage from his Queen. There was a sense, for Sidney, that he could heal the divisions between Papists and Protestants that had ravaged Europe, finding a common religious experience based on celestial song.
“However, these experiments could not be kept from prying enemies forever. A rival secret society who called themselves Devolutionaries–mostly from those under the employ of Hapsburg Spain and Austria, but also the French, who were greatly angered by Sidney’s presence in Holland and were fearful that the English meddling could spread–began to plot a thwarting of Aeropagus. Their sigil was the bear, one of the few natural enemies of the porcupine, which happened to be prominent in the coat of arms of the Sidneys.
“The battle at Zutphen, which caused Sidney’s death, then, was orchestrated purely to slay Sidney and to crush English advancements in magical poetics. A murder by poison or knife would have been too conspicuous. Spanish armies, then, had to be set into motion. With bitter irony, the Devolutionaries knew full well that Sidney was gallant and also foolhardy, and would not hesitate to rush into battle to save a lost cause. His English forces vastly outnumbered, he charged forward. However, the Devolutionaries had paid a Dutch squire three Spanish florin to steal Philip’s armour. He was able to steal the leggings. Had it not been for this theft, Sir Philip Sidney might have survived. It was easy for the English to spread the rumor that Philip had spurned his leggings in order to rush into the battle in all haste. Thus after his long, agonizing death, the Aeropagus society was doomed. He had written one final, secret poem on his deathbed, but it has been lost to time.”
I had no way to verify any of these claims, but it was the one true thread I could find, and I held onto it for dear life.
When I was finished with reading the monograph, and dawn was breaking, I decided to bite the bullet with the third file on the disk. I should have slept. Instead I read.
The third file didn’t begin with the passenger at all, but with me. This story began with me driving down a narrow state highway. I was squinting ahead. On the seat next to me was a manila envelope with a Minneapolis postmark and a return address that said “Aeropagus Storage” with an address. I noted to myself that I was desperate to try to finish the story about the passenger (which was only paraphrased in this version). I was in dire straits. It was becoming all too much for a story. I recalled the shock and thrill I had received when I had received the envelope, and I looked down at my seat at it. The envelope didn’t have my address, only my name.
I found myself going to one of the suburbs around the outskirts of the airport. It was noted in the story that it was late at night, an hour or two before midnight. I drove on winding roads, until I made a gentle turn down a hill. Warehouses were on either side of me. This was the place. As I was about to pull into the parking lot of the warehouse to my left, I saw a horse hobble across the road right in front of my car. I swerved. The horse disappeared into the scrawny woods on the other side of the warehouse. There was a car coming toward me in the other lane, which I tried to avoid. In the story, I had a feeling of both emotional distance and stoic certainty regarding what was happening. I felt the shock of the vibration of steel on steel, the desperate turning of the steering wheel. I stepped on the brakes. The instants were elongating but, in the end, they were just instants, and it was too late. I had no control. The car slid forward–I couldn’t tell if I clipped the other car, or the other way around. But I was the one who stopped the car, and the other kept moving, sidewinding down the road. My Corolla was only grazed, but I had a sharp stiffness in my neck. I opened the door and hobbled out to inspect the damage.
Then I saw the third car coming toward mine, fast.
This car did not slam the brakes as it hit my car. The Corolla was pushed over the side of the embankment. My trunk popped open, and hundreds of sheets of dot-matrix paper spilled out.
The other car put itself in reverse, and skidded backwards from the berm.
When it stopped, I ran toward it, waving my hands, hysterical, cursing. The windows were tinted black. I moved to knock on the windows, but something stopped me. The car was silent except for its own engine.
I took a few steps back, and then the car revved and was soon out of sight.
I picked up a few of the stray pieces of paper that had scattered onto the road. They all had different versions of the same story. My story. I read patches:
“The passenger was looking for stories to resuscitate…”
“He drove away, not sure whether his family would be able to forgive him…”
“The passenger drove his car into the reinforced steel partition of the warehouse, desperate to get inside…”
“The Order of the Lamb assented…”
I had no doubt that it would keep going.
I looked up and saw the faint tail-lights of an airplane above me. The airplane was making its descent into the airport. It might have been the same plane as it always was, or a different one. Even if the same things were happening, they would mean something different every time.
My body was still aching from the slightest movement, but I scurried down the embankment, which wasn’t as steep as I thought it was. When I went into the driver’s side to turn off the ignition, I startled, because I realized with a rush that this Corolla was not mine.
There were lots of green Corollas on the road, and there were many times when I’d find myself trying to open someone else’s car door with my keys. This was similar, though on a far vaster scale. The car was indeed nearly identical to my own, but not completely so. There were little touches that kept rising to the surface of my perception–the “1” button on the stereo that was scuffed a little on my Corolla was not; the window sticker pass for Minnesota State Parks was for 1999 and not 2000; the stain on the upholstery of the passenger’s seat was a couple inches lower than it should have been.
I wondered, then, whose car this was–and moreover, why I was driving it.
I was about to call Kristin on my cell, but searched my pockets. No phone. I went back to the car and searched all the nooks of the car that wasn’t quite my own, but no phone. Then it dawned on me that it was, in fact, 1999 and I wasn’t supposed to have a cell phone.
Wandering up from the embankment in a crouch, worn to the bone, I made my way to the warehouses. This was the address that I had been sent, and the paranoia about the two cars that had collided with me was more of an afterthought. What was I supposed to be doing there? I tried the door of the first warehouse but it didn’t open. I then happened to look at my keyring, which I had been clutching since the collisions, before I was going to put it in my pocket. There was a key on there that I didn’t recognize. Just a normal key. I slid it into the lock and turned. The interior was vast and dark, except for blue circular lights that shone in a slow crawl throughout the space. Bright and revealing nothing. There were also red curtains, acting as capes on an invisible bodies, flowing toward me. And I could hear a song, in the distant recesses of the warehouse. What was it holding? The warehouse was holding the song, the song that I had always longed to hear, but never could, because I was always too busy and too distracted with my own pains and insecurities. Like verses encased in lines–the hard forms of meter and rhyme–the music and the words were kept from the world inside these walls. This was Philip Sidney’s poem of dying, his lost last poem.
This was the story–I was listening to this song, at last. And I was there, and I was never to leave.
And yet, this is not the end…
In the second warehouse, it is completely dark. An antiphon of nothing-to-see. Then, a small square of orange light, flashing. The printer is out of ink. The paper, filled with The Words, has no light to reflect against it.
Footsteps. The opening of a machine. Ejection. Black fluid on unseen fingers. A shaking of a cylinder. Then a clicking shut. Everything in place. The whirring begins again, like a mechanical bird pecking at wood. The paper spools to the floor. Every twenty minutes or so, hands tear off a sheaf and place it into a manila envelope, sealing the envelope with a gummy tongue. Although it’s hard to discern the unilluminated dimensions of the warehouse, the envelope is walked to the other end and put into a slot, which leads to a disorganized back office, sealed off from the rest of the warehouse.
Here, in a room no bigger than a closet, there is a single overhead light in a socket. As soon as the envelope falls through the slot (with no light being emitted to the other side),
…I begin addressing it to you. I have been in here a long time. My need is great. I am going to die when you die. Who am I? I am part of you. The Words are Your Words, the totality of whatever you will say and think and write.
Alan, when you were a child, there was so much terror. So much. This was the reason you began to write, to make stories out of the things you could see. It was a way to make limitations out of the world. This was your Aeropagus, in the pencils clutched in your first-grade, sinister hand.
Things grew, you grew, and the terror became admixed with desire–and more than a desire not to be terrified. You wanted better things. You wanted people to admire you and your imagination. This was, this is, your Philip Sidney Game. Always thirsty. Always carted off from the battlefield but angling for water. So how do you signal? How do you let the knight-of-water inside of you know of your thirst?
Here in this story, Sir Philip Sidney is only a phantasm. The devolutionaries are an illusion as well–they are you, they are what you use to thwart your semblance of inner peace. They are in constant battle with what you want to create. It is a wide-ranging battle across many places of your life and over nearly all your years. You didn’t begin that story twelve years ago. You only began it this year, but its aims to show how you lived twelve years ago are true, and how much you are trying to be true is true. Though it’s nothing to be afraid of, one day
it will be finished. All the threads will weave
together and the warehouse doors thrown open,
and the office park of plasterboard and glass
will sink into the untouched wetlands, and
the passenger will board his plane for home.
Then it will be finished. God willing,
when you are at the end of your life, you
might come across this story in an old
ancient stick of memory, and with
your eyes creased with those necessary heart-
aches countless, you will read it and allow
the story enter into you once more,
and for a moment it will be your life
before you take your last breath, and you let
the horse lead you into the woods of May.
Alan DeNiro was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the College of Wooster with a B.A. in English and the University of Virginia with an M.F.A. in creative writing. He is the author of the story collection Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead (Crawford Award finalist; Frank O’Connor Award longlist), the novel Total Oblivion: More or Less, and the new collection, Tyrannia: and Other Renditions. His short stories have appeared in One Story, Asimov’s, Santa Monica Review, Interfictions, and elsewhere. He lives outside of St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife Kristin Livdahl and their children.