Fantasy Horror Literary Fiction metafiction

Happy Ending

By James Van Pelt · Mar 8, 2019
4,927 words · 18-minute reading time

A Clock

Photo by Srikanta H. U via Unsplash.

From the author: A creative writing teacher, a gifted but rebellious student, and an examination of which way the arrow of time points.


 The bullet stirred from its bed of bone in the back of the skull, then leapt through the bloody tunnel of brain tissue behind it.  Neurons closed on neurons, and severed capillaries reknit and healed as the bullet flashed through the brain, out the hole in the roof of the mouth, past shattered teeth--whose fragile fragments came home again to perfect, flawless form--and flew down the gun barrel to nest tightly in the now unexploded casing.

Against his lips, the barrel pressed heavily and tasted of oil.

Bob took the gun away from his mouth, rested it in his lap and opened his eyes.  Tears crept up his cheek, as he turned his gaze away from the gun and to the window of his study where autumn leaves streamed past, their tattered glory afire in the evening sun.  He couldn't see the elm or willows, just the leaves dancing by, and a fanciful thought returned to him: if you can't see the source, who can tell if leaves are falling to the ground or jumping back to the limbs?  And what does it matter?  The leaves are in the air.  They don't know their direction.  Karl was right.

I'm twenty-four, he thought, and he felt old, used up and grey.  Beneath the pale, unlined skin on the top of his hand, he could sense wrinkles and liver spots.  His knuckles waited to bulge, to become arthritic.  I'm old, he thought.  I've grown old.

Leaves tumbled across the window in shades of gold and red for a long time before he put the gun back in the desk drawer, and picked up the phone.

It droned in his ear like a death knell for a minute, then clicked.  "You're no hero," unsaid Mrs. Downs in his ear.  "You had a responsibility."

Bob replied, "It was just a lesson.  A discussion of story theory.  How could I know he identified so strongly?"

"The boy believed in you.  You walked on water."  Her voice stayed flat and cold.  Nothing remained in it.  No hope.  No anger.  She could have been reciting a laundry list.  "He wanted to be a writer like you."

"Karl made choices.  I believe if he had lived he could have done anything.  Karl had great potential."  Bob remembered their first days together.  Karl sat in the back of the room, writing in his tight, black scribble every word Bob said. Karl always wrote no matter what else was going on in the room, his dark eyes occasionally looking furtively away from his legal pad.  He'd shown a story to Bob after the first week of the creative writing class.  It was a 1,000 word time travel piece called "Rats Live on No Evil Star."

Later, Bob gave him a copy of Hawking's A Brief History of Time, so he could see what modern physists thought of time.

Karl had handed him the story reluctantly, frightened.  Bob knew he’d signed up for the class because Bob had published.  "Here," he'd said.  "It's no good."

Mrs. Down's said, "Nothing you do today can make a difference.  I know who my boy was before.  I know who you are now."

Bob held the phone tightly against his ear.  He could almost feel her presence.  She stood in the room with him, her lips only centimeters away.  "You have to blame me, I know.  My name was in the note, but I didn't see it coming.  It's too much . . . it's way too much to ask for forgiveness, but I hope you understand."

"Why did you call?"  Mrs. Downs didn't sound surprised at all.

"Mrs. Downs, I'm Bob Wells," Bob said, his voice squeezed tight and scratchy.  "Karl's teacher."

Bob dialed.

Bob put the phone down gently, fearfully and full of guilt.  On the desk in front of him lay three pieces of paper: a form rejection from HarperPrism telling him his novel was being returned; a formal request from the school board for his resignation, and a note to him from Karl that had been folded into the back of the book.   Hawking's book, Karl had returned to him, held down the notes.   

Everywhere Bob looked within himself he could see nothing but darkness: no way out.

Gazing blankly at the letter on the floor, he thought of all the time in class lecturing from his position as a soon to be published novelist; all the conferences with students who signed up for his courses on the weight of his reputation, and it pushed upon him with the bulk of a terrible lie.  He remembered looking at students' stories, his red pen in hand, marking in the margin, Unbelievable dialogue, What's the conflict?, or Why should the reader care?  And as he marked, he thought about how important his words would be on their papers.  This came from the Bob Wells, they would think.  He was my Creative Writing teacher in high school.

He held his hand out, and Karl's note fluttered from the floor back to his hand.  Bob's eye held to the last words that he had written on the paper--the words that he had written that ignored so much of what Karl said, that refused to read between the lines.  They were, "This is an unlikely idea for a story, Karl.  Trash it and work on something more believable."

Above that, Karl's note read,

Mr. Wells,

I know you don't think I can make it as a writer, but I've thought a lot about what you said about how stories are structured.  I still think you are wrong about that, just as you are wrong about failing me.  A story ought to work the way the universe works.  According to Hawking, the universe tends toward disorder, not order.  Cups don't leap off the linoleum and reassemble on table tops; they fall and shatter.  Chaos is the rule, and that's the way we perceive it.   So fiction that makes "order out of the chaos of life," as you put it, runs counter to the direction of the universe. 

If I lived my life according to your description of stories, jumping off a cliff shouldn't kill me.  The disorder of my corpse at the bottom should undo itself and I'd fly to the top alive. 

I think I can prove it.  I can write a story that will get an "A."  Kind of a performance story.  I'm a good writer.  It will be a story about a cliff and how the real direction of a story should be disorder and mystery, not order and understanding.

Sincerely,

Karl Downs

Bob put the note back into the book, and returned it to his desk.  He retreated to a corner of the room and sat in it, his back squeezed by the conjunction of the walls.

After a while, he stood, then backed out of the room, his head hanging, his hands like rags dangling from his arms.

Walking through the campus, he barely noticed the students passing around him.  Their conversations stopped as he approached.

"That's him," Bob heard one say behind him; then the boys walked by silently, their eyes darting at Bob and switching away.  Facing each other, the distance between them grew, until he saw them talking with animated pleasure.

In the principal's office, the silence lingered and vibrated like a discordant note.

"Thank you," said Bob, finally, knowing that it wasn't appropriate, but what else could he say?

"We think it best if you resigned immediately," the principal said as she closed his file.

Bob shook his head as if he were trying to wake from a dream--one of those nightmares where he knew what was going to happen but where he could do nothing to stop it.  "What are you suggesting?"

"We're going to have to make a change.  The Advanced Class in Creative Writing won't be offered again.  It was a mistake to put you in charge of it.  Karl shouldn't have been there."

"He had talent, but the boy was troubled.  I didn't know," Bob said in surrender, putting hardly any voice behind the words, nearly whispering them.

The principal, a woman five years older than Bob, unfolded the photo-copy of the suicide note.  She appeared to mull over the lines, and Bob tried to think of anything to say.  He thought, they're blaming me!  And when he looked inside, he saw that they were right. The knowledge spun up to him darkly.

"The school board," she said, "Has seen this.  They met last night just to talk about this.  It's bad, Bob.  Your name is all over it, and we talked to kids in your class.  They confirmed much of what Karl says here.  They said you badgered him.  Their words.  One said you ridiculed Karl.  Another said you singled him out."

Numbness dominated his face.  He wanted to reach up and touch his cheeks to see if they were real.  His shirt felt too tight; he could hardly breathe within it.  "Karl wrote notes all the time."

"They found this from Karl," she said, holding a sheet of paper. "In his coat pocket.  You know, he left his coat on the rail?  It was neatly folded there.  Did you know he took his shoes and socks off?  Why would he do that?  Fifteen years old, and he dives off a cliff, but he takes his shoes and socks off."

"I don't understand it either," Bob said.  The whole conversation might as well be taking place in an echo chamber, he thought.  It seemed so unreal; so much like it all was unwinding around him.

"Why did it happen, Bob?"  The principal sat back in her chair.  Bob could tell she'd already made up her mind.

Bob surveyed the empty class room.  Marcia Binder, who loved Bob best after Karl, had left a pile of crumpled paper on her desk.  He could see his own comments written on one of them; it was a feedback sheet on her last story.  "Good job," it read.  "With a little more work, this will really shine."  She'd beamed when she'd read it the day before, and the color had risen in her cheeks when she'd thanked him after class.  She has a crush on me, he'd thought, as she smiled shyly, holding her books close to her chest.

The doors opened and students backed in, pointedly not looking at Bob as they took their seats.  Outside in the hall, the end of class bell rang, and the angry mutter among them rose like a muddy creek.

"It's a variation on the old Chinese blessing," Bob said desperately, aware that he'd lost them completely.  "May you always have interesting material."

No one raised their hands.  None of them wrote anything he was saying into their notebooks.

"There's a story about William Faulkner that he was at his father's deathbed when the old man passed on.  Faulkner was supposed to have gone to a mirror and looked into his own face so that later he could write an accurate description of what a man whose father just died looked like.  I'm not saying we should view Karl's death as a source for fiction, but we have gone through something here, and that something will effect us and our writing.  We're more plugged into the reality of the human drama."

None of their faces offered support.  Nothing is colder than high school students who think of you as the enemy, thought Bob.  Marcia's lips were thin, white lines; her hands were locked firmly on top of her desk.  She looked at him without blinking.

Bob realized that they couldn't get past it.  Karl's empty desk vibrated like a terrible black hole, sucking all his words to it, all of his energy in, and it returned nothing.

After forty-five minutes of lecture, Bob gave up.  The lesson wasn't going to work.  They were more than silent; it was if they were seething in their seats.  

He tried to move on, to follow his lesson plan.  Yesterday had been a review of building scenes.  "A scene is like a tiny story in itself," he'd said.  "The beginning will be related to the end.  Whatever action you start with will complete the scene; whatever emotion you provoke will be a part of its structure.  It'll change the story and move it, so despair moves toward hope, or victimization to control.  Everything in the scene contributes to the story, but the scene is a story too."

Today he was to discuss techniques in description.  The farther he went though the more obvious it was.  They hated him.

He waited for a question.  The material was abstract.  Generally the students couldn't follow him when he went into fiction theory, but he'd present it anyway until someone asked him for an example.  No one said a word.

He started class with "Order in a description is discovery.  The reader discovers what is there in the order you present it, as if you are holding the reader's head and directing his attention.  Presenting the information in a different order gives the reader a different perspective, and it can change the whole story.  Order is everything."

The tardy bell rang.  Facing their desks, the students backed out of the room.

Karl's death came with him into the empty class room, and the note from HarperPrism telling him that his novel ". . . does not fit our current publishing needs," still reverberated. The two seemed linked.  As he prepared his lecture for the day, though, he felt the old confidence returning.  In my room, I'm king, he thought.  They can beat you down, but they can't kill you.  Dozens of publishers rejected John Grisham.

Yesterday's ugliness could be washed away.  They could start fresh.  He waited almost eagerly for the students to come to class.

The radio unannounced the news of Karl's death while Bob filled his breakfast bowl, spoon after spoon.

 #

"It's probably no good either," said Bob, venom dripping from each word.

Karl handed Bob a twenty-page manuscript.  "Here's my semester project.  I finished early." he said.  "But, you won't get it, I'll bet." 

Stunned, the rest of the class watched.  Bob knew he was out of control, but the anger rolled up within him.  The class would be so much better without this imbecile, thought Bob.  This is Advanced Creative Writing, and they're taking it because I'm a real writer, not one of those lit fools that make up the rest of the department.

"You can't be a writer if you won't learn!"  Bob's voice boomed in the room, overwhelming Karl finally.  The boy shrank within himself, as if he suddenly understood that their battle was no mock game but a serious war.  He reacted as if he just realized his teacher hated him.  Karl's neck nearly disappeared as his shoulders rose to his ears. 

Bob shouted, "You have a crummy attitude!"

HarperPrism's rejection buzzed around in Bob's thoughts like a malevolent horsefly.  He couldn't concentrate on Karl, who glowered in the seat beside him.  The arrogance of this kid, thought Bob.  What does he know about fiction?  Who does he think he is telling me what makes a story work?

"You told us that a reader doesn't remember a story chronologically," said Karl.  "You said that the story is like a memory--that the reader has access to all of the story at once after he's read it--so it shouldn't matter what order it's told in.  Time in the mind flows both ways, which is what Hawking said.  You said that a writer revises the first word of a story knowing the last word, and that a writer writes from the end.  My story does that."

Bob gave up on lecturing to the whole class.  Only Karl existed.  Only Karl needed to hear this.  Only Karl challenged Bob's knowledge of writing.  How could he? Bob thought.  I'm published.  I have put in the lonely hours and hours writing until my brain loosened up, and the muses came down and touched me. 

"You have an 'F' on this, young man, not only because the story is three sentences long, but because it demonstrates no understanding of the order in which a story must be told.  You have started with the end and moved to the beginning.  The whole story, and I quote, is 'He died.  He struggled.  He was born.'  No matter how you revise this, it will never be a story.  It's backwards."

Karl scrambled through his notes.  "Last week," he said, reading from his cramped handwriting on the yellow legal pad, "you told us that a story has 'profluence.'  You said that was 'movement.'  You also told us that stories are about reversals.  'Whatever condition begins the story must be changed by the end.'  My story fulfills those requirements."

"You have purposely ignored every piece of advice I've offered about creating readable fiction.  What hurts most here is that you have talent.  You know your way around a sentence.  There's a spark of imagination within you.  But you waste it all in this tripe.  Your 'story,' Karl, doesn't meet any of the requirements of narration."

Karl said, "It boils fiction to its essence.  Stephen Hawking has told me more about the way the world works than you have.  He says the arrow of time can point either way.  We just perceive it the one way and not the other.  The universe either moves toward the Big Bang or away from it, and that's reflected in stories."

The class giggled nervously.  For a second, Bob realized he was playing to the crowd.  "You don't make sense, Karl.  My head aches just trying to follow your thoughts.  I get twitchy thinking about it."

Karl said, "There's lots of ways of perceiving the world.  Looking backwards ought to reveal themes we haven't explored the stodgy old way.  I mean, for crying out loud.  Plod, plod, plod.  Once upon a time to they lived happily ever after.  Don't you think it's more interesting to start with the result and see how it happened?" 

Karl hunched forward in his seat, intense and fiery, his dark eyes lit up like Bob had never seen them.

"I know the rules," Karl said.  "I've known them since Saturday morning cartoons.  All of us . . ." He waved his arm to encompass the entire class.  ". . . have heard a million stories."

Clenching his fists at his side, Bob said, "You can't break the rules until you know the rules."

He's mocking me, thought Bob.

"You've got to be willing to experiment," said Karl, laughing after he saw his grade.  His legs sprawled out comfortably from under the desk, and he leaned back in his chair, relaxed.  Bob remembered when Karl had been frightened to show him his first story.  I've created a monster, thought Bob.  I hinted he had talent, and now he doesn't believe he needs me anymore.  Well, it's time to take Mr. Know-it-all down a notch.

All of them looked over their stories.  Bob had written voluminous notes at the ends of each filled with suggestions about plot and pacing, description and conflict.  He struggled with his face though.  He felt sure they could read his expression and could see the HarperPrism rejection in it.

The class began innocently enough.  Holding his disappointment inside like a sullen coal, Bob backed down the aisles between the desks, watching each student look over their grades eagerly, then handing their stories to him before assuming an expectant expression.  Finally, he stood at the front of the class, holding their stories in a neat stack.  At the bottom, because he sat in the last seat, waited Karl's story, a single page with little writing on it beside the red "F" in a big circle.

Still hungry; he hadn't eaten anything, Bob left for school.

He knew they'd rejected it by the opening salutation; "Dear Contributor."

Trembling, he folded the letter neatly, slid it back into the envelope and unripped it closed.  This is it, he thought.  They've bought the novel.  They have to.  The editor was so gushing in her request to see the complete manuscript after he'd sent the sample chapters.

He'd told everyone in school, casually, just dropping it in at the end of conversations.  "Oh," he'd said, "by the way,  HarperPrism has my novel now."  Invariably they'd ask when it would be in the stores.  He'd shrug his shoulders ruefully.  "Who can guess?  You know how the publishing world is."  He'd wink as if they both were knowledgeable conspirators.

In the left corner, the return address said HarperPrism Publishing.

Coming out of his house, with a bounce in his step, he backed to the mailbox and put the letter in it.

Lunch is an adventure, he thought.  The mail comes at lunch, and who knows what magazine has mailed an acceptance.  Maybe, even, some news of the novel.

Settled comfortably into his chair now, Bob picked up Marcia Binder’s story, which turned out to be a sweetly told romance between a talented high school student and her Art teacher.  The ending scene took place in a subway station as the student left for college.  She waits for him, hoping that he'll see her off, but he never comes. In the story, she'd not told the teacher of her love, and most of the story was of her struggling with her feelings.  Bob paged back to the dream sequence in the middle--a graphically rendered fantasy of the student and teacher’s consummation of the relationship.  Taking Bob’s advice to heart, she'd concentrated on senses other than sight and sound: the pressure of a fingertip, a suggestion of lemonade on the tongue, a thread of hair brushing a forehead, a hint of coppery excitement in the breath, and the rasp of a sheet sliding across skin.  He wrote comments in the margin complimenting her on her use of sensory detail.

Five weeks had passed since HarperPrism asked to see the novel, and the joy of it buoyed him through the drudgery of grading, through the frustration of teaching to freshmen and the inanity of department politics.  High hopes and Advanced Creative Writing pushed him through the day.

He moved on to the next student’s work.

Bob neatly unwrote an “F” at the end of Karl’s story, his pen tip rolling across the red line, sucking the ink back until the page was clean of any mark.

Closing his eyes, Bob thought I must have praised the boy too much. He needs to be shook up, for his own good.  In the end, Karl will appreciate the lesson; he'll look back and recognize my guiding influence.  Almost as good as "Bob Wells" on the cover of his own novel, Bob thought, would be the inscription inside his talented protégé's first book, "To my mentor, Bob Wells."

Bob knew he'd have to get Karl's attention some way; the grade wouldn't be enough.  Why, the boy might even take the “F” as his own “Red Badge of Courage.”  Hadn't all the greats been misunderstood?  Who recognized Poe in his lifetime?  And Fitzgerald had ended his career in Hollywood scripting hack screen plays.

He tapped his forehead in disbelief.  Karl’s new story was only three sentences long!  In a stack of students’ stories, pristinely enclosed with clear, plastic covers and all ten pages or more, the single sheet of paper with Karl’s name on it seemed like a joke.  He read it twice.

The sun rose slowly and barely noticed in the west.  Paper after paper he read until he came to Karl’s.

Two weeks later, he read the first story on the stack.

The bell rang, ending class.  I couldn't be happier, thought Bob.  In all of their many ways, they love me.

Students nodded their heads and copied the information into their notebooks.  Karl wrote furiously, and Bob could see that inspiration had overtaken him.  Careful to appear casual, Bob strolled by Karl's desk and saw his first paragraph was something gruesome--something about a suicide.  Bob shuddered a little.  It was the only gray spot in his otherwise wonderful day.  Talk of suicide hit too close to home for him.  It reminded him that he too thought about swerving into oncoming traffic.  It's the curse, he thought, of the overly imaginative.  Suicide always seems an option, a romantic, final gesture of retribution, sacrifice or defiance.

"Remember," he said finally, "If you try an experimental technique in your semester project, like a metafiction, be sure to give your readers enough clues to figure out what's going on.  They should, for example, be able to tell who's telling the story and why." 

The students were busy at their desks; even Marcia Binder seemed busy now, writing.  She checked her notes, then returned to her story.  She had really effected him, he realized.  He passed a hand over his eyebrows, depositing a thin sheen of sweat.

Thankful, Bob backed away from Marcia's desk and sat next to  the next student.  "So, what's your plan for your project?" Bob said.  He wiped his palms against his pants.

"Umm," Bob said to Marcia, "It sounds like a challenge.  I'm sure you could handle it," and that sounded stupid to him.  Every word had a possible double meaning.  Finally he offered, "You're a good writer.  Give it a try."

Marcia looked at him, her eyes gleaming and frank.  Bob forced himself not to glance down.  He was sure, now, that she'd loosened a button on her blouse since he'd sat next to her.

"So what do you think?" she said.

She leaned forward, the tips of her fingers nearly touching Bob's hand.

Marcia said, "I've been exploring May-September relationships.  I thought my semester project could be something that continues that theme."  She sounded nervous and excited, as if she were torn between fearfulness and something else.  Bob couldn't decide what it was, and with her so close to him, nearly whispering, he had a hard time thinking about it.  Maybe it was love--maybe lust.  He remembered the first assignment she'd handed in, an autobiographical description of a date she'd had just a month earlier where a boy had tried to kiss her.  She'd confessed in the story that she'd never kissed a boy before, and the prospect had scared her, but she hadn't been able to sleep that night.  In the story, she felt the ghost pressure of the kiss that never happened on her lips all the next day.

He caught a whiff of her shampoo, a soft fruity smell like peaches and cream, but under that a hint of just her.  It wasn't unpleasant.  Definitely warm though and animal.  He wondered if she had P.E. the hour before his class.

"What will your semester project be, Marcia?" said Bob.  Her hair hung across the side of her face, partially hiding her eyes.

He couldn't help but notice Marcia at the end of her row, glancing at him as he moved from student to student.  She was wearing a loose peasant blouse, the top button undone, and when she leaned forward to write, he caught a glimpse of lace in the swells of shadow.  As professional as he wanted to be, he couldn't help but notice, and he wondered if she wanted him to see.  She leaned a lot when he was around, coyly, like part of her didn't know she was doing it while another part did, like her subconscious controlled her posture.

"You'll be a hero, Mr. Wells" said Karl enthusiastically as Bob unleft his desk. "It'll be cool."

Flattered, but not sure how to handle the attention, Bob said, "That might not be a good thing to do.  It could be embarrassing."

"See, if I base my semester project on people I know, then I've got a better chance to get the characterization right.  Like I could tell the story in first person from your point of view."

"Why would you want to do that?"  Bob looked around the room.

"I've been reading Hawking, like you suggested, and he's really given me some ideas, and the stuff you just said, too.  I see now that you were right.  Typical time travel stories are old hat, so I'm going to write a new kind.  I mean, why should the character be the only one who gets to travel in time?" said Karl.  "And you'll be the protagonist."

"What will your project be?" asked Bob.  Karl straightened the stack of pages on his desk, all of them apparently like the top one, filled with his crabbed, black handwriting.

Bob started class with a short lecture on metafiction.  "Some stories," he said, "turn the tools of fiction upon itself.  It's like Ferris Bueller talking to the audience, or The Never Ending Story, which makes the movie goers a part of the story at the end.  Any story that reminds the readers they are reading a story is a kind of metafiction."

The class greeted him with smiles.  Their eagerness to learn seemed genuine.  They loved him. 

"Not yet," he said.

"Any news on the novel?" someone asked.

Bending down, he placed his pencil on the floor.  He stood.

The pencil undropped into his hand.

He backed to the door and opened it.  The door grew smaller and smaller as he walked away.

He was unbreathing.  He was unthinking.  The events unrolled behind him.  Life was good and getting better, and the innocence of youth waited for him. 

This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."

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