They say you have to network to get anywhere as a writer. One of those life coaches who spams your inbox said you have to—absolutely have to—send five networking emails every week. So you did. You followed the advice. You even made a New Year's Resolution to set aside your pathological introversion and hob-nob with the art crowd. That’s how you ended up with the invitation to the retreat. They said there’d be lots of big-time writers there. So now you’re singing to yourself and drumming on your steering wheel and rolling through some god-forsaken place with flora so dense it creates its own gravity. The farther you go, the more desolate the countryside. When it starts to rain you spot some cows in a field and think: Why don’t they bring them in? Won’t they catch cold?
But hey, what do you know? You’re just a writer.
You pull up the slope the navi says is the right address, and text your wife to say that by the look of it you might not get a Wi-Fi signal for the rest of the weekend. You cross a field, walk into the farmhouse, and check in at the reception desk. A morbidly obese woman passes you a key through a slot in the bulletproof glass. You can’t hear what she’s saying, but she’s pointing to the unlit stairwell and you get the idea. You echolocate your room, arrange your toothbrush and moustache comb on the bedside table just so, and step out into the drizzle to wander the grounds. Then you return to the farmhouse with your moustache dripping, check for the conference hall and the cafeteria—yup, they’re there all right—and explore a corridor hung with smudgy still-lifes of city skylines reflected in (you guess) water, oblong studies of misshapen people, and—your favourite!—a basket of petunias posing as a grandmother in a rocking chair.
Then you notice a scale model of a forest with a little waterfall snaking between bonsai trees and something like Scrabble tiles set into the manicured mosses. One by one you read the tiles. It’s a poem! The plaque below eulogizes the power of these stanzas to etch themselves into the memory of everyone who reads them. You look up again at the miniature trees under the spindrift of automatic vegetable sprayers, then back at each of the tiles, and find that, indeed, you pretty much remember the poem. You have to go over it twice or thrice to be sure—at middle age, your memory isn’t what it used to be—but the words are there, by some trick of their arrangement having sunk themselves into your beige brain. Extraordinary! you think—and the more you think about it the greater your delight. And when you think of how many other writers must have experienced the same, you know you’re part of something special. You look back at the exposition and read that not only do people find the poem scintillatingly easy to remember, but they seem to know at once where to go in the woods to find the actual tablets. And you think: It's true! I know exactly where! You stroll behind the farmhouse and into the woods, and there they are—encrusted with lichen and looking more like headstones than they did in the display case, but otherwise just the same—with the same bits of verse in the same order, and you think, Fancy that!
Of course, you have to wonder if there was something really mystical in the poem that led you to this place, or if following the sound of the waterfall was just common sense. But what does that matter? The energy the place exudes is so tasty you could gorge yourself on it till you pop. You haven’t been this happy in months.
Back at the reception desk, you ask the obese woman about the tablets in the woods.
“Those are what make this place so special!” you guess she’s saying. “So many of the writers feel such an affinity for them, and for what they represent, that they keep coming back here year after year.” She gestures at the hardcover novels and the tray of cream puffs on the table behind you, and again, you get the idea.
You take a seat on an antique chair and munch on the goodies, figuring you’ll leaf through the novels until the other guests arrive. The gold medallions emblazoned on the covers say they were best-sellers. Pity you’ve never heard of them. Or their authors. Such, you figure, is the price you writers pay.
Delving into a book whose cover depicts a fiery abstraction of the apocalypse, you’re soon deep into what seems to be an alternate history centred on a country called Dubrovia. The story seems to be set in the present day as it might be if global dominion had been attained by something called the Brugdanjik Faction. Intrigue and espionage abound, cities burn, romance differs but little from outright psychosis, and the heavens rain milk, pestilence, and famine. You jot down the name of the author: Ramsey Crevasse. Picking up the next book, you note with amusement that it’s the story of a retreat for writers: A convention no one dares disrupt, the opening chapter warns, this coven of creators returning year after year for rituals that seem to sweeten their craft while their personal lives spiral further into chaos. You laugh and close the book, put down your unfinished cream puff, and take in the rustic décor: frilly tutus smothering the darkened windows, cheese-coloured lights emulsifying the oaken transoms, and alcoves crammed with works of pseudo-impressionism. And somehow, something moves you. It all goes blurry. You fumble for a tissue. And isn’t that the genius of good writing—the way it knocks you over when you least expect it, leaving you at a loss to say which phrase or passage was so effective. You honk your nose and grieve for the contrast with your own incapacity. No wonder. No wonder every agent rejected your manuscript. You can only hope that after a weekend with these bestselling geniuses you’ll osmosize an iota of their thaumaturgy.
Enter a shaggy man made of tweed, pipe in pocket, and a woman in a Guatemalan dress with skin so ruddy it’s as though she’d been freshly peeled. You stand and nod to them with your tight-lipped-upside-down-frown of a smile, and as they check in the woman behind the glass yells almost audibly that they’re the Crevasses, Ramsey and Einis. Realizing you’ve just put down this man’s book, you can’t resist asking what country Dubrovia was meant to represent.
Husband and wife exchange a glance that starts as bewilderment and droops into pity. They scurry away to their room.
Is this some kind of practical joke? you wonder.
But of course you’ve made a mistake. You misread the word Dubrovia. That’s all. You go back to the book on the table to check what it really said—only instead you end up opening the other book, the one about the retreating writers, and as you read a central theme emerges: that the characters don’t know what they’re getting into until they’re already in too deep. Year after year they take part in ineluctable rituals they delude themselves into believing provide meaning and purpose, while their quotidian lives unravel.
Good stuff, you muse. You’ve read half the book by the time the grandfather clock strikes eight. Then you join the entourage in the conference hall.
Two thirds of the folding chairs are unoccupied. At the front a dreadlocked blonde death goddess is knocking a stack of papers on the podium. “Not everyone’s here yet,” she says. “Maybe that’s because of the weather. Or maybe it’s because we’re writers.”
Not knowing whether the scattering of chuckles represents mere politeness or genuine amusement, you force a chuckle yourself to be on the safe side. Another plate of cream puffs makes its rounds. Someone remarks that they sweeten life’s misery, which sets off waves of commiseration and stuffed-mouthed comments that this retreat is the only thing that eases the pain.
“But of course,” says a voice from your left, “You have to suffer to write.”
You turn toward the voice, emanating as it does from a cylindrical head crowned with a fat tuft of curly hair, like a stalk of broccoli. The man bugs his eyes as a physiognomic exclamation point for his own profundity and hoovers a cream puff straight off the plate. You reflect that you can barely pay the mortgage each month, that your wife is struggling to stretch the budget to keep you and the cats alive, and a sudden awareness of your nearness to starvation makes you immensely grateful that the food is free and that you can swallow it without chewing.
Murmurs about the stone tablets and a trek to the woods. Einis Crevasse meets your eyes from several chairs away and asks if you’ve seen them yet.
You start to enthuse that indeed you have, when a nondescript-looking man planted between the two of you intones, “They are the bond that calls us back.”
You feign a vibration in your breast pocket and excuse yourself.
“I can’t deal,” you tell your wife. “These people are freaks.”
“Honey,” she says, “There’s been an earthquake.” She recounts how it rattled the walls, knocked all the books off your shelves and sent the cats cowering under the table, but really everything’s fine and you should stay the weekend, really you should. You capitulate, telling her you love her, and promise to be home in a couple of days.
As you walk back into the conference hall, someone asks, “There was a disaster in your world, wasn’t there? Is there a place called Texas?”
You begin to answer that there certainly is, equal parts baffled by the inanity of the question and eager to emphasize that Texas is far, far from where you live, but before you can say anything a few of the writers have gone to huddle around a globe and argue about where this strange place is supposed to be.
Ah. You get it. You see the joke now. It’s a riff on that urban legend about the European stuck in the airport claiming to have come from a country that didn’t really exist, pointing to Andorra on the map and calling it something else. Then the stalk of broccoli meets your eyes and, as if reading your mind, leans toward you to remark sotto voce, “None of these people are from my reality.”
You frown, weave your eyes, squint at the lot, and turn back to Mr. Broccoli. All you can manage is, “Huh?”
The death goddess takes the empty seat next to you and pats your thigh, saying, “The universe is not an orderly place. To speak of reality is misleading, since no thing of which we can speak is enough real to lead.” And she produces a crusty, twisted rag from a paper sack and sets it on her lap, spinning it like a top, and says, “All folds are takeable paths, and all runneth unto one another.”
“I tried to make it sound that good when I wrote about it,” Mr. Broccoli grumbles.
Then everyone adjourns to the cafeteria for a supper of orecchiette réchauffé, and Mr. Broccoli insists on sitting beside you. He descants and divagates, his own plate cooling as he sparges you with spittle. You succumb to torpor. Your eyelids droop. You’ve taken a wrong turn in mid-air and dropped several storeys. You come to and Mr. Broccoli’s bug eyes are boring into your skull.
“Sorry,” you stammer, “I just nodded off. Wow. I was about to go splat.”
“You are going to go splat,” Mr. Broccoli assures you, snatching one of your little shells and sucking it off his fingertips.
The predictable dessert comes around on a platter. You’d like to tell them you don’t ever want to see another fucking cream puff, but instead you hedge, “I’ll pass this time. Maybe if I don’t indulge in the sweet ritual, the rest of my life won’t seem so bad.”
But the writers shake their heads sadly in unison and assure you, “It’s going to get worse.”
You bus your own plate to the kitchen and hurry to your room. You haven’t the wherewithal to comb your moustache. You’d drive back tonight if you didn’t think you’d conk out and wrap yourself around a cow. You just want to be with your wife. You think what bliss your quotidian life really is, and what an idiot you were to give it up for even one weekend. You lie in bed, stare at the ceiling, and wait for sleep.
A cuttlefish waves its tentacles, screaming, I am the Rettox! I will exploit your anal fantasies and leave you but another florescent rectum ring that sits upon my beige brain! You awaken to dry heaves and merciless sunlight.
You grab your keys. You grab whatever’s on the bedside table, cram it all into your suitcase. You rush down the stairs and nearly collide with Mr. Broccoli wearing long johns and a beard of toothpaste foam. You squeeze past him and babble to the lady behind the bulletproof glass that something has come up, that you’ve got to check out early. She tells you how sorry everyone will be to see you go. You bolt out the door, jump into your car, and floor it.
One hand on the wheel, you check your phone. Half a dozen worried texts from your wife. The sun never came up. The bubonic plague is spreading from the coast. You roll into town through streets on fire, hooligans overturning police cars, emaciated youths in their underpants pelting each other with rocks and dog turds. Molotovs crash through windows. The skies are choked with helicopters and air raid sirens. You pull into your drive. Your wife rushes out of the house, throws her arms around you, and tells you how glad she is to have you back. You don’t know if the sun will ever rise again.
Maybe if you just go to bed and forget about it, it’ll all go away. Maybe you ought to just give up, put on a suit and tie and go to work at an office like everyone else instead of sitting in front of a computer in your pyjamas all day. You stroke your wife’s lovely head, so perfectly round but for the indenture near the crown, like an apple, and tell her, “It’s okay, Apple. We’re going to get through this.” And you snuggle up to sleep, truly grateful you have each other.
Something wakes you in (you guess) the middle of the night. Some otiose illumination from somewhere catches the wet sclera of your Apple’s eyes. She stirs. You listen. Something scratching near the front of the house.
You get up slowly and open the bedroom door—and in an instant of relief you see the cat digging in the litter box in the corridor. But before you can say, “It’s just the cat,” the cat is already walking away. The scratching resumes.
It’s at the front door.
“I’m gonna turn the light on,” you say. You hit the switch. Nothing.
“The bulb must’ve burned out,” she says.
“The kitchen then,” you promise, and you slide open the door and negotiate by memory toward the light switch. You flip it. Nothing.
That infernal scratching continues at the front door.
You exit the kitchen and see the porch light blazing. It must be the only electrical fixture in the house that still works. Slowly, silently, you approach the glass door.
A shaggy dog convulses on your porch.
“A dog?” your wife asks at your shoulder.
“Yeah, but why? How?” And as you unlatch the door you know how and why: someone put it there. And with that realisation you see another dog—identical to the first but healthy and panting—somehow slipped into the house and is now scampering out of the light and deeper into your corridors past the cats’ marmoreal silhouettes.
A taxi pulls up to your doorstep. Its doors swing open. The driver expands from the cab. Dreadlocks sprout from his head and resile into a carpet of curls. From the back leaps an irate and sinister little man, his eye-spots ichthyic smudges behind his spectacles. Jabbing a bony finger he snarls, “Take him away!”
The driver steps forward. You shove him hard in the chest. His eyes bug. You stagger backward, pushing your wife into the house with you, and lock the door.
Out of the light, you wrap your arms around your Apple, though you have no idea what to tell her, have no idea about anything, and never did. The dog lies panting at your ankles and the cats take shape in the stairwell, and you know no one else can see you.
“There’s hope in here!” you cry. “There’s hope in here because we’re inside, even if we can’t see past our own porch. There is hope in here, goddamn it, because this is our home!”
Tremain Xenos was born in the eastern United States and spent two decades migrating westward. He obtained a degree in California, tried and failed to become a musician, and became a linguist instead. He crossed the Pacific to work as a translator, then married an artist and bought a crumbling house in Japan's smallest and least productive prefecture. Besides working to prevent the collapse of his house, he raises vegetables and chickens and is currently collaborating on a novel with his lovely wife. His stories have been published in Short Story Town and The Psychedelic Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.