Paul Graff, Literary Immersion Expert, makes up adventures for other people. He doesn't live through them himself. That is, not until the day he receives a strange request from a mysterious new client and meets an irrepressible little boy who makes impossible claims about Paul's future life. Then he finds himself in a race against an invasion that threatens to undo the entire fabric of Reality.
Chapter one - in the library
Paul Graff was enjoying a short story in a fiction magazine, over a cup of black morning coffee, when he felt the unsettling insect-like whisper of eyes passing over his body. In the corner of his eye, the form of the silent watcher seemed like that of a dark man—either dressed in black, or of African descent, like himself—the face indistinct, a shadow where no shadow was cast.
Paul turned sharply, and saw only the empty corner near the stove.
He shrugged and continued to read.
Presently, he flapped the magazine shut, placed his empty mug in the sink, and gargled a capful of mouthwash over the bathroom sink. Then he stepped into the slant, shadow-cubed sunlight of morning over the suburbs. Distant skyscrapers rose against the skyline like the spires of a crown, glittering like silver. He could drive there, if he wished, but he preferred the public bus. The other Literary Immersion Experts often asked him where he got his inspiration. He never told them. It was the bus—breathing in the cross-section of humanity. You had to know people to make reality for them.
Paul nodded at the elderly woman on the bus stop bench, who harrumphed back, not unkindly. The man in the gray suit did not look up from his smartphone. The community college student pored over her oversized textbook. The young couple tangled their fingers together and forgot that the rest of the world existed.
The bus squeaked gently as it pulled to a stop, and hissed as it knelt to receive its passengers. Paul found his seat—fourth down, left, by the window. He opened his mind to humanity. Somewhere, a horn beeped in a short, friendly burst, the greeting of friend to friend during the morning commute. A young boy’s voice called insistently for his father. A dog barked from an upper apartment window at pigeons on the neighboring rooftop.
The bus pulled away from the curb and the city approached, the sky crowding with swooping structures of steel and glass. The Fiction Building was easy to spot, shaped like a quill resting in an inkwell—a large cylindrical base, with a curving tower that defied gravity. The neighboring public library took the shape of a giant book, open and standing on its edge, as though beckoning the world to enter its pages.
Paul stepped down from the bus onto the walkway, and passed between twin fountains to the steps of the library. The elderly librarian at the front desk greeted him.
“Good to see you, Mr. Graff!”
Paul returned her greeting with a gracious inclination of his head. The library was quieter at this time of day, which is why he always came before his office opened. Still, a few people occupied the Immersion Booths that lined the wall. The cylindrical, dome-topped structures were occupied by a single seat facing a tilted book stand, leaving the reader’s back to the open doorway—a safety precaution. Sometimes immersions became too powerful, and a reader had to be rescued by one of the ever-watchful librarians.
Glancing at the readers now, Paul observed that one woman’s body was almost completely transparent, the edges pulsing softly with light, as she pored over the bookstand. A perfect immersion. Paul wondered what book she was reading.
The man in the neighboring booth was not so lucky.
“Sir?” Paul took the liberty of peering into the booth. “I notice you are having some trouble.”
The slightly-faded edges of the man’s body sharpened and he pulled out of the immersion. He sighed.
“This is the third week I’ve tried immersion. I’ve got depression. My therapist recommended a LIE. But I can’t get into it and no one seems to know the trouble, even the librarians.”
“Perhaps I can help,” Paul offered. “I have a little experience with Literary Immersion Experiences.”
The man shrugged. “Can’t hurt, can it?”
“An immersion experience requires two things,” Paul explained. “One: Your personality has to be compatible with the book. If that subject just doesn’t ‘itch’ you, you won’t immerse.”
“Makes sense. And the other thing?”
“The quality. The writer must have what I call ‘the immersion touch.’”
“Something special, huh?”
Paul nodded. “So tell me…”
“Tell me, Chuck, what sort of books did you used to enjoy as a child?”
“As a child?” the man blinked. “I wasn’t much into reading. But I liked the superhero graphic novels available at the corner store.”
“What attracted you to those novels?”
Chuck’s response meandered, gradually sharpening as it built from hesitation to rich enthusiasm. Paul listened, nodding, smiling encouragement, then, drawing a small notebook and diminutive pen from his breast pocket, he scribbled three titles.
“I recommend starting with these,” he said, tearing the sheet from the notebook. “They’ll fit your personality well, and I can vouch for the authors’ immersive abilities.”
Chuck reviewed the list. “I’ll give them a shot. Thanks for your help, man.”
As Paul made his way toward the glass elevator, a middle-aged librarian leaned on a book cart and grinned. “He has no clue who you are, does he?”
“I’m not advertising,” Paul replied.
“But I’ll bet you recommended your own books in that list, didn’t you?”
Paul laughed. “Only one. I don’t write much for the general public.”
“That’s right,” the librarian nodded. “You’re more into the customization business, I recall.”
Paul lifted a hand in a friendly farewell as he swept by. “If you ever want a custom LIE, you know where to find me.”
Her laughter followed him. “I sure do!”
Just before Paul reached the elevator, a loud bass arrested him. “Paul! Yo, Paul!”
Paul paused, collected himself, and turned with a grin he hoped was polite but just short of inviting.
“Ted! Glad to see you.”
Ted’s corpulent figure leaked from his fitted suit just as unpleasantly as his personality leaked from his commanding posture and brazen voice.
“Paul, I had hoped to see you at the hearing.” Ted’s tone spoke of deep disappointment. “It was really too bad that you missed it.”
“Ted, you know my feelings about LIE advertising. I would never support the bill.”
“If you had at least attended the hearing, you might have learned something worth reconsideration.”
“I’ve done my research, Ted. I’m convinced this is an unwise move.”
“You’re just saying that because you think it will cut into your business. But the Shakespeare study says that immersive experience professionals like us will not be affected. Fiction and advertising are two different worlds.”
“Respectfully, Ted, I disagree. Writing is all one piece. If you put immersive qualities in advertising, the public will become increasingly desensitized to immersive material, forcing fiction writers to create deeper and deeper experiences. The deeper the experience, the more potential harm to the reader. You can hardly have missed the Times cover story last week. A man got lost in a book. It may not be possible to find a matched personality that can go as deep as he did, and pull him back. He may be lost forever. That kind of thing is very bad for business.”
Ted’s grin patronized. “But those cases will happen regardless of the legality of LIE advertising.”
“But they’ll become more frequent as immersive tolerance increases.”
“Paul, Paul, think of the benefits! What if your advertisements in Fiction Forum could be immersive? You would never lack for business.”
“My business is doing well enough without immersive advertising. Besides, if everything goes immersive, my ads will be competing amongst the ads for fast food, soap, cars, pharmaceuticals, and beer. How is that improving my image?”
“If the customization business goes bust, my dear Paul, your options are limited. You either have to become a immersive match consultant or publish for the general public. In contrast, if the bill passes, you can be picked up by any number of companies as a copywriter or advertising specialist. There’s no end to the possibilities. Think of it, Paul! With your record, you’d have a guaranteed career.”
“With my record, I already have a guaranteed career.”
“You’re a freelancer, Paul. Uncertainties abound in your job. You rely on your clients’ appetite and cash availability. If the economy takes another downturn like last year, your clients will all switch to this.” His gesture incorporated the towering bookshelves, the Immersion Booths, and the diligent librarians. “Not a guaranteed experience, but much cheaper.”
“And cheap is what you’ll get if the bill goes through,” Paul snapped, no longer interested in politeness. “If immersion generalizes, I guarantee that immersion will mushroom for a few years, then implode. It will kill fiction, libraries, and your precious advertising. For good!”
Paul stabbed the elevator button, and stepped into the glass cylinder without so much as a farewell nod. As the elevator descended, he leaned against the interior railing and rubbed a hand over his face. There was no reason to sweat so much. He shrugged off his ivory suit coat and folded it over his arm.
chapter two - the girl downstairs
The Classics Department was dimly-lit and empty, save for a single young woman who sat in an easy chair that seemed to swallow her. Hair the color of corn-silk defied her thick braid, and although her peach-colored blouse became her, she seemed better suited for blue gingham and the outdoors. She did not glance up from her book--A Night to Remember—until Paul cleared his throat.
“Mr. Graff!” She reached for her forearm cane, struggling to rise.
“Please.” Paul held up a hand. “Just give me a recommendation and point me in the right direction.”
“Moby Dick,” she replied, without hesitation. “Herman Melville. You’ll find it in that direction.”
The automatic lights activated, one by one, as Paul traversed the long corridors of books. The ceiling was low here, lending a cave-like atmosphere to the experience. He found the volume, and as he opened it, the musty scent of age and brittle pages filled his nostrils with something like exuberance, and a little akin to heartbreak.
He returned to the small lobby near the elevator. The young librarian was waiting for him, still seated, her forefinger marking her place in the book.
“I’m sorry if I’m impertinent,” she said. “But…”
“What is so funny?” she asked.
“Your vocabulary. No one uses words like ‘impertinent’ these days. It comes from reading the old books, I guess. Well? What was your question?”
She hesitated, then burst out, “Why do you always come to read the classics? No one comes down here. Why you, of all people? You’re a Literary Immersion Expert. Why should you care about books that were written before the Immersion Age?”
Paul’s eyes traveled over the books, drinking in their cracked spines, loosening pages, and faded covers.
“There was a time,” he said. “When books were rare. They were treasures. People saved their hard-earned money for years, just to buy one book.”
He paused and she waited, attentive. Strange. No one really listened these days. But she did. She always did.
“I had a reading disability when I was young. They said I would never learn how to read. But my grandfather refused to believe it. The dementia was taking him fast, but there were two things he remembered: me and books. He used to sit me on his lap and read aloud to me for hours and hours every evening. Old books. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Paradise Lost. A Tale of Two Cities. The Tell-Tale Heart. Sometimes when he read, I felt it—a little tingle of immersion. Later, when I grew familiar with immersion, I wondered: What made those early writers capable of producing an immersion experience, long before people even knew what immersion was, long before it was an industry? Something made those stories different and timeless.”
He paused and shrugged. “So I study the classics to find out what made early immersions so powerful.”
She smiled, tilting her head to the side.
“Have you found one story that stands out to you in particular?”
Paul cast her a quick glance. “You’ll laugh.”
She leaned both elbows on the arm of the chair and propped her chin in her hands. “I promise I won’t tell a soul.”
When he continued to hesitate, the girl said, “My favorite is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.”
“What is that about?”
“A young woman who is prejudiced against a man, because he is too proud to even acknowledge that he loves her. Eventually, she overcomes her prejudice and he overcomes his pride and...” She shrugged and smiled.
“A very sweet one. Not like the modern kind.”
“Was there an audience for that kind of book at one time?”
“Absolutely! Before the Immersion Age, just about every girl was a fan, and dreamed of meeting her own Mr. Darcy.”
“It has immersive qualities, then?”
“I shall have to read it.”
“You?” She raised her almost invisible eyebrows.
Paul shrugged. “Two-thirds of my clients are women, and most of them prefer romance. I may learn something.”
The girl nodded slowly. She seemed vaguely troubled. Paul wondered why.
She grasped for her forearm cane and, pressing her weight upon it, heaved herself from the chair. Her back twisted awkwardly at her hips, and she swung her crooked legs with a practiced swivel, the motion jerky. She reached the water dispenser, filled a cup, and leaned against the wall. Sipping reflectively, she glanced back at her visitor.
Expectant silence fell between them and Paul at last gave in. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“Really?” The girl’s eyes transformed to green upside-down crescents, sparkling with delight. “Why?”
“It makes me think of my boyhood.” Paul seemed about to say more, but swallowed his words instead. She let it go, her gaze soft, as Paul turned and approached the check-out kiosk.
Paul slid his library card through the card slot, then scanned the book’s barcode. In a few minutes, he stepped outside the library door, his jaw tingling pleasantly with the mist from the nearby fountain, and proceeded to the Fiction Building.
chapter three - a strange request
Paul’s office on the twenty-third floor overlooked the scenic park, where swans plucked bits of offered cracker from the surface of the water (despite the sign prohibiting their feeding), where joggers traversed the smooth walkways and readers dotted the well-kept benches.
Comfortably ensconced in his swivel chair, Paul breathed deeply, observing the scene, then closed his eyes and settled his mind. When he opened his eyes, his gaze fell upon the motto hung above the white couch in his consulting space.
LET THE STORY BECOME YOUR REALITY.
Paul was ready. It was time for business.
He opened his laptop and began.
At first, the words seemed lifeless—mere scrawls of black across a field of white. Then, they began to shimmer almost imperceptibly, and the white background bled with color. Images began to emerge, first mere smears of color, then sharpening to crisp images rich with detail. Sounds, at first indistinct and obscured by echoes, clarified.
A bee buzzed somewhere nearby, and a soft wind, scented with grass and earth and clover, lifted the hair on the brow of the woman who stood at the edge of the winding dirt road.
Paul had taken great care to accurately portray his client’s ideal image of herself. The real client was sixty pounds overweight and garish with cosmetics and chunky jewelry. Her dream self was about twenty pounds underweight, with less make-up but still too much jewelry.
The scene froze. The bee halted in mid-buzz, the wind ceased, and the woman’s eyes remained fixed upon the point where the road curved over the brow of a distant hill.
Paul considered. How to continue?
The sky was too watercolor. Paul’s fingers tapped on the keyboard, and the sky deepened into shining azure, with a sprinkling of light clouds. He nodded with satisfaction. Much better.
He noticed that the woman’s feet appeared blurry. Would the client care? Many petty details throughout the tale had not been clarified, for the sake of focus on the main story.
At last, he decided that shoes were important. This was the final scene, after all, when the client must be most beautiful. Every detail counted. Pumps were clearly anachronous in this medieval-style tale, but he was certain his client would prefer them to the soft, demure shoes he wished to add.
Paul sighed. Very well, pumps it would be. His fingers traveled over the keyboard expertly.
The shoes looked awful. He considered deleting them. In the end, the immersion professional conquered the protesting writer, and they remained.
Now for the lover. The motion of the world resumed, as the peak of the lover’s cap emerged on the horizon and, bit by bit, his whole body rose into view, astride a powerful black horse. He approached at a lope, until he looked down upon the woman who waited for him.
“I have returned, my lady,” he said. “Just as I promised.”
Too obvious. Paul rewound the scene.
“I always keep my promises. And here I am.”
Worse and worse! Clichés were absolutely forbidden.
“My lady, for whom do you wait?”
Ah, better. It demanded a response. “For the man who promised to return to me.”
Then, dismounting and speaking softly, “Is he one who keeps his word?”
“I know no man more honorable.”
Now for the kiss.
At that moment, a tone sounded and the world shattered like a glass globe, pieces of the sky shimmering as it fell, details blurring, colors leaching. A digital window overlaid the scene, with a flickering bell icon and a scrawl of text.
“Appointment with Chris Swanson.”
Paul pulled open his desk drawer, found the Swanson file, and opened it. Just then, a knock sounded at the door. Now? Paul had given himself a ten-minute preparation period. This Mr. Swanson was not simply punctual, but early.
Ah well, eagerness was its own virtue. It usually meant a client was willing to pay Paul’s steep prices.
“Come in!” Paul called cheerily as the door swung open.
“Mr. Graff?” The man offered his hand.
“Mr. Swanson, I presume?” Paul shook the hand, evaluating. Firm grip, steady eye-contact. This man would want a clean style, balancing psychological and physical activity, shaded with the secret inner soul of man.
The two men seated themselves in Paul’s comfortable consulting space.
“I was just looking over your application,” Paul said. “I have a few questions about your project, so if you don’t mind…”
“By all means.”
“First,” Paul spread his hands in a gesture of openness. “Why me?”
“They say that if you want custom immersion, Paul Graff is the man. I’ve seen some of your public work and I’m impressed. Your rating on the LIE network is very high, and I also have some friends and colleagues who have used your services.”
Paul nodded, pleased. He always loved this part of the interview: getting the client to pitch the project. It was advertisement at its best.
Mr. Swanson continued. “Your style is very versatile, which tells me that you have no qualms about thinking outside the box. And that’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
“And that’s exactly what I’m here for.” Paul crossed his legs and flipped open the file. “I see here that you have checked off ‘recreational immersion.’ Many of my clients, you know, come for therapeutic immersions, recommended by their psychiatrists. I understand that you do not fall into that category, but I noticed that you left one section blank. I have to ask: Do you have any literary disabilities or conditions of which I should be aware?”
Mr. Swanson hesitated and Paul spoke in his best firm, yet gentle psychologist’s tone. “If I might speak frankly—you have bookworm, don’t you?”
Mr. Swanson colored, and Paul hastened to add, “Are you aware that 63 percent of my clients have bookworm?”
“Absolutely! It’s no real danger.”
“I’m glad to hear that, because my doctor recommended against a LIE.”
“What did he tell you?”
“That it was a parasite absorbed from repeated, prolonged, or deep immersion, and that it increases my desire for more immersion, leading to sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and withdrawal from social activities. It also increases my risk of getting lost in a book. But I heard from a friend that bookworm is no longer classified as a true literary condition.”
Paul nodded. “Your doctor probably belongs to the older way of thinking. New studies show that appropriate immersion in the right contexts can actually decrease bookworm’s influence. Since I now know that you have bookworm, I can tailor your immersion experience appropriately. If necessary, I can write a note to your doctor. Please know that you are in very good hands.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that.” Mr. Swanson relaxed visibly. “I sensed that my doctor was overcautious.”
“I assure you, it is perfectly safe. Is there anything else of which I should know?”
“Wonderful. Now, let’s consider the details of your request. You say in your application that you are looking for a sort of apocalyptic, sci-fi story…?”
Mr. Swanson shifted, sitting forward on the edge of his seat. “I have a vision of a story that mimics reality at first, then departs from it. If you don’t mind, I’d like it to focus on you.”
“Yes, you. It’s not fair that an author should always hide behind his own writing. I believe you have more in you than you show to the rest of your clients. I believe it’s time for you to do something for yourself.”
Paul laughed. “Are you saying you’ll pay me to write whatever I want?”
“Well, not quite whatever you want. But to make yourself the star, yes.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Then hear me out.”
“Great mother of pearl! You’re serious?”
“Very. Look, all the stories you’ve written so far are the ideals that your clients wish for themselves. But even you see how patently absurd many of those ideals are.”
Paul thought of the horrible pumps. “Please continue.”
“So don’t write about the ideal. Write an adventure as if it were reality. Write yourself into that adventure—every thought, every mood, every detail. I believe it will be your best writing yet, and I believe that whatever is absorbing to you will be as much so to me.”
“Immersion doesn’t always work that way, you know. That’s why writing immersive material for the public is so difficult without a match consultant…”
“I disagree. At the beginning of the Immersion Age, there was a time when a writer simply wrote what pleased him. And often that found an audience. It was not so regulated and legal as it is now. Finding a book that immersed you was an accidental delight, more rare and therefore more precious. There was power in writing what you enjoyed, not what others wanted to enjoy.”
“I think I see what you mean.”
“Then you see why I want it. This is what I want the story to be about. Write it in present tense, so it all seems to happen as you write it, and write it in first person, so it feels very personal. In the story, you’ll be writing this very story and you’ll have a consciousness that your work is the best you have done yet—more immersive than anything you have yet attempted. A remake of reality. Be very clear on that point. I want you to feel its immersion yourself, even as the author.”
“Unusual,” Paul murmured. “I write the story about the story.”
“Then write that you meet someone called Cerberus while you are writing. You can’t see him well at first. He’s indistinct, like a shadow in your peripheral vision. But as time goes on, he becomes more and more distinct. You learn more about him through your conversations.”
“And where will those conversations lead?”
“I leave that up to you. But put as much detail as possible into it. Don’t leave out even the smallest thing. Oh, and a particular line must be in the story.”
“ ‘I invite Cerberus into my reality.’”
“I really don’t know what to say.” Paul leaned back in his chair.
“You will do it?”
Paul’s teeth flashed white against his dark skin. “Do it? That’s what you’re paying me for. And I admit, at this point, I’m quite intrigued.”
“Good,” Mr. Swanson rose and, to Paul’s surprise, pulled a thick money clip of cash—actual cash!—from his pocket. “I would like to pay you half in advance. Say, forty thousand?”
Paul choked. “Forty thousand!”
“Because of the level of detail. I don’t wish to cheat you.”
“You’re not cheating me, I promise you,” Paul stammered.
“Take it.” Mr. Swanson pressed the bills into Paul’s numb hands. “Take it as a gesture of my faith in you. I won’t let you refuse.”
Mr. Swanson left before Paul could protest.
Paul’s mind swam. Forty thousand! And that was only half!
He slumped in the easy chair and stared at the cash and tried to sort out his tangled thoughts.
Suddenly, he leapt up and sprinted to his desk. The dreadful pump-wearing woman and her lover would have to elope and disappear on their happily-ever-after before the afternoon was over, or his name was not Paul Graff!
Paul sat down and wrote furiously. The kiss was passionate, but perhaps a little sloppy (most kisses were, weren’t they?), the dialogue was full of the usual petty sentiments (his client would approve, surely), and the lover swung the damsel into his saddle with an urgency that even she did not expect. (Impatience spoke of passion, didn’t it?)
“Blablabla…” Paul muttered, his thoughts unpunctuated. “Etcetera into the fire-colored sunset etcetera where their love renewed stronger with every breath that they shared etcetera into eternity the end. Now! On to Mr. Swanson’s story!”
He stared at his computer screen, suddenly befuddled. How did one start such an unusual story? In vain, he struggled to make the words come. At last, in a fit of frustration, he typed furiously, “I have no idea how to start this story. The words cling to my brain like the sticky rice at my favorite Thai restaurant a few blocks down from my office, and the only words that do break free seem only capable of producing the sort of limp similes that I wrote just now.”
He paused, then added,
But I must write this book! It has stirred something in me that I can’t ignore, that I haven’t felt in years. A kind of desperation to write something that matters, that’s more than the petty fantasies of those who are not even sure of what they want but who are willing to pay handsomely for nonsense. I feel a kind of ache, like hunger, and it propels me forward. I want to write—no, I will write—something so real, so immersive, so powerful that, to every reader, it will become reality: clear, concrete, sensory. It will be better than anything I have done before. It will be real. I can feel it already: the tingle at my fingertips, the coil in my shoulders. This is the old feel of power. This is the feel of transforming fantasy into reality.
Or perhaps the tingle is present because I am being watched. Eyes are upon me. I feel them, invisibly passing over my profile, watching the dexterity of my fingers upon the keyboard. I know his name, a name I heard for the first time this morning.
I cannot see him clearly. He is just a shadow at the edge of my vision, and if I flick my gaze toward him—flash! He is gone. But he is there again, standing just outside my range of vision, watching. The form is like a man, but the features are indistinguishable.
Who is he, really?
I will ask.
At that moment, the office door burst open.
Paul blinked. Cerberus evaporated and the tingle in his fingers faded.
A voice spoke brightly. “I hope I’m not too late. Have you started yet?”
Paul’s mouth dropped open