What? Oh, hey, wait a second, said Marlon, backing off from her as she rose from the chair and started to approach him, grinning and seductively fingering the Christmas tinsel around her neck (and I could look into Ophelias twinkling eyes and see that Marlon had paid good money for snake oil). Im just joshingyou know youre too tall for me. I mean, Im too short for you, is what I meant to say
Im going to eat you alive, Ophelia purred, sauntering toward Marlon as she looked down at him, backing him into a corner, spreading out her arms to catch him, should he run. Mmmm, yes. Yes indeedy. She licked her lips then, and I couldnt figure out why Marlon couldnt see that she was about to burst out laughing. You look scrumptious, she said. Oh, I believe I can barely control myself. I feel so young.
Awcome on, Marlon said, his voice going high and breaking. I was just joshing. Stop, Ophelia. Dont touch me. Then I couldnt see him anymore.
After two more hours of staring at a blank page, I threw down my pen, said a cursory good- bye to my coworkers, punched the clock, and hit the street in the middle of the afternoon. I hadnt written a thing, but if I wasnt inspired, sitting at a desk was a waste of my time and the companys money. Theres another thing at which I was a failure: being able to write without being inspired by some sort of Muse. Belief in a Muse isnt conducive to optimal performance in a place like the greeting-card works. I figured my days there were numbered; at any rate, I thought the best thing for my mood that weekday afternoon would be a few mind-numbing hours of radio in my apartment, followed by a slowly sipped absinthe drip in a recliner, with a mask over my eyes and plugs in my ears. Then sleep.
Since Id spent so much on cab fare that morning, I was forced to take the overground shuttle out of the heart of the city, and the only people who rode the decrepit, outmoded shuttles in the middle of a weekday afternoon were either elderly, mechanical, or crazy. So I wasnt surprised when a man who was both elderly and crazy sat down next to me, wearing a suit whose cut was several seasons out-of-date. He leaned close to me and whispered, You look awfully lax, my friend. And I wouldnt be so lax with so many mechanical men wandering about. Taligent controls all of them. Theyre his spies. He controls all of them. One day youll see.
Four tin men were scattered through the shuttles passenger car, carrying courier parcels and bags of groceries, staring straight ahead, silent. Has he given you your hearts desire, the man said.
At that I turned to look at him. What do you mean?
You know what I mean, the madman said. I was at the party twenty years ago. So were you. I sat next to you in the banquet hall. I know your name, and I know your work, and I know you. You write greeting cards. He pointed at himself. My name is William. And if there is one thing in life that I looooove, its morphine. The tender flesh on the inside of his arm was covered with needle tracks. He wasnt nearly as old as I first thought. He must have been my age. Morphine makes me feel so good. Tell me has he given you your hearts desire.
No, I said, looking away from him. No, he didnt. But that was just talk. Fairy stories for children, to keep us entertained. He didnt mean a thing he said.
William hawked loudly and spat a clouded gob of phlegm on the cars floor. Oh, thats what we all thought, once we became adults. We dont believe in that kind of thing anymore. We think that things like unicorns and hearts desires are clichés, in spite of what we saw with our own eyes. The ones who got it when they were children were the luckiest. They just got pets, or toys, and they were happy, because they were children and they didnt know any better. But he waited for some of us to grow up. Hes patient, and he has the resources to bide his time. And hes been watching all of us, just like he said he would. He has agents, throughout the city, watching. And I watch him watch. And I watch what he watches, when I can. He grabbed my shoulder. He ruined my life. I get morphine for free, once a day, delivered to my doorstep in a pretty little carved crystal bottle. Not enough in it to kill me; just enough to make me content. I use up whats in the bottle by noon and then pawn the bottle in the afternoon to get the money I need for whatever drugs I can get thatll get me to the next morning and the next bottle. Its all I think about. Listen hes committed crimes. Six of the hundred boys and girls that entered the Tower twenty years ago have died because of these gifts of his. Have you received your hearts desire. Because if you have, then its over. I think youre the only one left.
Excerpted from The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer. Copyright © 2010 by Dexter Palmer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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