"Harris! Come in here, I have a job for you."
Malcolm Vincente was a small, mousy man with a thin wisp of hair that valiantly struggled to cover more territory than it should. He wore coke-bottle thick glasses, and his left eye always seemed to stray slightly from where the right was focused. At the moment, it was focused on the man who had just walked past the open office door. Mal was the editor in chief of the Saskatoon newspaper, and he had earned the respect of most of his staff over the years despite, and because of, his stern management style.
Steven stepped into the office. "Hey Chief, what can I do for you?"
Mal considered the man in front of his desk. Steven Harris was a tall, dark-haired man with green eyes that sometimes appeared dark, sometimes luminous, depending on the light. He had nice, regular features; a brilliant smile, when he chose to let it out, and a nose that most plastic surgeons would kill for. Mal discounted the probability that Harris had had work done; it just wasn't his style. He used to think that Harris was one of a kind in the looks department, and sometimes nursed a tiny flare of jealousy that he himself had been shorted, and Harris had gotten more than his share. "There's a guy I want you to see. The Sunday section wants to publish excerpts of his book in serial, and I need you to oversee the project, and give him some help polishing it up."
"So is this a babysitting job?" Harris frowned slightly, the skin crinkling between the dark streaks of his eyebrows.
Mal gave Steven a wall-eyed look of appraisal. "Hardly—he's a little old for that. Think of it as a chance to step up to the plate. There's another reason, but you have to see it for yourself."
"What's that?" Steven groaned to himself, another one of Mal's Famous Projects, but an opportunity to shine as an editor rather than just another newspaper copywriter was definitely tantalizing.
"Oh no—you need to go and see for yourself. Think of it as being on assignment, which you are. I'll have Benny cover your phone for you." Mal tore a note off the pad on his desk and handed it to Steven. "They want the copy in two weeks, by the way."
"Two weeks! I haven't even seen the thing." Steven looked at the address, a hotel here in Saskatoon. Molly was going kill him—a two-week deadline effectively put the kibosh on him chaperoning the class trip to Regina.
"Steven, he's a professional; they just want it to have the old Harris polish, eh?"
Steven tried again. "So what's this guy like?"
Mal leaned back in his chair, tapped the pencil tip on the desk pad like a drumstick and gave Steven a stranger-than-usual look. "He's expecting you. Rather, he's expecting someone from the paper. I doubt he's expecting you."
* * *
Matthew disconnected the cell phone and tossed it on the table. He was annoyed as hell that the device had interrupted his meditation, but the voice at the other end had sounded eerily familiar, although he couldn't put his finger on why. He couldn't recall ever having spoken with a Steven Harris before.
Arranging his long legs into a complicated lotus position in front of his portable shrine—a bowl of water, a flower and a mandala, he slipped the tingsha back onto his finger and began to chant, returning to his meditations. He wasn't sure how long it had been when the knocking on the door finally brought him back to full awareness. "Christ." He pulled the finger chimes off his fingers and crammed them into his pocket as he yanked the door open.
"Hi. I'm Steven Harris…" The man in the doorway began, and then trailed off as he got his first look at the room's inhabitant. Matthew was dressed in a somewhat misshapen blue sweater that was definitely on the ancient side, over pair of ratty khaki slacks. Steven was stylishly dressed in dark trousers with sharp creases, a fine cable knit sweater of blue under an artfully battered leather jacket. Aside from the vague similarities in their sartorial finery (or lack of it), what really stopped the presses was that they looked exactly alike one another.
"Oh, wow. This, uh, this is really weird." The two identical men stood in the doorway and stared at each other for a brief moment. "Shit, what am I thinking, come on in, Matthew Random."
Steven stuck out his hand, Matthew accepted, and they shook hands. "I'm sorry, but I have to ask, where are you from?" Steven asked as he stepped into the hotel room. There was a candle and incense burning in a cluster on the floor, filling the air with the pungent scent of sandalwood.
Matthew smiled and led the way into the room. "Sometimes I live in Princeton, the rest in Vancouver—but my family was from Ottawa. You want to sit down? Can I get you something to drink? Where is your family from?"
Steven sank into the offered chair, feeling a little light headed. "No thank you, nothing. I'm a local boy, Saskatoon." He shook his head. "I knew something was up, since my boss warned me that I just had to see this for myself, but I had no idea."
"I have always heard that every one has a twin somewhere, you just never expect to meet them." Matthew had sat cross-legged on the couch across from Steven, and was leaning forward. He openly stared at the identical man who Fate had seen clear to drop into his hotel room. "Do you believe in fate, Steven?"
Steven had had Fate drop into his backyard in the shape of a baby elephant, and he was still uncomfortable with the idea of unknown, higher powers messing about in his life. "I don't know, maybe."
"So, all we have to do is uncover what the Fates intended, when they set this up." Matthew was grinning; a new mystery to investigate had just fallen into his lap.
No, he wasn't going to get sidetracked here. Mal had to have decided this was a test. Steven replied a little shortly, "Since we've got a two week deadline for the paper, maybe we had better get that done, before we uncover anything else."
That startled Matthew. "Oh, yeah! Hang on; I'll go get it." He unfolded himself from the couch and went into a back room and came out with a rumpled brown paper sack that looked as though it had seen better days, and matched his khaki pants exactly. He poured the contents out onto the table in a drift of legal yellow pads, small journals, and napkins with scribbles on them.
Steven was shocked for the second time that day. "You mean it's all handwritten?" He looked at the pile in dismay. He was so fucked.
"Oh no, this is all the research I did, notes, and stuff. The document is on my laptop."
Internally, Steven heaved a huge sigh of relief, and wondered about the display of junk. "That's great, where's the publisher's galleys?"
"Uh, don't have them yet. They were still working on them, last time I checked."
Steven shook his head slightly. "When do you expect to have them?"
This worried him; he didn't want to publish anything in the Sunday section that wouldn't be in the book, and if the galleys weren't done… It could be bad.
"I think she said in a couple of days." Matthew didn't seem to be at all concerned about the fact that his work was about to be published in a national half-sheet, and he didn't have the final product.
"Do you have a copy of your document I can take with me? I should at least have an idea of what I'm dealing with."
Matthew cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable for a moment.
"Uh, probably, how did you want it?"
"How did you get it to the publisher?" Steven pinned a look on Matthew that was just short of a glare. 'He's a professional', Mal said. Yeah, right.
"April burned it to a disk for me." Matthew appeared to think furiously, as though he wasn't sure if he could duplicate that effort.
Steven rubbed his forehead; his head tilted down so Matthew wouldn't see his frustration. "Can we burn another one?"
"It was kind of complicated," he admitted, "and I wasn't really paying attention."
Steven managed to get a tighter grip on his fast growing ire. "All right. Why don't we go down to the office, and we'll have the IT guys connect it to the network, and we'll copy it there."
"Sure, that's fine. I'm driving down to Lethbridge today, and I won't be back until Wednesday, so there's another day for you."
"What's in Lethbridge?" He was getting sidetracked again, but he took the bait anyway.
Matthew nearly gushed, "I've got a lead for an article I'm writing on UFO sightings."
Steven was able to maintain a pleasant, bland mask. "Sounds great. Do you want to follow me down to the office, or do you want to ride with me?"
Matthew gave him a quizzical look—as if he hadn't even heard the part about going to the office. "Oh, no, you just take the laptop and do what you want with it. I'll get it back from you in a couple of days."
This set Steven back a step. "I don't think—"
"No really, it's fine. I don't need it for a while, I always take notes and do the first draft on paper, and I trust you." Matthew smiled widely at Steven's evident confusion.
"How can you trust me, we've known each other what, two minutes?" Steven wasn't just confused, he was flabbergasted, but years in the newspaper business had schooled him to disguise disbelief: it tended put off interviewees.
"It just is. Besides, I could track you down if necessary—I doubt you'd quit your job and move away over a crummy laptop."
Steven just nodded, pulled a StarPhoenix business card and pen out of his jacket pocket and scribbled his cell number on the back, this yahoo probably couldn't figure out the recall on his phone. He thought about all the mayhem he could wreak on the computer—some of it even by accident. "That'll reach me wherever I am--office, home, whatever. Call me when you get back in town."
"Do you want my cell number?"
"Actually, I have it—I called you?" Steven lifted his cell phone in the air and wiggled it. Oh yeah, this was going to be great.
Matthew shoved the card in his pants pocket. "Oh, right! Well, anyway, I'll check back in a couple of days. If you need more time, let me know, I can always change my plans." Matthew scrounged up a slim canvas bag from underneath a well-used duffle bag, and crammed into it the said laptop and power cord. Steven felt a small flare of jealousy over the apparently carefree journalistic lifestyle this man enjoyed. He could have gone freelance, but a home and family, and his own deep-seated need for security, had taken form in a job at the paper and marriage to his college sweetheart. He quashed the feeling ruthlessly, this is the way it was, he loved his family, and he was on his way to bigger and better things; namely an editorship at The StarPhoenix. He stood when Matthew handed him the satchel. "Good enough. Is there any password?"
Matthew shook his head and gave Steven a rueful smile. "No, no password. There isn't anything on it that deserves that kind of security."
"Well, have a safe trip." Steven was determined to at least be polite; this guy had come out of nowhere and for some reason, he annoyed Steven.
Matthew escorted him the few feet to the door, and Steven offered his hand, and Matthew took it in a close, two-handed grip. "Thanks, and enjoy the book."
Steven pulled his hand out of the unconventional grip as soon as he could without seeming rude and kept up his bland mask. "It was a pleasure to meet you."
"The pleasure was all mine."
He had barely cleared Matthew's hotel door when he had his cell phone out, hitting speed dial number three and continuing onto his car in the parking lot of the very nice hotel in a trendy section of town. Steven hadn't expected a bohemian version of himself at a place like this.
"StarPhoenix, Vincente speaking."
Steven nearly exploded all over the phone. "Who's in on the joke, and how did you find that guy?"
"I take it that this is my favorite employee to whom I just gave a plum assignment, despite the fact that I have six other capable editors at my beck and call?"
"Yeah, that's him, uh me, I mean. So this isn't some bad dream, and I'm not going to wake up feeling relieved?"
"I cannot speak to whether or not you are awake, but we're definitely speaking, and you definitely have an assignment. So, I take it this guy was a total flake?"
"I'm not even sure that comes close to describing it. He hasn't got the galleys back, so he gave me his laptop, because he's leaving town."
"Whoa, no shit. I thought he might be a little out there, because of his CV, but that is a bit over the top."
"Nice enough guy, but he almost oozes sincerity, said he trusted me. Hey, wait, you've got his CV?"
Mal chuckled. "Steve, he sounds like an excellent judge of character. And yes. I've got his CV; it has a picture on it, which is only one of the reasons I chose you for this assignment. No, you may not see it."
Steven had just taken a breath to ask that very question, but huffed it out in a sigh when he got the answer.
"So Steve, as nice as it is that you called your boss to vent, I actually have work to do."
Steven had long since given up trying to get Mal to call him Steven; Steve sounded slight oily and unsavory, and he had never allowed anyone else to call him that. "Oh, yeah there is one other thing. Can you give me the name and number of his publisher?"
"That, I have, and I will email to you. Anything else?"
He took a deep breath and rushed into his spiel. "I'd like to work from home for this project, since Benny is already covering the phones…" Steven held his breath. The publishing giant that had recently purchased the local paper had instituted some changes; the worst one was that you were expected to work from the office every day, unless special circumstances applied, and permission to telecommute was given. Steven certainly thought his situation applied, and he was hoping that Mal saw it that way too.
"Sure Steve, not a problem, but this means that your deadline is firm—no excuses. Keep in touch!" With that Mal disconnected, and Steven was left listening to dead air as he got to his car. He tossed the laptop bag into the trunk of the modest four-door sedan in nondescript beige and then pulled out of the parking lot to head home.
Daniel was at school, Molly was at work, Lumpy was hanging out in the backyard, and for once, the house was blissfully quiet. Steven was comfortable with the technological accoutrements of his business, so it was with confidence that he settled in at his desk in the den, and pulled out Matthew's laptop. Crap, it was a Mac. He called the Mac Guru at the office for a quick lesson in navigation, and then settled in to scrounge around for a while, as the Mac file directory was a nightmare. He couldn't help but open a few files; curiosity was a natural trait for someone in his business—furthermore, Matthew had just dumped the damn thing on him without a word of caution or direction, so he couldn't really be blamed for perusing at will. Whatever organizational system Matthew used (if he had one at all), on top of the Mac navigation system, was senseless to Steven, but the tidbits he uncovered were note-worthy. Matthew had an interesting writing style, a compelling combination of passion and objectivity. It just aggravated him more that a flake like Matthew could pull that off. Steven skimmed a few things before stumbling on the novel and settled in to read.
Daniel arrived home from school with Trout and Alexander in tow. Daniel was a constant, sad reminder of his dead wife, her freckles and sandy hair. Trout was thin and dark and curious, and Steven was reminded of a civet that wore heavy glasses. Alexander was their former tormentor, and Steven could easily see why. He was overly tall, and even so, hadn't yet grown into his girth—Alexander would be one of those larger-than-life men when he was fully-grown. Steven spent a few minutes chatting with them while they made peanut butter sandwiches, and then they disappeared to feed Lumpy and maybe go on out to Trout's fort to work on their Top Secret Project. Steven pulled a couple of things out of the freezer for dinner and straightened up around the house, put in a load of laundry and helped Daniel with his homework when he came home. When Molly arrived, he greeted her with a warm kiss. She was a petite woman with an unruly mop of auburn hair, large, liquid brown eyes and a quick smile. He followed her to their bdroom, and they talked while she changed from a power suit in brilliant scarlet into shorts and a t-shirt and then together went downstairs to prepare dinner, even though it was Steven's turn. Over dinner, he told them about his morning adventure, how much Matthew Random looked like him, and how he was a writer, too. Then he delivered the bad news about the Sunday section project, and that he would have to pass on the school trip to the capitol. The excursion couldn't be rescheduled; there were several hundred sixth graders to contend with. Daniel was disappointed but accepted it with as much grace as an eleven-year old could.
Molly talked about her day in court, the ramifications of her victory on public policy, and her opinion about the school board's attempt to insert Intelligent Design into the curriculum. Daniel revealed that he had aced the science test, but his composition had gotten less than stellar marks. He complained that since the teacher knew his dad was a writer, she expected more from him than everyone else in the class. When Steven offered to speak to her, Daniel made an awful face, and declined the offer—it would just make it worse.
Molly and Daniel were in charge of after-dinner clean up, so he pulled the load of clean towels out of the dryer, folded them and put them away and then took a shower. He pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of sweat pants and then returned to the den to continue reading. Oh, how his fingers itched to fix the mild grammatical issues: out of place commas and semicolons, dangling participles, and the rare split infinitive—until the temptation was too much, and he'd had to stand up and walk away from the powerful need to edit. It wasn't his place—yet. It gave him a warm feeling of gratification that the guy had an obvious fault that he did not. Steven's writing had been honed from years of having to get it right the first time around, because there was never any time for a second chance.
He put Daniel to bed, chatting with him for a few minutes, as was their routine. After he'd said good night, Steven went to make a pot of coffee; he had a firm deadline, and there would be no getting out from under it. Steven didn't consider the time he spent with his family a distraction; it was time when he would've been at home anyway. Tomorrow would be more productive; it was likely that he'd never change out of his t-shirt and sweat pants.
Taking a cup of coffee with him, Steven found Molly at her desk in the den. She rose and gave him a kiss and went to say goodnight to Daniel, as was her custom as well, even before she'd married Steven. Molly returned to her work in the den, and they sat quietly, each deeply engrossed in their respective work, but appreciating the presence of the other. They had been friends for years, but Steven had been blinded by grief for his dead wife who'd been Molly's best friend. He had eventually realized that he was hiding his feelings for her behind his grief, and now he could scarcely imagine his future without Molly.
After several hours, Molly startled his concentration with a kiss on the back of the neck, and Steven turned off Matthew's laptop and followed her to bed.
"So how's that story?"
"It's both terribly interesting and frustrating. Since it's his rough draft, I keep stumbling over the punctuation; but otherwise it's good, very good. I think I'm jealous, actually." He turned off the lamp and gathered her in his arms, gently nuzzling her chin with his nose. She arched her eyebrow, which he felt more than saw in the dark room. "Really. About what?"
"He's fucking talented. He's got no apparent strings, he's freelance and comes and goes as he pleases. The only thing that keeps me from going over the edge is that he's a total goof."
Molly stilled slightly at that. "Do you wish you didn't have any strings?"
Steven chuckled into her neck and smoothed his hand over the curve of her hip. "'No. I love my strings."
"That's right, buster, and don't forget it. It's perfectly natural to look over the fence, there's a cliché for just that reason."
"You know, I deal with freelancers all day long. I read stuff that's undoubtedly brilliant all day long, and some of it's even my own. I think it's because—don't laugh—because he looks like me. It's like looking into some bizarre mirror, with a peasant on the other side."
Molly's own hands were busy. "Does he do threesomes?" she giggled.
Steven shut off that line of thought with a kiss; they were not going to go there, even in jest.
* * *
It was a glorious, Canadian fall day. The deciduous trees that dotted the evergreen forests were a riot of red and orange; the wheat fields of Alberta were lush golden, the heavy stalks bending in waves before the wind. The open sky was a brilliant blue from horizon to broad horizon, and the air was crisp and clean. Matthew understood that a day like this was a gift, and he accepted it. The windows in the Land Rover were open wide; he sucked in the fresh air that rushed around him and took the long way round to his destination, following a river road for a while, poking about in the small towns, hay fields and forests along the way. His thought strayed occasionally to Steven Harris; Matthew just loved a mystery, and what better mystery than a stranger who looked so similar to yourself, he could be your twin? Though he did have some thoughts about the odd confluence of karmic events that'd had to line up just right for them to meet. His publisher had insisted that this was the right person for the job, so Matthew was fairly sure it wasn't really coincidence at all. Steven might look like him, but he was definitely different. He had a good deal of anger that wrecked his aura, and from his appearance, a disturbing reliance on the products of consumerism. Matthew was certain that the guy would be dead of a heart attack at an early age, if he didn't lighten up. Eventually he arrived at his destination. Lethbridge was just another town relatively close to the US border; it wasn't particularly clean, and Matthew could see that it would be considered ugly by some, but he put on his mental rose-colored glasses and saw the good things. It was home to the denizens of the community, and he was sure that it must have its own charms just waiting to be discovered. The Aliens found Lethbridge attractive, and Matthew was certain he would, too.
He pulled in to an interesting looking café on the main thoroughfare; not only did he need to eat, but clichéd or not, waitresses were a pretty good place to start when looking for gossip. He already had the names of the folks he intended to talk with, but getting the background chatter always added that extra dimension to his understanding.
Matthew chose a couple of items from the tattered menu that fit his vegetarian lifestyle, and tried to chat up the waitress, but his luck had landed him a sour, close-mouthed, older woman who sniffed at ridiculous things like UFO's and the people who might have seen them. He enjoyed his meal anyway, and the coffee was excellent, so he felt that he had profited overall by the experience.
The next order of business was a place to stay, and naturally he chose the UFO Inn. Here he hit pay dirt, the proprietor had plenty to say, and Matthew managed to keep him talking for a couple of hours; it appeared that there were no other customers this fine, fall evening. It was late when Matthew finally made it to his assigned motel room. It was plain and utilitarian, but it kept the cold out, and the rain off, and he'd spent the night in many a worse place. He pulled out a spiral bound notebook and made notes on the innkeeper's conversation until the early hours of the morning.
When he did finally fall into bed, he noted the time. He jumped back out of bed, retrieved his cell phone, and laboriously dialed April's number in Hong Kong. She'd gone back to her birthplace to care for her ailing mother; Mother Lam said that the round-eyed foreign devil gave her indigestion, and so Matthew had stayed home. He longed to be there; he knew April must be terribly torn, away from work and her adoptive county, while in her childhood home and with her mother. They talked for an hour, unconcerned that they were racking up an unconscionable number of roaming, international cell phone charges. Matthew told her about the Sunday section for his story, and the unlikely newspaperman that had come to the hotel. April scolded him mildly for letting the laptop out of his possession, but Matthew reassured her it would be fine.
April spoke of her adventures of the day; she'd run into Tong at the market, and as was his custom, he'd bought egg tarts for Mother Lam, and then they'd had a beer over lunch. His band was doing well, and he was happier than she'd ever seen him. She confessed that she felt guilty that she had made him so miserable, but Matthew shushed her. Tong was happy now, she was happy now (her mother's illness notwithstanding) and that was all that mattered.
When their self-allotted hour was up, they murmured their mutual love to each other, and then Matthew was alone once more in his dingy motel room, the love of his life many thousands of miles away.
* * *
In the end, it had taken Steven three days to finish reading Matthew's novel. He felt a little bereft now that it was ended, he had wanted it to go on forever, and that annoyed him. It would be a best seller if the publishing house gave it the proper exposure, and he supposed arranging for the preview in a national Sunday supplement would be an excellent beginning. The promised galleys had arrived by overnight courier that morning, and he expected Matthew to arrive shortly to work on selecting suitable excerpts, and presumably retrieve his dratted Mac.
Steven pottered about the house straightening things up, and after signing for the galleys from the overnight courier, took a couple of pounds of carrots out to Lumpy and had a short conversation with him. It was funny; ostensibly the elephant was Daniel's pet, but Steven found him to be a fantastic listener. Steven scrubbed at a flaky spot on Lumpy's hide with a stiff brush and left him to his carrots with an affectionate pat. He worried that the elephant might need more room than their backyard; but all in all he seemed pleased to be there, and he certainly didn't lack for companionship. Some day soon, Lumpy would grow out of the backyard and Steven didn't like to think about that eventuality. He knew Daniel was dreading the inevitable, as well. The doorbell was ringing as Steven came in the back door. His good mood from chatting with Lumpy sustained him when he opened the front door, and, as expected, found Matthew on his doorstep. "Hey, come on in, would you like a cup of coffee, have you had breakfast? I was just looking after Lumpy, need to wash my hands." Steven was unaccountably babbling.
Matthew blinked and followed Matthew to the kitchen. "I had a bite to eat at the hotel, but coffee sounds great. Who's Lumpy?"
Steven laughed. "You're going to love this—he's my son's pet elephant."
Matthew's eyes widened. " No shit. Really?"
"You want milk or sugar? I'll take you out to meet him."
"Black is fine. How did you get an elephant?"
Steven handed over the mug and headed for the back door. "It was the damndest thing—Daniel, my son, wished on a falling star for an elephant and, in the morning, there he was, hiding in the playhouse."
Matthew completely skipped over the bizarre assertion that an elephant had appeared in a wisp of comet dust, and zeroed in on Daniel. "Why would he wish for an elephant? That's kinda odd."
"Yeah, I know. I'd already shot down dogs, cats, fish, reptiles—Daniel was desperate for a pet—but he wished for an elephant because they never forget." They stood on the deck, and Matthew took in the unusual sight of an elephant calmly grazing on hay and carrots. It was always interesting to see how people reacted to Lumpy.
"May I?" Matthew gestured towards the elephant, but he noted Steven's remark in the back of his mind, it sounded like a fascinating story, and Steven had definitely not answered the question.
"Oh, absolutely. I insist." Steven hoped he'd step into a pile of elephant crap.
Matthew headed towards the elephant and Steven trailed after him, carefully watching his step. Lumpy greeted his visitor with a gentle nip of his clever trunk, which caused Matthew to laugh excitedly. "This shows a side of you that I didn't expect."
Steven just smiled evilly. He had definitely been known as a person of routine and security; the Lumpy Experience, as he liked to style it, had brought him a home truth about being open to possibility, but maybe not quite open enough for dealing with the likes of Matthew.
Matthew backpedaled immediately on seeing that smile. "Oh, I don't mean that in a bad way, I love to find out that people aren't who they appear to be." He turned away and picked up a carrot that had fallen from the manger and intercepted the questing trunk that was giving his coffee a thorough sniff.
"Somehow, having a probably magical elephant drop into your backyard tends to change a person." Steven said it casually, as if he were dropping a letter bomb into a public post box.
With a final pat, Matthew volleyed a level stare at his doppelganger. "Excuse me?"
Steven shook his head, thinking that maybe his bomb had backfired on him, as they were wont to do; now he had to offer a reluctant explanation. "I had Lumpy taken to the zoo—I was sure that he couldn't live in the backyard. Then, he became ill, and the zoo vet had run out of options—they were going to ship him to another zoo in the States. The circumstances surrounding Lumpy's escape with the assistance of Daniel and Trout were decidedly unusual. There was an eye witness that said he saw them fly over a fence."
"What did Daniel say about that?" Matthew's face had scrunched up in a quizzical look as he thought about that unlikely occurrence."Well, honestly, he's not saying. I'm sure he believes it as well, but I think he was afraid that something like that would seal Lumpy's fate to live in San Diego, and we'd never see him again. I can understand that, so I've never really pushed him on the subject. I think he'll talk about it when he's ready."
"He sounds like a smart kid." Matthew looked back at Lumpy again, as if he couldn't believe his eyes.
Steven was glad to change the subject. "I think so, but then I have a clear bias. Come on. I'll get you a refill on that, and we should probably get to work."
"Oh, sure. So, what did you think?" Matthew asked about his magnum opus as they headed back to the house.
"My honest opinion?"
Steven couldn't resist getting in a dig. "It's somewhere between a Bulwer Lytton and a Pulitzer. I'm curious what your inspiration was, while you were writing." He opened the sliding glass door and gestured Matthew in.
"That's another interesting story." Matthew ignored the barb and paused for a moment, "have you ever heard of clairvoyant vision?"
Steven was taken aback by the apparent change of subject. "Didn't the Russians experiment with the in the seventies?"
"That was actually psychic viewing. At the beginning of the century, clairvoyant vision had a certain amount of popularity, and it was a critical part of Rudolph Steiner's anthroposophy: achieving a state of altered consciousness through which you can see the spirits of nature. According to Steiner, with enough practice, you could eventually reach the first hierarchy, and meet the Cosmic Christ."
Steven blinked. This guy was so out there, he'd fallen into the 'here be dragons' part of the map.
Apparently Matthew had missed the reaction, as he blithely continued. "I'd read his book, 'Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and How to Attain It' and decided to try to reach this clairvoyant state. I didn't expect what happened—instead of communing with nature, I found myself having lucid dreams about the lives of dead people."
"And that's what these stories are? Dead people you saw in a vision?" 'Utter garbage' was the first thing that came to his mind, but Steven was mindful that Matthew believed it and held his tongue.
"I don't think it was a vision, but that I had simply reached some higher plane of existence where I was receptive to what those spirits had to say about their lives." It seemed that even though the experience was so clear to Matthew, he was finding it hard to explain.
"You don't think this was something that was in your subconscious all the while?" Steven's question almost sounded hostile.
"No. It was just fragments here and there, but I did quite a lot of research, and this is what convinced me otherwise—I found that these people existed, their stories were actual history. I just put it in a story."
"That's, that's just… well. Unbelievable."
Matthew shrugged as if Steven's opinion didn't matter, but the offended look on his open face belied the casual attitude. "You did ask."
"Well the source of the inspiration is irrelevant, there's a lot of hard work here, and it shows." Whatever Steven thought about the 'utter garbage' wasn't going to lessen his opinion of the actual book.
"Thanks." Matthew smiled - a look so dazzling that it changed his whole demeanor.
"The good news is that I have the galleys, they arrived this morning." It took more than a few hours for the two of them to decide on which chapters use for the Sunday section. Steven had made note of his choices while he read; Matthew's choices were completely different, and since Steven's professional reputation was on the line, he had to take Matthew seriously, though it was difficult to stay objective in the face of Matthew's zealous arguments in favor of his preferences. Steven needed a copy for himself on his laptop; he didn't have the time or inclination to traverse the steep Mac learning curve in order to get any real work done, and Matthew was going to want his laptop eventually. After Matthew disavowed any expertise with Mac beyond turning it on and using it, Steven consulted with the paper's Mac Guy again. Networking a Mac with Windows turned out to be one of those 'don't try this at home' things, and Mac Guy assured him that he'd be at the office for a couple more hours. Steven disconnected his cell phone and looked at Matthew. "We need to take the laptop to the paper and get some help with this."
Matthew looked relieved. "Cool. I'd love that. Do they actually print the paper there?"
"Yeah, sure. I'll give you the dime tour," Steven said in a resigned tone of voice. He had long since tired of visiting the pressroom, but he supposed it couldn't be avoided this time.
The StarPhoenix was situated in a huge building downtown, and Steven's appearance with Matthew in tow garnered many dropped jaws and stares of open curiosity from the people along their route to the IT department. This only added a little more fuel to his irritation. Mac Guy barely spared a glance for the two identical men standing at his desk, which made Steven feel a little better, but gushed over the state-of-the-art G4 as he connected the laptop to the network. Matthew seemed nonplused by the rave review of the equipment. As Mac Guy copied the files onto the server, he gave Steven the 'net address, and instructions for opening it with his preferred word processing program. With that task finished, Steven started the promised tour from his office, where their appearance virtually halted all work.
Steven let Matthew talk animatedly with his coworkers who were all a-buzz about their similarity, while he copied the file off the server, made sure it wasn't corrupted and that he could open it on his own laptop. Matthew appeared to have acquired quite a large audience. As Steven was powering down his laptop, Mal stuck his head out of his office door and bellowed for "Harris! What the Sam Hell?"
Steven got Matthew's attention. "Hey, the Chief wants us front and center," and after making sure Matthew was in tow, stepped into Vicente's office and made the introductions. "Chief, this is Matthew Random. Matthew, this is my boss, Mal Vicente."
"Now I get it—pleased to meet you, Matt. How's the project going?" With Mal's lopsided stare, it was hard to say to whom he had addressed this question, but Steven gleefully nudged his companion with his elbow and gave him a little shake of the head to ignore the diminutive—he'd never win.
"Oh! Fine, actually. I'm really excited; thanks for letting me have this."
"Wasn't my decision, but you're welcome anyway." Mal gave them a wild-eyed glare. "What're you still doing here? Get to work!"
Matthew looked confused, but Steven interjected, "pleasure as always, chief," and guided Matthew out of the office and towards the elevator. Steven had wondered about how this particular assignment had come to the StarPhoenix; especially considering that Matthew lived on the west coast. He mentally filed that under Mysteries He'd Never Solve, and let it go.
"Matt? What the hell was that?" Matthew looked positively incensed.
The glee had finally found its way to the surface, and Steven smiled. "Forget it. I've tried for years to break him of 'Steve'. We'll take a quick tour of the pressroom, and then we can beat the traffic out of the city."
Steven felt a little bad that he'd misplaced his own wonder when he observed Matthew's reaction to the sight and sound of the presses. The overwhelming din of the huge machines rolling thousands of miles of newsprint never stopped, and the sheer energy was awe-inspiring. Despite the earplugs, their ears rang for a long while after they left the building.
As they left the StarPhoenix building, one of the panhandlers that had staked out the intersection approached them, asking for spare change. Steven started to tell the bum to scram, get lost—when Matthew shot him a disapproving look, and struck up a conversation with the bum in question. Steven, not waiting for a flock of vultures to descend on them to pick them clean, continued to walk to the parking garage. Matthew spoke to the panhandler for a moment, and then gave him more than the asked for spare change, catching up to Steven just as the elevator door was opening.
"You shouldn't do that, it only encourages them."
"I don't know. If his need is greater than mine, what is wrong with showing some compassion towards a fellow human being?"
Steven replied with a stony silence as they rode up to the level where they had left Steven's car. Steven was thinking "lazy bastard" and "soft in the head", while Matthew was thinking "unable to work and in dire need", and "selfish bastard."
On the drive home, conversation in the car was thin on the ground; Matthew made several aborted attempts at conversation, and Steven gave single word answers. His hopes that Matthew would disappear when they got home were quickly dashed as he followed him into the house.
Now the bulk of the project fell on Steven's shoulders—clean up the chosen sections, proofread them to make sure his copy matched the publisher's galleys and abridge the chapters to fit in the allotted column space. Matthew would have to approve those changes and Steven expected a fresh round of disagreements at that stage; no author liked having their handiwork dismantled and reassembled. He planned to avoid having that discussion, until it was absolutely necessary.
Since it was solitary work till that pending argument was had, he could've politely shoved Matthew out the door and set to work, but when Molly had heard the plans for the day, she'd insisted that Matthew stay for dinner. It was going to be a tight deadline, but Steven felt confidant that he could meet it. Still, there was this niggling voice in the back of his mind that warned him to not get too cocky.
Steven didn't want to tackle the next task until he had a good chunk of time, so they sat in the back yard, not really talking. Matthew would try a chatty gambit, but Steven managed to continue to shut him down every time, hoping that Matthew would get tired and go home. When Daniel brought Trout and Alexander home from school, Matthew abandoned Steven in favor of talking with the boys, much to Steven's relief. When they dragged Matthew off to join them in their afternoon rounds, Steven went about his usual after work routine, doing laundry and paying bills. When Steven and Molly had finally merged their households, they had forestalled major arguments about who did what housework by hiring a housecleaner who did the dusting, mopping, and other serious chores. Steven didn't miss doing it, not a bit. Even though he hadn't extended the invitation, by now Steven had taken it as writ that his guest would stay to dinner, as Matthew made no motion to leave, nor made any mention of other plans. Molly thought that staying in a hotel would be wearing, and a home cooked meal would be an appreciated gesture, plus she had evinced an interest in his doppelganger. That thought made him slightly nervous, given her comment the other night. He knew that she'd been kidding when she said it, and he trusted her, but it was a very disconcerting thing to hear your wife inquire about inviting someone into your shared bed, even in amusement. The boys eventually dragged Matthew back to the house, and Steven figured he was in for a penny, in for a pound, so he invited all three of them to stay for dinner. Apparently the idea had merit with Daniel and his friends, because they raced to the phone. Matthew accepted with alacrity—it appeared that Molly had been right about that hotel room.
When Molly arrived home and met Matthew, she was flabbergasted at how much this stranger looked like her husband, and yet how unlike him in personality. Steven could be taciturn and occasionally dour; she saw no evidence in that with Matthew, but she admittedly had just met him. There was something about Matthew that was light and ethereal that shone through his features, while Steven could be broody and dark.
Matthew joined Molly in the kitchen as she cooked, and Steven was feeling a little territorial so he made sure he was right there. She was definitely better at cooking than Steven; it wasn't for his lack of trying—Molly just had a better, innate grasp of the process.
She was also better at small talk, maybe because she was interested.She set them to chopping vegetables for the spaghetti sauce, and then while he was distracted with the task, she got Matthew to talk about his personal life. Matthew hardly needed prodding to talk; he'd been trying to chatter on all day.
Matthew described the hell of trying to run a bed and breakfast, and the disaster it had turned into, the awful job of writing blurbs for sympathy cards, how he'd met April, the hi-jinks and comedy of misdirection that had surrounded the start of their relationship. When Molly asked where April was now, he said that she was back in Hong Kong caring for her mother, and that Mother Lam didn't exactly approve of Matthew; it was out of consideration for her feelings that he hadn't gone to Hong Kong with his wife.
When it was time to eat, Steven had the boys get the leaves out to extend the table and wash up at the kitchen sink where Molly conscripted them to carry plates and food to the table. They cheerfully assisted while talking nineteen to the dozen. It was a scene of mass commotion, much more noisy than usual. Steven would've apologized to Matthew for the clatter, but he appeared to be in the thick of it, and enjoying it.
The meal was more of the same. There were several conversations going on at once, interspersed with the passing of garlic bread and cheese. Steven took a moment to watch Matthew; he seemed to get pleasure from the many different discussions, and he talked to boys and adults with equal ease while carefully pushing the bits of meat in the sauce off to the side of his plate.
While Molly and Steven cleared away the remains of the meal and got out clean bowls and ice cream, she took the opportunity to speak to him privately.
"I was thinking."
"That's never a good sign."
She slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "I was thinking that we might ask Matthew if he'd like to stay here at the house, while you two were working on the project."
The idea surprised Steven. "Hmmm. Might make it easier and more difficult." He gave his wife a sly glance. "You wouldn't have any ulterior motives here, would you?"
That earned him another gentle whack. "Oh, please. No, I was just thinking that he might really be lonely, with April out of the country."
"This is that broken bird syndrome, isn't it?"
"Yes, pick up all the strays and make them all better. It was just a thought."
"I don't know. Let me think about it? It might make me work faster to get him out of here, and have it over and done with."
Molly was surprised. "You don't like him?"
"He's just, I don't know—what's the word?" He thought a moment and settled on "strange." There wasn't anything that he could put his finger on, except for his feeling of unease and his ever-present annoyance around Matthew.
"It's a good strange, I think."
"You're not worried that he might be a serial killer in disguise? They're always so charming, no one ever suspects that they might be bloodthirsty maniacs."
"Nope." She cheerfully pushed past him with the bowls and spoons, and he turned after her with the carton of Chunky Monkey. "I'll think about it," was the only concession he was prepared to give at the moment.
When Molly questioned Matthew about his plans for the next few days, it turned out that one of the people he'd wanted to interview in Lethbridge had been out of town and was expected to return tonight, so Matthew was driving back to Lethbridge the next day, and then going over to St. Paul and the UFO landing pad.
That spurred a chorus of "cool!" from the boys, and new round of discussion about alien abduction. Steven felt relieved. That would give him some time to think about Molly's suggestion, and see how much work he could cram in while he was gone.
After dessert was done, Matthew thanked Steven for the invitation and Molly for a wonderful meal. They left the house together, Steven to drive Trout and Alexander home, and Matthew to the hotel; it was late enough that he could call April. He missed her, but talking to her eased that sentiment. "I might be gone a couple of days."
"Not a problem. If I have any questions, I'll ring you."
Matthew shook his hand and iterated his thanks for the meal. "I appreciate the invite to supper. You have a great family."
"Thank you. I think so."
"Have a good evening." Matthew got in his Land Rover, and pulled away carefully. That was it—Matthew himself didn't seem to jibe with the laptop, cell phone and the new car. He seemed more as if he belonged in a commune, growing pot and weaving baskets. Writing novels about people that had spoken to him in a trance dovetailed nicely with the pot growing, though.
"You too." Steven said to the receding taillights. He felt better, having determined the source of his discomfort.
* * *
The day dawned cold and cloudy with a threat of an early snow in the air; Matthew was determined to not think about Harris, or his bad attitude. Winter was just around the corner, and Matthew looked forward to it. The season was one of promise and rebirth, with nascent spring hidden beneath the snow. He found it incredibly reassuring; endings were always the doorway to new beginnings, the start of the next great adventure. April had not exactly come around to that point of view, but she had come so far in overcoming the superstitious prejudices of her youth that Matthew was terribly proud of her. He recognized that he was in some way her sensei, and that in guiding her to new levels of personal understanding he was also gaining knowledge of the Mahatarani, one of the wheels of Dharmadusavi.
Matthew had failed with Natasha; he hadn't had the necessary level of enlightenment to assist her in her quest for inner peace, but he knew that failure was as valid an outcome as success. He had learned a great deal about himself in the process. The gray sky muted the riotous colors of fall, and the windows were rolled up today, but he took no less pleasure in the view as he drove south. He took a room at the Little A-Le Inn this time, and chatted for a while with the desk clerk before retiring for the evening. The snow that the sky had promised yesterday arrived overnight. It wasn't yet cold enough for any serious accumulation, but Matthew visited the Japanese gardens at the Shin Temple and meditated in the falling snow, concentrating on the joy of being a snowflake, individual and unique and yet part of a greater whole; and what that might mean about Steven and himself.
When Matthew was finished, the sensei invited him in to tea. He was grateful for the warmth, and the chance to learn from the master of this temple. His original introduction to Buddhism had been in the Tibetan sect, but he had explored many different sects' temples in his travels.
He came away from the Shin temple's sensei with much to consider, and rather than lose that train of thought, he returned to his motel room to continue to meditate instead of seeking out his intended interviewee. Tomorrow would be soon enough.
* * *
Now that he had the galleys, and his own copy of the novel, Steven was hard at work. He cut the agreed upon sections from the novels and posted them into a new document, and highlighted the parts he wanted to discard. He began to meticulously make the changes from the galleys, making sure the two documents were virtually identical. When dinnertime came, he opted to order pizza, instead of cooking. Molly helped Daniel with his homework and made sure he bathed and went to bed, while Steven was closeted away in the office, working feverishly. He took a short break to make a pot of coffee and say goodnight to Daniel before returning to his task. He was on a roll and so worked until he finished the corrections, finally falling into bed just before two AM. Steven was exhausted, but his mind was still wound up, and it made him restless. He woke Molly up and she chewed him out for it, but then snuggled in his arms with a sleepy kiss. He made a concerted effort to calm down, and eventually fell into a troubled sleep.
In the morning Steven spent a few minutes with Molly and Daniel before she took the boy to school, and a few minutes scooping up elephant poop with a large shovel, dropping it into a compost heap some distance behind the fence. This was usually Daniel's job, but he felt the need to work off some of the tension of his poor sleep with some manual labor. Steven was the local purveyor of the finest elephant manure in the province; gardeners from all over traded hay and vegetables for the manure. It helped defray the cost, and really—what would he do with it? With an elephant and a pool in the back yard, he had no room for a garden of his own.
When he sat down in his office after a shower, he calculated the word count for length of the space allotted, and began to carefully create three abridged articles composed of two chapter sections each. He spent the entire day at the task, and by evening he was still only half done. It was going well, though. He'd finally twigged on to Matthew's style, which helped a lot. Steven just hoped that Matthew would see it that way—it was simply not possible to just plunk down a section and hope for the best.
Steven felt guilty for working through his family time the previous night, so he rented a movie. After dinner Molly built a fire, he made popcorn, and the three of them watched a movie burrowed together under a blanket. It was just after Daniel had gone to bed when his cell phone rang. He noticed the number on the display and grimaced. And the day had gone so well.
"Hi. How'd you know it was me?"
Honestly this man was such a peasant. "I'm psychic. What can I do for you?" Steven said in a short manner.
"I'm doing well, thanks. How about you?" Matthew pretended that there was a normal, pleasant conversation going on here.
"I'm about halfway through." Steven had forestalled any argument by not thoroughly explaining to Matthew what was going to happen with the serialization, and so he was a little cagey about just what he was half done with. It was not a conversation he was looking forward to. "That's great. I had a little change of plans, and I'm skipping St Paul for now, so I thought I'd head back to Saskatoon."
Oh, here it was, the moment of truth, and he made the decision off the cuff, mainly to please Molly and keep some semblance of peace in that quarter. "Uh, good. Molly and I were wondering if you'd like to stay here with us instead of at a hotel. We've got plenty of room." He didn't say that it was so he could work Matthew to death, and be over and done with him. His mind-set was telegraphed in his tone of voice, enough so that Matthew would have to be a blithering idiot to not hear it.
"That would be great, I'd really like that. It's going to be about three or four before I'm in town." Matthew was casually vague, and he ignored the apparent venom in Steven's voice.
That threw Steven off a little; he made an effort to at least sound sincere. "That sounds fine, we'll see you then."
"Later!" Matthew had sounded positively gleeful as he signed off, and that worried Steven as he tossed the phone back onto his desk. When he crawled back into bed, he advised Molly that they were going to have a houseguest for an unspecified number of days.
"It'll be fine, Steven. He's really fun to talk to." Steven groused under his breath that he must have taken leave of his senses.
"Steven Harris! Are you really jealous?"
"I said I was, didn't I?"
She gave him a sharp pinch on his leg. "You have nothing to worry about."
It was four am when the doorbell roused them out of a deep sleep. Steven looked at the clock, immediately realized his error and groaned. "Christ—I thought he meant afternoon. I should've known." He threw on yesterday's trousers, stuffed his feet into slippers and was pulling a shirt over his head as he answered the door.
"Hi." Matthew stood on the doorstep with a small bag over his shoulder. "I didn't wake you did I?" There was a hint of amusement in those wide eyes, and it really pissed Steven off.
"Matthew. It's four fucking o'clock in the morning! Yes, I was asleep."
The savage retort didn't seem to make a dent in his amusement. "Oh, sorry, I guess I should have been more specific."
"Trust me, next time I'll ask. Come in, you're letting all the cold in," he snapped. Steven's annoyance knew no bounds at this point.
Molly appeared in her robe. "I've got the guest room ready, let me show it to you."
"Thank you." Matthew followed her up the stairs to the unused bedroom, leaving Steven to wonder just when she'd had the time to get the room ready for guests.
Steven wiped a hand over his face, and scrubbed his eyes a little too hard, starting to see stars. There was no way he was going to get back to sleep; his fucking identical twin that his wife probably had a crush on was in the spare bedroom just down the hall. Steven wondered just what evil spirit had possessed him to agree to this insane idea.
He made coffee and turned the television on to the news. He heard the shower start, and he thought that Molly had given up on sleep, and briefly considered joining her; then he had the most horrible thought—maybe it wasn't Molly! He could just imagine barging into the bath to discover Matthew naked under the shower. Oh, god—now he needed to scrub his mind out with a brush and lye soap.
At the risk of future marital discord, Steven vowed to never listen to Molly's great ideas again.
He was awake, and fuming. He didn't precisely slam around the kitchen but neither did he make an effort to be exactly quiet. Steven made a batch of banana nut muffins from the mix in the pantry, and Molly appeared with her hair wrapped in a towel. That was a welcome sight, and he hugged and kissed her as though she'd been away for a month.
"Mmmm. Nice. What has you freaked out?"
He shook his head. He was not going to have this conversation, even if she roasted his feet over an open fire. "Nothing, forget it." He poured her a cup of coffee, and pointed out the timer for the muffins in the oven, exiting the kitchen, before she could interrogate him any further. Carefully checking out the bath to make sure it wasn't occupied by an errant look-alike, he took his own shower, which relaxed him to some extent, then got dressed. His subconscious must've been still in freak out mode from the shower thing, because he chose to wear a heavy, cable knit turtleneck sweater, as if he were a frightened bride. Fortunately the weather made the decision less obvious. When he returned to the kitchen, Matthew was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee and a notebook. Molly was repairing her manicure, the muffins carefully arranged on a cooling rack. She noticed the sweater, but didn't comment on it. Steven piled the muffins on a plate.
Matthew spoke up. "Hey, I'm really sorry, I should have been a little clearer about my arrival time." The thing was, he didn't really sound very sorry at all.
Steven waved it off and sat down at the table with his mug of coffee, and the plate of muffins. "It's fine, don't worry about it. We were about to get up anyway. Have a muffin."
"Okay." Matthew had a faint smirk. He'd deliberately arrived when he did in order to provoke a reaction. He chose a muffin from the plate and pulled the little paper off the bottom of it and took a bite.
"You must be tired, driving all night." Steven grudgingly considered Matthew's condition.
"Not really. It might catch up with me later, but I'm fine. These are good." He'd spent a couple of hours in the back of the Land Rover at a roadside park to deliberately delay his arrival, and the effort had nearly frozen his nuts off. The scheme had worked beautifully. Matthew carefully and surreptitiously observed Steven in what he suspected was the man's natural state: Infuriated.
"Thanks. Duncan Hines' best is about the extent of my baking skills."
"They're still good. I bake sometimes. Bread—it's very therapeutic."
This didn't surprise Steven in the least; it fit nicely with the pot-smoking and basket-weaving image that he was collating in his head. "Huh," was all he said.
Matthew understood that was the end of the conversation. It was sometime later when Molly returned, dressed to kill in the courtroom, and she found Matthew scribbling in his notebook with a small stack of muffin papers beside him, while Steven read the paper. If there weren't an elephant in the back yard, she'd swear they were ignoring the pink one sitting between them.
She sat down and took a muffin and ate it with a second cup of coffee. When she was finished, she poked the back of Steven's paper. "Hey, are you going to be able to take Daniel to school this morning? I've got an early hearing."
He dropped the paper. "Sure, thanks for taking him yesterday, by the way." Steven watched as she put her coffee cup in the sink, tossed the muffin wrapper in the trash and gathered up her coat and brief case.
"Glad to do it, you know that." Molly dropped a kiss on top of Steven's head, and said her goodbyes quickly to escape the near-toxic attitude that was flooding the kitchen. Molly was starting to regret her great idea; she only hoped that they were both left alive when she came home.
After Daniel was dropped off at school, Steven said that he was going to need a few more hours, and for Matthew to make himself at home, and then disappeared, closing the door into the den.
This didn't bother Matthew at all. He cleaned his mess off the table, and went outside to visit Lumpy.
It was around two in the afternoon when Steven had finally finished with his stage of the editing and gotten himself over his early morning snit. He emerged from the office to apologize. He really had been an ass, and Matthew had retaliated as he saw fit.
Steven located him in the den, asleep under the fuzzy tartan throw. It was truly weird to see him there like that. Steven had to admit to himself that the whole problem he had with Matthew was his similarity in appearance. You go through your whole life, and after forty-some years discover that you're really not one-of a kind, but some bizarre cookie-cutter example of nature's sick humor.
But he could see that Matthew wasn't the same. He looked slightly younger physically, although there was something that felt ancient when you looked into his eyes.
Steven left the living room before his guest woke up and caught him gawping; that would be rude. That was something else that bothered him. When Matthew looked at you, it was like he saw something no one else did, and he didn't try to disguise the fact that he was staring. It was very disconcerting and Steven loathed it. He was going to implement another strategy at this point, kill him with kindness. It might make things easier this afternoon.
It was definitely past lunchtime. Steven scrounged around in the pantry for something suitably vegetarian, or at least he hoped it was. Tomato soup, bread, cheese. Check, he'd seen Matthew put cheese on his spaghetti the other night. He made grilled cheese sandwiches and heated up the soup, then found the last apple in the crisper and made
a mental note to see if Molly had noticed the meat thing. Matthew appeared in the kitchen as the last apple slice hit the plate.
"Perfect timing. You want some lunch?" Steven was overdoing it a little on the joviality, but it would take a little time to fall into his new role.
"Yeah, sure." Matthew looked like he was still half asleep, and the couch had left red streaky mark on his cheek. "Anything I can help with?"
Steven set a plate with the soup bowl, sandwich and half the apple slices on the table. "Nope, it's all ready, hope it's okay. Would you like something to drink?"
"No, this is fine."
"Sorry about the spaghetti the other night—you should have said something." Oh, that was better, tone it down and toss in a little smarmy with the fake concern.
Matthew was surprised by Steven's hundred and eighty degree shift in attitude; he'd figured it would happen eventually, just not so soon.
"Oh. Uhm, I didn't figure, I mean..."
Steven nodded. "Wouldn't be polite to say thanks for dinner, but damn it's got dead cow in it?"
Matthew laughed. "Uh, something like that."
"You should have said. Half of what Molly cooks is vegetarian, she'd have been happy to accommodate you. Actually it was her suggestion that you stay here."
Matthew was still smiling. "I like her; there's something very earth mother about her."
"She has a thing, that broken bird syndrome. I used to think that was what attracted her to me."
"You don't appear to be broken now. How did you meet?" Matthew had vague, oddly skeptical look in his eye. "Actually, I've known her since college. Molly was my… first wife's best friend. We married a few years after Sarah passed away."
Despite Matthew's fundamental beliefs about the beauty of death and the gift of rebirth into new life, he wasn't completely insensitive. "I'm sorry for your loss. It's always difficult to be left behind when those we love move into what's beyond."
Steven studied Matthew openly. "You remind me of Sarah quite a lot, you know."
"That must make this even more difficult for you than I had imagined." It seemed as though Matthew couldn't help it, as if he had a nearly pathological need to say what he thought.
"No, I just put that together, though maybe it was something my subconscious was telling me. I think my feelings were hurt, because I wasn't unique anymore."
"It's funny, I was just thinking about snowflakes the other day. How much they all seem to look alike, and yet each is really very different." Steven just nodded. There wasn't any force on earth that would coerce him to say that he'd just been thinking something very similar.
Matthew nodded back with a smile. "When the avalanche comes, the pebbles have no say."
'What's that mean?"
"I have no idea, but it sounds great, doesn't it?"
Steven just rolled his eyes at the non-sequitar and finished his lunch; round two would commence shortly.
* * *
Steven took a deep breath, and began his spiel. He had to convince Matthew that his way was best and necessary. "Here's the thing. We don't have enough room to publish even one complete chapter. The sections we've chosen will have to be abridged to fit in the three publications."
Matthew looked at Steven steadily. "I expected that. I have worked as a journalist for most of the last decade."
They way he said it made Steven wonder briefly just what he'd done for the ten years before that, but was suspicious of his easy capitulation. "Okay, then. The first chapter should start here; and end here…"
The process turned out to be far less grim than Steven had imagined and as complicated as he expected. Despite his slightly scruffy look and his far-out ideas, Matthew really was a professional writer, and understood that it wasn't a personal affront. They deliberated together over the article and Matthew mostly agreed with Steven, but he also vociferously campaigned for his ideas and suggestions.
So much so, in fact that by the time evening had rolled around, only the first of three pieces had been hammered together. Steven was only a little concerned. They were nearing the mid mark of the deadline, but they were more than half way through. Tomorrow they should be able to get through the next two, and that would leave a few days for him to apply 'that Harris polish', as Mal would put it. Molly poked her head into the office. "Hey, how are you guys doing in here?"
Steven stood up, his back cracking as he stretched. "Wow, that was good. I'm ready to take a break. Matthew?"
"That would be nice, yeah."
"I thought I'd take the boys out for a burger and a movie." She said it a bit cautiously, as if she wasn't sure about how that would be received. "Daniel asked."
"Uhm, sure, that sounds fun." Steven went to the door, to give her a kiss. "Is it still raining?"
"Yeah. Don't forget tomorrow morning, we're leaving for Regina," she said.
Steven smiled down at his wife wrapped in his arms. "I did forget." He whispered, "you're going to leave me alone in the house with him?"
"Of course." Molly gave him an evil grin as she whispered in return. "I'm sure that your virtue will be intact when I get home."
He jerked in surprise. "That was kind of mean."
"I'm sorry, it was too easy, and I couldn't resist. I don't get why he freaks you out."
"Matthew doesn't freak me out, he annoys me," he said stiffly. Molly stood on tiptoes and kissed his ear. "We will talk about this later." She pulled away and peeked around Steven's shoulder. "How you doing, Matthew?"
"I'm well thanks, and you?" Matthew was still sitting in his chair, hunched over the desk, absently swiveling back and forth, while he fiddled with some papers, steadfastly ignoring the conversation about him.
"Are you okay?"
"Sure. It's just been a long day."
"Okay then. Don't stay up too late." She tipped her head to the side to look at her husband. "Don't keep him up all night."
Steven rolled his eyes. "I promise." He gave her a kiss and squeezed by to go see Daniel, before they left for the multiplex.
Molly stayed in the door a moment, looking at their houseguest. "You know, he's really an all right guy."
"Molly, I adore you and think you're a marvelous human being. I think Steven's more than a bit of an ass." Matthew looked up from his paper and met her eye squarely. "No offense."
She smiled. "None taken. I think he'll get over it. Daniel and I are leaving for Regina in the morning."
"Oh, I hope you have a great trip. What time are you leaving?"
"Around nine, the buses are scheduled to depart around ten."
"Good then I'll have a chance to say good bye to Daniel in the morning. I don't think I'll be here when you get back from Regina, we're almost done here."
"I hadn't realized you'd gotten so far. It's going well, then."
"I guess. I swear writing the entire book was easier than this."
"Steven's a bit of a perfectionist."
Matthew chuckled. "There's the understatement of the year. But it's good, I'm learning."
"I imagine Steven is learning a few things himself." He had a quizzical look on his face as if he didn't quite believe what she'd said, but he didn't reply. Molly said, "Well, I better go. Movie's in an hour, and we have an appointment at Mickey D's first."
"Have a good evening, Molly."
"You too, Matthew."
Matthew watched Molly as she left the office, considering her words. Just what lesson was Steven taking away from this exercise? His faith told him that there was a lesson in every situation and deed, and that it was merely a matter of contemplation to study the matter in depth long enough to determine what that lesson might be. Matthew didn't see Steven engaging in any sort of meditation.
Steven returned to the office door. "You hungry?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Steven merely quirked an eyebrow at that; it wasn't like he was a slave driver; Matthew could have said something at any time. "There's a Chinese place that does deliveries."
"Sounds good." Matthew smiled in a friendly manner, perhaps his own lesson in this was that Steven would appreciate not having his chain yanked, but it was just too easy. He would have to learn to guard against that predisposition.
"Come on, I've got a menu around here somewhere."
Steven dug around in a few junk drawers before he found the tattered paper menu, and handed it to Matthew.
He took it and studied it for a moment before handing it back to Steven, who picked up the phone to call.
"Wait, aren't you going to even look at it?"
"I always get the same thing."
Mathew thought for a moment. "Do you trust me?"
"Uh, I don't know." Which was his way of saying 'not a snowflakes chance in hell'.
"Let me order, I promise you'll like it."
Against his better judgment, Steven slowly relinquished the phone, "Okay, I guess I can live a little." This was bad, and he couldn't even say why he'd done it.
Matthew smiled reassuringly. "It'll be great." He took the phone and called the restaurant, and ordered in long conversation with a mixture of English and Chinese.
Because of that, Steven had no idea what he'd be eating for dinner. The idea disturbed him. "Chinese?"
"Cantonese. April's been teaching me. I picked up a little Sanskrit when I studied with the Dalai Lama, so I figured I could learn the dialect. But the guy at the restaurant spoke Mandarin, so who knows what we'll end up with." That got the desired reaction from Steven, who immediately looked concerned. "Oh relax, I'm kidding. Have you ever gotten anything there that you hated?"
"The sweet sour pork is always good."
Matthew gave him an astonished look. "There's two hundred items on the menu, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, and you get sweet sour pork?"
Steven stubbornly defended himself. "I like it."
He shook his head. Matthew had to remind himself that not everyone was comfortable with change. "I'll call them back and have them change the order."
"No, don't do that; I'm sure it will be fine." Steven didn't think it was so wrong to get what you like, but despite his trepidation he'd try what ever had been ordered.
"If you hate it, I promise I'll go and get you some sweet sour pork." He'd do it too, but only after Steven was positive he hated everything. Matthew didn't think that was going to be possible, considering what was on order.
Steven opened the fridge, mostly out of habit. "I'm going to have a beer; you want one?"
"I don't drink, but don't let that stop you."
Dinner arrived, and it looked like Matthew had ordered enough to feed several small Asian nations' armies. Vietnamese shrimp soup, chicken and duck and beef, stir fried tofu, and a couple of other vegetarian dishes.
They dug in, and Steven found the soup to be divine, and the other dishes were okay. He considered saying he hated it all just to see if Matthew would do as he said, but eventually decided to let him off the hook. He pointed to whatever it was with his fork. "This is pretty good."
Matthew smiled; there was nothing triumphant in it, just honest pleasure. "Glad you like it." He'd piled the shrimp from his soup on a napkin, and shoved it towards Steven.
He accepted the shrimp, and dumped them in his bowl. "Tell me about why you do this vegetarian thing."
Matthew set down his chopsticks, and made a pass at his face with a paper napkin. "The first precept of Buddhism is that it is your duty to not kill, to have respect for the right of all living things to life. So, it follows that it's not very respectful to consider a cow or chicken as merely dinner. Buddha did not forbid his monks from eating meat, only insisted that it was not killed for them. But generally yes—Buddhists are vegetarians."
"Hmmm. Interesting. So how did you become a Buddhist?" Steven had wondered about the little shrine in the hotel room when they'd first met, but he'd had other things on his mind at the time."My job, actually. I was doing a story on Robert Thurman at Columbia—he was the first westerner to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. When he returned to the states he took a position as the professor of Buddhist studies because there weren't many prospects for Buddhist monks at the time. Thurman is one of the founders of The Tibet House in New York, and a personal friend of the Dalai Lama—he stays with Thurman when he comes to the States. I managed to sweet talk my way into an interview during one of those visits. Tenzin Gyatso's such a kind, gentle soul, and I just fell in love with him. Any way, I ended up going to Dharamasala and studying with him for a while."
Steven had an uneasy feeling about this, and it wasn't going to make him sleep any easier tonight. "Fell in love with him, like a man-crush, or what?"
Matthew rolled his eyes. "Please, a little decorum. Would you ask a Catholic if they had a man-crush on the Pope?" He shook his head. "Even if it was 'what', I wouldn't tell you. I'm pretty sure that it's impossible to not love the Kundun; he's quite a remarkable human being. Except if you're a Chinese Communist, I guess. Though there was a Chinese Marxist that was also a Buddhist."
Steven got another beer from the fridge to cover the needed change of subject. "What was Dharamasala like?"
"Mountainous, cold in the winter, lots of trees and forests. It's really amazing—the town of McLeod Gunj was actually the site of Buddhist temples about twenty-five hundred years ago. Lots of spirituality, and archeology there."
"Why did you leave?"
"I met Natasha, we took off for Greece. I never wanted to follow Thurman and become an ordained monk, and at the time I thought that my path was with her."
"That didn't work out so well."
"But if I hadn't left Little Lhasa with Natasha, I wouldn't have met April. That's worth it. So what about you?"
"What, what about me?"
"How did you get here?" Matthew waved his chopsticks in the air.
"Not much to say. Went to college, got married, got a job, bought a house, had Daniel. The rest you know, only one notable incident."
"Are you happy? Because that's the only important thing, the rest is negotiable."
Steven thought about it for a moment. "Yeah, I am. I have a family, I like my job, and I certainly don't want for anything." Matthew nodded, but didn't comment. The conversation petered out; the long day was catching up to them. They finished eating, and Steven put the leftovers away while Matthew washed the few dishes. Steven grabbed another beer and headed to the living room and turned on the late news.
"I'm going to crash, if you don't mind." Matthew hovered at the entryway to the room.
"Nope not at all. I'm just going to wait up for Molly and Daniel. They should be home soon."
"Okay, have a good evening."
"Matthew—" Steven called out as Matthew disappeared around the corner.
He returned to the door. "Yeah?"
"Thanks for dinner, it was good." It hurt like the dickens to admit it, but it would be rude to let it pass.
"It was my pleasure." Matthew smiled tiredly. He'd basically been up for two days, and the food had put him in a near catatonic state. "See you tomorrow."
Molly and Daniel came home to find Steven asleep propped up in the corner of the couch, the news was just signing off.
She rubbed his arm, and gave his elbow a little shake. "Come to bed, sweetie."
He startled and sat up. "Wasn't asleep."
"Sure. Come on let's go to bed, I'm about through for today, too." "How was the movie?" He stood up and gave her a kiss.
She gave him a hug, and they walked up the stairs. "The boys enjoyed it. Lots of guns, running and explosions."
"It'll rot their brains." They changed into their jammies and crawled into bed.
"They're teenagers—they thrive on it. Daniel's outgrown 'Dumbo'."
"I hope not, 'cause it'd be really difficult to sell an elephant. Besides, Dumbo's kind of a horrible movie, don't you think?"
"Disney's a subversive bastard."
"Yeah." Snuggled in together, Steven dropped off to sleep, not even once thinking that Matthew was asleep down the hall.
* * *
Steven woke up to find that the rain had stopped during the night, and the morning was cool and clear. There was coffee already made, and outside he found Daniel and Matthew sitting together on the ground near Lumpy. "Morning."
"Hey. Daniel was just telling me a little bit about Lumpy."
This aggravated Steven, and his good mood began to evaporate. "Really." He'd very much counted on Daniel telling him that story first.
Matthew immediately realized how that had sounded. "Oh. Not much, just some basic elephant facts."
"Ah. Daniel, are you ready?"
"Sure, Dad. All packed, and Lumpy's had breakfast and everything."
"We probably need to do something about that, too."
"Can we have pancakes?"
"Okay, that sounds good. Blueberries?"
Steven gave Daniel's hair an indulgent ruffle. "I wonder why I even asked."
Daniel shook his head to dislodge his father's hand. "Dad."
Steven understood that Daniel was only rejecting the public display of affection, because Matthew was right there. Teenagers! He dropped his hand, but his expression was still affectionate. "Oh, sorry. Come on then."
Daniel belied his self-proclaimed teenage status and raced to the patio doors and disappeared into the house.
He turned to Matthew and said simply, "kids."
Blueberry pancakes were made and consumed, Molly and Daniel departed amid a scene of minor chaos, and Steven was left standing on the doorstep, facing a whole weekend alone with Matthew. He returned to the office where Matthew was looking over the books in the library. "Shall we?"
"Sure. Part two, right. I'm curious—if these are going to be published a week apart, why do they want them all at the same time?"
"They plan the publications in advance, sometimes months." He thought to himself, why would we drag this out longer than necessary?
"That's interesting. I've been thinking about something; do you know why you got this assignment?"
"Not even curious about that?"
"Briefly, because it's so far away from where you live but I figured that was just how it worked out. Mal said it was because they wanted the Harris polish, but I think he was only appealing to my vanity."
"What cause would he have to do that?"
"It's one of his tactics. I never take it seriously."
"Maybe he really values that in you."
Steven dismissed the idea, it wasn't important. "Maybe. Let's get cracking here. I think we can get this done by tomorrow night, ahead of the deadline. Might even finish it tonight."
Matthew was over his need to poke at Steven, who wanted this over and Matthew out of his hair, and he had his own deadline to meet for the Transcendental Reflector, not to mention he had the galleys to proofread. Consequently, the work proceeded apace.
They had only been at work for a half hour when the doorbell rang. Steven answered it, and found Louisa, the maid, on the doorstep. "Oh Christ, I totally forgot you were coming today."
"Hi to you, too. How're you, Mr. H.?" Louisa was a pale, busty young woman with bright blond hair pulled away from her pace in a messy ponytail.
"Sorry. I'm well, thanks. Come on in. I'm working in the office, so let me know when you want in, and we'll clear out."
"Sure thing, Mr. H." Louisa bustled off upstairs to begin cleaning, top down was her motto.
It was couple hours later when the noise of the vacuum cleaner ceased and there was a knock on the door. "Come on in, Louisa."
The door opened and Louise stopped dead in surprise. "Wow, Mr. H., you never said you had a twin."
"Uhm, This is Matthew Random. Matthew this is Louisa. He's not my brother, we just happen to look alike."
"How does that happen?"
Matthew smiled and rose to greet Louisa. "We're not really sure, but it is interesting, isn't it?"
"I'd say more like freaky, ya know?"
Steven didn't voice his agreement, but he'd actually sort of gotten used to seeing his face on the other man and hadn't considered how it might look to someone else. "We'll clear out of here for you."
"Won't take me two shakes."
Matthew and Steven took advantage of the break and eventually ended up at the kitchen table. The house was never really dirty, but after Louisa whirled through it was spotless. It might not be a very venerable profession, but she took her work seriously. The furniture gleamed, the floors were spotless, and there was a faint lemon scent in the air. True to her word, she quickly finished dusting and vacuuming the office. When she emerged, Steven saw her to the door, paid her for her time, and the two men returned to their task.
They finished the second installment around three in the afternoon and Steven declared it lunchtime. Leftovers were the obvious choice, and Matthew rigorously pulled the meat out from his servings, and offered it to Steven. There was no conversation with this meal; they ate quickly in silence—now that they were so close to being finished each of the journalists were focused on their mutual goal. Arguments were set aside; each just gave in to what the other suggested.
The third installment was completed by nine pm, and they were both exhausted and thoroughly sick of both each other and the damn article. Matthew declined dinner and retreated to his room. Steven wanted leftover Chinese food like a hole in his head, so he fixed a sandwich and a beer and retired alone to decompress with whatever was on television in the living room.
The house was quiet, the tube was turned down low and fairly soon Steven could smell sandalwood incense, and there was a periodic, light chime coming from the guest room. He found it to be quite relaxing, and he nodded off on the sofa.
The sound of a cell phone ringing woke Steven up. He glanced at the time on the VCR, four am and he immediately thought of Molly, and he rushed to find that his cell phone wasn't ringing. A little more awake, he decided that it must've been Matthew's phone. Steven stretched and he cracked his neck to rid it of the sofa-crick, padding into the kitchen to get a drink of water.
He wondered for a moment why Matthew would be getting a call at four o'clock in the morning, but then he remembered that it would be late afternoon in Hong Kong. He went upstairs to bed, and he heard Matthew speaking, he sounded quite upset as he passed the door.He was just on the verge of falling to sleep when there was a soft knock on the door. "Steven?"
He threw back the covers and opened the door. "Yeah, what's up?"
"Good thing we finished, I've got to go to Hong Kong—April's mother just passed away."
"I'm sorry, do you need anything?"
"No, I just wanted to let you know that I'm taking off. There's an early flight to Vancouver, and I've got to pick up my passport—I just didn't want to leave without saying goodbye, and good luck."
Steven nodded. "Okay, thanks. It was interesting to say the least."
Matthew knew that he hadn't behaved towards Steven in a very enlightened way, and he wasn't going to leave without making some repairs to his karma. "I also wanted to apologize, I was rather inconsiderate at times, and I didn't want you to believe that I don't respect you."
"Uh, okay." This took Steven by surprise, and he wasn't really awake enough to formulate an appropriate response.
"Well, anyway, thanks again, and I really enjoyed meeting you." Matthew turned to leave, and he was half way down the stairs when Steven followed him down to lock the front door behind him."Matthew?"
He had already reached the front door, and had it half open when he looked over his shoulder at his name.
"Thanks, I really enjoyed working with you, and I'm sorry I was such an ass—you didn't deserve that from me."
Matthew smiled. "Maybe next time we meet, we can start over."
"Sure, that sounds good." Despite the overall aggravation that Matthew provoked in him, maybe there was also a small, hidden spark of begrudging respect underneath the ire.
"Okay." With that, Matthew was out the door and on his way to another journey.
"Good bye, Matthew. Steven closed the door, locked it and decided it wasn't too late to go back to bed.
April and Matthew had been at home in Princeton only a few minutes when the doorbell rang. "Hang on, I'm coming!"
He threw open the door and found a much disheveled DHL courier standing on the porch.
"This wasn't exactly the easiest place to find. Sign here." DHL guy shoved the clipboard at him, and Matthew scrawled his name and accepted the large envelope. "Have a nice day. Hope I can find civilization before dark."
Matthew answered him as he opened the envelope. "You'll be fine—it's always easier to get out than it is to get in." He looked up when he heard the van take off down the dirt drive. "Hmm."
It was the first copy of the Sunday section with his story, and another separately wrapped package. A business card and a sticky note with a handwritten note in Steven's small careful script was attached to the clipping that offered congratulations on the publication of his novel, and little else. Matthew looked over the paper briefly, and for a moment just enjoyed the pleasure of seeing his work in print.
He set aside the paper and looked at the mysterious package. It was obviously a manuscript from the weight and the way that it had drooped when held up. Matthew tried to think if he'd accidentally left anything of the sort at the Harris' in his hasty departure, and after deciding he hadn't, ripped open the crisp brown paper wrapping. Oh. He guessed that there had been some precipitous event that had caused this to come about, and in consideration of that he wanted to be able to focus completely on it. Matthew set it aside for later in the evening, and set about handling rituals associated with returning to Princeton after a long absence.
Later that evening, after the water and power had been restored, the bastard chickens counted and fed, dinner and dishes done, with April curled up and asleep with her head in his lap, Matthew picked up the manuscript and carefully read it through. When he finished, he glanced at the clock; it was late. He put it aside and scooped April off the worn chesterfield and carried her to bed.
In the morning, Matthew sat down and composed a letter to Steven. He didn't want to call Steven and talk about this, because he had noted that there was a distinct lack of communication between them when they spoke; this was too important for the details to get mucked up, because they were yelling at each other.
He recognized the manuscript for what it was, because Steven sending this to him was a many-leveled message. First, it was an offering of reconciliation, and reciprocation. Matthew thought that Steven Harris doing this of his own accord was slightly unlikely—the offering bore the unmistakable stamp of Molly.
But, the other message was subtler, and it was Steven's alone. It was an unspoken request for assistance in understanding, and that was what touched Matthew the most. He wrote a letter with his opinion and suggestions, then copied it over without the scratched out sections and half start where he'd changed his mind about how his opinion should come across.
After telling April that he was off to town to pick up any waiting mail, Matthew took his letter and paid extra to have it sent overnight to Steven Harris, Assistant Editor care of the StarPhoenix.
* * *
The kid with the mail trolley paused at the desk and asked Benny, "is Mr. Harris going to be here today?"
Benny looked up, and sure enough, there was Harris flying down the corridor of cubicles, just exactly on time. Someday he was going to ask him how he managed to do that. "Yeah, he's right behind you."
"Oh. Mr. Harris, I need you to sign for this."
Steven Harris paused a moment to put his briefcase on the desk and scrounge a pen from the drawer. He signed the clipboard, thanked the intern and took the envelope. He thoughtfully turned it over in his hands once or twice, then shoved it into a pocket on the briefcase and proceeded to boot up his laptop.
"Aren't you even going to read it?" Benny asked curiously.
Steven looked up at his desk mate and replied with a distracted air. "What?"
"Let's try this again. Good morning Steven, aren't you going to read that letter? Who's it from, anyway?"
He gave a brief smile to Benny. "Morning. No, and none of your damn business."
"Don't tell me that the unsinkable Molly Harris has served you with divorce papers."
Steven grimaced. "Very funny. It's personal, and I'm at work. You do remember that, right? Work?"
"Yeah, yeah. Work." Benny rolled his eyes and returned to said work, all the while watching to see how long it was, before that letter burned the proverbial hole in Harris' pocket.
The hours passed, and at lunch, Harris still hadn't opened the letter, an unscheduled meeting had kept him at his desk. It was still in the same pocket when he packed up for the day and left the office. Benny was amazed and annoyed—Steven's very interesting life was a constant source of entertainment, and he really had wanted to know who had sent him that letter.
Steven had barely been able to concentrate all day for thinking about the letter from Matthew. He'd expected a phone call, and it was too much to hope that he'd send an email, but a letter sent over-night delivery had thrown him for a loop. Matthew was seriously bent, and it shouldn't have surprised him; nothing about that pie-eyed communist should have astonished him—it was almost his middle name. He unlocked his beige, nondescript four-door sedan and started it, and then he pulled out the letter as the car idled in the parking garage.
Thank you for the advance copy of the paper, I really appreciated seeing it, and all of your hard work that helped to make it happen.
Congratulations on your promotion, and I trust that it's everything that you hoped it would be.
As for the manuscript, it's an execellent start, but I thik that there's something missing and I believe that you have the capacity to find it. The only advice I have is that you should consider the source.
Best of luck and if I can help you further in any way, pleae let me know.
He threw the paper onto the passenger seat in disgust. 'Jesus, wasn't I just saying that nothing about him should surprise me?' The whole enterprise was stupid, and Steven almost hated himself for it. He'd spent the last couple of months revising his opinion of Matthew, and to his surprise decided that he was essentially trustworthy, hence sending him the manuscript. He roughly put the car in gear and drove home in a fury. Consider the source, indeed. It had been an error of the highest order to rely on his changed opinion—he'd forgotten how aggravating Matthew could be.
By the time he arrived home, he'd managed to get himself under control. He'd show Molly the letter and see what she made of it. The routine of the evening calmed him further, and by the time Daniel had gone to his room, he thought he could almost be civil about the subject.
"Sweetheart, read this and tell me what you think." He dropped Matthew's letter on the table near her and sat down across from her.
Molly folded the newspaper and picked up the note. "Well, it's short and cryptic." She glanced up at her husband, and saw storm clouds brewing in his green eyes. "I gather that you were expecting something else? A pithy comment, the manuscript back covered with red slash marks? High praise?"
Steven grouched, "Jesus. Something, I don't know." He wiped his hands over his face. "I know that there's something missing, I get that—that's why I sent it to him. I thought that of all people, I could get the truth from him, not a mealy-mouthed 'something's missing'."
"That would mean that he told you the truth, which you already knew." She picked up the letter and re-read it, then set it in the center of the table. "What do you think he meant by 'consider the source'?"
"Probably a thinly veiled innuendo that it's a trite piece of garbage by a hack writer."
Molly was shocked. "Steven, you can't possibly think that!"
"I just. Don't. Know."
"I certainly don't think that. You're upset—just set it aside until you can think rationally."
Steven nodded, picked up the note and folded it, creasing the folds sharply with a thumbnail. He tapped it on the Formica a few times, and then smiled wanly. "I'll call him in a few days."
* * *
The phone call wasn't going exactly the way he thought it would.
"Dear God, Steven! Don't think rationally! Rationality is your worst enemy, let it go." Matthew's voice had gone up at least an octave when he heard what Molly's advice had been.
He was beaten; he knew it. Steven sighed. "Okay. Please explain, and I'll try to set that aside."
"What do you think Lumpy represents, what was his purpose?"
Steven thought about that for a minute. "Well, I guess that Daniel was missing his mother, and he latched onto something she said."
"No, that's Daniel's explanation, what was Lumpy's purpose?"
"I don't understand the question."
It was Matthew's turn to sigh. This was exactly why he hadn't wanted to speak about this over the phone; he wasn't getting anywhere, but then again, the meaning of the crucial point would be lost, transmuted, if it was his explanation, not Steven's inspiration. "All right, let's just look at it from a thematic stand point. What is Lumpy the personification of?"
Steven thought he knew this one. "Daniel's need."
Matthew wanted to reach through the telephone wire, ether, whatever—and strangle Steven. How could someone be so pedantic? "Steven, all I can tell you is that I don't think that's the whole answer. Step outside of the story, think about what Lumpy means, and the message that he brought. Actually, that's brilliant—I want you to think about this, there's another very old story that you can draw out some parallels to, the elements are there."
"Well, thanks anyway." Steven replied limply.
"You're welcome, but the only thanks I need are for you to understand what's missing. I believe you'll get it. Consider the source."
"I didn't understand that the first time, what do you mean?"
"It's Lumpy, Steven," Mathew said gently. "And I can't say more than that, this is for you to figure out. Anyway, I need to go, so have a good evening, and I'll talk to you later."
"Sure, good night." Steven disconnected and tossed his cell phone onto the desk. He leaned his elbows on the table and rested his face in his open palms. He was tired. He was confused, and it was all Random's fault. Blast that man—'consider the source', 'parallels and messages'. How could he have loved Sarah so much, her freethinking and the wild abandon with which she lived her life, and yet despise Matthew for being so much like her? Well, that was obvious—he had spent the better part of the last few years trying to bury his memories of her—they hurt so much, and Matthew had brought all of that pain gushing back into his mind, fresh and hot. He'd grieved for her when he finally had to, but it had taken Daniel's despair over losing Lumpy, the last reminder of his dead mother to break the dam. Steven sat up bolt straight, and let his hands fall into his lap while he considered the idea. That had to be what Matthew had meant and he'd said it straight out and yet… He couldn't dismiss it as stupid, because after all there was so much evidence that Lumpy wasn't the usual pachyderm.
It was fairly late and the weather outside was viciously cold, but Steven needed to have a chat with Lumpy. He threw on his coat and joined Lumpy in his little playhouse-turned-barn. They'd had to heat it in order to allow what was normally a subtropical creature to survive the Canadian winter; Steven was still not convinced that they weren't doing a disservice to Lumpy, keeping him in the inhospitable climate. He knew that there would come a day when their backyard would no longer be a suitable place for Lumpy, but in retrospect, he was glad that Lumpy was still with them.
He decided to leave the light off, and dragged a crate over to sit near Lumpy's head. "Hey, old boy how are you?"
Lumpy reached over with his trunk and gave Steven's hand a gentle nudge.
"I don't think I've ever asked you this, but have always wondered. Where did you come from? Who sent you?" He felt faintly ridiculous asking these questions, because he knew rationally that he couldn't receive an answer. But Matthew had said to let go of rationality, and talking to a magical, flying elephant (if Daniel's story was taken at face value) was the least rational thing he could do.
Steven looked at Lumpy expectantly, and the twinkle in the elephant's eye sent a chill through Steven. The starlight through the window wasn't strong enough to reflect like that. Lumpy stepped backwards a few feet and lowered his truck to the straw covering the floor. He cleared a section, revealing the packed dirt underneath and then scratched a word into it with a stick. "MOM".
It was frightening. Steven had heard about the smeared 'HELP' on the wall at the zoo; both he and the zookeeper had attributed them to some prankster breaking in at night, possibly even Daniel. But to see this, an answer written before his eyes to a posed question, left him beyond words. It left him frozen to the crate, staring at the message in the dirt.
Lumpy swayed closer, and wrapped his trunk around Steven's hand, as if to comfort him.
The only thing that was on his mind was how did Matthew know?
* * *
Immediately on waking Molly knew that Steven had not come to bed at all. This was unusual; even if he had stayed up late to work, he would at least spend a few hours in bed. Knowing him as she did, a creature of habit, this departure sparked in her a small measure of concern. She threw on a robe, and went down to the office, where she more than half expected to find him slumped over the laptop. He wasn't there, or in the den, the living room, or the kitchen, and the cars were both still out in front of the house. The snow that had fallen over night was undisturbed on both the walk in front, and the deck in back. She took a deep breath and dialed his cell phone, which immediately rang from the office. Christ, what the hell had happened? Where was he?
Molly was normally calm and collected, and her imagination, while good, wasn't prone to throwing up images of calamity. There had to be some explanation, but at the moment she wasn't thinking clearly, and just as her mind started to ping around considering Matthew's story about UFO's and alien abduction, Steven came in through the back door.
Just as she was about to tear into him with all her worry and concern, she looked at her husband. There was something different about him, and she hadn't managed to put her finger on what it was when he swept her into his arms and nearly hugged the life out of her.
"Good morning, sweetheart!" He had a wide smile on his face as he pressed her lips with a kiss.
"Good morning to you too, where were you? You didn't come to bed; I couldn't find you in the house…"
"Oh, I was out having a chat with Lumpy."
She lifted her hand to his forehead to check for fever. "You spent all night out there in the barn? Talking to the elephant?"
"Uh huh, I did. He's a remarkable creature, really amazing. I think we need to buy the empty lot behind the fence, he's going to need it as he gets bigger."
"So, we're not going to let Daniel get tired of him, then give him back to the zoo?"
"Can't do that, he belongs here. We've always known it, in some way, but we can't ignore or pretend he doesn't any more. He's staying."
"Honey, I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but are you all right?" It looked like Steven, it smelled like Steven (except for the hay and elephant), but it really didn't sound like Steven. A horrible, niggling suspicion wormed its way in. Matthew? "Who are you and what have you done with my husband!" She jumped out of his embrace and clutched her robe together.
Steven laughed, really laughed until there were tears streaming down his face, bent over clutching his stomach. Every time she thought he was about to stop, a new paroxysm of hilarity would break out.
Molly was beginning to think that he'd had some break with reality, and was seriously considering calling the men with white coats and butterfly nets. "Steven? Do I need to call for help?"
"Oh, no, nonono. I'm fine, really fine. It's me, never better. It just occurred to me that you thought I was Matthew, and that just totally cracked me up." He was still chuckling madly, in what sounded suspiciously like a giggle. "Speaking of Matthew, I need to call him." He headed towards the office with some zeal.
Molly spoke to his retreating back. "Are you going to tell me why you spent all night with Lumpy and then turned into a lunatic?" She was starting to get miffed, and it must have showed in her voice, because Steven turned to pick her up and twirl her around the kitchen.
"I understand. I finally get what he was saying, and he was absolutely right. What the source is, and what all of it really meant! And now I have to call him and grovel, and then rewrite my story. No, Lumpy's story." He set her down and then kissed her soundly.
"Are you going to explain all that to me?" Molly was confused, and she didn't like the feeling at all.
"I'll tell you, but not yet. I want to rewrite first, and after you read it, then we'll talk about it. If we need to." Steven loved Molly with all his heart, she'd rescued him and Daniel when they were in dire straits, but he also knew her well enough that she'd try to make everything...rational. He couldn't let her do that, not yet. "I'm going to call in sick; I have to do this right now. If anyone asks, I've got scarlet fever, or pneumonia or something. Is that okay?"
"I guess; what can I say?"
"Don't worry, everything is going to be fine. Oh, would you mind terribly if I invited Matthew to come and stay? I think I need him here."
Her husband actively seeking out Matthew's company was another disturbing symptom of possible insanity. "Steven, are you certain that you're okay?"
"Absolutely positive." The brilliant smile hadn't left his face.
"Then I suppose you'd better call Matthew."
"Thank you, Molly, from the bottom of my heart. I couldn't have ever asked for anyone more wonderful than you."
"You're welcome." She smiled at him for the first time since she'd awakened in a panic. After all, it wasn't every day that you saw someone finally reach Nirvana.
Steven gave her another easy kiss and checking the time, rushed into his office to call his boss. He decided almost instantly as the phone was answered to simply ask for the time off; it was a weird, karmic confluence of events that he didn't have anything pending at the office, and Mal did have six other editors. When he hung up, he had the whole week to concentrate on the rewrite.
He set the alarm on his watch to remind him to stop and call Matthew; it was still too early in B.C., and he didn't want to get so involved that he forgot, nor did he want to constantly worry about what time it was. Matthew was right, the original draft was missing something, and it would be nearly hopeless to try and repair it, so he started over with a clean slate. He spent the time writing down his miraculous discovery, his thoughts on it, and a brief synopsis of Lumpy's story.
Things just fell together, and when the alarm on his watch pinged he was at a natural stopping point. It amazed him; there was no comparison between the effort of getting this down on paper, and the agonizing struggle he'd gone through to write the other version. He dialed the cell phone with a chuckle that sounded almost, almost just like a giggle, although he would never admit it to anyone. Matthew answered with a rusty sound to his voice. "'Lo, Steven? What happened?"
Steven laughed. "You were right. It's totally amazing, how did you know?"
Clearing his throat and sounding far more awake, Matthew exclaimed, "You got it!"
"I did! Listen, I know it's short notice, but can you get over here?" Steven ignored the fact that Matthew hadn't answered his question; there would be plenty of time for that.
"Sure. Let me check and see what April's got going, and I'll call you back."
"Great. Thank you. Thank you for everything."
Now Matthew laughed. "Man, this I have got to see. You're welcome."
"Call me back!" Steven wasn't worried that a normal, sane person wouldn't have at all followed the conversation, but for once, he'd had a conversation with Mathew where they clicked perfectly. He laughed to himself again (and it was in no way shape or form another giggle) as went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.
Daniel was sitting at the table eating a bowl of cereal and mindlessly reading the box. "Morning, Dad."
Steven poured his coffee and joined him at the table. "Good morning, Daniel." He spent a moment looking at his son and maybe for the first time in years, really seeing him. He was a good-looking kid with an open face that was so much like Sarah's. It didn't break his heart this morning though, as it had so often in recent history.
"What's the matter, Dad?" His face crinkled slightly with worry, an expression was Steven's though and through.
He reached over and grasped Daniel's hand. "Nothing is the matter, nothing is wrong at all. I wanted to ask you, are you really, one hundred percent sure that you want to keep Lumpy?"
Now Daniel looked really worried. "Totally. Are you planning something?"
"I was thinking that the backyard is really too small, he's going to need more room. And I'm worried about the winter, and snow, it can't be good for him." Steven waved his hand like he was brushing the ideas away. "So, I was talking with Molly this morning, and we're going buy the empty lot behind us, and we'll probably have to build a decent size barn there. He'll be okay where he is for now, but it won't last for long."
The expression on Daniel's face was as beautiful as sunrise over the Canadian Rockies. "Really? Oh, Dad, thank you!" He launched himself out of his chair and into his father's arms.
Steven held on for dear life, for that's what it was—his son, his reason for living for so long; Daniel couldn't be more precious to him. "You're welcome, kiddo. I know what Lumpy means, and there's no way we're going to let him go without a fight."
Daniel wiped his face on Steven's shirt. "And it's not even my birthday!" He looked up and gave his dad a cheeky grin, and they both laughed.
Steven ruffled his son's hair, and Daniel didn't shake off the gesture. He gave him another crushing hug, and then shooed him off his lap.
"Well, you better go tell Lumpy. Wait—" He turned serious instantly, grabbed both Daniel's hand to get his full attention. "There's a few obstacles in our way, and we'll do our best to get past them. Legal things, like the purchase, and getting the permits made permanent and so forth. But I promise you that Lumpy is as important to me as he is to you. You understand?"
"Sure Dad. I know, I've always known." Daniel smiled and it was purely his mother's smile. "I trust you."
"Good. Now, go talk to the elephant." Daniel grabbed his jacket and pelted out into the snow-covered yard.
Molly joined Steven just as Daniel left. "I heard you two cackling down here. Did you tell him?"
"Was that wise? What if we can't make it all happen? It'll break his heart." She laid a hand on Steven's shoulder as she gazed out the back door.
"No, he understands. And we'll do everything we can to not break his heart." He pulled her into his lap, and held her close.
"Yes, of course." Molly hugged him in return. "Well, I'd better go start campaigning, and call Old Mulligan about that land." She stood up, and looked at Steven. "You're really okay, aren't you?"
Steven smiled. "Never better." His cell phone rang, and he pulled it from his pocket to answer. "Matthew. What's the plan?" He watched Molly gather her coat and briefcase, and fill a travel mug with another cup of coffee while he talked to Matthew.
Matthew sounded almost breathless with excitement. "If I fly over, I won't have a car, but I can be there sooner."
"Not a problem, when should I be at the airport?"
"Westjet arrives at three."
"Great, I'll be there, see you then."
"Right. Got to pack and catch a plane then. Bye!"
Steven ended the call, and laid the phone down on the table. "I'll take Daniel with me, or he can go to Trout or Alexander's house after school, don't worry about it."
"All right, I may be a little late, but I'll pick up something for dinner on my way home."
"Great, vegetarian, right?"
"I haven't forgotten." She leaned over and gave him a kiss goodbye.
"See you later."
Steven packed Daniel off to school with a reminder that he wouldn't be at the house for a while after school and called Louisa to see if she could come a few days early and if she wouldn't mind taking care of preparing the guest room. He set his watch to remind him when it was time to go to the airport, and he worked steadily for the rest of the day.
The Saskatoon airport was packed, and for once it didn't annoy Steven. He barely noticed the crowds as he waited outside the security checkpoint, and smiled freely at the people passing him by, and the other folks waiting. When Matthew finally appeared at the tail end of a crowd, Steven waved him over and in a surprising move, gave him a short, rough hug. "Glad you could make it."
Matthew returned the gesture, then stood back and studied Steven. Yes, that seriously messed up aura had definitely improved, and he had a look of barely contained excitement. "You look tons better."
"Thanks. How did you know about Lumpy?"
Matthew gave him an enigmatic smile. "I guessed. What happened?"
Steven shook his head. "You have amazing instincts. I'll tell you about it in the car."
There was no baggage to claim, as Matthew had only packed what he could carry on. Steven was completely involved in their conversation, and didn't notice the attention they garnered. Individually they were striking on their own, but the two tall, handsome men who were as identical as snowflakes, turned heads as they walked out to the car. Once they were at the house, Matthew dropped his bag by the front door, and Steven called to let Daniel know they were home. As one, they steered towards the office, and set to work.
The two of them spent the next week writing and bickering in the office or brainstorming in the barn with Lumpy. Molly managed to turn their temporary permits into permanent permits, and finagled their finances to arrange for the purchase of the adjacent property.
Matthew flew home the day before Steven was return to work. They had nearly completed the first draft, and agreed that Steven would do better alone with the second draft. He spent weeks fiddling with it and then finally set it aside.
Steven was ready to pick it up again with fresh eyes when the spring thaw finally came. Matthew returned to Saskatoon with April, who was soon fast friends with Molly; they had many things in common, and enough differences to make for an interesting alliance. It was an extended house party, and the four of them gleefully tore down the old fence, and rebuilt it around the now expanded property.
When the fence was completed, and Steven and Matthew had hammered out the last of the final draft, April and Matthew said their farewells and headed westward. Steven sat Molly down in a comfortable chair and handed her the completed manuscript.
* * *
Molly put last page of the manuscript face down on the stack, and spent a few minutes straightening the edges, and surreptitiously wiped her eyes with her sleeve. It was difficult to put into words just what it meant to see your own life turned into a happy ending.
The house was eerily quiet; she'd become accustomed to the noise associated with a houseful of family and guests. She looked out the front window, and she realized that spring had come early when she wasn't looking. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, the trees had leaves and the grass had turned green.
Molly left the story where it lay on the coffee table to join Steven on the front porch. He wrapped his arms around her and together they sat on the stairs and watched as Lumpy walked proudly down the street with Alexander riding like a proud mahout, Daniel and Trout at his side.
Fandom: Steven Harris, Matthew, Impossible Elephant/Lunch With Charles
Category/Rated: Gen, Het, E
Year/Length: 2006/ ~20,200 words
Pairing: Matt/April, Stephen/Molly (egads, strictly canon!)
Spoilers: Pretty much for both movies.
Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit, only having fun. The characters belong to Edge Entertainment Inc, Peace Arch Entertainment Group Inc, Foreign Exchange Films, Holiday Pictures Ltd,and Newfull Development Co. Thanks to Martin Wood, Robert Cooper and Michael Parker for creating such interesting characters to play with.
Summary: What happens when two dramatically different writers are forced to cooperate?
Author's Notes: I'm probably one of thirty Americans who saw *both* of these movies in the theater, and I.E. I actually saw opening weekend at the Sprockets films festival. Had a whole long conversation with Martin Wood, but that's another story altogether. I've taken certain liberties here, notably the fact that Steven Harris really did use a Mac in the movie, and I think he drove a black SUV. Matthew as depicted here is an outgrowth from another story. My original cover, which I had completed about 5 years before I sat down to brass tacks and wrote the story.
Beta: My darling Sue, of course!