In hindsight, Douglas probably could have managed perfectly well without Bradbury’s corpse. But, being a writer, Douglas was prone to trying new things—be they merely whimsical or downright wicked—if there was the slightest possibility of elevating his prose to the level of the Master Storyteller himself.
The CyberBids ad said just that: “Elevate your prose to the level of the Master Storyteller himself! Ray Bradbury’s corpse, fresh from the October Country, from the dust returned!”
A joke, Douglas thought. A gimmick, a waste of time and money—a necessary distraction, for he was at a critical juncture in his novel, a point where plots were coming together and characters were reaching epiphanies. He’d have done anything to get out of such a mess. His debut had taken ten years to write; his editor wanted the follow-up in six months.
He scrolled down the web page, examined the sample photo closely. There was Bradbury, combed, coifed, and tuxedoed, resting comfortably in a mahogany casket. The likeness was uncanny, one of the best wax jobs Douglas had ever seen—latex, perhaps. A rendering to put the creature-creators at Spitting Image to shame.
Spooky—not my chosen genre, even.
Regardless, out came Douglas’ credit card, and into the computer went his personal information. A click later and he was in the system. Starting bid: five-hundred dollars.
Douglas waited a while, checking his e-mail, tidying his desk, and taking a walk between bid adjustments. Such was the life he’d made for himself, a thirty-something, ex-social studies teacher, just past his bestselling debut and riding a generous advance for his Next Big Thing. Locus, Booklist, the New York Times—they’d been liberal with their praises. Oprah adored him. America had embraced his brand of heartland narratives, stories to enchant the heart, stir the soul in the way only he knew how—and here he was, puttering about, waiting for a ludicrous novelty, too scared to type another word unless it was authorized by the Master himself. Or, at the very least, by a very good wax likeness.
Oh, but he was sure his procrastination would pay off. He knew how his author’s mind worked. Give it a direct task, and it balked. However, much in the way a guitarist may find inspiration simply by picking up the right guitar, so would Douglas be able to banish his writer’s block with the right charm. Which wasn’t to say a Ray Bradbury corpse itself would be of any assistance; it was the idea that mattered. The notion that the Master was somehow there with him in the same room, seeding his thoughts, influencing his keystrokes…that was the real gimmick, and just what he needed.
The bidding ended at midnight. Surprisingly, there were very few takers. In fact, most people commented that hocking the Master’s corpse online was in very poor taste—silly netizens! Douglas thought. Don’t they realize it’s a gimmick? A charm? This doppelganger will be my rabbit’s foot, my four leaf clover!
And at midnight, he was.
The seller was expedient about delivery. In three days’ time the crate arrived on Douglas’ doorstep, with a set of simple instructions tucked in with the packing slip: Store in a cool, dry place. Inside, Bradbury was unbelievably lifelike, poised, poignant—even in death.
Douglas was a bachelor, so there was no trouble making room for Bradbury’s casket. He set up the whole kitten caboodle in his kitchen, beside the front window. He moved his desk so that it was perpendicular with the casket. Then, arranging about his workspace a variety of writerly trinkets, how-to books, and brainstorming tools, he set himself in front of his computer, waited for it to boot up. He hadn’t written a single sentence in three days—but what did it matter? The Master had arrived.
What will I get? Douglas wondered, gazing at Bradbury’s form. A whiff of Dandelion Wine? An echo of Something Wicked This Way Comes? A Martian? Great Grandmère? Any number of possibilities awaited Douglas’ fingertips; he almost couldn’t wait for his word processor to load—and when it did, he launched himself into a two-thousand-word-long block of fragmented sentences, mislaid ideas, extraneous cul-de-sacs merely serving to increase his novel’s file size by several kilobytes, but not actually adding any substance to the novel itself.
Three o’clock. Outside, the schoolchildren were bounding off their buses, trading their backpacks and textbooks for jump ropes and scooters. In two hours’ time the working men and women would be coming home, their long days behind them.
Douglas’ workday had come and gone without result.
He sat for a while, tumbling a novelty Writer’s Block—a plastic cube filled with water and containing several dozen random words printed on miniature pyramids—in his hands. Beside him, Bradbury’s corpse waited, unmoving, unprotesting, even when a housefly decided to peruse the landscape of his forehead.
At long last, Douglas pulled his chair up beside the casket, and addressed Bradbury directly:
“All right. This isn’t working. Out with it—how did you dodge the artistic noose? How did you lay at ease the expectations of all the readers and critics and agents and editors who waited impatiently for your next book? Your next masterwork?”
Of course, Douglas hardly expected an answer—and he certainly didn’t expect the corpse to suddenly sit upright.
Which it did.
Bradbury blinked at Douglas.
Douglas blinked at Bradbury.
“Well?” asked Bradbury. “Are we to gaze into each other’s eyes until one of us swoons?” Grasping the sides of the casket, he lifted himself up and out, smoothed the front of his tuxedo. He took one look around the kitchen before fixing Douglas with a stare. “What would your name be?”
“Douglas,” answered Douglas. “D-Douglas Nickleby.”
“Douglas,” said Bradbury. “How appropriate. And how is it that I’m standing here talking to you when I should be…” He trailed off, paid the casket a cursory glance.
“I…I bought you at an auction,” explained Douglas.
“Yes. You see, I’m a writer—a novelist—and, er, I’m also what you might call an aficionado of writer’s memorabilia.” Douglas began shuffling things about on his desktop. “See here? John Updike’s stapler. And here, a replica of William Faulkner’s Remington—unusable, unfortunately, but what a thing to have! You can find all sorts of goodies at CyberBids. Anything to keep the creative juices flowing, you know?”
Bradbury frowned, waving the persistent housefly away. “And this web site of yours, they make a lucrative business of selling people from their graves?”
Douglas blanched. “But…but you’re not real. You can’t be.”
“I could say the same of you.”
“I mean…you’re a trinket, a gimmick—a collectible to help inspire!”
Bradbury scowled, glanced at the desk, the computer, the typewriter, the piles of notebooks and sharpened pencils. “So, I’m to be your Rumpelstiltskin? Your lucky charm? Ha!” He walked over to Douglas, leaned his arm on the man’s shoulder. “Well, then! How’s this? Is anything sinking in?” He moved
to sit on Douglas’ lap. “How about now?”
Douglas certainly couldn’t write with a dead man on his lap.
He told Bradbury so.
But Bradbury was already onto other matters, peeking into notebooks, browsing Douglas’ computer. “Look here, with all your fancy equipment, your word processing software, your brainstorming trinkets, online encyclopedias, laser printer, reams of paper just waiting to be filled—you’ve barely touched any of it!”
Douglas hung his head. “I’m afraid my debut success has given me an acute case of writer’s block.”
“Writer’s block? Bah! I’ve never heard a more blatant excuse!”
“I-I suppose you’ve got your tricks?”
“Just write, boy! Don’t think—editors are thinkers, critics are thinkers. They think so damned much that they give up their novelist dreams for the privilege of wringing storm clouds over everyone else’s stories but never penning their own. Just write!”
“B-but what about publisher expectations, bottom lines? My image hangs on every word.”
The housefly continued to molest Bradbury. “Are you trying to tell stories or look pretty?”
“Why, tell stories, of course, b-but Ray—Mr. Bradbury, surely you understand how much things have changed since you started out. Authors aren’t developed over time anymore. If you don’t get enough m-market penetration, if you’re n-not getting enough books into your readers’ hands, if you don’t stumble onto that m-magic formula early enough in your career—”
“I’ve heard enough,” said Bradbury, and started for the door.
“Where are you going?” Douglas asked, jumping from his chair.
“B-but I’m in the middle of a novel!” Douglas called. “You can’t leave!”
Bradbury did just that, slamming the door behind him.
Good riddance, Douglas thought, only now realizing that he was trembling from head to toe. Dead authors don’t make very good house guests anyway.
Shaken considerably, he went upstairs and retired to his bedroom for a late afternoon nap. Holding himself, tossing and turning, he considered the rational possibilities, the irrational, too. A nervous breakdown caused by stress? Overwork? Trying to milk the ideas from his stubborn brain too hard, too fast?
None of it was comforting, and so Douglas stayed in bed, away from the kitchen, the casket, and, worse yet, the empty computer screen.
At sunset, he was roused by the most terrible raucous coming from downstairs.
Someone was banging on the front door.
Douglas howled a mental plea, Please, God, don’t let it be who I think it is!
He went downstairs, sidled up to the window beside the door, and peeked outside, out where, under the ash tree, boys, dogs, stumbled and swayed in time-lapse flickers—and there, standing motionless under his own private little raincloud, the beggar from O’Connell Bridge, with his darkened glasses, with his concertina, his once-decadent baritone erupting at odds with the distant cacophony of an approaching carnival. And shuffling near the front gate, an old man with an erection tenting the front of his robe as he tried vainly to escape a gaggle of ladies. Above: buzzards, circling.
In the middle of it all, Ray Bradbury standing on Douglas’ doorstep and looking quite the worse for wear.
Douglas opened the door.
“What have you done to me, boy?” Bradbury demanded.
“I…I,” started Douglas, babbling. “It…you were a wax figure! I never m-meant to resurrect you—”
“This isn’t a resurrection, it’s a devilish abscess festering with all that was once dear to me!”
Indeed, every time Douglas blinked, the yard seemed to become filled with more and more characters—but these were ghosts, shadows, literary zombies forced into being by some unholy magic.
What the neighbors must think! Douglas peered nervously up and down the street.
Bradbury pushed his way inside, limped into the kitchen, where he sat himself in a chair. He was little more than a ghost now, his face sunken, pale, his white hair translucent—and there were more than a few insects beginning to stake out prime real estate in the folds of his flesh.
“Writers,” he said, “are the only people who, at any given moment, would rather be scrubbing out the inside of their bathtubs—and you’ve gone so far as to raise the dead!”
Outside, a woman screamed; from somewhere nearby a shadow cleared its throat.
“I’m sorry,” Douglas said. “I-I wish I knew what’s happening.”
“I’ll tell you what’s happening!” Bradbury exclaimed, pointing an accusing finger at Douglas. “I have been robbed of my final reprieve, and now, with no place to go, all that I was is accumulating about you like so much soot!”
Douglas thought about it: the dead, everything a person once was, body and soul, decomposing, dissolving—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. His CyberBids purchase had interrupted the natural way of things, had clogged the cosmic drain.
Somehow it needed to be unclogged.
“Well?” grunted Bradbury after a moment. “Don’t just stand there, boy. Do something!”
Douglas nodded, the inevitable dawning on him. With misbegotten memories echoing in the hallways, with undead characters piling up outside his door, with the living ghost of Ray Bradbury giving him the mother of all dirty looks, he sat at his computer, opened a blank file, and started writing an altogether different kind of story.