All the Worlds
Susan can't remember her opening lines. For the past six months she's studied beside these two dozen actors until she's memorized every wrinkle of their brows, every poorly placed freckle, every speck on their irises. Sol, her implacable director, has called her "pathetic," "an imbecile," "a retard lacking anything resembling so much as skill," and though she has been visiting a therapist twice per week just to get herself out of bed each morning, playing the lead in this performance has given purpose to her previously dull life as a dentist's receptionist. Each morning she recites the entire play, from opening verse to closing soliloquy—not only her lines but all the others as well—while moving from shower to dresser to automobile, pausing only to watch herself perform in a passing mirror, until she knows her facial expressions as well as she knows those of her fellow actors, until the play's words have become like a body part, joined with her, inseparable. All this practice, and yet she still can't remember the play's first line.
It's not her fault.
There is a race of sentient beings that live in a universe vastly different from our own. This bizarre universe hangs precipitously close to ours, touching it in random places, like a tree branch dipping into a stream. One of these branches happens to dip into Susan's brain. For the past ten thousand years (a mere six months in our universe) this race has puzzled over a strange message broadcast across their heavens. They have fought brutal wars, formed countless religions, and sent thousands of their best minds on fruitless quests, all because of it. Whenever Susan recalls the play's first line, the biochemical connections in her brain release a minute pulse of electromagnetic radiation that crosses into their universe and spreads madly across their heavens where it is subsequently (and incorrectly) interpreted by this alien race as the friendly greeting, "What's up?" Over the past few months (which is about five minutes for Susan) this race has developed the technology to respond. Now, each time they hear Susan's unintentional greeting, they immediately reply in-kind, hoping to establish a dialogue and answer their millennia-long riddle. This rejoinder, however, after crossing into our universe, lands precisely on the same neurons of Susan's brain which have encoded the play's first line, blocking the release of neurotransmitters, namely glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, which are essential for memory recall; thus Susan forgets.
She silently panics backstage while running her hands up and down her blue-satin dress, a nervous habit months of therapy and a steady dose of Lorazepam has done nothing to allay. The theater rumbles and the lights flicker as a thunderstorm rages mercilessly outside.
Actors and stage hands crisscross the set like commuters swarming through Grand Central Station. They pause before the set's orange couch and pine-topped dinner table to whisper feverish thoughts to each other in the last few moments before the curtain rises.
At stage-right is William, a portly, bearded, and middle-aged fellow, who leans with one arm against the wall. He's dressed in a gray-flannel suit and an old-fashioned blue tie. A toothpick dangles from his thin, pale lips. He's playing Susan's blustery father, a man whose sole remaining power in life is the power he wields over his daughter. Susan's character reminds him of his real daughter; he hasn't seen her in five years. Last he heard she was living somewhere in the Pyrenees with a French artist named Mathieu.
William prefers to watch Julie, a black woman in her mid-thirties who's playing their irksome neighbor. Julie jogs nervously in place a few feet away, wildly stretching her face in anxious anticipation. William imagines rubbing his hands across her supple breasts. He wants to make reparations to her body. In one night of sweaty passion he wants to make up for all the centuries of sin the white race has committed against her people. He wants to make love to her racial pain; he wants to worship the Woman that she is.
William looks down at the gold band on his ringfinger. In the play he's widowed, but in reality his wife, sullen and stretch-marked, drinks cheap bourbon to fall asleep nightly. To William, there is little difference between his roles. The gold ring is a prop no matter how he looks at it.
His stomach turns.
For the past six months, while he has rehearsed alongside Julie and the others, the bacterium H. Pylori has been steadily eating away at his duodenum. William has convinced himself that his abdominal pain is caused by pre-curtain jitters, that the gastrointestinal discomfort he feels each time he eats is simply the result of lack of fiber. However, there's already a tiny hole in William's duodenum that's been leaking undigested food directly into his bloodstream. He's been feeling faint and nauseated for weeks now, his stools have been black and tarry, but he's just attributed that to stress. If he doesn't do something soon, he'll fall into septic shock and probably die. Julie's bouncing breasts and the anticipation of the rising curtain have increased William's heart-rate and subsequent toxic flow. He fights off the nausea with deep breaths, hoping his semi-erection isn't showing through his trousers.
Julie, meanwhile, still jogging in place, sees William's too-tight trousers tenting weakly at the crotch and suppresses a nauseated shiver. William's been "accidentally" brushing her bosom and buttocks for weeks; his sweaty eyes follow her everywhere. She's put up with him only because she's worked too hard, come too far, to quit now.
She recites the Buddhist mantra "Ohm-mani-padme-hum," which her American Yoga instructor, a thirty-something single woman and former oil-rigger from Oregon, has told her represents the noble intention of converting one's impure body, speech, and mind into an enlightened jewel of compassion and wisdom. Julie uses it to conquer her stage-fright.
This mantra was first uttered by one Miao Shan of the first century, a devotee to the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who discovered the phrase while deep in blissful meditation of the no-self. This rarified state-of-mind put Miao Shan unwittingly in touch with a gargantuan and mostly ineffable entity that inhabits our universe only peripherally, in the same way a honey-bee inhabits a flower. The soft moan of our expanding universe sounds rather melodic and sweet to this mammoth creature, and it has been happily singing along with the sound for the past ten million years. This creature, however, is mostly tone deaf, and its "Ohm-mani-padme-hum" is in truth a very pathetic and highly off-key mimicry of the universe's true sound, which is closer to an orgasmic "oooooooohhhh—eeeeeeeeee-aaaaaaahhhhh—ohhhhhhhhhhhm" than anything else.
Julie hopes this current role as the nosy neighbor will be a springboard for her new career as stage actress. There are journalists in the audience. Their words could change her life. Everything has to go well tonight. The Buddhist mantra, then, is but one part of a many-tiered process Julie uses to keep control; goddamn if she'll let William destroy her concentration tonight.
The gargantuan entity, meanwhile, hears Julie reciting a near-pitch-perfect mimicry of its own horrendous voice and erroneously believes that she, unlike the twenty-six thousand, nine-hundred and fourteen other human beings who are also reciting the mantra at this very same moment, is mocking him. The being thus contemplates evaporating her—scattering her atoms across the cosmos—which it can do with a single murderous thought. Mockery, it believes, is the least pardonable of sins.
The director, Sol, screams "You incompetent fuck!" to someone backstage while Julie tells herself that anger is just a delusion of the ego. The lights flicker again with the thunder, and she shivers.
Tom, meanwhile, hangs on the scaffolding above, leaning over the railing to position a spotlight for the opening scene. He graduated film school two years before. He thought that by now he'd be directing and starring in his own creations, in the spotlight and not behind one. He's pretty sure the monstrous marijuana habit he picked up in college has been holding him back. He's tried to quit dozens of times, but this afternoon's five quick tokes from his one-hitter in the parking lot before coming to work have temporarily convinced him that he's not yet ready for abstinence. Tom is sure, as this realization hits him, that if he keeps this up he will most definitely be on the scaffolding for the rest of his life.
This makes him want another hit.
Still buzzing from his deep drags of cannabis indica, Tom creates a fantasy scenario in his mind to pass the time. It goes like this:
Tom currently has a terrible cold that he has been unable to kick (so far, entirely true). A bacterium, having absorbed some of his DNA during its virulent replication phase, is ejected from his mouth via one of his sneezes (very commonplace). This bacterium is swept into the theater's ventilation system, where it is thrust outside into the passing thunderstorm (Tom hears the rumbles over the hum of the spots). A bolt of lightning electrifies the air around the bacterium, imparting it with a charge (highly possible). The bacterium, propelled by Earth's magnetic field, rises into the upper, tenuous reaches of the atmosphere where, a few days later, it will be swept into interplanetary space by a gust of solar wind (very unlikely, but not impossible). The bacterium then rides the charged gusts out of the solar system, where it will be swept up by the much faster galactic wind between the stars (extremely unlikely). For several million years it will be tossed randomly through galactic space until it falls into the gravitational field of a planet orbiting a yellow star (so astronomically improbable as to be, basically, impossible). There it will land unharmed, though dormant, in the planet's barren oceans, where, for eons, organic compounds have been raining down on this planet from space. Yet without adequate instructions for their assembly, their potential for life has lain dormant.
Until the arrival of Tom's DNA.
A full five point seven billion years from the moment Tom sneezes, a sentient race, having evolved from the latent DNA embedded in his sneezed bacterium, will begin to research their genetic origins. The pot-smoking light-tech has now become a progenitor god.
Tom's heart quickly sinks as he realizes that this absurd scenario is merely a pot-induced delusion of grandeur concocted by his subconscious mind to make up for his deep, internal feelings of worthlessness, and so he curses the fantasy away to refocus the drifting spotlight and get hypnotized again by Susan's crystal bracelets that sparkle like rainbows in the intense glare.
Oddly, and as astronomically improbable as it is, Tom's pot-induced dream is, in fact, true.
Additionally, the sentient species that will evolve from his ejected bacterium will also develop the ability to travel through time. For several millennia, this species will scour the bizarre folds of space-time, hunting for their ancient progenitor. Traveling into the past just a few moments before Tom's latest sneeze, this time-traveling race discovered a striking similarity between their DNA and the DNA of soft bipedal creatures who call themselves "human" and dwell on a planet called "Earth."
Tom's mother, who was on the telephone ordering a gold watch with a lens-enhanced glittering border of cubic-zirconium for four easy payments of $69.95 from a popular TV shopping channel has just moments ago been visited by a group of ephemeral cephalopods who showered her with gifts and riches and most of all endless questions, only to discover that she was not, in fact, the exact DNA match to their progenitor god, but a very close approximation of it, and therefore they took all the gifts and god-like technological powers away from her mere moments after they had endowed them. Tom's mother, speechless, nevertheless lifts the telephone receiver beside her to call her son, but Tom's cell phone is currently on vibrate and he doesn't hear it ring.
Jonas, a nineteen year-old stage-hand whose sole responsibility is to open and close the curtains, hears Tom's loud sneeze. Jonas has an as-yet-undiagnosed pathological condition whose pharmacological remedy prescribed by his psychotherapist includes heavy doses of lithium and thorazine. Much to the chagrin of his father, the play's director, Jonas has not been taking his medication. Jonas remembers how Tom, the light-tech, has coughed and smacked his lips and sneezed throughout the many dress rehearsals. The actors and stage-hands didn't notice, but Jonas cringed with every unscripted sneeze and sniffle until he was boiling with rage at the end of each three-hour rehearsal. The ribs of six homeless men as well as the glass windows of several storefronts were shattered so that Jonas could vent his anger and fall asleep each night. If Tom makes a ruckus again, Jonas has decided he will climb up the scaffolding, quietly strangle Tom, and take over the spotlights himself. He'll just have to remember to climb down at the right moments to raise and lower the curtains. He hopes his father, the director, won't notice him leaving his post.
Tom sneezes again.
There is a plane of existence that co-habits with ours, but tenuously, so that matter rarely interacts between the two. This plane also happens to have an inverted flow of time, so that our past is their future and vice-versa. The most common place of interaction between these two planes is the obscure realm of human emotions. To beings living in this realm, a human in love appears like a grotesque, lesioned, pustulant lump of meat because love, occurring in reverse, moves from wholeness to separation, mimicking the process of decay. Rage and hatred, on the other hand, mostly destructive emotions to us, seem beautiful to beings in this realm because they move from ichor-dripping clots into golden pyramids, cobalt spheres, and diamond-studded dodecahedrons. Negative human emotions are displayed in the courtyards and palace steps of this race in the same tribute to the natural as we humans display with fountains of water. Jonas's rage-art is currently being auctioned off to a series of wealthy investors, most of whom recognize the potential of his already scintillating mass to morph into an exalted, luminous sphere of saffron or a glimmering icosahedron of scarlet. The winning auctionee is in for a pleasant surprise because Jonas's childhood has been particularly turbulent, and his rage-art will, in a few years of their time, transform into a glittering purple crystal dappled with iridescent flecks of azure—the product of many pre-pubescent beatings and severe emotional neglect. His rage-art is expected to fetch the highest value the auction house has seen all year. Speculation is not unique to the human organism.
Jonas grasps the curtain rope more tightly and imagines wrapping it around Tom's neck, while in another universe, the auctionees gasp at the brilliant new colors and double their bids. The theater lights flicker again as lightning flashes outside.
Every blast that comes closer unnerves Sol, Jonas's father and the play's director. As he hops from actor to stage-hand, from prop-meister to light-tech, he checks make-up, costumes, nerves, the rigging of the backdrops, and the safeties on the pyrotechnics. He curses indiscriminately, as if he has Tourette's, though his epithets are at just the right volume—practiced for weeks—to be heard and digested by all those backstage but blocked from the audience murmuring on the other side by the stage's heavy velvet curtains.
The thunder reminds Sol of his late wife, Miriam. For six months last year, she sat in the backyard each and every night under a canopy of slowly burning stars, staring up, always up, at the infinite expanse of heaven, and each morning came inside with a single new line of her burgeoning play. "The stars inspire," she said, "all the worlds within worlds," as the laundry piled up, as the dishes festered, as their love-making dwindled, but Sol never objected because he loved her, goddamn he loved that woman, and because any time he questioned Miriam's behavior she shot him a look that could kill. Then one night, when she promised the play was nearly complete, that her ventures into the backyard would cease after the heavens opened once more to inspire the very last line, the sky blackened, the stars fled, and a bolt of lightning struck her dead. He found her in the morning, next to the wilted rows of daffodils he had planted for her the season before, pen still clasped in her burnt hand.
She never wrote that last line.
But Sol took her unfinished play and all of her notes and requisitioned the theater, hired the cast and crew, and went so far as to design the costumes himself. He barely ate or slept or bathed for months just to make sure everything was perfect, exactly as his wife had imagined it, or exactly as he imagined his wife had imagined it. And in that brief time he's learned to hate these people. They are incompetent, bumbling, and stupid. But this play was Miriam's dream, and goddamn it if he isn't going to see it through. This is for her.
And there's still that one small problem of the play's last line, the line the actors have asked for and have repeatedly been denied, the line not yet written. Sol's heard all that nonsense about your departed loved ones supposedly watching over you, and he desperately hopes that once the curtain rises he will feel her presence beside him, that somehow, like Miriam's starry inspiration, she will reach down from above and bless him with her final, closing words. But for now, he only feels the anger and resentment at having wasted months of his life on this soon-to-be disaster.
He scans the cast one last time.
Susan looks deathly pale and won't stop rubbing her hands along her dress. She bites her lip and looks like she's going to cry.
William leans against the wall, clutching his side, grimacing. His double chin is pressed firmly to his chest.
Julie freezes in mid-stride and stares up into the air, expectant. Her face is fraught with awe and fear.
Up on the rigging, Tom smokes a cigarette. It smells like the ropes are burning.
Jonas stares murderously up at Tom, his hands clenching the ropes like he's holding on for life.
And the storm, which may have reduced the turnout for opening night—Sol won't venture a look out into the audience to check—will God himself hurl a bolt of lightning onto the theater and throw all their hard work into darkness?
Thunder shakes the theater so violently that dust falls from the ceiling. The lights flicker; a few members of the audience yelp. And in the rainy silence that follows, a hush grows across the unseen crowd and percolates quickly backstage. Sol checks his watch.
His son begins to pull the ropes taut, and the curtain ever so slowly begins to rise, and Sol wonders if Miriam is up there, watching him now, and if not her then what? What god or gods of fate have a hand in his future, in their future? A hand in this very moment?
Matthew Kressel's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Interzone, Electric Velocipede, Apex Science Fiction & Horror Digest, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the upcoming anthology Naked City: New Tales of Urban Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow. He publishes Sybil's Garage, a speculative literature magazine, and co-hosts the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series in New York City. He is a member of the Manhattan-based writers group Altered Fluid, where he is continually humbled by his talented peers. This is Matthew's second story in Farrago's Wainscot. His first, "The Writing's on the Wall," was published in May of 2008 (Vol 2, Issue 5). His website is www.matthewkressel.net