Neither of the girls had expected the party to be quite like this. Sure, it had been made clear that illicit substances would be present, and neither of them had a problem with that (Sara was a habitual pot smoker. April just liked to party, whatever that entailed by local customs), but this was a step beyond what either of them were used to. So, April thought as she looked around at the bearded, strangely dressed young men and women, this is what actual hippies look like. Wow, its just like on TV! The novelty was a pleasant distraction for April, but in the back of her mind she was still dreading the end of their girls’ night out. She kept giving Sara nervous glances when she thought she wasn’t looking.
Sara kept her cool smile on; with her long, straight hair and inexpensive clothing, she fit in with this crowd much better than April. A couple of people smiled and waved Sara over to them.
“I’m gonna’ go talk to Matty,” Sara said to her roommate, her voice taking on that subtly domineering tone that April had grown accustomed to, “don’t get yourself in more trouble than you’re already in.”
A shiver of fear went down April’s spine, even as a naughty tingle rose from her crotch. She met Sara’s eyes, which - as always these days - seemed to take her in and engulf her. April nodded obediently. Sara smiled and gave April’s miniskirted bottom a stealthy pinch, making her whisper a quiet “ow!” before turning away to talk to Matty.
April stared after her for a moment, wondering how and why she had let her life get like this. If her parents knew half of what had been going on, she’d never be able to look either of them in the face again. She watched Sara talk to Matty for a moment, until Sara looked back over her shoulder and gave April a perfectly innocent smile. A smile that said nothing unusual to the rest of the room, but reminded April that tonight was going to be a hairbrush night, and not a short one either.
Fortunately, there were plenty of distractions, and April was resolved to take her mind off the cruel fate of her helpless buttocks while she still had that luxury. She met Lindsey at the makeshift bar and traded sorority gossip while helping herself to a rum and coke. The two of them giggled and gossiped away until Nancy showed up, and they went into the back room to play beer pong. After gracefully losing, the now very lightheaded April found herself introduced to a trio of hippies. She chatted energetically, positioning herself as best she could in her drunken state to show off her outrageously curvy figure; she had no intentions of betraying her boyfriend, but one of the hippies was really cute, which made her body language mostly involuntary.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” She paused to hiccup. “I have to walk home tonight.”
“Do’ worry, hon,” the bearded fellow reassured her as he carefully - almost reverently - fished the bits of dried fungus out of the plastic bag, “nothing bad happens from this.”
“Yeah,” his fellow backed him up, “this isn’t just the usual magic mushroom. Its sacred to the Plains Indians.”
April raised her blonde eyebrows. “Really?”
“Yeah,” said the first hippy, “it lets you connect to the spirits, opens your mind to the real world behind the universe. The shamans and medicine men say they use it to talk to God.”
April still wasn’t convinced that this was the best time and place to be experimenting with strange drugs, no matter their religious value. Unfortunately, she had always been sensitive to peer pressure, especially when it came from sexy boys. After rewarding her benefactor with an alluring smile, she accepted the fragment and bit off one end.
She felt the same, after swallowing the fungus. A bit drunker, perhaps, as if she hadn’t noticed how strong her intoxication was until now, but still no worse for wear. The boys congratulated her, nibbling their own dried fungus as they did. Funny…why couldn’t she hear what they were saying? It was like their mouths didn’t emit any sound. In fact, nothing was making sound. Her ears seemed to have switched themselves off.
She lay back against the wall they were sitting by, staring, wide-eyed, into the next room. She caught a glimpse of Sara at the bar, and suddenly, impossibly, she heard Sara’s voice from across the silent, crowded party, even if the words she said didn’t make sense. Her vision was blurring at the edges, her body growing weightless…
…April was in an unfamiliar room. Piles of clumsily-folded clothes (boy’s clothes, she observed) were scattered across a futon couch. On the wall by the door hung a variety of abstract sketches in cheap frames, a pre-revolution Iranian flag, and a preserved tarantula in a display case. Outside the window, snow descended on a rural street.
She blinked, quite deliberately. She knew there had to be a reason she was in this place, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember how she had arrived. Wasn’t there a party she was going to with Sara tonight? Or was that last night now? She tried to remember, but it was like tossing her mind against a solid fog. Holy mushrooms. The Plains Indians used them to talk to the spirits. Who had told her that? Well, they must not have worked, because she didn’t recall talking to any stupid ghosts.
Something bumped its nose against her ankle. Startling a bit, April looked down to see a stripey gray cat rubbing up on her leg. Was this her spirit animal? She guessed that shouldn’t be a surprise; she had a cat of her own after all, even if she hadn’t seen it since winter vacation. It was a different color, sure, but who said her spirit cat had to look anything like Nutmeg? The cat looked up at her with an inquiring expression. April transferred the mushroom slice to her left hand and bent down to let it sniff her fingertip. “Hello, kitty,” she said softly.
“What???” a male voice spoke up behind her, startling her, “Who’s there???”
Right, of course. When you’re in a new place, you look around before picking up the cat. Everyone knows that. Mushrooms let you talk to gods. She turned to face the voice. A bunkbed was nestled in the back of the small bedroom, and sitting on the unmade bottom bunk was a young man around April’s age. Fair skin, brown hair, maybe kind of cute if he had a shave. On the bed beside him was a half-open Gateway laptop. His expression was angry. “What the hell are you doing in my room?”
April’s lips opened soundlessly as she tried to answer. Should she apologize and leave? No, she’d still be in someone else’s house with no idea how to find her way home. What was she supposed to say?
“S-sorry,” she managed to squeak, “I…I don’t know where I…is the party still going on?”
The boy looked startled. For a moment, he seemed downright stupefied. Slowly, he raised a dark brown eyebrow. “Party?” He asked, his voice more subdued, “What are you talking about?”
“Well,” April took a step back toward the futon, not keeping eye contact, “I was at a party with my friend Sara…do you know Sara?…and I just…I don’t know how I got here, but I’m sorry for coming in without asking.”
As she spoke, his expression grew less defensive and more surprised. When she mentioned Sara, his eyes widened. There was a long, awkward moment after she finished. April was about to apologize again and ask for directions when he spoke.
“Oh no,” he whispered, “No, this can‘t possibly...”
His jaw went slack as the realization hit. Was he hallucinating? Dreaming? How could this possibly be happening? She looked exactly how he had imagined, wearing one of the expensive blouse and miniskirt combos that the richer girls at his college had worn. No, it couldn’t be, it just couldn’t.
“Um…” he said, wondering what his next question would have to be if she said yes, “…is your name April?”
The girl nodded, her eyes widening a little, vulnerable. He felt his heart accelerate. Her eyes got so large and blue when she felt nervous or embarrassed. He thought it was sexy, in the “cute and innocent” way, which was exactly why he had made them that way. He counted backward from ten, then ran through the alphabet from Z to V. If he was dreaming, it was an awfully lucid dream. The girl stood there nervously, in obvious discomfort. He had to tell her something, but would the truth be the best option?
He stopped to close his laptop. It really would not do for her to see what he was writing.
“I‘m not sure how to say this, but…uh…”
This is your last chance. You can make up a lie, that would probably be the best-
“…well, I guess from you’re perspective, I’m sort of like…”
NO DO NOT USE THAT WORD.
He changed his wording at the last second “…your creator?”
He had meant it as an explanation, but the way it came out definitely had a question mark at the end. Silence. He was about to offer her a seat, but she sat down on the futon before he could open his mouth. She looked as bewildered as he probably did.
“You mean,” she looked at him very intently, a mixture between skepticism, fear, and awe, “you mean you’re, like…God?”
“No,” he said quickly, raising both hands in a “no” kind of way, “Not like a God. Just…” Just the creator and constant omnipotent manipulator of your entire universe. Just the being responsible for thinking you into existence. “…okay, maybe sort of like a God, but I’m not all-knowing or powerful” just powerful enough to completely remake your world on a whim “or anything. I…basically I’m just a kid living in a world a lot like yours, and I made you up.”
She gave a nervous, unbelieving chuckle. Her laugh was musical, lighting a masculine fire in his blood. That sound was the guiltiest pleasure he had ever enjoyed. “What do you mean?” she asked crinkling her dirty blonde eyebrows at him.
He bought himself some time by standing up and very deliberately unwrinkling his shorts. This was going to be a hard pill to swallow. It was hard for him to even say it.
“Okay, well, I’m a writer. I write fiction, or what I thought was fiction.” He paused, asking himself again why he was telling her this. Unfortunately, April’s wasn’t a face he could lie to, though it might damn them both. “You‘re a character from one of my stories.”
He scanned April’s face for any signs of…well, anything. It was unreadable. Queeny jumped up on the futon and put her nose up to April’s thigh. April ignored the cat. He started feeling sick to his stomach. He knew where this line of questioning would go. He knew that she couldn’t learn the truth, and he knew that he didn’t have it in him to lie.
She looked down at her lap for a moment, trying to let it sink in. He watched her reach over and stroke Queeny’s head, her eyes lost in contemplation. He felt like he was about to throw up.
“Am I the main character?”
He looked away. “Yes.”
“Is…is my world real? Like, are the people I know actually…?”
“I don’t know.” That was something he hadn’t thought of, actually. If April was a self-aware entity, did that mean that her entire fictional world was full of self-aware entities? If she was only sentient because of the mental energy he expended in simulating her mind, though, that would mean that only a few of the main characters - the ones he’d really put himself into - were alive. He thought of a girl living an entire lifetime in a world of holograms, being raised by a simulation of a loving family who didn’t actually have souls, and it was one of the most heartbreaking thoughts he had ever had. And what about when I’m not thinking about her? Is she “asleep” when I’m not in her head? Does she DIE every time I delete a new draft and start again? What about Sara, or Kevin, or any of the others? How many of them are real?
She chewed her lip in that completely adorable way she often did. “You don’t know? Didn’t you make them?”
A slow breath escaped between his teeth. “Yes. Sort of. I don’t have everything fleshed out, necessarily,” I spent more time thinking about your ass than the rest of that universe combined “I just assumed that your world was mostly like mine and made up a few specific characters.” He shrugged in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. “I dunno, maybe its all real outside of my head. You seem to be, right now at least.”
“So,” she said slowly, trying to wrap her mind around it, “you’ve been…writing me…since I was born?”
Fuck. “No. I only made up a little about your childhood. Just that your parents were wealthy, and that you were an only child. I guess I imagined them having kind of Germanic sounding names, like Martin or Ella?”
April nodded. “Those are my parents.”
Interesting. Were those always your parents, or did I just now do that retroactively? How much of you is there, really?
He hoped he could change the subject, but she was too fast for him. “So wait…does that mean I’m the most important person in the world-err-in my world, I mean?”
He couldn’t tell if she was hopeful, or afraid. Probably the latter. He didn’t think he could conceive of a realistic character who wouldn’t be frightened by that, and that meant she must be frightened. “I don’t know. If I actually did invent your world when I made it up, then yes, that would…I suppose…make you the center of it.” He was about to offer up the possibility that maybe he didn’t invent her world, but instead was simply being informed about its events through some kind of prophecy, but he only had to think about that for a fraction of a second before it lost its plausibility. Her body was shaped just like a girl he had failed to seduce once in school. She and her friends watched Dexter religiously because it was his favorite show. He had definitely created this.
He answered very slowly, thinking about every word. “If we’re basing importance off of…” he paused, struggling for the right word. His vocabulary always failed him when he most needed it, “…causation, then yes, the rest of your world exists to tell your story.” He was careful to keep eye contact, so she knew this next part was genuine. “That‘s not to say that other people in your world are necessarily worth more or less, just that you‘re…um…” damnit, it was much easier to express these concepts in writing than in conversation “…well, I…you know what I mean, right?”
April did not seem to know what he meant. On second thoughts, neither did he.
Her hand stroked the cat again, absentmindedly. Her eyes were far away, almost vacant. He realized that this wasn’t as easy for her as it would be for some people; he hadn’t designed her to be intelligent or quick-witted.
“So,” she said, her blue eyes coming a little ways back into focus on his, “if everything is just to tell my story…what is the story about? What am I supposed to do?”
He bit his lip. April stared at him, bewilderment turning to impatience, and trepidation. Beneath her soft, fair-skinned face, a brain was waiting to process information. He put a hand to his stomach, trying not to be sick. She was waiting.
“Okay,” he said, “basically…”
He sat beside the crying girl, staring at his hands in dismay. What could he say to her? What could he do for her? Instinct told him that she needed a hug, but that would be the worst thing he could do. He kept his body a respectful two feet away from hers, and made absolute sure not to glance below her neck, even by accident.
“I made you enjoy it,” he said so quietly it was almost a whisper. “I made sure you didn’t suffer.” That wasn’t entirely true, though. The first chapter had consisted of nothing but misfortune and humiliation for her. The sorority scene in chapter three had also been completely unpleasant. Even if that wasn’t the case, though, it would barely have helped.
The more painful bits of the last fifteen minute's worth of conversation replayed in his head. “Why did I never have a baby brother?” she had asked. To make you more spoiled and self-centered, so that Sara would have more to punish you for. “Why did you make me want a baby brother if you knew I couldn’t get one, and the story doesn’t even show my family?” Because I imagined caring as one of your redeeming qualities, and I always put a bit of thought into what makes my characters tick even if it isn’t apparent to the reader. “Its all just your stupid fantasy?” No, I put it up on the internet for a bunch of other people to jerk off to as well. The interview had lasted until she finally did what she had been threatening and broke down into tears. He felt a sharp sting at the corner of his own eyes as he watched her.
“Y-you said…” she struggled between sobs, “…you said you made me like a…” she wiped her nose, only for more saltwater to drip down it, “…a real girl, who you know? So I’m not…not just a…a…”
“You’re not her,” he said somberly, sitting with his hands in front of him, “she’s not you. Her name was Katie. I knew her in college.” He didn’t tell her the rest of that story, which would have gone something like; she was smarter, more confident, and more emotionally mature than you. I just used her body and gave it a weak, spoiled, co-dependent personality named April so that it could get spanked more often.
She shook her tangled blonde head, her tears continuing. He wondered if the holocaust had happened in her world, or smallpox, or malaria. Considering that she lived in a twenty-first century United States very much like his own, her world probably had the same history. If April and the other main characters weren’t the only sentient beings in their universe, he had condemned hundreds of millions - no, billions - of people to death.
“I’m sorry,” he said for the hundredth time, looking down at her huddled, shaking body, “I didn’t know. I just never knew.”
Queeny was still perched on the edge of the couch, wondering why nobody was petting her. She had tried sniffing at the half-eaten mushroom slice that April dropped, but he quickly snatched it away; there was no telling what that could do. Minutes flowed into one another. He wondered how long it would be until his brother came home, and what he would have to say if April was still around. Not that this was a significant problem at all, compared to the others on his mind.
“I’ll change things,” he said. “Once I send you back, I’ll make it different. You won’t remember this conversation.”
She looked up hopefully, her normally beautiful face blotchy with tears. He did his best to look confident.
“You‘ll be smart, and powerful, and happy. So will everyone else. No one will get hurt or disappoint themselves or anything.”
Of course, that would only work if the act of writing itself was what caused time to pass in her world, rather than him imagining it. He would never be able to stop his own imagination. Not to mention that rewriting her character might just kill April and replace her with another consciousness with the same name. It was the most comforting lie he could think of.
“Send me back,” she whispered, “make me forget. Please.”
He stumbled to his feet and hurried over to his laptop. Hopefully this would work…
The young man sat on his bed, alone but for the cat. His brother came in, said hello, and left. The young man barely noticed him. He was thinking.
I’ve written science fiction. Horror. I’ve had entire civilizations destroyed. I’ve turned people into tormented ghosts and marauding vampires. I gave terminal brain damage to ten thousand people when the cyborgs poisoned the Washington DC water supply. I’ve created a entire world where people’s souls are eaten by demonic piranhas after they die. And even without his own devised horrors, how many holocausts had he unleashed in the invisible backstories? How many genocides? How many epidemics? How many deaths?
He let his chin sink into his hands. He ignored the bangs that hung in his eyes. They were insubstantial. It was the other side of his skull that had unsolvable problems.
What if its not just me? What if every writer creates worlds with people? What if every person with an imagination and two minutes of free time does?
Then another thought, so chilling it multiplied all the rest.
What about writers who write about writers?
No, he was just overthinking it now. There had to be limits to how far things could scale, in one direction if not both. There had to be a Real world that the others branched off from. There just had to be.
Suddenly, he was looking at a small object lying on the nightstand by the futon. A half-eaten slice of mushroom. April must have left it.
No. No, this wasn’t right. There was no reason to do this. He didn’t need to, he really didn’t.
The mushroom sat there.
What about writers who write about writers?
He felt cold and clammy as he picked up the little pinch of dried fungus and held it before his mouth. It smelled musty, with an undertone of something he couldn’t name. One side of it still showed the marks of April’s teeth, reminding him that even if she was back home, she was still real.
He gulped, sucked in a deep breath, and bit.
The walls fell away. The ceiling vanished. The bed turned to smoke, and he was falling, falling, tumbling through the blackness. But he wasn’t really falling. There was no gravity, he was floating in place. The darkness was as thick as blood, but he pushed through it. He had to see, had to find out.
And then he heard the screams. He turned around, and saw it.
A head, a face the size of a galaxy, the darkness flowed from its pores like sweat. A face that filled the sky, a face that filled all the skies, a head he couldn’t even see. A million, bloodshot eyes stared into the darkness, and in each eye a spinning world. Fire flashed, an eye blinked, and there were screams. Quadrillions of deaths in every one of a million eyes. Mouths ingested universes. Worlds died, to make room for more worlds, which died. The face sang and basked in the music of the endless screams.
A young man lay on the floor of his bedroom. A laptop sat on the bunk above him. A cat sniffed at his shivering face, but he didn't notice. He shuddered, his mouth barely managing to twitch open.