Writing all day is pretty fun, actually. I researched Jonathan Swift for this section, JUST IN CASE. I’m up to 10,417 words at this point. Check it out as Santa Claus tells a story.
(If you want to start from the beginning, you can from here: http://blog.paulidin.com/?p=378)
He wasn’t wearing red and white or smoking a pipe. And he definitely didn’t have a big fat belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. Besides the overcoat, he was wearing a casual two piece charcoal suit with a skinny tie and white button-down shirt. The three-button jacket was open, his shirt was stretched tight across his chest and abdominal muscles, and the old man was fit.
Still, he did have a big round face with rosy cheeks and his eyes twinkled behind little rimless spectacles perched precariously on his nose. He did have a fairly large and bushy beard, but it was as salt and pepper as the hair on his head. His tie was a blood red befitting the power tie of an executive, but it had little snow-men printed on it. I think he smelled like gingerbread cookies.
It was disconcerting to want simultaneously to demand answers and also to reassure him that I’d been a good boy all year.
“Sure. Yes, by all means, you can call me Adam. Sir. Thank you.”
“Good. And you may call me Clifton,” he bellowed.
He wasn’t actually shouting, but his regular speaking voice felt like it was coming at me through a megaphone. It must have shown on my face that I felt I was being rocked like a hurricane because his next words were much quieter.
“I was just saying,” he continued, “You won’t find any video cameras no matter how hard you look because they aren’t there.”
“How is that screen able to display us talking to each other if there’s no video camera involved? Sir. I mean, Clifton.”
He actually put his finger alongside his nose. Seriously. I braced myself should he suddenly disappear up a chimney.
“I didn’t say there weren’t any video cameras involved, Adam,” he corrected me. “I said they’re not there,” and he pointed up in the direction I’d been examine.
Then he turned and pointed back at the curved wall of screens and said, “The video cameras are all stacked up behind my viewing wall.”
He turned back to me and leaned down to ask me face-to-face in a stage whisper, “How do you think that works?”
This was obviously a test. Just as obviously, I was expected to fail. I figured if I were supposed to fail anyway, I might as well have fun with it.
“You must have a transparent wormhole positioned in front of each video camera. The other end of the wormhole can be affixed anywhere else you want so you don’t have to worry about anyone messing with the video equipment. I’m surprised you have enough power to maintain all those wormholes simultaneously, though!”
Clifton opened his eyes in surprise and straightened back up to his full height.
“That is almost exactly right,” he said. “Except that it’s just one wormhole that I’ve got cycling through different positions over and over again in rapid succession. It gets back to the same video camera thirty times every second, so the video feed appears to be unbroken. And it’s not really a wormhole so much as it is a transparent superluminal warp, but I don’t need to critique your vocabulary.”
He stroked his beard with his right hand for a moment before narrowing his eyes and bellowing at me the question, “How do you think that’s possible?”
He’d just told me that he had control over a wormhole. Sure, he could have been lying to me, but he had no reason not to tell the truth that I could see. I really didn’t know what was possible at this point. So I gave him my usual wiseass answer to explain things I didn’t understand.
“Hah!” he laughed. “If you believe in magic, then you’re not going to be the right person after all. But I think you’re joking. Now tell me, do you understand the principles of quantum entanglement of non-local particles?”
“I understand some of those individual words, but no.”
The old giant grinned and conceded, “Ah, I see. Then magic it is.”
He turned and walked off toward the left side of the room where I now noticed there was a small bar set up and stocked with a variety of drinks. I hurried along after him.
“Tell me, Adam, why do you think you’re here?”
I’d been wondering this ever since I regained consciousness, so I had an answer ready for him as I joined him alongside the countertop covered in bottles.
“There’s something wrong with me. Just like your elevator is magic and your video cameras are magic, there’s some sort of magic spell on your building that should have prevented me from entering it, but I came inside anyway. Now you need to find out if I’m a threat to you or not.”
Clifton raised a short tumbler full of a dark amber liquid and ice to his lips and paused.
“You have a knack, Adam, for getting the answer almost right every time. Please help yourself to a drink if you’d like.”
As he sipped, I looked at the bottles arranged along the back of the bar. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I was feeling a bit of cotton mouth either from having passed out earlier or nervousness now. I found an unlabeled glass bottle of an orange liquid that smelled like regular unleaded orange juice and poured it into a glass for myself.
I turned back toward Clifton with my glass in my hand and we held up our respective drinks at each other in salute before we both sipped together.
“I am in need of a troubleshooter,” Clifton said. “And I think your unique characteristics fit the bill precisely.”
“What’s the trouble?” I asked.
“And that is exactly what I mean,” Clifton said, avoiding my question. “You’ve been exposed to fantastical, unexplainable phenomena since you first stepped foot inside Wishbook and you’ve been undaunted by any of it except for the Transporter.”
“Hey, I can handle the Transporter,” I interjected indignantly. “I just didn’t have any warning and plummeting to my death makes me nervous sometimes.”
“You’re even making jokes about it, when I’m sure it must have occurred to you that I could kill you right now and suffer no repercussions.”
“What can I say? I’m a fan of Wendy Watson.”
“Hah! I loved that series,” Clifton said with a guffaw. “Come and sit with me.”
He led me back to the conference pit and sat in the throne chair while gesturing toward the others to indicate that I should choose one for myself. I sat and continued to sip my orange juice. Or maybe it was mango juice.
Clifton leaned back a bit in his huge chair and took another sip of his own drink before continuing.
“Your special quality lies in your ability to see things for what they are and not just what you think they might be. Most people wander through the world in a haze made of their own doubts and hopes and fears and everything they see is colored by that haze.
“The people of Wishbook, the employees as you’d call them, are no less susceptible to this tendency. When things go wrong here, I need someone who can spot the problem clearly, and let me know it’s happening so I can fix it. I think you are that someone.”
“Just because I got into your store and figured a couple of things out?” I asked in surprise. “I’ll admit that I like to play Sherlock as much as anyone, but I don’t know if that makes me qualified to be helpful to you here.”
“That’s not the reason why I think you’re our man, Adam. Let me ask you two things: First of all, how long has the Wishbook been here?”
I thought I could see the trick in that question and tried to answer around it. “I don’t know how long it’s been Here,” and I gestured all around me. “But Wishbook’s only been in Bethesda for less than a day.”
“Completely wrong,” said Clifton. “And second of all, what do I look like to you?”
“Santa Claus!” I exclaimed. Look, don’t judge me. He really gave off that vibe.
“Completely right,” said Clifton, and then winked at me and went on to say, “Not that such a fantastical person exists, but that is the image I try to project to those people who can perceive things at a certain level. Different levels of reality and awareness of such things are vitally important both to Wishbook and to the troubleshooter I need to hire.”
He settled back into a professorial pose and I could tell some damned long exposition was about to happen.
“The Wishbook has existed in some form for as long as there have been human cities. In a very real way, the Wishbook came into existence because of cities. When people stopped living in loose clusters and started having to get their foods and goods brought in from rural areas outside the town limits, a mentality developed that things came from stores and not their original sources. It was a facet of children’s magical thinking for thousands of years but in the last several centuries, adults who live, work, and shop in cities have fallen into it as well.
“The apocryphal story is told that a very imaginative woman in Mesopotamia about seven or eight thousand years ago decided that the children of Eridu should be able to get what they wished for if it were something they vitally needed. She set up a merchant’s stall in an uninhabited little corner of the city, and prayed for something to happen. She had no stock on her shelves and no idea how to sell things to be profitable, but she reasoned that this was an opportunity whose time had come.
“The story goes that after sitting in her store alone during the day for several days, a young boy entered and asked for something that would save his family from starvation. It’s unclear whether it was a hunting weapon or a harvesting tool or something else entirely. What is known is that the woman turned around to gesture to her empty shelves and found something there that exactly met the little boy’s needs.
“Though she was surprised by that turn of events, she didn’t hesitate to sell it to the child for exactly the amount of money he had on him.”
“The story continues that when the boy left and the woman turned to inspect her shelves again, she found a giant there waiting to speak to her. And this giant with a great beard and dark cape said to the woman that if she were willing to take up the mantle of running The Store, she could grant life-changing wishes to people, one desperate seeker at a time. He would provide her with the wares she needed and she would just pass on ownership of The Store to someone else worthy when it came time for her to close up for the last time.
“The Store continued to operate in that fashion for a few generations, always under the guidance of someone who had been trained in the peculiar ways of the store by the previous Master or Mistress of the business. Always, the shelves would seem to have just what was needed for the desperate folk who stumbled in, unsure of where they were or what they were doing, but always in dire need of some thing to save them.”
I’d finished my mango juice at this point (or was it papaya juice?) and as I set my glass down on the conference table beside me, Clifton gestured with a swirl of his finger that I should look behind me. There was another glass of juice and also a glass of water on the table there. I nodded in appreciation and decided to stick with the water as that juice’s sweetness was starting to overwhelm me. I gestured that Clifton should continue. It was no Frank Capra classic movie, but I could almost see the events unfolding as he described them. I vaguely wished I had some popcorn to nibble while I listened.
“But history progressed and Eridu stopped being the height of civilization in the world. And so it was that one day, the Master of The Store entered his shop, turned around, and saw a different city outside his door. Panicked, he ran outside in hopes of dispelling the illusion, but he really was in a different place surrounded by different people speaking a language he didn’t understand. When the Master dashed back into The Store, he found a giant waiting there for him.
“The giant told the shopkeeper that The Store needed to grow to exist and that this greater city would bring that growth about. The shopkeeper protested that he’d never be accepted here looking and speaking so differently, but the giant disagreed. It turned out that as far as the denizens of this city were concerned, The Store had been here for generations, and the Master’s presence wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“Of course, the mysterious benefactor of The Store was right and so again it secretly prospered by catering to the desperate needs of frantic shoppers in this new place. The shopkeeper found that if he calmed down, he could understand the words of his patrons, no matter what language they spoke. And every few generations or hundreds of years, a new nation or culture would become the most advanced in the world and The Store would quietly get relocated without notice. The relocated facilities grew larger as time progressed and by the turn of the 18th century, the Master of The Store started having to hire and train a couple of employees to assist him. So it went.”
I swear that I’ve never been interested in history, but I was riveted. I threw another handful of popcorn in my mouth, took a sip of my kiwi juice, and kept listening, completely enthralled.
“In the 1930’s, in the United States, a department store started up a very popular Christmas catalog that they called a Wish Book. Very quickly, their competitors and similar stores attempted to create similar catalogs. Although they were called different things, people often referred to them as Wish Books as well. I’m given to understand that in the early 40’s, the mysterious giant who would still occasional reappear, simply began calling The Store by the new name of The Wish Book. It made perfect sense because we were in the business of granting everyone’s most desperate wish. That was the whole point of it. If we couldn’t help the people who found us, we’d have no reason to exist.
“Now, you would think that with the advent of town records and paper-stuffed bureaucracy that someone would realize that in each place where The Wish Book appeared, it had just come to be there from out of nowhere, but you’d be mistaken.”
“Actually,” I interrupted between sips of my pineapple juice, “I’ve been thinking about that since you told me I was wrong about how long this has been here. When I tried to interrogate people outside about this place, they were certain that this store had been here forever. I’ll bet there are paper filings and historical records that go back a hundred years showing that’s true, right?”
The twinkle in Clifton’s eye was back as he smiled and nodded. “You are correct, young man. Now, how do you think that’s possible?”
“Maybe this is the guava juice talking,” I replied, “but I think that whoever’s behind this Wishbook place is developing alternative timelines and then collapsing two parallel universes into one! The universe where there was no Wishbook here in Bethesda had me in it, and the universe were there was a Wishbook here had nobody in it, and when the two were combined, the history of the store was superimposed over the nonexistence of the store here. And then everybody’s minds just, like, warped around it.”
Clifton wore a look of surprise that confirmed my guess. He set his own glass down a bit unsteadily and gaped at me.
“That was my conclusion exactly!” he concurred. “By any chance have you been studying high energy physics with a concentration in multidimensional string theory?”
“I mean… I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek,” I said, putting down my Romulan Ale. “Besides, I just took the facts as I knew them, and I assumed that I’m not crazy and when I added them all together, it’s the only answer that fits. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Clifton guffawed with a, kidding-you-not, “Ho, ho, ho!” He slapped the table in amusement.
“The implication there is that you think it’s impossible that you could be mistaken.”
“Well, I guess I could be mistaken,” I conceded, “but what kind of awful worldview is that?”
The old man bared his teeth in a big enough grin that I wondered if he had some shark in his ancestry.
“So, what sort of trouble are you having that you need a cocky guy like me to fix?”
The Master furrowed his brow and became serious again.
“Suddenly, some of the wishes we’re granting are going wrong.”