It’s hard to explain where a story comes from. Caffeine has something to do with it. So does lots of upbeat music played over and over again very loudly. The events in my life have something to do with it, although there rarely seems to be a direct, “I once skinned my knee so now this character will skin his knee,” correlation. What sort of story my brain is in the mood to create certainly comes into play. And then there’s everything else.
Which of course explains nothing.
I had a guy, he was at a wedding, he was wearing a tuxedo. That was how this all started. It was my third story and I was fresh out of ideas. The first two stories were things I had wanted to write for years. They were fleshed out to some degree. This was to be my first outing of the project with no real foundation to build on. And I had nothing but the image of said guy at a wedding. So I got playful. I started wondering if I could make it into a Twilight Zone sort of thing where this guy makes a deal with the devil and there’s some sort of ironic ending where he gets what he wants only to discover that this is a bad thing not a good thing.
Then I decided that was boring and started wondering why the devil always gets such a bad rap. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we were rooting for the guy who brings pain into this world? If he was actually the good guy?
Suddenly all sorts of things started clicking and over the course of a few subway rides larger and larger chunks began fitting together. I can distinctly remember worrying this over in my head, standing there on my ride home, and suddenly understanding how the choices worked. This was possibly the only time I completely understood the choices. They’re rather confusing. I prefer Epp’s explanation where he brushes aside explanations and just says that there is, “an odd little hiccup in the universe.” How the choices work isn’t really important, only that a choice exists. At least that was what I told myself every time I screwed up the choices and had to go back and rewrite a scene.
But back during that subway ride I understood, and I knew that this “Matthew” character would have made one choice back when his wife died, only he didn’t understand that situation fully, because really he had two choices to make. A second choice was coming. The first was to give his life to begin with, the second revolved around who it was, exactly, that he was giving his life for and whether he would continue on in this world when those he continued to love moved on. And at the center of it all was a discarded home pregnancy test.
And then I was off, branching out and discovering one of the most interesting worlds I have ever visited as a writer. Coming up with new stories for Matthew and Epp became one of the best parts of this project. They gave me a canvas where everything could be played with.
On the other hand they also became the biggest stress inducer of this project, because as more and more stories piled up, more and more pressure to carry on this tale in the expected fashion began to pile up as well. I never want to write a book in that way again. That was terrifying.
So Matthew and the choice that set everything off gets the top slot. His encounter with the daughter he’s been unknowingly following for her whole life never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and the moment he decides she’ll be okay if he lets go sends me all over the place emotionally. It is the single most important brick in this building. Despite the zombie knife fights and trips back in time, it is Matthew’s struggle to accept his second choice that is really what this is all about. It is Matthew, after all, who brings Epp back around at the end. And it is Matthew, in a mirror image of the scene below, who signs off on Gus’s last push and all that it involved by letting himself believe that Zach will turn out all right, leaving a little message for the mortal in the meantime.
At the beginning of “26 Stories” weaving a book into it was certainly not the plan. Now, though, I have a hard time imagining what this would have been like without a visit with Matthew and Epp every third story.
I’ll visit with them again I’m pretty certain. Their world strikes me as way too rich for me to stay away from for long. I did mention a few months ago, though, that there are no plans to go back at the moment. And that remains true. The doors are currently closed and I will not force them open without an actual story in mind. But I get the feeling that one will fall into my lap eventually.
I’ll be working over a scene in my head or something, and it won’t sit right. I’ll be unable to put the camera in the right place, so to speak, and the characters will all be acting off and I’ll run it over and over in my mind trying to figure out what’s going on. And then I’ll take a step back to regroup and I’ll notice, there in the background behind the trees, a man in an immaculate suit resting his weight on a cane, or the girl on the blind date will suddenly turn blond and the patrons around her will walk right through her, or the man holding up the liquor store will have a big blind man with mirrored sunglasses breathing down his neck…and I’ll know.
But for now that hasn’t happend. For now I leave you with my favorite moment from this project.
Matthew Huntington of Brooklyn making his second choice:
The hallway Matthew entered was dark, but he had the feel of high ceilings and dusty white walls. He walked, his feet noticing the occasional warped slat of wood under his feet. He walked past a semicircle arch that led to a cramped kitchen, past a closed door, then around a corner to a bedroom. There was a fluffy comforter, rumpled and bright like starched snow, an end table with a clock radio and a lamp, a small desk cluttered with books and a laptop. He stared around; everything looked generic enough on its own, but combined there was a personality here.
Epp stood at a tree, his hands passing around and around it as he unwrapped loop after loop of tape until he finally reached the end. He walked around the tree, gathering handful after handful of tape as he went, the light on his left shifting from dusk into darkness now, and two figures ran towards him, one of them tossing a knife into the bushes before they reached the barrier where the tape had been and they disappeared to catch up with their present selves.
Matthew heard a door slam and he spun around to see a woman standing in the hallway, sleepy eyed, wearing a large t-shirt, reaching a hand through the doorway he had passed to flip off the bathroom light. He breathed in, and in, and in, seemingly unable to exhale any as his blood beat warm in his ears. “Christ, you look like your mother,” he said as his daughter walked past him. And her face, on top of the resemblance to his wife, was somehow so familiar, and he remember in rapid succession, a child’s laugh at the corner of a room he was working, a little girl in pigtails who had watched as he caused a fight on a street corner, the glimpse he caught in the shop window of a teenager walking past as he looked over the clientele, her face at a thousand different moments in his past appearing again and again as he floated through his work and it was like an optical illusion that he had only seen one way until just this moment when it became so clear how close he had been to her this whole time, how much of her life he had witnessed.
Epp wound his way around the third corner of the square he had marked out, tugging the tape off a tree branch. Inside the square the light rain that had passed through earlier that night began to fall, the raindrops tapping soothingly against the treetops.
Matthew watched her climb into bed, roll around a few times trying to get the comforter right on her body. She settled down onto her back, her face up at the ceiling. He watched and could tell that she was debating whether she should go back to sleep or not. She reached a hand up, scratched her forehead, half rolled over and looked at the clock radio, then rolled back. She clasped her hands behind her head, wriggled back onto the pillow, and smiled as she looked up at the ceiling. One thought went through Matthew’s head as he watched her and it shocked him with its certainty, but as a lifetime of watching his daughter grow up flooded through his memory he knew it was true.
“She’ll be okay,” he thought.