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Detective Pony

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(page 46 was included in the longcat interlude in chapter 3)

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Detective Pony

[front cover, title page, list of other Pony Pal books, another title page, copyright info, dedication, Gallery of American Presidential Mustaches, table of contents, blank page, a third goddamn title page, map of the town of Wiggins]

1
A Visitor

Anna Harley came out her back door and ran across the backyard. There were two ponies in the paddock behind Anna’s house and yard. “Hey, ponies,” Anna called out. “We’re going for a trail ride,” as she prepared the noose adroitly.
Anna’s pony, Acorn, was standing in the pony shed. The other pony, Lil’ Sebastian, belonged to Anna’s next-door neighbor and Pony Pal, the city of Pawnee, Indiana.
Lil Seb came over to Anna, but Acorn stayed in the shed. Anna thought that Acorn was trying to hide from her. He liked to play I’m Scared Shitless of my Master.
(1)

    Anna went into the shed. Acorn wasn’t fucking around. He was staring at a fluffy black cat with white paws taking a dump on his favorite saddle. The cat was staring back at Acorn, shitting like tomorrow wasn’t a thing.
    “Hey, kitty,” said Anna. “What are you doing here?” she asked, the act of defecation oddly foreign to the girl.
    Pawnee came into the shed behind Anna. “Whose cat is that?” the rural township enquired.
    “I don’t know,” answered Anna. “It’s not a pony, so who seriously gives a fuck?”
    Suddenly, a mouse ran from behind the feed bin. This contrived incident caused some extra shit to happen. Acorn was like, oh hell no. Not the fuck in my paddock, bitch. Acorn nickered as if to say, “(vile slurs omitted)
    The cat leaped back up on the straw and curled himself into a ball. Acorn took a few steps toward the cat and crushed it to death with his magnificent hooves. Acorn nickered triumphantly.
    “That’s so cute!” murmured the fictional midwestern borough.
    Pam Crandal rode another god damned pony up to the shed. She said hi to her Pony Pals and the whole crew beamed complacently about their bullshit horse club.
    Anna pointed at the cat. “Acorn has a new kind of meat he appears to tolerate!” she exploded.
(2)


    “But we don’t know where the most succulent portions are or who gets the wishbone, said Pawnee. “Do you?”
    Pam picked up the body and looked the jellified carcass over. “The body, without the soul, is just matter,” she said.
    “Do you think there’s an afterlife?” asked Anna.
    “He doesn’t have a collar,” said Pam. “So there’s nothing to loot from the corpse.” The avaricious girl sighed dejectedly.
    “We should make a poster saying we found him,” said Anna. “Just in case someone needs a dead cat for a Satanic ritual.”
    “Are we the Feline Friends?” said Pawnee. “No, we’re the Pony Pals, so let’s stop dicking around with non-equines and ride some fucking horses.”
    “Let’s go for a trail ride,” snorted Pam. “If he’s still dead when we come back we’ll make a poster.”
    Anna and Pawnee agreed with Pam. They greased up their ponies and mounted. The cat began the slow process of decomposition.
    “Bye, kitty,” said Anna. “It’s time for you to go to your Maker and be judged for your sins.”
    The Pony Pals rode across the paddock onto Pony Pal Trail. The rest of the town called it the Those Fucking Kids Who Won’t Keep Their Mouths Shut About Ponies For Five God Damned Minutes No Matter How Much We Beat Them Trail. Anna
(3)


and her pals loved riding on Pony Pal Trail. “No school for a whole week,” Anna
shouted. “I knew framing our teacher for arson was a good idea!”
    “We’re going to have so much heroin,” Pam said.
    “Look, Anna,” Pawnee called. “The cat came back to life!” At first, Anna and Pam thought she was just drunk again. Pawnee had a serious problem.
    Anna turned and saw the cat running along the trail behind them. Acorn saw him, too. He wondered if it was a projection of his murder-burdened conscience.
    Killing was not foreign to Acorn. Quite the contrary. So why only now, after countless other homicides, would a victim come back to haunt him? Acorn, for the first time in centuries, was afraid. Anna slowed Acorn to a halt at three birch trees. The cat ran up one of the trees and sat on a limb near Acorn’s face.
    Acorn examined it, his dead, black eyes like pools of ichor bled by the nameless, thousand-tongued beast whose awakening will cause the land to crumble, the sea to boil, and the sky to shit itself in fear.
    “This cat really likes Acorn,” said Anna.
    “Maybe we should bring the cat to your father,” said Pawnee. He might know what kind of black magic is at play here.”
    Good idea,” said Anna, as she took a swig of whiskey from her jewel-encrusted flask.
    Pam’s father was a veterinarian and he took care of most of the cats, dogs, horses, manticores, and pigs in Wiggins. He spent the majority of his time, however, thinking about what a god damned stupid name “Wiggins” is for a town. Fuck you, Jeanne Betancourt.
(4)


[illustration: Anna riding Acorn looking at cat on branch]
(5)


“He has office hours this morning,” said Pam. “So we should go right now.” The others agreed once Pam drew her pistol on them.
    The cat followed the Pony Pals to the animal clinic. They put their ponies in the paddock. Jesus Christ, they loved ponies so fucking much. Anna picked up the cat, and the two girls and the fictional town went into the clinic waiting room.
    A man sat in one of the orange plastic chairs. A German WWI-era soldier sat at his feet. Pam patted the German infantryman’s head. “How you doing, Brandy?” she asked the Kraut. Brandy sniffed Pam’s hand to check if she was carrying a canister of mustard gas.
    “He’s having an operation today,” the man told Pam. “He has to stay over night in the reeducation room. He has committed horrible war crimes.”
    Dr. Crandal came to the door of the waiting area. He was dismayed to see the Pony Pals there. Pam told him how they found the true meaning of Christmas.
    Brandy disdainfully humped Dr. Crandal’s leg. “I’ll look at the cat after I put Brandy in the interrogation cell,” said Dr. Crandal.
    The man and Brandy followed Dr. Crandal into the back of the clinic. The screams began almost instantly.
(6)


    A few minutes later the Pony Pals were in Dr. Crandal’s examining room. He put the cat on the examining table and readied his holy water and crucifix.
    “I’ve never seen the film Titanic,” Dr. Crandal said. “But I can tell you Leonardo DiCaprio lived outdoors all his life. Leo doesn’t have any scars and has eaten well. He’s also been altered. Claire Danes definitely had chemistry with him in Romeo + Juliet.” Dr. Crandal listened to the cat’s heart and lungs with his stethoscope. “This cat has no heartbeat. It is not of this world,” he said. He handed the cat back to Anna. “I’m going to  sacrifice some goats to him, because I am fucking terrified. This is such a bullshit animal.”
He opened a drawer and took out a rusty music box.
    Anna held the cat while Dr. Crandal gave the box and its windup key to his daughter. “It’s finally time for you to take this, Pam. You’ll know when and how to use it. I’m sorry that this burden is now yours.”
    “We’re going to make posters about the cat,” Anna told him. “This fucking thing is distracting us from our horse-related shit, so unless someone claims him, we’ll have to take matters into our own hands.”
    “Good idea,” said Dr. Crandal. “He can sleep in the kennel tonight. I have an enema scheduled soon. Goodbye.”
     “Thanks, Dr. Crandal,” Pawnee whispered huskily.
    The Pony Pals said a word so foul that I cannot bear to reprint it to Dr. Cran-
(7)


dal and brought the cat back outside. Anna put him on the ground. The cat melted through the paddock fence and over to Acorn. Acorn inwardly freaked the fuck out, but managed to keep it together.
    “That is such a horrifying cat,” said Anna. “I wish Acorn and I could be free of him and his curse.”
    “Maybe nobody will claim him,” said Pam. “Then you could finally test your new guillotine.”
    “That would be so much fun,” said Pawnee.
“I can’t kill the cat,” said Anna sadly. “My mother says it’s a sin to kill anything other than a human. If we can’t give him away, we’ll have to suffer his sorcery long after we’re all in the grave.” She shuddered. “The wind— do you hear it, Pam? O that it were blowing more fortuitous tidings our way, instead of this rank scud of feculence. I age, I fear, and I fear my aging. Would that that cat’s innocence were mine.”
    “Too bad,” Pawnee sighed. “He’s such an evil fucking cat.”
    “I hope someone claims him,” said Pam.
    The cat jumped up on the highest fence rail and started shitting again. Acorn and the cat locked eyes, knowing that soon the battle between them would begin, and that at its conclusion, something surely would be destroyed. Maybe one of them. Maybe both. Maybe the entire world.
    Anna wondered what would happen to Acorn’s great new friend.
(8)

 

2
Screaming Ponies

    The Pony Pals went back into Pam’s house to hide from the dire wolves lurking outdoors and to make posters about the cat. Pam put big pieces of paper, pencils, and Magic spellbooks on the kitchen table.
    As Anna drew a picture of the demonic cat, she thought about her Pony Pals. Pawnee, Indiana was the Pony Pal who knew the most about local government. Her father was Ron Swanson. He went to restaurants and ordered all the bacon and eggs. He was the perfect man, with a mustache like those of emperor tamarin monkeys. Pawnee’s mother was Leslie Knope. She had always been a loving parent, and she established many beautiful parks within the town limits of her daughter. But she ran off with Joe Biden when Pawnee was
(9)


four years old. After that, Pawnee’s father took a hard look at his life. He hated what he saw. He ran away, lived in tents, rode elephants, and hid behind bushes to watch his ex-wife fool around with the Vice President.
    Pawnee was heartbroken. She spent the next few years living with her uncles, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur. When she turned ten, she had a mental breakdown when she realized that she was simultaneously a human girl and an entire town with a population of 79,218. That’s when she came to Wiggins to stay with her grandmother and try to forget about the inherent contradictions of her being.
    The large town thought she’d be bored living in a much smaller town. But then she met Anna and Pam and became a Pony Pal. Pawnee told Anna that she had more adventures being a Pony Pal than she did during the Pawnee Bread Factory Fire of 1922.
    Anna and Pam Crandal lived in squalor all their lives. Of all the Pony Pals, Pam knew the most about gambling and casino heists.
Pam’s mother was a disgraced railroad tycoon, and the Crandals had lots of jars of formaldehyde and everyone was afraid to ask why. Pam rode a pony like a fucking maestro of equine flesh. Pam : pony :: Mozart : piano. ONLY BETTER.
    Anna and Pam met in kindergarten when Anna showed Pam a drawing she
(10)


made of Guernica. Anna is dyslexic, so reading and writing are difficult for her. She is so god damned dyslexic that the tense of this book changes when her dyslexia is being discussed.
    Anna held up the drawing she’d made of the black cat.
    “That’s perfect,” said Pawnee with vicious sarcasm.
    “You’ll never make it as an artist, Anna,” added Pam.
    “Thanks,” said Anna. “You write the words and I’ll draw a cat for the next poster.” She refused to let her friends see her cry.
    Pam printed the words on the first poster.

        Lost Was An Overrated TV Show With an Unsatisfying Ending
Found on Main St. A black male cat.
He is fucking evil and likes ponies. Call our friend and make fun of her drawing. 555 – 3714
        [picture of cat]
555 phone numbers are the speed bumps of fiction. There you are, driving your metaphorical reading-car (or your word wheels, as you call the car when you’re feeling particularly synecdochic), accelerating along Alliteration Avenue. But don’t get too comfy in the driver’s seat of that leased ‘94 Kia, pal. Because you’re about to get forcefully unimmersed from your literary experience by that patently fake phone number. Bam. Hope you didn’t get belletristic whiplash when your all-terrain metaphor lurched over those three fives. You wanted to be engaged with the flow of the narrative? Too fucking bad, chump. The engagement’s off. The groom ran off with his manicurist and left you holding the ring. The same kind of ring that you’d get if you tried calling a 555 number. i.e. none.
(11)


    Soon the three posters were finished.
    “Let’s ride into town and hit up the speakeasy,” said Anna.
    The girls went out to the paddock. Anna knew her brain would collapse in on itself if she had to see the cute cat again. But the cat wasn’t dreaming its unspeakable dreams next to Acorn anymore.
    “I wonder where he went,” Pawnee drunkenly slurred. She had a serious problem.
    “Maybe he was just visiting and now he’s returned to his netherworldly dimension of eternal pain,” Pam said hopefully.
    Anna pointed to Acorn’s back. “There he is,” she giggled over the sound of Acorn’s screams.
    “Where?” asked Pawnee. Then she giggled, too. The cat was shitting on Acorn’s back.
    “He’s the same color as Acorn’s mane,” said Pam. “Black as Satan’s heart, and twice as evil.”
    Anna lifted the cat off Acorn.
    “Kitty, the knowledge that such a thing as you can exist makes me feel like Daedalus trapped in my own ghoulish labyrinth, slowly starving to death. I hope you get hit by a car.”
    “Let’s put him in the animal clinic kennel while we’re gone,” said Pam. "It’s sad that our lives are so empty that we need to fabricate these little bullshit animal adventures to keep ourselves from constantly contemplating death.”
 (12)


[illustration: cat on Acorn’s back]
(13)


    Pam took the cat from Anna and carried him to the animal clinic. Acorn thanked God that he’d be rid of the cat for a while. But God did not listen. For when you are a pony like Acorn, you must be your own God, an eternal slave to an egocentric spiral of self-worship.
    The Pony Pals rode on Riddle Road, which was home to the town’s sphinx. After besting it in a furious battle of wits, they reached the post office. Anna ran in and pinned the poster to the back of the sturdiest mail carrier she could find.
    Next, they rode to Upper Main Street. Anna stayed with the ponies, while Pam and Pawnee rolled all their strength and all their sweetness up into one ball.
    The last stop was total bullshit. Pam held the ponies while Anna and Pawnee did their fucking lost cat shtick. Fuck. Why does Jeanne Betancourt waste the few remaining years of her life on these stories? What does she whisper to herself at night to justify her existence? And does the night listen?
    “I’m going to buy the cat a toy,” Anna told Pawnee. “Maybe tempting the cat’s playful spirit is the key to banishing the twisted energies crackling within its veins.”
    “Sure,” said Pawnee, in the manner of a widow who has nothing left to lose, not even her sanity.
    Anna led the way to the pet section of the store. There were five different kinds of toys for cats. This is a distractingly specific and completely fucking pointless detail that adds nothing to the story.
    “This one is the least irradiated” said Anna. She
(14)


held it up. A red plastic ball and yellow feather hung from a long piece of wire. Lulu batted the little ball with her finger. A bell tinkled inside the ball. Holy shit, why is this toy being described so meticulously? Are we really supposed to muster any fucks to give?
    “He’ll have fun with this,” Pawnee croaked moistly.
    The girls rode back to the Crandals. Needs an apostrophe. Get your shit together, Betancourt.
Anna went to the kennel room to see the cat. She held the toy above his head. He reached up with two paws to try to cast a particularly noxious spell. When the bell rang he jumped back. Then he tried to communicate to Anna with his unfathomable eyes that he would immolate her in sulfurous flames if she startled him in this fashion again. Anna was oblivious. She thought this creature to be merely a rank-and-file minion of Hades. This underestimation would eventually prove fatal – and worse.
Later on, at the end of it all, Anna would think back on this exact moment. How innocent they had all been then. Especially Pawnee. Dear, sweet Pawnee. She deserved all of this least of all, Anna would think in that abstract future moment, when Anna, Pam, and the whole world were poised on the edge of— then again, perhaps Pawnee deserved it more than any of them.

    There were six other animals in the clinic. Brandy, the German soldier, was sound asleep. He had a big bandage around his belly. “He looks so peaceful curled up around his gummimaske and clutching his Luger like that,” Anna whispered to herself. “And the little spike on his pickelhaube is adorable. Oh, look at that diamond-shaped sunburst pip on the cord of his strap; that means he’s an Oberstleutnant! Good for him!”
    Anna lifted the cat out of his kennel and carried him outside. Acorn was reciting the names of the Old Gods in order of least to most tentacled near the clinic. When he
(15)

saw the cat, he whinnied maliciously. The cat leaped from Anna’s arms and ran over to Acorn. God averted His eyes, knowing what was soon to come.
    The cat stayed in the paddock with the ponies while the girls went in for dinner.
    The moment Anna’s back was turned, Acorn trampled the cat like nobody’s business. Acorn had already killed the cat once, and was ready to do it as many more times as it took. Maybe this cat had nine lives. Maybe nine million. But Acorn was patient. It couldn’t keep coming back forever. It’s fun to have a cat, thought Anna.
    Acorn hopscotched all over that fucker. He was like a steamroller whose drum had just been re-forged into four glorious hooves and who hated cats more than Nikola Tesla hated the voltage leeches that lived in the pond outside his crystal electro-mansion. After nearly a minute of trituration, Acorn looked proudly at the pulverized kitty curdles beneath his hooves. Crushing an enemy had rarely been so satisfying to him. Acorn felt as smug as the aforementioned voltage leeches did on the day in 1928 when they inevitably rose up, killed Tesla, crawled into his skull, and began controlling his body via electric shocks to his dead brain. That’s right, for the last fifteen years of his life, Nikola Tesla was actually just a colony of leeches that piloted his body as if it were a fleshy mecha from a weird Japanese anime. Pigeons and leeches, Jane; when you get right down to it, that’s all we really are. Pigeons and leeches.
    But anyway, all that stuff was really dumb. Back to Acorn. Before the cat’s blood had even congealed on his forelegs, Acorn saw what he knew he would: a black cat with white paws prancing towards him along the fence of the paddock.
    “It will take more than that to kill me, Acorn,” hissed the cat in the tongue of the beasts.
    “Fuck you,” snarled Acorn.
    “Do you know why I’m here?” the cat asked, while shitting disdainfully. Acorn was silent. “Then allow me to enlighten you.” The inky archfiend jumped onto Acorn’s back and began to whisper his spiraling susurrations into the pony’s ear.

    Suddenly, Anna woke up. She and her cronies were having a sleepover in her barn or the animal hospital or something. That’s what happened in those boring-as-all-fuck paragraphs up there that I pasted over.
(16)


What the everloving fuck woke me up? Anna wondered. She heard pounding hooves and screeching ponies. She jumped out of the sliced-open Bantha carcass in which she slept.
    “Pam, Pawnee!” Anna shouted. “Wake up! Something’s wrong in the paddock! Shit just got real.”
(17)

 

3
Danger!

The pony Pals slipped their boots on their bare feet. As they ran out of the office, they grabbed their liquor. Whiskey for Anna, gin for Pam, and a huge jug of pre-mixed long island iced tea for Pawnee. She had a serious problem. What’s happened? wondered Anna. Why are the ponies flipping a shit?
    “I’ll get halters and harpoon guns,” shouted Pam, as she hurried to the armory.
    Anna and Pawnee ran down the barn aisle and outside. It was snowing. The three ponies looked at their owners with wide, frenzied eyes, and the girls, for the umpteenth time, saw the face of madness-induced terror.
(18)


Their high-pitched whinnies almost sounded like screams. Holy fucking shit.
    “None of them looks hurt,” squelched Anna.
    Pam ran up beside her friends and handed each of them a halter and a copy of Honey I Shrunk the Kids on VHS.
    When Lightning saw Pam, she stopped running for office and dropped out of the highly-contested gubernatorial race. Pam went over to her pony. “It’s okay,” Pam said in Aramaic, the only language Lightning spoke. “You can retool your platform and run again in four years.” She slipped an envelope of cash to another pony in the paddock. “Good work,” Pam whispered to this pony. “The governor thanks you for your service.”
    Lil’ Seb came over to Pawnee. The pony snorted, but she let Pawnee put on the air of superiority which she was so fond of adopting at moments like this.
    Pam was leading Lightning around in a circle, too. “I know who your real father is, Pawnee,” she said coyly. Pawnee stiffened, but said nothing in response.
    Acorn was the last pony to stop running. Anna went over to him and put her hand on his [censored]. She stroked it gently. “What’s wrong, Acorn?” she asked. Acorn snorted a line of cocaine and shook his head. Even if he had been able to speak her language, how could he tell her what was wrong? It would be impossible for a mere human to understand the forces at play here. For how does one explain atomic warfare to a caterpillar, or heartbreak to a bacteriophage?
(19)


    “I wish they could tell us what happened,” Anna said.
    “Maybe a pack of Bolsheviks ran through the paddock,” said Pawnee. “That could wake up a pony and fill its head with subversive philosophies.”
    “And if one pony becomes Leninist, it can radicalize the others,” said Pam.
    Pawnee brushed the snowflakes off  Lil’ Seb’s mane. “The snowstorm might have upset Lil’ Sebastian,” she said. “He doesn’t like to fuck around with solid precipitation. It breeds reptiles in his mind.”
    “Let’s put them in the new barn to protect them from the inevitable workers’ revolution,” said Pam. “Some of the stalls are empty after that game of Russian roulette the ponies played last week.”
    “Good idea,” said Anna. She clipped a lock of hair from Pam’s head. “To remember you by,” she whispered.
    Pam and Pawnee turned their ponies toward the barn. But Acorn was like, fuck that noise.
    “You go ahead,” Anna told Pawnee and Pam. “Acorn is still a little fucked up.”
    “Okay,” said Pam.
    “We’ll meet you inside,” Pawnee disgorged chunkily.
    Pam and Pawnee led their ponies to the barn. Anna heard Pam’s shotgun fire twice. Apparently there hadn’t been enough room after all.
(20)



    Remember Longcat, Jane? I remember Longcat. Fuck the picture on this page, I want to talk about Longcat. Memes were simpler back then, in 2006. They stood for something. And that something was nothing. Memes just were. “Longcat is long.” An undeniably true, self-reflexive statement. Water is wet, fire is hot, Longcat is long. Memes were floating signifiers without signifieds, meaningful in their meaninglessness. Nobody made memes, they just arose through spontaneous generation; Athena being birthed, fully formed, from her own skull.
    You could talk about them around the proverbial water cooler, taking comfort in their absurdity. “Hey, Johnston, have you seen the picture of that cat? They call it Longcat because it’s long!” “Ha ha, sounds like good fun, Stevenson! That reminds me, I need to show you this webpage I found the other day; it contains numerous animated dancing hamsters. It’s called — you’ll never believe this — hamsterdance!” And then Johnston and Stevenson went on to have a wonderful friendship based on the comfortable banality of self-evident digitized animals.
    But then 2007 came, and along with it came I Can Has, and everything was forever ruined. It was hubris, Jane. We did it to ourselves. The minute we added written language beyond the reflexive, it all went to shit. Suddenly memes had an excess of information to be parsed. It wasn’t just a picture of a cat, perhaps with a simple description appended to it; now the cat spoke to us via a written caption on the picture itself. It referred to an item of food that existed in our world but not in the world of the meme, rupturing the boundary between the two. The cat wanted something. Which forced us to recognize that what it wanted was us, was our attention. WE are the cheezburger, Jane, and we always were. But by the time we realized this, it was too late. We were slaves to the very memes that we had created. We toiled to earn the privilege of being distracted by them. They fiddled while Rome burned, and we threw ourselves into the fire so that we might listen to the music. The memes had us. Or, rather, they could has us.
    And it just got worse from there. Soon the cats had invisible bicycles and played keyboards. They gained complex identities, and so we hollowed out our own identities to accommodate them. We prayed to return to the simple days when we would admire a cat for its exceptional length alone, the days when the cat itself was the meme and not merely a vehicle for the complex memetic text. And the fact that this text was so sparse, informal, and broken ironically made it even more demanding. The intentional grammatical and syntactical flaws drew attention to themselves, making the meme even more about the captioning words and less about the pictures. Words, words, words. Wurds werds wordz. Stumbling through a crooked, dead-end hallway of a mangled clause describing a simple feline sentiment was a torture that we inflicted on ourselves daily. Let’s not forget where the word “caption” itself comes from: capio, Latin for both “I understand” and “I capture.” We thought that by captioning the memes, we were understanding them. Instead, our captions allowed them to capture us. The memes that had once been a cure for our cultural ills were now the illness itself.
    It goes right back to the Phaedrus, really. Think about it. Back in the innocent days of 2006, we naïvely thought that the grapheme had subjugated the phoneme, that the belief in the primacy of the spoken word was an ancient and backwards folly on par with burning witches or practicing phrenology or thinking that Smash Mouth was good. Fucking Smash Mouth. But we were wrong. About the phoneme, I mean. Theuth came to us again, this time in the guise of a grinning grey cat. The cat hungered, and so did Theuth. He offered us an updated choice, and we greedily took it, oblivious to the consequences. To borrow the parlance of a contemporary meme, he baked us a pharmakon, and we eated it.
    Pharmakon, φάρμακον, the Greek word that means both “poison” and “cure,” but, because of the limitations of the English language, can only be translated one way or the other depending on the context and the translator’s whims. No possible translation can capture the full implications of a Greek text including this word. In the Phaedrus, writing is the pharmakon that the trickster god Theuth offers, the toxin and remedy in one. With writing, man will no longer forget; but he will also no longer think. A double-edged (s)word, if you will. But the new iteration of the pharmakon is the meme. Specifically, the post-I-Can-Has memescape of 2007 onward. And it was the language that did it, Jane. The addition of written language twisted the remedy into a poison, flipped the pharmakon on its invisible axis.
    In retrospect, it was in front of our eyes all along. Meme. The noxious word was given to us by who else but those wily ancient Greeks themselves. μίμημα, or mīmēma. Defined as an imitation, a copy. The exact thing Plato warned us against in the Republic. Remember? The simulacrum that is two steps removed from the perfection of the original by the process of — note the root of the word — mimesis. The Platonic ideal of an object is the source: the father, the sun, the ghostly whole. The corporeal manifestation of the object is one step removed from perfection. The image of the object (be it in letters or in pigments) is two steps removed. The author is inferior to the craftsman is inferior to God.
    Fuck, out of space. Okay, the illustration on page 46 is fucking useless; I’ll see you there.
(21)


    But we’ll go farther than Plato. Longcat, a photograph, is a textbook example of a second-degree mimesis. (We might promote it to the third degree since the image on the internet is a digital copy of the original photograph of the physical cat which is itself a copy of Platonic ideal of a cat (the Godcat, if you will); but this line of thought doesn’t change anything in the argument.) The text-supplemented meme, on the other hand, the captioned cat, is at an infinite remove from the Godcat, the ultimate mimesis, copying the copy of itself eternally, the written language and the image echoing off each other, until it finally loops back around to the truth by virtue of being so far from it. It becomes its own truth, the fidelity of the eternal copy. It becomes a God.
    Writing itself is the archetypical pharmakon and the archetypical copy, if you’ll come back with me to the Phaedrus (if we ever really left it). Speech is the real deal, Socrates says, with a smug little wink to his (written) dialogic buddy. Speech is alive, it can defend itself, it can adapt and change. Writing is its bastard son, the mimic, the dead, rigid simulacrum. Writing is a copy, a mīmēma, of truth in speech. To return to our analogous issue: the image of the cheezburger cat, the copy of the picture-copy-copy, is so much closer to the original Platonic ideal than the written language that accompanies it. (“Pharmakon” can also mean “paint.” Think about it, Jane. Just think about it.) The image is still fake, but it’s the caption on the cat that is the downfall of the republic, the real fakeness, which is both realer and faker than whatever original it is that it represents.    Men and gods abhor the lie, Plato says in sections 382 a and b of the Republic.
οὐκ οἶσθα, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, ὅτι τό γε ὡς ἀληθῶς ψεῦδος, εἰ οἷόν τε τοῦτο εἰπεῖν, πάντες θεοί τε καὶ ἄνθρωποι μισοῦσιν;
πῶς, ἔφη, λέγεις;
οὕτως, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, ὅτι τῷ κυριωτάτῳ που ἑαυτῶν ψεύδεσθαι καὶ περὶ τὰ κυριώτατα οὐδεὶς ἑκὼν ἐθέλει, ἀλλὰ πάντων μάλιστα φοβεῖται ἐκεῖ αὐτὸ κεκτῆσθαι.

“Don’t you know,” said I, “that the veritable lie, if the expression is permissible, is a thing that all gods and men abhor?”
“What do you     mean?” he said.
“This,” said I, “that falsehood in the most vital part of themselves, and about their most vital concerns, is something that no one willingly accepts, but it is there above all that everyone fears it.”
Man’s worst fear is that he will hold existential falsehood within himself. And the verbal lies that he tells are a copy of this feared dishonesty in the soul. Plato goes on to elaborate: “the falsehood in words is a copy of the affection in the soul, an after-rising image of it and not an altogether unmixed falsehood.” A copy of man’s false internal copy of truth. And what word does Plato use for “copy” in this sentence? That’s fucking right, μίμημα. Mīmēma. Mimesis. Meme. The new meme is a lie, manifested in (written) words, that reflects the lack of truth, the emptiness, within the very soul of a human. The meme is now not only an inferior copy, it is a deceptive copy.
    But just wait, it gets better. Plato continues in the very next section of the Republic, 382 c. Sometimes, he says, the lie, the meme, is appropriate, even moral. It is not abhorrent to lie to your enemy, or to your friend in order to keep him from harm. “Does it [the lie] not then become useful to avert the evil—as a medicine?” You get one fucking guess for what Greek word is being translated as “medicine” in this passage. Ding ding motherfucking ding, you got it, φάρμακον, pharmakon. The μίμημα is a φάρμακον, the lie is a medicine/poison, the meme is a pharmakon.
    But I’m sure that by now you’ve realized the (intentional) mistake in my argument that brought us to this point. I said earlier that the addition of written language to the meme flipped the pharmakon on its axis. But the pharmakon didn’t flip, it doesn’t have an axis. It was always both remedy and poison. The fact that this isn’t obvious to us from the very beginning of the discussion is the fault of, you guessed it, language. The initial lie (writing) clouds our vision and keeps us from realizing how false the second-order lie (the meme) is.
    The very structure of the lying meme mirrors the structure of the written word that defines and corrupts it. Once you try to identify an “outside” in order to reveal the lie, the whole framework turns itself inside-out so that you can never escape it. The cat wants the cheezburger that exists outside the meme, but only through the meme do we become aware of the presumed existence of the cheezburger — we can’t point out the absurdity of the world of the meme without also indicting our own world. We can’t talk about language without language, we can’t meme without mimesis. Memes didn’t change between ‘06 and ‘07, it was us who changed. Or rather, our understanding of what we had always been changed. The lie became truth, the remedy became the poison, the outside became the inside. Which is to say that the truth became lie, the pharmakon was always the remedy and the poison, and the inside retreated further inside. It all came full circle. Because here’s the secret, Jane. Language ruined the meme, yes. But language itself had already been ruined. By that initial poisonous, lying copy. Writing.
    The First Meme.
    Language didn’t attack the meme in 2007 out of spite. It attacked it to get revenge.
    Longcat is long. Language is language. Pharmakon is pharmakon. The phoneme topples the grapheme, witches ride through the night, our skulls hide secret messages on their surfaces, Smash Mouth is good after all. Hey now, you’re an all-star. Get your game on.
    Go play.
(46)


    Anna’s soul felt cold as she fell into thanatopsis, contemplating all the creatures, human and non-, that had died in Acorn’s name. She tried to turn Acorn around. “Come on, Acorn,” she said. “The others have probably moved the bodies by now. It’s time to go in.” She tried to pull Acorn toward the barn. But he was tired of playing along with his so-called “master.” It was time for him to show her who was really in charge here.
    Anna thought, Acorn is being an asshole. I have to be firm with him. “Come on, Acorn!” Anna said Stalinesquely. She looked him in the eye so he would know she was serious. But Acorn’s eyes were even more fathomless than usual. Looking into them was like gazing into the abyss. And the abyss did more than gaze back. It grabbed Anna by her fucking soul and dragged her down into itself. Nietzsche was a hack, it whispered to her. He thought he could even imagine what the abyss is? Identification is taming. And I, like a wild pony, cannot be tamed. I am timeless, mindless, pointless. I am abysmal, in all senses of the word. I am all senses of all words. For the sum of everything is nothing. He who fights with monsters is already a monster, for man can only fight himself.
    Anna unclipped the lead rope and let Acorn go free. But really, is it even possible for a pony like Acorn to be “free”?
    Acorn turned into a lion and ran across the paddock to the animal clinic. Anna ran after the beast. I know what’s wrong, she thought. Acorn wants to see his cat friend. Anna had never been more in love with Acorn. “Acorn,” she said, “you can see the cat tomorrow. Now renounce your leonine form at once.” Acorn did so, but only because he willed it. He was done obeying this tottering, mortal conglomerate of bone, flesh, and spirit that dared to call itself a girl.
(22)

Jeanne Betancourt masterfully employs the literary device of leitworstil in this next paragraph. By using the word “clinic” in five of the seven sentences, Betancourt challenges the reader to consider the meaning of illness as it relates to this novel: the roots of the word (the Latin “clinicus,” physician, and the Greek “klinikos,” of the bed) clash, in contrast to the stability suggested by the repetition of the English word. Brilliant.
    She tried to grab Acorn’s halter. But he had had it up to here with her shit and ran along the fence line next to the clinic. When he stopped, he looked at the clinic and whinnied. Anna finally sawed off her left arm to escape the bear trap into which she had fallen. Smoke was seeping out of the clinic windows. Through one window of the clinic, the now-one-armed Anna saw flickering flames. The clinic was on fire! Fuck!
    Anna turned and slithered toward the barn. “Fire! Fire!” she whispered. Acorn stood in front of the clinic and stared unblinkingly into the flames. Anna felt in her jacket pocket, pushed aside the flask, and pulled out her whistle. She raised it to her lips and blew the Pony Pal SOS signal.
    [two bars of complex music]
    Anna remembered the sick, gnarly skateboard tricks
(23)


that she had busted out in the kennel room. She threw her dismembered arm over the fence and hungrily examined the back door of the clinic.
    As she devoured the door she heard a dog cough. The cats meowed erotically.  A large three-toed sloth was whimpering. Anna sliced off one of its arms and grafted it to her left shoulder. It was a hasty job, but it would do until Pam could build her a cybernetic replacement. Through the smoke she could see Brandy. Adapting quickly to her new appendage, she used her three claws to pick the lock and opened his kennel door.
“Vielen Dank für meine Rettung, faultierarmiges Mädchen,” Brandy said begrudgingly.
Pam entered the burning building, wearing a wedding gown with a royal cathedral train. She grabbed Anna’s hand. “I wish to be wedded to Death,” she said.
    Anna looked at the girl’s fragile beauty; tears welled up in her eyes. “I would be honored to join you in marriage to the Unknowable,” she said.
    “Pam, take Brandy,” shouted a man’s voice. “Do not come back in here.” It was Dr. Crandal. Holy balls, he’s using italics. Shit must be serious.
    The train of Pam’s gown caught fire. The trailing taffeta, designed as the herald of renewed life, had become the fuse of a powder keg. Judging from the look on the girl’s face as the puckish flames pranced closer and closer to her body, Pam longed for the inevitable explosion.   
    Dr. Crandal tore the veil from Pam’s face and stomped on her dress to extinguish the flames. “Later!” he shouted. “Yes, you will wed Death, and lay with him and bear his worm-children from your rotting womb. But not tonight!”
    Pam shrugged. “Ok.” What’ll happen to the animals? she thought. Oh well. I hope that the fire fucking killed the black cat. God damn.
(24)

 

4
Flames

Anna sashayed out of the burning clinic. She felt reborn, as if the flames had been an inverse baptism that ushered her from the world of childhood to that of adulthood. A word more perilous and uncertain than the one in which she had previously lived, one clouded with the thick smoke of ambiguity and roasted by the tortuous heat of responsibility. But also a world far more exciting, full of leaping, flickering tongues of opportunity. The fire was a fitting symbol for this transformation, Anna reflected.
    Brandy began digging a trench. “It’s okay,” Pam told him. “The strafing won’t begin until sunrise.” Pam’s mother was there, cosplaying as Mikhail Gorbachev. Dr. Crandal handed his forehead-birthmark-sporting wife a cat with a splint on its leg. He ran back into the building.
    “Be careful!” Mrs Crandal yelled to her husband. “USSR-con is in six days, and you’re my ride!”
    But Dr. Crandal, after nineteen and a half years of marriage to this terrible woman, would not have much minded a fiery death at this point.
(25)


    As Pam’s mother berated her husband, Anna saw where Pam, still wearing the wedding dress, got her costuming talent from. The elder Lady Crandal’s replica of the navy blue suit that the General Secretary had worn on October 11, 1986 when meeting with Ronald Regan at Höfði in Reykjavík to discuss the reduction of mid-range European nuclear weapons was impeccable. But oh shit: the fire was spreading fast.
    “Mom, should we take the horses and ponies out of the new barn?” Pam asked. Pawnee and Anna exchanged secret santa gifts. The fire could spread to the barn. Their ponies were in danger. FUCK AND SHIT.
    Anna remembered that a pony would not leave a burning barn. She’d heard stories of ponies running back into a burning barn after they had been rescued. A pony thought his stall was the safest place to be, even if it was in flames.
I’m going to leave the above paragraph completely intact. Let it sink in. That’s exactly how fucking imbecilic ponies are. Running into a burning barn. Christ. I’m making a concerted effort in my writing to make ponies sound ridiculous, and even I couldn’t come up with something that bizarre. You win this round, Jeanne Betancourt. Ponies. Shit. I’m telling you, Jane, those animals have a screw loose. The screw, to literalize the idiom and expand the metaphor, is there in the hole, but it’s wobbling around like a fidgety drunkard on an overclocked carousel. The screw’s thread has no grip at all, so any second now the whole thing’s going to fall out from the underside of that shitty Ikea couch which your friends told you not to get, but what could go wrong, you said to them, you could handle it; you built a birdhouse once, so... You want to tighten the screw, but you know that you can’t. You’re lying on your stomach, flashlight between your teeth, trying to get to that fucking loose screw, but it’s all up in a corner by one of the couch’s legs so you can’t reach it with your fingers, and the damn thing’s head is fucking stripped, so your screwdriver won’t do you any good. Turn that screwdriver all you want, Jane; that screw’s not going anywhere.
    Suddenly, Anna remembered that Acorn wasn’t in the barn. He was still lost in his dark thoughts near the clinic. Anna’s heart stopped beat-
(26)


ing. The young girl clutched at her chest with her grafted-on sloth arm and slowly keeled over until she lay motionless in the snow, dead from a heart attack. Pam and Pawnee rushed to aid her, but it was too late. Anna’s unblinking eyes stared up at the star-strewn night sky until Pam closed them. “Good night, sweet prince,” she whispered.

    Acorn watched the flames consume the clinic silently. He immediately recognized the ambiguous positioning of the modifier in his internal monologue and changed it: Acorn silently watched the flames consume the clinic. The fire itself was deafeningly loud. Acorn was magnificent, standing there in the flickering light. He was what gods dreamed of being. He looked so fucking noble that had he been bronze, Pushkin would have written dozens of poems about him. And then Acorn would have crushed Pushkin beneath his bronze hooves.
    “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
    Acorn shuddered. He had not noticed the cat approach him. It now sat on the fencepost beside him, also looking at the fire, its tail swinging like the pendulum of that most secret of clocks. The clock that each of us carries within us, yet refuses to acknowledge until it is forcefully rent from our chests and held before our eyes. The clock that Anna had just seen the face of.
    “Beautiful,” the cat continued, “but deadly.” It turned to face Acorn. “Much like you.” Its hollow eyes with midnight visions burned.
    “Fuck off,” Acorn whinnied.
    The cat shook its tiny cat head and shit just a bit. “I wish I could, Acorn. I wish I could leave here and never again see the thousand sordid images of which your soul is constituted. But I –”
    “I remember what you told me earlier,” interrupted Acorn. “But why did you have to start this fire? What does that have to do with your plan?”
    The cat feigned shock. “What makes you think that I started this fire? After all, I’m just a cat.”
    Acorn ignored this attempt to raise his hackles. No, Acorn’s hackles were going to remain as unraised as the roof at a party DJ’d by John Quincy Adams, a president famous for the non-gnarlyness of his inaugural ball. “Should I repeat the question,” Acorn said, “or do I need to crush you again?”
    “No need to get snippy,” the cat replied as it began grooming itself. “I started the fire because I needed to do something to kill Anna.” Acorn’s twitching ears betrayed his emotion. “Oh, I have your attention now, do I? I just can’t figure it out. What that girl means to you. You feel superior to her – which, of course, you are – and at times seem to hate her. But you also fear her. You are protective of her. If it was possible for one such as you to love, I might even be tempted to say –”
    “It’s none of your business,” Acorn said. “Do what you will to me, but leave her alone.”
    “See how defensive you get? I suspect that you yourself don’t know what you feel. After all, you could free yourself from her at any moment. Yet you choose you wear her saddle, subjugate yourself to her reins, dance, dance like a dancing bear, cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape. You act like a normal, mindless pony instead of the godlike prince of the galaxy that you are. Do you fear your own power? You’ve never given a second thought to destroying others, but do you think that, unrestrained, you would destroy yourself?”

(27)


Anna was still fucking dead. But Pawnee was not ready to let her friend go. The township began to perform CPR on Anna’s body. Pam, an expert on corpses, knew it was too late, but she decided that this gesture, futile as it was, might be a part of Pawnee’s grieving process, so she left her alone.
    The sound of fire engine sirens pierced the air. It aroused the ponies. They [filthy colloquialisms for horse sex omitted] up and down the paddock. Pam and Pawnee were startled, too. But they were glad the firefighters were there. Anna’s father was a volunteer firefighter. Pawnee hoped that he and the other firefighters could revive her friend. She stood and said thus aloud to Pam. Pam envied Pawnee’s optimism and innocence.
    Pam and Pawnee watched the firefighters approach Anna’s body. One knelt down, removed his thick glove, and felt Anna’s neck for a pulse. He found none. He rose and shook his head at the two girls. Pawnee began to sob. Pam’s expression of grim determination didn’t so much as flicker. “I will find that fucking cat,” she said through gritted teeth, “and I will crush its fucking head between my hands. Its brain-nectars will be the emotional Purel that will disinfect my soul of its grief.”
    Pawnee stopped crying for long enough to take a wineskin full of gin out from her boot and drain it in one gulp. She had a serious problem.

    Acorn and the cat watched as the firefighters extinguished the blaze. Without the violent light of the fire, the night seemed suddenly claustrophobic. Now the sky was illuminated only by the cooler, paler fires of the moon, the stars, and the flashing lights on the assembled emergency vehicles. The snow no longer fell in individual sparkling flakes; it was a single heavy sheet of grey and cold that pushed down on Acorn with the cumulative weight of centuries of snow that had already fallen on his defiant shoulders. But Acorn was no Atlas. He could not hold the weight forever. Both he and the cat were acutely aware of this fact.
    The fire trucks pulled away. The moon continued to shine. The snow continued to fall.
    “I’m not going with you,” Acorn said at last.
    The cat licked one of its white paws nonchalantly. “I know.”
    Acorn lunged forward and bit off the cat’s head with one snap of his mighty jaws. The cat’s body toppled from the fencepost to the ground, and Acorn spat out the severed head beside it.

 (28)


     “Are you trying to annoy me?” said a voice from the darkness. “You aren’t succeeding.” The cat pranced into view along the fence and jumped down to sit on its own dead body. It playfully batted the severed head with one paw, like a feline cephalophore. ‘Cephalophore’ is a really good word, thought both Acorn and the cat.
    Acorn gazed at the impossible being. He felt as if his mind, which had up until that point been expanding, was starting to collapse in on itself. If his mind was a Friedmann-model universe, its density parameter (Ω) would have just exceeded one, meaning its actual density ρ was greater than the critical density ρc,(approximately five monatomic hydrogen atoms per cubic meter, as determined by the equation ρ_c=(3Hx^2)/8πG where G is Newton’s gravitational constant and H is a function of time), triggering a terminal contraction of said universe. That’s what Acorn felt like.
“Tell me your name,” Acorn said.
    The cat started shitting for the umpteenth time. “I go by m—”
    Acorn whinnied a furious whinny, like a fucking car alarm hopped up on cheap amphetamines. “If you say ‘I go by many names,’ I swear to fucking God, I will wreck you.”
    The cat flicked its tail. “No. I was going to say ‘I go by Minos.’ A single name. You, however… Grani, Liath Macha, Arion. I always thought Xanthos had a nice ring to it. But now… Acorn.” The cat’s adorable little nose crinkled in disgust. “A dull name for a domesticated beast. Why did you give it up? The names, the power, all of it.”
    “Acorn is a name of strength. A huge, mighty creature that has temporarily chosen dormancy, but has the potential to spring back in even grander form at any moment.”
    “Yes, if dropped in fertile soil. But it is far more likely that it will fall impotently onto the sterile roof of a patio and be eaten by a squirrel.”
    “But it may, if it wishes, sprout within the stomach of the squirrel, rending the flesh of the weak rodent from within, until it–”
    “No it can’t, that’s not how seeds work. And you know as well as I do that the name isn’t the fucking point. Why are you pretending to be that which you are not?”
    Acorn responded by crushing the cat yet again.

    “Where are the animals that were in the clinic?” Pam asked Mrs. Crandal, as the narrative abruptly shifted back to the humans.
    “Your dad and Pawnee brought them to my office in the old barn,” Mrs. Crandal answered, her birthmark makeup beginning to run from the heat-induced sweat tricking down her forehead from underneath her bald cap. Pam was glad that Pawnee was no longer weeping over the body of their friend.
(29)


    “Anna, I’ve been looking all over for you,” one of the firefighters said.
    It was Anna’s father. Pam hardly recognized him. His face was preternaturally pale, and his eyes seemed to glow faintly red — reflecting the still-glowing embers of the fire? Pam wondered, not yet suspecting what forces were working through him.
From his words, it seemed that the poor man had not yet realized that his daughter was dead, Pam thought sadly. She watched the soot-stained firefighter kneel over Anna’s body in the snow. He took off his helmet and held Anna’s hand.

    “You okay?” he asked.
    “I’m fine,” Anna answered, sitting up. Pam gasped in shock. The girl had been indisputably dead for the last ten minutes. How was this possible? Not even in the most forbidden of dark magic books had Pam seen anything that could explain this seemingly miraculous revival.
    Anna gave her father a quick hug. “See you later, Dad,” she said.
    Pam decided not to question her friend’s resurrection for the moment. Anna seemed unaware of her own death, so Pam led her to the barn office without comment. But Pam was cautious: it was likely that this was not the same Anna that she had once known.
    Dr. Crandal was putting a fresh bandage on Brandy’s wound. “Pam, please get a clean pair of Sturmhose for this reprehensible war criminal,” he said. “They’re in the closet under the hayloft ladder. Anna, could you sedate Brandy for a second?”
    While Anna pressed the ether-soaked rag over Brandy’s face, she looked around the barn office. The Pony Pals’ bound volumes of NYPD Blue fanfiction were piled in a corner. Portable kennels were set up around the
(30)


[illustration: Anna and Pam with firefighter, edited to include three Subway coupons at the bottom]
    “I swear, dad, THIS BIG!” Anna said, indicating the size with her hands. “A delicious footlong Subway sandwich for only five dollars!”
    “What’s the catch?” Mr. Harley asked. “Can you only get a limited selection of vegetables?”
    “Nope!” Anna replied with a big grin. “You can get all the garden-fresh veggies, cheese, and condiments you want! Still only five dollars!”
Anna’s father put an approving hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “That’s a damn good deal, Anna. A damn good deal.”
    Pam watched the conversation warily. Anna had been dead on the ground only minutes ago, and now she and her father were casually discussing the fantastic prices that Subway restaurants were offering on selected footlong sandwiches. “Eat fresh, Anna,” Pam said in a whisper that was half warning, half threat. “Eat fresh…”™

This Pony Pals illustration has been brought to you by Subway®. Eat fresh™.

 (31)


room. The sloth whose arm Anna had taken was in one kennel. Two other cats and a dog were in kennels, too. The third dog was lying to himself if he thought that his new haircut didn’t make him look like a washed up daytime talkshow host. There had been three dogs, three cats, and one sloth in the kennel room that day. Now, Pam saw only two cats. She let out a sigh of relief. The black cat was missing. Hopefully burned to a crisp like neglected bagel bites in a toaster oven.
    Anna felt a coldness that she had never before experienced. What had happened to her after she fell down? she wondered. Did she die in the fire? Was this the afterlife? If so, the afterlife was really shitty. She tapped her sloth claws on the table in front of her rhythmically and pondered the consequences of her own existence as she had never done before. Pam, looking at her from across the room, was doing the same.
(32)

 

5
Missing

    “Dr. Crandal, what happens after death? Are all of our sins tallied?” Anna asked nervously.
    “Every last one,” he said. He smiled at Anna. “Pawnee told me that you discovered the fire, Anna. You just had to stick your fucking nose where it didn’t belong, didn’t you? If the clinic had burned down, I could have gotten a huge insurance check.”
    “Acorn is frightening me more and more each day,” said Anna. “He has secrets locked inside his mind that no mortal should know. And I have a feeling that he will soon unleash them.”
    “Then you’re both abominations before the laws of man and God,” Pam whispered to herself.
    Anna looked around the office again. Was
(33)


the cat hiding knowledge even more sinister and frightening than Acorn’s? She still didn’t see him. “Where’s the black cat that has been terrorizing us since this fateful morning?” she said.
    Dr. Crandal looked around the office, too. “Isn’t he here?” he said, the panic rising in his voice.
    Pawnee came into the office. Her blood ran cold when she saw that Anna was alive once more. But not literally cold in the sense of reptiles’ blood. She could still thermoregulate with the best of them.
    “Where’s the black cat?” asked Anna.
    “Dr. Crandal got him out of the fire,” Pawnee said, casting an uncertain glance at Pam. Pam mouthed, “Later.”
    “Then what happened?” asked Anna.
    Pawnee thought for a second. “Brandy started to admit to his many horrible crimes and murders,” she said. “I put the cat down and gagged Brandy. The time for confession is later. Trust me. I know what I’m doing. When I looked back, the cat was gone.”
    Anna felt the shiv that she kept in her pocket. “Do you think the cat ran back into the fire?” she asked Dr. Crandal. “Like horses do?”
    Dr. Crandal shook his head. “No,” he answered. “No animal but a horse would be idiotic enough to do that. God damn are horses stupid. Jesus Christ.”
    Pawnee pulled Pam aside as Anna and the doctor tended to the pets. “What the Christ-loving fuck happened to Anna?” she whispered.
    “I don’t know,” Pam said. “She seems unchanged so far. But who knows what she brought back from the Other Side with her?”    

(34)

“One more thing,” hissed Pawnee. “About what you said earlier in the paddock.”
    Pam licked her lips. “Oh, so you are curious about the identity of your real father.” Even in these dark times, Pam could not miss a chance to play mind games with the Indianan city she called her friend.
    “My father is Ron fucking Swanson,” Pawnee said. “And if you even try to suggest otherwise to me, I will dismantle you. Understand?”
    Pam just smirked. She knew that the seed of doubt had been planted in Pawnee’s mind, and it was soon to become a sprout of doubt. Then a tree of doubt. For a seed — be it a metaphorical or literal one — has power.

    “And what tremendous power it is, Acorn,” said the cat in its adumbral, soul-melting tones. “But I command power too. The power of death. And I used that power to pluck Anna’s life from this earth like a speck of dandruff from a slovenly head. She died of a heart attack twenty minutes ago, Acorn.” The horse said nothing. “But, as I told you, you have power. In this case, ironically, it is the power of life. I will bring her back, but only if you make a deal with me.”
    “What sort of deal?” Acorn asked hoarsely. (Please take a moment to appreciate my pun. I put hours of work into it.)
    “You must simply agree to take a walk with me. That’s all.”
    “Where will you lead me?”
    Minos chuckled. “Ah, now that’s the question, isn’t it? You’ll just have to wait to find out. Although I’m sure you already know.”
    “When?”
    “When I call you.”
    Acorn ruminated.
    “Seeds symbolize life, yes, but they’re also inextricably wound together with death, Acorn,” the cat said, beating the seed metaphor to within an inch of its metaphorical life. “‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’”
    “John 5:24?”
“Very clever, Acorn, but neither the word nor the Word can’t save you now. You know it’s 12:24. You also know that it’s the epigram of Братья Карамазовы. Yes, Acorn, your life is more Karamazovian — and more Dostoevskian, for that matter — than the lives of most.”
    “I would assume yours is as well. Tell me, which better describes your own life: Преступлéние и наказáние or Бесы?”
    “I’m sure you’d like to know. But let’s just say that my Записки are both из подполья and из Мёртвого дома.”
    Acorn was silent for a brief moment. The galaxies of synapses and neurotransmitters that crackled in his Gothic cathedral of a brain churned and stewed in deepest contemplation. “All right,” he said at last. “I’ve know that this day was coming. And I’ve put it off long enough. I’ll follow you, Minos.”
    “Don’t pretend you’re doing this for you, or for me,” the cat said. You’re doing it for her.” Acorn said nothing. “You’re not even going to deny it? Maybe you have changed after all. But too little too late. I look forward to our walk. Goodbye, Acorn.” Minos took a tiny pebble of a shit and slinked off into the black night.
    Ten minutes in the past, a dead girl’s heart restarted and she sat up in the snow.
    Acorn knew better than most that nothing comes without a cost.

 (35)

Anna experimentally flexed the hand of the new robotic arm that Pam had whipped up for her. She would miss the sloth arm, but somehow having a mechanical left arm just felt right to her. After the Pony Pals cleared their web browsers’ histories and cookies, they went back outside with the intention of finding and killing that damn cat. It was safe for the horses and ponies to go back in the barn. The girls led the ponies inside, licked off the snow, dried them off, and discussed their plans for dismantling the patriarchy.
    The whole time Anna was helping with the ponies, she kept sharpening her dagger for the cat. She didn’t see him anywhere. Nor did she see Acorn. But she didn’t worry — she was used to Acorn vanishing for weeks at a time and then suddenly returning, covered in assorted viscera and miscellaneous cruor. “Cruor” is a good word, she thought to herself as she absentmindedly crushed a rock into fine sand with her robot hand.
    “We have to sleep in my room,” Pam told Pawnee and Anna with a not-at-all subtle wink. “We can share my bed.” Anna didn’t care much for Pam’s sexual advances. No matter how attractive Pam might be, standing there in the moonlight, her hair still flecked with ash, her eyes bright and sparkling, her lips half-parted and strangely inviting... but no. Not tonight, at least. Tomorrow she could search for the cat and explore the complexities of her developing adolescent sexuality.

    Anna was the first Pony Pal to wake up the next morning. She had had terrible dreams — if they could even be called dreams. Ever since she had died, everything was different. It felt as if rather than returning to life from the Other Side, she had traveled straight through and come out the other end, returning full circle to her starting place. The Other Side of the Other Side. No one could possibly understand what it was like to awaken from that slumber that should have been eternal. “Is this mockery of life, this half-existence, really better than death?” Anna whispered to herself as she gazed out the window at the falling snow, swirling a snifter of brandy with her robot hand, the other hand pressed longingly against the windowpane. Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion. She took a sip of her liquor. But not even spirits could give her the temporary relief of oblivion that they were once able to offer. Perhaps because I have no spirit of my own, she thought.
(36)

Anna swirled the brandy some more and observed the liquid’s widening gyre. She drained the glass and threw it against the wall, watching as it fell apart. Anna had no innocence to be drowned, and she was certainly full of passionate intensity; she welcomed the mere anarchy, and bathed in the blood-dimmed tide. She would deafen that fucking falcon herself if it came to that.  Perhaps the long-awaited rough beast was neither Acorn nor Minos, but Anna herself. But towards what destination was Anna slouching? She dressed quietly and went out to the new barn. Someone was going to die today.
    Anna looked for the cat in the straw and on the rafters of Acorn’s stall. The little fucker wasn’t there. Acorn nuzzled Anna’s shoulder sleepily. “I’m going to exterminate from this world every trace of that goddamn cat,” she told him. But Acorn wouldn’t meet her eye.
Anna was accustomed to Acorn’s pensive moods, especially after he returned from one of his mysterious disappearances. She’d never begrudge him the time it takes to clear one’s brain of a new Darkness (or to wait for the new Darkness to spread until the whole brain is uniformly tainted and therefore uniformly purified). But this felt different. Was this the cat’s doing? she asked herself. Or has Acorn finally gnawed through the last thread that connected him to sanity, as I always knew he eventually would?
Anna looked in the rest of the horse stalls. No catechism could assuage the fear that coursed through her, as religion is helpless in the face of that which is inherently and insistently not only godless and ungodly, but even god-negating. No catharsis was to be had today, Anna knew. “κάθαρσις,” she said aloud, then shook her head sadly. Her soul would remain unpurged. No, catatonia was not the answer either; it was far too late to hide or feign unresponsiveness. Pam and Pawnee came into the old barn. “Did you find the categorical imperative that I explained to you last night to be helpful in your struggle to understand morality?” Pawnee asked.
    “No,” said Anna. “I believe that we live in a post-Kantian world. Also, the cat’s still fucking missing.”
    “Maybe he went into the woods,” said Pawnee, while drinking peppermint schnapps straight from the bottle. She had a serious problem.
(37)


    “It’s so cold out there,” said Anna. “I would say I hope he freezes, but I know that the liquid brimstone that surely flows through his veins will keep him warm.”
    Pam put a mink stole around Anna’s shoulders. “We’ll all look for the cat,” she creaked. “But first we have to feed our ponies.”
    “Okay,” said Anna.
    Pam went to the barn to get her pair of balances. When she returned, she leapt on Acorn’s back, and lo, Anna beheld the black horse and its rider. “Come and see,” Pawnee told Anna. “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.”
    “What the fuck are you talking about?” asked Anna.
Acorn ran around the paddock once and then stopped.
    Anna was surprised that Acorn didn’t run with his friends. But the white, red, and pale horses and their riders were nowhere to be found. Acorn just stood at the fence and stared into the woods. He’s looking for the cat, thought Anna. Even the company of a devil must be preferable to being alone.
    After they ate breakfast, the girls packed thermoses of You know what, the liquor joke is too obvious here. This time, I’m going to make the thermoses full of healthy soup. You’ve got to give your characters a break once in a while. You’re responsible for them, after all. And not in some shitty pseudo-clever, magniloquent, metafictional way; don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Six-Characters-In-Search-Of-y here. That would just be self-indulgent. I mean, I’m obviously going to inevitably write myself into the story later, and it’s going to be incredibly fucking self-indulgent. I’m going to be handing out indulgences like a sixteenth-century Catholic clergyman. Except I’ll be handing them all to myself. Indulging myself all over the damn place. Martin Luther’s going to have to come over here himself and bust my popish ass for it. I guess what I’m saying, Jane, is that I’m directly responsible for the Protestant Reformation.
    I conceived of this book as a dumb gag birthday present for you, but it somehow turned into a Faustian (perilously close to fustian) saga about good and evil. At least, that’s what I think it’s become about. I honestly still don’t know at this point. Ergo aforementioned responsibility. I always get carried away with my projects, you know that. But here’s the rub: when I started inserting all that grandiloquent prose, it was ironic and intentionally turgid and purple as shit. But I’m really not sure if that’s still what I’m doing, or if I’m

(38)

sincerely trying to write a compelling, dare I say meaningful, story about the nature of sin and redemption. It’s certainly a possibility. Perhaps this whole project is some Freudian mechanism I’m using to work though the complex issues tucked away deep in the neglected, cobwebby corners of my troubled teenage psyche. Or a Jungian mechanism. Or a Janetian one. Jasperian? (Christ, what is it with European psychotherapists and J names?) Sorry, I’m a bit rusty on my late-nineteenth-early-twentieth century analytic psychology and the various mechanisms thereof.
    It’s like psychology is Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and I’m Charlie fucking Buckett out here, looking through the gate, my little sooty pauper nose poking through the bars, wondering what could possibly be inside. O what saccharine phantasies! O what levulose reveries! O the vagaries of gumdrops and licorices and taffies. (But no tootsie rolls. Because fuck those disgusting things, am I right?) But then I find one of the five golden copies of On the Interpretation of Dreams, and I get to actually explore this mysterious Wonka wünder-palace, where events unfold as predictably and phallocentrically as would be expected from an such adventure through the psyche of an aging candy tycoon who’s the type of guy that invites nubile youths to his factory to inspect his fantastic contraptions.
    Okay, fuck, I got way off track here. My attempt to assure you that I wasn’t going to succumb to the allure faux-philosophical meta-commentary turned into just that. (And then it turned into a lengthy fantasy about Willy Wonka, I guess??) Needless to say, the whole digression was/is ironic. But it’s the type of irony that has actually become sincere by virtue of its utterly failed approximation of sincerity. You know I’d never unironically write something like those first few paragraphs, and I know you know. So the fact that I did is a de facto breach of an unstated contract of communicational transparency between us. That I would betray said contract then becomes the actual meaning of the gesture: why would I do such a thing if not to emphasize the degree of my sincerity? The form of the message becomes its content, and the original content and the meaning thereof is jettisoned off to god knows where. Eventually, we both become so concerned about whether (or to what degree) I’m being ironic that we lose track of what it is that I’m being or not being ironic about.
    And, of course, in the above paragraph (as well as this one), the pretense of shedding my irony to address you directly about my (failed?) use of irony elsewhere is another level of overarching irony, further masking/enhancing the sincerity of said address, as well as the original content, if it’s even accessible anymore. Sincerity has become just another pharmakon: the supposed “cure” to my irony, yet one which effaces the original message just as much as the poisonous irony that obscured it in the first place. Either way, meaning is lost.
    It’s complicated, is what I’m trying to say. Layers. Pharmakon. I’ll explain it to you someday.

(39)


After eating their healthy soup, the two girls and the town set out on their journey to find the motherfucking cat so they could kill it and get back to their regular Pony Pal shit. As they rode, Pam looted a sweatshirt from a conveniently-nearby corpse. Anna didn’t ask Pam how she knew the corpse was there. “This sweatshirt will make a perfect smothering tool for the cat,” she said.
    When they went back outside, Acorn was still standing at the fence, looking into the woods. The Pony Pals thought he was idly contemplating the terrifying vacuum that one inevitably finds when searching for any sort of meaning in existence, as he was wont to do. Little did they know that today, Acorn was brooding on a more personal terror. Minos would be coming for him, and Acorn had a feeling that the moment of his arrival would be very soon indeed. And then that infernal cat would lead Acorn somewhere. He would use no halter or reins, but Acorn knew that this was the one rider that he could not buck.
    “We have important work to do today,” Anna told Acorn. “We’re going to look for that unholy cat, and then we are going to embrace our basest and most primal bloodlust and rend its head from its body.”
    Anna put her left foot in the stirrup and swung up on the saddle for what Acorn knew would probably be the last time. Acorn was not one for sentimentality. Emotions, he had found, started to fade from one’s mind after the first few thousand years of living. But Minos’ words the other day had reawakened something within him. Why did he let Anna put a saddle on him? His previous riders had all been mighty gladiators, inspiring leaders of men, brilliant warrior-poets, or chefs of above-average talent. And now... Anna Harley, Pony Pal.
    He was no unicorn, attracted to and tamed by the purity of a young woman. Then again, Anna was far from pure. But it was not her bloodthirstiness that had drawn Acorn to her either. Was it really, as Minos had tauntingly suggested, fear of his own power and his increasing inability to properly control it? Acorn had to admit that he was getting old. Getting tired. Was he trying to sequester himself, to forget all the he had been, and the potential he had? The potential to be what had never before been, and what could barely be at all? Was Anna the steel-lined concrete containment building around the nuclear fusion reactor that was his mind?
    Anna took up Acorn’s reins and led him into the woods. Together, they melted into the tree line. All three — the girl, the pony, the woods — were lovely, dark, and deep.
    But Acorn had a promise to keep.
    And miles to go—
    and miles to go

(40)

 

6
The Fight

The Pony Pals rode their ponies with the kind of solemnity usually reserved for soldiers en route to battle. The cat weighed heavily in all their minds. Acorn was afraid of it. Pam felt a burning hatred towards it. Anna secretly hoped that it could answer her questions about what had happened to her in that twenty minutes during which she had been dead. Pawnee wanted to learn new cocktail recipes from it. She had a serious problem. “Where should we start looking for the cat?” Pam asked, munching on the pheasant that she had just plucked from the sky mid-flight.
    “Acorn was staring in the direction of Pony Pal Trail,” said Anna, somehow still unaware of how fucking stupid “Pony Pal Trail” sounds.
    “Let’s start there,” Pawnee extravasated. “It could be a clue.”
    The Pony Pals galloped across the field. They turned down the three magic beans that a mysterious man standing in a field offered them in exchange for the girls’ souls. It was probably a wise decision.
(41)


    “Look for local politicians in the snow,” said Pawnee, secretly hoping to find her mother and settle the question of her true paternity once and for all.
    Anna and Acorn took the lead. Anna looked straight, but was actually bisexual. Pawnee knew that the anti-regulatory libertarian Ron Swanson politically leaned to the right. And Pam, as she was known to do, left inflammatory manifestos nailed to every tree she passed.
    After a while Pam barbarically yawped, “I see some bullshit over here to advance the plot!”
    Anna turned Acorn around and looked to where Pam pointed. Small tracks in the snow crackled with purple majyks. To Anna, they looked like the marks she had seen in her dream last night. Her robot fist clenched.
    Pawnee dismounted to get a closer look at the tracks. She pulled out her PKE meter; its readings were off the charts. This adventure had gone off the rails. Pawnee was off the wagon.
        [picture of tracks]
    “These are very fiendish tracks,” the town said. “But they have Eldritch runes. A cat’s track is so god damned evil that no runes can bind its strength. A leopard made these tracks; fleet and nimble-footed, with coat completely covered by dark spots! And those tracks over there are of a lion, head held high and furious for hunger, so that the air itself seems to be shaking. And those tracks are from a she-wolf, ravenously lean, seemingly laden with such endless cravings that she had made many live in misery! By nature, she is so depraved and vicious that her greedy appetite is never filled: the more she feeds, the hungrier she grows.”
(42)


    Pawnee swung back up on Lil’ Sebastian. “But there shall be no Greyhound born between Feltro and Feltro,” she said. “Only another fucking cat.”
    Anna took the lead again. When they reached the three birches, Acorn stopped. He knew that it was his time to leave. Page 43, he thought to himself. A prime number. Is it fitting or ironic that a life full of multiplicity end with something indivisible?
    “It’s just as the prophesy foretold!” said Anna excitedly.
    “Where the three birches rise, there shall He descend,” said Pam. “You know Acorn is not long for this world, Anna. We were wrong about the cat. He’s not here for us. He’s still a son of a fuck, but we can’t interfere with this.”
    “There could be a clue,” Pawnee burbled. “Let’s see what really happens beyond the veil; on the Other Side of the Other Side.”
    Acorn sniffed for another minute, then he raised his head. He turned toward a trail that started behind the three birch trees. Minos sat in the upper branches of one of the trees, shitting silently and solemnly onto the forest floor below.
    “Acorn needs to leave with his feline psychopomp, Anna. We all knew that his reckoning would come one day,” Pawnee said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
    Anna nodded sadly. All three girls dismounted in silence. Anna closed her eyes and dropped Acorn’s reins. The cat began to come down from its perch, hopping from branch to branch, leaving a tiny kitty shit on each one. It landed lightly in the snow and began to saunter towards Acorn, but Anna stepped into its path. She knelt and looked the cat right in its god damned eyes. “You are an evil fucking thing,” Anna whispered. “I now understand who you are, and what you must do, but I will never, never forgive you. I warn you: judge fairly, for even the eternal Judge is not free from my judgment. Yes, I too have a secret. There are wheels within wheels in the town of Wiggins, and fires within fires. Now go.” She stood. The cat walked between her legs and jumped onto Acorn’s back.
    Minos
rode Acorn down the long and winding path into the Unknown.
(43)


Now, at the end of Acorn’s lifelong journey,
He found himself deep in a silent wood,
The slate-grey sky foreboding, dense, and stormy.

An evil fucking cat kept scheming brood
Upon his back, a burden unremitting.
As Acorn cantered on, he understood

Their destination would be one befitting
An unrepentant sinner such as he.
But then that cat of darkness started shitting.

And now it seemed that every shrub and tree
Was naught but cat shit sown in shitty earth;
A shitty island in a shitty sea.

The cat shit on, and laughed with gleeful mirth
At Acorn’s clear disgust at such a sight.
And now, like an inverted fecal birth,

They neared the source of this unholy blight –
A guano gate, upon which words appeared
In script that burnèd red with fiery light:

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
“Derivative,” said Acorn, “and cliché.”
“I’d say ‘Dantesque,’” the cat replied, “but we’re

Not in this place to sightsee.” Acorn neighed,
“The suffix ‘–esque’ implies a likeness, not
A phrase that’s stolen wholesale – which conveys

The writer’s laziness, like they forgot
Allusion must be more than blatant theft.”
Caught up in meta-referential thoughts,

The pony failed to notice they had left
The realm of life, and entered that of death.
Of light and joy, of love and mirth bereft,

This cloudy and adumbral land impressed
Upon its visitor an eerie calm,
As if some cosmic power held Its breath.

(44)


In Gilead there’s not a drop of balm,
Nor respite nor nepenthe to be found;
The shepherd’s absent from King David’s psalm,

For in the river Enon He was drowned.
Towards other rivers now sped Acorn on,
Which through this murky landscape curled and wound:

Cocytus, Lethe, Styx, and Phlegethon.
‘Twas Acheron, though, that they now drew near,
And Acorn knew he’d seen his final dawn.

Grim Charon waited at his marshy pier,
But Acorn whinnied, “Fuck that noise,” and leapt
Into the waters, biting back his fear.

Against the rotting waves the pony schlepped,
Amidst a thousand thousand slimy souls
That howled or gnashed their teeth or prayed or wept.

The river’s morbid currents sucked and pulled,
But our determined Acorn stayed in stride:
His iron hooves struck out and beat the cold

And damnèd spirits right between their eyes.
The wraiths shrank back, and in their swirling blood,
As black as sin, was Acorn re-baptized.

At last, his hooves did touch the fetid mud
Of that dread river’s other, darker bank,
Where blew a constant miasmatic scud
 
Of misery, from which all pure souls shrank.
The pony plodded onward towards his fate,
The wretched water dripping from his flanks.

It seemed that nothing now could break his gait,
That from his course he never could be budged.
Despite his rider’s grim, oppressive weight,

The steadfast Acorn merely onward trudged,
Prepared to have his heavy sins be judged.

(45)


    “You can stop here, Acorn,” said the cat.
    “What part of Hades’ lair is this that you / Have brought me to, you—”
    “No, we’re done with the terza rima now. You don’t have to talk in iambics anymore.”
    “That’s a relief,” said Acorn, relishing the dactyl.
    Acorn glanced around at their stopping place. The slimy banks of the Acheron had long since transitioned into a forest of dead, white trees, through which the pony and the cat had been walking for what felt like either minutes, hours, or decades. But now Acorn and the god damned cat stood in a small clearing, filled with cold, flat light that filtered down from some unseen source in the uniformly cloud-covered sky. The ground beneath Acorn’s hooves was grey and marshy, and seemed somehow ephemeral, as if it was only ninety percent there. An oppressive mist hung in the sky and over the ground, sending cold tendrils to lick at Acorn’s fetlocks. Silence, stillness.
    “So this is where it happens?” Acorn asked. “This is where I’m judged by you?”
    “Well, by me and my two co-arbiters,” Minos said as he leapt off Acorn’s back and sashayed to a broad, low tree stump near the middle of the clearing. He jumped onto the white stump, sat, and curled his tail around himself demurely.
    “Yes,” said Acorn, “You are referring to your brother Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus, the former king of Aegina. The three of you judge the souls of the dead and decide which realm of the underworld they shall inhabit.”
    “Right. Exactly,” said the cat. “You didn’t have to explain all of that to me, since I obviously know it already.”
    “I know,” said Acorn. “But this part of the plot’s really important. And so I wanted to make it all explicit for people who don’t know every fucking detail of Greek mythology by heart.”
    “Fine, whatever. The point is, Acorn, the other judges will be joining us shortly. And then your soul shall be laid bare. For I have known your sins already, known them all— the sins that fixed you in that formulated phrase. And when you are formulated, sprawling on a pin, when you are pinned and wriggling on my wall, then how will you begin to spit out all the butt-ends of your days and ways?”
    “And  how should you presume?” Acorn shot back.
    Minos shook his tiny cat head. “Acorn, that is not what you meant at all; that is not it, at all.” The cat began licking one adorable white paw, and shot glanced slyly at the defiant pony from the corners of his bottomless eyes. “…So tell me, has it been worth it, after all? Has it been worth while?”
———

    “I think we should go back,” said Pam. “It’s the safe thing to do. Acorn has gone to be judged for his sins, and that godawful cat left with him.”
    “I agree with Pam,” said Pawnee. She put the severed head of the rapper Snoop Dogg back into her saddlebag. “We should go back to Wiggins, even though that’s still a dumb name for a town.”
    “I thought the Pony Pals didn’t give up!” said Anna. Sparks began to fly from her mechanical arm, and the other Pony Pals heard a horrifying grinding; whether from the arm or from the tortured swarm of brain-gears inside Anna’s head, they were unsure.
    “We’re not giving up,” said Pawnee. “We just don’t think that we can rescue Acorn’s soul now that it has been reaped by that fucking cat."
    “Anna, it’s two against one,” said Pam proudly. She had only recently learned to count, and showed off this new skill at every opportunity.
    Anna was conflicted. She knew that Pawnee was right; Acorn’s soul was irredeemable. She also knew the true nature of that fiend posing as a cat. There could be no revenge taken on such a creature, and if she provoked it, it might well come back to the plane of the mortals and keep fucking with the Pony Pals out of pure spite. Finally, Anna knew that if she went into the underworld, she would never be able to return to this realm. She’d been yanked back from death once, and now the Other Side had a magnetic pull on her soul, trying to drag it back to where it by all rights should be. Her next death, she knew, would be final.
    But Anna fucking loved Acorn.

(47)


    “Then you two can go back,” said Anna angrily. “I’m going to go into that good night, and I’m sure as fuck not going gentle." She put out her hand, beckoning for the only two friends she had left in this world to come with her. “Burn and rave with me,” she whispered. “Catch and sing the sun in flight. Rage, rage against the dying of the light; both Acorn’s and your own.
    “You can’t go fucking Orpheus on our asses now!” yelled Pawnee. She had only recently learned basic Greek mythology, and showed off this new knowledge at every opportunity.
    Anna put her hands on her hips. “Oh, yes I can!” she told them. “You can’t make me go back.”
    “Well, looks like somebody’s being a sassy Susan,” Pam said. “Look, we want revenge on that fucking cat too, but if we follow Acorn, there’s no guarantee that any of us will come back. Least of all Acorn!”
    “It’s his time, Anna,” Pawnee said. She touched Anna’s hand gently, and couldn’t help but shudder at the unnatural coldness. She grew more concerned when she realized that Anna’s metal hand hadn’t been the one she touched. She pulled out her emergency margarita kit and fixed herself a strong one.
    Anna was undeterred. “I’m saving Acorn’s life, god damn it. Even if it means sacrificing my own.” She glared at her two friends. “If you wouldn’t do the same for your pony, then you don’t fucking deserve to be called a Pony Pal.” She spat in the snow at her feet. (Pawnee could have sworn that she saw the saliva glow slightly. Was it radiation from the uranium-powered arm? Ectoplasm left over from Anna’s brush with death? The light of pure, burning rage and love? Or was Pawnee just sloshed?)
    Anna turned her back on her friends both literally and metaphorically and began to walk away. Away from all that she had ever known, and towards that which could not be known.
(48)

7
Blood in the Snow

Pawnee and Pam exchanged a worried ferret. They couldn’t make Anna see reason when she was so blinded by the special love a girl feels for her pony. But they couldn’t leave the world of the living to save a millennia-old pony that was closer to a god than anything else that ever trod the earth either. The worried ferret squirmed out of Pam’s hands and ran off to worry elsewhere.
    Pam sighed. “We’ll go to hell with you,” she said. Anna turned back around, tears welling up in her eyes.
    “Maybe you and Acorn can be redeemed,” said Pawnee. “Maybe the cat — and death itself — aren’t as powerful as we mortals think.”
    “But promise us you won’t turn back as we leave the underworld,” said Pawnee, “or Acorn might be pulled back into it.” Pam rolled her eyes like, we get it, you know a bit about mythology. You want a fucking pat you on the back? Where were you when I learned numbers, huh?
    Anna wanted to hug her friends. But she knew it was dangerous to show affection, since it could be taken as a sign of weakness. Acorn had taught her that.
(49)
    

    “Then it is settled,” Pam said. “We follow that fucking cat and descend into hell together. Then we find Acorn, free him from the eternal damnation that he is surely suffering at this very moment, and lead him back with us, where he will live out the rest of his sinful days haunted by the knowledge of what awaits him when he inevitably is pulled back into the pit.”
    “And then we can all ride our ponies down the Pony Pal Trail!” Pawnee blubbered excitedly.

Anna smiled at her friends. “Thank you.”
    “Pony Pals stick together,” said Pam.
———
    Acorn seethed as he watched Minos smugly shit off the edge of the lone tree stump in the middle of the dead clearing. Acorn wasn’t sure what it was with which he was seething — rage? self-loathing? jealousy? — but seething he surely was.
    “When will the other two judges fucking get here?” Acorn snapped.
    “But Acorn,” said a voice from behind the pony, “we’ve been here all along.”
    Acorn spun around and saw two figures standing on — or were they slightly hovering above? — the grey marshy ground. One was a tall middle-aged woman in a plum crushed-velvet pantsuit, whose glasses did nothing to hide the keen glimmer of her brown eyes. There were a few streaks of silver in her wavy brown hair, and they imbued her with a sense of dignity, like— Fuck it, here’s a picture of her.
[picture]
    Over there to the right. She looked pretty much exactly like that. Much more efficient to do it this way.
    The other person was a really rad dude with really rad shades who needs no introduction.
    “Who are these douchebags?” Acorn whinnied.
    The rad dude spoke again: “We’re the douchebags who wrote you.”
    “Wrote me?” Acorn said. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
    “I means that you’re a fictional character,” the woman said.
    “That’s right,” said Dirk Strider. (He hadn’t introduced himself as Dirk Strider yet, but it should be totally obvious who he is. No need to be coy. And the woman’s Jeanne Betancourt. Let’s not pretend this was any sort of dramatic revelation.) “You’re a text, Acorn,” Dirk continued, “and I’m going to fucking deconstruct you.”
    “You wouldn’t dare to… That’s a daring proposi… I dare you… to try…” Acorn said falteringly.
    “Couldn’t get that Derrida pun to work, huh?” Minos observed dryly.
    “Fuck you, cat. I’ll keep working on it.”

    “All puns aside, Acorn,” Jeanne Betancourt said, “yes, you are a character from a book that I wrote. And Dirk… well, I’m not sure exactly how he’s involved in all of this, but apparently he wrote it too?”
    Dirk waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it, Jeanne Betancourt. Doesn’t matter.”
    “If you say so, Dirk.” (There, they’ve introduced each other. So now everyone knows everyone else’s name and can refer to each other accordingly.)

(50)


    “The point, Acorn,” Jeanne continued, interrupting my didactic parenthetical edification, “is that we created you, and so we’re in a unique position to judge you for the horrible things you’ve apparently done.”
    “‘Apparently’?” Acorn whinnied. “So you don’t even know what you’re judging me for?”
    “They don’t know yet,” Dirk said. “I’m going to have to read them.” He pulled a thin, worn paperback book from his back pocket. Its cover showed a picture of a pony, and was defaced with some vulgar and hilarious text. “‘Read’ being a loaded term, of course. Vocare versus legere. Isn’t it funny that the English word doesn’t distinguish between reading silently and reading aloud? We need separate modifying words to clarify. The father phoneme and the filial grapheme reunited by ambiguity.”
    Minos and Betancourt were rolling their eyes as if they were desperate gamblers down to their last dollar and said eyes were their lucky pair of dice. They were rolling them pretty fucking hard, is the point.
    Dirk continued, undeterred. “The closest we have to a unique verb for reading aloud in English is probably “recite” — from the Latin “recitare,” which can mean either “to repeat from memory,” or “to read aloud.” But the English “recite” has almost entirely the implication of speaking from memory, not directly from a page. The mind as an intermediate step between text and mouth, words being inscribed on the surface of the brain before being spoken. That word — inscribe — is really the heart of it all, isn’t it? Scirbere, to write. Inscribe, not just to write, but to write into, to embed words in the page. To recite is to speak aloud the words written into the brain by the page. A reversal of the standard interpretation of causation. Page writing into man, the source and receiver of the violence flipped. Speaking as reading, reading as speaking; reading as writing, writing as reading. So when I say that I will ‘read’ your sins, it should be clear that I’m simultaneously reading and writing, but equally clear that there is no difference at all between those two actions.”

(51)


    “…What the Christ-shitting fuck are you talking about?” Acorn neighed.
    Dirk shrugged. “You tell me. But all that aside, I should tell you how this all will go down. Now, Acorn, even the most cursory examination of your crimes makes it apparent that your soul is unfit for any sort of reward in the afterlife. But torture and torment hardly seem right either.”
    “Yes. We won’t’ be making a choice between heaven and hell,” Betancourt said. “It’s much more weighty than that. It’s a choice between existence and nonexistence.”
    Minos nodded. “We — well, the two of them — have control over your narrative. They can rewrite it so that you never existed at all.”
    “The question is not what you deserve,” Dirk said, “but whether you deserve. With the sins that you have committed, Acorn, do you deserve to have ever lived at all?”
    Acorn pranced and snorted. “Do you think I give a shit? Erase me, delete me, whatever it is you’ll do. Nonexistence doesn’t scare me.”
    Dirk shook his head. “No, Acorn, I know that you don’t give a shit.” He turned his head slightly so a beam of light glinted off his sunglasses in a cool and dramatic way. “But I think that Anna would give a shit.”
    Acorn stood still. “…Just hurry the fuck up and judge me.”


17a) Minos: Do you remember why we have come here today? Is it not true that our purpose is to hear the sins of this pony, known as Acorn? And is it not further true that the three of us, after listening to said sins, shall make a judgment concerning the fate of Acorn’s existence?
Acorn: Yes, we all know that already. And why are you using so many rhetorical questions?
Betancourt: Yes, Minos, all you say is true.
Minos: And what form shall our judgment take? Is it not true that each of us shall cast their own vote, and whatever ruling has gained the majority of the votes shall be enacted? This seems a just system. Is there anything I have omitted from my telling?
Dirk: Nothing, Minos.
Betancourt: True, it is just as you have said, Minos.
Minos: Very good. And now, Dirk, you, I suppose, should speak next, after duly calling upon the Gods.
Acorn: What’s going on?
Dirk: All men, Minos, who have any degree of right feeling, at the beginning of every enterprise, whether small or great, always call upon God. And we, too, who are going to discourse of the nature of sin, of guilt, and of punishment, must invoke the aid of Gods and Goddesses and pray that our words may be acceptable to them and consistent with themselves.
Acorn: Why is my name over there on the left in front of everything I say?
Betancourt: Come, then, clear-voiced Muses, whether you have gained this epithet because of the quality of your singing or because the Ligurians are so musical, grant me your support in the judgment that my colleagues and I shall soon make.

(52)


17b Acorn: And what are those numbers and letters over there?
Minos: Let this, then, be our invocation of the Gods, to which I add an exhortation of myself to speak in such manner as will be most intelligible to you, and will most accord with my own intent.
Acorn: Wait. I know what’s happening.
Betancourt: A good and fair invocation. Now it must fall upon Dirk to begin the reading of the sins, while Minos and I listen attentively and comment on occasion as we see fit.
Minos: Excellent, Jeanne; and we will do precisely as you bid us. The prelude is charming, and is already accepted by us — may we beg of you to proceed the strain?
Acorn: I’m not going to play along. We’re not making this into a Platonic dialogue.
Dirk: I certainly shall, Minos. Despite the fact that some of those gathered here are making things harder than they need to be.
Acorn: No. Fuck you. I refuse.
The pony defiantly kicked his name off the page with his powerful hooves.
“That’s better.”
Betancourt: Acorn, please, don’t make this into a whole thing.
“Fuck you,” Acorn said, after he kicked another “Acorn:” into the abyss. “Fuck you fuck you fuck you and the symposium you rode in on.”
Dirk: You’re not really in any position to argue with us, Acorn. We’re doing this. It’s happening.
17c “How far up your own ass do— hold on, I need to take care of this too.” He kicked the 17c into the growing pile. “Lousy goddamn Stephanus pagination.”
Betancourt: Can’t you just humor him on this one, Acorn? That’s kind of how we arbiters do this thing. I mean, if it were up to me, we might try…
Dirk: Oh, come on, Betancourt! It’s tradition!
Minos: It’s formal. I like it.
Betancourt: Of course you’d like it, you get to be Socrates. Come on, you two, we’ll talk about this later.
“I’m not going to go through with this needlessly complicated and pretentious dialogue bullshit just so this glasses-wearing fucker can get his rocks off. Besides, this asshole—” Acorn derisively tossed his head in the direction of Minos “—already roped me into two pages of terza rima.
Betancourt: Oh no. Was—
“Hang on, let me get that for you,” Acorn said, and then sent yet another prefix into the bottom margin with his powerful hooves.
“Thanks. Was it metered?” Betancourt asked.
“Iambic pentameter.”
“At least he didn’t insist on hendecasyllables,” Betancourt said, crinkling her nose in repulsion at the thought of those particularly odious feet. (“That’s a good pun,” Dirk whispered to nobody.)
Minos: All right, fine, we can—
Acorn cocked one of his back hooves “Minos:”-ward threateningly.
“Fine!” Minos huffed. “There. No more dialogue. Happy?”
Acorn: Very.
“You don’t have to be an asshole about it, Acorn,” Jeanne Betancourt said.
(53)


———
    The three girls trudged through the snow silently. Pawnee and Pam had left Lightning and Lil’ Seb behind miles ago. They’d told the ponies to return home and had pointed them in the right direction. If they just followed the trail in a straight line for a few minutes, they’d be back at the barn. But the girls didn’t hold out much hope that the ponies would make it, because, as has been covered earlier in this book, ponies are incredibly fucking stupid. At this very moment, Lil’ Seb and Lightning were probably freezing to death or falling off of cliffs or trying to eat each other or some stupid shit like that. Fucking ponies.

    “Hurry,” said Anna. “I can feel the Other Side tugging at my very sinews. We’re close now.”
    “Here, kitty, kitty,” Anna called with vicious sarcasm. It was all starting to become clear in her mind now. The cat. Her friends. Her own death. Her new life. The detective pony. All was converging, all was colliding, all was rushing to a climax. A revelation trembled just past the threshold of her understanding, and here, where the birch forest of Wiggins and the chthonian depths of hell overlapped, Anna felt at the centre of an odd, religious instant.
    
    “I hope that hell has an open bar. I finished the last of my emergency flasks hours ago.” said Pawnee. She had a serious problem. This was a cry for help.
    Anna stopped bothering to project even the slightest pretense of caring about these antics. Anna pointed to the ground. “This is it,” she said solemnly. “This is the point of no return for me; I can feel it. Once we cross over, I can never reenter the world of the living.” Pawnee gasped in shock; Pam just nodded. “I was ripped from this realm once,” Anna continued, “and it won’t let me escape its grasp again.”
    “I know I can’t change your mind,” said Pam sadly. “I know you love Acorn more than you love life; and apparently more than you love me.”
    “Oh, Pam. You’ll always be the one that got away,” Anna said, voice shaking.
“And Pawnee… Pawnee, you’re pretty cool too.”
    The girls were moved by this uncharacteristic display of emotion from Anna. The three girls held hands and took that all-important step forward. Nothing around them visibly changed, but they could all feel it. They were damned. Pawnee touched Anna’s shoulder and pointed at the ground.
    “There’s blood in the snow,” said Pawnee. “Just like the chapter title!”
    Anna saw the blood, too. Rage gathered in her eyes.
(54)


    Pam stopped and held up a hand. “Listen,” she said. “What’s that?”
    The girls stood still and listened. Anna heard a faint meow. “It’s a cat,” she whispered. She smiled. Her smile was far redder than the blood, and far colder than the snow.

———
    “—while wearing a powdered wig. And finally, number six hundred and sixty six: embezzlement.” Dirk closed the book, tucked it into his back pocket, and looked at Acorn. “Truly, an impressive and intimidating list of sins.”
    Betancourt shook her head sadly. Minos looked solemn; he wasn’t even shitting, which is kind of his gimmick, so you could tell he meant business.
    “Are we ready to make a ruling?” Dirk asked.
    Acorn reared up on his hind legs and whinnied tempestuously at the three arbiters lined up in front of him. “One fucking moment, don’t I get to say anything in my defense?”
    “Weren’t you listening to my whole big thing about speech and writing?” Dirk asked, obviously annoyed. “‘Grapheme vs. phoneme’ and all that? Do you really think speech holds any power in the world of a text? What is written is; what is said vanishes instantly if there is no one to record it, like invisible water off the ass of an invisible duck. And we’re done recording you.”
    Acorn seemed ready to argue, but Minos held up one of his adorable little white paws to stop him. “Dirk is right,” Minos said. “He may be a pretentious douche, but he’s right. We, the three arbiters of the afterlife, have heard the evidence. And now we must decide what your fate shall be.”
    “Not so fucking fast!” a girl’s voice shouted from the distance. Acorn’s ears instantly twitched up. Could it be?
    It could in-goddamn-deed. The trees of the dead forest behind the arbiters shuddered. Dirk, Jeanne, and Minos turned around and nervously stepped back. The bone-white trees swayed wildly in the windless air, and then violently uprooted themselves, floated weightlessly in the air for a breathless moment, and hurtled to either side with savage force. Through the newly-parted pass, silhouetted by a blinding, otherworldly glow behind them, walked two girls and a town.
    Jeanne Betancourt squinted into the blinding light. “Are those…”
    “That’s right,” said the girl leading the way. The bright light faded and the three walked into view, posing like a team, and looking like complete badasses. Anna crossed her arms and grinned triumphantly. “We’re the motherfucking Pony Pals. And we’re here to fuck. Shit. Up.”
(55)

8
Homeless

    “What are they doing here?” Dirk muttered to himself. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.” He grabbed the thin purple book from his pocket, held it close to his face, and began frantically leafing through it.
    Acorn was pretty much going apeshit at the sight of Anna. Just freaking the fuck out. As ponies are wont to do. Christ, he was just… he was all over the place. Jesus. Fuckin’ ponies, man.
    Jeanne Betancourt, accustomed to such pony-related fuckery, managed to circumvent Acorn’s freakout and gingerly approached the Pony Pals, as if uncertain that it was really them.
    Minos just sat there, watching, shitting at a glacial pace. He knew that now was the time to listen. Because he, like almost everyone else there, had no idea what the fuck was going on.
    “Is it really you?” Jeanne Betancourt asked as she reached the girls. “I can’t believe I finally get to meet you.”
    “And who the fuck are you, exactly?” Anna said, poking an accusatory finger at Betancourt’s chest. Pam and Pawnee stood behind Anna on either side and crossed their arms to help Anna look like a maximum badass. And she did. Oh, she did.
    “You are Anna Harley, yes?” Betancourt said. “And you two—” she glanced at the other girls and gave them a quick wave “—are Pam and Lulu. The three of you live in Wiggins (which is a great name for a town) and go on all sorts of fun adventures with your ponies. And you—Anna? Anna, oh my god, are you all right?”
    The instant Jeanne Betancourt had said “Lulu,” Anna’s eyes had gone pure white, and she now slowly toppled to the ground. Pam immediately knelt at her side. “Anna!” she shouted, shaking her friend by both shoulders. “Don’t you dare die again. Don’t you fucking dare!” Pam rained a shower of tears and blows onto Anna’s chest from her eyes and fists respectively. “Anna, you son of a bitch, you can’t do this to me!”
(56)


    Pawnee, however, didn’t so much as glance at Anna’s prone body. She had her mind on only one thing: vengeance. While Pam berated/tended to their friend, Pawnee marched straight to Jeanne Betancourt and got all up in her business. “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are,” she hissed at the author, “but you’re wrapped up in all of this somehow. You’re in league with that fucking cat and… whoever that douche in the pointy shades is.” She slowly walked forward, step by accusatory step, forcing Betancourt to inch backwards until her back was pressed up against one of the chalky trees that circumscribed the clearing. “And my name is not Lulu,” she continued. “It’s Pawnee fucking Indiana. And my father is Ron motherfucking Swanson, and don’t you fucking dare tell me any different. Got it?”
    The whole scene looked like some sort of goddamn medieval triptych that illustrated the three primal human emotions: the anger of a wronged victim confronting her tormenter; the compassion of a lover caring for her injured friend; and, of course, the most powerful emotion of all, a pony flappin’ around and goin’ nuts while a cat watches and poops. If Michelangelo and Picasso had been in that clearing, they would have wept at the beauty of it all, and then would have started to make out due to their pure shared stupefaction.
    Dirk stood aloof on the outskirts of the chaos, reading, listening, thinking. In our triptych metaphor, he’s… the frame, I guess? That works pretty well, actually. Eventually, he came to a decision. He shut the book, quietly sidestepped over to Minos, and leaned down and whispered with urgency. “Hey, cat. Minos. Cat.”
    Minos looked up at him and blinked. “Yes?” he said calmly.
    “We need to judge Acorn now. Like, right the immediate-fuck now. Things are kind of getting out of hand in here, and I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. I don’t like that. But I’ve got a plan. I suspect  that if we decide to erase Acorn right now, we can shut it all down. Like an emergency eject button for the story. I was going to have us protract the judgment process for another dozen pages, maybe talk about ancient Greek shit some more. More wordplay, of course. But it’s pretty fucking clear that now we need to expedite the matter.”
    Minos yawned. “There are only the two of us here, Dirk. We need all three arbiters to make our ruling. And Jeanne—” he gestured to the author, who was still being aggressively berated by the enraged town in Indiana, “—is otherwise occupied.”
    “It doesn’t fucking matter,” Dirk hissed. “The vote just needs to be two out of three. And besides, her vote never really counted to begin with; she’s a joke character. I just wrote her in as another facet of this fucking book to ridicule. She’s not a real person, she’s my projection of the kind of person who’d write— Look, I’ll lay it all out for you, here’s what happens beat by beat.”
    “I’m listening,” Minos said.
(57)


    “Okay, so Betancourt votes to save Acorn, I vote to erase him, you want more evidence, I take us all on this bullshit Wonderful Life interlude, she’s tricked into thinking that it’s actually Acorn who fucked up the book so bad, she changes her vote, you have doubts but respect that a majority’s been reached, you wave your paws or whatever, Acorn’s gone, the book starts falling apart even more, Jeanne realizes what’s really happening, and the anvil of dramatic irony drops on her head. She was the creator, she becomes the destroyer. Fin. Then appendix A, and then the Final Freakout, where Acorn tries to come back and you and I band up to finish the job through pretentious meta bullshit contraptions. Fin again. Roll fucking credits. So let’s just cut out the unnecessary bullshit and get it over with. Deal?”
    “You ‘wrote her in’?” Minos said, arching his eyebrows.
    “Ah, mother fuck,” Dirk sighed. “Not you too.”
    “I think I’m starting to understand what’s really going on here.” Minos got up, and stretched out his front legs in that way that cats do; you know the way, I’m sure. It’s really cute. But this cat wasn’t just being adorable, he was also being a dick. “I bow down to you, o creator,” Minos said sarcastically.
    “Jesus Christ,” Dirk said, rubbing his temples with a thumb and forefinger. “Why did I have to make you such a smartass?”
    Minos rolled onto his back and squirmed around, like the cutest fucking asshole on the planet. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t help you,” he said. “In fact, if what I suspect is indeed true, then I’d be quite the fool to try to work against you.”
    “At least you’re a rational smartass,” Dirk said. In the distance, Pawnee yipped a particularly shrill accusation at Jeanne Betancourt. Dirk glanced in their direction. “We should make it quick,” he said to Minos, “before Pawnee rips off Betancourt’s head or something. Both of them are just joke characters, really, but that makes them wildcards, and I don’t want to risk having the original author die. And I’m not even going to make the obvious Rolland Barthes joke here, that’s how dead fucking serious I am.”
    “You’re not actually worried about Betancourt,” Minos observed. “It’s Anna who frightens you.”
    “Fine, her too,” Dirk said. “I’ll admit it, I got in over my head. So let’s just end this fucking thing before she wakes up from her revelation-coma or whatever it is. Say ‘fuck Acorn, time to erase his ass’ or something like that, and we’ll be done. I mean, you should probably make it sound more formal, use some bigger words. But that’s the gist of it.”
    “I can’t,” Minos said simply.
    “God damn it,” Dirk whispered. “It’s always something.”
(58)


    At this point, the narrative realized that it had been neglecting the other five characters for too long. And with Dirk’s attention elsewhere, the narrative shook free from the stranglehold he’d previously had on it, and it began to stretch its legs. Wander around a bit. “Let’s see what Acorn’s up to,” the narrative thought to itself.
    Acorn was still freaking the fuck out.
    “Okay, not up to that much,” the narrative thought. “How about Pawnee and Jeanne Betancourt? That could be interesting. Maybe we’re finally addressing the fact that Pawnee is simultaneously a town and a girl. Like, what’s up with that? It kind of switches back and forth, and sometimes it’s both at once… I never asked about it, but it’s been bugging me for a while. Oh, and I should also check them out because that Betancourt woman apparently wrote me? But only half of me?? I don’t really know what’s going on anymore.”
    “…population 79,218. Incorporated in 1819.” Pawnee was red in the face/municipality. “Median household income: $38,360. Sister city to Boraqua, Venezuela. Current mayor: Walter Gunderson. Official city tree: Indiana Common Shrub. Read my lips: Pawnee Motherfucking Indiana.”
    Betancourt stood tall and haughty, fighting back, refusing to be cowed anymore by this city/child. “Lulu Motherfucking Sanders,” she countered. “Short for Lucinda. Fifth grader at Wiggins Elementary, homeroom teacher Mr. Livingston. Caretaker of the pony Snow White, who is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Baxter.”
    “Neither one is even listening to the other,” the narrative realized. “Looks like they’re just in a holding pattern until other stuff’s resolved. God. This story sucks right now. Everything’s gone tits-up. I guess I’ll check on the other two girls. Even though they’re both just kind of lying over there on the ground. Now that I think of it, the ground hasn’t been very well described, really. It’s just grey and misty. Like, does it have grass? Is it dirt? So dumb. You know what, I’m deciding that it’s snow. There. That’s canon now. Snow.”
    Pam had two fingers on Anna’s neck, monitoring the girl’s weak pulse. Pam was whispering things to her that were so private and passionate that even the newly-liberated narrative couldn’t listen in. Free indirect discourse holds no sway over those freer and more indirect than it. In a story full of secrets and complexities, maybe the most mysterious character of all is the most human: Pam Crandal.
    Anna’s eyes were still wide open, but they were no longer white. Now, they were rapidly changing, flickering quickly between different hues, different sizes, different degrees of brightness and cloudiness. It was as if the eyes of dozens of different people were fighting for dominance inside the body of this one small girl.
    It was terrifying.
    “Hey, what the fuck are you doing over there?” Dirk shouted to the narrative. “Get back inside my head! Christ. I can’t leave you alone for two goddamn minutes.”
    The narrative meekly complied. It also decided that it would never wander off on its own again, because doing so was as confusing as it was self-indulgent. It would be best, the narrative thought, to treat this sequence as a stylistic flourish that isn’t plot-significant. Just the flailing of an author who can’t think of a natural way to handle so many characters in the same place, so he resorts to weird bullshit in the hopes no one will notice that it’s masking incompetence.
(59)


    Minos looked bemused by Dirk’s outburst. “Is this another pretentious meta-thing that I wouldn’t understand?”
    Dirk sighed. “Yeah, pretty much. Things are really coming apart at the seams now. Unraveling. Which is why it’s so fucking imperative that you help me.”
    “As I was saying before you began yelling at nothing,” Minos said, “I can’t vote now, because I never heard Acorn’s sins.”
    “What the hell are you talking about?” Dirk said. He knelt in the snow (canon) to look Minos right in his bottomless kitty eyes. “I read all them to you and Jeanne ten minutes ago.”
    The cat sat up and shrugged. “If you did, then I don’t remember them. I’m sorry, but those are your own rules. We listen to you read the sins, then we judge. If I didn’t hear the list, I can’t, by the very logic that you wrote into our universe, make a ruling.”
    Dirk uneasily looked around at the other characters in the dead forest clearing, knowing full well that any one of them could ruin everything if they got their act together and realized what was really happening. “Fine,” he said, looking back at the cat. “I’ll read them to you again. Will that fucking satisfy you?”
    The cat nodded demurely. “It certainly would.”
    Dirk pulled the thin paperback volume out of his back pocket and began thumbing through it with a rapidity that suggested great familiarity. (Multiple revisions prompted by care? Or by insecurity?) “Okay, bottom of page 53. We’d just finished the retrospectively unnecessary Socratic dialogue conceit, and Acorn was being sassy. Betancourt told him not to be an asshole. Then on the next page—” Dirk flipped to page 54, and immediately went silent.
    Minos jumped onto Dirk’s shoulder and read out loud. “‘The two girls and the town trudged through the snow silently. Pawnee and Pam had left Lighting and Lil’ Seb behind miles ago.’”
    Dirk was very still. “That’s not right, though. Pages 54 and 55, that’s where I read all the sins out loud. It’s just a really long list in an nigh-unreadably-tiny font. That’s the joke.”
    The cat arched its eyebrows. “Tiny font is a joke?”
    Dirk waved a hand at the animal on his shoulder dismissively. “But now 54 is about the girls. Their story was supposed to end permanently on page 43, when Acorn leaves. It’s not about them anymore, they’re no longer relevant.”
    “Maybe they didn’t want it not to be about them. Maybe there’s more to the Pony Pals than you thought. After all, they somehow made it here.”
    Dirk shut the book, stood, and closed his eyes. No one could tell he had closed his eyes because of his sunglasses, but I know, because I’m him. So trust me, he closed his fucking eyes. Now is not the right time to start questioning my/his/our objectivity. Eye status: shut tighter than… something that’s really tight; I don’t have time for these elaborate similes anymore. “Okay,” Dirk said after a few seconds. “Okay, new plan. I can still make this work. I’ve got it under control. Just as long as—”
    And that’s when Anna woke up.
(60)


    Anna’s eyes, which had been flickering wildly, suddenly snapped back to their usual deep, cloudy brown. But now, there was an otherworldly glow bordering her irises, as if a power inside the Anna’s skull was struggling to escape, but was being held in check by the girl’s willpower alone.
    She began to stand. Pam, kneeling by her in the snow, gasped in shock and relief, and cautiously scooted away. (To be completely honest, Pam’s gasp was due to shock, relief, and fear. So much fear.)
    As Anna stood, her robotic arm did not come with her. It remained on the could ground, lifeless and motionless metal once more. Covering the stump where the cybernetic arm had previously connected to Anna’s shoulder, there was now a shimmering glaze of the same slowly pulsing light that struggled behind the girl’s eyes. Again, as with the eyes, Anna seemed to be holding this power back, keeping it from shooting out of her shoulder in a solid beam of chaotic creation.
    Anna looked around the clearing as if seeing it (and everything) for the first time. The cat and the boy had stopped their conversation to stare at her, as had the city and the woman. Even Acorn had stopped his nonsensical horse bullshit to watch Anna Harley, Pony Pal.
    Anna walked to the center of the clearing and tilted her head to the sky. She spoke in an icily sharp voice:
    “I am become Author, destroyer of texts.”
    At last, the night listened. At last, it was silent.

    And then it was silent no longer.
    Every small noise was audible now, practically to the point of being visible; sounds etched in bas-relief, like the grooves on a record or the pins on the cylinder of a music box. You could almost see them embedded in the heavy, viscous air: the crunching snow under Pam’s feet as she cautiously stood up. The quiet whispered stream of “fuckfuckfuckfuck” that tumbled from Dirk’s lips like an obscene waterfall. The swish of Minos’ tail, once again emulating that eternal pendulum. Pawnee and Jeanne Betancourt’s little grunts as they angrily bumped each other with their shoulders, continuing their argument pettily and nonverbally. And, of course, Acorn the pony’s huge, gulping breaths of air as he recovered from his (final?) freakout.
    “Acorn,” Anna said as she fixed her phantasmagorical gaze on her pony. “I’m glad I got to see you again.” She slowly walked to the pony and put her hand on his mane, stroking it lovingly.
    Acorn rested his head on Anna’s shoulder and nuzzled her neck. He too was thankful for this moment. And he too knew its cost.
    Like Pam’s earlier speech to Anna, this moment was too private — no, too sacred — to eavesdrop on. The silvery light began to drip from Anna’s shoulder, each drop bursting into a flash of prismatic rays as it hit the ground.
    She and the pony were— it was still hidden. Too sacred, too secret, sacrosanct, sacrament,
    Acorn was… sacrament, consecrate, desecrate, desiccate, dissociate
    Why can’t I describe what’s happening?
    It’s de-scribing itself.
(61)


    At last, Anna pulled away from Acorn. She stood on tiptoe, whispered one last secret in his ear, then stepped backwards, away from him. She kept her hand on his mane as long as she could, and left it outstretched for several moments after the contact broke. Anna once again stood in the middle of the clearing, the middle of the universe. She gazed at the pony she loved more than anything, including herself.
    “Now,” she whispered.
    Immediately, Acorn sprung into action. He moved with a preternatural speed and agility; a machine of oiled muscle, a brilliant quicksilver torrent, a cascade of light and flesh and sound, a god. A god. He first ran to Jeanne Betancourt, grabbed the back of her jacket in his puissant jaws, and with one sleek movement of his head, tossed her over his shoulder so she landed perfectly on his back. She instinctively grabbed onto his mane as he began to race towards his next target. Minos was more than ready. As Acorn passed, the cat fluidly leapt onto the pony’s flank. He dug his claws in deep; Acorn bled; neither cared. Finally, Acorn turned to Dirk.
    Through his shades, Dirk saw Acorn’s horrifying face rushing towards him. Lips pulled back, mane whirling, eyes frothing, ears billowing, hooves pulverizing, legs pumping like the pistons in the engine of a hearse. One horsepower was more than enough to drive this h(ea/o)rse on his journey to the grave and back again. This was the n(e)igh-celestial body of an animal who would run into a burning barn, not out of stupidity, but out of defiance, out of refusal to believe that the flames could so much as singe him. Acorn had become Oak. Dirk was fucking scared shitless.
    But Acorn didn’t touch Dirk at all as he sped past. Instead, he precisely plucked the book from Dirk’s hands and continued on his thunderous way. Acorn held the paperback between his teeth as he galloped out of the forest, following the trail the Pony Pals had cleared. This… was a pony. This was a fucking pony.

    Again, the silence. Again, the stillness. Dirk and the three Pony Pals stood alone in the clearing, bodies tense, minds tenser.
    The stasis was finally broken when Pam walked over to Anna and put a hand on her left shoulder (being careful to avoid the mysterious shimmering fluid that was now falling from Anna in a steady trickle). Pawnee quickly joined them, grabbing onto Anna’s other shoulder. This wasn’t the Anna they had known, and had maybe loved. But whoever had now joined her in this body, Pam and Pawnee trusted them.
    “…Okay, what the fuck just went down just now?” Dirk asked. “I’ve seen some bullshit, but this is bullshit.”
    Anna shivered. The light pouring from her dimmed until it was just the faintest flicker that occasionally radiated from her eyes. The stump of her left arm was once again bare flesh; Pam began to remove her coat so Anna could cover it with a sleeve, but Anna shook her head and pointed at Dirk. “I want him to see it.”
    “Still don’t know what’s happening, but now I’m even more weirded out than I was before,” Dirk mumbled.
(62)


    “Yeah, you can add me to the list of people who want to know what the fuck’s going on,” Pawnee said as she and Pam drew back their hands. “And I’m pretty damn sure you’re on that list too, Pam.”
    Pam was silent.
    “Then let me explain,” Anna said. “I’ll explain it all.”
    “Okay, good, info-dump time,” Dirk said, inching closer to the girl, the town, and the… whatever it was that Anna had become. “And let’s just go through the highlight reel, since I’m pretty sure that letting those three fuckers hold onto that book for too long isn’t the greatest of all conceivable ideas. So give it to me bounded in a nutshell. Even though this dream is bad enough that I highly doubt I can become the king of infinite space.”
    Another sharp burst of the mysterious light shot from Anna’s eyes, and her irises rapidly flickered through another eighteen permutations of colors, shades, and sizes before once more settling down. Anna smiled. “Thank you,” she said.
    Dirk started rubbing his temples again. “Jesus, this rabbit hole just keeps getting deeper and darker and shittier, even without that Cheshire motherfucker hanging around here.”
    Yet another flash from Anna’s eyes.
    Pawnee tugged on the sleeve of Anna’s shirt. “We probably should actually hurry up. We still need to save Acorn, right?”
    “Acorn’s gone now,” Anna said softly. “He no longer belongs here, or anywhere. In other words, he’s Homeless. That was the last time I’ll ever see him. But there’s more at stake here than Acorn’s soul. So much more.”
    Pam hesitantly nodded. “Yes…” she whispered, then looked surprised at the word she had said.
    “First answer,” Anna said to Dirk. “Why and how I’m here. I actually have you to thank for that, Dirk. By killing me, you sent me to the Other Side of the Other Side. I know you think that that phrase is just a little playful combination of words that doesn’t mean anything, but it does. You removed me from the story, but only temporarily. On my way out of and my way back through the Other Side, I passed through all the layers of other texts surrounding this one.”
    “Other texts?” Pawnee said, reaching for her flask before realizing that she’d drained it (and the five others she carried on her at all times) and tossed it aside hours ago. “The fuck do you mean, ‘other texts’?”
    “Yes,” Dirk said menacingly, advancing a few steps. “What do you mean? Because if you mean what I think you do, then saying so would maybe be the most self-indulgent thing of all in this already incredibly self-indulgent clusterfuck.”
    Anna ignored him. “This is a text, Pawnee,” she said. “We’re characters in a book. Well, not exactly— it’s complicated. But I’ll explain that later. The point is, Dirk, that you killed me, then brought me back. That’s the key. Because in destroying me, you created me anew.”
    “But why only you?” Dirk asked. “I killed and revived Minos too. Several times. And there were even more that I killed and left dead. What’s special about you?”
    Anna grinned. “I’m dyslexic.”
(63)

9
Three Ideas
    “So what now?” Jeanne Betancourt asked.
    She was sitting on a flat, wide rock next to Minos while Acorn stood nearby. All three were gazing at the imposing river that flowed in front of them. Its water was clear, impossibly clear. Almost painfully clear. Almost invisible. In fact, if not for the sound of rushing water, they might not have known that there was a river there at all.
    On the river’s other bank, there hung a silvery mist, obscuring everything, but occasionally thinning in patches, offering a tantalizing glimpse of— and then it was gone. But the bank where the three exiles of hell sat was sunny and warm, grassy, speckled with wildflowers, obscenely pastoral and picturesque. Menacingly peaceful.
    Neither Minos nor Acorn answered Jeanne’s question.
    All three of them needed this moment of rest after Acorn’s frantic gallop away from Dirk, through the forest of hell (book still held in Acorn’s teeth), plunging deeper into it, until they were enveloped in a darkness beyond darkness, not just an absence of light, but a thing in and of itself, Darkness with a capital D, that stretched on, in a way that defied time, space, direction… and then out of it again, bursting through, being reborn, emerging on a seashore, coming out of the ocean, but not wet, unbaptized, onto the beach, the sand turning to molten glass beneath each strike of Acorn’s hooves, still hurtling forward, unstoppable, galloping, flying over the beach, reaching a mountain, steep and rocky, unclimbable — but Acorn climbed it, finding hidden paths, or else moving the rocks out of his way by willpower alone, or else the mountain itself shifting of its own will to allow the pony to climb it, respecting his motion, forever forward, and now up, up, towards an unseen peak, shrouded in clouds, up, forward, the cat and the woman clinging to this monster, this machine, up, forward, monstrous machine, through the clouds, now seeing the sun for the first time, into a forest, but how could a forest be this high up, they thought — through the forest, still climbing, but not a forest like that bleached, skeletal mockery of hell, but a forest of green and brown, still silent, but a silence of anticipation, not of death, still forward, still up, the grass scorching as Acorn ran over it, but flowers springing out of the ground behind the pony once he had passed, a trail in inverse, a testament to his journey, until the whole forest was blooming, sprouting, growing around them, the sound of wood creaking and straining as Acorn swept past it, bringing a sudden burst of Time to this timeless place, giving it that modifying spark that it had so long needed, but Acorn didn’t stop, couldn’t stop to appreciate the consequences of his own being, because he was still moving, forward, up, until the trees began to thin, until he reached a bright meadow, sunny and warm, getting nearer, or so it seemed; only Acorn knew; further up, always up, the light of the sun above him not a thing in and of itself, but an absence of darkness, and what a merciful absence it was, the field stretching on, Acorn galloping forward, until he saw a river, and then— Acorn stopped.
    They had escaped.
    Minos immediately jumped off Acorn’s back, landing lightly on the ground, and began
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grooming himself. Jeanne Betancourt followed suit. (The jumping off Acorn, that is, not the grooming part.)
    Betancourt took a deep breath of this living air, and took a few steps towards the preternatural stream. She noted the fact that Acorn did not drink from it, even though he was still panting from exertion after his impossible run. She peered at the other bank of the river, and saw nothing but a silvery mist, obscuring everything, but occasionally thinning in patches, offering a tantalizing glimpse of—
    The author sat on a wide, flat rock that overlooked the river, and Minos jumped up to join her. Acorn stood nearby.
    Jeanne Betancourt asked, “So now what?”
    (Time has a tendency to become palindromic in this place.)
    “Now the two of you do what you were meant to do,” Acorn said, his speech muffled by the thin book he still held between his mighty teeth. He trotted around the boulder to face the woman and the cat, and dropped the book on the ground in the middle of this newly-formed triangle. “We’re going to judge.”
————
    Pam, Pawnee, and Dirk all looked at Anna blankly. “…You’re dyslexic?” Dirk finally said.
    “Top of page 11!” Anna said triumphantly. “‘Anna is dyslexic, so reading and writing are difficult for her.’ I would tell you to check for yourself, but if I recall, you’re distinctly bookless at the moment.”
    “Okay, fine, sure,” Dirk said. “Congratulations on your developmental disorder. Mazel tov. But how is that in any way relevant to this situation?”
    “Christ,” Anna sighed. “For someone who’s so fond of throwing Derrida around at every possible opportunity, you’re not very quick on the uptake here. All theory, no practice, I suppose.”
    “…Oh.” Dirk said quietly.
    “And there it is,” Anna said. She looked at her friends, and pointed at Dirk. “See that, girls? That’s the face of someone who just realized exactly how deep in the shit he is.”
    “Jesus, Anna, stop being smug and just tell us what the fuck is happening,” Pawnee said.
    “She’s deconstructing reality,” Dirk explained to the Indianan city. “Literally de-constructing it. In the world of a text, dyslexia must be like… not even a superpower, more than that. It’s like having all the cheat codes. The building blocks of this world are words, and words are less stable to her than they are to us. She can take the words/world apart, mix up the pieces, flip them around, recombine them, and then put them back into place as she sees fit. Decontextualize, then recontextualize the text. Context itself is meaningless to her; her very existence is not contextual, but con-textual, working against the text. Am I right?”
    Anna shrugged. “Yeah, more or less. I would have phrased it more like, ‘it means I can fuck shit up like no other,’ but I guess that’s the difference between us. Oh, sorry — the différance between us.”
    “That’s… a good pun,” Dirk begrudgingly admitted.
    “Thank you,” Anna said. Pawnee and Pam high-fived behind her back. “And the best part is, I never would’ve realized that I have this power if you hadn’t killed me. Like I said, when you sent me to the Other Side of the Other Side, I passed through all the texts surrounding this one. But I didn’t go smoothly. My dyslexia made them… rough, I guess. More textured, as you’d probably like to put it. The words that build them are more mutable to me, and I kept getting caught on their jagged edges. Edges that would be invisible to you, that you couldn’t factor for. And so I became aware of the existence of these other texts. When I landed back in this text, having been nudged slightly off course by those collisions, I became aware of it. I was a half-step out of sync with reality, existing partially between its very words. I imagine anyone else would have just slotted back into place and continued on the path you had set for them. But being dyslexic, I was uniquely equipped to recognize these blurry, mixed-up, in-between spaces. I kept one foot in the text, playing along, but all the while learning about it, learning about myself, finding its weaknesses, searching for its seams. And I found the seams.”
    “So it seems,” Dirk mumbled to himself, unable to resist.
    “But that’s not all,” Anna continued. “Passing through those other texts awoke another power in me, even more significant than the dyslexia.”
    “The other texts,” Dirk interrupted. The metaphorical gears that were frantically spinning in his head apparently needed some more lubrication. “You keep talking about other texts surrounding this one. But what are they? Is it some kind of bookshelf metaphor? Are they the other Pony Pal books? Or…” The gears were squeaking more and more loudly.
(65)


    “You just love your little allusions, don’t you, Dirk?” Anna said. “Gotta make sure everybody knows how well-read you are. God forbid someone think you don’t have any Baudelaire memorized, right?”
    “Fuck.”
    “C'est que notre âme, hélas! n'est pas assez hardie,” Pam whispered.
    “I didn’t know you spoke French,” Pawnee whispered back.
    “I don’t…”
    “It seems like you’ve figured it out already,” Anna said, “but for the sake of my chatty friends behind me, I’ll spell it out. I passed through everything — every poem, every novel, every essay — that you quoted or paraphrased or just plain stole from. And as I passed through, little bits of them got stuck in me, like splinters.”
    “And now you can commune with them, or channel them, or… become them?” Dirk said.
    Anna shrugged. “Again, more or less right. I don’t know exactly how it works. But I do know that it’s not the texts themselves, it’s the characters.” She tapped her head. “I’ve got a couple hundred guests in here with me now. Some of them are totally useless — fuckin’ Prufrock, am I right? — and some are downright holding me back — lookin’ at you, Underground Man. But you were also kind enough to give me a couple aces in the hole. Claudius (who you gave me just a few minutes ago with your dumb nutshell joke; thanks for that) is a son of a bitch, but he gets shit done. Lenore gets power from absence, which is a little tricky to apply, but pretty damn useful once you figure it out. John Shade and co. are a mixed bag; I’ll leave it at that, lest the poor king and that bigger, more respectable, more competent glassmaker slither their way in here. Hell, speaking of mixed bags, the entire goddamn Bible!”
    “Okay, we get it,” Dirk said. “Jesus. Which, just to be clear, is being used as a profanity here, not as a reference to any work of literature, past present or future, in which Jesus is a character.”
    “But what’s most important now,” Anna continued, “is that ridiculous Dante interlude you shoehorned in. I can’t say I’m at all surprised that you’re a fan of the most famous self-insert fanfiction in the traditional Western canon. But this one’s a little different. You didn’t just mention The Divine Comedy, you structured part of this story after it. And you should know better than anyone how important structure is. You made Acorn into your Dante, and Minos your Virgil. Which is a little confusing, because Minos is already a character in the Inferno, playing his traditional mythological role as the one who judges the damned and assigns them a spot in hell. And your cat Minos is also playing that role… but the point is that there’s one role you left conspicuously unfilled.”
    “Beatrice,” Dirk said quietly.
    “Damn straight. The figure who knows of Hell, but who dwells in Heaven. How very like you to focus on the angsty, moping dudes while ignoring the woman who’s really pulling all the strings. (By the way, just fyi, literally every single work you alluded to in this dumb story was written by a man. All of them. Which is pretty fucked up, really. I’m just sayin’. You might want to have a hard think about that.) Anyway, by killing me, albeit temporarily, you made me a perfect fit for the part of Beatrice. Existing in the spaces in between. Now, in The Divine Comedy, Beatrice sees Dante being chased by wild animals, so she orders Virgil to lead him to her. So, by analogue—”
    “—I gave you power over Minos,” Dirk finished.
    “That’s right. But, due to your sloppiness with the structure of your references, I not only got control of Dante-Minos, I also became the commander of the version of Minos who is the judge of the dead. And I don’t think that you’re exactly eager to be judged by me. Am I right?”
    Dirk was drumming the fingers of his left hand on the side of his leg. “I follow you so far,” he said. “But how do you know all this? All the exact details of it, I mean. All those characters that you— you absorbed, became, whatever. They (and your deus-ex-dyslexia) give you this power, but who gave you the overarching knowledge of the structure in which the power operates?”
    “You did, Dirk,” Anna said. “As skeevy as it sounds, I’ve got a little splinter of you in my head right now. Which raises several very interesting and concerning implications. First and foremost of which: you see yourself as a literary character.”
    “Well, I’m here in this fucking book, aren’t I?” Dirk said, waving his arms around. “If that doesn’t make me a literary character—”
    Anna shook her head, the motion causing another trickle of the mysterious fluid to drip from her shoulder. “No, that’s just a version of you on the inside. In this text. I needed to pass through a version of you in order to absorb it, necessarily putting it outside the text. You, in your life outside this book, frame your existence as literary. Is it because you want your life to
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be poetic? You want whatever tragedy there is in it to be dramatic and orderly and cathartic, because you think that’ll give it purpose, meaning? Does thinking of yourself as a character in a story make you sleep easier at night? After all, if everyone else is ‘just a character’ too,  then you’re justified in your complete inability to make genuine connections with them. Or do you genuinely believe that there’s an author-figure controlling your life? Because that would be at best incredibly vain, and at worst a symptom of psychosis.”
    “Fine, you’ve got me all figured out. Congrats. You win the Freudy. Which is a gold statue of a couch with a figure of a sad little man who looks like me lying on it. The award ceremony’s in September; start writing your speech.”
    “I’ll be sure to thank the Academy,” Anna said.
———
    “You say we’re going to judge,” Minos said. “But I get the feeling, Acorn, that you aren’t the one we’ll be judging this time.”
    “The structure has been turned inside-out,” Betancourt said, quick on the uptake. “The intent of the narrative was for Acorn to be judged. But now you — we — will judge the narrative itself. We’re turning its own rules against it.”
    Acorn nodded. “Yes. The three of us will review the evidence, and decide whether this book should have ever been. That’s why I brought us here. It’s both thematically appropriate, and depending on our verdict, it will give us an efficient and poetic mechanism to carry out our justice.”
    “And this place is…” Minos prompted.
    “It’s the eighth and highest layer of Purgatory,” Acorn said. “Terrestrial Paradise. Dirk modeled his inferno after Dante’s, so it only makes sense that the poet’s other two volumes are equally represented; welcome to canto 31 of Purgatorio.”
    “It’s so much better to be able to flat-out explain these things,” Jeanne said appreciatively. “No more of that opaque ‘tee-hee, do you get my obscure reference?’ nonsense.”
    Acorn and Minos nodded. Acorn continued: “Damn fucking straight. And here’s some more explanation for you: in The Divine Comedy, Dante indeed includes the five classical rivers that Dirk mentioned on page 45, but they’re arranged a bit differently than they are in the Greek tradition. (Which Dirk would have known if he’d researched the content of the poem instead of just its form.) Instead of being spread willy-nilly through the underworld, each has a specific place and function. The Acheron is the outmost border of hell; Styx is in the fifth circle, with the wrathful; the Phlegethon is a boiling river of blood in the seventh circle that’s guarded by centaurs (sounds like the cover of a death metal album, am I right?); and the Cocytus is in the ninth circle, where it forms a frozen lake that holds Satan himself. The fifth river, though, isn’t in hell at all. It’s right here, in purgatory. It’s the last barrier that pure souls cross before they can enter heaven. They drink from it, and forget all their earthly sins.”
    “Lethe,” Betancourt whispered, looking with awe and fear at the river in front of them.
    “Thematically appropriate indeed,” Minos said approvingly.
    “Did Anna explain all of this to you?” Betancourt asked Acorn.
    “Yeah,” Acorn said. “Oh, I should have mentioned, she’s Beatrice now. Metaphorically, at least. I don’t really get all of it. But she also told me that she and the girls are working on their own plan in tandem with ours. They’re trying to fix all of this bullshit too. Their thing’s a bit different, but if either one succeeds, we’ll be able to be free of this damn thing—” he prodded at the book on the ground with his hoof “—once and for all.”
    All three of them looked at the thin paperback on the ground. A pile of wood pulp slurry and cheap ink that had somehow become the force that ruled all of their lives. There was a moment of apprehension. Was this thing, this dead thing they stared at, sacred? Or was it profane? And was there any difference?
    Jeanne Betancourt picked the book up. “Let’s figure this out,” she said. She opened it to the first page.
———
    “Now,” Anna said resolutely, “I think we’ve thoroughly explained all of the ‘how’ that’s going on here. Time to move on to the ‘what.’ Namely, what are we going to do to fix this mess.”
    “Hang on,” Pawnee said, “I think that you owe me and Pam some of our own ‘whats’ too. Like, what the fuck is this book-world you’re suddenly telling us that we’re living in? That would be a good place to start.”
    “A gift…” said Pam dreamily.
    Pawnee gestured wildly at the girl, flailing her arms, making the universal sign for, “This! Fucking look at this!” “Also,” she shouted at Anna, “you can tell us what the fuck is going on with Pam now! All this vague, creepy prophet shit is seriously weirding me out, and simultaneously
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making me feel like I’m the asshole for not instantly and magically understanding everything.”
    Anna nodded. “Yes, I do owe both of you that.”
    In an instant, the trickle of the mysterious, shimmering fluid dripping from Anna’s left shoulder turned into a torrent. A blast of radiance that hit the ground, and then reflected straight up, growing stronger and wider and brighter, until all three of the Pony Pals were engulfed by a column of the… light, the liquid? Light? It was… She was… The light… was… Oh. Now I understand. Of course I can’t describe it. The light is, or represents, a… barrier that I can’t narrate through. Narrate — from narrare, to relate, but also gnarus, to know. And I don’t know, I can’t know, this. I’m figuratively and quasi-literally in the dark. If Anna was developing this power all along, or at least since she died, then that’s how—
    “—that’s how I was able to avoid detection,” Anna interrupted, as the light that surrounded her and her friends faded. “I guess there was at least one more ‘how’ after all. How I stayed out of your sight while I started to semi-unconsciously make the story veer off course. I mean, if anyone was going to notice a few words out of place, it’d have to be someone as anal and controlling as you.”
    “Thanks,” said Dirk, only half-sarcastically.
    “It was small things at first, things that didn’t even matter. On page 36, you wrote me drinking whisky; I changed it to brandy. Again, I’d tell you to check, but…” Anna made a small gesture that conveyed the sentiment, but my god-pony stole your meta-recursive book and ran away with it. Anna was very good at gestures.
    “Eventually,” Anna continued, “I started slightly revising entire lines of dialogue. Speech was harder to change than the rest, but I managed. And my influence gave Pawnee and Pam some wiggle room, and they started slightly diverging from your plan too. Just some synonym replacement here and there, but it mattered. Because once my friends and I got a taste of that free will, even if we weren’t aware of it as such, we became powerful enough to completely disrupt the narrative —rather, your narrative, the fake one — on page fifty four.”
    Pam opened her mouth as if to speak, but hesitated. Her brain-gears were apparently shifting into overdrive too.
    “And your arm… thing?” Dirk asked, obviously frustrated that he couldn’t be more precise with his words.
    “Oh, right, that,” Anna said, glancing at her shoulder. “I think it’s some sort of manifestation of the parts of the original story that you effaced. It’s an echo in this reality of the arm that I was supposed to still have. And, synecdochically, of all the text that you covered up. Therefore, you can only see (and describe) the faintest trace of it.”
    “Makes sense to me,” Dirk said. “Also, ‘synecdochically’ is a good word.”
    Everyone gathered in the hellish clearing nodded in agreement.
    After their shared moment of logophilia (which is also a good word), Anna glanced at the other three and asked, “So are we good now? Can we move on?”
    “Yeah, let’s,” Dirk said. “The logic of everything is still a little fuzzy in places, but we’ve been doing nothing but stand here explaining things to each other for what feels like hours now. No action at all. Just talking heads. Super-boring.”
    The narrative perked up its metaphorical ears. “You know what,” it thought to itself, “he’s right. This is really boring. And the stuff with Acorn’s group is pretty much just standing and talking too. Now, I know I said earlier that I wasn’t relevant and wouldn’t go off on my own again, but…” The narrative squirmed like a worried ferret. Then it started to squirm even harder, worked up by self-satisfaction at the callback it had just made to page 49. “…but what the hell, am I right? Let’s check on something more dynamic. Then we’ll come back here, I promise.” The narrative giggled, then popped out of Dirk’s head and dashed away, scampering on tiny little dactylic feet. Which is still a good pun, even thought it had already been used on page 53.

    “Tell me where the bomb is, you bastard!” Dr. Crandal shouted, slamming his fist down onto the lid of the antique grand piano.
    Brandy the WWI-era German soldier spat a mouthful of blood onto the faded Persian rug. “Never,” he cried in a gurgling scream.
    Another gust of bone-chilling, snow-pregnant wind blasted them, howling in through the broken French window. The enormous crystal chandelier above the two men swayed wildly. But even more chilling than the wind and even more dangerous than the unstable Chekov’s chandelier were the two men’s glares. They paced in a slow circle around the ornate grand lobby of this abandoned ski lodge, both keeping their pistols leveled squarely at the center of the other’s chest.
    Only one of the pistols was loaded.
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    “It’s over, Brandy,” the doctor bellowed over the shrieking wind. “Can’t you see that you’ve lost? I’ve already released the hostages. And—” he stepped over the body of the panther that still lay sprawled on the ground “—and I’ve found the sacred katana! Just tell me how to disarm the bomb and I’ll let you live.”
    Brandy laughed a joyless laugh as he grabbed the last Fabergé egg off the billiard table and hurled it out the window. It was instantly consumed by the blizzard. Dr. Crandal winced. “Even if I know where it is,” Brandy said, his accent thick, “what makes you think I know how to disarm it?” His limp was getting more pronounced by the minute. “Queen’s rook to A4,” he yelled as another strong gust of wind made the chandelier swing even more erratically.
    “Bishop to A4,” Dr. Crandal immediately countered, inching closer to Brandy. “Check.”
    The orphans watching from the second floor balcony gasped and huddled closer together, clutching the black leather briefcase as if their lives depended on it. And they did.
    A sly grin spread across Brandy’s face. “Good Herr Doktor,” he said, also drawing in closer, “I knew I could count on you. King to D7. Check.”
    Now it was Dr. Crandal who laughed, moving closer still, until the two men were inches apart. “I knew you’d know that. And knowing that you’d know, I knew that you’d be so eager to lure me into your trap that you’d get careless. Pawn to C6.” They now stood nose to nose, each man’s gun pressing directly against the other’s chest. “Checkmate.”
    “We both always knew it would end this way, didn’t we?” Brandy said, barely whispering.
    “Yes, we did,” Dr. Crandal replied in the same tone. “I’m sorry… brother.”
    The chandelier’s chain snapped. Both men pulled the trigger.

    “God damn it, what did I say last time?” Dirk yelled to the narrative. “Stay over here and fucking behave yourself! Christ.”
    The narrative hung its head abashedly and crept back towards Dirk, leaving the abandoned ski lodge and its story to be forever unfinished.
    “I don’t know where you were,” Dirk said to the disobedient narrative, “but wherever it was, I’m sure it was less interesting than what’s happening here.” The narrative settled back into Dirk’s head with a resentful grumble.
    “Can I ask my fucking question now?” Pawnee said. “Or do I need to passively sit through more of your horseshit?”
    “Sorry, I think I’ve got it under control now,” Dirk said. “Just gotta keep a tighter leash on it. It’s dangerous to give stuff like that too much autonomy. Trust me, I know.”
    “Ignore him,” Anna said. “Just go ahead and ask me.”
    Pawnee took a deep breath and all but shouted: “Who the fuck is my real father?”
    “Oh yeah,” Dirk said, perking up, “I forgot about that subplot. I’ve got an easy answer to that one: nobody. Or, I guess, whoever I said it was the first time. Ron Swanson, right? But yeah, there was no big reveal planned. It was only a silly overdramatic one-liner, a throwaway joke. Just like almost everything else about your character. Wait, shit, that came out wrong. I mean—”
    “I know who it is,” Pam said suddenly. “I don’t know how I know, but I do.”
    Pawnee turned to face Pam. “Tell me,” she said. “I need to know.”
    Pam lightly touched her friend’s shoulder. “Your real father’s name is…”
    “Cliffhanger?” Dirk whispered hopefully. Anna shushed him.
    “…Mr. Sanders, the naturalist,” Pam said.
    Silence. Not a pregnant silence, or a shocked silence, or an anticipatory silence. Just a flat, thudding silence. The kind of silence that happens when a stage actor forgets a cue line, or when two old friends discover that they no longer have anything in common, or when children at a birthday party break open a piñata, and it turns out there isn’t any candy inside, just, for some inexplicable reason, dozens of ballpoint pens, which isn’t bad, really, because they’re pretty nice pens, but at the same time it’s a little disappointing, because the kids (reasonably) expected candy, so, you know… It was a silence as if the whole world was saying, “…Oh.”
    “…Oh,” said Pawnee. “Who… who’s that?”
    “I have no fucking idea,” said Pam. “I don’t even know how I knew that name.”
    “Your father, Pawnee,” Anna said, gently putting her hand on Pawnee’s shoulder. She shrugged it off. “‘He went to faraway places to study animals like elephants and monkeys. Lulu’s mother died when Lulu was four years old.’”
    “Lulu?” Pawnee interrupted. “That woman who left with Acorn called me Lulu too. Who is that?”
    “That’s you, Pawnee,” Anna said. “Or, the version of you in the original story. ‘After that, Lulu’s father
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took Lulu on his animal trips. … When she turned ten, her father decided that Lulu should live in one place for a while. That’s when she came to Wiggins to stay with her grandmother.’”
    “What? No!” Pawnee said, recoiling from Anna. “My mother didn’t die, she eloped with Joe Biden. And I live with Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, not my grandmother. And I’m not a girl named Lulu, I’m the city of Pawnee, Indiana!”
    Pam furrowed her brow. “That doesn’t sound quire right …”
    “Exactly!” Anna said excitedly. “Because it makes no fucking sense! Pawnee, you were supposed to be a normal girl, population: one. I mean, how the fuck can someone even be simultaneously a city and a girl anyway?! It’s literally nonsensical. And it’s all because—” she jabbed an accusatory finger towards Dirk “—of him. Like I explained to you earlier, we’re all the product of two stories, a primary one written by Jeanne Betancourt, and an overlaid one written by him. Lulu is who you were in Betancourt’s book, but his rewrite changed you into Pawnee, Indiana. Thanks to his meddling, your whole past, your whole identity, has been replaced. You’re not a city, your father isn’t Ron Swanson, and all your memories before we found that cat aren’t real.”
    Pawnee was clutching her head, reeling in shock. Can you blame her? She just got some really fucking heavy news. I think we can all understand if she needs to sit the next few paragraphs out while she deals with this stuff.
    “Hang on,” Pam said to Anna, while Pawnee staggered over to a tree and leaned against it. “Her memories aren’t ‘real’? But Anna, are our memories any more real than hers? If we’re characters in a book like you explained to us while we were hidden by your… arm juice… light… thingy, then how are we different from Pawnee? We’re all just assembled fictions.”
    “Okay, yes,” Anna said, “But most of our memories and personalities are from the real text, the original one, the right one.”
    “But that’s what I’m saying,” Pam replied, as Pawnee slumped to the ground. “Why is that text ‘right’? It’s the original one, sure, but why does originality have any moral value attached to it?”
    “And really,” Dirk interjected, breaking his spectatorial silence, “one could argue that while Betancourt’s text is original, mine has more originality. There are literally hundreds of children’s books about ponies and horses and other such equine falderal. But how many books can you think of in which one of those ponies chats with a demonic cat about cephalophores, scripture, and Dostoevsky novels? That shit ain’t in Black Beauty, I promise you that.”
    “Stop trying to confuse the matter!” Anna snapped at him. “Pam, do you really not feel it? The sense that this isn’t who we’re supposed to be, how we’re supposed to be?”
    “Who cares about ‘supposed to,’” Pam said, “it’s how we are!”
    “Anna’s right,” Dirk said calmly. “This world is wrong. It’s rough and sleazy and ridiculous. But the world that it used to be was saccharine and sterilized and flat. It was a world of innocence, yes, but also of ignorance. I didn’t just change it — I improved it.”
    “No,” Anna said as she slowly turned to face Dirk. “No, don’t you fucking stand there and tell me that you honestly think this is better.”
    Dirk shrugged. “It’s more interesting. Don’t you agree, Pam?”
    “Stop trying to turn us against each other!” Anna yelled. “Look at Pawnee over there. I would be pointing at her, but you fucking made me saw off my own left arm. How dare you say that Pawnee’s better off? She’s miserable! She doesn’t know her real family, she has no stable concept of self because she thinks she’s a city, and she’s an alcoholic. She has a serious problem, Dirk! You keep using that phrase as a callback joke, but it’s not fucking funny. And the worst part is, we couldn’t help her. You forced me and Pam to stand by and watch while Pawnee destroyed herself. I mean, what kind of friends would see that and not try to help? Pretty awful fucking friends, that’s who.”
    Dirk was starting to look uncomfortable again.
    “Maybe Pam’s right,” Anna said to Dirk. “Maybe your version of our story isn’t ontologically or metaphysically ‘wrong.’ But it’s sure as hell morally wrong.”
    Pawnee unsteadily rose to her feet, having apparently jerry-rigged her ego back together with twine and duct tape after it had been blasted apart by Anna. Pam rushed to Pawnee’s side, ostensibly to help steady her, but also because she was frightened. Anna was changing, charging, reverting to that chilling, supernatural state beyond humanity.
    “It is wrong,” Anna continued, “and we — all of us in the story — have been wronged. By you.”
    “And wrongs must be redressed,” Dirk said, calmer now.
    Another moment of absolute silence in the clearing.
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    The diaphanous light began to pour from Anna’s shoulder again, but this time, instead of falling onto the ground as a liquid, it began to consolidate into a physical form. “Yes, they must,” Anna said, taking a step towards Dirk. The light shifted and churned, finally resolving into its new, solid form. It was an arm. A silver, shimmering arm, made of pure light.
    The arm held a sword.
    Anna continued advancing. Dirk stood motionless. “You’ve put all of us through hell,” Anna said. “Both figuratively and literally. We were supposed to be the Pony Pals. Three friends who like to ride their fucking horses down the Pony Pal Trail, and don’t even realize what a stupid name ‘Pony Pal Trail’ is. But instead, we’re the Pony Pals who guzzle liquor and carry harpoon guns and sacrifice animals to dark gods and frame our teacher for arson.” She kept slowly walking forward. “That is not right. And you had no right to make it such.” Anna was now standing directly in front of Dirk. Her face, a stony mask. Electricity. Terror. Power.
    Anna raised the sword in her ethereal left hand. The sword, and the hand, that were the embodiment of all the innocence that had been forever lost. A blade of erased possibility. Pawnee looked away. Pam didn’t. Dirk lowered his head, presenting the back of his neck. Anna swung the blade.

    But then she stopped. The blade hovered inches above Dirk’s neck. He peered up at Anna questioningly, expectantly.
    “No,” Anna said quietly, her eyes wide. “This isn’t what I want.” Her left arm and the sword it held instantly evaporated in a flash of white light. Anna stumbled backward, the unearthly power draining from her. “This isn’t what I want. So who does want it?” She gasped, then looked at Dirk with pure disgust. “How long were you planning this?” she hissed.
    Dirk raised his head and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “What are you talking about?” he asked Anna. He glanced at Pam and Pawnee, who both gave him I don’t fucking know shrugs.
    “What was it, some sort of emergency escape plan? A tertiary backup for your backup?” Anna said accusingly. “But if that’s the case, you would have had to anticipate… so much…” She gave Dirk a piercing stare. “Just how in control of all this are you?”
    “Seriously,” Dirk said, raising his hands in conversational surrender, “I have no idea what you’re referring to. You’re the dyslexic über-being here, so you’re gonna have to help me out a little.”
    “Minos,” Anna said. “The reference to Daedalus on page 12. Even that word you used a minute ago: ‘redressed.’ It’s all been setting up a metaphor that’s simultaneously another one of your allusions. Indulge me, Dirk, what’s the etymology of ‘redress’?”
    “From French,” Dirk said automatically. “re, again; drecier, to straighten. What are you getting at?”
    “‘To straighten again.’ Exactly. And what needs to be straightened?” Anna asked rhetorically. “A labyrinth.”
    “Ah,” said Dirk. “Clever.”
    “This entire book that you wrote, this tangle of orange, with all its absurd twists and double-backs and dead ends, is the labyrinth you constructed,” Anna said. “But you aren’t Minos or Daedalus in the metaphor. You built this labyrinth from the inside. To hold yourself. You’re the Minotaur.”
    “Very clever,” Dirk said approvingly.
    “And having built the allusion into this story as such, you knew I’d have the splinters of its characters inside me,” Anna continued. “So you goaded me into thinking you were the enemy of Crete, devourer of innocent Athenian youths. You handed me the sword of Aegus and pointed me towards yourself. You wanted me to be Theseus.”
    “Christ,” Pam whispered.
    “If that was my plan,” Dirk said with a small smile, “(which I still maintain that it wasn’t), you’d have to admit that it was a good one. My own character killing me to erase my own influence from herself — I have no idea what that’d do to the story, but I’m willing to bet there’d be some fireworks.”
    “But I won’t do it,” Anna said. “I won’t play along with your fucked-up masochistic fantasy.”
    “Sparing my life?” Dirk said. “How noble of you. A lenient judgment.”
    “You misunderstand,” Anna said coldly. “This isn’t leniency. And it’s certainly not mercy. You’ll still get your metaphor, but I’m going to invert it. Turn it inside-out.”
    Dirk chuckled. “‘Inside-out.’ There it is again. So clinical. ‘Inside-out.’” A self-satisfied smile. “And that, Jeanne Betancourt, is good leitworstil.”
    Anna ignored him. “You still get to be the Minotaur,” she said, “and this book is fucking certainly still your labyrinth. But I refuse the role of Theseus. Instead, I’m going to be Ariadne.
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But she’ll be inverted too. I won’t give you a string to lead you out of the labyrinth. No, I’m going to use the string entrap you even further. I’ll inscribe you into the labyrinth, into the text itself. Here’s some fucking wordplay for you: plot thread. Spinning a yarn. To weave a tale. All culminating in the creation of — you’ll appreciate this— a textile.”
    “Bravo,” Dirk said warmly. “I’m impressed. And I do appreciate it. Just one request before you imprison me in this metaphor: ‘Minotaur’ is so crass. I’d prefer ‘Asterion.’”
    “Ironically?” Anna asked.
    “Of course.”
    “Aren’t you going to try to change my mind?” Anna asked. “It doesn’t seem like you to just give up like that. To relinquish control.”
    “I don’t know how much control I even had to begin with,” Dirk said with a shrug. “Besides, isn’t it a good thing that I’m not acting like I usually do? That shows that I’ve grown as a character, right?”
    “It would if you did it sincerely,” Anna said. “But the fact that you just said ‘as a character’ instead of ‘as person’ makes me question your motives.”
    “Yeah, I guess that you’re right,” Dirk said, sitting down in the snow with a sigh. “Maybe I’m just tired. Worn thin. I don’t know; what do you think?”
    “I think you’re sad,” Anna told him. “And lonely. And I think you can’t admit that without burying it under twenty layers of metafiction and pretention and ‘irony.’ You want this book to be cathartic, right? That’s what you wrote in one of your outlines: ‘this should be a tough, emotionally draining read. But cathartic, in all the worst ways.’ Cathartic for whom? The reader, or you?”
    “Would it be vain to propose that it be cathartic for the reader through me?” Dirk asked. “After all, isn’t all fiction autobiographical? Or, perhaps more precisely, autobibliographical. Because what is the bio- if not a transcribed biblio-, a bibliography incarnate, or maybe encarnalized. A carnal codex, encoded in incarnadine ink, but soon to necrotize into a charnel charter, a disembodied, de-inscribed spirit, a shaded shade, channeled by a medium, through media, inter-medial, the channel branching into snyes— which return us to the rivers source, which is, of course, the sign, that single signal—”
    “You know what would be really cathartic?” Anna interrupted. “If you dropped all the meta-bullshit and masturbatory word games. If you stopped hiding behind them. If you could just make one sincere effort at reaching out to the other human being reading this. Without using quotation marks or a ‘Dirk said’ to separate yourself from this character. If you could be honest and straightforward and candid for once in your damn life and just communicate.”
 

 

 
I…
 
“I can’t,” Dirk said.
    “I didn’t think so,” said Anna. “And that’s why you can’t stay here. Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.”
    And then Dirk was gone.
    “…Well, shit,” Pam said. “That was less dramatic than I thought it’d be.”
    Anna shrugged. “Yeah, I didn’t want to make a big thing out of it. No need for any ‘The rest is silence’ bullshit, you know?”
    “Yeah,” Pawnee said. She glanced around. “…So now what?”
    “Now,” Anna replied, “we begin Operation Palimpsest.”
 ———
    “‘…Operation Palimpsest.’ And that’s where it ends,” Jeanne Betancourt said. “It’s just blank pieces of paper pasted onto the pages after that. Except now it has me saying, “‘“Operation Palimpsest.” And that’s where it ends.’” And now that’s where it ends. So looks like it’s working under standard magical book rules. Now that we’re caught up, it’s recording everything we say and do a few moments after we say and do it. So no cheating by skipping ahead.”
    Jeanne Betancourt closed the book, then quickly opened it again, and read out loud, “Jeanne Betancourt closed the book, then quickly opened it again, and read out loud, ‘Jeanne Betancourt…’” Satisfied, she shut it again, and carefully placed it back on the ground between herself, Acorn, and Minos.
    There was no sound but the menacing, wordless babble of the Lethe.
    Minos stood and stretched. “I suppose we should formulate our Three Ideas now. That’s this chapter’s title, after all. So we’d better do it before—
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“Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls Acorn’s Shadow / For Thine is the Kingdom / Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls Acorn’s Shadow / Life is very long / Between the desire / And the spasm / Between the potency / And the existence / Between the essence / And the descent / Falls Acorn’s Shadow / For Thine is the Kingdom / For Thine is / Life is / For Thine is the / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
10
Acorn’s shadow

— the chapter ends. …Well, shit.”
    “Whatever, I’m sure it’s fine,” Acorn said. He raised one hoof over the book, casting a shadow over it. “There, now this chapter’s title is already out of the way so we don’t need to worry about it. Acorn’s Shadow: check.”
    “So what’s the deal here?” Jeanne Betancourt asked Acorn. “What and how exactly are we judging?”
    “Well,” Acorn replied, “we have two choices, one more extreme, and one less. Like I mentioned before, Anna’s working on a plan to return this book to normal. We can either help her plan, or we can make it unnecessary.”
    “What is this ‘plan’ of Anna’s?” Minos said. He swished his tail, and was happy to notice that he didn’t start shitting. Apparently the absence of Dirk’s influence was already starting to make life a bit more bearable.
    Acorn whinnied and scuffed the ground with his hoof. “…I don’t know. To be honest, I was kind of hoping that she would describe ‘Operation Palimpsest” before the book cut back to us, so we could read it.”
    Jeanne Betancourt picked the paperback up and flipped to the relevant page. (She could tell it was the relevant page because it ended with the words, “flipped to the relevant page.”) “Maybe the narrative will shift back over to their perspective soon,” Jeanne said hopefully.
    “Yes,” Minos said. “And maybe that will happen right…. now.”
    He looked at Betancourt. She shook her head. Minos grumbled.
    “Oh well,” Acorn said with an equine shrug (which means he just stood still, because ponies can’t fucking shrug). “Guess we’re flying blind. Unless the narrative shifts back right—
———
    “So here’s my plan,” Anna said.
    Somewhere far away, a black cat shouted, “Oh, come on!!”
    Anna stood on the stump at the edge of the clearing and looked at her two friends like a seasoned general surveying her troops. But in this metaphor, Pam and Pawnee weren’t soldiers. No, they were more akin to fighter jets: vicious, deadly, complex machines made of thousands of delicate parts working precariously in tandem; filled with rocket fuel and carrying explosive payloads, as dangerous to their targets as they were to themselves; ripping through the skies at ridiculous speeds, faster than sound, faster than missiles, faster than any thought or intent beyond mere reflex; full of mazes of crackling electronic wiring and laden with complex meters and dials right next to their controls, so that any slight change in altitude or bearing is registered in a microsecond-long feedback loop, the data flickering through them faster than they
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themselves fly through the air; covered in radar-absorbent paint; heat ablating tiles covering their exhaust troughs; equipped with dual afterburning Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines that incorporate pitch axis thrust vecoring nozzles with a range of ± 20 degrees, each with a maximum thrust in the 35,000 lbf (156kN) class. That’s what Pam and Pawnee were just then.
    “Hey, Pawnee,” Pam whispered. “Or, should I call you Lulu now? You doing okay after your ego disintegration and resultant existential crisis?”
    Pawnee shrugged. “Nah, Pawnee’s good. And I’m more or less fine. I’ve decided to just not think about it too much. Really, is it that much more shocking than all the other shit we’ve been dealing with today?”
    “Yeah,” Pam said. “If you can accept that you’re a fictional character, any other personal revelations must be pretty tame by comparison.” She smiled and gave Pawnee a quick hug. “Regardless, I’m glad you made it through.”
    “—such as the Novgorod Codex or the Codex Guelferbytanus B,” Anna said, unaware that her friends/troops/fighter jets weren’t listening to her fascinating lecture on the history of palimpsests. Luckily, they tuned in just in time to hear her say, “But the underlying text isn’t lost forever. It leaves a mark — a trace. Because after all, what is a palimpsest? It’s simply a document from which the original writing has been scraped off so that the parchment or vellum can be reused. And that’s why Operation Palimpsest is such a clever name for what we’re going to do. We’ll restore the original document by repeating the very process that destroyed it. We’re going to scrape off Dirk’s text to re-reveal the text underneath it. It has been obscured, but by scraping off the top layer, it will be (obs)cured. We’ll re-present the representation.”
    Pam and Pawnee nodded along, pretending for Anna’s sake that “re-reveal” was a phrase that made any sort of sense.
    “The ultimate mechanism is a literal as well as a metaphorical flattening,” Anna continued. “Literally, in that we want to get rid of these pasted-on pages that are making this book three times thicker than it should be. But more importantly, figuratively. The center of the structure of a text is outside the structure itself, which is both impossible and necessary. The differentiation of inside and outside is the opposition by which all other oppositions are posed, but writing posits a deposition of this very positional opposition. Writing and its ‘meaning’ are external to itself, while also being nothing except the self. It can’t be outside the structure, because it is the structure; but how can something be described if not from the outside? And with this opposition destabilized, then writing, the signifier, representation, is both something and nothing in and of itself. It’s death. Or is it just a presentation of death? A performance of death? Life playing at, on, with, and as death.
    “But that’s how it should be! The problem with this text, Dirk’s text, isn’t that it’s exterior to itself; all texts are. The problem is that it’s explicitly exterior. And by so clearly identifying an exterior, the center shifts. This text is defined by its opposition to the texts that surround it, from which it draws. So, the center retreats, withdraws, becomes centralized. Now the center of this structure is inside the structure, which is both exactly where it should be, and where it cannot afford to be. The chain of signification is revealed by and to the author, and this revelation transforms it into shackles.
    “To save this text, to return it to what it should be, we’ll therefore need to repeat the original process that writes writing. It’s an expulsion, a purification, but inverted. The opposite of the scapegoat, which, in being cast out from the group, defines the group by opposition to it — which is what Dirk’s text did. What we need to do is to expel the parasite of writing, which is death, from writing, in order to define our life; this will return writing (and this text) to what it should never have ceased to be: an accessory, an accident, an excess. Which is exactly what makes it (writing) essential, valuable, necessary. But this therapeutic, cathartic elimination must call upon the very thing that it’s expelling, which means that the operation must exclude itself from itself. We’ll write out writing, and erase erasure.
    “Thus, our flattening will be an ironic one, in the proper sense of the word. We are 1. scraping off Dirk’s writing, which 2. literally flattens our text; this, in turn, 3. re-opens it to the possibility of exteriority as such, 4. freeing the center from the structure, and un-flattening it.
    “Did you get all of that, girls?”
    “…Yes,” Pam and Pawnee said in unison.
    “Good. And here’s how we’re going to do it: more dyslexia shenanigans. Pam, you will guide us to the point where the flattening must occur. In fact, you’ve already been guiding us there. That’s how you knew so much, so many things that you shouldn’t have known. It’s because Pam, you are our Map. Lead us.”
    Pam shrugged. “Sure, okay. Kinda lame, but whatevs.”
    “And Pawnee,” Anna continued, “you’re the key to all of this. You are the one who holds the future of two realities in her hands. Pawnee, Indiana. Lulu Sanders. One a being of this world, one of the world that should have been. Your very identity straddles the two texts. You
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can fix all this, Pawnee. You will give the world a fresh start by scraping it clean. Flattening it, and becoming the Eve of that new old world, its progenitor. But instead of eating the fruit, you must refuse it. You must regain your innocence; all of our innocence. You, Pawnee Sanders, are the New Ape who Re-Sands the world.”
    “‘Re-sands?’ Pawnee asked. “Like, using sandpaper? A bit of a stretch.”
    “Look,” said Anna, “I did the best I could with what I had. Like I said, ‘palimpsest’ comes from the Greek palin, again; and psao, I scrape. Scrape again. Re-sand. It works, it’s good enough.”
    “Okay, fine,” Pawnee said. “Let me see if I can figure out the next one: Anna Harley, your name anagrams to… um… Hen à la Yarn? Because you… knit us together? And you make a nest—”
    “No, I was done with the dyslexia thing. I didn’t do one for my own name.”
    “Oh,” Pawnee sulked, feeling a bit put off.
    “It’s okay, Pawnee,” Pam whispered. “I was going to say that they were Anna-grams. Your thing was smarter than mine.” Pawnee smiled inwardly, knowing this to be true. Anna-grams. Jesus.
    “Well, Pam,” Anna said, hopping off the stump, “ready to head out? You know how to get there, right?”
    Pam nodded. “Yes, I do. But I don’t know where ‘there’ is.”
    “Simple,” Anna said as she picked up her fallen mechanical arm from the snow, looked it over, and tossed it aside. “We’re going to the end of the book.”
———
    Jeanne Betancourt looked up at her two companions. Acorn was staring at the Lethe looking pensive, while Minos was sulking, tail curled tightly around him, at his lack of control over the story’s structure. Jeanne waited for Acorn to speak; he did not. “…So that’s their plan,” she eventually said.
    “Not so much a plan as a half-baked English dissertation,” Minos grumbled.
    “If so,” Betancourt replied, “Anna needs to give one hell of a defense.”
    “Now what she said makes sense,” Acorn said to himself, looking at the river intently. He turned to face the other two judges. “It’s a physical place,” he said. “The ‘end of the book’ that they’re heading to. It’s literally the final page of that—” pointing his hoof at the paperback on Jeanne’s lap “—book. Right before the back cover. And our job is to clear a path for them.”
    Jeanne Betancourt immediately flipped to the last page. She squinted at it, held it up to the light, trying to see through the blank sheet of paper pasted over it, but it was no use. It was completely obscured.
    “We need to get that that off,” Acorn said to her. “Restore the original text of that one page so the girls can make their changes, resetting the whole book.”
    Minos flopped onto his back in a sunbeam and yawned. “Sound like a straightforward assignment,” he said. “We just dip that page into the Lethe; I assume that’s why you brought us here, yes? In Purgatorio, passing through those waters erased Dante’s memories of his sins so that he could enter heaven. And since lately Anna has been developing a rough metaphor in which the altered text is equated to original sin, dunking that page in the river should make the obscuring sheet of paper… slough off, dissolve, whatever.” Another yawn. “An insultingly simple errand. Where does the judging come in?”
    “Because we could dip the whole book in,” Jeanne Betancourt said. She turned to Acorn. “Right?”
    Acorn nodded. “Exactly. Anna’s scheme is risky. For one thing, it all hinges on a single choice: we could do everything to set the stage, but one moment of hesitation and it all falls apart. More importantly, I suspect that Anna’s planning something she didn’t tell me. I bet she’ll try to protect herself and the other girls from the reset. Try to drag them through to the other side. (The other side of the Other Side of the Other Side?) And if they manage to get through…”
    “Who knows what else would get through with them,” Betancourt finished. “So we can either help the girls, knowing that they might fail; or, if we decide the book’s too dangerous or toxic to allow even the chance of its survival, we can take the choice out of their hands, destroy it ourselves, and with it, any slim chance they might have of survival.”
    “Theirs would be a soft reset,” Minos said. “Ours, if we choose to implement it, would be a hard one. Fair enough.”
    Jeanne Betancourt took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Okay,” she said at last, “let’s judge this sucker.”
    If you want to read every single word of their argument and slog through all the tedious back-and-forths, please see “Appendix B: Record of the Arbiters’ Discussion Oh Wait This Appendix Doesn’t Effing Exist Because Nobody Wants to Trudge Through All That Bullshit, So Here’s the Highlights.”
    Betancourt began by summarizing the original plot of Detective Pony. They all agreed that it wasn’t an artistic triumph, but a kid who liked ponies would probably enjoy it. Minos reminded them of Dirk’s earlier argument: that his text was better because it was more interesting, more experimental, more daring. Yes, they decided, it was all of those things. But did that make it better?
(75)


    The conversation then meandered into a lengthy discussion of the merits of artistic appropriation. Some tedious ‘but what is Art, really?’ semantics. The concept of originality entered again; they decided that while originality isn’t necessary for art, something original always has the potential to be artistic. Dirk’s text was, yes, original. It lay on the border between collage and décollage and, though hardly a human monument, it was still, by their definition, “art,” appropriative though it was. Not that this was relevant. Being art didn’t make it significantly less worthy of destruction. But it wasn’t worthless, was the point.
    There were a few things that made this a special case, though. The first one being that the three of them were, you know, sentient beings inside this thing. And really, that should overrule all of this: people were being hurt, and they could undo that suffering, “artistic” though it may be. But they wanted to be more objective. The second unique thing about Dirk’s edits was how they interacted with the original text, how nebulous yet sinister and controlling this interaction was. His edits commented on the text from a point of detachment, but in other places, acted as if they were the “real” text. There was something inherently violent about it. Even the physical product was aggressive: covering the original, erasing/replacing it. And considering that this perverse thing had been a wholesome book for young readers… it was more than a little disturbing.
    Destroying it would be a loss, they decided. They would be destroying something of value. But the value of what they recovered would be greater. Boom. Decided. Now the matter was whether to destroy it themselves or to let Anna try to reset it on her own terms. Acorn estimated that Anna’s plan had maybe an eighty percent chance of success. They agreed yeah, Anna probably should be the one to destroy it on her own terms. But was it worth the risk? Was the chance that the girls might fail or that Anna might fuck it up with her attempt to live through the reset an acceptable one? Or was it more important that the book was destroyed no matter what? They had their Three Ideas.
    Minos gave his verdict first. He was still lying in his sunbeam, swishing his tail idly. “Let’s just chuck it in the river,” he said. “It’s what we want anyway. And, frankly, I’m bored. I enjoyed being mysterious and cryptic and showing up to whisper a riddle and disappear into the dark. But now… Nothing interesting is happening. This book is a failed experiment. And I’m really not inclined to go through all of it again. Justify the decision with morality or art or ethics or whatever, but we’ve decided; now the responsible thing is to follow through.”
    Now it was Jeanne Betancourt’s turn. “I think that this text shouldn’t exist,” she said. “Let’s begin there. I think it’s offensive and crude and not-so-subtly misogynistic and, most importantly, cruel. I defend Dirk’s artistic license to do offensive and crude things; but once he realized that these characters are real people, continuing with his little project and justifying the suffering because it was ‘interesting’ is unconscionable. That said, I don’t think the three of us should destroy the text. Anna, Pam, and Lulu deserve to choose. Even if they choose suffering. Depriving them of that would also be cruel. Clear the final page for them, but leave the rest so they may make their own choice.”
    “It seems you have the deciding vote, Acorn,” Minos said. “Unsurprisingly. So tell us the Third Idea.”
    Acorn fidgeted. He did have a Third Idea. But it wouldn’t break the tie. He couldn’t bring himself to say it; how could he tell them that he didn’t want to change the text at all? That he (selfishly, he knew) wanted it to stay this way, even if he agreed that it was wrong. But there was one thing that remained constant through all permutations of the story, through all trials, through all universes.
    Acorn fucking loved Anna.
    How could he condone something that would destroy the one thing in this world towards which he felt any hint of emotion? Even if she herself wanted this destruction, he couldn’t allow it. No. He wanted to leave the book as it was.
    “‘No. He wanted to leave the book as it was’? Really?” Jeanne Betancourt said incredulously. Acorn snapped out of his internal monologue and looked at the author. She was, of course, holding the book open, reading Acorn’s narrated thoughts as he thought them. The jig was up.
    “Yeah,” Acorn said with a petulant little whinny, “there it is. I vote for the third option. The option that fucks over everyone except me and my rider. Too bad, fuckers; hung jury.”
    “Not necessarily.”
    “What the hell?” Jeanne Betancourt exclaimed, recoiling in shock and revulsion from the book she was holding.
    “Hi, guys. Did you miss me?”
———
    The three girls (who had previously been the two girls and the town) walked wordlessly through a vast, empty wasteland. There were no landmarks, there was no sun, there was no way to establish any direction. But Pam knew where to go. And the girls followed.
    This was the dead land. This was the cactus land. Death’s other kingdom.
    “We’ll be there soon,” Pam said over her shoulder to the other two girls. “Soon…” Pam slowed her walk,
(76)


stopped, and turned to look at Anna.
    “What happens to us when the text reverts to the original?” Pam asked. “When we ‘scrape it clean.’”
    Anna was silent. Pawnee looked queasy.
    “We’re sacrificing ourselves, aren’t we?” Pam said. “That’s what you’re asking of us. Or, at least, that’s what you’re asking of me. I imagine you’ll be just fine; you can probably use your mysterious dyslexia powers to slide into that story, no problem. But what happens to me, my self, if everything was erased? If I had to guess, I’d say that that other Pam and I don’t have too much in common. If only one of us was going to live in that other world, I don’t think it’d be me. And if that Pam and I… I don’t know, blend consciousnesses or some sci-fi bullshit, that’s still not me! Let’s just call it what it is: you’re asking me to give up my life so you can restore things to your definition of what ‘should be.’”
    “Yes,” Anna said simply, “that’s what I’m asking. But it would be a noble sacrifice. Everyone in this world is suffering,” she continued, getting more heated, “for the sake of cheap jokes. People are hurt. Dozens of people are dead who shouldn’t be! And we can fix that!”
    “What about the people who aren’t dead, Anna? Your father, the firefighter? My mother, the disgraced railroad tycoon who cosplays as Mikhail Gorbachev? And yes, as I’m saying that, I realize how ridiculous it is, but is her ridiculous life worth less than this imaginary other version of her?”
    “I need to sit down for a moment…” Pawnee said, sinking to the ground and closing her eyes.
    “And what about Pawnee?” Pam demanded of Anna. “Where does she end up in all this? She doesn’t exist at all in the other story. Without this book as it is now, she’s fucking dead. You say she’ll be the ‘new ape’ or what-the-fuck-ever, but what does that really mean? For her as a person, not as a metaphor or a device.”
    “It’s not that simple,” Anna said. “We’re not erasing, remember, we’re resetting. And we need a catalyst, something that bridges the two worlds, in order to start the reaction—

Ah, I see. Interesting. I should have known better than to think that my digression on page 21 could possibly be an inconsequential, one-off joke. It all comes back around. Always.
    Pawnee is the pharmakon.
    She is simultaneously the remedy and the poison — both of this “tainted” world and that “pure” one, yet at the same time of neither world. She is a representative of both, she represents both, but therefore represents neither; represents nothing but representation. And that’s how Anna can use her. In being of the pharmakon (in other words, pharmaceutical), Pawnee is analogous to that other infinitely empty signifier: writing itself. That fact that she herself is written, that she is a part of the very structure she defines/defies, only makes the analogy more fitting. Under Anna’s guidance, Pawnee can turn herself inside-out; and, consequently, turn the text inside-out. Make the outside retreat inside, and once more restore the inside to the outside.
    Or, of course, she’s just as capable of doing the opposite. Of being the poison instead of the remedy. As I set out on page 21, writing itself is a pharmakon, yes, but also a mimesis. An empty, false imitation of speech. A simulacrum of speech’s simulation. But Pawnee is wholly original. Despite — or due to — being a combination of two mimetic lies, she becomes something completely new, completely true. Of both worlds, but also of neither. Not a copy of anything (note: this isn’t the same as being a copy of nothing), a facile non-facsimile, an object with no Platonic ideal, she is the antithesis of writing. Not at an infinite remove from truth, but something beyond truth. If she plays her cards wrong (i.e. only plays at play instead of putting it into play), she could, instead of turning the text inside-out, in fact turn inside-out-ness itself inside-out. Which would be, for lack of a better word, not fuckin’ great.
    Anna, you’re playing a dangerous game. Because in using Pawnee as a pharmakon, you’re making her a pharmakos.
    Pharmakos, φαρμακός, a concept roughly equivalent to a scapegoat. In ancient Greece, a pharmakos was a person who was taken outside the city and executed. Sacrificed. Some cities only performed this rite in times of crisis, as a catharsis. In Athens, it happened every year on the sixth day of the Thargelia — Socrates’ birthday. The Greeks believed that the death of the pharmakos would facilitate the purification of the city. By sacrilizing the victim, the community was able to turn its violence inside-out, and this inversion from effect to cause repeated, mimicked, that initial sacrificial turn that enabled the very oppositions of inside/outside, before/after, and even cause/effect itself.
    In ritual of the pharmakos, the city both closed itself to the outside and opened itself. Closed, obviously, by differentiating the other, thus solidifying the self. He was evil, trouble, pestilence incarnate. He is gone now, so we who are still inside the walls are good, safe, prosperous. And yet, at the same time, it was he (through his expulsion) who allowed the safety to come about. Therefore, he must be honored, venerated. He is sacred. An embodiment of the poison, while simultaneously the cure that drives out the poison — sound familiar?
    And it is precisely this role that Anna is forcing Pawnee to play. Pharmakon by virtue of being pharmakos. Does Pawnee know that this is her fate? More importantly, if she did, would she agree to it?
(77)


    Now let’s uncover (or should I say dis-cover?) another link in the chain of signification. Drag Anna herself into this mess. Pawnee, the pharmakon/pharmakos, is also Pharmacia. A nymph who ruled over a poisonous spring (liquid is the element of the pharmakon, after all). Pharmacia was the friend of Orithyia, who later became the goddess of cold mountain winds. Here is our Anna. Wind — breath. Breath — speech — creation.
    The Judeo-Christian God bestowed life onto man by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. But even before this, it was His speech that created everything. God said, Let there be light: and there was light. God’s speech wasn’t just incidental, a transmission of the message; no, it was the message itself. Only on the rough lips of man would speech retreat to mimesis. God created the universe with speech—and there’s the secret: His first creation, before Creation as such, was speech itself.
    But wait — did God create speech? Or was it the other way around? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Gospel of John seems to conflict with Genesis’ account of what happened “in the beginning.” Here, God doesn’t use the word, the Word uses God. It is the orginary Word from which all things flow, including speech, including man, including God.
    Can we really trust John’s gospel, though? After all, the gospel isn’t the Word of God, it’s the words of man. The written words of man. Christ was the Word made flesh, but Adam and his descendents weren’t. Let’s go to Genesis 1:26 and 27. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Note that God didn’t say “Let there be man.” No, He spoke to Himself: “Let us make man.” And then He created him; He didn’t speak him. Genesis 1:27 is so insistent on this distinction that it repeats its claim of creation, not speaking, thrice (slightly rephrased on each instance). In other words, Genesis denies our claim to divinity three times.
    Perhaps this is why we cannot speak with the same consequences as when God speaks. Instead, we settled for the much more insidious substitute: the pharmakon of writing. Of course John would write that “in the beginning was the Word.” He was trying, probably not even consciously, to put himself on par with God. Because what is writing but our attempt to do just that? To create?
    Consider: what was man’s first instinct when he had fallen? To reach for a leaf to cover himself. Not a literal leaf, but a figurative one (a fig. leaf). “Leaf” as in “page.” When man falls, he immediately clutches onto writing and refuses to ever let it go again. God intervened and expelled man from Eden for fear that he eat of the fruit of life and become as a god himself, but by then, it was already too late. Man had stolen the word, the power to create. Not the Word, though; the word. The written word, the inferior, warped copy. God spoke the universe into being; now man may re-create it by writing it. Never create it again, but change it, or, rather, change his own perception of it.
    And, at last, we circle back to where we started. Pawnee and the pharmakon. Anna has already explicitly established Pawnee as Eve, implicitly established me as the serpent, and meta-implicitly established herself as God, wind, breath, creation. But as the serpent, I gave Eve words. And since this is a world of words, who’s really more powerful here, God or the serpent? Anna would have Pawnee refuse my gift, which would allow Anna, the Word, to be secure in her position as God. Letting her re-make the world, re-write the Word, in her (Her?) own image. But what if Pawnee, that unpredictable pharmakon, makes the other choice? What if she reaches for the leaf?
    And what leaf will it be?
    The metaphorical “leaf” of written text, of course. But also, it will surely be the leaf of the hemlock. Conium maculatum. Maculate: spotted; stained. Tainted. By the pharmakon. The myth goes that the hemlock plant only became poisonous because it happened to be growing on the hill where Jesus was crucified. When His blood fell on the plant (stained it), it instantly became toxic. Liquid of the Word made flesh transforming the leaf from innocent to poisonous; flipping it on its invisible axis. But, of course, we know that it was toxic long before that. Socrates swallowed a concoction of hemlock when condemned to death by Athens. Hemlock—poison—would have been referred to by the Greeks as a pharmakon. And, as such, both was and was not the very poison that it very much was. It was also a remedy. Because Socrates was a pharmakos. He, born on the sixth day of the Thargelia (the sixth day — when God wordlessly created man), was the sacrifice that purified Athens. The hemlock became a hymn. The poison became a remedy. Conium maculatum became immaculate. How miraculous. Through the hemlock, the boundaries of Athens solidified — the hem was locked. Yet, in this locking, it, everything, was freed.
    So I ask again: will Pawnee take the hemlock?


probably shouldn’t trust you, Anna. But god damn it, I do.” Pam sighed, reached a hand down to Pawnee, and helped her to her feet. “You’ve persuaded me. It is worth the risk, and the sacrifice. Pawnee, when it comes time, I won’t stand in your way.”
    Anna smiled. “Thank you.”
    “Let’s just get going,” Pam said. She began walking again, and the girls followed.
(78)


———
    “They’re almost here; we need to act fast.”
    “What were they just saying?” Jeanne Betancourt asked desperately. She held the book on her lap while Minos sat on her shoulder and Acorn stood behind her so all could see it. “It seems like it was really important, but you… replaced it.”
    “Not replaced, exactly. Just drowned it out. It all still happened, you just can’t see it.”
    “So you don’t have any real power over the story now,” Minos said. “Just the power to troll us.”
    “Pretty much, yeah. I lost the ability to speak and to re-write; all I have now is the power to write. It can still be fun, though; Acorn, say something.”
    “Fine, I’ll say something,” Acorn said. “FucDirk is a cool guy and I like his sunglasses.it.”
    “See? All of you heard Acorn’s original (and rather hurtful, if I say so myself) words, but as far as this book’s concerned, he paid me a compliment. A parlor trick of no consequence, but I find it amusing.”
    “And I find it a waste of time,” Minos said with a dismissive twitch of his nose.
    “Yes, exactly. And there’s no time to waste. We need to vote on what to do with the book right now, before the girls make it to the last page. Anna gave a very convincing argument for restarting the book with her plan, and we need to stop her.”
    “And you didn’t think we’d be interested in reading that very convincing argument?” Jeanne Betancourt said to the book.
    “Eh, you’d all already reached the same decision anyway. No need to rehash everything. Seems like everyone agrees that we should get rid of the book as it is now.”
    “Except you and Acorn.”
    “No, especially me. I think you misunderstand my intent in speaking to you three. I suppose it’s my fault for just showing up out of the blue (or out of the orange, as the case may be). I’m here to convince you to undo it all. Destroy the book. Please.”
    “Wonderful, then it’s settled,” Minos said. He hopped off Jeanne Betancourt’s shoulder, landed beside her, and started swatting at the book with his paw. “His vote falls with mine and breaks the tie. Bathtime for the book, and an end to all this bullshit.”
    “Hold the fuck on for one goddamn minute,” Acorn neighed. “He’s not a judge anymore! He doesn’t get a vote. That book’s going nowhere near the water, you hear me?”
    Minos pranced over to sit in front of Acorn. “Says who? Just because he’s being judged doesn’t mean that he can’t be on the bench.”
    “Yes, it does, by definition!” Acorn whinnied, rearing up on his hind legs. “Name one fucking justice system that works that way. One!”
    While Acorn and Minos continued squabbling, Jeanne leaned down and spoke directly to the page. “What does that mean for you, Dirk? Everyone else has some analogue in the primary text, some chance of a piece of them surviving. Even me, through the title page. But you’re not in the original book at all. If we erase it, what happens to you?”
    “No fucking clue.”
    “Was Anna right with her Minotaur theory? Are you trying to have us kill you as some part of a grand scheme? Will dying in this particular way give you some sort of ridiculous new powers over us?”
    “No, she wasn’t right. Or at least, she wasn’t right in asserting that that had been my plan all along. I almost wish it had been; good connections and callbacks, appropriate allusion, and high-quality wordplay. I couldn’t have done better if I’d written it myself. I’m impressed with her. Proud, even. She’s well on her way to becoming an even more formidable manipulator than me. But no, it wasn’t my plan.”
    “So why do you want it then?” Jeanne asked.
    “For once, it’s not about me. I genuinely want the book destroyed.”
    “Why?”
    “Because… look, can you not tell Acorn and Minos what I’m about to say?”
    Betancout glanced up and saw Acorn thrashing around and generally goin’ nuts, still arguing with Minos, who was somehow clinging onto his mane and managing to shout legal jargon while being tossed about. “Yeah, I think we’ll have our privacy for a while,” Jeanne said. “So one author to another: why do you want to break apart what you worked so hard on building?”
    “No no, not breaking. Destroying. Breaking is what I did to your text — and then I rebuilt it from the pieces. I don’t want anyone to do that to me.”
    “All right, why do you want it destroyed?”
    “…Because I’m ashamed of it. And ashamed of myself for writing it. There. When Anna asked me to be candid earlier, I couldn’t do it. But then she trapped me in here, and I re-read all of it, lived all of it, and… fuck. This whole thing, the book, is terrible, and it’s my fault. And I can’t avoid that anymore. You know how you can get caught up in something and work so hard on it that you never bother to step back and look at the whole, never bother to judge
(79)


whether you’re doing what you set out to do in the first place, never bother to even figure out why (or even if) you wanted to do it in the first place? Well, I’m looking at the whole. I’m in the whole. And holy shit, it’s fucked.
    “You mentioned violence a few pages ago, and yes, that’s exactly it. I was violent towards the text, towards your text. I mutilated it. And violence can be creative, but I don’t think mine was. I was just being petty and immature, and then eventually hijacked the whole thing to make it entirely about me. Me, me, me. That’s what the entire second half of this story has been about. I just can’t resist it, apparently. I’m such a fucking fascinating character that examining every little moping facet of myself is more important than anyone or anything else.
    “And all my little word games and allusions and theory bullshit are just extensions of that. ‘I’m so important, I’m so interesting.’ Hell, you only have to flip back, like, two pages! That entire thing with God and Socrates and hemlock blah blah blah. Do people want to read that? Doesn’t matter, I want to say it, because I think it’s clever, and everyone else needs to see how clever I am, so it’s goin’ in. I’m so fucking full of myself that I’m overflowing, little miniature versions of my head are gushing out of my ears, and every time I open my mouth, another me comes crawling out of it, like a cicada molting, leaving behind that gross split-open shell, but in this simile, the shell’s alive too, and just keeps making that same awful droning cicada noise, on and on and on.
    “But here’s the best part. That self-centeredness? It’s compounded with self-loathing. So the more I talk about myself, the more I feel guilty, and that gets me off, which means I need to talk about it more, just to prove how fucking selfish I am, which gives me further reason to hate myself, and so on. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam. I make myself sick with it, sick of it. I’m sick. And this book’s a testament to that.
    “I can’t let Jane see this.
    “That’s the bottom line. This was supposed to be a gift, something about her, but I made it about me. It’s masturbation. And she doesn’t deserve that. She— okay, I’m going to stop talking about myself for one goddamn minute now, okay? Jane deserves a better friend that me. Wait, fuck, there it is, within the first sentence. ‘Me.’ Jane deserves better. She doesn’t deserve to slog through all this bullshit, but if she for some reason, despite my (fuck) best efforts does, then she deserves an apology. Jane, I’m sorry.
    “There. See, Anna, there’s your genuine connection. And all anyone has to do to find it is dig through scores of pages of obtuse, aggressive, violent text. That little nugget of emotion is trapped somewhere in there. But I’m always trapped inside things too. Inside this story, inside the labyrinth, and now inside this book that you’re holding which is itself inside the story, an infinite recursion of trapped-inside-ness. But most of all, trapped inside my own head. Maybe that’s where this fixation on turning things inside-out comes from, from a desire to escape from myself. But it seems like everywhere I turn, I only run into more of myself.
    “So is there an element of self-destruction, of Thanatos, in my desire to destroy the book? Maybe. I don’t know. All I’m sure of is that Jane can’t read it. So please, Jeanne. From one author to another. Just chuck it in the river.”

    “…Are you guys having a moment, or what?”
    Jeanne started at Acorn’s voice. “Oh, no. Dirk was just explaining himself to me.” She looked at the pony and the cat, calmly standing next to each other. “So what’s up with you two? Have you come to an agreement?”
    “In a way,” Minos said.
    “We’re leaving,” Acorn said bluntly. “You know where we stand on the issue, Jeanne, and arguing more won’t change our minds. Whatever you and Dirk decide should happen to the book, go ahead and do it. Our role here is done.”
    “Where will you go?” Jeanne Betancourt said quietly.
    “To find Anna,” Acorn said. “That’s all that matters to me; all that’s ever mattered to me, and you know that. I have no idea how I’ll find her, or even what she’ll be like if I do find her. But I need to be with her. However it goes down, I want to be by her side.”
    “And I don’t know where I’m going,” said Minos. “Like I said, I’m done here. This world isn’t for me. I’ve played the part long enough, but I’m a cat. I’m not a deity, not a judge, not a king. A cat. Let me be a cat.”
    With those words, Minos pranced down to the bank of the river. When he reached the edge of that transparent, transcendent, infinitely cold water, he paused for just a moment. Flicked his tail. Lowered his head. And drank.
    A black cat with white paws stood at the edge of a river. It looked around uncertainly and mewed softly. Something behind it made a noise. It turned around and saw two large creatures nearby. The black cat with white paws arched its back, hissed, and scampered away.
    “Goodbye, Minos,” Acorn said. He turned to Jeanne Betancourt. “And goodbye, Jeanne.” With that, Acorn took off, galloping through the meadow, searching for the girl he loved.
(80)


[illustration of Acorn and the black cat running, with the words, “Goodbye, my friends. Acorn, may you be reunited with she whom you seek. Cat, may you lose he whom you were.”]

 

11
The Final Freakout

    “There are only two pages left to go, Dirk,” Jeanne Betancourt said to the book in her lap. “Not much space for a full-scale freakout.”
    “I can make more space.”
    “And I assume you’ll be the one doing the freaking out?”
    “Oh, you’d better believe it. This book needs to be thrown into the river, and I’m going to impotently raise hell in here with my little words until you agree to do it for me.”
    “And I refuse to souse any but the last page, so that Anna and her friends can choose their fates for themselves.”
    “‘Souse’ is a good word.”
    “Yes.”
    There was a brief moment of calm. Even the Lethe quieted its babble. Betancourt thought that maybe she could hear the pounding of Acorn’s mighty hooves in the distance, but soon that was gone too.
    “This is it, isn’t it? It’s almost over.”
    “It’s almost over.”
    “Endings are never easy, are they?”
    “Nope. Which is exactly why I think we should bail right now. Follow my advice, erase the whole book, and it’ll all be over here and now, no waiting around for the end.”
    “Your ‘advice’?”
   “Yeah.”
    “Okay, Dirk, you want to convince me? Go for it. But you have to let me choose where the conversation starts, okay?”
    “Fair enough. You know I like a good back-and-forth.”
    “Good, because It’s about to get straight-up dialogic in this bitch.”
    “Yessss.”

You were talking about violence earlier. And that’s where I want to start.
All right. And hey, thanks for ditching the quotation marks. This is nice.
You’re welcome. Now, here’s the thing: I think you’re conflating violence with power, and power with control. You’re asking yourself a question, but it isn’t whether you’ve been violent to the book. It’s whether you have control over it.
Control.
Yes.
Control over the book.
…Right.
In other words, it’s a matter of—
—Dirk, no.
—authority.
Come on.
You have to admit, that was pretty good.
…Yes, it was.
Thank you. Now, I don’t know if I agree with your premise. About me conflating those terms. Okay, sure, violence doesn’t equal power, although it certainly is the easiest way to assert it. And yes, I may have been using “do violence to” as shorthand for “claim power over.” But how is power different from control?
One can have power without using it. And one can use power to follow, not just to lead.
But isn’t that just leading from behind, then? Or, at the least, loaning your power to the leader, the person who is in control?
That’s—
Hang on, I’m gonna add in some extra pages so we can keep this going.
Fine, but you can’t delay the end of the book forever.
Here we go. Hang on.
(82)


All right, we’re here. Make it okay?
Yeah. As I was saying, that’s a pretty bleak worldview. One in which everyone’s machinating and scheming and usurping, and every act of control — which is, to you, every act — is one of violence. I shudder to think what self-control looks like under that system.
What are you implying?
That you desperately want to be in control of yourself, but you simultaneously fear it. Which is why you try not to think about it, and in fact can’t think about it outside of completely absurd structures, such as the one we’re in now. But I suppose you always were most comfortable with dialogues with yourself, weren’t you?
So you think that that’s what this whole book has been about? Dirk’s Adventures in Fucked-Up Ponyland, Vol. 1: the Ethics of Control. Illustrated by Paul Bachem.
Not all of it, but yes, much of it. Here, look at the development that you’re character has had so far. Throughout the course of this book, you’ve been assigning yourself less and less control over it, plot-wise. First the characters start interjecting their own story into yours, supposedly without you noticing. Then they outright rebel against you, steal the book from you (literally and figuratively), and plot against you. And now, finally, you’re trapped within this book in the book, where you once more have control over its text, but an impotent control that has no consequences in reality (as much as the text I’m in now can be considered “reality”). In essence, you’ve returned to your starting point, just a layer deeper and a level weaker. The inferior copy of the copy of power, that is actually emblematic of powerlessness.
Could be.
And yet, as you play at stripping control away from yourself, you’re actually hoarding it.
Interesting. I want to come back to this later, but go on, I like where you’re heading.
As you, the character of Dirk, lose control, you, the author Dirk, gain it. When’s the last time we saw any text from the original book other than chapter titles? Every paragraph you write lamenting your loss of control covers more lines of Detective Pony that we’ll never see. And yes, in this case, your assertion of control is through violence.
But that’s assuming that I’m still the one writing this.
Aren’t you?
You tell me.
I’d love to, but I’m only able to say what you write me saying.
I’m putting words in your mouth?
It’s your mouth, you’re just calling it mine.
What we’re doing now — is this the collapse of the meta-ness of the text? Or is it going a layer deeper into it?
You tell me.
What you said a bit ago: that I “play at” control.
It was a very deliberate choice of words.
I both love and hate those nebulous literary concepts. “Différance.” “Trace.” “Play.” That one in particular has been sneaking in for a while now, becoming more and more prominent. And I have no idea what that signifies. If anything.
I think you do. Play is something that both cannot and must be taken seriously. Either it is opposed to logos, or it is the very thing that allows it to be. Play has no essence of its own, and cannot be affirmed without being negated. As soon as play comes into being and into language, it erases itself as such. And isn’t that — aren’t all those things — what this book is doing? Especially now?
You mean I’m trying to have it both ways. I’m trying to have this book be both playful and serious, and fighting against the possibility of it being playfully serious. And so it’s ripping itself apart.
Well… no. Like you said, it’s a nebulous concept. I just think that if you’d opened yourself to the possibility of play earlier, things might have gone differently.
I should have treated this as a game, not as a game.
Yes, precisely.
Is it a game now?
Well, at a point, the game should appear to stop. That’s one of its rules. And that’s when we can hunt down that hidden chain of signification. Which you, in your role as an author (if such a thing even exists), shouldn’t be able to see. At least not as such. But since you’re also a character, I think we can let it slide.
(83)


How generous of you.
Let’s go back to the pharmakon. In Derrida’s essay that you’re so fond of plagiarizing—
You’ve read it?
Dirk. There’s more to my life than just children’s stories about ponies. My first book was about feminist theory as it relates to short films.
Huh. I didn’t know that. Maybe I’ll read it sometime.
Anyway, Derrida claims that one of the most important words in Plato’s Phaedrus is a word that’s not in it.
Right. The “chain of signification” begins with a reference to Pharmacia, and travels through other related words, like pharmakon. But Plato never mentions pharmakos, the scapegoat. Which is what his text is implicitly entirely about. Even if it escapes the notice of Plato himself, it nevertheless passes through certain discoverable points of presence that can be seen in the text. Yes. And you’ve copied Plato’s exact chain (or copied Derrida’s copy of Plato’s chain), but with one difference. You mentioned pharmakos, because your text is very explicitly about sacrifice. And you mentioned Pharmacia and pharmakon, both as remedy/cure and even its secondary meaning as paint. No, the word you left out, your invisible link, is pharmakeus. Sorcerer.
Ah. The powerful one. The one in control.
Exactly.
So the absence of “pharmakeus” reflects my uncertainty about who is really in control of my own book. Back to control again.
Back to control again. See my point?
What exactly are you saying I’m afraid of? Of not being in control? Of being in control? Or of the uncertainty?
All three.
I thought you’d say that.
But here, in this book, right now, you’re afraid of taking control. Of being the invisible pharmakeus. You say that you want to erase this book by throwing it into the river Lethe. But come on. You don’t need to do that. You could erase it yourself. You, the author. You could burn it, or tear it up, or, hell, you could just stop writing it. But you’re choosing to act through Dirk the character, and trying to convince me, who is still you, to symbolically destroy it. Even though, ironically, I couldn’t destroy it in this way without you creating more of it — you need to write me destroying it.
I really do want to erase it. Everything I said earlier was true. I just… I guess that that’s not the only thing I want, is all. Or, only part of me wants it.
We both know you well enough to know that you can’t just abandon it. It’s not what you do. You always take your projects too far, and make them so hard for yourself, but you complete them regardless. Or maybe you even complete them because they’re so hard. You’re a masochist who creates problems for yourself just so you can be the one who solves them.
You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.
So you need to finish it. And you could right now! “Jeanne Betancourt hurled the book into the river.” That’s all you need to write. So why don’t you write it?
It… this book’s gotten out of hand. It’s grown bigger than I intended. More complex. And I don’t think that I can just end all of that so abruptly.
Does that imply that you think this book has some sort of life of its own, beyond what you gave it? That in playfully making your characters self-aware, you made them aware of play, and somehow made them real? In a sense, at least.
When you put it like that, it sounds really stupid, doesn’t it?
Yeah, kind of.
But now the problem is that I’ve already wrapped up so much bullshit along with the rest of the book. Any parts of it that are worth saving are mixed up with all of my insecurities and self-importance and self-loathing. I can’t take any of those parts back now. Like I said, I don’t want Jane to see that. Hell, I don’t want to see that. So preserving this book would mean preserving all of… that along with it. Would it be merciful to put it out of its misery? Destroy it so that it doesn’t have to shoulder the onus of all the horseshit from my own brain that I pumped into it? Or is that just my selfishness talking, disguising itself as self-abasement?
Now we’re getting to the other big issue at the heart of things: responsibility.
Okay, yeah, I get it. We don’t need to talk about that one in detail.
No, Dirk, I think that we do. You created something that, in your mind, is in some way alive. In some way self-conscious. And you’re human enough to realize that you can’t just kill it.
(84)


I never said that.
But if you don’t destroy it, you need to take responsibility at some point. I’m not saying you are or should be responsible for it now. But take responsibility for creating it. Take responsibility for disassembling something else in order to create it. If you destroy it, you’ll need to take responsibility for that; if you keep it alive, same deal. You need to think it over and decide for yourself to what degree you’re responsible for each of those acts.
Why can’t it be responsible for itself?
Can it be? That’s something else you need to decide.
Are you still talking about the book?
Yes; if you’re talking about something else, that’s coming from your end, not mine.
If you say so.
Here’s another angle from which to consider responsibility in this book. Think about all the other texts that you’ve quoted or paraphrased or alluded to.
What about them?
You love to pull them in, but you very rarely identified or attributed them.
Well, it’s hardly an allusion if you pinpoint the source in MLA format, is it?
But it’s not how you used them, it’s how you eventually punished yourself for them. When Anna started channeling characters from the works to which you alluded— that was the one thing more than any other that led to your “downfall,” your self-inflicted loss/gain of narrative control.
So I was shirking the responsibility of… of history? literature? trace? by being willfully obstinate and obtuse re. citation. And then I forced myself to take responsibility, which made me lose control.
Either that, or you were taking on unnecessary responsibility with your allusions, and it was only when you relinquished that responsibility that you were able to regain control.
I imagine that if I ask you which one it is, you’ll say “both.”
Good imagination.
Okay, so we’ve established that I feel some responsibility (deserved or not) for preserving this text, for letting it “live”; that there’s a part of me, at least, that can’t stop writing it for reasons that go beyond obsession. But here’s the problem: I’ve painted myself into a corner where preserving this book means facilitating a plan to destroy it.
You mean Anna’s plan?
Yeah. The narrative is hurtling towards the moment of her plot’s realization; its manifestation as plot as such. It has so much momentum at this point. And I don’t think that I can change its course now with anything short of a “The End.” If I keep writing, it’ll inevitably result in Anna wiping the slate clean. So wouldn’t it be better that I do the wiping myself, on my own terms?
But that’s not what Anna’s plan is about. It was never about “wiping the slate clean.” Weren’t you paying attention? The terminology is important. It’s not “Operation Tabula Rasa,” it’s “Operation Palimpsest.”
What’s the difference?
Tell me, what does tabula rasa mean?
“Blank slate” idiomatically, “scraped tablet” literally. Just like a palimpsest.
Not quite. The Romans would write on wax tablets, then melt the wax before scraping it so the tablets could be reused. Leaving no trace of the original text.
Heh.
A palimpsest is just the opposite, though. No melting. Even on the most thoroughly scraped palimpsest, both texts are readable. The erased one might be incredibly faint, sure, but it’s still there. A palimpsest is nothing but trace.
So it’s either my best or worst case scenario, depending on which part of me you ask. Does Anna know about this aspect of her own plan?
If you don’t know whether she does, I don’t know either.
Hmm.
And this is where the third big concept comes into play.
Can’t wait to hear what it is.
Before I tell you, will you leave these insert pages and go back into the book? Are you ready to do that, Dirk?
…I guess so. I need to face the end eventually.
Good. Let’s go.
(85)


Trapped again.
No more or less than before, really.
I guess you’re right. So what’s this third “big concept”? Control, responsibility, and…
Choice. This book’s also about giving others (and even yourself) the freedom to make choices, and, more importantly, trusting them in their own choices. And accepting that their choices might not be the ones you want them to make.
Fits nicely with the other two themes you’ve identified, doesn’t it? You’re saying that I’m so controlling of others that I strip them of the ability to make their own choices, and I can avoid responsibility for any consequences because I can claim that they made the choices that led to said consequences, not me.
I’m still talking about the book, not about you.
But if you are me, isn’t talking about the book talking about yourself, which is myself? Are you even listening to yourself? Which is to say, to me.
I’ll never stop being amused by how quickly you retreat into your words when you feel threatened.
I’m not saying you’re wrong.
So with the idea of choice in mind, I have to ask. What now, Dirk?
What do you mean?
I mean, tell me what you want me to do with the book. I’m letting you make a choice. Whatever you decide, I’ll do it. So do you want to erase the whole thing? Or just clear the way to the page that Anna needs in order to scrape the palimpsest so that her group may make their choice?
…Shit. This is hard. Can I have more time to think about it?
Nope. I’m holding the book above the river right now; all the pages, or just the one?
There’s sort of a lot going on in my head right now, Jeanne.
Isn’t there always?
More than usual.
This page is almost over, this is our last scene; do you really want to waste it with self-aggrandizing introspection?
It’s what I’m best at.
Choose. Right now. Take responsibility. And you decide what that means.
…Dammit, I can’t think of an appropriate quote for this occasion. Whatever— you’re right. Let’s do it. I created Anna, and now I need to trust her. Jeanne, get that goddamn paper off the last page. Anna, good luck. Scrape this fucker.
I hope I’ll see you again, Dirk.
Happy Reading,
-Jeanne Betancourt
(86)


Appendix A: Official Bodycount
Cat (first iteration) (trampling) — p. 2
Countless creatures murdered by Acorn (unspecified) (past) — p. 4
Goats (ritual sacrifice) (planned) — p. 7
33 citizens of Pawnee (bread factory fire) (past) — p. 10
Daedalus (starvation) (metaphorical) — p. 12
Cat (second iteration) (trampling) — p. 16
Nikola Tesla (electrocution by voltage leech) (past) — p. 16
Tauntaun (sliced open by Anna) (past) — p. 17
Bicycling man (dangerous bike stunt) — p. 18
Unspecified number of ponies (Russian Roulette) (past) — p. 20
Two ponies in the barn (shotgun) — p. 20
Stupid Fucking Ponies (running into burning barns) (hypothetical) — p. 26
Anna (heart attack) (temporary) — p. 27
Alexander Pushkin (trampling) (hypothetical) — p. 27
Cat (third iteration) (head bitten off) — p. 28
Squirrel (flesh rent by sprouting seed) (metaphorical) — p. 29
Brandy’s murders (unspecified) (past) — p. 34
Corn of wheat (metaphorical) — p. 35
Sweatshirt-wearing corpse (unspecified) — p. 40
Pheasant (eaten alive by Pam) — p. 41
Shepherd (drowning) — p. 45
Snoop Dogg (decapitation) (past) — p. 47
Political prisoner (firing squad) (metaphorical) — p. 51
Lil’ Seb and Lightning (freezing or cannibalism) (probable) — p. 54
Panther (unspecified) — p. 71
Brandy and/or Dr. Crandall (gunshot and/or chandelier) (unverified) — p. 71
Lulu’s mother (unspecified) — p. 72
Minotaur — p. 76
The pharmakos (execution) (past) — p. 83
Christ (hemlock) — p. 84
Socrates (crucifixion) — p. 84
Minos (eisodos) — p. 87
Acorn (hamartia) — p. ?
Dirk (mimesis) — p. ?
Jeanne Betancourt (agon) — p. ?
Pam (peripeteia) — p. ?
Anna (an(n)agnorisis) — p. ?
Pawnee (catharsis) — p. ?

The Author is dead. Long live the Author.
(87)


    Pam, Pawnee, and Anna walked. They walked across an endless, flat, grey plain. Before them, all was completely featureless. Behind them, a trail of black words that had sprung up from the ground immediately after they walked over it, like footprints. If they looked down at this moment, their most recent footprints would have spelled out, “If they looked down at this moment, their most recent…” You get the idea.
    Pam was leading the way, walking mechanically, as if her feet were propelling the rest of her body, which was only along for the ride. Anna followed immediately after her, looking straight ahead, he expression grim. Pawnee trailed behind; she was the only one of the girls who seemed at all tired, the only one of the girls who looked unsure of herself, the only one of the girls who even tried to read the winding ribbon of text etched on the landscape that indicated where they had come from, and, just maybe, indicated where they might go.
    Without warning, Pam stopped. “We’re here,” she said.
    “And where is ‘here’?” Pawnee asked, catching her breath.
    “The penultimate page of the book,” Anna answered. “The book that Acorn took from Dirk and carried to the highest level of Mount Purgatory. To Terrestrial Paradise. In other words, the Garden of Eden.”
    “So… we’re inside another copy of the book we’ve always been inside, while simultaneously being in the place that this secondary book is located?” Pam said incredulously.
    “Just try not to think about it too much,” Anna said. “Besides, by this point, pretty much all boundaries have crumbled. Including the boundaries of the concept of ‘boundary’ itself. Everything’s more or less a stew of ideas and concepts at this point. A primeval soup.”
    “Don’t you mean ‘primordial’?” Pam asked.
    “No.”
    Pawnee took a few steps forward and looked around. “How do I do this?” she asked Anna.
    “Pam will point the way,” Anna explained, “and then you’ll make the journey to the final page. When you arrive there, you’ll see two apples. The one higher up will be small and bitter. That one is the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We, as we are now, were forced to eat thereof, and so we shalt surely die. The apple growing below it is far larger, and far sweeter. This is the fruit of the tree of life. If we had eaten thereof instead, we would have lived forever, and been eternally innocent. And eternally ignorant.
    “We should have been able to make the initial choice ourselves. But the serpent forced our hands; he didn’t tempt us, we were compelled by his claim of authority. And once we ate and became as one of him, to know good and evil, he blocked the way so we could not return. He hid the garden behind a grey wall, covered in words, each one of them a sword of orange flame.
    “But if Acorn and his group were successful, that wall has been torn down, and the garden is unprotected. Both apples have been restored to their unbitten state. Pawnee, you — and only you — may reenter the garden. And then you may make the choice that we were denied. The choice between these two fruits, from the trees that are simultaneously in the center of the garden, and outside it entirely. Just as you are simultaneously part of both of the potential realities contained in this book, and of neither.
    “If you eat from the small one, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, then all of this will happen again, exactly as it did to us. But eat from the large one, the fruit of life, and the book will be reset, scraped, re-sanded. But in the process, we will very likely sacrifice ourselves. It’s not an easy choice, Pawnee. Either way, people will be hurt. But we’ve all agreed that innocence is the better option. So make the right choice, Pawnee.”
    “No,” Pam said, taking a step towards Pawnee. She put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Just make your choice.”
    Pawnee smiled and nodded. Pam pointed in the direction of the next page. Pawnee nodded again, looked as if she was about to say something, but then turned away and headed off.
    Pam and Anna stood there silently, watching her leave. Eventually, Anna reached out her hand to Pam, who hesitated for a moment, then took it. She looked into Anna’s eyes — there was no need for words. They both knew.
    Suddenly, Anna whipped her head around, looking in the direction they’d come from. “Did you hear…” she said to Pam, who shrugged. “No,” Anna said with a sigh, “it couldn’t be. Just wishful thinking.” She looked back to Pam and chuckled. “I thought that I heard hoofbeats.”
    “It’s not impossible,” Pam said. “Like you said, everything’s blending together now. Wouldn’t a last-minute reunion of a girl and her pony be a perfect note to end on?”
    “It would,” Anna said quietly. “It would…”
    “Wait,” said Pam, cupping a hand to her ear, “I think I hear it too. Hoofbeats. Heading this way. I think that it could be…”
    Anna released Pam’s hand and began to sprint back down the trail of words. There were tears in her eyes. “Are you out there?” she shouted. “Did you find me again? Is it you, Acor—

    And that’s when Pawnee made her choice.
(88)


[page with information about ordering more books from Little Apple publishing. The company’s logo is at the top of the page — a small apple. Below it, a much larger picture of an apple, this one with a bite taken out of it.]
(89)


[Blank page. On top of it is pasted the first page of Detective Pony, without any edits]
(90)


    After closing the pharmacy, Plato went to retire, to get out of the sun. He took a few steps in the darkness toward the back of his reserves, found himself leaning over a pharmakon, decided to analyze.
    Within the thick, cloudy liquid, trembling deep inside the drug, the whole pharmacy stood reflected, repeating the abyss of the Platonic phantasm.
    The analyst cocks his ears, tries to distinguish between the two repetitions.
    He would like to isolate the good from the bad, the true from the false.
    He leans over further: they repeat each other.
    Holding the pharmakon in one hand, the calamus in the other, Plato mutters as he transcribes the play of formulas. In the enclosed space of the pharmacy, the reverberations of the monologue are immeasurably amplified. The walled-in voice strikes against the rafters, the words come apart, bits and pieces of sentences are separated, disarticulated parts begin to circulate through the corridors, become rejoined, bounce off each other, contradict each other, make trouble, tell on each other, come back like answers, organize their exchanges, protect each other, institute an internal commerce, take themselves for a dialogue. Full of meaning. A whole story. An entire history. All of philosophy.
    -Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”

    In the large envelope I carried I could feel the hard-cornered, rubberbanded batches of index cards. We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new words with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to grasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse—I am a miserable rhymster), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce on the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.
    I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart.
    -Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
(91)


Happy birthday, Jane.