I’ve often heard, from both accomplished writers as well as students of mine, that their novel began as a short story and then grew. Sadly, I’ve never had a bag of 10-10-10 literary fertilizer to sprinkle on my short fiction in hopes of growing something I could package and sell as a novel. But the idea remains appealing.
So, while digging around in some of my older, shorter stuff, I came across a story I wrote twenty-some years ago. After reading it, I was surprised that it still worked, despite some technological advances since its creation. The basic story relies on some fantasy tropes–elves, fairies, unicorns, etc.–which I avoid like a contagious disease in my novels.
And yet, the story still works! AND–I’ve decided to expand it to (short) novel length. That will be the subject of this blog over the next three or four installments. Later, I’ll get to the details and thought processes behind how I’ll do it. For now, here’s the first half of the original tale. It will be concluded next week. (Full disclosure: This entire post runs about four times longer than usual. As always, your comments are welcome and encouraged. Let me know what you think!) Herewith:
©1996 Josh Langston All Rights Reserved
Scott punched Daphne’s intercom number twice before he got it right. His finger hovered over the buttons, quivering, ready to stab in another extension if she didn’t answer. At length, she did.
“Where’s the goddamn World Series?”
After a moment of silence, Daphne answered. “Budapest?”
Scott made an effort to unclench his jaws. “It’s supposed to be on ESPN.”
“Oh! Sure. Stand by, I’ll check the feed.”
Scott tried to calm himself; Daphne would have everything back to normal soon. Her ambivalence toward sports had nothing to do with her technical ability, and he had no right to blast her because his private life was on the fast track to hell. The IRS audit notice he’d received was bad enough, but when the World Series disappeared, it was almost too much. He’d apologize.
While he waited, Scott stared at the mass of blinking lights on his phone console. How come people only called him when things went wrong? He’d been to college to learn cinematography, and he was good at it, so why did Spinaldi insist that he spend his time managing this second-rate cable TV company?
“Signal’s strong,” Daphne said. “I’m getting a great picture.”
“Of the game?”
“No. It’s either a commercial or a kid’s show, but it’s a new one on me. It’s a conversation between a couple of, I dunno–elves, I guess–and one of those horse-looking things.”
“A unicorn?” Scott rubbed his eyes.
“Yeah,” Daphne said. “A real beauty! And I thought ESPN only ran sports.”
“But the picture’s perf–”
“If it ain’t baseball, it ain’t leaving the building. Go to ‘Stand By’ until you can get the game back on, okay? And Daf? I’m sorry I yelled.”
“No problem,” she said.
Scott hung up and faced the bank of TV screens at the far end of his office. A big one at the heart of the array carried the picture Daphne described. A pair of green-tinted midgets, with wings, floated to either side of a unicorn. One of them polished the horn protruding from the animal’s forehead while the other combed its mane.
Absurd! Where in hell were the Orioles and the Braves?
“Mr. Pettigrew?” The secretary stood in his doorway. “There’s an attorney here to see you.”
Scott shook his head. “Huh? From the IRS? Tell ’em I’m–”
An athletic young man in a dark suit slipped past the secretary and dropped a large gray envelope on Scott’s desk. “I know you’re busy,” he said, “so I won’t stay.”
Scott poked the envelope. “What’s this?”
The attorney looked surprised. “Your wife didn’t tell you? She’s suing for divorce.”
“Really? It took her long enough.”
Daphne slumped in her chair. “There’s nothing left to check.”
Scott stood next to her, shaking his head. “We’ve missed something. You don’t feed a ballgame signal into the wire at one end and get elves and pixies out at the other!”
“Well, we did,” Daphne said. “Right up until the fourth quarter.”
“Whatever.” She took a long pull from her diet Dr. Pepper and offered him the can. He made a face.
“Maybe we should look at the unicorn video again. If this is a high tech prank, I’ll bet there’s some kind of message in it.”
Daphne called up the offending footage. “I’ve already watched it twice. I sure didn’t see any message.” She clicked PLAY.
The screen cleared to a bucolic scene featuring the elves and the unicorn. “Turn it up,” Scott said.
“…but I don’t have any proof,” said an elf with a goatee. He patted the unicorn’s neck. “Besides, we all know humans are just myths.”
“Nonsense!” said the second elf. “Just because we haven’t seen any doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Scott and Daphne watched the entire tape, but the conversation rambled. “It’s obviously not a planned production,” he said. “Certainly not a professional one. The whole thing’s just silly.”
Daphne clicked off the video. She stepped closer to Scott and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry about all this, really. I heard about your divorce.”
“I should have expected it.” Scott patted her hand. “Berta used to do my tax returns. She never showed much interest in me until Spinaldi hired me for his production company. She must’ve thought I was going to be some big deal Hollywood director and spent money we didn’t have to improve her chances in front of the camera.”
“Surgery–nose, chin, hips, chest. So much of her has been added to, reduced, or rearranged, I’m not sure how much of the original is still there.” He laughed. “If you saw her wardrobe, you’d think she was already a star.”
Daphne grinned. “And I’ll bet you never said anything about making movies, right? As if anything else ever mattered to you!”
“Well, okay. I might have mentioned it in passing.” He smiled, then sighed. “But she lost interest when all Spinaldi let me make was commercials. Now, he doesn’t even let me do those. Who wants to manage a cable company?”
“Spinaldi’s a jerk.”
“He’s also my only source of income, and he says if we don’t find and fix the problem with our transmissions, he’ll fire me.”
Daphne shook her head. “I’ll bet he’s still angry about that commercial we did for Gruber and Slantz.”
“The Stormtrooper spot–my favorite!” Scott waved his hands as he spoke, painting pictures in the air. “We open with a tight shot, black and white, of steel-toed jackboots. No music, no voices, just the relentless sound of footsteps as a squad of Gestapo-like cops tromp down a hallway to arrest the hero as he thumbs through a phone book to find an attorney. We should’ve gotten an award for it!”
“Too bad Spinaldi’s brother is the Police Chief.”
“You could have told me.”
Daphne pointed to herself. “Me? You directed it!”
“But you were the production assistant.”
She counted on her fingers as she spoke. “Also set technician, special effects editor, stunt coordinator–”
“No fair! We didn’t have any stunts. Besides, I…” His voice trailed off as he stared at the monitors in the control room. “Daf? I thought line 6 was CNN.”
“It is.” She turned to look at the screen on which a parade of short, ugly miners filed into a dark tunnel. “Good grief! What are those things–trolls?”
“Oh Lord, not again.” Scott scanned the other monitors, then checked his watch. All three of the big networks should have begun their evening newscasts, but ABC seemed to be running a feature on bad weather flying for fairies. A pair of elves discussed the relative benefits of nectar versus honey on FOX, and in place of NBC’s usual anchor team, a platoon of wood sprites frolicked in the nude.
Scott felt the birth of a stomach ulcer. “Cut!” he yelled. “Cut everything to ‘Standby.’ Now!”
Daphne scrambled to hit switches. Scott searched the screens for new program failures. There didn’t seem to be any. He eased back against Daphne’s desk and waited for his pulse to return to normal.
“Good evening,” said a voice from behind him.
Scott whirled around to face another monitor. A powder blue lizard wearing a pointed sorcerer’s cap stared at him from the screen. “Sorry if I startled you,” it said.
Scott shook his head and turned back toward Daphne. “What line is that?”
She squinted at the big monitor. “I didn’t even think that set was hooked up. It’s been so long since–”
“You’ve no call to be rude!” the lizard said.
Scott stared at the screen; the creature had to be looking directly into the camera. Scott felt as if it could really see him. “Daf?”
She shook her head. “Nope. It’s not hooked to anything.”
A giant hand seemed to push Scott back down on Daphne’s desk. He continued to stare at the big screen. “I– How–”
“Relax,” the lizard said. It blinked, slowly, and then did something with its mouth.
Scott felt his jaw drop. The damn thing was smiling at him. He swallowed, but with some difficulty. “Can you, uhm, see me?”
The lizard nodded.
“Daphne? I’ll take some of that Dr. Pepper now,” Scott said. She handed him the can.
“And a good evening to you, too,” the lizard said as Daphne stepped next to Scott. “What an alluring outfit.”
Daphne looked down at her T-shirt and jeans, then up at the screen. “Are you talking to me?”
“The magic of television.”
She walked back to the monitor and poked around behind it, then looked at Scott and grinned. “I’m impressed,” she said. “This is the slickest thing I’ve ever seen! You really had me going. It looks so real! How’d you do the animation, with a computer?”
Scott shook his head. “Daf, I–”
The lizard cleared its throat. “Will you ask the young lady to return to the front? I can’t see her back there.”
“This has got to be the most elaborate–”
“Daphne!” Scott growled, “this isn’t a practical joke; it’s some kind of interactive TV or–”
“‘Goyle squat!” The lizard tilted its cap slightly forward and squinted. “It’s magic, plain and simple.” He shuddered. “I hate working with mundanes.”
Scott and Daphne exchanged looks while the lizard adjusted its robe, the color of which continuously cycled through a spectrum of metallic shades.
“I have an offer to make,” the lizard said. “If you’re interested in having your broadcasts returned to normal.”
Scott perked up instantly. “You’re responsible?”
The lizard rested its chin on a palm and drummed its cheek with sharp-clawed toes. “It began with your satellite transmissions, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the moon spots. Since then–”
Daphne howled. “Moon spots? Right!”
“Never mind,” the lizard said, “I’ve obviously come to the wrong place.” He turned and headed off-screen.
“No! Please! Come back,” Scott said. “I– No. We apologize.”
“You’ll hear me out?”
After another round of robe adjustments, the lizard continued. “Ever since the moon spot problem, certain of your transmissions are showing up on my network.”
Daphne’s eyebrows shot up.
“You have a network?” Scott asked.
“Certainly. Quality stuff, too. A half-dozen channels, all Public Access.”
“What’s her problem?” asked the lizard.
Scott shrugged. “She’s a snob.”
“Anyway, when your telecasts invaded my network, I started getting complaints. The trolls threatened to strike, the wood sprites all came down with green flu, and Dashgarnefel, the Elven King, told me if he ever saw that damned purple dinosaur again he’d have my head!”
“I had no idea our signal was causing any interference,” Scott said.
“I figured as much, that’s when I decided to get your attention. It seemed only fair that if you could force your viewing tastes on us, I should be able to do the same to you.”
“But it wasn’t us. At least, not on purpose. The government assigns the frequencies.”
The lizard tapped its claw tips together. “The frequency I’m interested in is so obscure, I thought your kind would never use it, but I forgot how you always overdo things. Why broadcast on a dozen channels when you can use thousands?”
“That may be, but it’s not something I control,” Scott said. “So, what do you want me to do?”
“Us,” Daphne said. “What do you want us to do?”
“Give me back my frequency,” the lizard said.
“No buts. I don’t care who you have to see, or what you have to do, but if I don’t get exclusive use of that frequency, you won’t be able to tune into anything but the troll’s home movies and coverage of the pixie parade!”
“Wait! I need more–”
“I’ll be back in an hour.” A puff of smoke drifted up from the monitor and the image of the powder blue lizard disappeared.
~~To be concluded next week~~