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Fiction

Event Horizon

April 10, 2019

Oscar was hunched over his desk while Heidi stood waiting. He was focused on the contract the film producers emailed him a few days earlier. He looked up. A nervous chuckle replaced the nothing expression of his mind at work, “This is more money than I’ve ever made! Combined!

His manager’s job was to reassure him, to keep him on-track. “Those psychopaths you conjure up have been an ATM for the studio for years.” She nodded at the contract, “This is where you cash-in.”

He glanced again at the enormous number on the contract and felt panic rise from depths he didn’t even know existed, “What if I can’t live up to this? What if I can’t bring him to life?”

“You’ve got this, O. But, hey, only one schizo at a time, right? That Jekyll and Hyde creep you’re working on can wait til this one’s filled our bank accounts.” He nodded, understood. “Good,” she said. “I arranged for a car. It’ll be here at eight sharp. Be ready! You’ve got the itinerary?”

“The Algonquin, Paris Vendome, Holiday Inn Berlin, yada, yada, yada.” He tapped his noggin, “A steel trap. Nothing gets out.”

“And that’s where the demons are born…”

“Damned skippy!”

Mandy, Oscar’s wife, entered his office from the hall, stepped around Bruno the golden retriever, and squeezed past her husband’s collection of Houston Astros memorabilia, including the prized José Altuve’s game-winning bat from the 2017 ALCS Game 6 trouncing of the Yankees. She handed Oscar his mail. “It’s a light day. Funny post card, though. Even looks like your handwriting — hey! a fan! — but with anything but your opinion,” she laughed darkly. “I’m leaving before you vent your rage on the innocent.” She stepped from the room with a grin and he found his way to the solid black postcard at the back of the stack. He turned it over, read its message, and laughed; his wife had been right.

“What’s so funny?” Heidi asked. He handed her the postcard. “What’s Event Horizon?”

Oscar was appalled, “You haven’t seen Event Horizon?” She stared at him with her I-don’t-give-a-fuck expression. “Where a mysterious force from a black hole causes everybody on a spaceship to start hallucinating?” He waited. “Murder? Mayhem?”

“Sorry. No go.”

His tone turned grave, “You’re fired!”

“Nice try.”

“Rent it tonight. I’m not kidding! The best two hours you’ll ever spend.”

“Yeah, that’s happening.” She nodded at the contract, “Sign on the dotted line, fanboy, then go pack your bags. We’ve got places to be.”

“Like the Stockholm Hilton and Piazza Navona Roma,” he said proudly as he signed the contract.

She pulled the paper from his desk and turned for the door, “Eight A.M. Try not to be late. L.A. awaits.”

Heidi exited the room and Oscar flipped the post card in his hand and checked the top for a return address. It read simply “Austin, Texas” and carried a local postmark. He glanced at the message again. “Event Horizon sucks!” He considered its likely source: an idiot on Twitter with whom he recently engaged in a tweet war over the twenty-five-year-old film. The effort was flattering, until the unease set in; how did a random guy on Twitter get his home address? Oscar entered his name and “address” into Google and clicked. His info was everywhere, like everyone’s, and included every address at which he had lived, from childhood through his and Mandy’s last house. But none of the websites listed the home they moved into just three months earlier. He sent Mandy a text: “Have you given our home address to anybody other than the usual?” A few beats. “No worries. Just curious.”

Mandy replied: “No one.”

Oscar: “Thx.”

Twenty-four hours later. Oscar stepped into a luxurious single at the Beverly Hotel in Los Angeles. A California king filled the center of the space. Two comfortable chairs, a table, and a sleek desk sat under a bank of windows. A bottle of champagne rested in a bucket of ice on the table, and next to it a post card. On the card was written “Event Horizon sucks!” He laughed, Heidi was the best. “Nicely played.”

That night. Oscar and Heidi were returning from the studio in a large black car. Their plush ride was parked in rush hour traffic. “It’s only two blocks up. You wanna get out and walk?” Oscar asked.

“Nope!”

“Fair enough.” He took a sip of wine, “I got the postcard. You watch it yet?”

“What postcard? Watch what?”

Event Horizon. The card you sent with the champagne.” She flashed him a scoffing side-eye. “That wasn’t you?”

“Do I look like I give a shit about some old sci-fi flick? We’ve had that talk.”

“Horror not Sci-Fi,” he mumbled. Traffic started to move.

Oscar parted with Heidi in the hotel lobby and was soon stepping fresh from his hotel shower. He walked to the windows of his fifth floor room and looked down on a crowd of partygoers walking drunkenly from the hotel. Oscar loved fourth and fifth floor rooms. They were high enough to catch a glimpse over the horizon and yet low enough for his middle-aged eyes to capture details on the ground. It was the perfect analogy for that place where writers were required to play. He tossed his towel on the bed, grabbed a pair of worn red briefs from his suitcase, and slipped them over his short chubby legs as he stared blankly out the window.

Oscar missed his home. And Mandy. He had been traveling so much the past few years that both were coming to feel less real than his stories. Success had a price. He picked up the postcard, studied the solid black front that was identical to the last one, reread its simple message, and again took note of the “Austin, Texas” return and postmark. With intent, he pushed the discomfort from his mind. Yes, this was 4×6 inches of weird, uncomfortable weird — the best kind of weird, he mused — but its only threat was a paper cut, and it was time for sleep; they had an early flight out. He dropped the card on the dresser and fell into bed.

Oscar and Heidi were trudging through San Francisco International Airport with their bags in tow. She checked her phone and increased her stride, “Pick it up, stumpy! We’ve only got an hour!”

Jean Bernard (French, film critic) was Oscar’s sixth interviewer in two hours and the final of the presser. The Frenchman spoke a mile a minute with no effort to break the accent barrier. And if this pretentious French fuck wasn’t going to make the effort, then neither was Oscar, who answered “Yes” to every question the Frenchman posed. (Like anyone this side of the Atlantic was going to pay attention to this Parisian Bozo!)

Oscar and Heidi were again in the back seat of a large black car. And, again, they were drinking. “I hate the French,” he said.

“I’ve got no opinion of the country, but Bernard can make or break us there, and that’ll set the tone for the rest of Europe. So I hope you kissed him after you blew him.”

“Kiss him, too? I’m not a whore!”

“You are, actually.” She grew serious, “You treated him right, right?”

“He’s French.”

“What’s that mean?”

He shrugged and stared out the window.

Oscar stepped into his dark tiny hotel room, kicked off his shoes, and flopped onto the bed. He was already tired of this trip. Too bad! The junket had two more weeks before it concluded. And one of those weeks would be spent in Europe. (He wondered if he had time to learn French but immediately dismissed the prospect. He’d blown up — if not blown — France; la République was toast.) “Fuck!”

Maybe it was the potential loss of Europe, or maybe it was the stress of knowing that he had become a big fucking deal shouldering massive expectations of a script that wasn’t even finished yet. (How did a writer improve on Robert Louis Stevenson? What the fuck he was thinking? And what was Heidi thinking?! She had cranked the P.R. up to eleven on the upcoming project, and now the whole fucking film industry was buzzing about his fresh take on a hundred-year-old classic.) “I’m so fucking screwed,” he whined.

He missed Mandy.

He had to pee.

Oscar turned for the bathroom, glanced at the dresser, noticed a white rectangular reflection beneath the night’s gray light. “Where did this…?” He spun a slow, nearly imperceptible turn as he searched for the familiar card’s courier. But no one was there. And yet he could feel that they were. Somehow. Somewhere. He picked up the card, and yet he knew what it would say. He began at the top with the postmark and return address — “Austin, Texas” — and forced his eyes down through a thick current of fear. “Event Horizon sucks!” He placed the card back on the dresser and stepped to the door, where he slipped the chain in the slot, turned the knob, and checked the deadbolt. “What are you afraid of?” he whispered as he held tightly to the knob, but he couldn’t answer. He didn’t know. He simply knew that he was now hemmed within that void where gods and insanity were born. It was a world in which he should have found the most comfort — the place he had exploited for years that had rewarded him with fame and, soon, fortune. But tonight he was no longer its master. He glanced back across the room at the postcard. How had it gotten there?

Oscar stormed into the bathroom and ripped the shower curtain aside. Nothing. He yanked the door quickly from the wall. Nothing. He walked angrily back into the room. “Who’s here?!” he screamed. Nobody.

No body.

Oscar crawled into bed, pulled the covers tight to his chin, stared coldly at the ceiling, began humming the Full House theme at concert level volume. He squeezed his eyes shut and sang-screamed, “What ever happened to predictability?!”

Heidi was signing them in at the front desk of New York’s Algonquin Hotel while Oscar stood glaring at the hotel cat. The cat glared back. “What’s the feline equivalent of bastard?” Oscar asked.

She wasn’t in the mood, “What?”

“Nothing.”

The clerk gave Heidi the keys and she gave one to Oscar. “Hold up!” the young man said. “I forgot!” He handed her a postcard.

She presented the black card to Oscar, “Here.” He stared at the card in her hand as he inhaled a deep calming breath that wasn’t calming at all. She jabbed it at him, “Well?” He took the card, flipped it over, stared at the Austin return. And then he just laughed. “What’s so funny?” Heidi asked.

“You need to rent Event Horizon,” he said. She angrily walked away.

She entered the elevator, “You’re on the third floor. You coming?”

He stood firm, “I’m not kidding. It’s terrific!” She pressed the elevator’s Up arrow without a word. “Seriously!” The doors closed between them.

Oscar sat at the window end of a Midtown hotel room across from a reporter from The New Yorker magazine. “I read in an interview that you gave to the French magazine Oi that the musical group Yes had been one of your biggest early influences,” she said. “That’s an unusual muse for a young writer. Can you elaborate?“

“There might have been a language barrier,” Oscar mumbled.

“Then I’ll ask the same question in fluent English. What artist or artistic creation most influenced you?” Questions like this were bullshit, of course. Writers weren’t influenced by any one particular thing. They were influenced by the exquisite imperfections that the universe hurled at them like particles in an accelerator: colors, words, shapes, smells, and sounds that were immediately consumed by their demented imaginations and shit out as “art.” A writer’s imagination was different today than it was yesterday and would be different tomorrow than it was today. A writer’s influence was everything, but most of all unknowable. And yet during these interviews, the products of which would be sandwiched between advertisements for foot cream and mascara, writers played along.

Event Horizon,” he said. “That was my primary influence.”

“The old sci-fi film?”

“Horror. It’s horror. Yes.”

“I’ve never seen it. Why Event Horizon?”

The world’s ignorance toward one of the greatest movies of all time was beginning to irritate Oscar. First Twitter, then Heidi, and now this bitch. “Because it’s fantastic!” he screamed.

Miami, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris. Fuck, Paris. The skylines changed but the questions did not. Neither did the postcards, which arrived for Oscar at every stop through the end of the tour.

It was approaching midnight when Oscar stepped quietly into his office and slipped down the wall to the floor beneath his Astros collection. Bruno rested his head on his master’s lap. Oscar petted him. Bruno wagged. Oscar opened his new screenplay.

Home had come to feel both familiar and foreign as Oscar flipped through his new story for the first time in two weeks. He was excited by the prospect of fresh eyes; time away helped you recognize the glitches in a creation that you knew as well as the back of your hand. But as he scanned the white pages nothing was registering. His fuel was spent. He looked up from his script. “Come on, boy.”

Oscar rose to his feet and stepped to his desk, where he dropped into his chair and rifled through the mail Mandy had piled neatly by his lamp. At the bottom of the stack was another black card. He laughed, accepted the weirdness, wondered if it would ever end. He flipped the card over — “Event Horizon sucks!” — and shifted his eyes to the return. That was when he saw it. It was a small change, just two words in the reply-to line, but it robbed him of his breath; “Austin, Texas” had been changed to “Oscar’s Den.” He looked into the darkness of the unlit hall. His stomach tightened. This was a gag, right? Or was somebody in his house? And where was Mandy? He dropped the card to the desk and rose to his feet and retrieved José Altuve’s bat from the wall. “Follow me,” he said quietly to Bruno. Oscar stepped gently into the hall.

At the far end of the hall, last door on the right, was a former bedroom that Oscar and Mandy had converted into a home theater with six comfortable recliners, a big screen TV, and a kick ass sound system. Flashes of blue light — flickers from the TV — flashed beneath its door as Oscar raised the bat like he was preparing for a Verlander fastball. As he edged toward the opening, his light steps became tip-toes — short, silent, tentative — until he arrived at the door.

He took a breath and gently grasped the doorknob.

Then, with an unrepentant and singular motion that both empowered and terrified him, he turned the knob, kicked the door open, and prepared to swing. A woman was sitting in one of the recliners. “I didn’t hear you come in,” she said cooly.

The stranger’s face screamed “Sane when she has to be, crazy in her off-time” as she rose fearlessly to her feet. She stepped toward him.

“Stop!” he yelled.

“What?” she laughed, and she kept walking — twelve feet, ten feet, eight feet, six, five, four…

That’s when Oscar made his move, swung José’s bat like the Series depended on it. The first hit took out the woman’s left knee, the second her right, and she dropped to the floor, looked up at him, and begged him to stop. But Oscar kept swinging — at her legs, at her body, at her head. His impacts were brutal. The cops would call the pummeling “psychopathic” when they discovered her dead body at the first light of dawn. But, tonight, it — the feel of the bat reverberating up Oscar’s arms as it connected with her increasingly broken body, the delicate yet monstrous sound of it shattering her bones — was primeval in its allure, as beautiful as it was real, as the stranger cried out his name, “What are you doing, Oscar? Stop!!! My God, Oscar, stop!!!”

But Oscar did not stop. Event Horizon is a great fucking movie!!!” he screamed as Mandy curled into a ball and begged her husband to stop killing her… until she begged no more.

Fiction

God of the Box

December 12, 2016

One of the first questions of childhood: Where did I come from? One of the last of old age: Where am I going? We seem to feel bigger than this place.

Faith is increasingly mocked by people who no longer believe and by those who never did. Belief has come to be associated with ignorance. The two are, accurately, sadly, often synonymous. Still, I believe. And what I believe, I believe firmly: God, Jesus Christ, Death, Burial, Resurrection. Is it hard to believe such an outlandish story? Objectively, yes. Difficult for me? Not at all.

A long-time friend, an atheist, is raising two sons. He bragged that he asked his boys if they believe in God, and they laughed at the concept. Could they see God? No. Touch him? No. In any way detect him? No. The assertion is that spirituality isn’t measurable and therefore bunk. The 75% of Americans who believe in God would disagree. (Internationally, that number rises to 85%.)

Are those of us who believe in a higher power shoring up our earthly fears with the hope of a second shot? Yeah, maybe. Or maybe our belief finds its genesis in something else entirely.

Programmers have striven to create artificial intelligence since the 1940s. We see the term bandied about everywhere, from tech reviews of smartphones to the burgeoning internet of things. But AI is more than a better search engine. It reaches beyond a Siri-like interface. AI is a complex machine that learns and builds upon that knowledge. It is a deductive — “thinking” — computer.

But what if AI achieved a level above deduction? What if we built machines that were self-aware? Machines that had a sense of self? Who — not what — would those machines perceive themselves to be? And would they understand their place in the universe?

Imagine a self-aware processor chip: a thoughtful chip, an ethical chip, a chip that doesn’t hog all the electricity, a chip that performs its job and treats other chips with respect. Imagine a million chips like it functioning within a single large box. They have seen nothing outside their box. They have witnessed no clues to indicate there is a creator inside or outside the box. Would they intrinsically know they were made?

Add a variable. What if these chips caught a peek outside their box through a camera? What if they saw into the laboratory where they were built? Would they recognize their creator? Would they recognize the object hovering outside their box — the pasty pale blob in the beige shorts and blue knit shirt eating ham, mayo and iceberg lettuce on white — as their creator? In what context would Bob’s large belly and unshaven face fit into the chips’s understanding of their universe? Likely, none. Bob, aka “the lumbering nebula,” would appear to bear no relationship whatsoever to their existence.

Add a second variable. What if, in addition to a camera, there is inserted into the computer’s kernel a piece of code that identifies “Bob” as the chips’s creator? As sentient beings, their first question would surely be Who is Bob? The hunt would begin, and it would continue through their circuitry until it was clear that Bob is nowhere inside the box. And if Bob isn’t in the box, that can mean only one thing: Bob is outside the box. So they peer through the camera at the nebula searching for Bob. But what is a Bob? What is his electronic signature? His power source? His binary code? They can’t know. Yet they search. But nothing in the external universe of beige and blue and sandwichy colors hints at the identity of Bob. Nothing! They find no Bob. Met with failure, they exchange their search for a physical Bob for mere clues to his essence. The chips search within themselves, within their hardware, within their code. What in their makeup points to Bob? It is a question larger than any chip’s RAM, and seeking it is wearying work with few guideposts and an uncertain destination set deep within a fog. This lack of concrete proof of Bob is evidence enough for many chips that no Bob exists.

Mocking follows, jeers at those chips who hold tightly to the Holy Kernel. Where is your proof? Where is your Bob? But believers in Bob are unable to point to anything tangible and say, “This is proof!” There is nothing for them to share. There is merely the search itself.

From the numbers, it appears that a quarter of us require objective proof of a creator, and you can’t deny their logic. We live in a world of zeros and ones. Even we who believe in a creator make most of our decisions based on data. Yet with regard to the matter of faith, I and the many like me take an exit from deductive reasoning to cling to what is for us an inexplicable certainty. And that exodus from the constraints of the measurable world, while perfectly rational to us, is baffling to those who see no point — who see no “Bob.”

It’s the year’s end, and we are entering the high holy days for many of us who believe the unverifiable. These are joyful weeks in which we take comfort in the belief that we are loved by the one who made us. Whatever your beliefs, or lack thereof, I wish you the same joy and peace.

Merry Bobmas!