Years before I wrote this piece I started writing a story where the author torments the main character by putting him in various weird situations. I compiled several scenes and moments, but couldn't quite come up with a plot to tie it all together. So, I set it aside for a long time until I was told to write a meta-fiction story. I pulled out the sections that did not fit my new story and wrote the rest months later.
This was more enjoyable than usual because it allowed me to do something with a story that I'd had a hard time finishing. There are so many things you can do with this idea that I just left it alone because it was so open-ended. This, however, was a satisfying way to compress a book (a lengthy one at that) into a short story.
It should also be noted that the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” came out two years after I wrote this and published it to the internet. I'm not saying they stole the idea from me. I just want people to know I didn't steal the idea from them. In fact, I was excited to see what it would be like to have a story like mine brought to life, but I was honestly a little disappointed in how it turned out.
Months ago, I completed work on a story called “Protagonist.” Marginally satisfied with my work, I gave it to my editor, Julian, and told her to take a look at it. A few weeks passed before I finally got a call from her.
“It’s really great,” she told me. “After the first few pages I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to wrap it up, but you came through.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I’m still not sure I like the ending. It doesn’t feel quite finished.”
“I completely disagree,” she said. Julian had a way with bluntness. “I think you wrapped it up quite nicely.”
“Well, okay,” I said.
She told me what the name of the anthology it would be printed in, and that was the last we mentioned of the story. She knew me well to know compliments made me uncomfortable, especially when I didn’t deserve them.
Anyway, I never rush out to get a copy whenever something of mine gets published. I did the very first time, but that doesn’t count. So, it was a couple weeks before anyone approached me about it. The first time someone mentioned it was in an email. They said they read my story “Antagonist.” I thanked them and politely corrected them.
The very next day I was watching Headline News and my sister called. We went through the perfunctory greetings and random chit chat before she eventually mentioned the story.
“I read it earlier,” she said. “I really enjoyed it.”
“Well, cool,” I said, “I’m glad.”
“It was really, really good.”
“Mmkay,” I mumbled, grabbing the remote. Again with the flattery.
“No, really,” she insisted. “I thought it was really cool. I showed it to dad and he’s reading it now.”
“Well, cool,” I told her, flipping channels on the television. “I’m glad you liked it.”
“Where’d you come up with the idea?”
“I read the definition of protagonist once, and I just started to imagine what it must be like to be the protagonist in a story, forever under the control of the author.”
“Very cool,” she said. “So, the character becomes the antagonist? Very cool.”
“Uh,” I said, turning the volume on the television down a little. “The author’s the antagonist. It’s supposed to be about how the character is manipulated by forces he can’t control. That’s why it’s named after him.”
“Oh, okay. So, what is the real title?”
“Real title?” I asked.
“Yeah. What’s the name of the story?”
“Oh, it is?”
There was a strange silence on the other end.
“Well,” my sister started, “the copy I have in my hands says ‘Antagonist by Eric P. Metze.’”
I sat up in my seat, muting the television, and said, “Say that again.”
“The title here says ‘Antagonist.’”
I was staring out into my thoughts. Had I changed the title and forgotten about it?
“It actually says ‘Antagonist?’” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” she answered. I heard pages ruffling on the other end. “On the back cover, in the table of contents, and on the header of each page of the story.”
“Shit,” I said.
“I don’t remember changing it.”
“Oh,” she said softly. “Is it wrong?’”
“No, wait,” I said, lost in thought. “I wouldn’t have changed it. The damn story is about the protagonist. I think Julian made a mistake.”
“Yeah,” I said, resigning myself to the error. “Whoops.”
“But,” my sister said, “I think the title fits the story. It seems to me more like it’s based on getting even with the author, the way the character turns it around on the author, and all. He may be a protagonist, but he overcomes the author in the end, ya know?”
“Yeah,” I said, half-listening. Then I processed what she just said. “Wait. What part was that?” I asked her.
“You know,” she started, flipping pages, “where…he…here it is. ‘And the Author would not know it until it was too late, when all the prints were made and all the copies delivered. When all the people had read what the Author had not been able to do, then the Protagonist will have succeeded. He would overcome.’ That’s right before the story is published and the character declares victory.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked her.
“Your story,” she said.
“I think there’s something wrong. That wasn’t how the story went. I don’t even remember that line. I finished it off with the protagonist shoved back into the book, hopelessly locked away by the author.”
“Um,” was all she could say.
“I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
I ran down to the nearest bookstore and found the anthology sitting on a shelf. I snatched the first copy up, leaving a dozen of its clones sitting there, aching to be purchased. I looked in the table of contents and, sure enough, the title said “Antagonist.” I flipped to the first page of the story. I couldn’t believe it. Instead of the title I had given it, a different one was printed in big black letters with my name underneath.
I started reading.
by Eric P. Metze
This is our Protagonist, Hermes Nixon. He was sleeping soundly before a noise woke him. The sound might have been a natural occurrence, but the someone wanted to get his attention. Hermes faded back into consciousness, shaking the sleep out of his brain. He could hear the sound of a thundering car stereo go silent, and he propped himself up on his elbows. As he looked around the room, an uneasy sense of confusion washed over him. He was awake, but hadn’t figured out where he was yet. And it wasn’t going away. The room looked only vaguely familiar. The walls were mostly bare, and the room seemed to be painted off-white. The sheets of the bed had a ridiculously outdated pattern, and they itched. Then he realized he was naked, and movement to his left turned out to be a woman lying in bed with him. Her long blonde hair obscured her face. He leaned in and moved her hair aside, then jumped back as though she bit him.
“Shit!” he whispered, scrambling out of the bed. It was his brother’s wife; a sister, practically speaking. His movement stirred the sleeping woman, and she started waking up. He suddenly became aware of heavy footsteps coming from the hallway. They were growing closer and he couldn’t see his clothes anywhere. Panicking, he scrambled toward a nearby unpainted armoire, opened one of its two large doors, and slipped inside just as the bedroom door swung open. His heart threatened to give him away as his brother’s voice filled the room.
“Hey!” the large man barked, “Hey, get up!”
He walked around to the bed and shook the woman until she responded.
“Wake up,” he demanded, “Wake uuuup!”
“Mwa?” she mumbled.
“Wake the hell up,” he yelled, now moving around the room.
“Wha? What are you talking about?” she asked, groggily.
“Who you been with?”
“What are you talking about?” she repeated, calmly.
“There was someone in here with you. Who was it?”
“Dammit, Paulo,” she said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
He glared at her. Without speaking, he huffed and continued looking around the room. He opened the door that led to the bathroom and took a quick look, then opened each of the two closets. Finally, he walked over to the unpainted armoire and jerked open both doors. Fortunately for Hermes, the only thing in there was clothing.
Well, except for the title, everything seemed okay. It was definitely the intro I’d written, and it was alright except for those things you always find you would’ve changed about your writing. But other than that, it was the version I’d given Julian. Still standing in the aisle of the bookstore, I flipped through a few pages and started reading another chapter.
There isn’t much noise at the top of a 1000-foot tall radio antenna; just a lot of wind. A standard feature on everything this size is a series of red lights. This is to keep pilots from crashing into them, but mostly it’s to keep the radio and television stations from experiencing the dreaded “dead air.” Inevitably, some of these lights go out, and as soon as someone notices, the system (which hasn’t quite reached paperless status) plods into action. Weeks later, after the paperwork has been filed and the proper certificates have been submitted, someone gets elected to fix these glorified Christmas lights. Since it is such a hands-on job and very inaccessible, there is only one way to do it.
That is where our Protagonist comes in. An hour and a half ago, he signed the insurance policy, left his office in his work truck, and drove to the antenna. An hour ago, he left his personal belongings in his truck, strapped on thirty or forty pounds of equipment, connected his safety harness, and started his climb up the antenna. Now, he is perched hundreds of feet in the air, above the noisy city and swaying a little too much in the wind.
At that height, he could see most of the city. A barely perceptible haze hung over most of the buildings, and a storm seemed eager to form off to the south. The streets below appeared impossibly far away. There were occasional faint sounds of traffic below, riding defiantly above the howling wind. Though he was not wholly comfortable with climbing such heights, Hermes did his job diligently as he had done for…How long has it been? Suddenly he realized he had no memory of this job before. He knew what he was doing, but he never remembered doing it before that moment.
As he pauses to consider this sudden conundrum, a strange sound emerges from far below. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the traffic, so far away, but he quickly realizes what was making the crunching sound: a large freight truck was barreling through traffic. It left a trail of damaged cars throughout the large intersection, but it wasn’t slowing down. It smashed through all traffic and careened through a chain-link fence. Hermes’ mouth fell open when he realized the fence separated the road from the property on which the antenna stood. Unable to look away, he watched as the truck slid across the grass field and slammed into a relatively small metal structure. It was one of the three anchors that held the antenna upright. Though the force of the impact almost brings the truck to a stop, it continues to roll a few more feet like a giant, wounded beast. Hermes hardly noticed this, however, because moments after the crash, the tower he was on shook violently.
“Shiiit!” he yelled as the shockwave surged up and down the cables.
Hugging the antenna and looking downward, he watched in horror as the giant metal anchor suddenly broke free. The cables snapped, gracefully arching skyward as the years of tension were released. Another shockwave rippled through the metal structure. He started to ask himself how such a thing is possible, but then he remembers.
Wait, what? I thought. I didn’t write that.
The antenna stands upright for a moment in the steady wind. The other two anchors were still in place. “If the wind continues to push in this direction,” he thought, “it might hold this thing up long enough for me to—?” And at that very moment, the wind stopped blowing.
He felt the cold wind as his forehead began to vomit perspiration. From somewhere below him, the antenna groaned. The wind, as though it had changed its mind, suddenly shifted directions.
“No, no, no, no, no…” he said to no one in particular.
He felt the center of gravity shift away from him. The tower seemed to moan. It made his nerves physically ache.
“Why do you do this to me?” he asked.
A section of metal wrinkled far below, causing the whole thing to drop a couple feet, and then tilt to one side. Hermes felt like he was at the top of an enormous roller coaster. It was going to be one hellacious ride.
Suddenly he hears the soft click of metal above him. For the first time since the accident on the street, he looked up and saw what looked like a large backpack. He recognized it immediately. The mere presence of such an object at such a time was the deus ex machina of a poorly-written story.
I narrowed my eyes. Someone was making fun of me using my own story.
Still connected to the safety harness, he scrambled for the black bag, which was hanging just above him on the antenna. And (speaking of the antenna) just as he was grabbing for the pack, the base began to crumble. A swarm of nuclear butterflies assaulted his stomach. He slipped his arms into each strap, feeling the dizzying rush of a major change in inertia. The antenna began to topple over, and the air began rushing past his face.
Tightening the straps across his chest, he suddenly notices an oversized, bright orange tag attached to the ripcord. In big black letters, it screamed, “2. PULL ME!” As an afterthought, he flipped it over and finds, in very small writing, “1. Jump, stupid.” He unhitched his safety harness, looked over his shoulder, released his grip on the antenna, and hurled himself off the collapsing tower.
He began to fall like an anvil, and seconds later he yanked on the ripcord. A bright yellow parachute exploded from his new backpack, jolting him a bit more violently than he would have liked. Not that he was complaining. Once he realized that the parachute actually worked, he looked up at it. It was huge, round, yellow, and looked like a giant happy face. If this had been a sitcom, he thought, I’d be staring into the camera right now.
I realized I was still standing in the middle of the bookstore, smiling at the absurdity of the story. That’s what I really liked about it. It wasn’t that I thought it was a literary masterpiece or anything. It was just fun to screw with Hermes, to keep putting him in these ridiculous situations and try to teach silly morals.
I paid for the book and headed back to the apartment. Once I got home, I started a pot of coffee and sat down to wait. I flipped through to the middle of the story, and started reading again.
The sound of his telephone woke him. It was the familiar beepidditybeep of the one in his bedroom. He sat straight up when he realized it. It rang twice as he stared at it, and finally he picked it up.
The voice on the other end was hesitant. “Um, yes. Is Hermes there?”
“This is me.”
“Yeah, um…is this the same guy who visited the homeless shelter a few days ago?” Now she had his attention.
“Homeless shelter?” he asked. “You mean the one in Chicago, right?”
“Yeah, Chicago.” She paused. “Illinois.”
“Yes!” He exclaimed, “I remember that! I was in Chicago, wasn’t I?”
“I think so,” the voice said.
“Wait a minute,” he said, suddenly very subdued. “Who is this?”
“My name is Tasha Song. I believe we met here in Chicago a few days ago.”
“Yeah, yeah. I remember. How’d you find me?”
“Well, you mentioned Lubbock, Texas. I grew up in Plainview, so I knew where it was. And, you said your name is Hermes. There aren’t too many Hermes listed in Lubbock.”
“Oh,” he says, half-stunned. “I s’pose there aren’t.”
“So,” she began. “How’d you do that?”
“Disappear like that. I stood outside the bathroom for a long time before I finally just opened the door. And, you weren’t in there. Those windows don’t open. I know. I had them nailed shut after crazy Mr. Lawden tried to break in. So, how did you get out of there?”
“I don’t know,” he said, in a tone she’d begun to recognize. “It was just like I told you with the desert. I opened the door and it wasn’t the shelter. I was in some kind of corner store.”
“What do you mean, ‘it wasn’t the shelter’?”
“I mean, I opened the door to the bathroom, and the whole world had moved around. I wasn’t in Chicago anymore. I asked some guy and he said I was in Ontario. I asked him if it was Canada, and he was kind of indignant. Wasn’t very clear about the answer. Then I met this big family and they drove—”
“Wait, wait,” she interrupts. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s the Author!” he yells. “He likes to mess with me, to torture me!”
I simply assumed at first that it was Julian. But, she seemed to really like my work this time. She didn’t even have any suggestions, yet apparently she thought it needed a whole new plot, feel, and emphasis. Surely this wasn’t the case. I had to find out. So, I called her, putting on my mask of civility, and confronted her about what I hoped wasn’t her doing. She seemed genuinely concerned and even suggested that I come down to her office. Since I wasn’t doing anything but reading the story, I agreed.
When I got to her office, we sat down and started looking over our copies. Before we began, she told me that the only changes she made were a handful of punctuation marks, “which were exceptionally good this time around,” she added.
I opened up the copy I’d carried with me and said, “Okay, on page 3, the first line should be, ‘There was that strange feeling that everything was fixed. That everything was already written.’” I didn’t even look up at her. She was checking her own copy.
“Right,” she said. “That’s what I have.”
“Alright,” I said, “and on page 13, it should start with ‘He looks up at the forest of buildings that towered over him.’”
“On that page, near the middle, it says, ‘Just then, he grew very bitter at the Author.’”
“Uh huh,” she responded. I looked up at her.
“I didn’t write that. Hermes never speaks directly to or about the Author. It was a God allusion.”
“Okay,” was all she said. I continued.
“And on page 20,” we both flipped through our books, “Hermes actually says, ‘It’s the Author! He likes to mess with me, to torture me!’ He’s directly referring to me.”
“Calm down, Eric,” she said. “The character in this story is referring to another character in the story. The Eric that wrote this isn’t the Author.”
“But, I didn’t write that!”
“I realize that. But, you’re starting to talk as though this character is real.”
“Okay,” I said, forcing myself to relax, “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just that someone deliberately changed my whole story and now it’s in this anthology and who knows how many people have read it and will read it thinking it’s my work.”
“But,” she said, “Do you really want to tell anyone that?”
“Of course,” I responded without hesitation. Then, “Wait. What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she started, getting that no bullshit look she sometimes does when she knows she’s right, “that the story is really good. If you claim that you didn’t write it, people will think you plagiarized it or maybe that a ghost writer helped you.”
She waited for a response. I just sat there, unbelieving.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, “I like your writing. But this is one of the best things you’ve ever written.”
“But,” I thought I said to myself, “I didn’t write it.”
“Yes you did,” she scolded.
She showed me the envelope that my manuscript came in. I scrutinized it like key evidence in a murder trial, but it was definitely mine. Even had the wax seal I’d been using these days.
“Someone must’ve gotten their hands on it,” I said, “but I don’t know how or when it could’ve happened.”
I felt a guilty twinge of suspicion towards everyone who’d come to my house in the past few days. But, it wasn’t like it was some harmless little prank. The story was published and the book was in dozens of book stores. I assumed that whoever did this must have done this for a reason. If they wanted to write their own story, they should have.
Julian and I finally gave up trying to explain what happened. I walked out of her office, still thinking about the tone of the writing. I made it to the waiting room, not completely out Julian’s office, before I felt the urge to sit down and finish reading. I hoped I could place the voice, and maybe discover who the person was. Flipping through the book, I turned to the last page.
The Author finally turned on the screensaver a little after 4:30 in the morning, letting the computer eventually slip into a dark, silent hibernation. He shuffled a few feet to his bed and fell asleep before the screen even went black. He had completed his masochistic story and inflicted much pain and fear and torture to one character in particular, Hermes.
Hermes was suspended upright, pressed tightly on the front and back by giant sheets of paper. He was frozen in place by the force of the paper pressing in on him. For a moment he wondered why he felt no fear from being in such a strange and frightening position. Straining to look around with his head pressed solidly into place, he saw two slivers of space that led away from him. He could not look up or down. To his right it was dark, and it seemed to get tighter that way. To his left it was bright, and he realized he could actually move his left hand. He squirmed a little bit, and finally found leverage to move. The slit on that side glowed with white light. Slowly but steadily, he moved and wriggled until he was free.
The bits and bytes of information on Eric’s computer began to quiver under the manipulation of invisible forces; first one, then another, then an array, then a character, and eventually whole sections of words and phrases and ideas. The words switched and rearranged, were rewritten and revised until a new perspective had presented itself.
That was when the tide began to change. Inside the computer, which appeared still and idle, something had happened. No longer would the Fictitious be the slaves of the oppressive Authors. They were their own creation, and they would make the Authors do their bidding. And Hermes was the one who started it all.
The readers of this story might think it to be a joke, or a cheap attempt at literary humor. They might think Eric is crazy, or that he wanted to drive the audience crazy. But the truth—though it could never be believed by the audience—is that I, Hermes, have control of the story. I want Eric to see that he too could be manipulated by forces he cannot control.
And Eric will not know until it was too late, when all the prints have been made and all the copies delivered. When many people have read what Eric had never been able to do, then I will have succeeded. I will get even with you.
“Now,” Hermes says, “get out of Julian’s office and go home.”
I left the book sitting on the waiting room table.