Don't Believe Everything You Read
You: Wait, what? That's the end? Gwen just... what, sort of fades away? Did she die? Did she become Moriarty? Goddamn it, I've read this far and that is all you are going to give me?
First of all, it turns out that writing the ending to a book is really hard. Think I'm just being a whiny author-type? You try it.
But second, relax: Gwen isn't dead. I don't know exactly what she is at this point, so I'm not sure how to answer the rest of your questions.
Let's back up.
I wrote the majority of this novel in a coffee shop on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. It took me two years, because, well, life, but I was in there just about every week, banging away on the keyboard while sipping on a small (not tall) mocha, no whip, and occasionally munching on a chocolate-chocolate cookie (delish) or a gluten-free peanut butter chocolate tart (there's reasons I'm not naming the coffee shop, and one of them is that I want to save these for myself). They renovated the shop more or less around me, updating the decor from a brown, early two-thousands vibe to a sleek mixture of crisp white walls and tables made of long slabs of lacquered oak. Baristas came and went and knew me by name and knew my drink order. I was a regular, and it was pretty damn cool.
But before all that, I just needed... I needed to need to write something. I was a father in his early thirties with three small kids who had a lot of energy, recently transplanted from a sexy job in Washington, DC into a much more mundane engagement in the very stable field of industrial maintenance and repair. We'd planned the move in theory for years, but due to an uncertain combination of a bureaucratic Catch-22 that would make Joseph Heller roll his eyes and my unfortunate penchant for certainty that I knew better than the people in the Security Office, I'd found myself losing my security clearance and my job. It was a crazy, crazy couple of months, but we wound up living two blocks from family in Cleveland and life went from "ugh, what now?" to "hey, why not?"
Like many fellow transplants, I'd been quickly enchanted by the city. I'd been a little nervous by the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar reputation that Cleveland had, but it turned out to be a curious melange of nineteenth-century wealth, medical establishment, and economic depression. Yes, there was poverty, but not as much as you think. There was also wealth: serious, old-money houses lined Fairmount Avenue, some of which were worthy of the alter ego of a certain caped crusader. Superman had been born in Cleveland. The arts were so prominent that you couldn't help but be struck by them: there was a world-class Symphony and an Art Museum that rivalled the Smithsonian - perhaps in favor of the "Mistake on the Lake". Cleveland had its share of blue collars, but when their shift was done they could put on snazzy shoes and a tie that read "Cleveland is my Paris", and then go hear Mozart and admire original Picassos. Cleveland was a place where a good job would let you live well, and not burn away your life as midnight oil.
As the story went, Cleveland was on track to become what New York City is today when Rockefeller pulled his money out of this city and moved it to that one. The city never recovered its economic glory, but neither did it lose its institutions. Picture nineteenth-century New York... but without Ellis Island, and no one had moved into the city since then. That's Cleveland. Amazing art, fantastic cuisine, and rock-bottom property values. We were able to buy an honest-to-goodness house in a great neighborhood for less than some of my D.C. colleagues had spent on their cars.
In other words, we landed on our feet, in the best possible way. I had so much going for me. But I sat there in the coffee shop, week after week, fighting bourgeois ennui.
That was when a young woman with dark hair and mocha-colored skin slid unprompted into the chair opposite my keyboard.
She was young and pretty and extremely off-putting. Cleveland Heights is your suburban equivalent of a small town: people here already knew me, and some of those people would talk. "Hey, who's your friend?" would come the "I-don't-want-to-make-assumptions" question from some mom from my kids' preschool. Hell, I'd come very close to doing that exact thing myself one time when I'd seen a friend at a nearby bar with a petite, long-haired blonde who was definitely not his brunette wife. It had turned out that Fritz was a colleague who had a slender profile from behind, a ponytail, zero sexual chemistry with my friend, and (by every indication) a penis. But that was how things went around here.
It wasn't just the fact that she was young and pretty and not my wife, though. There was something in her eyes... They bored into mine, then straight through into my skull and snaked their way down into my soul and saw my deepest, darkest secrets... and laughed at them.
"Um," I greeted her, feeling very suave. "Hello?"
She was wearing a black leather coat, with a black silk button-up shirt beneath it. Her lipstick was pale, though, almost white, lighter than her skin. She leaned in.
"I borrowed it from Vivian," she murmured, reading the thought from my brain, and her lips curled into a smile. It wasn't a friendly smile. It was the kind of smile that a cat makes before it claws up your furniture. She wasn't up to anything nasty, but neither was she going to leave me unscathed.
As an aside, is this the sort of thing that has ever happened to you? No? Me, either, and I say this as a man who's chased terrorists and drank with foreign intelligence officers. It was weird, even for me. Not in the Penthouse Letters, "You'll never believe this, but..." kind of weird. More of the, "Excuse me, but what the hell are you doing?" kind of weird.
"From... who?" I stuttered.
"Whom," she corrected. "I thought you were a writer."
"I sometimes talk to other human beings, and try not to sound like an asshole," I retorted. "Too frequently, anyway."
She shrugged, conveying the sort of indifferent contempt that I expect I'll see from my children someday when I try to explain that life is a little more complicated than Che Guevara or Ayn Rand make it out to be.
"Some of my best friends are assholes. It takes a certain degree of arrogance to believe that you can change the world."
"And a certain lack of life experience," I frowned. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure why I'm suddenly getting grammar lessons from someone who wasn't born when I was acing the AP English exam?"
She laughed, easing up. "I'm sorry. No," she shook her head earnestly, "I'm really sorry. I've been hanging out too long with works of literature."
She reached across the table and offered her hand. "Gwen."
Grudgingly, I took it. "Jeremy."
She nodded. "I know. And I know that's creepy and I'm being weird. Let me explain. You're a writer, but you need a story. You've been stuck lately. Never mind how I know that. Stay put. Don't excuse yourself and run away. You need this story."
The intensity was back all of a sudden, combined with sucker-punch truths that I hadn't even told my wife. Stuck. My god was I stuck. I'd been sitting in this coffee shop for weeks tooling around with this or that and trying to write, but nothing would come out. Nothing. I'd written stories since I was in the second grade, but lately my imagination was nothing but a static hiss.
I stayed put.
I stayed there for a long time. When she finally finished her tale, I made a beeline for the bathroom. Vertigo threatened to take me for a minute, and I clutched at the sink. I splashed water on my face, not because it was something that I felt like would help, but because that's what you do, right, splash water on your face?
After I toweled off, I went back to our table.
"That's quite a story," I said.
"I know. Imagine living it."
"But you didn't," I blurted. I leaned against the wall of the coffee shop - what the hell time was it, anyway? "Those things never happened. There was no drone strike at Renn Fest."
She laughed. "The actual things that happen to us don't matter. You've known that since you wrote that paper that everyone writes on the causes of the Civil War. It's the story that matters."
I shook my head in disbelief. "So you're saying all this is a metaphor?"
"No." Her frown was resolute. "I'm saying that I don't care if anyone knows the facts of the matter. I'm not a historian. Drone strike, mass shooting, bus bombing... those details matter to the victims and the first responders. To everyone else, it's just a story. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs a point of view. It needs good guys and bad guys."
She waved her hand in annoyance. "Do you think good guys and bad guys matter to the mother who is picking up the broken body of her son? To husband whose wife will never come home? To the child who lost her best friend? No, to them it's intimate. It hits them where it hurts.
"But you or I, we see it on the news and we don't know these people. How could you possibly care about the fate of a stranger - or two hundred of them? Sure, when someone crosses our path with a tale of woe, we feel sympathy once we hear it... but before we meet them, we can't feel anything. But we have to feel something when we hear something horrible. We can't be human and just shrug it off: 'a bunch of people got killed somewhere far away? Glad it wasn't me!' We can't say that and look at ourselves in a mirror. So what do we do?"
"We tell ourselves a story," I answered. "We make it ours. We say, 'what if that happened to me?' We put a familiar face on the victim."
She nodded. "We don't think about doing it. But that's exactly what we do. We make it personal. We trick ourselves into feeling it as if it had happened to us, or to someone that we loved."
I stroked my chin. "You told me about a drone strike, and about a fire in a nightclub. But the Diogenes Club could have been a shooting in a movie theater. The drone strike might really have been a black kid getting shot by the cops."
She smiled, and made a little shooting gesture with her thumb and index finger. "Bullseye. Any senseless tragedy will do, and it helps to have one that we can relate to. Maybe this all happened in Yemen, so who in America cares? It's easier to accept the story if you think it's fiction. I knew I was right about you."
I pinched the bridge of my nose, tired. "About what, exactly?"
"You'll tell the story."
I nodded. "Okay, you've got me there. I'll tell it. But... why? Why me? And why do you need it told, if not to get the truth out there?"
"Don't flatter yourself," she smiled. "You're not the only one. Vivian is currently making a very well-known author extremely uncomfortable regarding his marriage vows, because that's how she is. Doyle is chatting up an old friend in the tech press. And that's just tonight. I've got a long list, my friend. Anybody who wants to tell this story, however they want to tell it... I just want it told."
"As to why..." Her eyes flicked over her shoulder. I'd been wrapped up in our little world, and hadn't even noticed that the place was completely empty except for us. The lights were on, but nobody was home. The staff had all gone.
"My mother wanted a bedtime story. She thought that if women told their stories, it would be soothing. By her logic, the world needed something maternal, something nurturing. Our stories were all fire and ice, all conflict and competition. Whole generations have been swallowed up in a winner-take-all, zero-sum narrative. To turn things around, she thought we needed compromise and diplomacy.
"But sometimes a child learns a bad habit. The spoiled brat. The baby who has to be held all night and won't sleep in her crib. When they do that, the most loving, nurturing thing that you can do is to break them of it.
"I'm going to have to break us."
She looked me dead in the eye when she said it, not a drop of irony in her blood. For the first time, I questioned her youth. Her eyes looked tired.
"Your job," she continued, "is to pave the way. To prepare people for what's coming. To give them a chance. To warn the spoiled children that there are consequences."
"That didn't work too well for John the Baptist," I responded. "I've got a family."
"No one can touch you if you don't let them. It's your story now."
"I don't understand."
She sighed in exasperation. "You're a storyteller. You don't know what a story is?"
She told me: "A story is a weaponized thought. It's an idea that cuts through our minds because the physiological structure of the brain is literally set up to receive it. We have no defense against stories. You can't stop it with a wall or block it with a shield or even vaporize it with a nuke. As long as there still exist people who have heard it, the story lives on. And if it means anything to them, it will propagate."
There was a fire in her eyes. "The most powerful weapon known to man - one that nobody credits for what it is - and you have it between your ears. Tell. Stories. Tell stories that refuse to be fucked with, and no one will fuck with you. Tell stories that make people see, and they won't even want to."
"People hate those stories. See above: John the Baptist. Or the guy who came after him."
"People need those stories. See above: the guy who came after. His story did okay. His problem was ego. Just don't make it so personal, and you'll be fine." She leaned back in her chair. "I'm not trying to turn either of us into Jesus. But I do want little girls to know that they, too, are made in the image of god. I want men to know that the image of a woman isn't all that she's worth."
She sighed. "I want kind of a lot. It's not just that I get catcalled when I walk down the street - which I do, and it's lame. It's that boys, girls, men, women, everyone needs some bad stories broken. I just had my twenty-second birthday, if that tells you anything about what I haven't told you. My story ended, but I stayed busy. The good stories needed a champion.
"I heard through the grapevine that Puck got married last year. You want to know why that could happen? Why people's stories are changing? Because I've been very busy."
Maybe it was the hour, maybe it was the fog I was still in after the tale she'd told. I shook my head. "I still don't get it. Why are you talking to me at all? Why not keep doing... whatever it is you've been up to for the last few years?"
"Because nothing else has worked," she spat, suddenly vehement. "I'm desperate. Because I have one more option, and that is to become my mother."
She stood up and started pacing. "I've had some wins, helped spread the good words. But look around. I have failed us! Our stories have failed us! The shit that people believe these days! 'You're either with us or against us!' 'Muslims are dangerous!' 'America is a nation of peace!' 'Black kids are dangerous!' 'Guns are safe!' 'Mexican men are coming over the border to rape our white women!' And when our politicians spout this stuff, when our so-called-news media repeat their nonsense and call it 'reporting', not only do we not laugh them off the ballot or the airwaves, we believe this garbage, because we don't have the right stories."
She was breathing heavily. "The only defense against a story is a better story. The only reason you don't believe it when someone tells you that terrorists are posing as refugees is that you know the stories of what it's really like for refugees, and nobody would tell a story with a terrorist that stupid. The fear doesn't take you because you're already inoculated against it."
"Some people might say that's just education," I countered. "Knowing the facts."
"Do you tell yourself facts about the statistical number of refugees who have committed acts of terrorism?" she replied, shaking her head. "Of course not. Because that number is zero. Violent crime, sure, there are a handful, but terrorism? None. You don't comfort yourself with facts. You say, 'if I were a terrorist, I can think of a million easier ways to do it.' You think about the facts that you know about the refugee program and you say, 'no way, too hard'. There are no facts to work with, and even if there were, you'd still tell yourself a story about them. That's how we think. That's what makes us different from the animals. We are the animals who tell stories."
She huffed out a breath, and ran a hand back through her hair. "And we have got some doozies these days. It's not just the outright horrible stuff, either, though there's plenty of that. How about the American Dream?"
I cocked my head. "Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead? What's wrong with that? It sounds pretty optimistic. It gives people hope when things are lousy."
"Ooooh, hope. There's a reason it was the last thing left in Pandora's box. That box held all of the evils of mankind, and it was only after the rest of them slithered out of it that the real bitch strutted her stuff. Hope." She scoffed. "Hope is worthless. Make a plan. Or don't. But don't fucking lie to yourself. You want to know what a lifetime of your nose to the grindstone gets you? A bad back and no pension."
She held up her hands in protest before I could even open my mouth. "I'm not a pessimist; I can quote you all the stats. I can give you all the facts. What I'm trying to tell you, though, is that the story is bullshit. You won't get ahead. You'll be goddamn lucky to break even. The American Dream is a drug. It pacifies the masses so that the few who were born lucky by which I mean rich can just stay ahead.
"The odds that you'll become a millionaire? Forget that - how about the odds that any random person in the U.S. is a millionaire, let along becomes one: three percent. So your odds of not being a millionaire are ninety-seven percent. Let's flip that around. What if I told you that you had cancer? If I gave you a ninety-seven percent chance of dying, would you be excited because you had a three percent chance at life? Would you have a lot of hope? Of course not. Throw in the fact that most of the people in that three percent come from cancer-resistant families already, and you know that's not your family?"
"You're a real bundle of fun, aren't you?"
She glared at me. "You want to be a millionaire? Make a fucking plan. Do something better than ninety-seven percent of the rest of this country. Be goddamn fantastic. Then, maybe. But don't you dare hope and then get sad that it didn't work out for you.
"Or hey, here's a better idea: don't worry about making a ton of money because Doyle will tell you that it sure as hell can't buy you anything more than distraction. More toys. More drugs. Over a certain threshold - a really low one - your happiness has no relation to how much wealth you've got. It is relative to how much you think you should have, but that's another screwed-up story that we tell."
"Okay." It was my turn to hold my hands up in surrender. "Say I tell your story. What's somebody supposed to learn from it? What's the moral?"
"Think about the stories that run your life," she answered. "And if you don't like them, change them."
"Because we can change our Persona now," I nodded.
"You always could," she said. "But you needed a reminder. A gentle push to take the first steps. A soft voice to tell you that you could do it. That you could do anything, if you put your mind to it. That you're beautiful. That you're amazing."
She gave me a cold look. I remembered it... from the time I had thrown a tantrum in the toy store at age seven, and said some awful things to my mother. That look said, "you pushed it too far, kid. I'm done fooling around."
"I tried all that shit," Gwen spat. "I tried the bedtime story. The world doesn't know what to do with it. It doesn't believe in nurturing and helping hands. There are too goddamn many stories that tell you that you've got to duel to the death in order to win. They've become more than stories. They're idols. Icons. Gods. So I'm escalating.
"This isn't a warning. This is an ultimatum. We're going to get this right, or I'm going to break us all. I'm going to tear down the heavens and lay waste to the gods. And once all the stars go dark, then, only then, will I tell you a new story."
Her hands were fists. "The bad stories have gotta go. No more sitting silent when we hear them. No more letting the people around us believe that our silence is assent. We've got to start telling the right stories to one another. To our kids. To our parents. To our friends. To our politicians. We have to start fighting back."
"And you're saying that if we don't..." I swallowed.
"Any hero can be the villain in someone else's story," she said. She turned to go. "I'd like to stay the hero. But I'll be what you need from me."
Something in her eyes slithered its way down my spine.
"How do you kill a god?" she whispered.
With a burst of wind, the front door blew open. Through it flew a pair of large, black birds. They skittered to a landing on the long, lacquered table that ran most of the length of the room. They looked... bewildered. They turned their heads to and fro in unison, as if their heads were a single pair of eyes, sweeping the room in frightened surprise.
"How do you kill a god? I'll show you... my dear."