Last month I was invited by Kriss Morton aka Cabin Goddess to write for a special feature on her blog called Fourth Wall Friday. The idea, she explained, was to write a short story where the characters from your books invade your real life. As anyone who has read The Book of Paul knows, the one character from a book that no one wants to see in real life is Paul Kelly, the gleefully wicked villain that makes Voldemort cower in terror. So naturally, he’s the one I chose to come callin’.
Most contributions to Fourth Wall Friday are in the 400-600 word range. This is a full blown 4000 word short story. So enjoy, and at the conclusion I’ll share some creepy background info (hint: most of it really happened).
When the Devil Comes Callin’…Don’t Answer the Door
It started with a Facebook chat. It was late. She was drunk. Well, she may have been drunk, or just a little tipsy, or who knows, maybe stone cold sober. I assumed she was drunk, because what she told me was too strange to have been typed by the fingers of someone who wasn’t under the influence of some type of mind-altering substance.
It was just too creepy.
Drunk or sober, I knew this much: her name was Christine O’Keefe, she was living in Dublin, and a big fan of my novel, The Book of Paul. For those who’ve read it, this story should make you think twice before you open the door without looking through the peephole first. For those who haven’t, you might care to indulge yourself before continuing this story. And for those who haven’t read it and are thinking…Enough with your “suggestions,” just tell the feckin’ story! I’ll tell the feckin’ story.
Back in the ‘90s I was living in the East Village and Alphabet City of New York City. My unsavory lifestyle required me to routinely visit some very scary places in order to satisfy certain physical and psychological cravings that occurred several times a day. Every day. I had to cop my dope.
“What does “cop” mean?” a young twenty-something friend of mine asked me recently, when I was relating the story of my heroin addiction and how it inspired the setting of Paul.
“Seriously? You don’t know what “cop” means?” I replied, aghast at his lack of familiarity with what I considered to be Drug Lingo 101.
“No,” he replied, clearly irritated.
“It means buy, acquire, steal if necessary,” I informed him. “Doesn’t anyone say cop anymore?” As soon as he shook his head I realized that I was the one who was “out of it.” Fuck. How much do I hate growing old?
I ground my teeth and explained how I used to go into these abandoned buildings between Avenue C and D, climb four flights of stairs lit only by small votive candles on each landing, dodging all the shifty-eyed junkies hiding in the shadows. At the top of the stairs there was a closed apartment door that you never entered. The peephole had been knocked out and there was a hole in its place.
The hole was filled with an eye. The eye would look you over to make sure you weren’t a cop. Then the mouth below the eye would say, “Yeah?”
“Two dopes, two cokes,” I’d usually say and stick forty dollars through the hole.
Like a drug vending machine, two small glassine envelopes and two aluminum foil packets were pushed back out at me. Then I’d leave. No one ever stopped to check out the packages. Everyone just left. That was okay with me, because those abandoned buildings were the scariest places I’d ever been inside. Real-life haunted houses. And like I said, I had to go in there every day.
In The Book of Paul, the character Paul lives inside one of these buildings. On the top floor. He has the whole top floor to himself because, well, because he’s Paul. The other squatters live in dingy little apartments below him. Every king must have a throne.
I had a number of goals when I began writing the Book of Paul:
• Finish it.
• Mess around with six or seven different genres in the same story.
• Create the most, evil, charismatic and believable villain of all time.
My success with the first two objectives is indisputable. As to the third, if Paul Kelly isn’t the most, evil, charismatic and believable villain of all time, he’s certainly in contention. Which is exactly what makes all of this so utterly terrifying.
Like I said, it started with a Facebook chat. It was late for me in New York. In Dublin it must have been four in the morning. She was still awake. Not a great sign. It began innocently enough, with some small talk–how am I, how are you, what’s new, etc. Then it started getting very, very strange. When I read Christine’s next message, my stomach churned with trepidation. Fans can be crazy, right? That’s why Stephen King wrote Misery, right? I wasn’t going to jump the gun and assume the worst, but what she said…it just sounded…well, see for yourself:
“Do you know, having finished The Book of Paul, well it’s like seeing yet another side to you. I always said you had many sides that no one sees. I found myself overwhelmed at times. I guess I saw you, a you that you never showed me before, hinted at, slid around, but never quite got there kind of you. I’m incredibly proud of what you brought yourself through and yet never really told anyone, at least for the longest time. Does that make sense?”
No. It sure as hell did not make even a micron of sense. I had only become acquainted with Christine a month earlier. She was a Facebook friend. “Friend,” as in, seemingly-nice-person-I-have-never-actually-met-in-person-and-probably-never-will. “Never,” as in never. And yet, what she wrote implied that we had known each other for a very long time. Uh oh. My This-One-is-Trouble-Alarm began screaming like the fire truck sirens across the street. The warning only got louder as she continued:
“It’s funny living your whole life like you really know someone, thinking you know what’s going on and then it’s like your eyes are finally open and your mouth is open…sometimes in the good sense, sometimes raw and painful. Whenever you used to come by and visit, you’d talk for a while and then you’d close off and shut down. I could never figure it out. I’d get so frustrated, asking a gazillion times what was wrong ’cause something was wrong and you’d say, “I’m off.” After you left, I always sat there practically scratching my head, wondering was it me? Then you’d call at all hours and you’d last five minutes and head off again, or you’d stop up to visit and leave. I’d text you and get nothing back for a week and then I’d wake up one day and there’d be several texts asking how I was and telling what you were up to and then you’d disappear again.
Yet when I read the book, all the pieces of the puzzle completely came together. Part of me cried about it, ’cause I’d been so clueless. I had my suspicions. Many times I kept prying, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on with you. You’d get upset and leave and I’d scream after you and then the following week you’d be back and I’d be sitting there looking at you and pleading for the love of anything tell me, tell me, tell me what’s going on! One night I peeved you off royally. Remember? I shouted at you and you got so angry. I seriously thought you were going to slap me in the face but you kissed me and said Christine I have to go. And you did and didn’t come back. For years I just couldn’t understand. But after the book it all made perfect sense! I wish I could have been a better friend, but life gets in the way and shite happens. I’m so sorry I wasn’t truly on board when you most needed a friend.”
I typed back:
“Christine, I’m really confused by what you’re saying. I don’t understand.”
That was putting it mildly. My head was spinning and I was growing more concerned for her sanity with every word I read. Her response had pushed my worry amp up to 11.
“What don’t you understand?” she replied. “That I can see all of you now? You never showed me that other side before, yet in the book it all comes out. Your vulnerability, I guess. So I’m just sorry that I wasn’t there for you before, emotionally.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. We’ve never met before, Christine.”
I was trying to be as polite and gentle about it as I could. What I really wanted to say was: Are you fucking insane? Her reply only reinforced my opinion.
“What do you mean? Are you playing with me? That’s not fair Richard. You can’t do this to me again!”
Oh boy. Two choices: unfriend her, block her and log out. Or try and reel her back in.
“Okay, so where and when do you think all this happened?” I forged ahead.
Her reply: “Weren’t you in Dublin? Back in the nineties? With Paul?”
With Paul? Holy Crap! What was I getting into here???
“Christine, Paul isn’t real.” I typed as calmly as I could.
“*sigh* Well now I’m confused,” she answered. “Paul and you were always together. Maybe I am getting it mixed up.”
Ahhhh. Much better. Doubt is creeping in. Now let her down easy and run the fuck away.
“Yes, you’re definitely confusing me with someone else. I’ve never been to Ireland. And Paul is definitely not real. I hope. If he is, I’m in deep shit. Or shite, as the case may be.”
“I’m lost now,” she said. “So the Paul Kelly I grew up with in Dublin, who I knew all my adult life, is a figment? Or alias? What you wrote about him describes him to a T! If you really don’t know him this is one hell of a coincidence. He’s the doppelganger of yer character Paul and his best buddy was Richard, hence I thought Yep, now I know what this story is all about.”
“Wow, this is scary weird.” I wrote back with more than a little relief, and yeah, mounting curiosity. “Paul is 100% invention and I’ve never been to Ireland, so if I was channeling someone you met, that is beyond strange.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Seriously, you would die! Paul was a complicated person. I knew he was in pain, but he always hid it behind a smile. He was so funny! His best friend Richard would bring him out and about and they would discuss in detail what Paul had been up to and he’d done these horrible things and I’d get mad and stomp away and he’d shout after me, “Don’t you worry darlin’ I promise not to include you in future festivities!” Obviously, he wasn’t a real murderer. His stories were too farfetched. You’d have to be a loony to believe him. But his character was so much like Paul Kelly in your book that I got chills. I was just so certain that he’d been your inspiration. And with your name being Richard, well, seriously I’m blown away! I’m honestly shocked into almost silence here. Oh life is so weird. I will have to root out some old photos and share the “real” Paul and Richard with you.”
Photos? She had photos?
“I’m dying to see the evidence! Does the other Richard look like me?”
“I haven’t seen Richard since the nineties, but his hair was like yours and his face was so similar, but younger of course. Your profile picture reminded me of him so much! I assumed your character William was based on you, with the tarot readings and all that! Lord I’m blown away. I apologize, but it truly is uncanny!”
“He did the tarot?” I asked, now as hungry for more information as I was freaked out by the sheer creepiness of it all.
“Yes! He did readings for me! He used the same Crowley deck you describe William using and he talked about the hidden story in the cards and said so many of the same things William says in the book! Like word for word! Paul would interrupt him, like he was the senior partner, correcting him all the time. That’s one of the strangest parts about all this. Paul knew everything there was to know about the occult.”
Wow. This just kept getting weirder and weirder.
“Well, life is really strange, and mine is stranger than most,” I typed. “In the nineties I was in NY in the East Village writing The Book of Paul and doing tarot readings.”
“Dear Gods this is startling and most intriguing. Paul used to tease me and test me with my own tarot cards. His family was in the Irish police, hence he found his hobbies of choice easy to come by.”
Hobbies of choice.
“Which were?” I asked.
“Drugs. Robbery. Whatever else that brought along. The things he says in your book, the way he says them, it sounds exactly like his voice.”
“Did I do okay with Paul’s Irish accent?”
“’Tis definitely the most authentic I’ve found stateside.”
“I guess that’s channeling too, since I’ve never spent enough time around Irish borne people to consciously pick up all the subtleties.”
“Spooky. I honestly believe you’ve somehow managed to tap into real people. Obviously, your characters are created, but some real people are part of them. Their names. Character traits. If I took you to a certain bar in Dublin and said “Look! Here’s Richard, back again!” They’d ask how you’d been and how’s Paul and have ye ever heard from him. Just wait till I send you the pictures! You’re going to die.”
When she sent the pictures a few days later, I didn’t die. But I was truly terrified.
Christine’s Richard looks like my twin brother. He even had the same kooky sideburns I wore back then. Like Cap’n Kirk in Star Trek, but longer. I was heavier at the time than he was, so it wasn’t an exact match, but still, the resemblance was jaw dropping. Like a super-skinny rock star version of myself. The pictures of Paul Kelly were even scarier.
When I’m writing a story, it’s very similar to dreaming, or daydreaming. I picture the characters very, very clearly, what they’re doing, saying, how they sound. Like William describes in his visions. Christine’s photos of Paul looked exactly like I’d imagined him. Scraggly, long white hair. Even scragglier mustache. Dressed all in black. That smile. Those eyes. So wicked.
I thought about posting them on FB and my blog. Partly to try and laugh it off, partly because it was so weird and creepy, mostly because I thought that the more people that knew about the “Paul/Richard Anomaly,” the less likely it was that anything truly paranormal would happen. Safety in numbers. In the end, I didn’t post them for a different, more self-centered reason. I didn’t want anyone to think that I hadn’t created my favorite character…my crowning glory of villainy…from anything other than my own imagination. Paul is, was and always will be…mine.
I tried to put it all out of my mind, but I started having dreams about the “other” Paul. Sometimes we’d be in a noisy pub in Dublin, me sitting next to Christine in a booth, Paul across from us, laughing. Sneering. Pontificating. Telling scary stories. Being Paul.
One particularly scary dream started with me sitting in my rocking chair by the window at home, writing on my laptop. The intercom buzzer rang. I went over to the intercom, lifted the phone and asked, “Who’s there?”
No answer. I looked at the monitor. No one was there. As I turned away, a voice shouted “Delivery!” I turned back to the monitor, but I still couldn’t see anyone. I pressed the buzzer anyway, because who wants to miss a delivery? There was a blur on the monitor as the door pushed open. White on white. Static? A very large man’s very large head?
I waited by the door, looking through the peephole. The hallway was empty. Suddenly, my cat howled behind me. Merlin, the magical black cat. “What’s the matter?” I asked. He stared up at me with his black-slitted, yellow-green eyes. He didn’t move. Then he glanced at the door. I heard the elevator opening. Closing. Footsteps. Heavy footsteps. I went back to the peephole. Looked outside.
And saw a great big eye looking back in at me.
“You’re not gonna keep me standin’ out here, are you laddie?”
The voice was loud, laced with an Irish lilt, and…familiar. So was the hoarse, whiskey-laced laugh that followed.
“Who else would it be this time of night?” answered the voice, with another sinister chuckle.
I looked around. When I buzzed him in only seconds earlier, the hallway had been filled with sunshine. Now the room was illuminated solely by the streetlight coming through the windows.
I heard the barely suppressed rage in his sing-songy voice. I thought about my kids sleeping in their rooms only yards away. I thought about my wife back in our own bedroom. Why didn’t she wake up when the buzzer rang? Why hadn’t the kids?
“Go away!” I whisper-shouted. “You can’t come in!”
“Oh, you’re surely wrong about that, my son,” he replied, whispering back. Not that he gave the slightest shit about waking my family. He was taunting me. Like he always does. “We both know I can come in, whenever I like, so be a good host, if you know what’s good for you…and your lovely family that you’re so concerned about.”
“No! None of this is real. You’re not real! I’m dreaming!”
As soon as I realized that I was dreaming, I woke up…inside the dream. Have you ever heard of lucid dreaming? Lucid dreaming essentially means having your normal waking consciousness while you’re dreaming. Being awake in your dream. Sound weird? The reality of it is even weirder. I’ve had quite a few lucid dreams and believe me, they are completely bizarre. So bizarre that they inspired my new YA novel, The Dream Palace. But that’s another story.
Waking up inside a dream is usually a lot of fun. You can control things. You can fly. Very cool. Waking up inside a lucid dream to discover that Paul Kelly was now on the other side of the door standing in my apartment three feet away from me…that wasn’t so much fun.
“Bushmills?” he asked, offering me his silver flask.
“I don’t drink anymore.”
“Oh, I know lad, you’ve been such a good, good boy. No whiskey, no needles. Does your pecker still work? Is the lady of the house reasonably satisfied? Or are you off pussy too?”
“I’m still on pussy.”
“Did you say ‘on’ or ‘a’?” he asked followed by one of his booming, phlegm-clogged chortles.
“Shut up!” I hissed. “You’re gonna wake–”
“Your precious family?” he interrupted. “Or the dead? Don’t worry so lad, they’ve already left you some time ago. After you started getting…how should I put it?…a wee bit off in the noggin’”
I panicked, running into the kid’s bedrooms. They were both empty. No furniture. No clothes in the closets. My own bedroom was a pigsty. The sheets look like they hadn’t been washed in months. There were books strewn everywhere. Books about the tarot, the kabala, numerology, ritual magick. Grimoires. Sheets of paper littered the floor. Some were filled with rows of numerical sequences. Ogham script. Runes. Hebrew script. Greek. Coptic. Other letters and symbols I don’t remember ever seeing before.
“This is just a dream. I need to wake up now.”
“Dear, dear boy. You are awake. You know that. The question is: Now that you’re awake…here…alone…deserted by your family…by everyone…except your own dear Da…what are you going to do about it?”
“You’re not my real father! I made you up! You don’t exist!”
“Is that what your heart tells you? Is that what your nose tells you?”
I sniffed. He was right. He stank. Like Paul stank. Like I stank now too.
“Were you not always puzzled by how different your parents seemed, compared to yourself? How distant? How other? Not a thing to talk about except the weather? Barely the slightest physical resemblance to them, or your brother? Don’t you remember what a relief it was when you came back to County Clare? When I wrapped my arms around you? When you read The Book? When it took you back to your real home. The Maelstrom?”
As he spoke, I instantly recalled everything. It was true. All true. I was horrified. Or part of me was. Another part of me felt…so peaceful. Like I didn’t have to keep fighting anymore. Fighting to cling to a dream that didn’t exist. The dream of myself as better man. As a good man. A good husband. A good father. I could let it all go.
“NO! THIS IS NOT REAL! MY NAME IS RICHARD LONG. I’M A WRITER. I MADE YOU UP! PAUL KELLY DOES NOT EXIST!”
And so I woke up. Sweating. But not smelly. My wife was lying beside me. Sleeping. Breathing very softly. I ran to the kid’s rooms. Sleeping too. Everything was fine. Everything was the way it was supposed to be. I was a good man. A better man. This was what I fought so long and hard for…this was all mine.
Come back. Come back and make the world the way it used to be.
Was it a thought? A memory? These words that Paul spoke to Martin, that lured him back into his dark, hidden kingdom¾was I hearing them in my mind? Or was a voice whispering to me, from somewhere out of time? From some other place?
Was it the voice of my true father?
I scrambled to my laptop, looking for the pictures Christine had sent me. They couldn’t have looked as convincing as I remembered! That wasn’t possible. I looked through the folder where I keep all my pictures. They weren’t there. I tried a hundred different searches, with a hundred different key words. I couldn’t find them. I logged onto Facebook and pulled up my messages with Christine. There was a long thread of conversation, but none of it related to the thing about Paul Kelly. I wrote her a long message back, asking her to repeat everything she had said about it, and resend the photos.
It’s been over a week now and she still hasn’t replied.
Today, I went for a walk in the East Village and headed east. Avenue A. Avenue B, Avenue C. And farther still, to the junkie cop stop I had visited so many times. None of the buildings in that neighborhood are abandoned anymore. The vacant, rubble-strewn lots are parks now, filled with flowers and sculptures made by all the hipster artists who gentrified everything in the years after I had left to pursue a “normal” life. Those pioneers probably live in Williamsburg or Queens now, because this neighborhood and every other place in Manhattan is too expensive for artists or musicians or all the other people who made it so fun and exciting. It’s not dangerous anymore. It’s very tame. There are nice restaurants on Avenue B and nightclubs and cafes and tattoo parlors. It’s still a cool place to hang out. But you can’t be a junkie truck driver and pay those rents.
Finally, I came to the building that inspired Paul’s apartment in the book. My own personal Heart of Darkness. It was boarded up. Filthy. Decrepit. Covered with graffiti. The only building on the block (or any other block I’d passed on my way there) that still stood abandoned. Empty?
My heart began thumping wildly. My eyes searched the top floor. It was the only floor where the windows weren’t boarded up. Beyond the windows there was only darkness. Blackness. Like Paul’s cold heart. I stared up into the windows for a very long time. At one point I thought I saw something move, but you see all kinds of things when you stare too hard and too long. Eventually, I turned away and walked back home to my nice home and my nice life. To my wife and children who I adore more than anything. But a voice kept nagging me all the way:
Come back. Come back and make the world the way it used to be.
I did my best to shut it out, but it kept playing over and over until I replaced those phrases with another, more desperate chant. A new mantra. A protective amulet:
My name is Richard Long. I am a writer. I made this all up.
Paul Kelly does not exist.
Opinions, questions, comments welcome!
The Facebook chat really happened, and it was super-spooky. However, I never asked “Christine” to see photos of the “other” Richard and Paul until after I wrote this. Now she’s digging though old boxes trying to find them. If/when she does, there will definitely be an update!