Author note: Some beginnings just start badly.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”, so began Niles Steinberger’s latest literary effort making it the fifty-eighth time he produced a piece to submit for publication that would most likely end up becoming his fifty-eighth rejection. This, along with the one hundred and sixteen short stories he had submitted to various periodicals, all returned, and the twenty-two thousand posted blogs he had on eighteen different online writer’s groups, none commented on, made Niles the unrecognized most prolific literary failure of all times. It wasn’t that his writing was bad, it was that he wrote badly. None of this, though, discouraged Niles from continuing to pen unexceptional prose. He was like the ant who was stuck at the bottom of a deep cup going around in circles and not realizing he wasn’t getting anywhere. Surprisingly, he was optimistic that someday he would produce a winner, a story that will resonate with readers and finally give him his first break.
Niles imagined himself doing massive book signings and guest appearances on popular talk shows. He had even gone so far as to practice imaginary interviews with his cat, Mister Muggles, playing the part of the host. In Niles’ dreams, the host would encourage their ongoing banter as the audience laughed at his lame jokes. He fantasized about his likeness not only featured in literary magazines but in popular publications like The New Yorker, Variety, the New York Times Sunday edition, and the cover of Entertainment Weekly. He envisioned the movies deals, the script consultations (he would write those too!), the film versions of his stories, and maybe even an Oscar for best picture, screenwriting, and book adaptation. He knew he would become famous AND RICH! All he had to do was to do something with those seven little words on his computer monitor. Unfortunately, the difficult part for Niles wasn’t that he didn’t know where to go beyond those seven words. His problem was that he just could not express it in a way that was… interesting.
Writing “uninterestingly” didn’t fully described his shortcomings. Nor did “unimaginatively” or “incoherently”. One way to describe the effect of Niles’ work would be that if given the choice between listening to a reading of one of his masterpieces of mediocrity or be waterboarded one would be inclined to choose the latter as the least painful method of torture. Another way to put it would be that if there was such a thing as intelligent design and God knew of Niles beforehand, He would have scrapped the entire idea of Creation, gone home, write a letter on why He had given up, entirely blaming Niles, of course, take out the .45 caliber He had hidden in a shoebox on the top shelf of His bedroom closet, and then proceed to blow His Divine Brains away. For example, “Fatima’s Fabulous Fancy- A Taliban Tale”, one of Niles’ most infamously tasteless and obnoxious submissions, would have been enough to justify the call for a jihad on Western civilization.
Yes, he was that bad.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”, he read it again to himself contemplating on what to say next. Finally, feeling an idea stirring in his mind he typed, “and the rain made a sound on the roof like the beat of a crazed heroin-addicted negro jazz drummer.” He stared at his computer monitor for a minute feeling quite satisfied with himself. He wasn’t sure what a “crazed heroin-addicted negro jazz drummer” sounded like but he was quite sure it probably sounded like rain falling on a roof. He leaned back on the wooden chair to stretch his legs and looked around the cluttered living room of his small home for more inspiration.
He once heard that Ray Bradbury had drawn inspiration for his stories in this manner so he tried to do the same. Scattered among the trash and stacks of magazines were pulp novels written by his favorite author and literary mentor Lance Kilright. The pulp novels had titles like ‘A Grape in the Shade’, ‘Of Moses and Hombres’, and, Niles’ personal favorite, ‘The Wasp Queen of Neptune’. ‘The Wasp Queen of Neptune’ was dear to him because it had the what he thought made a great story, adventure and sex. That the story lacked a coherent plot, was a grammatical nightmare, and plagued with many misspelled words didn’t trouble him at all because Niles believed it was just Kilright’s distinctive style. Most of Kilright’s critics had concluded that the book must have been written by a twelve-year-old, mentally retarded child. The rest never got past the acknowledgments.
Before his untimely death from a virulent venereal infection (he was in Thailand doing research for his next book, ‘The Yellow Slave Girl of Neptune’), Kilright had managed to publish 26 “Neptune” novels at a rate of three a year. His last novel, ‘The Yellow Slave Girl of Neptune’, was rushed into publication by Kilright’s publisher, Amalgamated Ace, so soon after his death that it wasn’t until the first, and only, edition that it was realized it was unfinished. ‘The Yellow Slave Girl of Neptune’ has the double distinction of being the only novel ever written to abruptly end in the middle of the story, as well as, going from “New Book” to “50% discount” to “Free Used Book” status in just under twenty-four hours.
The rest of the room was littered with empty food boxes, old yellow newspapers, and odd and ends of miscellaneous useless or broken objects stacked precariously on top of each other like a trash version of the stone formations found in the southwestern United States. It was the general flotsam of a lazy and disorganized mind and nothing there offered much inspiration. There was also an ashtray placed in a strategically by his mouse. It was filled with cigarette butts packed so closely it resembled a nicotine artichoke.
Niles didn’t really like smoking. He had heard that Lance Kilright was a connoisseur of cheap tobacco and wanted to emulate his hero. Kilright was also a heavy drinker, but anything stronger then soda-pop made Niles queasy. Niles suspected that even if Lance Kilright had been a bit more careful with his sexual escapades he would have eventually succumbed to lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Stumped at not finding anything interesting he reached for his copy of ‘The Little Blue Book for Writers’.
Although it was blue, the reference book was neither little nor actually very helpful in writing. Anyone who hopelessly tried to decipher its 4224 pages of complicated cross references would soon be driven mad by the poor editing and the many typos. Even if you could understand how to navigate the complex key system it still wouldn’t help because it was not written in grammatically correct English. This was because it’s publishing house, Amalgamated Ace, used non-English speaking Malaysian editors in its publications. After one attempt, most of its users either would utilize it as a doorstop or a paperweight. Niles used it frequently for Kilright had endorsed it. Kilright was also a co-editor of the book and he frequently used it as a doorstop. Most of the time Niles couldn’t understand the intricate way the book was put together so he would open it to a random page and start reading.
This time he opened it to page 1153. It said, “write something of you familiar with.” Niles thought about it and even though he was familiar with a lot of things none of them were particularly interesting. He tried again, this time a bit closer to the end of the book on page 3212. “Right about something unexpected”. Niles pondered this. He wasn’t quite sure what this meant or how he could write about something unexpected he could be “right” about.
It was at this moment, right as he was developing one of those migraines he usually got whenever he used the massive tome, that he heard a knock on his front door. Startled out of his momentary state of torpor he got up from his chair and threaded his way through a path in the clutter. Another knock, a bit louder this time, shook the flimsy door. He opened the door and was greeted by two strangely dressed individuals on the other side. It had been raining heavily that night and the two short, gnome-like men dressed in what seemed like clown outfits were soaking wet. Despite their condition, both creatures bore the two biggest and most foolish grins that Niles had ever seen. His first thought was that they were lost Little People from a passing circus. Then he remembered that the circus hadn’t been through locally for several months.
There followed an awkward moment where the greeter and his guest weren’t sure what to say. Finally, the one on Niles’ right, in the red jacket with green ruffled shirt and yellow pantaloons said, “Greetings! Are we to assume that we are speaking to the owner of this humble, yet honorable home?”
“Ah… yes, yes you are,” answered Niles.
The two little men stared at each other and started to giggle like a pair of Catholic school girls.
The one on the left in the blue paisley blazer, pale green shirt and purple polka dotted pants then asked, “And may we also assume that you are the Niles Steinberger whose very house this is?”
“Ye-yes” answered Niles once again.
The two ridiculous creatures turned to each once more and giggled.
Niles, very confused over the whole thing then asked, “Um, okay, eh. So, who are you exactly and what do you want? If you’re here to sell something-”
“OH NO! Dear Sir, please, nothing of the kind,” said the one in the red jacket.
“No, really, we don’t mean to intrude, kind Sir,” said the other before continuing. “Let us introduce ourselves. My name is Toby Mackwire and this is my associate, Asher Kutchton and we represent the League of Terran Righters. LOTR for short.”
“WRITERS!”, said Niles with sudden surprise and enthusiasm. He supposed now that these two were part of some nearby convention, the kind he had heard about, a Something or Other-Con and that they had somehow heard of him. He remembered the blogs and postings and guessed that they must have read his stories. FANS! He thought. I have an online following! With a sudden renewed sense of excitement, he stepped aside and hurriedly invited his guest in from the cold rain. “Come in, come in!”
His two-diminutive guest entered still looking at Niles with their huge wide grins.
Once inside Niles embarrassingly looked at his messy living room and cleared a spot on a forlorn loveseat in a vain attempt to find a place in which to seat his guests. He decided to stack the papers and empty frozen meal boxes higher on a pile of trash that was already leaning too far to remain standing. For himself, Niles sat atop of where his coffee table had once had been. Something underneath let out a dying rasped sigh of relief as it settled. Once they all were seated there followed yet another awkward moment of silence.
Finally, the one who called himself Toby Mackwire broke the silence. “As I was saying, we are representatives of the LOTR and are here to address a long-neglected list of grievances concerning you.”
“Yes,” said the one called Asher Kutchton. “You see, it has come to our attention that your writing has had much influence in current events and that it’s time to attend to it properly.”
Could it be, Niles thought, that he was finally getting the recognition he was due?
“Wow,” said Niles, “I am truly surprised- honored that your League of…”
“…yes, writers, you believe I have that effect? Wow, I don’t know what to say.” He came up with an idea he thought was brilliant. “Maybe you can introduce me to your group? Can I give a little speech? Maybe an award can be presented?”
The two creatures looked at each other conspiratorially and giggled once more before the one called Asher pulled out what appeared to be a rather authentic looking and nasty alien pistol from the inside of his coat. He as pointing it at Niles.
“I don’t think you understand us, Mister Steinberger, we are not here to honor you. You see, we are from the future and here to kill you.”
Niles laughed nervously. Then he saw that they had stopped giggling and were dead serious.
Frightened, Niles jumped up and yelled, “THE FUTURE! TO KILL ME!”
“Yes, Mister Steinberger,” said Toby, “we are from the future and here to kill you.”
“But, but why?”
“You’re a danger and a menace,” said Asher. “You see, although you never published-”
“Never! Never published. But, enough of your works survived after the Great Holocaust of ‘63 that, after three hundred years had gone past, we were plagued with a rebellion insurgency inspired by your writings.”
“I’m an inspiration to a rebel movement?” Niles strangely heartened by the thought.
“It was their hatred of you that bound them together and inspired a two hundred years long bloody jihad …”
“that plunged the entire human civilization into a thousand year long Dark Age …”
“where billions died of war, famine, pestilence, and disease.”
“So,” Toby continued, “we invented the time machine to go back and right that which had wronged us for, so long. We, League of Terran Righters, took an oath to remove this scourge from history and to end all the suffering before it begins!”
“I hope you understand it’s nothing personal,” added Asher.
Niles wasn’t sure what to make of all this.
“So, if you would please, Mister Steinberger,” said Asher as he still pointed his ugly gun at Niles, “stand over in that clear area by that bookcase and we can get this over.”
Niles got up not sure what else he could do. As he did so he accidentally bumped over a golf club that had been set into place to hold up a tall trash pile of dubious construction. What followed could only have been described as the most spectacular display of a chain reaction ever to be a witnessed. The tall pile of trash spilled over a pile of garbage which knocked over a stack of books that, in turn, spilled over on to a makeshift shelf of cinderblocks and planked wood which catapulted a jar full of golf balls across the room. One ball hit Asher square in the head and he fell along with his gun to the ground in front of a heavily jam-packed bookcase. Another ball hit Toby on the side of his head and he fell next to his partner. Yet another ball hit a stack of empty pizza boxes which once dislodged from their job of holding up several boxes of rejected manuscripts fell over in a crescendo of catastrophic proportion as it struck the heavy bookcase causing it to fall. When the dust finally cleared, Niles saw that the two diminutive men had been crushed to death.
When Niles finally recovered his senses his first thought was surprisingly not of panic. Instead, with the help of a shovel that he had kept around much like the golf club, he made a quick job of his two little problems. With the broken bodies buried safely in the garden, for he knew nobody in the present would miss them, he went to the kitchen to clean himself up and had a bite to eat out of a day-old, and rather dubious, Chinese food container.
He once again sat in front of his computer. This time, though, he had a clear idea of what he was going to write about. This time he knew what to say and how to express it. After all, he thought, didn’t ‘The Little Blue Help Book for Writers’ say, “Right about something unexpected”?
-A. M. Holmes