The very first time he met Rose Lalonde he was quite certain that everything about her was a fabrication. Dave Strider was a man who lived every moment down to the half-second as a performance piece, and he said to himself when he saw her: yeah thats definitely a woman who walks through life like shes some victorian era ghost babe about to do a romantic nose dive off the white fucking cliffs of dover. She was prim to the point of absurdity. The way she picked at hors d'oeuvres was in a pale arc of her arm, middle finger and thumb forming a perfect diamond as if preparing to flick a cute little dollop of fairy dust all over the deviled eggs. It was thin as cellophane, he thought when he first met her; the act was so fucking rehearsed that it offended every single one of his three sensibilities (1. subversion of audience expectations, 2. sincere dedication to irony and 3. the appropriate texture of a four-cheese Dorito).
So the first thing he said to her was, “I don’t get it.”
Ms. Lalonde was on the arm of some big shot literary agent, presumably scouting out a producer to adapt her best selling novel Complacency of the Who Even Gives a Fuck. She disposed of her date with a sprawl of fingers across the bicep and elegantly swayed her hip right into the three feet of personal space Dave paid to have people not invade. She pressed her lips together thinly and looked him over; a slow, critical rake of the eyes that suggested she was mapping him geometrically and had nothing nice to say about the results.
“What don’t you “get”?” she asked the question with an obnoxiously snide emphasis on the word ‘get’, which was the reason she was probably never going to cut a movie deal. That was the gap between Hollywood and Harper Collins right there.
“Any of it. I don’t get this Calmasis guy’s deal -”
“Calmasis is not a “guy”.”
“Whatever, I’m just talking their motivations here. I mean, are they a hero or a villain or what?”
“Why, Mr. Strider. That is the point.”
“I see.” the way she quirked her eyebrow was accusatory and he couldn’t figure out why that made him bristle. Hollywood swag parties were his territory. She was the clear outsider here, a pearl among swine in her wine-coloured dress that went chin to toe and out to both wrists.
“You “see”?” he echoed.
“I see,” she repeated, chuckling a little, “I am a writer, Mr. Strider. Seeing, observing, repurposing and interpretation - this is all within the job description. And in you, I see a man who is not comfortable outside the accepted moral dichotomies. How interesting. I would hardly have guessed.”
“No offense, Ms Lalonde, but usually a girl waits until the third date to start messing with a guy.”
“I assure you, Mr. Strider, that “messing with you” is the least of my intentions. There are no goats to be got in this scenario, I simply wish -” she popped a black olive into her mouth and chewed deliberately, “ - to present myself as a responsible author. I am at the service and, indeed, the mercy of my readers. I live to clarify subtextual minutiae to my fans.”
She was smirking nakedly now and despite everything, Dave found himself nodding along. He was familiar with this song and dance, he did it on national television at least once a week. So he said to her, “Bull. Shit.”
“Try me. I tend to think of my stories as a literary Rorschach test. I am deeply invested in both your criticism and your personal interpretation.”
“Please, Mr. Strider, tell me all of your beefs. I will attend tenderly to each of them until they are thoroughly charbroiled in the fires of basic reading comprehension.”
Dave cast a wide glance around the room. Not a single paparazzi in sight. No one was even looking at them, which was just nigh on fucking inexplicable. There was no way they didn’t look scandalous next to each other; she with her pale, pale hand on her waist and a saucy twist to her lip and him, crossed armed and straight backed as usual. An immovable wall of long-limbed avant garde who’d deigned to lean in just enough that he could hear her over the din of the band. The tabloid headlines should have been printed yesterday.
He took a deep breath, “Okay, there’s this scene where Calmawhatsis goes to play checkers with Zazzlepop.”
“Zazzerpan,” Lalonde corrects patiently, “He plays chess with Zazzerpan in the penultimate scene of the final novel.”
“You never get around to explaining why Calatosis manages to win the game even though Zizzerpips uses his divine beardly chess magic to wipe the floor with hir.”
“An accurate, if colourful, summary. Why do you think that Calmasis won? What was your hypothesis as a first time reader?”
“Forming a hypothesis would imply that I spent more than the half second it took to shut the book and toss it out the window contemplating Zanderpam’s luscious beard locks, which I didn’t.”
“Of course not,” Lalonde mused smoothly, “You thought about it just long enough to confront me unheeded at a party and interrogate me about its deeper themes.”
“Jesus. Look, my point is that your ending is bullshit. Your thematic is bullshit. Zazzerpan’s name is bullshit.”
“Why, Mr. Strider, are you trying to seduce a screenplay out of me?”
“Fuck no. Let the losers at Fox and Warner pull each other’s pigtails out over that one. My production company only wastes time with films that make sense.”
Dave was careful to say this with no hint of irony. It didn’t even take practice; it was all natural. At this, Lalonde’s smirk widened into a genuine smile, “Ahh. Of course. Then if you would not mind fielding a question of your own... perhaps you could explain the extant symbolism in Sweet Bro’s recurring dream. The one where he is forever tumbling down a flight of hellish non-euclidean stairs.”
“See, now we’re getting somewhere. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
Lalonde smoothed down her skirts and picked a thread from the lace at her wrist, “The colouring of a chess set is representative of our subconscious need to categorize conflicts as being waged between either end the arbitrary scale we refer to as “morality”. Zazzerpan in particular is restricted by his belief in the absolutes of Good and Evil, as seen early in the narrative where he laments that his pupils of good breeding could not have possibly turned against the Complacency due to what he perceived as an inherent incorruptibility of their souls.”
“And so what? Calmasis wins because s/he’s got grey skin and isn’t good or bad? That’s seriously it?”
Lalonde merely smiled, “I wonder.”
“This is a waste of fucking time,” Dave clenched his jaw, gripped quite abruptly by the unfamiliar sensation that he - like Zozzerpot - was being beat at his own game. But this was his party and he would abscond in a huff if he wanted to. She grabbed his wrist as he brushed past and yanked him close.
“Not until you tell me what the stairs mean.” Lalonde whispered.
Her grip was surprisingly solid for a goth chick the colour of talcum powder, white thumb biting into the dip between the tendons in his wrist. Dave bit down on the inside of his mouth and did the assessing this time. He let his shades slide a half inch down the bridge of his nose and looked at her in the glare of the fluorescents.
Very quietly, he answered: “The stairs don’t mean anything, Lalonde. That’s the joke.”
Satisfied, she let him go, “Much obliged.” and with a dainty flick of her wrist, she produced a ass-thick volume of Complacency of the Learned from out of fucking nowhere. She placed it in his hands with the gravitas of an elf queen imparting an ancient quest to a group of offensive racial stereotypes. Dave wondered how she knew that he’d been one hundred percent sincere about having thrown the last one out the window.
“I suggest that you read the ending again.” she said, and was gone.
Zazzerpan was sprawled across his ancient cathedra, enswathed in violaceous velvet and grown into the burnished marble like a decrepit hardwood made complacent by extravagant topiary, its roots become noxious and dank. His waterfall of beard was incandescent silver from muttonchops to tip, an emblem of the opulent putrefaction of his millenia old order. The sight of him evoked an abyssal and roiling loathing in Calmasis, churning in hir gut like a blighted witch’s melange, envenoming hir anima towards a more powerful bitterness than even the one that had turned hir favour from hir mentor all those years ago.
“Calmasis - most brilliant and spiritually pure of my students. I did not dare fathom the thought we would meet like this.” Zazzerpan’s voice echoed in the obsidian halls of the Learned.
“Like what?” Calmasis inquired, “As if we were equals?”
“You characterize my words unfairly, Calmasis. You can not conceive of the hopes I once held for you in my heart. Do you not know of the teacherly ardor with which I once viewed you? The heights I dared to dream you would reach? That I once traitorously held in my mind’s eye the thought that you might one day surpass me?”
“I have surpassed you,” Calmasis replied impassively, verdant robes a scourge of colour in the cimmerian halls, “I have turned the Hearts and Minds of your chosen children against you and slain each of your most trusted confidants. With the death of Frigglish and the loss of his scopious knowledges, the Complacency is already dead. The only thing I have left to do...” s/he paused as if to strike at Zazzerpan with the silence, “Is to defeat you.”
“Do not catechize to me!” Zazzerpan roared, rousing from his corpulent recline, “Despite your pretensions to rebellion, you are still my student! I do not wish to further this conflict between us. Enough good Wizards have fallen to it. I would only know what I have done to turn your heart against me!”
“Ah, that is a simple indeed.” explained Calmasis with a wry smirk, “It was merely everything you did.”
The second time he met Rose Lalonde, he was relieved to find that she was still in L.A. He met her at the end of Sunset Blvd. like some dumbass cliche from 1978 and said to her: “Fine, I’ll find a producer for your stupid wizard movie.”
She tipped her head to one side, and gestured him near, “Walk with me, Mr. Strider.”
He walked with her.
“Wont you do it yourself? Are you not both a director and producer?”
“Nah, I don’t think I’m the right guy for the job.”
“Ah, then you are looking for someone with... perhaps, actual talent?”
He shot her a sidelong glance. The longer he looked at her - the more familiar he became with the angles of her cheeks and the curve of her mouth - the better he could see that her Poker Face was just as good as his. She hid behind the brightness of her eyes and the elasticity of her mysterious smile. It was the most off-putting thing Dave had ever seen, “You really think you got me all figured out.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Dave Strider,” she tapped her forefinger against her lip, “I know that I have you all figured out. I’ve had you all figured out for years.”
“Shit son, who would have pinned the infamous and reclusive coquette Rose Lalonde as your garden variety stalker.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. It’s far more complicated than that.” she sped up, hopping a half-step ahead of him as her stride gained swift and sudden purpose, “What did you think of the ending, having read it again with a my added insight?”
“I didn’t,” Dave lied, “I chucked the thing out soon as I got home. It joined its cousin in the watery grave. Now they’ll never be alone again.”
“Don’t lie to me when we’ve just met.” she stopped, her dark skirts pooling around her like ink-dark waves, a hint of the stormy Atlantic on Pacific shores. A more blisteringly sore thumb the sunny streets of LA had rarely witnessed, “This is my stop,” she waved towards the hotel, drawing her arms across her chest with a calculated stumble of hesitation. She tugged absent mindedly at one of her pearl earrings and asked, “I was wondering if you would join me for a drink?”
Dave looked at her flatly, “Are you trying to seduce a script out of me?”
She shook her head, “Don’t be ridiculous, Strider. I only want to talk.”
He didn’t need to be asked twice.
The weird thing was that she didn’t even drink. Rose Lalonde’s minibar was stocked top to bottom. She used a barrette from her hair to jack the lock open and poured Dave four hours worth of unevenly mixed manhattans. “I do not believe in paying dues to the Complacency.” she explained in a tone so dry he almost believed she wasn’t joking.
“So, the Complacency,” Dave asked three drinks in, “Are what? Some carte blanche metaphor for how janky Authority Figures get when they are put in charge of things? Absolute Power corrupts Absolutely, rah rah fight the power and all that crap?”
“Why does it sound so trite, somehow, when you say it?”
“Uh, maybe ‘cause it is.”
“Maybe that is exactly what I intended. The Complacency are simply a blank state for the reader to impress their own experiences and biases upon.”
“Did you really just say that?”
“Zazzerpan can be read as the broken parental figure who casts a long shadow in every life. The pedestal has long crumbled, but he continues to sit upon it.”
“This is why I never party with writers.”
“I admit that we do not like to lose.” she sipped at her spritzer, “But wasn’t your original inquiry about Calmasis?”
“Yeah. I get that Calmasis is the wrench in the gears. I got that the first fucking time I read it, Lalonde. I don’t get what else you want me to look for.”
A dark emotion flickered briefly across her face. A blink of wretched sorrow that passed quickly and unexplained, “I don’t want you to look for anything, Dave Strider. You are the one who sought me out. Twice, now.”
A fourth drink saw him trying analysis, “I hear Anti-Heroes are popular with the ladies.”
“Calmasis is an androgyne sex symbol for the next generation. When I began writing these novels, I desired nothing more than to see my dearest creation on the cover of Teen Beat magazine.”
“Clever marketing strategy, appealing to both genders. You’ve basically got it all in the bag.”
“That is not how androgyny is meant to work, Mr. Strider, but in true Hollywood fashion I have committed myself to selling out and will not turn away MAXIM when they come knocking.”
“But let’s get real. How can you even call hir a hero after what s/he did to Frigglish?”
“I don’t know, Dave. You tell me.”
“Say Zammerflan... is really as corrupt as Calmasis says. But come on, are we really supposed to root for someone who crushed all poor, defenseless Frigglish’s bones while laughing about it?”
“Many evil men have made a positive mark on history.”
“Oh fuck. You’re doing it again.”
Five drinks got personal. She swished her fizzy water around its glass with the seductive wrist motion of an experienced brandy swirler. He asked her: “Where the hell do you even come from?”
Rose Lalonde refused to miss a beat. “Outer space, naturally.”
“Naturally, but let’s be serious.”
“Parents? Siblings? Tragic origin story?”
“So fuck me with a rusty pipe, I’m curious okay?”
Lalonde plucked the lemon from her spritzer and nibbled delicately on the membrane before ghosting the flesh across her bottom lip. Dave wondered if she had just been so asinine as to literally sour her words, “I was raised by a wealthy man in a large mansion. He was quite emotionally distant, but he taught me everything I know. I was told to refer to him only as ‘The Doctor’.”
“You made that up.”
“You’ve read my novels, Strider. Surely I would have fabricated myself an elaborate backstory, likely with a heart-rending main thrust a fraction more detailed than ‘I don’t like to talk about it’.”
“Man, I’m not even surprised. Your novels were a huge cop-out too.”
“Your compliments humble me, Mr. Strider. Would you like me to pour you another drink?”
Six drinks and he couldn’t actually walk the distance from the couch to his shoes. He laid - splayed face up the floor - and stared at world turned cola-colour blur through his shades.
Rose took a seat on the edge of the bed and stared down at him pityingly, the tips of her hair aligning perfectly with her sharp cheekbones. In the fading light and through the haze of liquor, Dave realized that she looked a little bit like him. A little bit like him in all the right and wrong ways. It was a horrible thought, so he rubbed his eyes clean of it.
“What the hell did you mean earlier,” he slurred tiredly, soothing palms pushing his aviators up onto his brow, “That you had my shit figured out for “years”?”
“I meant exactly what I said.”
“No, see, because I heard exactly what you said and it made no fucking sense.”
She sighed and moved out of his line of vision. He turned his head to follow her, watching the folds of her dress crease and flatten as she leaned back on her knuckles and looked out the window, “Are you drunk enough, Dave, that I may impart to you the deepest and darkest of my secrets?”
“You mean am I drunk enough that I couldn’t stop you even if I tried, because yeah. Sure.”
He could hear her swallow even from all the way down on the floor, “I can see the future.”
“Wow. No fucking way.”
“Yes fucking way. I am all the way fucking serious, Mr. Strider. I can see the future. Not with crystal clarity, but something close to it. I have been anticipating our first meeting for some time now.”
“You can see the future and all it told you was that you’d meet some totally swag guy at a party and later get him so drunk he would do an acrobatic fucking face-dive into your knee. What a sweet super power. Sign me up.”
“Har, har. I cannot anticipate ancillary details. What would be the point in that?”
“I don’t believe you,” Dave lied, for the second time that day, “Come on girl, tell me something juicy.”
“What if I told you that tomorrow at 11:00AM the head of the Betty Crocker Corporation is going to reveal herself to be an Immortal Alien Empress in disguise, at which point she will embark on a slow but brutal campaign to bring the human race under her complete and unquestioning control?”
“If you told me that, I’d have to reassess your position on the hot vs. crazy scale.”
Rose snorted un-prettily, the first genuine laugh he’d coaxed out of her yet, “Indeed you would. However, not in the direction you are likely anticipating. There is a change coming soon.” she slid off the bed and came to sit beside him on the floor, gently placing his shades back where they belonged, “The Wolf at the Door has invited itself inside for dinner. The world is not prepared for this, Dave Strider, and you are the only one I trust.”
Calmasis’s words had a wounding effect on Zazzerpan that manifested physically. The Wizard receded forcefully to his throne as if struck in the teats by a stampede of majestic unicorns. He reeled, both trampled and gouged by his former student’s malicious pontifications. Calmasis was gratified. Hir long years of seeding dissent amongst the ranks of the Complacency’s students... the elongated battles against Zazzerpan’s most loyal fellows such as the flagitious Gastrell and the mercurial Ockite... the cruelty s/he had been forced to cultivate in order to endure the task of sheparding Frigglish’s lugubrious descent into incongruity... such trials were worth their burden in gold for want of the expression on Zazzerpan’s face in that moment.
“When did you begin to despise me?”
“I have always been a creature of dual natures, Zazzerpan. You knew this when you came to me, aspirations of pedagogy saccharine on your tongue. You chose your other students from the purest and most noble of our Wizardly stock, but I was always the exception. The abomination. I am the two tongued snake, my dearest mentor, and from one tongue I fed you the decadent verse of adulation you longed. From the other I have spoken the chaos words, the forbidden ones that Frigglish learned at the end of Time. With one eye I learned from you, Zazzerpan, and with the other I looked above.”
“Then you have never spoken to me with sincerity.”
“I have. The kinder of my tongues has always spoken truth to you. But the crueler of my brains knows that you are wrong and that you must be stopped.”
Zazzerpan’s arachnid fingers indulged in a single, distressed bother of his beard, “I have wanted to believe that your mind was poisoned.” he mused without elaboration. At this desperate juncture, all he had left was his pithy candor, “That the Revolution was an idea planted in your head by extraneous interference.”
“No, Zazzerpan. The Revolution begins and ends with me. I am the Alpha and the Omega of your downfall.”
Calmasis approached the prodigious chess board, the one that Zazzerpan himself played on as an aspiring youth, a cavernous, checkered battlefield that divided the students from the masters. Years ago, Zazzerpan had elucidated to Calmasis the tale of how he himself had defeated his mentor, Vivayien the Perspicacious, on this very board over three hundred years ago. Today, Calmasis would pen in blood the final chapter of Zazzerpan’s wearied tale. S/he raised hir wand, felt the magic flow through hir veins, pumping at hir temple like a second heart, hir control over it a sovereign rite. The pawn s/he had chosen bled green from its head until every black piece was stained in Calmasis’s chosen colours. With a an indolent flick of hir wand, Calmasis made the first move.
In the vernacular of the downtrodden, s/he taunted, “Let’s dance, motherfucker.”