Somewhere beyond this room a drum rolls and crescendos into a cymbal crash. The chandelier above my head dims and spotlights crisscross the room, making an even greater spectacle of the horrors around the table in front of me. I freeze, thinking that Helen is coming back to life, but no, a curtain on the far wall parts. I hear cheers from an audience. APPLAUSE lights are flashing. The world over there is a far cry different from where I’m sitting. A huge game show set is revealed as the sparkling curtains swoosh back.
A loud band plays theme music; a rumba staccatos across the air. A tall man in a sharp grey suit rushes out from behind a large game board carrying a set of cards. He is smiling and waving at the invisible audience that cheers at the invisible sight of him grinning from ear to ear freakishly beautiful pearly whites a neat picket fence behind his thin lips with a gleam in his eye, and his hair a bionic wave with every single strand stapled to the back of his perfect head. I can’t decide whether I love him or hate him. He’s the kind of media bozo who looks like he could sell Hitler ideology to your great grandmother on a cold day in January and have her out burning books on the snowy lawn of your friendly neighborhood synagogue before sun up.
“Hello, everybody! And welcome to SOLVE THAT ANAGRAM! The game where our dejected banquet guests get to bid for possession of their very souls! Today’s guest is a guy from Nowheresville, a sap in a suit, a guy who just wanted to spend a little time away from his over bearing wife and two adorable kids! He’s made it all the way to the banquet after a night of boozing it up, wicked sex, and a double homicide, but now he’s changed his mind!!!”
The crowd boos and hisses.
“So let’s bring him out right now, shall we? Everybody please welcome, Jonathan Peabody! Come out here, Jonathan!”
The spotlight shines directly into my poor wretched exhausted eyes, and before I can move the hotel FBI goons are carrying me by my arms out onto the stage. They leave me standing by Mr. Wonderful Handsome Charming Charisma, and I can see right away despite temporary blindness that his hair is artificially colored and his teeth are capped. The demon stretches out with an icy well manicured grip and stares into my eyes with a welcome look that belies an utterly vacuous and wholly unscrupulous persona non grata.
“You’re a writer I understand.”
“Er, that’s right.”
“So, what… You work for one of our nation’s top right wing media outlets, or one of those sad supermarket tabloids we see so much about…?
“Well actually, I…”
“Or are you one of those starving types who sits in coffee houses with a computer trying to compose words while reciting your favorite rap song quietly to yourself over your iced latte?
“Shakespeare, actual –“
“Say John, you’re not too happy right now, are you?”
“No, no. Not to put too fine a point on it. You know, I never got your name.”
“Name? NAME? What’s in a name? So, tell me. Why aren’t you happy, John?”
“Oh. Well, all hell broke loose back there. My friend got eaten by a rump roast, and I had to kill my wife. She’s lying over there right now. If you turn your cameras you can see…”
Insert Jeoff, his head disappeared into the rump roast. His shoulders are cuing up next. I just shrug knowing he had it coming.
“Some friend, huh? I bet you’ll miss him the next time you visit the steam baths. [Insert cymbal crash]. Anyway, how ‘bout that food, John, wasn’t it delicious?”
“Well I don’t know. I never actually got to eat any o-“
“Don’t worry, John. There’s more where that comes from. So, you ready to play our little game?”
“Great ! Let me explain the rules, John. It goes like this. We give you a puzzle, a word puzzle called an anagram. Do you know what that is, John?”
“Yeah, that’s where the letters of a word are all jumbled up.”
“Thaaaat’s riiiiigghht! And you have to guess the correct word. Now we give you fifteen seconds, John. Fifteen seconds, that’s all you get. If you guess the anagram in fifteen seconds, you get to leave.”
“You mean, leave leave… as in leave?”
“That’s right. You can walk out, and your stay at the Outland will be free of charge! Ok. But now listen, John.”
“Now listen… If you can’t guess the answer in fifteen seconds can you guess what happens?”
“I have to stay here forever?”
“Thaaaaaaat’s riiiight! ISN’T HE SMART, FOLKS?”
The whole stage lights up. Applause signs flash. The invisible audience goes out of their invisible minds. Then everything settles down and Mr. Handsome Chivalrous Charm The Pants Off Mother Theresa And Convince Her To Go Down On The Pope squares off with me, and flips through his little stack of cards.
“Alright, Jonathan. Are you ready?”
“Yes, I thi-“
“Alright. Here’s your puzzle.”
“Er, wait. Could I have a scratch pad and a pen please?”
“Sure.” Handsome quickly rummanges his pockets and comes up with the requested items. “Yeah. Here. Now are you ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Here is your puzzle, John!”
The game board lights up. Huge black letters read:
VEILVESLI. A clock off stage begins loudly ticking a second-by-second march of impending doom.
“Fifteen seconds, John.”
“Nope. Now you’ve got thirteen seconds.”
The thing about anagrams is you have to rely a lot on your imagination or else your mind will lock up and you’re screwed. A healthy vocabulary and cognitive ability with consonant vowel combinations and an ability to envision a word helps immensely. But this fucking word is not like anything I’ve ever seen in the English language. It just can’t be. Or my mind is too scrambled by alcohol poisoning and an over saturation of adrenaline and cortisol. It’s all some kind of cruel joke. I’m going to be stuck here forever, force fed until the slaughter comes. Is there any canon of law to protect a citizen from soul extortion by anagram?
“Come on, John.”
Come on, John, indeed. I can feel him licking his lips, his neatly entrenched teeth splitting into swords ready to devour me at the slightest sign of weakness. Let’s see what kind of a come-on you feel when I put my hands around your weasel neck and squeeze you ‘till your eyes pop out. Maybe you haven’t heard the news, but I’ve already killed two people tonight! You think I’ll stop for a Hitler Youth poster boy like you? Veilvesli! Who ever made up this word just thawed out from a trip to Pluto!
I scratch light mad to figure this thing until the pad all but disintegrates in my hand. The pencil snaps. I’ve got brain lock. I’m fucked.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense. Is it a real word?”
“No. I’m sorry John. It’s two real words. Hurry, John. Time’s-a-waistin!”
Now he tells me – two words! I can break it up. Now I begin to see.
“Time’s almost up, John”
“Vesli… Vesli… “LIVES!” I shout. “Ah, ah…”
The crowd starts counting down… “FIVE…. FOUR…”
V – E – I – L…
“Oh, I’m sorry. Judges, can we have a ruling? Did he make it in time?
“What? I dunno. ‘Evil Lives.’ Did I make it in time?”
“I dunno. We’ll see,” says the demon.
I start to panic. “Did I make it in time, OR WHAT?”
“Well, John… It looks like… YOU WON!!!”
An exhausted gasp escapes me like my last breath. The stage explodes. A blizzard of confetti pours down from the rafters. Applause lights strobe the darkness. The crowd goes bonkers. Handsome hugs me as proud as can be and waves to everyone in TV land.
“I did? I won?”
“That’s right, John. Now you’ll never go hungry again. You’ll always have everything you ever dreamed! Because you, Jonathan Peabody, have won your very own seat of honor at our Banquet, right here at the Outland FOR ALL ETERNITY!!! Isn’t that great? Isn’t that wonderful? Aw, Folks, give this man a big round of applause!”
I can’t believe the madness surrounding me. The blitzkrieg is closing in. Bombs are going off inside my head. I did it. I guessed the anagram. I was correct, just as the buzzer sounded. My heart goes into a seizure. I can’t feel my hands. I feel like I’ve been hit by a baseball bat. I scream for the exits. I need air. The FBI goons are coming to take me away with their shiny black shoes and their suits and skinny ties and dark sunglasses that have never been penetrated by the light of day. Please God, this can’t be happening. I’m in the prime of my life. I don’t need this. I’m perfectly content with two or three meals a day! Peanut butter and tuna fish will suffice quite nicely, thank you! And I can completely swear off sex. It’s over rated anyway. I love my wife! I love my kids! Anything! Anything! But I cannot be here!
The light level drops a few Kelvins, and the shit really hits the fan. If they get me, that’s it. I’m stuffing. Say no more. But Helen and the kids are here. What if they come for them? I can hear Blix now, “Oh, my dear, you look absolutely famished. Your poor addled brain needs to relax. Please, go make use of our amenities. Mandolin and I will look after the little ones. Now go. And take as much time as you like. We’ve got all night…” They’ll recycle Jeoff out of the rump roast for double duty, slap a pair of falsies and some lipstick on him and introduce him to the twins as their new nanny. The drag act will be right up his alley. He’d do anything for another trip to the buffet table. I have to get out of here! I have to find Helen! I need a diversion!
God is listening, as an earthquake begins to shake the floor. The lights flicker drastically, and the walls start to shake the ceiling over head. It’s rolling apart. Part of the lighting catwalk collapses, and there are screams and the sounds of people stampeding for the exits. I decide there’s no time like the present to make a break for it. I charge for the door.
“Hey! Get him!” Game boy yells, showing true Nazi grit. The two FBI goons give chase as I head for the door. But I’m blocked off by two more coming in from the other side.
The room feels nearly one hundred twenty degrees. The whole place is shaking and roaring and collapsing as if Hell itself were rising from the deep. I’m having trouble standing. The goons are sliding this way and that in a terrible conflagration of black ties, arms, and legs. I’m better on my feet than they are – thank god for alcohol. But it’s too crowded to make a break around them. As I calculate my options the chandelier cuts its moorings and bashes into the table, setting Helen and all the food and the hibernating guests on fire. The goons are closing so I scramble around the table to put the fire between us. But there are no other exits, only the balcony. I stumble past the colonnade and across the terrace for a look over the side and see the roof sloping down. It’s steep, but I am desperate enough to think I can walk on it.
The quake stops, and the inertia of my body nearly flings me over the rail and down the slope. But I catch myself luckily, and set foot down just as the goon squad closes the gap. I leave them all pointing and deliberating whether or not to follow me on my mad getaway with my arms spread across the roof. This is a successful strategy until a tile gives way and I find myself sliding out of control towards certain doom. I am so lucky to find the one tile the roofer failed to secure to the top of the building, and I approach the edge certain that my death will save the Outland millions in claims. Needless to say the other tiles feel like hell gouging my back. But all this abrasion does nothing to slow my phantasmagorical descent toward oblivion.
No, the only thing that saves me is a lip on the edge of the roof that hits and stops me from going over. I sit at the bottom of the roof and collect myself looking dumbstruck at the thick clouds hanging over the hillside, feeling the wind of an early morning brush around me with the promise of rain. I dust myself off, and slowly stand, checking down the side of the hotel topped by the giant clock face reading twelve o’clock. The goons are all hanging off one another. Seems I wasn’t the only one to discover a loose tile. The top goon secures their well being with an arm wrapped around a lightning rod.
With swift justice lightning strikes the rod and instantly fries the four goons. The light is so bright and hot, and the boom so omnipotent, it knocks me clear off the top of the building. Everything goes black. My heart stops. I feel the air as I flip heels over head through it. I think, so much for the power of prayer. But as suddenly as fate turns against me, I wake up hanging over a hundred feet in the air by my shirt from the pointed end of the giant clock’s long hand. Air shudders through me as my eyes launch with the realization of my predicament. Every nerve in my entire body ignites with painful fire. My clothes are all burned in tatters around me. The shirt is dissolving. I reach and grab the end of the hand and catch myself just as the last shards of the shirt rip and vanish into burnt tatters around my neck.
In the denouement of the lightning blast the sky opens up. Rain drops the size of Kansas hurtle down in a maelstrom of watery bullets. My hands get soaked as they squeeze and turn ghost white on the clock hand. I’m gasping and wrenching my shoulders scraping with my feet, trying to push up. I feel myself grow heavy as the water soaks what’s left of my clothes. I struggle, exhausted, wrung out, hung over, blasted and spent. My fingers grow fragile and helpless against the edge of the clock hand. The edges feel cutting sharp.
While panic holds me in a solid grip, the clock starts to toll. For some ungodly reason, now after all this, time decides to resume its march. Behind the clock face the massive gears come unlocked, and the hand starts moving as if someone suddenly remembered to plug the thing in. Three times the bells chime. Three times the hand makes its incremental move clockwise, jerking my hands with each motion. The rain has now slicked everything and is making it hard to hold on. Two more times, the clock bellows. My weight is shifting dramatically over the hand. I have to reposition my hands. I try to wrap an arm around it to no avail. The rain is relentless. I’m losing.
“Hello! I say, Hello!”
I look around for the sound of this voice, calling out like an angel from the sky. The bells bong again and the hand jerks me one more time. Down around two I see my friend, the Old Man, leaning out of a portal in the clock face, sheltering his face from the rain with a newspaper.
“The elements are having a field day, wouldn’t you say? I always say an earthquake with a shower is the best way to wake up!”
I’m sorry do you not see that I am hanging for my life by a mere twenty eight digits? The bell rings again. The hand moves. The situation is growing more severe.
The bell rings again.
“Difficult proposition,” he sullies, “this is the only way in or out.”
The window is too far away for me to reach. In another second I will be fertilizer for the roses. I start kicking.
“I say! What are you doing???”
I’m kicking, and kicking, and kicking until a crack forms in the clock face. The crack lengthens and feathers out into a million tributaries until finally a whole section of the clock face shatters and tumbles leaving me a hole to jump through.
I swing my legs and fly through, just as the clock strikes for the last time, and land on the catwalk shaking fiendishly and relieved.
“Brilliant move, Sir. Brilliant!” The Old Man congratulates me, reaching a hand down to help me stand. I take his hand and get to my feet, brushing bits of glass off of me. “Tell me,” he says, “what inspired you to make such a daring move?
“Imminent death might have had something to do with it.”
“Touché my boy! Well it’s clear you still have your wits about you. Shoes holding up rather well I see. You’re a lucky lad. Indeed, you are very lucky.”
“I’m sorry about the mess.”
“Oh! Don’t worry. I’ve been trying like the devil to get a work crew up here, but you seem to have fixed it.”
“What? You mean the clock?”
“Indeed. Things have been moving a bit slow around here. But they’ll soon be on track. You’ll see!”
The Old Man looks me over, smiling through twinkling eyes, and I notice that he is still in his stripped pajamas and night cap, wearing his bedroom slippers and sporting a brass handled cane.
“Could I interest you in a suit of dry clothes?” He asks me kindly.
“As a matter of fact, yes, I think you could. But I’m in a bit of a hurry. You see… “
“Ah!” He exclaims, dismissing any thought of the dreaded GI men in their ties and jackets. “Don’t let them fool you. Not much more there than a suit, and badly tailored, if you ask me. But put a man of your talents in a suit, and he would be a king! Now come this way. I have a wardrobe that will fit you excellently. A woman always respects a man who looks his best.”