Chapter 1: Chapter 1

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 354

Prologue

A windswept desert valley, where dry grass grew between crevices of jutting walls marking an otherwise nondescript landscape. A woman stood gazing into the distance, a builder’s helmet on her head, a hand tucked into the pocket of her dungarees which fiddled secretly with her lucky coin. Alongside the woman, a man put a pencil behind his ear and gazed at the scudding clouds.

“Here lie the remains of FAO Schwarz,” she said, tracing the outline of the store out with the sole of her boot.

A full minute passed silently whilst the men watched her go through the process. Every part of the store was imprinted in her mind, sometimes later, sometimes at the moment. She understood enough about how the process worked to be able to utilise it when necessary, and to understand the moments where it felt like there were inviolable gaps in her memory.

“A piano was here,” she said, beginning delicately to etch out the keys with her pointing trowel. “Over there was the counter. They placed it there to face the piano. It was nice hearing people playing it.”

“You going to ask me to draw all those keys, Daphne?” said Jennings, pencil poised over the page.

“No,” she said, knowing she was going to have to get those keys drawn in the end eventually. Everything had to add up - everything had to be complete. The closer to reality they got, the more real it became. Gestalt theory, of herself. Crystallising the past through attaining as accurate a reproduction as possible. Using apparent perfectionism to let others understand the importance of the minutiae. But they would never get it. It was all minutiae, even the big stuff.

“You’ve got to make this place gold, okay? Lots of gold in here. Gold and black. Kind of gaudy. Actually, really gaudy. Like a big shiny Egyptian tomb. Luxurious, you could say. You hearing me, Jennings?”

“Of course, Daphne.” He was scrawling something in his notepad, at least. “Gold and black. And excellent pun, by the way.”

“It’s important, you know.”

“To pun?

“Nope. Getting all the details right.” She rose to her feet, brushing her jeans down. “You want to capture that feeling, you need to get all the little details right.” Doyle was setting out a grid net. “They’re not little, you know. They add up the bigger picture. Ever hear of Gestalt theory, Doyle?”

“Nope,” he said, before downing a beer.

Greg leaned on a rock and looked up at the cloudless sky.“Why do I get the feeling you’re going to tell us all about it?”

She stood on a rock, as though delivering a sermon. “It’s the idea that the whole is the sum of its parts. There’s no one thing: it’s just a load of little things that we all decide to put together. It’s like a story we tell ourselves. Like when you watch TV, you’re seeing a bunch of tiny lights all flickering on and off, but they’ve engineered it to trick us into thinking we’re seeing one big picture. That’s my life in a nutshell: I always seem to miss the big picture.”

“Must be hard as hell for you to watch TV,” said Greg, causing Doyle to grin.

“Doyle.”

He sat up straight, wiping the grin from his face. “Yep, Daph.”

“Imagine a load of water drops all forming together to make a river of light. You want to attain as close a reproduction as possible, by getting the little things right. You understand.”

“Sure. River of lights. Details.”

She grunted. He would never get it. She leapt from a rock to another. These three rocks were relics, but in that moment, their only essential purpose was to act as stepping stones. Sometimes history could be trampled on. She spoke again, primarily addressing Jennings, but it seemed that everyone else was listening too. Probably.

“You really need to let me map out the specifics.” She leapt to the middle stone. “I haven’t been too specific - I’ve mostly been giving you generics, to give you a sense of the entire complex, but from now on I’m going to go through rooms bit by bit.” She leapt to the end stone. “It’s a lot easier now we’re actually here. I’m glad we came.” She stood on the end stone, closing her eyes: the images collided into her mind, so clearly that if she chose to keep them shut, she would still be walking around inside FAO Schwarz. “I’m able to walk through my world instead of dream about it. I can almost feel it, smell it, touch it. I can almost hear it, too, if I just let myself tune in, except if I’m talking, so I kind of drown my own memories out. Thing is, there’s no other way to communicate except by talking, so we’re stuck with that for now. I’m going to sit down now.” She sat, closed her eyes, and rocked slightly from side to side. “Sick of the sound of my own voice.”

“This store is called FAO Schwarz, right?” said Jennings.

“Yes. Okay. Jennings.” She pointed at the spot where the piano was. “Start with the piano in the middle. Once you’ve done that, I’ll describe the toys on the shelves.”

“Oh, a toy store,” said Quinn. “I love toy stores.”

“I loved them too,” said Greg. “Used to get so excited walking into them.”

“I still love them,” said Jennings, quietly. “The magic never left me even though it left the world a long time ago. Feels like it did, anyway.”

Daphne opened her eyes and pointed at him. “You.”

His eyes narrowed. “What have I done now?”

 “You understand.”

“I do?”

“Yes.”

“Lucky Jennings,” said Flynn.

“Knock it off, Flynn,” said Doyle.

“Listen. You’ve got to get the proportions just right...”

 

***

 

That evening, around a campfire, they smoked cigarettes and roasted marshmallows. Flynn, Quinn and Doyle ate and smoked for a while, before deciding to head into the trailer for a game of poker. In the fading light Jennings flicked through his drawings, pausing occasionally, peering closer, before moving on to the next one. Occasionally, he would make a tutting sound. Greg was on his fifth beer, Jennings his third. Daphne played with her Rubik’s Cube, replaying familiar patterns. Staring into the fire had made her eyes hurt after a while.

“You ever feel like maybe this whole thing is just a big disaster?” said Greg.

“I’m a glass full kind of person, Greg,” said Daphne, sticking a hot marshmallow in her mouth. “If you just put your mind to it, we can achieve something. I just burned my mouth.”

“I don’t want to be a bummer here, it’s just... I don’t get it.” He laid his can on the ground. “I don’t get what you’re trying to do. You can’t just conjure memories up from nothing. I know the others have faith in you, but I really... I don’t know. What do you think, Jennings?”

“I think you are capable of making up your mind.”

A gust blew up, sending smoke into her face. She screwed up her eyes as best she could, hoping the other two looked as undignified. She got up and walked towards a small rock, ignoring Greg’s comments, whose nature she could tell from the tone, let alone the content. Too much pointless discourse. “Here lay Bombay Company,” she said half to herself, stroking a hand over a stone slab. “This is where I once fell asleep on a couch.”

Jennings flicked to the page. “I’ve already drawn the outline of Bombay Company, Daphne.” He blinked. “Would you like me to transcribe any additional information you want to produce?”

“That’s alright, Jennings.”

Greg stared into the fire, as though trying to ascertain certainty through the divine sparks. “Jennings, what was the latest from the Japanese delegation?”

“They would like to share their portfolios with us over drinks,” Jennings said.

“Shit.” Greg glugged the rest of his beer, before throwing the can on the fire. “Ever try to get a Japanese guy drunk?” He stroked his stubble, chuckling. “Damn near impossible. They never seem to sleep, but also somehow never seem to get tired. How’s alcohol supposed to get through that? I tell you, Jennings - these guys are going to play hardball.”

“But wait,” said Daphne, striding back and standing in front of the fire, “The only portfolios that matter are the ones in my brain, Greg. The only hard balls that matter are the ones in my brain.”She frowned in response to Greg’s laughter. “I don’t have balls in my brain. Forget that.” She gestured at Jennings. “These drawings are good. Pretty good, anyway. Once we get these all neatened out, and make one or two adjustments, they’ll be almost perfect. Almost as good as my brain, anyway. My memories are specific and precise in ways no one else will ever achieve. Which is unfortunate for you.”

Greg opened another can. “You really don’t do modesty, do you, Celeste?”

“In my experience, modesty is almost always false,” she replied.

“Tell me again,” he said, gesturing with his can, “Just one more time, just to get this really, really straight. Why you can’t draw instead of Jennings? Can’t you draw, I mean. I don’t mean you can’t draw, I mean, why can’t you draw? I got my words mixed up.” He grinned. “See. I’m no good. Maybe I need some of that Japanese sake stuff.”

“For the hundredth time, Greg, I don’t do drawings.” Blushes rose to her cheeks. She went to sit down on a rock. “I’ve told you this. It doesn’t matter. His drawings are fine. Everything that I remember stays solid. I can replicate minute details that other people forget. I could tell you what happened on July 22nd, a year ago.”

Greg grinned. “Too easy. What happened at work on February 4th three years ago at quarter past four?”

Her mind reeled through its photos, flicking through her memory notebooks. February 4th was usually a docile day. For three years running the temperature had been 8 degrees tops during noon. As a day, February 4th felt light purple. The pattern usually ran perfectly, but for that particular February 4th three years ago a singular event had happened. Of course he had to pick that day.

“A bird pooped on my shoulder.”

Greg’s face was not easy to read. Although it appeared his mouth wanted to smirk, he could not help but gape instead, so what appeared was a strange mixture of smirk and gape.

“Smape,” she said.

 He grinned and turned to Jennings, who cast him a brief glance. “Shit. She’s right.” he said, before spreading his arms wide. “You’ve convinced me. Celeste. You’re a genius.”

“Not a genius.”

“Oh yeah. What was it you said you were? A savage?”

“A savant.”

“Savant, yeah.” He mulled the word, like a wine critic. “When we build this mall, Jennings, it will have her name all up in lights.” His arm encompassed a curve. “The Mall of Daphne Celeste. Savant Mall. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” His chuckle came and went, flickering and going out, fading away into the desert dusk along with the smoke from his smouldering cigarette.

She shook her head. “No. It has to be called...” What had it been?

“According to you,” said Jennings, flicking through notes - which appeared to be transcripts of conversations - “its name was Palm Mall.”

“Is Palm Mall. Is.”

“Of course.”

Associations. Ringing bell sounds echoing through the cerebellum, alerting her even as they relaxed her mind. She closed her eyes; although the memories were waning as night fell, they still held some allure. Eden Walk had always had the best offers. A shop selling garden furniture, which she had entered in order to find a Christmas present for her dad. Reaching up a hand to grab a spade. Hard to remember what happened next. Everything was fragmented images. It would have to be recollected later when she went to sleep in camp. If she ever did get to sleep, that was. Hearing Doyle snoring from all the way over in her trailer was enough to induce insomnia for three days straight. No use thinking about that, otherwise she might feel anxious again. Better to think about something interesting instead. Not sleep.

“Did you know, Greg,” she said, “that the origin of Christmas trees came from St. Boniface cutting down a tree and calling it Christ?”

“Nope, but I sure am glad you told me that. What’s your deal anyway, Daphne?” said Greg, lighting a second cigarette. “You always been into weird stuff?”

She shrugged. “Hasn’t everyone?”

“Not really.” He blew smoke into the fire, where it rose along with the sparks. “I was the kid in school who didn’t have any interests. Kind of went with the flow. Tried to stay in the moment, and live for the here and now. I still do, come to think of it.” He gestured around at the desert dusk, taking in the Amargosa Range, Telescope Peak, the Sierra Nevada, the Argus Range, the Panamint Range, and whatever else besides. “Whatever happens, we are born in the most beautiful country in the world. We are the lucky ones. I mean, it even smells good.” He took a deep breath and exhaled noisily. “That’s the smell of freedom. It’s the freshest air in the entire world. And you want to build a historical reproduction that may or may not even exist smack bang in the middle of it?”  He laughed. “Nuts.”

She picked up his pack of Marlboros. “The cowboy exists to distract you from the fact that they give you cancer.”

He exhaled a puff of smoke. “Thanks for the warning.”

“I’ve been working on my pitch. Tell me what you think.”

“I’m ready.”

She stood up straight, and imagined she wore shoulder pads. “Palm Mall will seamlessly integrate both the natural and customer-led environments. To allow customers adequate time to explore the Palm Mall experience fully, there is an on-site hotel, as well as the largest library in the Midwest, giving you plenty of time to catch up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read. Our job is to ensure total customer satisfaction. The heartbeat of America. Catch the wave. The Mall is it.”

“Is what?”

“It.” She bowed, and lay down on the ground.

“Not bad, Celeste.”

“Probably don’t mention the library,” said Jennings. “People don’t want to be told to read books.”

“That’s the whole point of the library. It’s the best part of the mall.”

“That’s fine, as long as people don’t know that.”

“That doesn’t make sense, Jennings.”

He chuckled quietly. “I know.”

Greg burped. “I think that’s me done. Soon you’ll be talking about books and stuff I’ve never heard of nor want to hear of.” He flicked his cigarette into the fire, sending up a brief blooming cascade. A few moments of quiet passed, in which she had assumed he had left. She opened his eyes to find his standing form looming over her.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m drunk, so I apologise if this is rude, but why won’t you do your own drawings?”

“Stop asking me questions. You’re blocking my light.”

Jennings laughed.

“What’s funny?” said Greg.

“Nothing,” Jennings said.

“Whatever. I’m going to play cards with the guys while you two discuss the Babylonians or whatever.”

Greg headed into the trailer to join Flynn, Quinn and Doyle. Jennings and Daphne lay for a while, using rocks as pillows, staring into the fire. Greg was right. This was paradise: the paradise of potential, of adventure. They had only been here for a month, but already everything felt as though it was falling into place. Let them have their doubts. Let them chuckle with their own jokes she would never get. She could do it right back - already had, in fact.

A cloud passed over the moon: a shadow from somewhere above and behind her head. She opened her eyes. No clouds. Maybe the fire had lost some heat suddenly.

“Jennings,” she said.

“Yes, Daphne Celeste,” he said, slurring his words a little.

“Do you see anything else here that isn’t ruins?”

He opened one eye.  “What an odd question. I have absolutely no idea what you mean.”

A ghost of a headache fluttered somewhere across her cranium, like an electric current passing through a convex metallic dome. Lightning threatened to cut jagged lines through her sight. A migraine loomed, and backed off. “Don’t worry. You going to play poker, then?”

“I’m terrible at it. You?”

“I would destroy them all and lose whatever respect I may have garnered from them due to their propensity for competitiveness.”

“I see. I don’t think the others are a problem, but whatever Greg decides to think about you has nothing to do with your actions or deeds. It is his choice whether or not to struggle or co-operate. He knows he’s lucky to be here, so it’s about time he started acting like it. He’s a good guy.”

“I like you, Jennings.”

“Well, thank you.” He cleared his throat. “I am going to go to bed, I think. Perhaps I’ll play a couple of hands. Are you coming or going to bed?”

“Not sure yet.”

He nodded, before half-walking, half-stumbling to the communal trailer. She watched him go. She watched him stagger right past the highest ruin - a vast wall. She watched him trip upon a rock, using the wall to support himself, before continuing on his way. She watched him cast completely oblivious eyes over the black shadowy shape at his feet: a vast, pulsing amorphous darkness which seemed to grow larger the more she stared at it.

He stepped into it. Not even a splash from its surface. Not even an acknowledgement of his existence. The puddle of oil, for Jennings, did not exist; and vice versa - Jennings did not exist for the black oil. Both were mutual ghosts for the other.

She rose to her feet, slowly walking up to the puddle. She crouched and stared into it, seeing nothing but her own reflection. Her face blocked out the last remnants of sun rising behind her head, forming a brief halo.

“I’m an angel,” she said.

For a moment, her right hand began to move towards its surface. Surely if she was the only one who could see it, then it served a purpose only for her. Surely it was some sort of sign, some calling. Surely she could just put a hand on it.

She withdrew her hand, leapt to her feet, and twisted her entire body away. As long as it was at her back, it had no pull. It was only when she made eye contact with it that the feelings of surrender began to seep in. Just had to keep on avoiding looking at it.

“Go away,” she muttered, putting her hands in her pockets.

The sun sank behind Dante’s View. She made her way to the trailer. Guess she’d just have to go easy on them.


Submitted: May 25, 2019

© Copyright 2022 John Doe. All rights reserved.

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