Fiction

Fiction: Paul Michael Anderson “Everything Feels Wrong Without You”

Today we’re excited to bring you a brand new story from Paul Michael Anderson titled “Everything Feels Wrong Without You”. Paul is the incredibly talented author of the collection Bones Are Made to be Broken and the novellas I Can Give You Life, How We Broke (with Bracken MacLeod) and the upcoming Standalone, which will hit shelves on September 14th through Perpetual Motion Machine PublishingStandalone is one of the most highly anticipated novellas of 2020 for horror fans and promises an inventive and genre-bending take on the slasher genre. So when Paul approached us with a companion story featuring the character Martin, we jumped at the chance to be able to share it with our readers. This is a pretty wild story that will give you an idea of what to expect from Standalone and we hope you enjoy this story as much as we did.


“Everything Feels Wrong Without You”
By: Paul Michael Anderson
©2020 Paul Michael Anderson

 

 The camera pans up, the viewer eye-level with tall grass, soft greens and yellows, magic-hour light. The young woman skipping away distant but distinguishable—long brunette hair, large hoop earrings, earthen-colored tank top.

The woman begins to turn. The viewer sees one emerald-colored eye—

*****

A hand shook Billy Settle’s shoulder, a young man saying, “C’mon, Billy, before Martucci fires your ass.”

Billy opened his eyes. A PA hovered over him, tin can headphones dangling from his neck, hugging a clipboard the size of his chest.

The PA straightened. “It’s alive, it’s aliiiiivvvvveeee—”

“Shut it.” Billy sat up on the couch, fighting the cotton in his head. Narrow room, cornflower-blue wallpaper, formal-looking wooden doors to either side of him. It all came back slowly—courthouse, magistrate’s office. He’d hidden here, hoping to catch a few. Billy didn’t know what he disliked more—that he’d fallen asleep on-set, or that a goddamned PA had found him.

“The DP, whatever-his-name-is—”

Billy stood, legs wobbly. “Sandoval. Chris Sandoval.”

“Anyway, they’re gonna need the Steadicam soon.”

“Right.”

Out in the main hall, production lined the walls, muttered conversations filling the air above their heads.

I don’t give a FUCK what S-and-P is saying NOW!” a man bellowed behind the courtroom doors. “They cleared the script three WEEKS ago!

Billy winced. “Aw, shit.”

The PA frowned. “Network axed the rape angle. Sandoval thought he was winding down.”

Billy shook his head. “Goddammit.” He looked towards the glass entrance. Teamsters would be outside; they usually had cigarettes. “Come get me when he’s finished.”

He moved away, and the PA said, loudly, “Hey, listen, when you were sleeping—”

Billy whirled on him. “Christ Jesus, shut up.”

The kid paled, recoiling. “Sorry, sorry—but you were talking—”

Billy blinked. “What?”

“Yeah. Something like, ‘what happened to her’?” The kid looked at him defensively. “I thought you wanted to know.”

“I—” he started to say, then stopped, thinking of the woman, the one glimpsed emerald eye, and he shivered.

*****

Martin leaned back in his desk chair. “You fell asleep on Martucci’s set? Jesus. You owe that little runner fuck.”

“Martucci didn’t notice—network torpedoed the script, so we’re going over budget.” He leaned forward on Martin’s couch, snagging the cigarettes off the coffee table. “I’ll buy the kid his first line of blow.”

Martin sniffed. “He says, stealing my smokes ’cause his broke-ass don’t have any.” He jerked his thumb at the contraption behind him, which looked like an oversized Viewfinder. “Back up, though. I’m working on the Steenbeck.”

“You’re not rolling with nitrate film.” He got up, though, moving around the central staircase, from Martin’s living quarters to the high shelves filled with Martin’s upcoming restoration orders.

“Doesn’t matter,” Martin said. “I’d rather not get careless.”

Billy moved down the first aisle, eying the various VHS tapes, DVDs, and film reels. “The hell you playing with a flatbed, anyway?”

“Private client, wants a film edited the old-fashioned way.”

“Pricey.”

“Priceless. This isn’t conversion. This is a soup-to-nuts recut. Client gave me the entire cutting room floor. With enough footage, you can recut a movie into telling any kind of story you want.”

Billy picked up a VHS clamshell, then put it back. “It’s Ridley Scott, isn’t it? He’s trying again to make the definitive cut of Blade Runner.”

“Fuck yourself,” Martin said. “It’s a nice little bonus, and I don’t get enough chances to play with real film anymore. Weren’t we talking about you falling asleep at work?”

“It was that fucking dream again, man. The one with the girl.”

“Woman,” Martin corrected. “You sound like a teenage boy when you say ‘girl’.”

“Whatever. Every time I dream of her, I feel worse afterwards, my head all fucked up.”

A long pause. He heard a cold slicing sound as Martin cut reel, then a shoomp-click as he taped two frames together.

“You’re stressed,” Martin said. “Sounds like this job isn’t going to be any steadier than your last, which is financial, and you spend your free time hanging out with an overweight film preservationist, so your social life sucks, too.” A humming-whirl as Martin examined footage. “You’re fixating to distract yourself.”

“On a person I never met.”

“Probably a film you saw. You’d be amazed how much random shit gets stored in long term memory.”

Billy turned down another aisle. A flash of yellow caught his eye and he pulled a DVD case. No title but the front cover, which seemed to come from a color-jet printer, was from his dream.

Everything in Billy’s head went quiet. “No fucking way,” he breathed. He stepped out of the aisles. Martin stood by the stairwell, lighting his own cigarette, his red Hawaiian shirt loud against the drabness of the furniture.

Billy held up the case. “This is it.”

“How coincidental,” Martin said. “That’s a work print. Go ahead and borrow it. Maybe it’ll solve your problem.”

*****

Home for Billy was a shitty apartment with worse furniture, but the film players—VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, U-Matic, videodisc, laserdisc—always made him feel vaguely proud. The U-Matic barely worked, and he didn’t actually have any of the plastic videodiscs to play, but the machines were all he’d brought to California.

He put on the DVD and slumped on the couch. The television screen went from blue to black, and he yawned. A titlecard appeared, and he closed his eyes.

*****

Drunken lurch of the camera, the tall grass a blur. Two men chase the woman.

A man’s voice: “We’ll take care of her, faggot.”

Another man’s voice, the POV’s voice, “Grace—”

She starts to turn, but something gray comes swinging towards the camera—

*****

Billy jerked awake in the truck’s cab, then jerked again when he realized where he was.

(wasn’t i watching a movie?)

“The fuck am I doing sleeping in the truck?” he muttered, dry-washing his face. He looked out the windshield. The truck was parked in the mouth of the alley, facing the avenue. Morning sun shined down, making the colors brighter, the lingering dew shine.

He rubbed his eyes—gingerly, mindful of the vague ache in his eye socket that’d never properly healed. Something looked off, somehow too flat and sharp.

“Weird,” he said. His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he fished it out. MARTIN on the screen. Billy swiped ACCEPT. “Hello?”

“You okay, man?”

“Yeah, I—” An absurd thought popped into his head: How did I get here?

But that was ridiculous; he’d gotten here…

Billy frowned. He knew why the truck was parked here, but had no memory of parking it, of climbing into the cab and falling asleep—

(watching the movie?)

—and what the fuck was this watching a movie shit?

“Billy?” Martin asked, and Billy winced. Martin’s voice had a queer warble to it, like a mini-echo.

“Yeah, I’m here. I…fell asleep.”

“Could be your meds again,” Martin said. “Wouldn’t be the first time the dosage fucked you up.”

“Yeah…” Billy said, but it wasn’t until Martin mentioned it that he remembered he took meds at all; once Martin had, it was of course Billy took meds. But he didn’t know what they were, or where they were.

A knot formed in his chest. This isn’t right, he thought.

“Or the sentencing,” Martin offered. Billy almost asked what sentencing, but, again, the memory—

(the dream)

(–the movie–)

—unrolled in his head: Grace’s murder, the capture, the conviction. His face reddened, his vision suddenly prismatic with tears…but that knot in his chest grew.

“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his good eye with the heel of his hand. “Those fuckers are going away, man. They’re gone. They’re…” His throat closed up, but that knot throbbed.

“Why don’t you come over?” Martin asked. “Haven’t seen you in a week.”

Billy opened his mouth to say, You saw me yesterday—but Billy hadn’t. It had been a week since he’d dropped by the warehouse…right?

The cab pressed in on him. “Yeah…cool, man.” He swallowed. “Listen, I gotta go finish up. I’ll stop by later, yeah?”

He hung up, throwing open the cab door and climbing down, taking a whooping breath of air. Someone yelled from inside the courthouse: “I don’t give a FUCK what S-and-P is saying NOW! They cleared the script three WEEKS ago!”

Billy was the only one around who didn’t flinch.

*****

Martin leaned back in his desk chair. “Maybe it’s not the meds.”

Billy slumped on the thrift-store couch. “Maybe it’s been my past year.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It was bad today, man.”

Martin adjusted his glasses. “How so?”

“I fell asleep at work. Everything looks like an old show on an HD screen. Everything sounds echo-y. When you mentioned my meds or the sentencing, there was, like, this second where I had no idea what you were talking about, and then it would come in—oh yeah, my medications, those fuckheads getting put away.”

Martin studied him. His posture, the Hawaiian shirt, toggled something in Billy’s head, but the more he reached for it, the less it was there. Just this jostling sensation, like a loosening brick in the wall of memory. “Maybe you should call your therapist.”

“My—” Billy stopped, because, instead of a name or a memory of his therapist, there was just a grey nothing. He looked at Martin…and Martin stared back as if he knew what’d just happened. The hairs on the back of Billy’s neck stiffened.

“Anything else?” Martin asked, softly.

Billy shook his head. “I dreamed of Grace. I mean, I always do—but I’ve never dreamed of the attack, when Grace ran into the field. And it was like…it felt like, ‘I can change this’.”

“You can’t, though.”

“Shit, man,” Billy said. “Don’t you think I know that?”

A beat of silence between them. Martin straightened. “You wanna borrow a movie tonight? A distraction?”

“When’d you become my Redbox?”

Martin snorted. “When haven’t I been?” He turned to his cluttered desk. On his computer, a film frame was frozen in an editing program—black background with white lettering, a language done in dots and lines, but with a yellow translation caption reading, WHEN MY LIFE FELL TO PIECES, a series of repeating vignettes.

Martin lifted a screenplay up and pulled a clear CD case. “Try this. Experimental art film.”

Billy took it. The title, written in Sharpie across the DVD-R’s shiny face, looked to be the same language as the film on the computer. “Foreign?”

“Something like that,” Martin said. “It’ll help you forget all this.”

“You’re optimistic.”

Martin lit a cigarette. “I have to be.”

*****

Billy yawned, fumbling the DVD-R into the player. Christ, how much sleep did a person need?

He fell back onto his couch, yawning again, eyes watering. A panicked voice, sounding like it came from the bottom of the well, yelled, Don’t watch! This is how it happens!

“Whu…happens…?” Billy fell asleep before he could finish the thought.

*****

POV shot of hands holding a corkscrew, a bottle of white wine. A man’s voice, calling, “You ready?”

She starts to turn—

*****

Billy’s phone vibrated, jarring him awake, and he tumbled him off the leather loveseat—

(???leather???)

—sprawling onto the floor. The tiny editing room was dark save for the computer screen across from him, black and drawn with heavy lines. His phone vibrated again, in his suitcoat pocket—

(???suitcoat???)

He pulled it out, his lockscreen revealing two message notifications from MARTIN. Hey, went one, and I just wanted to… began the other.

Billy let his hand fall onto his chest. His brain felt like it’d been replaced by a high-end blender, all thoughts, feelings, and memories mixing at puree, running together:

(–where?–)

(—-the truck—-)

(——the couch——)

(——–grace——–)

(———-grace dead———-)

(———-grace alive———-)

(———-grace never existed———-)

(——–fell to pieces——–)

(——pieces——)

(—-remembering pieces—-)

Billy squeezed his eyes shut. “The fuck.” His voice echoed in his ears.

“My movie,” he said, eyes still closed, trying to reorient himself, slow his racing brain. His voice sounded weird, like a delay, or an echo. “I’m editing my movie.” They felt like lines from someone else’s film. He rolled his head towards the computer to see a square affixed to the screen, blocking a section of light: a Post-It note.

(grace)

He scrambled to his feet, snatching it. You looked so cute sleeping! it read, the writing round and flowing. Took Brent to lunch—I’ll bring you back something. Love, Grace.

He swallowed and frowned. “Brent. The new kid. Wants to be an editor. Knows Grace.” Like reciting ingredients on a box. He pictured a young man with tin can headphones around his neck, clutching a large clipboard, but he wasn’t sure that was Brent. It didn’t feel right. But why the fuck not?

“Grace,” he muttered, waking up his phone, swiping past the notifications from Martin. He’d dreamed her, she was here. She’d left the note. She’d make sense of this.

He listened to the phone ring as a blender scrap of thought caught his attention: what does she sound like?

And everything went quiet—the blender paused. He…didn’t know. Where the answer should be in his head was just nothing, a gray space. A gap. A wound, needing to be stitched.

The phone dumped him into voicemail, but it just recited Grace’s number; she’d never personalized the message. He swallowed and said, “Hey, babe. Call me when you get this, okay? I woke up from…”

(another lifetime)

He hung up without finishing, shaking. What the hell was wrong with him? He looked at the computer, frozen on a street scene. It should’ve looked familiar—wasn’t this his film?—but it looked like something remembered from a dream, not something he’d experienced. The vehicles were modern, but everything had the washed-out pastels of old Technicolor—High Society, Funny Face, films where Lauren Bacall or Audrey Hepburn traded charm with Gregory Peck or Cary Grant. Was that a stylistic choice? Whose?

Worse, he had no idea what the scene was for. He had no context for the placement of this shot, couldn’t think of what came before, what came after, what it was a part of.

He backed away, pressure building in his chest. A scene he recognized but didn’t film. An editor apprentice he knew but not from here. And Grace—

(she turns)

He bolted into an office hallway, wooden doors marching alongside him. He saw no one else, heard nothing but his own panted breathing, the sound of his running footsteps. It wasn’t just the frames spotlighted on the computer editing program, a stylistic choice he couldn’t make sense of, anymore—everything looked washed-out and old-fashioned. His mind focused on Grace from the dream, that magic-hour light, and the thought pounded like a drum in the background: find HER, find HER, find HER.

He found himself in a lobby as anonymous as the hallways, and—

—his phone vibrated in his hand.

GRACE, his mind shouted, but MARTIN was on the call screen. Billy swallowed, hitting ACCEPT.

“Are you okay?” Martin asked, voice obscured by that weird echoing.

No!” he shouted. “I woke up, and I don’t know where Grace is or what I’m doing or where I am and I—I need—”

Stop,” Martin said, and his voice was like thunder, vibrating through the phone and Billy’s head. He did not echo, and the blender in Billy’s head quit. His heart slowed. His breathing grew easier. That one-word command hit his body and brain like a muscle relaxer, slowing everything down, calming it.

“You’re at the 20th Century lot,” Martin said, his voice echoing again, but, for the moment, it didn’t bother Billy. “Come to me.”

Billy opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He tried again. “Do you know what’s happening to me?” He thought his voice sounded like a child’s, helpless and confused, but he couldn’t think of how to stop it. “Do you know where Grace is?”

“Yes,” he said simply, sighing, and hung up.

*****

Billy rushed up the steps, but stuttered to a stop when he saw Martin slouched in his desk chair. Martin, as opposed to everything else, stood out vibrant and real, but the vision was awful: his Hawaiian shirt tattered, his glasses filthy. The desk lamp turned his skin cheesy.

“Martin?”

“Billy,” he said. He straightened, wincing. “Sorry. Been working hard.” He grinned at Billy and it was ghastly, like invisible fingers pulling at the corners of a bloated corpse’s mouth. “And today I realized I fucked it all up.”

“What—” Billy felt something beginning to give in his head, like the feeling your hands have the instant before paper tears. “What’s going on?”

Martin’s face firmed around a frown. “Something awful.” His eyebrows drew together. “But I can fix it. I think.”

“Nothing you’re saying makes sense.”

“Of course not.” He nodded to his couch. “Take a seat. I got something for you to watch. When it’s over, we’ll be okay.” Again his eyebrows drew together. “I think.”

Billy hissed out a breath. “Martin, where the fuck is Grace? Why can’t I—”

Martin frowned again. “Sit,” he said, his voice thunder again, no echo, landing with a thud in Billy’s head. Billy’s legs moved on their own, dropping him onto the couch.

He goggled at Martin, and Martin reached beneath his glasses to squeeze the bridge of his nose. “I just…I just need you to watch this, okay? I’ll answer all your questions afterwards.”

He rolled away from his computer, revealing a black screen with white lettering spelling out REMEMBERING PIECES. At the sight of it, Billy yawned.

“It’s another edit,” Martin said, his voice suddenly coming from far away.

Billy opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but he yawned again. A familiar panicked voice yelled from the bottom of a well, You have to look away! None of this is right!

But Billy’s eyes closed, instead.

*****

POV shot of two hands, hooked into claws, grimy with dirt and blood. The colors over-saturated, bleeding through the screen. A man’s voice, harsh and cracking, “Get back here, you bitch! I’ll get you! I’LL GET YOU—”

Quick camera pan to the girl, running away, starting to look behind her—

*****

Something hard slammed into Billy’s chest, kicking his breath out. His eyes popped opened, and he couldn’t even scream as his muscles spasmed and dropped him off the couch, onto the cold concrete. He flailed, whooping in air to lungs that didn’t want it, his brain a confusing kaleidoscope, impossible to contextualize.

“You think you’re getting paid to sleep, cocksucker?” a man roared. Billy looked up to see a stout tree trunk of a man, tall the way you think of god as tall, a black tee-shirt that blended with the shadows, fists like sledgehammers clenched at his sides. Billy squeezed his watering eyes closed. The colors, the lines, were all wrong—everything hyper-saturated, even the shadows lens-flaring in front of his eyes, assaulting his vision. It reminded him of old 1970s exploitation horror films, the kind an instant away from burning up from overheating.

From further away, a woman’s hectoring voice, “Don’t kick the fucking cameraman, Adam!”

“Who gives a shit? Do you know what this fucking guy did?”

Billy ground his forehead into the cold cement, as if to chill the chaos in his brain, forcing air into himself, forcing himself to breathe.

(—-shouldn’t be here—-)

(——the couch——)

(——–the truck——–)

(———-martin’s———-)

(————the editing suite————)

(———-home———-)

(——–the girl——–)

(——grace——)

(—-where’s grace—-)

(–what happened to grace where’s grace where am i WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING HERE—)

A switch flipped in his head, a change: where once there’d been chaos, now came a singular focus: Grace. Where once there’d been confusion, now came a rage, funneled through the sharp ache in his chest. A miniature sun formed in the center of his mind.

His eyes snapped open and saw Adam’s scuffed Doc Martens. He grabbed the man’s ankle and yanked. Adam cried out, “Hey—” before crashing onto his back.

Billy shambled to his feet, panting, hugging his chest, glaring at the larger man. The sun in his mind burned, and he heard his own voice in it: I’LL GET YOU!

“Settle—” the woman called, but Billy fell onto Adam’s chest, grabbing Adam’s head in both hands, dirty nails digging into Adam’s scalp. He brought it close, glaring into the Adam’s dazed eyes.

Cocksucker,” Billy growled through his teeth and didn’t recognize his own voice. For just an instant, Adam’s face shivered, a momentary loss of a television signal, and what came to mind was a seemingly-incoherent thought that nonetheless made perfect sense to him: This one used the pipe on me before they killed her.

He slammed the back of Adam’s head into the concrete, grunting at the crack he heard, the vibration he felt through his palms.

He yanked the head close again. “Where is she?” he barked and slammed the head back again.

Crack.

Yank. “Where’s Grace?”

Crack.

Yank. “Where am I?”

Crack—he felt hot blood on his fingertips.

Yank—Adam’s eyes were lidded and blank.

“WHERE, YOU MOTHERFUCKER?”

He slammed Adam’s head back again and the crack was different—he felt a give. He dropped the head, looked at his bloody hands and saw these same hands, but with tall grass in the background. A single thought entered his head—You know where Grace is in this universe—and the sun set, leaving just a gray expanse where no memories, no other thoughts, could exist.

Billy looked up. He was on a soundstage he’d never been in before, surrounded by people he didn’t know—a person on a ladder holding a light tray, another leaning against a cut-away bedroom set, boom-mic like a spear beside him, a topless woman in black thigh-highs on a bed, holding green script pages. Everything rendered in that garish, 1970s, 42nd Street theater look. Everything froze, silent, and stunned.

An interior voice—it sounded like Martin—said, Get out.

And Billy ran, the hot blood on his hands the only thing that felt real to him.

*****

He stumbled over the curb to the warehouse Martin lived above and had no idea how he’d gotten there. Jump-cut. He didn’t care. Everything hurt to look at. Echoes from the soundstage bounced around his skull.

(where’s grace?)

(—-crack—-)

(——–where am i?——–)

(—-crack—-)

(WHERE AM I?)

He fell against the warehouse’s door and it opened, revealing Martin, shoulders slumped, his red Hawaiian shirt a sloppy ruin, his glasses opaque with grease smudges.

“So it goes, right?” he said and grabbed Billy’s arm, yanking him inside. The door slammed shut with an awful echoing bang.

(where—crack—where is she—crack—motherfucker—martin—grace—CRACK)

Martin, little more than a silhouette in the dim interior, stepped in front of Billy. “That’s enough of that,” he said and flicked Billy’s forehead.

The echo—stopped. Billy blinked—he could distinguish shapes in the gloom, watch Martin take off his glasses, clean them with his Hawaiian shirt, and then tuck them into the breast pocket, leaving his sickly face oddly naked.

“Better?” Martin asked.

Gingerly, Billy straightened, as if too-quick a movement would bring the insanity back. But it didn’t. The world had righted itself, and so Billy did, too.

“Yes…” He drew out the sound. “What the fuck?”

Martin sighed. “This is not how I wanted it to go.”

It was hard to focus on Martin, not to turn inward. In a weird way, the lack of noise was worse than the chaos because, in the calm, he could remember everything, see the past few—lives? timelines? alternate realities?—but also so many others, the totality impossible to fully grasp. A sharp pain cleaved through his head, made him double back over, grab the sides of his skull.

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a mindfuck,” Martin said, watching Billy’s wince. He turned towards a vault-like door. “C’mon.”

Billy let go of his head gingerly and followed, wary. “What’s going on, Martin?”

“Corralling all the alternatives you have in the Multiverse,” he said. He grasped the vault’s central wheel and spun it, pulling the door open to reveal a chamber filled with high shelves stretching off into the distance, brightening fluorescents thunking on and lighting up the room. “This way.”

Billy stepped inside, his skin prickling with gooseflesh at the cool, sterile, climate-controlled air. Martin started walking along the first row of shelves, each packed with aluminum hexagonal containers of film reels.

“What happened to me?” Billy asked. “Where’s Grace?”

“You know where Grace is.”

“I—” Billy started to say, and then stopped. To a certain extent, he did know where Grace was—if he’d been involved with her, anyway. She was dead and alive and never met him at all, in a dizzying array of possibilities that made his temples pulse. Each one as equally real, but dreamlike, as the others, and it didn’t hurt, not the way it had a moment ago, but it rendered everything slightly feverish, like he was trying to think through a high fever.

Martin waited a few aisles ahead. “It’s not good for you to linger, y’know. There’s a distinct possibility you’re going to disappear.”

Billy jogged up. “What the fuck, Martin.”

“Walk and talk,” Martin said and started down an aisle, but Billy grabbed his arm.

No,” Billy said. “I see all this shit in my head, but what happened to me?”

Martin glanced down at Billy’s hand. “You’re unstuck from reality. You, the essential you that is William Anthony Settle, is apart from life as it exists in the Multiverse. This is hazardous to the mere concept of health for you.

“What happened,” he continued, walking from one row to another, “is that a version of you somehow got fixated on Grace, a person you hadn’t met in that one version of your life.”

They passed another aisle. Billy blinked—

and for a split second they walked a narrow trail in a dense, dark forest

—blink, and Billy was back in the warehouse. His sneakers stuttered over the tile flooring.

“Told you this was unhealthy,” Martin muttered, as if he’d seen the same thing. “Anyway, you became obsessed, and not just you but other versions of you that hadn’t met Grace. In all seriousness, your very existence was shaken.”

“How does that lead to me waking up in different lives, though?”

Martin stopped in front of a tall shelf and read the label card—a series of dots and curving slashes Billy recognized from the films.

“I tried splicing a you-version without Grace into one with Grace,” he said. “I’d never done that before, but I was watching my one friend in literally a thousand years rotting right in front of me. So I tried splicing, putting one of the versions of you without Grace into a version where you still didn’t have Grace, but she had existed for you at some point.” He flapped a hand. “I know, it was stupid, and the problem was, a part of you remembered that other version.”

He started down the aisle, inspecting the film containers. “So, I panicked, tried giving you one where Grace did exist, but a part of you started separating from the world. That’s why everything seemed off to you. Finally, I thought, fuck it, I’ll finish the job so I can try something really drastic.” He stopped midway down the aisle.

“What’s that?”

Martin hunkered down and that blink happened again—

Martin hunkered in front of the base of a diseased tree, his long wine-colored robes teased by a cold wind, outlining his thin, lanky frame

Martin pulled out one of the containers, lifting it with the ease of someone lifting a pillow. Those containers typically weighed a hundred pounds.

“Reboot,” Martin said. Billy blinked—

the hood covered Martin’s narrow face, but not the grin

—and Billy staggered.

*****

They made their way up to Martin’s apartment, Billy intermittently blinking to that confusing forest, leading to Martin’s camp, where a bonfire blazed. Perception pulled like taffy, the lines losing their crispness, the colors shifting through shades, the feel and weight of things dissipating. He couldn’t feel his legs. Martin had to support him the entire way, dumping him onto the couch—

(the log by the fire)

Billy closed his eyes, battling the vertigo. “What are you? What is this?”

He heard Martin sigh. “I am the custodian of all life, and every choice of that life, for all of the Multiverse. I preserve it.”

His stomach churned and Billy panted. He could feel rough bark beneath him. “I see a forest—”

“That’s where I live,” Martin said. “Lived. Over a thousand years ago. I was called Myrddin, then. I was known as the wild man of the woods.”

“But, film…?”

He heard a series of echoing metallic clicks. “I live adjacent to reality. We’re not on Earth. We’ve never been on Earth. You first met me here, remember? When you had that courier gig? You wanted to work in film…I hadn’t had a friend since a certain Welsh lord became king…so, there you go.”

Billy hung his head. Under him, he felt the couch, the log. “How—”

“That’s a longer story than you have time for. I was chosen. I watch every life make its various choices, like branches coming out from the trunk of a tree, going off in different directions. Sometimes those choices lead to death and, like a dead branch off that tree, I prune it to save the tree itself. In this context, then, you, the person defined, is the trunk itself. Anyway.” He cleared his throat. “I—I think your obsession with Grace stemmed from meeting me. Proximity made you a little unstuck and aware of other versions of yourself.”

Billy groaned, then coughed wetly. It made his head vibrate.

“But I’m going to help. I’m taking you all the way back. The trunk of the tree, as it were, with all the branches pruned, but ready to grow again.” Another throat clearing. “You need to open your eyes, though.”

The worst bout of vertigo yet, sending neon arrows across the darkness of his eyelids. “I can’t.”

You will.” Something in Martin’s voice cleaved through the dizziness, leaving that gray expanse again, forcing Billy’s eyes open. He looked at a white bedsheet hanging from the wall, covering the television—

(stared at the bonfire)

Billy cried out, eyes watering, but not closing.

A metallic click

(a wooden snap)

—and a lighted rectangle hit the sheet.

(the branches hit the bonfire, the flames blazing blue)

Tears coursed down Billy’s pulsing eyes. “Jesus Christ.

“I’m going to fix this, Billy,” Martin said, as the film countdown sequence began.

(as the flames blazed higher)

Billy went limp on the couch, eyes lidded.

“Final advice,” Martin said. “You’ll see her in Nebraska. Don’t avoid the puddle.”

And Billy Settle closed his eyes.

*****

—the sensation of running through darkness. Blips of light, like headlights on night highways.

Everything slows down, the image a POV wide shot: a rest stop plaza. Entering the main building, leaving the hot—

(Nebraska)

—sun behind, turning towards the restrooms. You are nineteen years old and you’re going to Hollywood, going to work, somehow and someway, in films. But, lofty dreams aside—and are there any dreams loftier than a nineteen-year-old’s?—you still gotta pee, stretch your legs. The highway is forever.

You see the small yellow sandwich board reading CAUTION WET FLOOR as you walk down the central hallway towards the restrooms, and your body starts to move around it, but something buried deep in your brain, reverberating from the very core of you, forces your body towards the puddle—

—and then you’re gone again, out of the blue and into the black.

More blips. This is your life, passing at hyperspeed.

More darkness, until—

—she’s running through the tall grass, shouting that the sound here is better than any foley artist, and she starts to turn, and oh dear god you’ve waited an eternity for this—

*****

A hand shook his shoulder, a woman saying in a voice like a cool breeze through autumn leaves, “C’mon, Billy, you’re going to be late on set.”

And Billy Settle opened his eyes.


 

Rachel Autumn Deering, 2018

Paul Michael Anderson is the author of the collection Bones Are Made to Be Broken, which Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door, The Secret Life of Souls) called “a dark carnival of rigorous intelligence and compassion, the title novella alone of which is well worth the price of admission”, as well as the novellas I Can Give You Life, and How We Broke (with Bracken MacLeod), and dozens of short stories, articles, and reviews. His new novella Standalone arrives in September 2020, and Stephen Graham Jones (Mongrels, The Only Good Indians) describes it as “A metaphysical science fiction slasher that doesn’t scrimp on the gore and might just get you rooting for the guy with the machete, the ax, the knife, and that certain glint in his eye that lets you know it’s all over.” You can find him on Twitter under the inspired handle @p_m_anderson, or his website thenothingspace.net.

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