Signing

The main character here does not use language appropriate for the dinner table. There’s also a little violence (and bad sci-fi clichés – I’m not entirely sure which is worse).

His wrist aches. It’s ached for hours, actually, but he’s looked up – at the giggling teenage girls having an animated conversation about “fandom” and their favourite characters, at the young and trendy father in an AC/DC T-shirt trying to reassure his anxious daughter that yes, she will get her signature, at all the people like them – and then looked down and carried on. This has happened four times now.

He glances at the clock. Five minutes. He can do five minutes. (He thinks. He prays. Ow.)

He signs another copy, this time from a young and excited teenager. The boy talks about MIT, about research and development, about how he wants to work in artificial intelligence, all the while with the widest, most animated eyes Johnson thinks he’s ever seen. He tries to follow it, he really does, but the kid talks so fast – it’s like he has to grab every second and cram as many words into it as possible, talking so much but never really saying anything. Johnson ends up scrawling a hurried signature and telling the boy to go and be a pioneer. He hopes he makes it.

When the kid leaves, Johnson’s gaze drifts down to his desk as he lets out a sigh. Two minutes to go, he thinks, if he’s right.

“Make it out to Gloria,” the last person at his table says, with a smile in her voice.

He looks up and sees the wide smile he heard, long lashes and a woman that doesn’t technically exist. “Shit,” he breathes. He thinks it’s an acceptable response, considering the circumstances. Considering he’s sitting here, staring at her, of all people.

“Hello,” the heroine of his novel says, leaning slightly to look him in the eye. She looks down at one of the copies of the book stacked on the desk, tilting her head with a frown. “You know, they just can’t get my nose right.” The leather she wore in the novel has been swapped for a simple, inconspicuous sundress. It’s white, and it brings out the dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose, the red of her hair.

“Um,” he manages, inhaling and choking on air, then he takes a look at the cover himself. “Gloria, that you looks nothing like the one in my head.” The words slip out before he’s really aware of them, and realising his mistake, he stares at her and adds, “And, uh…”

“And at your desk,” she finishes for him. “Uh-huh.” For a man who makes his living with words, he seems rather inept at using them right now. “Come on, dear author.” She pats his shoulder reassuringly. “Let’s go and get a coffee.”

¬

Which is how they end up in a small, not exactly upmarket cafe where the lights constantly flicker and the coffee tastes like diluted piss. Well, it is London.

“So, are you secretly real?” he asks, after five silent minutes of staring at each other. The wood-effect plastic table between them seems like an ocean. Eh, he’ll  swim it – now he’s recovered his voice, his words, he feels like he’s on firmer ground. At her frown, he elaborates, “Have I been writing the biography of some parallel-dimension woman who actually exists?”

She shakes her head, smiling a little. “You’ve been reading too many books.”

He could say More like writing them, but she knows him. The unspoken words are in his eyes. He certainly knows her, he thinks dryly. “So you are fictional?” She nods, her smile never faltering, and he can’t help asking, “And that doesn’t bother you?”

There is a pause as she seems to consider his question, then she speaks. “You are one of several billion people, barely a spot on the acne-ridden face of the universe, and are going to die at the end of an extremely limited lifespan.” She gives him a sweet, innocent smile. “Does that bother you?

“Uh…” After his initial surprise wears off, he huffs out a surprised laugh. “Dear God,” he mutters, “it really is you.” He curls his hand round the small white mug in front of him, enjoying its warmth. Then he raises it to his lips, taking a swig of his disgusting coffee, and repeats, “Dear God,” this time for an entirely different reason.

Gloria sighs. “It’s a fact of life. You exist, you dictate, and I live with that. You could die any time crossing a road, but you tell yourself it won’t happen to you, and so you live with that.” She shrugs. “We’re honestly not so different. Just don’t think about it too hard.”

He nods. “People rationalise.”

There is a small, thoughtful silence. A clock in the corner ticks; people order chips and tea and baked beans at the counter, none the wiser to the strange cosmic event happening at the table by the window.

That silence is broken by his cry of, “Oh! I see.”

Gloria jumps. “You see?”

“Gosh, I didn’t know I was that bored.”

“I don’t – “

“I’m asleep. probably with my face squashed gracelessly against my desk. One of the bookshop staff’ll wake me up in a minute.” He lets that hang, waiting for the wakeup. The air between them is once again silent and tense.

Smack.

It takes him a moment to realise that Gloria has slapped him – none too gently, either – and his hand has risen to cup his cheek, a hiss of pain escaping his lips. “Shit.”

“That better?” Gloria asks, and dammit, she’s still smiling.

He hears murmurs from around them, a wry comment or two about the temper of redheads. “Shit,” he lets out again. It registers, dimly, that the pain in his wrist has been joined by the one in his stinging cheek. It registers shortly after that that there is a pain in his wrist, meaning… “The signing happened?”

Gloria nods. “Strange, isn’t it, and a little bit scary?”

“It’s…” He doesn’t quite know how to reply. “Yes.” He’s read enough books. “I assume this is how you feel, and you’re trying to get me to empathise through showing me our common ground?”

She ducks her head, half-bashful, half-smug. “Damn. Saw right through me.” Another shrug. “I’m one of your characters, if you recall? I’m made of cliches.”

Johnson glares at her. “Why are you here?

“I…” She opens her mouth, seeming to stumble for the first time, and frowns, her eyes wide and confused. “I don’t know.”She suddenly seems intensely frightened. “I woke up. here. With… There were memories, but I knew they were false” – Ah, he thinks, she remembers the books – “whereas here, this place, it was real. I don’t know…” She bites her lip. “Help me,” she says eventually. “Please.”

“Has anyone else come – ?”

“No,” she interrupts him – hastily, as if it’s difficult to talk about. “No, they don’t exist, and I know when I think about them that they never did.”

He can’t imagine… “Oh, shit.” It seems that when most words desert him, all the impolite ones choose to stay. He lays a hand over hers. “I’m sorry.”

“Just… help me.” The words are quiet and afraid.

She keeps saying that, but he refuses to let his frustration get the better of him. “What do you want?” he asks, then corrects himself with, “What do you need?”

“A place to sleep,” she replies, bluntly and honestly. She looks down, at the simple dress it appears she’s chosen herself. “And would you mind getting rid of the catsuits and occasionally writing me in something sensible?

¬

He lets himself into his darkened house. “This OK?” he asks, switching on the lights and giving her a moment to follow him in.

She nods, then raises an eyebrow. “Where exactly – ?”

“Do you mind taking the couch?” he asks her, and when she shakes her head, he goes to fetch blankets and a pillow or two.

He doesn’t realise she’s followed him until he hears a very quiet murmur of, “It’s so strange to see you here.”

Without turning, he finds a cupboard close to his bedside table, hurriedly yanks the door open, and starts searching through it for bedding. “Meaning?”

“Johnson, it would be like you visiting God,” she tells him, adding when he does face her, “and him giving you pillows.

He swallows at that, not liking the comparison, and shuts the cupboard door a little harder than necessary before he makes himself say false-brightly, “Well, it’s been a long day. I best turn in. Kitchen’s over there.” He waves a hand in the relevant direction.

She watches him as though expecting him to say something more; when he doesn’t, she beams at him, though it doesn’t reach her eyes, leaving the room and giving him a chipper little wave over her shoulder.

That night, he lies staring at the ceiling, praying that – like one of his endings – in the morning it’ll all have been a dream.

¬

He wakes to the smell of frying bacon and the sound of cheery whistling.

He trudges through the lounge, entering what the estate agent charitably called a kitchen – it’s a corner of the room with a few tiles on the wall and some appliances. It doesn’t quite hit him until he pads into the kitchen and sees Gloria at the stove. “Shit,” he says once again for good measure.

“You know,” she tells him, “you say that a lot. For all you tell the press about ‘authorial intent’ and your wonderful vocabulary, you sound like a man who makes a lot of mistakes.”

“Uh…” It’s too early for this.

“I Googled you.”

He’s beginning to regret writing her in a near future setting, if it means she can use today’s computers. “Right.”

“Take a seat,” she orders him, and – in his own home – he meekly obeys. “I had those,” she tells him, and, as his bleary eyes manage to focus on his kitchen table, he sees a Northern Irish passport and a wad of cash. “They were with me when I woke up.” A pause and a sizzle as she turns over the bacon. “No, I don’t understand it either.”

He blinks as a minute or two later a bacon sandwich on a plate is dumped in front of him.

Gloria flops into the seat opposite with a sandwich of her own, taking a large, unladylike bite.  “What?” she asks, and Johnson realises that he’s staring at her.

He makes a wiping-his-mouth motion and she does the same, her hand coming away covered with ketchup. “Oh.” She laughs a little, the freckles across her nose stretching as she gives him a grin. “Thank you.”

He nods by way of acknowledgement, tucking into his unexpected sandwich, and then finds the words. “You know, you didn’t have to…” He trails off, his words slurred by exhaustion – while his night hasn’t been sleepless, it’s been damn close – and settles for making a vague gesture at the food in front of him.

The grin stays. “You see, the thing about bed and breakfast is that the two are designed to go together. You gave me the bed, I provided the breakfast. All is well and balanced in the universe. Does that make sense?”

No. No, it doesn’t. Why did he have to wrote a rambling, nonsensical and more than a little pretentious character? He doesn’t say any of this, however, merely nodding. He takes another bite of the sandwich – at least the taste of that is familiar.

¬

 He doesn’t know what to do, so he lets her stay. It’s not like he can throw her out – she’s Gloria, or at least he thinks she is – and his royalties should be enough to pay for the both of them. (For now. Shit, he hopes he won’t have to do another book signing tour any time soon.) She wonders round his house, occasionally remarking on how many things are the same as in her world, and he clicks through his e-mails.

Four on the subject of deadlines –four. He winces – and one from an address he’s never seen before. He frowns. Usually the publishing house keeps fan mail.

There’s a forwarding message from his agent: Seems like a nutter, but may be a nutter of note. Take a look. He doesn’t know what to make of that, so he scrolls down to the message itself. It’s from a Dr. P. Sherman, and it asks him whether one Gloria Masterson has turned up on his doorstep.

Gloria Masterson. Gloria.

Yes, he types by way of reply. How did you know?

 He hesitates as his hand hovers over the mouse ready to click the Send button, however, and calls, “Gloria!”

Several hurried, padding footsteps and then she arrives in the room, bare-foot and still in the same simple sundress. “Yes?” She leans to take a look over his shoulder, reading the e-mail, but doesn’t say anything.

“You remember this guy?” he asks.

She straightens, shaking her head. “I can’t say I do.”

Johnson swallows, re-reading the e-mail one more time before he clicks Send. “Well, he seems to remember you.” That bothers him, somehow.

¬

He is in a pleasant, half-dozing state when he’s jerked awake by the sound of the doorbell. He looks at the clock. 6:59 A.M. Who the hell – ? He hears Gloria answer the door, thinks groggily that he probably ought to get up and deal with it, and then there’s a knock on his bedroom door. “Huh?” he says.

“It’s Sherman,” she tells him through the door.

He bolts upright, hurriedly grabbing a shirt. He shoves it over his head and runs to the door, wrenching it open. “Sherman?” he asks Gloria, who is blinking at him in surprise. She nods. “Shit.”

He stalks into the living room, glaring at Sherman – who is seated on his couch (his couch) watching him guilelessly – and snaps, “I e-mailed you. I didn’t say stalk me and arrive at my house at six in the bloody mor – 

“Seven,” Sherman interrupts, after a glance at his watch, and Johnson fumes.

“Seven. Whatever the hell. How did you even – ?”

“Cross-referenced several searches and a few blog posts,” Sherman says without skipping a beat, waving a hand. “Oh, and Google Maps.”

Gloria has followed Johnson in, and is regarding the situation with a displeased expression and crossed arms. “How very informative,” she mutters. “And how very terrifying.”

At the reminder she’s in the room, Sherman turns his head, watching her steadily over Johnson’s shoulder. “Do you remember why you’re here?” When she shakes her head, Sherman looks back to her author. “What happened?”

Johnson glares at the doctor for a full minute – taking in the man’s slightly ruffled hair, the five o’ clock shadow around his jaw, both seeming in contrast to the man’s sharp suit; even though he can only be in his late twenties, he looks for all the world like he’s just wandered in from giving a university lecture somewhere – before he sighs in resignation, relaxing a little, and explains, “She came to my signing. I gave her my sofa.”

Sherman nods. “It makes sense that she’d want to find you. It would have been instinctual. You’re the nearest thing she has here to an ally…” He trails off at seeing the look on Johnson’s face.

“OK, shut up and talk,” Johnson demands, before wincing at what he’s just said.

Sherman raises his palms in surrender. “Sure.” He sighs. “I made… a machine…”

Johnson tenses. He writes science fiction for a living – he can guess where this is going. 

Sherman scratches his stubble, stretches his mouth, the actions borne of discomfort. “It was… ah. It took ideas, pieces of the conscious mind and tried to… make them tangible. Corporeal. I’d been reading Between Worlds when I wasn’t working; it must have… during the test run… it must have latched onto the author of some of my ideas. It used you.”

A mad scientist and an experiment gone wrong. At this rate Johnson’ll start citing the Three Laws Of Robotics, or asking Sherman if he’s felt at all like a giant fly recently.

“It took your ideas,” Sherman continues. “It used your ideas as a base, and gave you Gloria.” Sherman shrugs. “I only meant to transfer an apple, something like that. It was a mistake.” He meets Gloria’s eye. “She was a mistake.”

Gloria grits her teeth and snarls, “It would seem you found yourself with an outlier in the data you couldn’t easily get rid of. And you thought it necessary to dump me in the street.” A muscle in Johnson’s jaw twitches, and Gloria continues, “I woke up in an alleyway. In a leather catsuit. Without my knives. I walked onto the street and was asked if I was an exotic dancer, whatever that means. I had to buy clothes to stop the staring.” She exhales, short, sharp and angry. “By my Creator, I need a drink.” She moves to the kitchen, starts searching through Johnson’s cupboards for alcohol. He should probably say something, but it seems like a fictional character trying to steal his gin is the least of his worries right now.

“I gave you money. I gave you what you needed to survive,” Sherman attempts.

“You did?” The question is bitter, and she doesn’t even turn.

Johnson steps in before things can turn nasty – well, nastier. “So you came here to apologise? Or to make Gloria feel like shit?”

Sherman looks down at his knees. “‘Fraid not.” He pulls aside his jacket, stands, and at the hip of those smart suit trousers is a gun. The plea for understanding is utterly gone – funny, Johnson thinks, the difference a gun will make to a man’s demeanour. (Ooh, good line; he ought to write that down. Very noir-ish.) Sherman levels the gun, aims it at Gloria’s head, and damn, the man should not be able to do that over Johnson’s shoulder. “There was no easy way to wash my hands of her. Once the panic wore off, I thought about it far too hard, and realised that questions would be asked. I destroyed the machine itself, but its product is still breathing and in your kitchen.”

“You’re British,” Johnson manages, in half-hearted bid to keep Sherman talking. “How did you even get through customs?

“I had a contact,” Sherman replies. “An American. The same one who faked the passport.” He glances down at the gun. “I don’t like using these things” – he cocks his head with a mutter of, “Or Americans, but if they’re necessary…” He turns the gun to aim it at Johnson.

Shit.

Johnson hears steel behind him; a shot, a cry, and then a very angry woman is knocking him to the floor. “Trust me,” Gloria says in his ear, and then she’s jumping to her feet, a kitchen knife in her hand, running at Sherman; never staying on a straight path, swerving and crouching, and so the next two shots that Sherman fires off in quick succession miss.

“I have this right,” Sherman tells her calmly, aiming the gun again. “I created you, I need to correct you.”

“Two bullets,” Gloria sing-songs, and now she’s a foot from Sherman at most. “Aim well.” Another shot, and this one does hit her; it hits her in the shoulder. She whimpers, blood beginning to spread across the white of her dress, and stumbles. Sherman begins to aim again, and…

She falls well. Just a step, more of a slump, carrying her momentum, and the knife is against Sherman’s throat, held carefully. He freezes with a grimace, and at that, she smiles – tight and predatory – and tells him, “Isn’t it lucky for your carotid artery that you didn’t nick my knife arm? Now, about what you said…” She glances at the gun coming up beside her, where he’s obviously trying one last time to aim it at her head, and knocks it from his hand. “I have excellent peripheral vision, sweetheart. Now, as I was saying… Johnson over there – yes, the man lying on the floor, he appears to be working on that – wrote me. But you, darling, you made me sentient.” Even as her tone grows  meandering, musing, she doesn’t take her eyes off him for a moment, every muscle in her body tense. “Free will is fascinating, isn’t it? I think, doctor, that I now create myself.” She tightens her grip on the knife, holding it closer to his throat, and orders, “Johnson. Inconvenient gun.”

Johnson, having climbed to his feet, jogs over to grab the gun from the floor.

She risks a glance at her knife, and then tells Sherman, “I don’t like using these things, but if they’re necessary…” She grins, but it falls from her face as she demands, “Leave. Don’t return, and don’t expect the blueprints for your lovely machine to remain whole for very long – you found us, I can return the favour. You’ve read the books. You know I will happily take your life, I simply don’t want to get blood on my dear friend’s carpet. Oh, and he will be pointing your gun at you on the way out. One bullet.” She steps round him, circling the knife round his throat, until she’s standing behind him, the knife still worryingly close to his throat. “Now, walk.” She pats Sherman down with her other hand, this one slower and jerkier than the other as she struggles to move her shoulder. “And if you’re planning to use any other firearms, it won’t be pretty.”

He does, watching Johnson with scared eyes; the author has indeed got his gun, and is pointing it at Sherman with shaking hands. Johnson’s written about these things enough times, but held one? No. Just the thought terrifies him.

Sherman edges to the door, opens it slowly, and begins to step out into the front yard; Gloria shoves him forward, slamming the door as he stumbles, and then quickly steps away from the door, putting an ear to the wall next to it. When she seems to hear nothing, she turns to Johnson to find him staring at the gun in disgust.

“I need to put this somewhere,” he says quietly, before looking up at her. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.” He sighs. “I wrote you as good with knives and slightly unbalanced.”

She looks down, realises she’s still holding the knife, and then goes to the sink to wash it, putting it back in its block with the others. “I will find him,” she tells Johnson. “And I’m not entirely sure I’ll be merciful next time.”

“I refuse to be privy to a murder!

She turns to him, frowning. “The man’s and egotist and an obsessive. I was going to destroy his work. I’m sure someone will send him to some sort of asylum eventually. “

“Oh,” Johnson says lamely.

She holds out a hand for the gun. “May I have that, and a coat of yours?”

He obeys, and she slips the gun into the pocket of his mackintosh. “This is going in that large river of yours.”

He wonders about the sound of the shots, but then thinks about the area he lives in. Calling the police? Hah. That implies they’d actually do something about the call.

To-do list: Write new book. Ask Gloria to get a job. Move. He has money now, he could buy a mansion and have his own private drive.

He sighs. Yeah, right.

¬

“Mr. Johnson?” a woman asks. She’s dressed in a replica of Gloria’s old outfit, one that looks home-made, and is wearing a ginger wig.

“Yes?” he says, straining to hear her above the low-level noise of the crowd. Ah, conventions – someone’s probably started a debate about canon while he’s been talking.

“Why did you get rid of the catsuit for the third book? I mean, it was iconic.” She crosses her arms, waiting for a reply.

He considers his answer, wondering how exactly to explain. “Well, truth be told, Gloria was getting a little sick of it.” The crowd’s murmur turns into a laugh, and he smiles, going along with it.

They think he’s joking.

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