He Wrote, Week 06

by Dave Smith

Dallas Reed and Craig Paulsen were classmates in film school and graduated together, tied for tenth spot in class GPAs. They went separate ways for a few years before serendipitously meeting again at Comic-Con. Over cocktails and heavy appetizers, they caught up with each other. Craig worked as storyboard artist and assistant script writer for a small video game company. Dallas had spent his time after graduation writing scripts for local television station commercials. It kept bills paid, but was far from exciting.

Craig, seizing an opportunity to work together with Dallas again, offered an inside tip on a game tester position coming available. It hadn’t been made public yet, but would be advertised soon. He gave Dallas the contact details for Mr. Brantley, the head of quality assurance, and suggested he get in touch before the applications poured in from the public. Craig promised to put in a good word for him.

Dallas knew that as an entry level video game tester, he’d bear the grunt work of endlessly inserting and ejecting disks, booting and rebooting games, or repeating the same in-game interaction hundreds of times and writing reports before he moved up any rungs on the job ladder. Sure, boring at first, but, in the end, the potential for new and exciting things was better than local commercials, so he jumped at the chance.

Three weeks later, Dallas had an interview lined up. Craig was out of town at a gaming conference, but offered Dallas full use of his car if he’d look after the house. Craig FedExed a spare key, so all Dallas had to do was get a cab from the airport.

The red brick row house at 413 Westbrook Avenue sat on a narrow one-way street with wide, tree-lined sidewalks and cars parked at the curb, some more successfully parked than others. The street was asphalt, stamped to look like cobblestones, and buzzed loudly beneath the tires of passing vehicles. By 9:00 AM, the sidewalks were usually filled with an eclectic mix of residents, young and old, ambling to work, walking dogs, pushing strollers or, in one instance, a couple walking each other on leashes.

Dallas arrived around noon on Saturday. He was amused by the variety of people, most of whom seemed to wander aimlessly. He climbed the stone steps up to the stoop and unlocked the heavy, wooden front door. The door shut behind him with a solid thunk. He dropped his bag in the foyer and started getting familiar with the place. It seemed remarkably spacious for its narrow footprint, with light maple wood floors, stark white plaster walls, and stamped tin ceilings. It was a careful blend of modern and original. The keys to Craig’s car, a sharp, Lightning Red Subaru BRZ Dallas saw out front, were hanging on the wood column by the bar.

He looked around the wide-open plan and noted that it’d make a great party pad. As if he’d read Dallas’s mind, Craig had stocked the fridge with plenty of food and beer. There was even a full bar with wine and liquor. Upstairs, the main bedroom overlooked the street.

Dallas went back to the foyer to retrieve his bag. Just as he picked it up, his phone rang. It was Craig.

“Hey, Craig. Awesome place here. I’m impressed,” said Dallas, inadvertently forgetting a proper greeting.

“Glad you made it, man. Make yourself at home. I tried to make sure you had some goodies in the fridge when you got there.”

“I saw that. Thanks a ton.”

“So, when’s your interview with Mr. Brantley?”

“I’m scheduled for Monday morning,” Dallas replied.

“Don’t worry, he’s always prompt. You won’t wait. I think you’ll like the guy. He’s super smart, but he’s also a little intimidating at first. Just relax, though, and you’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty intense on the phone.”

“Are you leaving right after?”

“No, my flight’s not until next Friday.”

“Awesome! I get back on Wednesday. We’ll have to hit the town and send you off right!”

“Sounds great!”

“Oh, and Jennifer may stop by to pick up her books. I think she’s got a licensing exam Monday or Tuesday. Anyway, I’ve got to go. Have fun this weekend if I don’t talk to you again. This conference already has me against the ropes … and it just started. Don’t party too hard!”

“Thanks again, Craig. I’ll keep an eye out for Jen. Later, dude!”

“Later!”

Dallas set his bag in the bedroom and went back downstairs to the kitchen. He tuned the audio system to a downtempo chillout mix, poured himself a hefty dose of Knob Creek on the rocks, and sat in the front window watching the world outside. The two layovers and 1600 miles trapped in a dry, pressurized tin can had sapped his energy, so he planned to zone out before exploring in earnest the next day.

He was up with the sunrise, around 6:30 A.M., on Sunday. Dallas pulled on a tattered t-shirt, shorts, and running shoes. After a half-cup of coffee to open his eyes and get his blood pumping, he headed out the door for a short run to check out the neighborhood. Hardly anyone was out at that hour. Those who were, were driving through. Not a single pedestrian in sight. A light fog made it tough to take in everything, but left a blanket of silence on the streets. It was the most peaceful run he’d had in a long time.

That peace carried Dallas through a 45 minute run through the neighborhood, down by the riverfront park, and back to the row house. He started another cup of coffee, put three thick slabs of bacon in the cast iron pan, and pulled some bread for the toaster. While waiting for the bacon to start sizzling, that peace was shattered when he looked out to the street. Dallas bolted from the row house, down the steps to the sidewalk and frantically looked each direction only to see the same quiet thoroughfare he’d just come from.

“Aww, hell. Dammit. He leaves me responsible for his home and car, and here I go and let this happen. Shit!” Dallas said, to no one in particular.

His first instinct was to call Craig.

“What?! Someone painted my windshield? You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me?” Craig asked, almost expecting it to be a joke.

“Dead serious, dude. The whole windshield’s black and it looks like somebody wrote on that,” Dallas confirmed.

“Dammit! I just got that car. What’s it say?”

“Hang on a sec. I couldn’t make sense of it when I first saw it and I can’t see it from here. Let me run outside and check it.”

It was still illegible to Dallas.

“I’ll send you a pic. It’s all gibberish to me; looks like math class,” he told Craig.

“Did you see who did it? Call the cops?”

“No and no. I couldn’t see anyone on the street and I know it wasn’t like that when I left for my run. I don’t know why I called you first. Just … I don’t know … seemed like I should.”

Craig received the image.

“What the …? Looks like chalkboard paint. That scribbling does look like math, but mixed with something. I don’t know. I’m emailing this to my coworker, Preston. He’s one of our lead developers and might be able to help. I’ll text him your number. Sit tight, though. Wait for a bit before you call the cops. Guess you’ll have to take the bus  or a cab in for your interview. Sorry about all that.”

“Ah, no worries. It’s weird, but nothing some whiskey won’t fix.”

Dallas was unnerved. Craig’s car was the only one vandalized. What if it was someone with a sinister agenda. What if they mistook him for Craig? Of course, it could all have been an elaborate, if weird, practical joke. He hoped Preston might shed some light on what it was. Then he’d decide whether or not to worry.

A shower would help him unwind and wash off the stink from the morning run. Dallas took several deep breaths, inhaling to the count of ten, then exhaling to the count of ten. He felt the hot water wash the tension from his shoulders and back, right down the tile floor and out the drain. He lingered in the shower long after he was clean, thinking about the car and wondering if he’d have been better off at a hotel.

While Dallas was showering, Preston had called and left a message. Dallas dialed into his voicemail box and listened to it.

“Hey, Dallas, this is Preston. Craig gave me your number and asked me to get back with you regarding the stuff on his windshield. Well, it appears mostly to be part of an elaborate planetary motion analysis, but some of the symbols and constants used look like they come from a runic alphabet, not the usual Greek. There’s enough different that I can’t follow it completely. You might check the library to clear up some of the rune stuff. I’d do it, but I’m stuck here on a tight deadline. We’re locked-down until we get this beta out. Call me back if you can find a reference for it.”

Dallas, puzzled more than ever at the notion of a vandal using runes in physics, got dressed and headed out for the library. The bus ride was memorable, but not for good reasons. The exhaust was billowing the white smoke of a diesel engine in need of repair. Every time the bus stopped, it was enveloped in a cloud of foul smelling exhaust. Four stops and one headache later, Dallas arrived at the library entrance.

The nice lady at the reference desk pointed him to the appropriate section, but he found nothing more than a cursory history of runic alphabets. When he asked for more, she pointed him to the university library across town. There, he found a treasure trove of information in a book written by a local Professor Adrian Lewis, and published by the university. The strange inscription on the painted windshield turned out to be an obscure pre-runic alphabet, used mostly in magical rituals. He could identify the characters, but was lost on the deeper meaning.

Dallas browsed the university directory for Professor Lewis, who taught anthropology and linguistics. It was early enough on Sunday, just maybe the professor would be in his office. All he could do was call and find out.

No answer, but rollover to voicemail.

“Hi, Professor Lewis. My name’s Dallas Reed and I’m researching the origin of some runic writing I found, of all places, on my friend’s car. It looks like a message, but I’m having trouble translating a meaning. Can you help? Please call me.”

His search had come to an end temporarily, so he stopped by a New York style deli before hopping the bus back to Westbrook. Dallas’s thoughts were wrapped up in the meaning of the runes and the rhythm of the bus, this one running properly, helped him think. So he stayed on through three or four complete routes.

“Hey, buddy. I’m going out of service now. You need to get off,” said the driver.

“Oh, sorry about that. I’ll get off up here,” replied Dallas.

“Is that your stop?”

“No, but I can walk from here.”

“I didn’t mean you had to get off immediately. Where you goin’?”

“Westbrook Ave, 400 block.”

“Not a problem.”

It was after 11:00 P.M. when Dallas arrived back at the row house. He inserted the key, but strangely, the door was already unlocked. His heart raced as he wondered if whoever painted Craig’s car was inside waiting for him to arrive. What did they plan to do? Or did he leave it unlocked in his frenzy to figure out the vandalism?

As he was waiting, trying to decide whether to call the police, to run, or to barge in, he heard the latch release. The door swung open. Dallas jumped backward into the brick wall by the porch.

“Jesus, Dallas, you scared the everlovin shit out of me!” said Jennifer.

“Likewise. Holy shit, Jen. Holy shit,” said Dallas, leaning against the brick wall, hyperventilating trying to catch his breath. “I thought you might be … nevermind.”

“What? Who did you think I was? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing. Someone just vandalized Craig’s car with weird writing this morning and my head’s been wrapped up in figuring it all out today. Just wasn’t expecting to run into you. Sorry, Jen.”

“Okay,” she said, skeptically. “Well, I’ll be outta your hair. You take care, alright?”

“Sure. You too.”

His heart rate had just returned to normal before his phone rang. Who would call at that hour?

“Mr. Reed?”

“Yes,” replied Dallas.

“Mr. Reed, this is Adrian Lewis. You called me about some runic characters?”

“Yes, sir.” Relief swept over Dallas.

“Well, can we meet? I might be able to help. And if I can’t, I know someone else who might.”

“Sure. What time are you free tomorrow?” asked Dallas

“I was thinking tonight. Where are you?”

“Uh,” Dallas was skeptical, “I’m up near Westbrook.”

“Okay. Okay. Good. Meet me at the coffee house over on Mason.”

Dallas sighed. He was exhausted from the stress he’d been under, but this sounded like a chance to resolve the big questions of the day.

But coffee. Near midnight. “Sleep is for the weak,” Dallas reminded himself of a favorite motto in college.

The coffee house was a popular hipster hangout prior to midnight, but slowly changed over to a sober-up station for local pub crawlers after that. Professor Lewis didn’t tell Dallas how to find him, but once Dallas set foot inside, he knew exactly who didn’t fit in with the crowd.

Professor Adrian Lewis was the stereotypical university professor, dressed in a tweed suit with a tartan pattern, matching flat cap, and wearing prescription Clubmaster glasses. Dallas sat down in the open seat at his table.

“Glad you could make it, Mr. Reed. I’m eager to see what you’ve got,” said Professor Lewis.

“Call me Dallas.”

“Yes. Pardon me for not asking first.”

“It’s okay. Anyway, long story, short, here’s what I found.”

Dallas showed Professor Lewis the photo of the windshield. Lewis examined the photo closely, reading it quietly to himself, parts of which Dallas could hear. It was incomprehensible to him, but had a melodic rhythm that was pleasing to the ear.

“Mr. Reed … sorry. Dallas, what you have here is a fairly elementary ancient curse blended with physics, something which was obviously unknown to the civilizations originally using this alphabet. I’ve seen this hybrid before, though. It’s very characteristic of modern mystical societies who blend the supposed magical properties of runes with current science. Why they’d be blending a curse with physics is beyond my knowledge. Maybe trying to time it with a particular planetary alignment?”

Dallas looked at him blankly. How would he know the ‘why’?

“Is there anything to the magic?” Dallas asked, regretting the question as soon as he heard himself utter it.

Professor Lewis chuckled.

“Magic is as effective as you want it to be. Confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and fallible human memory make people believe in supernatural happenings. In other words, if you want to believe in magic, you’ll find supernatural explanations. Otherwise, you’ll see the truth. Do you believe in magic, Dallas?”

“No. Well, not really.” Dallas wasn’t really sure where he fell on magic. He knew there was no known, scientifically explainable mode for it to operate, yet he found himself almost unwilling to completely rule it out.

“Then don’t worry about it. Report the vandalism and move on.”

“Thank you, Professor Lewis. You’ve been a big help.”

“You’re very welcome. And I thank you for bringing this to me. These hybrids make interesting exercises to translate and to figure out the motives and beliefs behind them. Don’t hesitate to call me if anything else comes up. Be careful getting home.”

It was close to 2:00 A.M. when Dallas got back to the row house. To his relief, the door was locked this time. No sign of anyone else. He was more tired than hungry, so he immediately collapsed on the sofa.

He wasn’t entirely sure how long he’d been asleep when a noise in the basement startled him awake. The clocks, all digital, were flashing 12:00. The power had been off at some point, but for how long? Was it related to the noise? Dallas sat on the sofa, in the darkness, straining to listen for any further sounds.

Silence.

He slowly stood up and walked to the door leading to the basement. Craig kept a rechargeable flashlight just outside. Dallas couldn’t have been more thankful that it worked. He peered down the stairs, seeing nothing at the lower landing.

Slowly, carefully, he crept down the stairs, stepping close to the edges to prevent unnecessary noise. Shining the light as far ahead as he could, he didn’t see signs of anything unusual.

But then he noticed a small pile of brick in the floor. His eyes scanned upward and he saw an inscription on the wall around a small coal chute that the brick once closed, probably two feet in diameter. This inscription was all runic. He pulled up a step-stool and cautiously looked into the chute.

Slightly more than arm’s reach up the chute, he saw three small objects, shining of gold and each about the size of a domino. Dallas climbed part way up the chute, far enough to reach the objects. Examining them in the bluish tinged glow of the flashlight, he could see they were divination stones.

Now thoroughly exhausted and delirious from little sleep, the adrenaline highs and crashes had Dallas confused. He placed the stones on the nightstand, promising himself to meet up with Professor Lewis after his interview.

For the remainder of the night, he slept restfully. After a brief shower and some breakfast, he dressed and started to walk out the door before he remembered the stones. Dallas ran upstairs to retrieve them from the nightstand, but he couldn’t find them. Had he misplaced them? Maybe he dreamt it all?

He shook his head, lightly smacking his forehead as if he could knock the memories back.

Nothing. All he could remember was putting them right there where they weren’t any longer. With time running short, he had to be on his way. Dallas arrived at the game company with half an hour to spare, but as soon as he checked in with reception, Mr. Brantley called him back.

Mr. Brantley’s office was the size of a small apartment, with a beautiful dark, Ipe conference table on one end and a large, sprawling Ipe desk on the other. He had two televisions on the wall by the conference table and bookshelves overloaded with books.

“Hi, Dallas. I’m Mr. Brantley. Pleased to meet you. Craig has nothing but good things to say about you.”

“Thank you. Nice to meet you too, Mr. Brantley.”

“Please, have a seat.”

Dallas took a seat in a fine stainless steel and leather chair.

“So, Dallas, I hope you don’t mind. I don’t go for formal interviews. They’re too stuffy. You just don’t learn about a candidate with a formulaic question-answer session. Tell me about your weekend.”

Dallas wasn’t sure what to include and what to leave out. It was a surreal weekend and, now, without the divination stones, he didn’t even have a conversation piece. Hesitatingly, he began revealing the course of his weekend, detail by detail.

“And so, Mr. Brantley, it was probably one of the craziest weekends of my life. I wouldn’t believe it myself, and now, without the stones, I can’t say definitively that it happened. I might have dreamt it,” Dallas concluded. He was ready for job-specific questions to begin.

“Dallas, did those divination stones look anything like this?”

Mr. Brantley laid three stones on is desk. If Dallas didn’t know better, he’d have sworn they were the same ones. His expression told Mr. Brantley enough, but Dallas stammered out a “yes”.

“Dallas, your weekend was your interview. We watched closely and planted the clues. You demonstrated persistence, determination, and ingenuity, all qualities we look for in our video game testers. Think of it like a real-life in-game quest. I, personally, would like to officially welcome you to our team. And don’t worry about Craig’s car. We’ll get him a new one. Can you start next week?”

Advertisements