Can't Get Much Worse - chapter 8
The Great Substack Story Challenge II continues
Today I’ve got a bonus short story for you. This is part of a collaborative storytelling experiment by a diverse range of Substack fiction writers, each telling the same story from a (very) different point of view. Today it’s my turn!
You can read this on its own, but I do encourage you to check out the project in its entirety.
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I have a notebook in which I jot down ideas, thoughts, observations. Perhaps they’ll find it when I’m dead and make me famous. That’s the benefit of being invisible, which is a superpower you get for free when you become homeless. Even if people glimpse me, out of the corner of their eye, a moment later I’m gone. They convince themselves that they saw nothing, because the risk of acknowledging my existence is too great.
There was a time when I had an apartment, and a job, and a partner. That was a long time ago. The city’s my home now, and my back yard. My kitchen is the alley out the back of restaurants. The park is my living room. I have a hundred bedrooms, none of them especially comfortable.
My days are simple and long. I have little to do, which gives my mind as much time as it needs. I go on expeditions and adventures, and make great discoveries, and meet fascinating people. I do all this without anyone noticing me, because remember - I’m invisible. We’re all ghosts, really, but when you live on the street you become a proper wraith. I’m off the grid, have no tech, no record of existence. There’s probably a birth certificate somewhere in a faded folder in a dusty filing cabinet.
When you live outside the system you can start to see it for what it is. You heard of goldfish bowl syndrome? The goldfish has no idea about the real world, because its entire universe is within that glass bulb? If you have a house, and a job, and a family - then you’re in the most common goldfish bowl of all.
I’m not, so I get to really see.
The real world is weirder than you can conceive. People are more broken than you know. Even your closest friends are strangers, driven by secrets you’ll never understand. Take these two women, walking the path through the park, pretending to each other. One of them so engrossed in her phone that she doesn’t see me - it’s an act, of course. She doesn’t want to see me. My invisibility superpower is given to me by group agreement - it requires the complicity of everyone around me.
The woman - I’m going to call her Kate - mutters as she bumps into me, her phone’s screen splintering as it hits the ground. Angry now, she glares at me, immediately piercing my camouflage.
I am seen.
It is the friend who finds a sort of courage. “You better leave right now, or I’m calling the cops,” she says, clutching the lead of her small and pointless dog. That’s more like it, Lauren. Good girl. Make your stand. Show me who is boss.
Concerned that others might notice me, I move away quickly. Darting through a gap in the hedge that bounds the park, I take a moment to jot down some ideas in my notebook.
There they are again, those women: emerging from the park onto the sidewalk, oblivious once more to my existence. I take it all in, observing a gathered protest with its placards and slogans. The word placard, taken from placate. It makes them feel better, so good for them. They can go home after and sleep or have sex or watch TV, safe in the knowledge that they’ve made the world a better place.
As a watcher, it is my responsibility to chronicle. My notebook is a mess of words and drawings. What change I manage to gather in a day goes to new pencils. It’s a burden I take seriously.
The women have been joined by two men, both of whom look instantly boring. I find my imagination sliding off them, like grease on a hinge. No friction. Even giving one of them a funny British accent doesn’t help. Maybe something more dramatic would do it.
I’m distracted by the sound of squealing tyres, as a car roars into view and comedically flips itself upside-down in the most pathetic attempt at a getaway. No escape for any of these people. They’re all in on it, as are all of you. No innocent faces here.
Wait - I’m wrong. I catch a glimpse of a younger face, peeking from behind a bush, her face a picture of horror. Perhaps a teenager, but only just. She has no blame upon her, not yet.
Guns are always welcome additions to a story. Is there a more immediate escalation of stakes than the introduction of a gun? It’s the potential, the curled-up energy waiting to be unleashed. In this case the guns are wielded by incompetents, and in a few seconds there are dead bodies on the street, blood pooling into drains. That’s why they build sewers, after all. To take away the unwanted.
The protest scatters into panic. More connections are needed, otherwise this is nothing more than pure chaos. The surviving robber, he can be a son and a brother. That twists the tale. A rotten family, working to steal money from the bank around the corner. It wouldn’t be the first time that story’s been told.
Tighten it still, like a rope being wound. Not just money, but marked lockboxes. What’s in them? Secrets, undisclosed but of great import. Financial records showing the corrupt dalliances of our beloved politicians? Those naughty, old white men up to their usual tricks. It’s all about networking, you see. Not what you can do, but who you know. If an American senator happened to go on holiday to a mansion in Italy owned by a Russian oligarch? That just makes the story more delicious.
It was just like a movie, is what everyone always says. What came first, the movie or the reality? Humans chasing their own tales.
It’s getting harder to know what’s real and what’s just in my head. Does everyone get that? Maybe I’ve been out here too long. Could be I need a new notebook.
One of the robbers gets up and staggers away. Robbers. A silly word that nobody over six years old should speak. What’s the grown-up equivalent? Billionaires, perhaps.
Sometimes I make myself laugh. Though not often.
The survivor limps down a side street and I follow. I’m invisible, remember. I can go anywhere I like. He vanishes into a deli, which is when I see that I’m not the only observer. There’s a tall man, taller than most, who is clearly a tracker. The creature is so unnaturally high, so absurdly towering in his stature, that I decide he cannot possibly be merely human. No, this is clearly a bounty hunter, and that makes his prey something far more enticing by mere association.
In the notebook I sketch what the robber really looks like, beneath his disguise of human flesh. The tall man tracks him further into an alleyway, which is where the alien thief uses a convenient space fold to return to his transport, waiting patiently in low-Earth orbit.
I don’t normally indulge in science fiction. My trade is in the real; the gritty underbelly of this city. The people here are the dirt and flecks of leaves stuck to the muddy fur of a wet dog. It all stinks. Sometimes, though, you need to elevate. Drudgery isn’t always enough. There’s only so much grit you can take before it starts getting stuck in your teeth.
The whole thing is a plot, then. World-changing, because that’s the only sort of story that’s worth a damn these days. Everyone so busy with their grand demonstrations and civilisation-shattering threats and moonshots that they forget to look to what is right next to them.
I remain invisible. Perhaps someone will find my notebook and publish it, one day. And then you will ask: Was any of it real? How did he know? Is it just a coincidence?
Did he make it happen that way?
My hand keeps writing, bringing stories into existence on the page. I don’t know what will come next. Maybe I’ll write about you. Wouldn’t that be something? I could be watching you right now.
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The story continues next week over on 's publication .
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Thanks for reading.
I’ve wanted to do a collab project for years. The last big collaborative writing endeavour I did was for a radio/podcast drama called The Ravenskil Chronicles. That was a real pleasure, spending time in the writers’ room and hammering out the details.
This was quite different: while we have a Discord channel to work out the logistics, each writer has worked on their chapter in isolation. I didn’t know what Meg was going to put out last week until it was posted (really loved her installment, incidentally).
The story has taken some wild turns along the way. There are two writers still to come, and I don’t envy them trying to pull it all together. My approach here was to re-examine the nature of collaborative storytelling, in a way, and poke at what it means to tell stories to each other. Not sure how well that worked, but it was fun to write. Hopefully fun to read, too!
I’ll be back in your inboxes on Friday for a new Tales from the Triverse chapter. If you’re new here and want to check that out, here’s the starting point:
Trust Simon to come along in Chapter 8 and (I say this with tongue slightly in cheek) side step the assignment entirely to, instead, throw in some social commentary wrapped in meta-analysis, further wrapped up in an enigmatic (but appealing) character who may be slightly insane, or may be a fantasy diety hanging out on the edges of this Sci-fi/Spy-thriller story writing the damned thing!
Bravo you clever-clever man!
Good luck to the the next two writers who need to find some way up finding some kind of closure. Especially as there are a whole bunch of implications about the protest that haven't been explored yet. No! Don't do that! We've already got something like ten major characters and at least five factions in eight chapters with only Dawn being "just" a "normal" person. Unfortunately the next two writers need to buckle up and commit to working for an ending. Structurally, Simon is the last person who gets to wildly branch out, or this project is gonna have an unsatisfying conclusion.
Boy, Chapter 10 is gonna be a bitch to write. My sympathies to the author.
Unless a meteor just hits the planet and kills everyone. With the Sci-fi subplot that could actually happen!
Simon, do a detect a slight whiff of either "Midnight Nation," or "Lakebridge: Spring" in your conscious or subconscious influence? As you're a JMS fan and comic reader I find it highly likely you've read "Midnight Nation." While I've recommended Natasha Troop's "Lakebridge" novels to you, I don't know if you've read them, but there are slight tonal and structural similarities here to the "Silver Knight" in that series - only in that the Knight is a homeless person with special sight who does get to make some meta observations. Tasha's Knight, however does stand revealed as a true supernatural guardian in the end.
"Humans chasing their own tales." Brilliant line.
Very nice addition to the challenge. One of my favorites so far.