Now what? I wondered. Would he bolt from the room, announce my presence to all and sundry? I could escape easily enough. The boy’s claims would be dismissed as the result of his injury. He had a bandage on his forehead, so I know he’d been injured. A head wound was the perfect type, too, but… dammit! I’d been sloppy.
Still, an expedient exit was best. I prepared to transform, tuning out, as I did, whatever potential inanities would utter forth from his lips, should he recover his voice. I catalogued them all for myself, inside a second:
“You’re a vampire!”
“Get away from me!”
“Sorry, I didn’t know this room was taken.”
Most likely, it would be the last. One of the disadvantages of a long life is that you develop a tendency to predict – with frightening accuracy – how the average person will react in any given situation. Another disadvantage is that, when your prediction is wrong, it tends to break your concentration and totally throw you off your game.
I hadn’t expected him to say it, hadn’t included it in my list of responses. I, therefore, did not tune it out. When he said it, I hesitated… and was lost.
“Did you kill him?”
He asked it quietly, without accusation. There was curiosity only in his tone. A practical person might have fled, taking advantage of the extra time he gave me by not shrieking for help right away. I have never been a practical person, nor ever wanted to be one. I confess that I place ethical and philosophical issues ahead of concerns of personal convenience, and, obviously, even safety.
He asked if I had killed. You no doubt realize by now that it is very important to me that I not be found guilty of ending a healthy life. Perhaps it did not matter what this one child thought, since he would never see me again. I still felt moved to explain that I had not, in fact, taken this innocent life. I had merely benefitted from its passing in much the same way an organ donor who had received the man’s heart or liver might have.
“No,” I told him quietly. “Internal injuries killed him. I just… went along for the ride.”
“Oh,” he said reasonably. Do not infer from that that he was reasonable by nature. He was not, nor had I any reason to believe, at that time, that he was. The evidence was all against it. The expression on his ordinary face was bewildered, perhaps a little vacuous. He seemed to be so calm when encountered by a supernatural creature, not because he was brave or very rational. No, he seemed just not to care one way or another. He hadn’t the sense to be afraid.
A wise man does not panic, knowing his cool head will benefit him when in danger more than will his adrenaline. A fool does not panic because he’s just too stupid to be afraid. That is not bravery, though it is often so labeled. The sloppy dress, the unkempt hair, the poor elocution of this young specimen all led me to believe that he was probably a fool. I don’t say that to be insulting. Most people are fools. I’m used to it, and observe it as readily as I do that a person is male or female.
He stared dumbly, hands thrust in pockets beneath his t-shirt. “So… you eat here a lot?”
“I prefer to dine at the scene of the accident. The meal is fresher.”
“Can’t you just, y’know, hit a nightclub, or something?”
“I could. I choose not to kill those who aren’t dying already… unless they deserve it.”
“Do you…” He looked around furtively. “Do you kill people… who ask for it?”
“Sometimes.” I gestured to the corpse, wiping blood from my lips with a napkin. There’s no excuse for poor table manners, even when it’s an operating table. “Is he a friend of yours? Relative?”
The boy shook his head. “Nope.”
“Why did you come in here, then?”
“I… wanted to visit him. I saw them bring him in. I just… wondered what happened. Felt sorry for him. I was in the same accident.”
“You and a great many people. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“No I’m not,” he muttered.
“You… feed… on people who ask for it?”
“I said I did. Unless I think they’ll change their minds later.”
“I won’t change my mind.”
“What are you saying, exactly?”
“I want you to feed off me. I want you to kill me.”
Now here was an intriguing potential solution to my problem. I had wondered what I was to do about his discovery of me. Killing him was certainly neater and cleaner than running away. Besides, I had been looking forward to the Cato Seminar. I didn’t want to flee San Diego just now. If he meant what he said…
“That’s an easy thing to say,” I countered.
“No it isn’t. Not really. But I mean it.”
He looked uncomfortably at the corpse. “Personal reasons. I’d rather not get into it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but if you want me to take such an action, I must know your reasons. I’m very serious about my commitment not to take life unless I’m morally justified in doing so.”
“Let’s just say that I don’t like my life very much,” he said.
I can’t say I trusted his judgement. On the other hand, he was young. He would make a good meal. I hadn’t had really fresh blood lately. It was tempting. Still, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, if I did kill him, it would be solely to protect my secret. Request or no request, I felt it boiled down to that. And it was my own stupid fault I’d been found out. It was my own stupid vanity that had made me wait around to explain myself to a mentally atrophied, teenaged stranger.
“I’m not hungry,” I told him. “Go away.”
He refused. Repeatedly.
He kept working at me. He worked at me a long time. After several minutes of haggling, he tried “take me with you, or I’ll tell everyone I’ve seen you.”
Weak. Very weak.
“Do you know my name?”
He shook his head.
“My address? Social Security number?”
“You have a Social Security number?”
“Twelve of them. You see, your threat is meaningless. You can tell these idiots that you saw me, but they most likely won’t believe you. There aren’t even any wounds on that body.” I gestured at the table, then added, “Well, none that I put there.”
“Someone might believe me. I’ll take a lie detector test. And then they’ll hunt you down and – “
”And I’ll be in a different city, under a different name. I’m no fool. I’ve lived over two hundred years. Exposure only works on vampires who want to live in the same house for centuries, like that idiot on that soap opera.”
“You mean Dark Shadows? My mom buys all the DVDs. You watch soap operas?”
“Of course, when they’re about vampires.”
He nodded, his face still empty. “Oh, right, how often do they make a show about Family?”
“Yeah. Y’know… Your own kind. I figured you people would – “
“Shut up. I hate that expression. ‘Family,’ to me means either the misguided belief of some homosexuals that all people who share their preference are spiritually connected, or a mediocre television program with Kristy McNichol. It does not describe the relationships between vampires. There are no relationships between vampires. Most of us can’t stand each other.”
This fact interested him briefly, but then he began whining and pleading anew. Eventually, I took him home with me. Now, before you say that it’s not morally advisable to take a young person home, based on a claim made in a state of emotional distress, without the consent of his parents, I’ll ask you to remember that I’m a vampire. I’m comfortable with things that might make you uncomfortable; and just because something makes you uncomfortable does not mean it’s immoral.
When I took him home, my intent was to observe a cooling-off period. I’d tell him a few stories of death at the hands of a vampire. He’d see that it was neither erotic nor romantic. He’d go home to mommy. I’d find a nice, cold-blooded murderer and eat him.
But it was not to be. The road to hell, as they say…
Let me provide an illustration you may understand. Have you ever agreed to share a room, or even a bed, with a member the of the gender – or a gender – to which you are attracted? Have you done so with the understanding that nothing of a sexual nature will happen? Convincing yourself as well as the other? Have you been able to keep the bargain?
Or perhaps I should compare the situation to having a piece of your favorite dessert sitting on the table in front of you. Let’s make no mistake here, the boy was dessert. No drugs, no alcohol, no ravages of age to taint the meal. He was a triple-scoop hot fudge sundae, whipped cream, cherry and all, with brandy laced into the sauce and fresh, hot coffee steaming on the side. You can ignore it all you want… but if you let it just sit there, either someone else is going to eat it, or that beautiful thing is going to melt into a ruinous mass all over the tabletop.
Are you beginning to understand? In the end, I could not resist for long. After just twenty hours with him in my home, I had to taste him. I was not disappointed. The blood was delicious. I didn’t take a lot. I’ve learned not to gorge, over the years. When I was done, I let him sleep it off for most of a day, after I had convinced him to eat a hearty meal. His body needed to replace all that blood, after all. He resisted, saying he was just going to die soon anyway. I managed to convince him that death, if it was soon to come, would be far easier if he kept up his strength.
Those analogies being made, let me clarify one point. I felt no sexual attachment to this particular meal. I know much is made in popular literature of the erotic nature of vampirism. Women are described as having (or hinted to have had, in “cleaner” works) orgasms while being drained. The feeling of the victim toward the predator is compared to the all-consuming lust we feel for the dominator or dominatrix, if we are of that nature. But let’s be realistic, shall we? Do you have sexual feelings for food? Never mind. I don’t wish to know about it if you do. I think you see my point, however. And certainly, the food doesn’t have sexual feelings for you. Can you imagine a cow or chicken, masturbating frantically to the thought of becoming a frozen sandwich patty? Ludicrous!
And it is equally ludicrous to suppose – putting aside the small number of deranged fetishists one might expect in any population – that any sexual feeling exists in the interaction between vampire and prey.
In my case, particularly, there would have been little chance of such feelings. As I have said already, my meals consisted of hardened criminals, terminally ill patients, victims of trauma and the mentally ill. My tastes might be very different from yours, but I assure you I do have taste. I will not say that I disapprove of sexual relations between males, nor that I have never entertained the thought of engaging in them; but I will say that my young victim, in this case, did nothing for me. Except to nourish me, of course.
When he awoke, the boy seemed none the worse for having provided me dinner from his own blood. Of course, he’d slept sixteen hours, and forced me – for the first time in decades – to visit a grocery store. Still, he seemed a normal, healthy, American teen.
But he still wanted to die. I pressed him at length to give me some reason for his self-destructive urge. Had a girl broken his heart? Was he not doing well in school? Did his peers treat him poorly? All of these he denied. He simply stated, over and over again, that he wished to end it all for “personal reasons.”
I must admit I grew impatient – both with his moodiness and his recalcitrance. I decided anyone who moaned that much had to be miserable, and it was an act of charity to kill him. Besides, I had already taken first blood, if you’ll pardon the expression. I’d drunk of him once. I could end it all in one session. Or I could stretch it out a few days – make the meal last. In any event, he would be an easy kill. I could have eaten two of him in a night.
I would do it, I told him.
To Be Continued
This story is provided for free, but is, of course, copyrighted. You may share it. Share the crap out of it. But don’t claim you wrote it, don’t sell it, and don’t make any changes to it. If you want to get rich and famous selling fiction, just write your own. It’s easy to do. That’s why everybody does it.
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So I’m at Philcon, America’s oldest running science fiction convention. Tonight, I’m doing a panel about fanzines of the past, present and future. A big piece of my agenda in proposing this discussion was to plug something that’s (obviously) very close to my heart: preserving fanzines. For the uninitiated, fanzines are amateur magazines published by people who love some professional work, like Star Trek, Star Wars, Starsky and Hutch, and even some things that don’t begin with the four letters ‘S-T-A-R.’ They love these works so much that they just have to write about them, produce artwork inspired by them, compose songs about them.
When I got into science fiction and Star Trek fandom, dinosaurs roamed the earth. Seriously, my mother-in-law and her friends, who published fanzines, called themselves “dinosaurs,” because they’d been in fandom so long. Their zines (short for fanzine–please take notes) were beautiful, but printed on plain xerox paper and bound with staples or spiral combs. They were far more vulnerable to the ravages of age than, say, hardbound books. Forty years later, a lot of the existing copies are in tatters.
But a lot of love and talent went into creating these things, and prominent people like Howard Weinstein, Peter David and A.C. Crispin got their start participating in the fanzine world. These labors of love deserve to survive. So tonight I’ll be pounding the pulpit about fanzine preservation, and I’ll be promising to share links and a flier from my online friend Morgan Dawn, who’s working with Texas A&M on their fanzine archive. And here they are. Please take a look. It’s very, very important than fandom remember where it came from. These materials don’t represent the original roots of fandom, but they represent an important step in its evolution.
University of Iowa Special Collections – is digitizing their own collection of science fiction and fantasy zines.
Texas A&M University – Is collecting digitized zines for a closed collection, will offer them publicly on the publisher’s request. They’re looking for help scanning too, if you’re interested.
Bowling Green State University (Ohio) – Star Trek / Star Wars etc – No digital archive, but they’re collecting fanzines.
Here’s a flier about the whole initiative.
September, 1979. Ads for Star Trek: The Motion Picture were popping up everywhere. They showed a glorious new (but recognizable!) USS Enterprise, and had photos of all of our favorites in a row beneath it. The uniforms were a little drab, but this was the sophisticated 1970s. We didn’t expect primary colors anymore.
Bev and Nancy, having not even seen the film yet (they would attend the gala opening night at the Air & Space Museum in Washington DC, just months later), were already showing their approval of its style. Perhaps their most striking, memorable cover to date graced this double issue of Contact, numbered 5/6. Like the more expensive paperbacks of the time, this issue had a double cover. The first layer depicts Kirk in blue monochrome in his classic uniform, sitting amidst rubble, while a golden-haloed visage Spock looks down on him. They are together, but isolated. The Spock image is, in fact, from the next layer, revealed by a circular die-cut in the upper cover.
Just in time for the upcoming release of the seventh film in the franchise, Sequart Press has released a collection of essays on the Star Wars cinematic universe. Editors Rich Handley and Joe Berenato were kind enough to invite me to contribute. It will be followed in 2016 by two more volumes covering the comic book and novel tie-ins. Here’s the first page of my entry for Volume 1. In Volume 3, I’ll have an essay on the Lando Calrissian novels of one of my favorite authors, L. Neil Smith, and my son Ethan, keeper of the Figure in Question blog, will offer a retrospective on the Star Wars action figures.
I began this missive by telling you I was in a moral quandary. Here it is: I’d drained a victim to the point of no return – he wasn’t going to live, no matter who intervened, but he wasn’t dead yet. He’d asked to die, and now he’d changed his mind. Tough luck, you say? There’s nothing I can do for him, you say? Ah, but there was something I could do for him, and he knew exactly what it was.
I didn’t want to do it. Not on a bet.
* * *
It was early August, and I was in San Diego. I’d been having a very nice time. I’d come early to see the sights, before attending the Cato Institute’s summer seminar. By design, I’d missed their events for the last few years; but this year, American libertarians seemed to have recovered from most of their September 11-th inspired tendency to encourage war. I was glad, for I really wanted to be among thinking people again.
I’d spent the early dusk hours in an Irish pub in the Gas Lamp district, flirting with an outspoken bartender from Boston and sipping Guinness. No, I never drink wine; but Guinness is something you never outgrow, even when you don’t grow any longer. It doesn’t affect me at all, and the taste is totally altered by my condition. I still just like the experience of sipping the odd Guinness in the odd Irish pub.
As I attempted to make my case to this opinionated young woman, who simply would not believe that Killian’s Irish Red was, in fact, brewed in Colorado, a bulletin about a traffic accident came on the omnipresent television. It was nearly ten, and the traffic reports long over, but it seemed that this accident involved enough vehicles that it had actually closed Pacific Highway going northbound. Six people were dead, and medevac helicopters were rushing patients from the scene.
I suddenly remembered I was hungry. As the local news commentator began to interview a spokesman for the police about how undemocratic it was that drivers of SUVs tended to survive more such accidents than drivers of economy cars, I tapped the dummy pager I always wear.
“I have a call,” I told my Celtic sparring partner. “Gotta run.”
“Is it about that accident?” she asked. “You a doctor?”
I smiled. “Among other things.” I tipped her entirely too much, slipped onto the street and into a dark corner, and flew. Literally. You cover a lot of ground as a bat.
In fact, I hadn’t lied to the barkeep. I am a doctor. Studied at the Sorbonne, in the late 1890s. I’ve kept up my knowledge via books and medical journals. I’m not licensed to practice anywhere. How could I be? Licensing requires that someone know who and where I am.
But being a physician in fact, if not by law, does allow me to assess the condition of a subject, to know when death is imminent, and, in many cases, to ease the suffering of those I’m dealing with. (Occasionally, I’ve increased the suffering, but only occasionally. Perhaps you could force yourself to be impartial and gentle with, for instance, a mother who murdered her children in order to catch a husband. I am not so saintly.)
The scene of the accident was, as expected, grisly. I did not count the vehicles involved, as such details don’t help me in any way. Nor do they help most people, other than to indicate magnitude of damage, and give an idea of how long it will take for the roadway to be cleared. Unless a family member is involved, or you need to travel that particular road, I have no idea why you would want to read about or see footage of a traffic collision. Or any calamity with an airplane, train, or other conveyance. If you are not directly affected, or can use the story of the occurrence to increase your own personal safety, I do not see why you would want to know.
Perhaps I am hard-hearted. Strike “perhaps.” I know I am. But I see no virtue in reviewing and sharing the pain of people you don’t even know. It is a false compassion you feel, if your feelings go anything beyond “that’s too bad, I hate to see that happen to anyone,” or “I would hate for that to happen to myself or my loved ones.” The media works very hard to convince us that these events do affect us, and that we should feel the same loss that the victim’s old mum does. It’s good for their business, but it’s very bad for our peace of mind. It often damages our ability to set our own priorities and attend to the needs of those to whom we do owe our compassion.
By the time I arrived, a seventh patient had died, thus becoming useless to me. Most of the more critical cases had been transported to the hospital already. One helicopter was preparing to take off, just then. After a quick scan of the other injured, all but two of whom were standing on their own power, I decided I would accompany the patient in the ‘copter. Its blades were already spinning. A problem for me. A bat cannot easily approach a grounded helicopter when its blades are generating air currents. A bat doesn’t weigh enough to resist. A mist would blow right away. A dog would attract too much attention. I was forced to assume my own form – for a moment. Once I was at the ‘copter, I misted myself and floated in. One young paramedic did see me, out of the corner of her eye. I made sure I was not there for her second look. My ghostly appearance and disappearance frightened her. I heard her pulse race. She didn’t stop working on her patient, however, and I didn’t hear her mention it to her cohorts. People don’t like to discuss any sign that they are hallucinating. That is a powerful weapon in my arsenal.
As a bat, I snuggled beneath an equipment bag at the rear of the cabin. I watched. The victim being transported was an adult male. He looked to be in his mid-forties. I could tell by the sound of his chest cavity that he had sustained severe internal injuries. My hearing may just be a better diagnostic tool than ultrasound or MRI. If my people ever do become accepted in human society, I intend to make another fortune working as a diagnostician. I’ll merely have to solve the problem of how to make my enhanced senses switch on without alarming my patients. It takes the smell of fresh blood to do it. This poor man had much fresh blood on him and coming out of him.
He wasn’t going to live. Not even an hour was left to him.
I felt hunger pangs. They weren’t in my stomach – ours never are. Hunger, for us, is a chill in the blood. Our skin is always cold. Folktale informs you of that fact, doesn’t it? Still, our body temperature does vary. It’s just always colder than yours… while you’re living. When we have fed, the warm blood warms us throughout. Our system operates at peak efficiency, digesting and recirculating. We don’t feel hunger again until we have processed what we’ve taken in, and our body temperature lowers again. No fuel to keep the furnace going.
The paramedic stayed with him, checking vital signs, attempting to keep him stable until they arrived at the hospital. There was no way I could feed without being seen. Some vampires would have leapt at the chance to wreak havoc at this juncture. I could have resumed human form, likely causing the girl before me to urinate in terror. I could have feasted on the dying man, then on her, then on the pilot. I could have sent the ‘copter on a downward plunge, with a terrific explosion to destroy all of the evidence of my visit. I could have easily escaped all of this unharmed.
I was not about to do it. These people had done nothing to deserve such a fate. Even at my hungriest, I had not broken the code I’d developed in Baltimore. So, hunger or no hunger, I had to wait until we landed, and I had a better opening. I crept quietly along the floor to the base of the patient’s stretcher, which would stay with him all the way into an operating room at the ER. Nestled under the vinyl flange of its cushion, I pulled my bat’s wing over my head and took a nap.
* * *
The restrained jolt of the stretcher being lowered to the ground awakened me. Tuning out the chatter as the patient’s condition was recited to a physician, I listened for his vital signs myself. They were ebbing quickly. He might not live to reach an operating table, and my waiting would be for naught. Still, I had no choice but to ride this out. If he died too quickly, well, it was a hospital. Food could not be far away.
They never even operated. Time of death was called immediately upon examination, and the body was left in a darkened cubicle for pickup. There were many other patients from the same accident to be seen. The ER staff did not waste time.
Fortunately for me, they did miscall the time of death. Human doctors often do. That’s not to say that they so often abandon patients who could be saved. I merely mean that the actual death – the moment when the blood becomes useless to me – often comes seconds or minutes after they have declared it to be passed. Just as often, they will attempt to save a patient who has passed that threshold already.
In this case, I was left in a darkened room with a potential corpse. It was dinner time. I shifted to my human form. No one from the hospital would come in here until the chaos without had quieted. The victim’s family would be some time arriving. The roads were still backed up from the accident.
I hadn’t counted on the morbid tendencies of some teenagers.
The boy didn’t burst in on me. He was very quiet, actually. He slowly opened the door, and gave his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dark. I must have been distracted. I could have shifted to a less visible form in the blink of an eye, but I didn’t. I didn’t notice he was there until he’d seen me.
And he saw me. Blood on my chin and all.
“Oh my god,” he murmured vaguely, something akin to surprise – but less intense – behind his eyes.
To Be Continued
This story is provided for free, but is, of course, copyrighted. You may share it with anyone and everyone, and I hope you will. But you must always attach my name to it, and you may not alter it in any way. Because if you take my story and turn it into something better than I could write, I will be really, really pissed.
But, if you enjoyed it and would like to be a patron of my art, please consider a donation in any amount. The site actually does cost some money to maintain, and a lot of really cool people have helped me. I’d like to be able to buy them cars or something. (And by “cars,” I mean Matchbox®.)
The Cattail Country Store is once again open for business. Of course, it’s only open when someone needs it to be, and that means someone’s in trouble. This time, it’s two girls named Sarah and Liz who wander inexplicably in from the swamps of Louisiana, and possibly from the pages of history.
And don’t forget that Prometheus has brought you many tales of horror and the paranormal over the years. Check out these:
The first episode of the Cattail Country Store, “Last Call”
… And of course Phil Giunta’s ghostly novels:
Some of these are first chapter links only. Our full catalog is available on our podcast feed: http://prometheus.rnn.libsynpro.com/
I arrived in Baltimore later that same day, ravenously hungry. I drank a bum. Killed him, of course. That was what my sire had done with his victims, myself excepted. I was merely continuing as he had taught me. Besides, the bum was near death anyway. He’d polluted his body to the point that his liver was about to fail. It was one of the worst meals of my life, to that point and to this day. Still, I was sated, and had time to be choosy with my next meal.
On the evening of my second solo kill, I went where most of the city went for food – to the market. Lexington Market, in this case. Only I had no interest in the fresh fruits and vegetables arriving by wagon from remote farms. The meats caught my eye, but then my nose assessed them, and I was shocked by my revulsion. They were dead. Since my change, I could no longer bring myself to consider dead flesh. It stank to me as spoiled food would to you.
I thought it might be nice, me being a fiction writer, and this being Hallowe’en, to actually share a story on the site. This, by the way, was podcast a long time back. But I’m betting a lot of my readers aren’t necessarily listeners. So here ya go…
I knew it was a bad idea all along. Well, all right, I should have known. I’ve been kicking myself for weeks now, because I should have known. I’ve successfully avoided this kind of situation for over 250 years.
Any idiot knows that a person contemplating suicide is, by definition, not in the best frame of mind; but I really believed the kid when he said he wanted to die. He was going to get what he wanted out of the deal, and I was going to get what I needed. Isn’t that what makes a fair contract?
Perhaps I should back up a bit and give you the particulars. To understand the quandary I got into, and how I got into it, you first have to understand what I am.
I am a vampire. That’s right – vampire. Blood-sucking. Undead. Turn into a bat and everything. Perhaps you expect a disclaimer about how I actually can walk in sunlight (can’t touch the stuff) or how I’m not actually supernatural but just maladjusted and blood-loving. Nope. Drink it. Gotta have it. Live forever as long as I do – well, if I stay away from wooden stakes and get back to my coffin by curfew. I am not myth. The blonde kid on TV that makes vampires disappear in a cloud of ash? She’s your myth. Never met the human who was my equal. Rarely have I seen one of my kind get staked. Certainly not while they were awake and could do something to prevent it!
These words were uttered by down-on-his-luck cabaret singer Carol Todd (Robert Preston) in Blake Edwards’s immortal film Victor/Victoria, one of my all-time favorites. I recently posted this quote on Facebook, amidst other words of rancor not so clever as those penned by the late Mr. Edwards, because someone had told my wife and son they should be ashamed of their behavior.
“Why?” you asked. (Well, some of you did.) “What did they do?”
It doesn’t matter why, because my wife and son had done nothing to be ashamed of. In all of human history, nobody ever did anything worth being ashamed of. That doesn’t mean nobody in history ever did anything immoral, unethical, or downright awful. We know they did. We established public education and TV news so that everyone would remember that they did. It just means that there’s no reason for those people who did wrong to feel ashamed, because feeling ashamed doesn’t accomplish anything.
In fact, I don’t think shame is a feeling. Not a natural one. It’s a dirty, useless, stupid pseudo-feeling that hurts people and ruins lives, without ever righting a wrong or salving a hurt feeling.
I hate shame.
In the Very Big City, once upon a time, O you Little Monsters, there was a Knowitall, and he knew everything. Or perhaps it was in the Impressive University, or the Efficient Workplace. I can’t recall which it was. It is just possible that the Knowitall was everywhere then, as he is today. Suffice to say that he was somewhere, and he knew everything there was to be known. He knew the depth of the ocean, and the height of the sky, and the speed of a thought, and the value of an hour well-spent, and the cures for all sorts of diseases–so!
There was one thing the Knowitall did not know, and that was how to make anybody like him. Whenever he encountered other people, and shared with them all that he knew, solved their problems and averted their wars, he found that they cast a bitter eye upon him, and treated him as the Fire might treat the Driving Rain, if the Fire but had voice to insult or hands to gesture rudely or a shoulder to turn coldly (in a fiery sort of way), or anything at all but tongues of flame which could not speak, but only lick the air.
(The Fire, O Little Monsters, once had voice and hands and shoulders all, but lost them. That is a story for another time.)
One day, as the Knowitall was telling the Unruly Squirrel how to carry his nuts, the Unruly Squirrel said to him, “Knowitall, I do not like you.”
The Knowitall hung his head in a sad but knowing manner and said, “I know.”
“No one likes you,” said the Unruly Squirrel.
“I know,” said the Knowitall. (He said this often.)
“Do you know why?” asked the Unruly Squirrel.
“I…” The Knowitall paused, and coughed, and scratched behind his ear in a queer sort of way. Something very peculiar was happening to him, and it unsettled him. It was something that had never happened before. He was being asked a question, and all he could say in reply was, “I don’t know!”
The Knowitall burst into tears.
The Unruly Squirrel laughed.
The Sun went down.
The Sun came up.
The Sun went down.
The Sun took a day off and read a book from the New York Times Bestseller list, and decided that leisure time was overrated; so the Sun came back up.
The Unruly Squirrel was still laughing.
The Knowitall waited patiently, for he knew exactly when the Unruly Squirrel would stop laughing. It happened precisely twenty-three minutes after the Knowitall stopped weeping.
“I haven’t laughed like that in years,” said the Unruly Squirrel. “I don’t like you, but I will help you, since I feel so good right now.”
“How will you help me?” asked the Knowitall. “Will you tell me why people don’t like me?”
“It will do you no good, for it’s a plain fact that people hate anybody who knows more than they do. You cannot change what you are.”
“But I do not know everything,” said the Knowitall. “I know everything but one thing.”
“Hatred doesn’t quibble over trifles,” said the Unruly Squirrel. “Hatred is pure.”
“But if I cannot change, how can you help me?”
The Unruly Squirrel narrowed his large (for a squirrel) black eyes and said, “Have you considered distraction?”
“I have considered everything,” said the Knowitall.
“Stop!” said the Unruly Squirrel.
“Do you mean, have I considered distracting people so that they don’t realize that I know everything?”
“No,” said the Unruly Squirrel. “I mean have you considered drawing people’s attention to how stupid other people are, instead of to how smart you are? If you show people how stupid another person is, they’ll be grateful to you, and never notice how utterly despicable you are.”
“Why would they be grateful?”
“Because, most people, deep down, believe themselves to be failures.”
“That is because they do not know everything but one thing, as I do,” said the Knowitall.
“Whatever,” said the Unruly Squirrel. “People feel like failures, and the only thing that makes them feel better is to know that someone else is an even bigger failure than they are. So, rather than spending your time showing off your knowledge, you should just tell people what they’re doing wrong.”
“And then show them how to do it right?” asked the Knowitall.
“Absolutely not,” said the Unruly Squirrel. “You just point out the error, give no help whatsoever, and walk away. Soon you’ll have more friends than the King and Queen.”
“But I can’t see how it’s right to bring people problems without solutions,” said the Knowitall.
The Unruly Squirrel sighed and sat down on his nuts. “Do you want friends or not?”
“I’ll try it,” said the Knowitall.
So the Knowitall walked until he found a Celebrated Author who had written a celebrated book. The author was reading his book to an audience, who was enjoying it immensely. The Knowitall knew every word in the book, of course, since he knew everything but one thing. He made his way to the front of the crowd, pulled the book from the author’s hands, held it up, and said:
“On the forty-eighth page of this book, the author says that a ray of sunshine weighs six ounces. A ray of sunshine weighs–” And the Knowitall stopped himself. He remembered the Unruly Squirrel’s words, and did not tell the Celebrated Author how to correct his mistake. He simply finished with, “A ray of sunshine weighs something other than six ounces. You are a terrible author.”
The crowd cheered. The Celebrated Author collapsed with an attack of asthma.
The Knowitall walked away amidst slaps on the back, toasts and offers of cash, and smiled. It did strike him odd, however, that he suddenly could not remember what was on the other pages of that book. Come to that, neither could he remember the weight of a ray of sunshine.
The next day, the Knowitall attended a concert by a Famous Composer. In the middle of the concert, he walked up to the stage and told the audience that the Famous Composer’s finger placement on the piano keys was off by a fragment of an inch. “You are a terrible composer,” he said. (No one even commented that perhaps he was merely a terrible pianist.)
The crowd gasped. The Famous Composer hung his head in shame.
The Knowitall exited the hall to thunderous applause. It was only days later that he realized he no longer knew how to play a piano.
And so it was. The Knowitall spent a year telling people their mistakes, but not how to fix them. And each piece of knowledge that he withheld from them vanished as well from his own head.
Soon he knew nothing at all.
And yet people still believed him when he said another person was wrong.
They still believe him to this day.