Some novels are so absorbing that when you reach the end, it’s a wrench to bring yourself out of it. If you’re like me, you want to crawl right back in and re-experience the universe, the characters and the tale. That was my original idea for this short story. Samantha, could not only physically visit her favourite worlds; she could shape and re-shape the original story to suit her. Her best friend, Melody, wants in, and the two spend years trying to find a way. That’s how the idea began. Sam prefers the fantasy she can control to the real world where there are awful people like Johnny Mack, the pimp, the drug dealer and the murderer. But Sam’s journey of hate and ideas of revenge leads her to the conclusion that she is not just another character in a story, she’s a flawed human being who is no more entitled to the moral high ground than is Johnny Mack.
Johnny McCoy snapped Melody’s neck like a twig then came after me. I had ten seconds to get to the hall closet. I whipped out my Tale of Two Cities and heard echoes of a grunt and a varied assortment of swear words, before the world of Cities closed in on me. Not that I needed the book any more. I had the story down by heart. I rarely leave the prologue but it’s been my security blanket for a decade and like that credit card, I never leave home without it. Wish I could have seen the look on that Neanderthal’s face when I disappeared into thin air. My heart thumped, my head throbbed; my heart was racing as if I’d run a marathon mile. Safe with two seconds to spare.
‘Over your dead body’, he had said when he saw the suitcases and with the thought had come the action just as I walked in the door. He pounced on her, fangs bared and snarling like the rabid dog that he was. It was over in an instant. All that was left for me to do was to shriek and run. I keep thinking that I should have forced her to come with me yesterday. That I should have come with reinforcements. My road to hell is paved with should have, could have would have and fifty-fifty hindsight.
I leaned against the nearest wall and slumped to the ground. Even with my eyes closed I saw Mel, her face gone suddenly grey, her neck at that unnatural angle. My poor Mel, best friend and kindred spirit who has been at me to find her a way in for two decades, has finally managed it. Too bad she can’t stay to share it with me. Her soul has escaped both its bonds and its tormentor and I’ve been left behind looking for a way to bring her justice. I’m not leaving that murderous weasel to the law; he’s going to squirm and charm his way out of trouble as he’s done all his life. I’m staying put till I find a way to make him pay.
‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’. The words float past me and out into the ether. I used to wonder if it was people reading this classic; I hardly noticed these days. The Cities prologue is an anteroom to the main action. It is furnished with an ottoman two easy chairs with upright backs, and a writing table. An oak bookshelf covers the whole of the back wall filled with the works of Dickens’ contemporaries. Whatever else I need to lay my hands on at the time will magically appear. Mark Twain, Wilkie Collins, Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot. I’ve spent my adult life lounging in the easy chair, rereading the classics and sometimes visiting other people’s worlds while I waited for some confrontation or another to blow over or counted on Mel to sort it all out.
But Mel can no longer run interference for me with ex boyfriends, with landlords, with school bullies. It’s my turn now to do her a last service and I can’t fail her. A cup of tea and a scone appears on my writing table. I don’t know how it’s done, but when I need some sustenance, it’s there. It was always pop biscuits and google buns on the Faraway Tree with Silky and Moonface. Fatty and I would sit in the shed at the bottom of the garden getting stuck into cream buns and lemonade and trying on disguises. There’s no point asking my childhood friends for advice. They are as innocent now as I was when I was ten and haven’t got the mindset for the sort of scheme I need.
I fortify myself with the best English Breakfast and smear a bit of marmalade on the scone then I pull several books from the shelf. I need to research. Stephen King’s Randall Flagg bubble and foams at the mouth, eager to inform about how to punish those who don’t obey. I take a trip down Fournier street in Spitalfields. Jack can’t make up his mind about my gender. He is a silhouette behind a lamp post and I see the gleam of his scalpel. Lizzy Borden lectures me on how to keep my axe from rusting. I come to the conclusion that Mel had been right. Characters can’t step out of their comfort zone. But neither can I. Violence isn’t in my DNA. I have to find my own answers.
It’s a crutch’, said Mel as often as she could fit it into the conversation. Use it, but stop confusing it with real life.’ We’re only a month apart in age but Mel saw herself as my mentor. ‘Fantasy has a pre-determined path, Sam. (I’m only Samantha to my parents and usually it’s when, like Queen Victoria, they are not amused). Real people can surprise you.’ Ever the optimist, Mel. But I have always preferred consistency and order to real people who tend to be messy.
It didn’t stop her from wanting in. ‘What fun it would be Sam’ she’d say. Melody was big on fun. ‘I’d be Madam Defarge, knitting up a register of badges, watching the heads roll by; then I’d swap sides and be the Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing aristocrats from the guillotine.’ She chopped her right hand slant wise and laughed. Melody’s laugh was raucous, and infectious once I got over the embarrassment of worrying about who was staring at us.
When I was six I envied Alice Liddell her courage. She left her sane and daylight world on an impulse and without question to follow a talking rabbit down a dark, dank tunnel. I would have been analysing, agonising and thinking things through, by which time both the rabbit and the opportunity would have passed me by. I spent hours fantasising that I could talk to the Cheshire Cat and outwit the Mad Hatter’s mad chatter.
One day, when Alice’s world was more real to me than my own, I opened my eyes and found myself physically there. The red queen was ordering her soldiers to chop off the head of a guard who, despite his cardboard countenance, closely resembled my first grade bully. I didn’t question it then. I was at an age that was always adjusting to the stranger than fiction adult expectations. Mel has accused me of hiding from real life ever since.
‘Nevertheless, ‘Why won’t it work for me,’ asked Melody for the millionth time. Melody was pretty, but not beautiful. Her best features were a pair of lively black eyes and a mass of naturally curly, shoulder length hair. What she did have in spades was the sort of magnetism that men were drawn to and women liked. What saved her from being as shallow and one-dimensional as the red queen’s guard was that she liked people and took everyone at face value. This turned out to be her downfall.
I shrugged for the millionth time. ‘I’ve given up wondering why me and not you, Mel. I’m just a freak. Or maybe I’m the next step in human evolution.’ Neither of us believed that one; there was no possible advantage my gift would have for humanity. A freak, then. After years of examining things from every angle, we’d come to a full stop, and were none the wiser for it.
We were drinking our weekly skinny lattes at our favourite café and munching on chocolate croissants. The croissant was for pleasure; the coffee was a sop to our waistlines. The waitress was used to our strange ways and weird conversations and had given up commenting.
Not Mel. ‘Stop mooning over a nineteenth century construct, Sammy. You’re a 21st Century woman’ was the constant refrain. ‘Look at the sleazy types that hit on me at the local bar on a Saturday night,’ I’d respond. ‘Give me the honourable Mr Darcy every time.’
Mr Darcy was so obviously Jane Austin’s fantasy that I sometimes wondered if she had also had the gift. I rewrote scenes and extended the life of the story, fashioning myself the perfect fit. I mean, what’s the use of snagging the delicious Mr D if after resolving the pride and the prejudice all that was left was a discreet veil drawn over the honeymoon and the happily ever after part? Austin’s sensibilities being far more delicate than mine, she’d rushed for the ending. In case you’re wondering, I checked and my rewrites didn’t affect the original.
When Mel dumped old faithful, one of the many men who had romped in and out of her life, she was ready to party. ‘I want to raise children, not sheep,’ she’d said when I asked why. He was so obviously one of the nicer men involved in Mel’s life. She didn’t want nice, she wanted Johnny McCoy who was the antidote to old faithful. I tried to tell her he was a drug dealer and a pimp, but Mel was sure she could reform him. His reputation was exaggerated, she said. Svengali couldn’t have done a better job of convincing Mel than Mel herself. That slime on a stick with the smooth patter and good looks was a drug and Melody was hooked.
‘I’ll kill her’, he had said. He smiled as if he was offering me a precious gift. Johnny McCoy, a blue eyed, blond with an innocent angelic Brad Pitt kind of face, and a ‘bosom as black as death’ didn’t like my interfering with his plans for domination. He’d been in and out of court most of his life but even though I knew it, I couldn’t reconcile the angelic features issuing vile words from a rosebud mouth. I stood mesmerised, like a bird caught in the hypnotic clutches of a hungry python. He described in great graphic detail what he would do if I didn’t stay away then he blew me a kiss and left.
Believe me when I say, that if Johnny had looked like the portrait of Dorian Grey when it was hidden away in the attic, we’d all know where we were. The first Judge who had the bad luck to come across him looked down at the angelic 11 year old and despite the mountain of evidence against him couldn’t get herself to believe that it was his fault. All the judges since have found ways around their conscience to excuse him his increasingly more heinous crimes. They wanted to clutch the viper to their bosoms. He was a victim of neglect. His single mother who worked long hours to support them both doted on her Johnny and gave him anything he wanted. It usually wasn’t enough, so he would help himself to the contents of her purse.
‘It was the season of darkness. It was the winter of despair.’ In just six months, the fungus had stripped Melody of her self-worth and self-respect; he took everything that made her who she was and then he killed her. I’d visit when he was out, pleading with this stranger who stood in the doorway. ‘You can’t come in.’ She croaked. There were bluish green finger marks around her throat. Mel had slipped down the stairs and fractured a leg, bumped her eye against a cupboard door and carelessly burned her arms by falling on lit cigarettes. He had taken to those beautiful curls with a blunt knife and hacked at them. Her eyes had the spaced out look of an addict. I pleaded with her but she wouldn’t let me call the police or come to stay with me. After a while she wouldn’t open the door.
‘I’ve found a way in for you.’ I said it fast before she could shut the door. ‘If I write an original story,’ I explained, ‘I can get you in.’ The old Mel surfaced from behind the ghastly bruises. At last. Twenty years and six months, that’s all it had taken. We arranged it for ten the next morning when he was out. She was all packed and ready when the sod came back unexpectedly.
Something was percolating in the subconscious. I sat and sipped at my tea and waited until it came to the fore. After a while, I parked myself at the writing table and created a world for that rotten excuse for a human being, I knew Mel would have approved of. We were all going direct to Heaven,’ but it’s my hope that he would be going ‘direct the other way’ as soon as I could send him there. The sewer rat was hiding in the basement of a rundown building at the edge of town. He seemed right at home with his brothers. The place was littered with cigarette butts, dirty dishes and mouldy food. A naked lightbulb festooned in dust and cobwebs hung from the ceiling.
I thought he was going to faint. He reached for his gun, but I was there first. I held my hand as steady as I could, given the occasion and pointed my gun, borrowed from a friend of a friend.
‘You’re dead!’ Original.
‘I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry, I acted before I thought,’ said the skunk picking and rejecting his stock excuses.
‘Is that the best you can do, you cowardly little piss-ant? You’re not in court now. Of course you meant it. And stop whining.’ I banged my gun on a rickety desk for emphasis. I acted before thinking. I was lucky it hadn’t gone off.
‘You killed my friend, you bastard, long before you choked the life out of her.’ He didn’t get it. ‘I’m not going to kill you.’ I waved the gun around which made him jump back and me smile. I’d painted my teeth red like Jim de Griz did in The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge. Rat Boy, and I don’t mean de Griz, pissed in his pants. I grinned wider when I realised he didn’t have a change of clothes. ‘This is only so you will listen.’ I waved my gun around some more. It was the best time I’d had since Melody had taken up with the scum.
His judges should see him now, I thought. He was unwashed unshaved and now he stank. His wrinkled top and blue jeans hung from a skinny frame. A month in the basement and a diet of vermin had obviously taken its toll. ‘Sit,’ I said, ‘and stop fussing over those pants. I’ve got good news for you.’ The excrescence sat. It did me good to see the fear in his eyes.
I told him about my gift and my plans for him. He’d been a witness and was easy to convince. Not a ghost then. But not out of the woods yet. I had that gun. ‘What’s in it for you?’ He brushed his hair back from his face and settled his features into what he must have thought of as a benign expression, but the eyes gave him away.
‘Straight to the point, I like that. I’ll be just as direct.’ ‘When you’re safely out of this world, you weasel,’ I explained, ‘I’ll be safe from you. The police will never find you where you’re going.’ He was too interested in what I had to offer, to take offence. And there was that gun, of course.
‘Fred has taken over your business. Sit! You’re making me nervous.’ He’d jumped up, the face under the grime had changed colour. He took a step towards me and if I hadn’t had that gun, I’m sure I could have expected the same fate as Melody. His hands clenched and unclenched. ‘Fred told me where to find you.’
‘You’d be surprised how little I had to pay for the information.’ He probably thought I’d save him the trouble. But I’m ready to help you get away.’ He was reserving his opinion. But sat perfectly still now. Listening.
‘You’re through, here, Johnny. But I’m going to make you Al Capone’s best friend. How would you like that?’
‘Why? You love me, baby? ’ He gave me what he thought of as his winning look. There wasn’t a mirror in this hell-hole. The whacker obviously thought he still had it.
‘Good question’ You might still have a friend or two hoping for your comeback. I don’t want to take the risk. And I don’t want to go to jail for ridding the world of vermin, but I will if I have to. I have to admit that every time I think of what you did to Melody, I want to press this trigger.’ This as he was calculating his options. ‘Getting you out of this world is the best way for both of us.’
‘You have nothing to lose, Johnny.’ Just close your eyes.’ I showed him the manuscript. He liked it. I knew that he would. He read it several times to assure himself. He was going to be cock of the walk in Al Capone land. His right hand man.
‘Can I come back,’ he asked. ‘When things die down.’
‘It can be done. I came back, didn’t I?’ Close your eyes. Empty your mind of anything extraneous, let me do the rest.’ If that second rate Little Caesar had more than a muscle for a brain I’d be a monkey’s aunt.
I’d considered my options, thought long and hard. A world full of judges who wanted nothing more than to smother him to death with kisses and to hug him tightly to their bosoms would be a far more fitting end than having him swap porkies with his mate, Capone in jail. Or perhaps Lizzie Borden could dispatch him for me; she keeps her axe nicely oiled and at the ready. It wouldn’t bring Mel back, but it would allow me some sort of closure. I reached into my handbag then and pulled out a second manuscript I’d prepared earlier as the saying goes, and then held the scum’s hand.’ I’m coming in with you, I said. I watched the whacker making plans to deal with me.
I left him in a barren and except for the jackals, a lifeless world; no trees or water, no shade from the searing sun, just desert, or just desserts for Johnny Mack and closure for me. I shot him in the leg then, and left him with a bottle of water and a sun hat. What I learned that day was that I was no more entitled to the moral high ground than Johnny Mack, even if he was an amoral, immoral freak. I was as capable of hate and revenge and violence. Because in my real messy and unpredictable world I was mapping my own path, writing my own script without knowing where to next.
I had to learn to be a part of this world. Mel would have been proud. It’s been two years since I had the police at my door asking about Johnny. I said I was as mystified as they were. To make sure it would remain a mystery I burned the manuscript then flushed the ashes down the toilet. I haven’t visited any of my old haunts and I’ve given Mr Darcy a break. Maybe one day. In the meantime I’m working hard on letting the real world in and making more of an effort to know some of the characters living in it.