Booze, druids, the blues, silly hair, tattered cloth, stoic mythologies, really though does anyone remember laughter? Houses of the Holy may not be the marquee Zeppelin album, but why not? “The Ocean”, “No Quarter”, “Over The Hills and Far Away”, these are places fit for a euphoric soul, and thus they are a place for nerdy fan fiction. – Luke Winkie
“The Song Remains The Same”
BY ADAM SCHRAGIN
The West End is what William said was the “hot” part of London, so to the West End they trudged, William and Stanley and a not so sharp shooter with a bristling head of red hair, Patrick, but they called him Pat. William, who only Pat called Willie, served as ambassador because he had been stationed in the city for two months already, and from the sound of it was a master not just of local custom and nuance but also the ins and outs of finer culture and dining.
“There’s a restaurant down here – you get a good steak and Guinness for five bucks all told. You guys had Guinness yet? Real capital stuff.”
At this idiom Stanley and Pat exchanged a quick, knowing glance. Their incredulity of William’s ambassadorship to England was one of a few things they shared, other than the same brand of cigarettes (Tareyton – “Dual Filter Does It!”) and of course their service. Other than that, Stanley’s adolescence through the maze of Detroit felt far removed from Pat’s reminiscences of cattle farming and heat in Texas, but here they were all aliens. Except for William, of course; the man acted like he was basically raised with an accent.
“Hey Willie,” says Pat. “You met the Queen yet?” Through his snicker you could still make out William’s quick retort – “Hey pal, she’s a stone fox but still don’t got nothing on your mamma.”
Pat and William exchanged mock blows while Stanley stood sharply at the cross of something that looked like Oxford and Baker street.
“Hey numbskulls, do you know how to get where we’re getting?” Stanley yanked a Tareyton from its pack and into his mouth. He ran his hand over his nearly bald head, his black hands glowing in the light of a street lamp. The city streets were not crowded, just a few quick buried faces walking to and fro as the early evening accepted the night. A few pubs they had passed murmured with the inviting sounds of beer and revelry.
“Say man,” Stanley exhaled again. “It’s around here, right?”
“No doubt, brother,” came the over-enthused reply, resulting in another knowing glance between Stanley and Pat. “And I told you, you’re gonna be having too good of a god damn time to even mind the walk once we get up in that place, anyhow.”
“Whatsit,” rejoined Pat sarcastically, still bobbing and weaving at William. “The Crocodile?”
“The Flamingo, and it’s a place where even a square can have a ball,” came the rejoinder, suddenly serious. “I’m saying, they like our kind of music there, and the women are niiice. Problem is, there ain’t a chicken fried steak in the whole place. Think you’ll starve, Pat?”
This resulted in more jousting. Stanley smoked philosophically and surveyed the intersection. His was a wild card among two jokers.
“They got good music here,” continued William. “Soul, like back home. Pat, they don’t have any square dancing but you’ll do okay.”
“You know it,” said Pat, strutting across the street. “As long as I can get close to some honey I’d do the monkey if I had ta.”
“Ain’t no one doing the monkey,” said William severely.
The two leapt ahead of Stanley, and through the light fog and falling light they eventually made it to an almost non-storefront that William made a big show of directing them toward; a door and then a flight of stairs down, and William could hear what unmistakably the organ lick of Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” as they headed into the husky heat of what he imagined would be a very tiny space.
Instead, the interior of The Flamingo was full of bodies and smoke, but not for want of room. The space looked as though maybe it had been a bingo hall at one point, and the walls were abnormally tall. A gaudy chandelier hung above the dance floor but let off an almost imperceptible amount of illumination, and instead Stanley’s eyes adjusted to the sight of fifty or so lit cherries of fifty or so different cigarettes, cigarillos, and the occasional flare up of a match. The room was hot and full of movement. Severely dressed young men in suits with long hair and tight pants and the stomp of boots; women also in boots, cropped, bobbed hair and dark eye makeup. In the corner two men in tortoiseshell glasses appeared to be arguing over which record to play next.
“Beer!?” Pat was already looking for a place to escape as they came to the foot of the stairs. White arms and unblinking strange eyes flashed before them. William gave them a sign of “wait,” and left them there awkwardly. Sam Cooke sang “Twistin’ The Night Away” while they stood stock still, Pat starting to twitch just a bit. Stanley’s eyes adjusted to the scene, his hands in his pockets as he swayed slowly to the music. What they said about British fashions were true, and Stanley felt suddenly itchy and staid in his dress greens. Still, he’d heard women love a man in uniform, and there were lots of women here, wiggling and moving with an ease he couldn’t recall from the States. Then again, there was a lot to take in, and the smoke was playing with his eyes, and his memory was never that great to begin with.
Stanley had just lit a cigarette and offered one to Pat before William returned, hustling both other boys into an anteroom where a tight-faced lad was staring into a strangely ornate mirror, teasing the line of hair that fell just over his eyebrows. Stanley produced, with much ceremony, three white pills.
“The hell are these?” asked Pat.
“You take this, and then you don’t have to drink.” William said. He handed out the pills and popped his immediately. Stanley popped his as well, but Pat seemed unsure.
“What, I’m just supposed to swallow it like this?”
“Whatsamatter, you’ve never taken a pill before?” said Stanley. He hadn’t. Feeling suddenly bad, he turned to the gaunt British boy. “Uh, say there, you don’t have any drink on you, do you pal?”
Without so much as turning, the boy produced a thin flask from his jacket. “Cheers,” he said. It took an embarrassing amount of time to coach Pat into swallowing the pill without choking or coughing, but finally the deed was done. The flask returned to the lad, “Cheers,” he again said, even more deadpan, and the visitors made their way back into the main room, the full force of Eddie Floyd convulsing the dance floor. At that, the trio took an unspoken cue and split into different parts of the room. Stanley moved his arms and they led him into the back, his hips swaying to this comfortable, familiar music. The pill, whatever it was, made his head feel inflated in a pleasing way, and his limbs didn’t so much twitch as spread. He looked around at the room, and felt as though maybe the white pill was something everyone else knew as well, as though maybe they were dancing inside that white pill, one big new earth with a new dusty smell and better movement.
Stanley stared forward. In his bobbing he thought he caught a vision of Pat’s red top, but that may have been the light of twelve close cigarettes. Like a beam of some kind, he stared straight ahead, and into the faraway eyes of someone. This someone was shaking herself, her long blonde hair dipping across her arms. Across the way other, faster dances passed before him, and she was gone in a whir of cashmere coats and thin tartan ties. She reappeared, closer; she cut around him, dancing and smiling, and for a second he was unsure of himself and his place here, and then the song turned to Lyn Collins and “Think (About It),” and it was like they were conversing, the music a familiar topic and their dancing to it the way some people shake their hands when they get emphatic about something or other.
She was a good dancer. Her straight black dress held to her close, and she engaged him with her arms and body without touching him or indicating at him, but as they moved he knew he was moving with her and she with him. Then she did speak. “Got a smoke, love?” Stanley almost forgot his arms but found in his breast pocket a cigarette and handed it to her and lit a match. She held his hand with the match in it to light her cigarette. He opened his mouth to say something but the music came on even louder than before and she just grinned and began to move, so he moved with her. “That’s How Strong My Love Was.” She was still smiling when he took her hand in his and twisted her around. They were having fun; she laughed at him and turned him around likewise, and he had to duck under her arm because he was a good foot taller than she.
“What’s you name?” he asked her.
“Veronica. And you?”
“Stanley! And how long are you here?”
“Do you like England?”
“This is my first day on leave. I like it so far.”
The rest of their conversation was dribble between dance beats, and he got less shy with her and took her hand more often, and he thought he could see an outline of his friends dancing somewhere in the artificial dusk, and he felt at home for the first time since he had left. They danced and danced, and occasionally she would leave for a minute or two but she always came back. As “Dearest One” faded down, though, she whispered-spoke at him: “It was nice to meet you Stanley. Enjoy England.” Her lips grazed his cheek and she turned. Behind her he could see the man from the restroom, his coif now unmanaged and nearly mangy. Stanley gave him a nod and a smile and was surprised at the cold in the boy’s eyes. For a minute he danced alone, and then like a shock he realized what he was doing. He all but leapt through the crowd and nearly collided with a bedevilled Pat being led out by William. Pat was shouting aggressively and William was pushing him away from the crowd. After some gesticulating with Stanley it was arrived at that they should all go upstairs, and out of the Flamingo. Outside the sky was velvet dark and the wooze of the music and warmth and drugs dissipated a little in the cold air.
“What the hell is wrong with you two?” asked Stanley.
“We can’t take this fool anywhere,” said William.
Pat looked genuinely sulky. “I’m doing my thing, right? And I’m moving like you’ve never seen and this fellow starts shouting that I stepped on his Italian loafers or some business. You’d have thought I asked his girl to meet me in the coat room or something by the way he huffed and puffed.”
“Yeah, but with the way you were leaping around the dance floor it’s a wonder they didn’t toss you out to begin with,” argued William.
“What can I say? I was feeling real good.”
Stanley wandered off a bit from the conversation, training his eyes around the street corner. The turn of an engine arrested his attention, and from a distance he could see Veronica on the back of a scooter, clutching the boy from earlier while she swung her hair back.
“Veronica!” he yelled and waved, and she turned back and dangled her fingers behind her. The engine of the scooter roared and the vehicle leapt into gear. The growl of it was loud, but not so loud that Stanley couldn’t make out the distinct, gravel-voiced slur thrown back at him – “NIGGER!” – and the voice seemed to hold in the air even when the sound of the scooter disappeared. Pat’s wounded pride and William’s aggravation were forgotten. For a second no one moved, and then William took a cigarette to his lips and said, “Come on,” and the three boys moved away from The Flamingo and into the London night.
They were quiet, and then Pat said, “He didn’t have the guts to say that to your face, pimply twerp.”
Puffing, William added softly, “They ain’t usually like that, Stanley.”
Stanley stuck in the silence. He was a fool to think a different place, a darker room, a different girl, and things would be different. The same. The same.
“The Rain Song”
BY DEVON TINCKNELL
The main character’s name is Finn. He is in his twenties and Finn was a popular baby name in the first decade just after the millennium, the one that people still can’t come to a consensus on what to call. So assume that Finn was born in that era, he’s in his twenties, and that makes this the year 2020-something. Approximately.
So it’s the future. Not much has changed. Brazil turned itself into the world’s first openly libertarian plutocracy and something really bad happened to Washington, D.C. Like so bad it’s not there anymore. Brazil is doing fine.
Finn is sitting in his car. It doesn’t fly and it still runs on gas, which is rather expensive, but it’s a normal car aside from that. It was made in the People’s Republic of New Burma. Cheap, but fairly reliable.
Finn is listening to “The Rain Song.” It’s being performed by a band called Led Zeppelin that was into the occult arts. And also underage girls. Finn doesn’t know if that’s why this song is part of a cheat code, but then again, he doesn’t understand much about the mechanics of cheat codes so who the hell knows. Maybe the mystery is what makes them fun. But probably what happens after a code works is what makes them fun.
Forty cents worth of assorted change sits on the seat next to him. Three dimes, two nickels. The dimes were all minted in 1993, the nickels in 94. This is important.
“The Rain Song” is streaming off one of the eight or nine devices in the car capable of streaming music. Finn hits refresh on the dashboard control, and the song starts over, again with those sad, lilting guitar strums.
Finn calls them cheat codes. Other people on the Forum call them spells, a few call them “pops.” Finn hates the name pops, is alright with spells, but greatly prefers cheat codes.
He found the first one on accident. That’s rare. Most people stumble across the Forum, read about one of the easy codes like Cheers S06E05 or Three Carrots, and then skeptically give it a try. When it works, they either come back to the Forum hungry for more, or freak out and spend the rest of their life trying to forget what happened.
The first code Finn activated goes by the name Splash on the Forum. It was his 19th birthday party and someone dared him to eat a tablespoon of cinnamon. For the code to work it doesn’t have to be a tablespoon, just 10-20 milliliters of cinnamon held in the mouth for no less than thirty seconds and no greater than two minutes.
Gagging on the dry powder filling his oral cavity like a sandstorm of red-hot dust, Finn jumped into the pool. He was wearing a chain he’d inherited from his maternal grandfather. It was gold. It was touching his skin. The gold, the cinnamon in the mouth, and the full immersion into water. Those were Splash’s requirements. When Finn resurfaced, his world had changed. He was experiencing eight new colors he’d never seen before.
“The Rain Song” reaches the 4:51 mark and Finn hits refresh for the thirtieth time. Only two more to go.
When he found the Forum, for the first time since he’d crawled wet and gagging from the pool, Finn felt relief. Understanding. An absence of total and complete terror. Not only were there other people experiencing these new colors no one else in his life could see, but they had gained the ability using the exact same method. They’d refined it to a science. They’d even named the colors: Ultragen, maroove, shunder, deep red, bleen, soral, denenin, and magestica.
Finn started attempting other codes. Three Carrots was uncomfortable but easy. The effects were mellow, not as profound as Splash, and not as long-lasting. The eight new colors wore off after about a month. The afternoon Finn did Three Carrots, he could stop time for thirty seconds at a time. He couldn’t move in the frozen time, but he maintained awareness. Passively watching everything and everyone simply stuck within an element whose consistent flow is taken for granted. The next morning the power had worn off.
Refresh. One more to go. Finn picks up the change, palms into his mouth, and swallows it with the assistance of a large gulp of Strawberry Coke. Coke comes in fruit flavors now. Blueberry is the best but 7-11 was out.
Finn is wrapped head to toe in plastic wrap. He’s cut mouth and eye holes, which is allowable, but he still looks like a shrink wrapped mummy. The plastic wrap keeps the sodium bicarbonate in contact with his skin. Sodium bicarbonate is more commonly known as baking soda. Finn has taken ten aspirin in order to thin his blood.
There are nearly two hundred verified codes on the Forum. Maybe another hundred that haven’t been verified to group satisfaction, some members reporting wild success while others speak of nothing but failure. Finn has completed eighty-seven codes. This will be his eighty-eighth.
4:51. Refresh. Again, the sad guitars. It’s not raining outside of Finn’s car. It’s early morning and the skies are clear. Four minutes and fifty-one seconds to go. Finn is nervous. He has forty cents worth of metal in his stomach. He pulls a stun gun out of the backpack on the backseat and sets it on his lap.
Finn’s thirtieth code, better known on the Forum as Backwards Batman, has been his favorite so far. He has only done it, “activated” in Forum speak, a couple of times because an experienced moderator warned him that the effects dwindle with repeated back-to-back activation. “You gotta let it recharge,” the moderator said.
Backwards Batman sent Finn screaming out of his skull, astral projecting at 88 mile per hour, exposing him to the energy fields that radiate outwards from every living creature and a select few rocks. The first time, he’d circumnavigated the globe twice, tried to enter the body of a Parisian woman, and hovered in a professional sports franchise’s cheerleader locker room. The second time, he attempted a voyage to the Moon but ended up zooming monotonously through space for 150,000 miles before being sucked back into his body.
Like its name implies, the 200K Streetwise Stun Gun is capable of delivering a 200,000 volt electrical shock. “The Rain Song” is at 2:34.
Finn almost stopped doing codes after Ulysses, named for the James Joyce novel that contains it. It was not only a painful and difficult code to activate, but it forced Finn to live the entire life of a gout-ridden merchant in 16th century China. After a literal lifetime of pain, swelling, and rice for every meal, Finn returned to his standard existence and promptly wrote a three page critique of Ulysses on the Forum, warning against it. Of course, the similar warnings he’d read hadn’t stopped him.
“The Rain Song” is at 3:32. The same whining tones and waning crashes echo throughout the car on their thirty-second, and final, reiteration. The plastic wrap squeaks against the leather upholstery as Finn brings the stun gun up to the bare spot on his chest, above his heart. He flips the switch to on. A red LED lights up.
His skin itches from the baking soda. He stares at the drawing of the three overlapping triangles he printed out from the Forum, letting his eyes unfocus. Page or Plant, whoever was the singer, wails in the background. Three dimes and two nickels sit uncomfortably in his stomach. The digital display ticks on: 4:48, 4:49, 4:50.
There is no great build up. No soaring guitars or primal scream of vocal intensity. He pushes the metal prongs into his skin. This is the code that has tantalized and terrified him since he first found the Forum. Finn breathes in. Then out. 4:51.
“Over the Hills and Far Away”
BY DAN RYS
Honestly, the only thing I remember is the incredible pressure on my head, vise-like, as the ground rose up to meet me and then fell away, repeatedly, before I blacked out again. That and the glass, which had shattered all over the pavement and was making its way steadily deeper and deeper into my skull. It had been strong, formidable, but it had no chance with the force with which I had been slammed down. I had finally realized how thick it really was.
They told me later that I’d been lucky, that it could’ve been worse, after all. They told me not to worry. Somebody’d come by to clean up the glass; the city would send someone to wash away the blood. You don’t have to do it yourself, they told me. They always send someone, eventually.
Two days later they released me, and I stumbled home, only 14 stitches heavier, though maybe a pint or two lighter. Eleven a.m. and I was pouring whiskey into my coffee when the phone rang. “Come on down to Kelly’s,” Jack said loudly. “I gotta get a look at your fucking face!” Ten minutes I told him, skipping the coffee mixer, and got dressed a touch gingerly. With my glasses in pieces, I decided to just roll with the fuzziness of it all. The day was grey anyway, and there wasn’t much wisdom to be gained with clarity.
“Christ, you look like shit!” Jack cried out as I ambled into the bar. “Coulda been worse though, Hell! — you still got your eyes in their sockets, at least, and the swelling ain’t too bad.” He ordered two shots, knocked them both back himself, then asked for two more, and we took them down together. “That’s what you get for living in this shithole of a neighborhood, anyway.”
“You seem to like it here,” I said. Jack lived uptown, but he rolled through Kelly’s most every day, driving his pickup up and down the avenues at any time of day or night, sober or otherwise, looking for some type of adventure or another, always searching for the next buzz or the next high or the next girl. I never knew why he stuck to Kelly’s as his base camp — as it was, it was Dive Bar, USA, and in this part of town there were at least three on every block. But when he was around he’d drink with me, and I was grateful for it. Being alone too long will grate on you, no matter who you are.
“You gotta get out of here, man,” he said to me, ordering another round. “Come crash at my place for a while, or stay with your sister for a bit. What’d the cops say, anyway? Christ they knocked you around a bit.”
I laughed and didn’t answer; there’d been no cops, and there wouldn’t be. No one gave a shit; not around here anyway. And as for getting out, what was the point? I didn’t have enough money to settle anywhere else, and I’d just wind up back around here soon enough. There are some places in the world, once you find them, you never leave them.
“Just think about it, man,” Jack was saying. “Come hang uptown for a bit, no worries, I won’t care at all. You can roll with me, we’ll have a good time, get you cleaned up a bit and out somewhere new…”
I practically crashed into Melissa in the park, her eyes in the clouds and mine in the fog. She was radiant, even I could see that; dressed in the brightest colors and nearly skipping with an excitement she couldn’t repress, it seemed like she was ready to explode when she saw me. She had always been one of my favorite people, though I’d never actually told her that. It was a little bit of a mix of admiration and envy that I felt toward her; admiration of her unquenchably positive spirit, and envy that I could never quite replicate that myself, or so it seemed to me. Every time I saw her smile threatened to overwhelm her being, infecting those around her in a way that didn’t even seem completely possible. But she was in rare form then.
“Alex, Alex, I haven’t seen you in ages!” she said, eyes alight, glowing. “How’s it going?”
“I’ve been better,” I said, grimacing slightly.
“Did I tell you?” she said, now positively bursting, bouncing on the balls of her feet as if she were running a marathon and wanted to get back to the race as soon as possible, cheeks reddening with excitement, clapping her hands together. “I’m leaving — Ben and I — we’re road-tripping out West –” and she was off again, almost cartwheeling, head lost among the possibilities, extending beyond the atmosphere in a way that almost drew me in, that almost made me smile in spite of myself.
“You’re… leaving? Are you coming back?”
“I’m not sure!” she exclaimed, now compulsively clapping her hands in anticipation. “We don’t have too many plans… just the open road… just the absolute adventure of it all…”
It was tough to see Kyle in this position. He was down, head angled toward the floor as he sat across the booth from me, words spat derisively and reluctantly, eyes refusing to meet mine. He was broken, almost — not to the point where he’d given up totally, but to the point that I almost worried he might. When his eyes did rise from navel-level they stared blankly, bored holes in the wall without being there at all, like he’d rather be anywhere but here in this pub with me, but that he didn’t know where that ‘anywhere’ could possibly be. It scared me, to a degree. Hollow.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he was saying, and I didn’t know what else to tell him. He’d taken a breakup hard; four years of dedication followed by a catastrophic ending that he couldn’t fully grasp, and the man was nearly drowning in his own need for whiskey. As a friend, you give him hope, you give him platitudes, you say things like “It’ll get better” and “things will start looking up,” and you see his eyes just don’t believe it.
What about that job in L.A.? I asked him, almost anticipating his response.
“What about it?” he spat. “I wouldn’t be able to pull it off anyway.”
Fuck that, I said. Have a little faith, now, man.
“What do I have out there? What do I have here?” he asked, face ablaze yet still refusing to meet my eyes.
It might help to get out, I said. It might help to have a change of scenery.
“What help is that? What could possibly make this all worth it?” he asked, and I looked at him, lost…
I stumbled home drunk, down the alleyways from the pub, following the footpath through the park, striding quickly past Kelly’s and turning down my street. I was tipsy but not lost, drunk but not gone, scattered but not hopeless. It would be better, maybe, I thought, to get some sleep, to not burn the midnight oil tonight, to start fresh again tomorrow. Things would look up in the light of another day rather than under the faint glow of the streetlights as they searched the empty sidewalks. A new day, a new perspective. A new outlook, maybe. Positivity.
My shoes crunched on the broken glass as I neared my front door. Soon, they said, someone would come, someone would take all the broken glass away, someone would wash the blood from the street. Soon, they said. All the remnants of the entire incident, of the entire situation, would all be washed away. Soon, they said, it’d all be gone.