Authors: Bentley Little
How could we ever hope to go against something that powerful?
You are very powerful
, James Baldwin had told me.
You're the only one who can help us
, Virginia said.
You're the only one who can put a stop to all this.
Had the Ultimate made a mistake with me? Had I been misassigned?
Virginia and her literary compatriots had obviously believed that to be the case, and I had the feeling Stan did, as well. All I knew was that when I had been free, in the real world, out in the open, I had inadvertently blocked some of the letters from here; I had managed to subvert the Ultimate's intentions. I was capable of far more than I was doing. My talents and abilities were not being properly used.
The only question was whether that was on purpose.
"I want to show you what else I found." Stan carefully closed the door, then led me down the marble passageway, stopping halfway before what looked like a discolored section of wall. He placed his hand on it
And the wall slid open.
We were in a library. Only it wasn't a library of books but a library of letters. Stacked floor to ceiling on dark wood shelves were piles of stationery, masses of typing paper, sheets of notebook pages, all arranged alphabetically by the first letters of what I assumed were the authors' last names, which were stenciled onto the end caps of the bookcases. The library was enormous but well laid out, and Stan strode up one aisle and across another, easily finding what he was looking for. He sorted through a stack near the bottom of the bookcase and withdrew a handwritten letter. "The first one I ever wrote," he said.
I looked at the childish scrawl, glanced down at the signature:
"Every letter I've ever written is here." He gestured toward the papers on the shelf. "Even the ones that were torn up or thrown away." He took the letter, put it back. "Every letter
has ever written is here."
The two of us looked around at the endless gargantuan stacks.
I walked up to the nearest cross aisle, then turned right, looking at the call letters. After I'd passed literally dozens of rows of bookcases, I finally found the
s and quickly sprinted between the shelves until I saw my own name. My output seemed pretty paltry when arranged this way, but I quickly flipped through the top half of my first stack and discovered that Stan was right. In the stack were all of my secret letters to Vicki and Eric, even a letter I'd started to write to Virginia Woolf but discarded before finishing. Everything I'd ever written had been archived here.
I grabbed a letter at random from the shelf above mine, written to a woman named Eileen from a man named Frank Hanes:
I'm going to slit you snatch to gullet, then pull out your innards and let the crows eat them
. ... I threw the letter down on the floor, reached for another by an author named Gillian Handweiler:
I am quite upset by the tone you used to speak with me on the phone when I called to ask a simple question. I am not a petty or vindictive person, but I believe you should be fired for your poor attitude and communication skills, and I will be telling the doctor to do exactly that
My head was spinning. What was the point of all this? Who was keeping these letters and why? How had they gotten here?
I moved up the aisle, took another letter at random, read it:
Dear Sir,I stopped, looked over at Stan, heading toward me. My mouth was suddenly dry.
I received your memo and agree completely. We do need more. To that end, I have decided to create another.
Stan Shapiro is a forty-something Brooklynite with paranoid tendencies who loves conspiracy theories and whose sole focus is the space program. He is about five ten, balding, and despite his obsessions is fairly social and interacts easily with others
"What is it?" he asked, seeing the look on my face.
I couldn't say anything, simply handed him the letter. He read it over, staring at me with stricken eyes. "What do you think it means?" he asked. His voice was little more than a whisper.
"I ... don't know," I said. But I was afraid that I did. I glanced at the signature on the letter, then looked up at the return address at the top: Rhys Hannegan. The name meant nothing to me. Grabbing a handful of this guy's letters, I started quickly sorting through them. In one, Rhys wrote about creating a woman named Dolores Hernandez. Dolores was a Letter Writer who loved Mexican soap operas and was a passionate opponent of free trade.
I knew her; I'd met her.
"I'm ... a character," Stan said, dazed. He sat down hard. There was no chair to catch him and he landed painfully on the floor, though he didn't seem to notice. "Another Letter Writer wrote about me and I ... became."
"Not necessarily" I began.
"Just because it's in writing doesn't mean it's true. You should know that."
true," he said, and he was right. As much as I hated to admit it, it
"In the beginning was the word," he said.
"Maybe ... maybe..." I trailed off, unable to think of anything comforting to say.
I looked at the letters in my hand. Who was this Rhys Hannegan? One of the Old Ones Thomas Mann had mentioned? The letters were all addressed
, as though Rhys was an underling reporting to his superior. Had he been writing to the Ultimate Letter Writer?
Stan laughed shortly. "I was created in a letter. Someone wrote about me, and here I am. How's that for irony?"
I was stunned, still having a hard time taking this all in. "What if
"Maybe someone wrote about me and made me up"
"Maybe they did. So fucking what?" Stan stood, and suddenly he was back to his feisty old self. I admired the way he had adjusted so fast, had so quickly regained his equilibrium, but a part of my brain could not help thinking,
Because he was written that way.
"Look, I'm not going to stop writing, stop fighting, stop being who I am, just because I was brought to life by a Letter Writer. I didn't ask to be born, but now that I'm alive, I'm going to make the best of it."
I didn't ask to be born.
I used to say that to my parents.
"However I got here, I'm real enough now. I have a heart, I have a brain, and I have a will independent enough to let me do whatever I damn well please."
, I almost said, but I realized it sounded patronizing.
"The thing is," Stan continued, "I think you're one of the real ones. A
Letter Writer. Writers like you come along once in a generation. And whether the Ultimate realizes it or not, you're the real deal. "You're our ticket out of here."
I shook my head.
"How? You think I can get us back? Get
"Like the Good Witch said in
The Wizard of Oz
, you've always had the power. And there's no place like home."
I suddenly thought of something. "But is there a 'back' for you? If you really were created by letter, can you return to ... my world?"
"It's my world, too. Maybe I was created by a Letter Writer. But I don't think I was created
. I was brought here, like you, but I was born in the real world. My memories of it are too vivid. There would be no reason to give me these memories, no reason to recreate my old neighborhood if I hadn't had an old neighborhood, no reason to recall my intial hiring if I'd never been hired."
I wasn't sure I bought that logic. Hell, he and the others could have been created the day I arrived for the sole purpose of keeping me company. But there was no way to tell. These letters didn't have dates on them.
"So what do we do now?" I asked.
"You tell me. You're the one who's real."
I didn't like this. It felt weird, and I wished I hadn't learned about Stanor, at the very least, didn't believe it. But I had learned it, I did believe it, and now talking to him felt almost like talking to myself. I saw him as more of a cartoon character than a person now, a figment of my imagination rather than a flesh-and-blood human being.
I felt as though I'd been abandoned by the one person I could truly count on.
Virginia and the other authors, I wondered, were they real? Or were they characters created by Letter Writers to populate this place and give themselves an air of legitimacy?
Was anything real?
Stan said yes, but he was a made-up character.
Maybe all of this was taking place in the correspondence of an author plotting out a novel and discussing it with a colleague. Maybe I'd never been married, never had a son.
My head hurt. I felt dizzy and wanted to sit down.
What would happen if we torched this library? I wondered. Were all of these letters backed up somewhere, ready to be regenerated if destroyed? Or would this world come tumbling down, wink out of existence, while societies all over the earth were thrown into chaos as their underpinnings collapsed, the letters used to determine their courses disappearing?
I looked at Stan. I know he wanted me to just sit down and write a letter that would solve all of our problems, but I had my doubts as to whether that would work. I'd written letters about a lot of things that hadn't been true and hadn't come to pass, and there was no guarantee that anything would be different this time. I still liked the idea of returning to the factory and following the letters out. That was the one physical, concrete truth in all this: we wrote letters and they were delivered in the real world. If we could just find out how they got through, we could do the same.
We discussed this, the two of us, standing there in the middle of the library, speaking softly, our voices echoing and disappearing in the vast room, but the truth was that it was hard for me to take him seriously. I'd deferred to him before because he was older, but the respect I had for him was gone. I felt like a human adult trying to find a way to make Pinocchio into a real boy. The excitement I'd felt earlier, on the way in, that I'd caught from Stan, had dissolved into something like sadness. Yes, I had a shot at finding a way out of here, but as far as I was concerned, it was still a long shot, and at the moment I felt more alone than I had at any time since arriving.
"You need to start writing," Stan urged.
"We're going to follow the mail," I told him. I'd made my decision.
He hesitated. "I'm not sure it'll work for me."
I understood his point; I wasn't sure, either. But I felt closer to the holy grail than I ever had before, and I knew I had to take this chance now.
We walked back through the aisles, through the door out of the library and down the marble passageway to the vestibule, where we stopped. "They didn't see me last time," Stan said. "Or they didn't care. But things might be different now. We're taking a risk."
"Live free or die," I told him, and pulled open the door.
I was looking out at the corridor of the fourth floor of the building where we worked. Across from me was the elevator. I poked my head in, saw the door to Henry's office several yards to my left. I stepped back, turned around, still holding on to the handle of the open stone door. The vestibule and the marble passageway remained.
"Where is it?" I demanded.
"I think they're on to us." I could hear the fear in Stan's voice. "We'd better get out of here."
Was that really the fourth floor of "the Building" before us? Could I simply walk through the doorway and down the hall to my office? It didn't matter. Stan's car was still outside. He had to drive it back or he'd be without wheels. "You go," he told me, realizing the same thing. "I'll meet you there."
I couldn't leave him. "All for one," I said, and we shut the door and hurried back out into that half-formed neighborhood. We weren't being followed, but we both felt as though we were being watched, and neither of us said a word until we were in the car, on the road and several miles away, back where the streets looked like streets and the buildings like buildings.
"Try to write," he pleaded. "You can get us out of here. I know you can."
"What about Ellen, Fischer and the others?"
"Get us all out. Write us all in."
"Do you think any of them are real?"
"I don't know." He thought for a moment. "Ellen and Fischer maybe. They seem to really miss their old lives, their spouses. They don't have your writing talent, obviously. They're not in your league. But there's something about them ... Beth and the others, I don't know. I don't think so. I mean, if
just a made-up character..."
He had a point.
"I just hope Shamus wasn't," he said softly.
We were back in our offices before noon. No one was waiting for usno bureaucratic guards, no Henryand neither of us found any mysterious letters on our desks. There was no time to waste, though, and I sat down in front of my PC, turned it on and immediately began writing. I didn't know how to go about it, so I tried a couple of approaches:
Here's hoping this finds you well in California. You can stay at my place for as long as you want. I'll be there soon...
You are not allowed to live with other Letter Writers anymore. You must return home to your old life, to the real Brooklyn, New York, where you will live out your days happily retired with a full pension...
Dear Sir,He didn't go anywhere.
Stan Shapiro is no longer a Letter Writer. He is an ordinary man...
Neither did I.
After taking up Stan's cause, I must have written twenty letters that afternoon to anyone I could think of who could possibly get
out. I tried every way possible, from descriptions to demands, pleas to declarative statements, but no matter what I did, nothing worked. There was no change.
Not that day nor the next nor the next...