The Edge of Nowhere
Lorraine Carraway scowled at the dogs through the plate
glass window of the Casa de la Laughing Cookie and Very Memorial Library.
The dogs squatted in a row next to the book drop, acting as if they
owned the sidewalk. There were three of them, grand in their bowler
hats and paisley vests and bow ties. They were like no dogs Rain had
ever seen before. One of them wore a gold watch on its collar, which
was pure affectation since it couldn't possibly see the dial. Bad dogs,
she was certain of that, recreated out of rust and dead tires and old
Coke bottles by the cognisphere and then dispatched to Nowhere to spy
on the real people and cause at least three different kinds of trouble.
Will turned a page in his loose-leaf binder. "They still out there?"
He glanced up at her, his No. 2 pencil poised over a blank page.
"What the hell do they think they're doing?" Rain made brushing
motions just under the windowsill. "Go away. Scram!"
"Scram?" said Will. "Is scram a word?"
Will had been writing The Great American Novel ever since he
had stopped trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. Before that he had
been in training to run a sub four-minute mile. She'd had to explain
to him that the mile was a measure of distance, like the cubit or the
fathom or the meter. Rain had several books about ancient measurement
in the Very Memorial Library and Will had borrowed them to lay out a
course to practice on. They'd known each other since the week after
Will had been revived, but they had first had sex during his running
phase. It turned out that runners made wonderfully energetic lovers
-- especially nineteen year old runners. She had been there to time
his personal best at 4:21:15. But now he was up to Chapter Eleven of
The Great American Novel. He had taken on the project after Rain
assured him that the great American novel had yet to be written. These
days, not many people were going for it.
"Where do dogs like that come from, anyway?" Will said.
"Don't be asking her about dogs," called Fast Eddie from
his cookie lab. "Rain hates all dogs, don't you know?"
Rain was going to deny this, but the Casa de la Laughing Cookie was
Fast Eddie's shop. Since he let her keep her books in the broken meat
locker and call it a library, she tried not to give him any headaches.
Of course, Rain didn't hate dogs, it was just that she had no
use for their smell, their turds hidden in lawns, or the way they tried
to lick her face with their slimy tongues. Of course, this bunch weren't
the same as the dim-witted dogs people kept around town. They were obviously
creatures of the cognisphere; she expected that they would be better
Will came up beside her. "I'm thinking the liver-colored one with
the ears is a bloodhound." He nodded at the big dog with the watch
on its collar. "The others look like terriers of some sort. They've
got a pointer's skull and the short powerful legs. Feisty dogs, killers
actually. Fox hunters used to carry terriers in their saddlebags and
when their hounds cornered the poor fox, they'd release the terriers
to finish him off."
"How do you know that?" said Rain, suddenly afraid that there
would be dogs in The Great American Novel.
"Read it somewhere." He considered. "Jane Austen? Evelyn
At that moment, the bloodhound raised his snout. Rain got the impression
that he was sniffing the air. He stared through the front window at
... who? Rain? Will? Some signal passed between the dogs then, because
they all stood. One of the terriers reared up on its hind legs and batted
the door handle. Rain ducked from Will's side and retreated to the safety
of her desk.
"I'm betting they're not here to buy happy crumbs." Will
scratched behind his ear with the rubber eraser on his pencil.
The terrier released the latch on the second try and the door swung
open. The shop bell tinkled as the dogs entered. Fast Eddie slid out
of the lab, wiping his hands on his apron. He stood behind the display
case that held several dozen lead crystal trays filled with artfully
broken psychotropic cookies. Rain hoped that he'd come to lend her moral
support and not just to see if the dogs wanted his baked goods. The
terriers deployed themselves just inside the door, as if to prevent
anyone from leaving. Will stooped to shake the paw of the dog nearest
"Are you an Airedale or a Welsh?" he said.
"Never mind that now," said the dog.
The bloodhound padded up to Rain, who was glad to have the desk between
them. She got a distinct whiff of damp fur and dried spit as he approached.
She wrinkled her nose and wondered what she smelled like to him.
The bloodhound heaved his bulk onto his hind legs. He took two shaky
steps toward her and then his forepaws were scrabbling against the top
of her desk. The dark pads unfolded into thick, clawed fingers; instead
of a dew claw, the thing had a thumb. "I'm looking for a book,"
said the dog. His bowler hat tipped precariously. "My name is Baskerville."
Rain frowned at the scratches the dog's claws made on her desktop.
"Well, you've got that wrong." She leaned back in her
chair to get away from its breath. "Baskerville wasn't the hound's
name. Sir Charles Baskerville was Sherlock Holmes's client."
"You may recall that Sir Charles was frightened to death by the
hound well before Dr. Mortimer called on Holmes," Baskerville said.
He had a voice like a kettle drum. "The client was actually his
nephew, Sir Henry."
Rain chewed at her lower lip. "Dogs don't wear hats." She
didn't care to be contradicted by some clumsy artifact of the cognisphere.
"Or ties. Are you even real?"
"Rather a rude question, don't you think?" Baskerville regarded
her with sorrowful melted-chocolate eyes. "Are you real?"
The dog was right; this was the one thing the residents of Nowhere
never asked. "I don't have your damn book." Rain opened the
top drawer of the desk, the one where she threw all her loose junk.
It was a way to keep the dog from seeing her embarrassment.
"How do you know?" he said reasonably. "I haven't told
you what it is."
She sorted through the contents of the drawer as if searching for something.
She moved the dental floss, destiny dice, blank catalog cards, a tape
measure, her father's medals, the two dead watches and finally picked
out a bottle of ink and the Waterman 1897 Eyedropper fountain pen that
Will had given her to make up for the fight they'd had about the laundry.
The dog waited politely. "Well?" She unscrewed the lid of
the ink bottle.
"It's called The Last President," said Baskerville,
"I'm afraid I don't know the author."
Rain felt the blood drain from her face. The Last President
had been Will's working title for the book, just before he had started
calling it The Great American Novel. She dipped the nib
of the fountain pen into the ink bottle, pulled the filling lever and
then wiped the nip on a tissue. "Never heard of it," she said
as she wrote Last Prez?? in her daybook. She glanced over at
Will, and caught him squirming on his chair. He looked as if his pockets
were full of crickets. "Fiction or non-fiction?"
She wrote that down. "Short stories or a novel?"
"I'm not sure. A novel, I think."
The shop bell tinkled as Mrs. Snopes cracked the door opened. She hesitated
when she bumped one of the terriers. "Is something wrong?"
she said, not taking her hand from the handle.
"Right as nails," said Fast Eddie. "Come in, Helen,
good to see you. These folks are here for Rain. The big one is Mr. Baskerville
and -- I'm sorry I didn't catch your names." He gave the terriers
a welcoming smile. Fast Eddie had become the friendliest man in Nowhere
ever since his wife had stepped off the edge of town and disappeared.
"Spot," said one.
"Rover," said the other.
"Folks?" muttered Mrs. Snopes. "Dogs is what I call
'em." She inhaled, twisted her torso and squeezed between the two
terriers. Mrs. Snopes was very limber; she taught swing yoga at the
Town Hall Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights from 6-7:30. "I've
got a taste for some crumbs of your banana oatmeal bar," she said.
"That last one laid me out for the better part of an afternoon.
How are they breaking today, Eddie?"
"Let's just see." He set a tray on the top of the display
case and pulled on a glove to sort through the broken cookies.
"You are Lorraine Carraway?" said Baskerville.
"That's her name, you bet." Will broke in impulsively. "But
she hates it." He crumpled the looseleaf page he had been writing
on, tossed it at the trashcan and missed. "Call her Rain."
Rain bristled. She didn't hate her name; she just didn't believe in
"And you are?" said the bloodhound. His lips curled away
from pointed teeth and black gums in a grotesque parody of a smile.
"Willy Werther, but everyone calls me Will."
"I see you are supplied with pencil and paper, young Will. Are
you a writer?"
"Me? Oh, no. No." He feigned a yawn. "Well, sort of."
For a moment, Rain was certain that he was going to blurt out that he
was the author of The Last President. She wasn't sure why she
thought that would be a bad idea, but she did. "I ... uh ...."
Now that Will had Baskerville's attention, he didn't seem to know what
to do with it. "I've been trying to remember jokes for Eddie to
tell at church," he said. "Want to hear one?" Fast Eddie
and Mrs. Snopes glanced up from their cookie deliberations. "Okay
then, how do you keep your dog from digging in the garden?"
"I don't know, Will." Rain just wanted him to shut up. "How?"
"Take away his shovel." Will looked from Baskerville to Rain
and then to Fast Eddie. "No?"
"No." Eddie, who had just become a deacon in the Temple of
the Eternal Smile, shook his head. "God likes Her jokes to be funny."
"Funny." Will nodded. "Got it. So what's this book about
anyway, Mr. B?"
"Will, I just don't know," said the bloodhound. "That's
why I'd like to read it." Baskerville turned and yipped over his
shoulder. Rover trotted to him and the bloodhound dropped onto all fours.
Rain couldn't see what passed between them because the desk blocked
her view but when Baskerville heaved himself upright again he was holding
a brass dog whistle in his paw. He dropped it, clattering, on the desktop
in front of Rain.
"When you find the book, Rain," said Baskerville, "give
us a call."
Rain didn't like it that Baskerville just assumed that she would take
on the search. "Wait a minute," she said. "Why do you
need me to look for it? You're part of the cognisphere, right? You already
"We have access to everything," said Baskerville. "Retrieval
is another matter." He growled at Spot. The shop bell tinkled as
he opened the door. "I look forward to hearing from you, Rain.
Will, it was a pleasure to meet you." The bloodhound nodded at
Fast Eddie and Mrs. Snopes, but they paid him no attention. Their heads
were bent over the tray of crumbs. Baskerville left the shop, claws
clicking against the gray linoleum. The terriers followed him out.
"Nice dogs." Will affected an unconcerned saunter as he crossed
the room, although he flew the last few steps. "My book, Rain!"
he whispered, his voice thick. With what? Fear? Pride?
"Is it?" Rain had yet to read a word of The Great American
Novel; Will claimed it was too rough to show. Although she could
imagine that this might be true, she couldn't help but resent being
shut out. She offered him the whistle. "So call them."
"What are you saying?" He shrank back, as if mere proximity
to the whistle might shrivel his soul. "They're from ..."
He pointed through the window toward the precipitous edge of the mesa
on which Nowhere perched. "... out there."
Nobody knew where the cognisphere was located exactly, or even if it
occupied physical space at all. "All right then, don't." Rain
shrugged and pocketed the whistle.
Will seemed disappointed in her. He obviously had three hundred things
he wanted to say -- and she was supposed to listen. He had always been
an excitable boy, although Rain hadn't seen him this wound up since
the first time they had made love. But this was neither the time nor
the place for feverish speculation. She put a finger to her lips and
nodded toward the cookie counter.
Mrs. Snopes picked out a four gram, elongated piece of banana oatmeal
cookie ornamented with cream and cinnamon hallucinogenic sprinkles.
She paid for it with the story of how her sister Melva had run away
from home when she was eleven and they had found her two days later
sleeping in the neighbor's treehouse. They had heard the story before,
but not the part about the hair dryer. Fast Eddie earned an audience
credit on the Barrows's Memory Exchange but the cognisphere deposited
an extra quarter point into Mrs. Snopes's account for the new detail,
according the Laughing Cookie's MemEx register. Afterward, Fast Eddie
insisted that Rain admire the banana oatmeal crumb before he wrapped
it up for Mrs. Snopes. Rain had to agree it was quite striking. She
said it reminded her of Emily Dickinson.
They closed the Very Memorial Library early. Usually after
work, Will and Rain swept some of Eddie's cookie dust into a baggie
and went looking for a spot to picnic. Their favorites were the overlook
at the southwestern edge of town and the roof of the Button Factory,
although on a hot day they also liked the mossy coolness of the abandoned
But not this unhappy day. Almost as soon as they stepped onto Onion
Street, they were fighting. First she suggested that Will show
her his book. Then he said not yet and asked if she had
any idea why the dogs were asking about it. Then she said no
-- perhaps a jot too emphatically -- because he apparently understood
her to be puzzled as to why dogs should care about a nobody like him.
Then he wondered aloud if maybe she wasn't just a little jealous,
which she said was a dumb thing to say, which he took
exactly the wrong way.
Will informed her icily that he was going home because he needed to
make changes to Chapter Four. Alarmed at how their row had escalated,
Rain suggested that maybe they could meet later. He just shrugged and
turned away. Stung, she watched him jog down Onion Street.
Later, maybe -- being together with Will had never sounded so
Rain decided to blame the dogs. It was hard enough staying sane here
in Nowhere, finding the courage each day not to step off the edge. They
didn't need yet another cancerous mystery eating at their lives. And
Will was just a kid, she reminded herself. Nineteen, male, impulsive,
too smart for his own good, but years from being wise. Of course he
was entitled to his moods. She'd always waited him out before, because
even though he made her toes curl in frustration sometimes, she did
love the boy.
In the meantime, there was no way around it: she'd have to ask Chance
Conrad about The Last President. She took a right onto Abbey
Road, nodding curtly at the passersby. She knew what most people thought
about her: that she was impatient and bitter and that she preferred
books to people. Of course, they were all wrong, but she had given up
trying to explain herself. She ignored Bingo Finn slouching in the entrance
to Goriot's Pachinko Palazzo and hurried past Linton's Fruit and Daily
Spectator, the Prynne Building, and the drunks at the outdoor tables
in front of the Sunspot. She noticed with annoyance that the Drew Barrymore
version of The Wizard of Oz was playing for another week at the
Ziegfowl Feelies. At Uncle Buddy's she took a right, then a left onto
Fairview which dead ended in the grassy bulk of the Barrow.
Everything in Nowhere had come out of the Barrow: Rain's fountain
pen, the books in the Very Memorial Library, Will's endless packs of
blank, looseleaf paper, Fast Eddie's crystal trays and Mrs. Snopes's
yoga mats. And of course, all the people.
The last thing Rain remembered about the world was falling asleep
in her husband Roger's arms. It had been a warm night in May, 2009.
Roger had worked late so they had ordered a sausage and green pepper
pizza and had watched the last half hour of The African Queen before
they went to bed.. It was so romantic, even if Nicholson and
Garbo were old. She could remember Roger doing his atrocious Nicholson
imitation while he brushed his teeth. They had cuddled briefly in the
dark but he said he was too tired to make love. They must have kissed
good night -- yes, no doubt a long and tender last kiss. One of the
things she hated most about Nowhere was that she couldn't remember any
of Roger's kisses or his face or what he looked like naked. He was just
a warm, pale, friendly blur. Some people in Nowhere said it was a mercy
that nobody could remember the ones they had loved in the world. Rain
was not one of those people.
Will said that the last thing he remembered was falling asleep in
his Nintendo and American Culture class at Northern Arizona University
in the fall of 2023. He could recall everything about the two sexual
conquests he had managed in his brief time in the world - Talley Lotterhand
and Paula Herbst -- but then by his own admission he had never really
been in love.
The Barrow was a warehouse buried under the mesa. Rain climbed down
to the loading dock and knocked on the sectional steel door. After a
few moments she heard the whine of an electric motor as the door clattered
up on its tracks. Chance Conrad stood just inside, blinking in the afternoon
sunlight. He was a handsome, graying man, who balanced a receding hairline
with a delicate beard. Although he had a light step and an easy manner,
the skin under his eyes was dark and pouchy. Some said this was because
Chance didn't sleep much since he was so busy managing the Barrow. Others
maintained that he didn't sleep at all, because he hadn't been revived
like the rest of the residents of Nowhere. He was a construct of the
cognisphere. It stood to reason, people said. How could anyone with
a name like Chance Conrad be real?
"Lorraine!" he said. "And here I was about to write
this day off as a total loss." He put his hand on her shoulder
and urged her through the entrance. "Come, come in." Chance
had no use for daylight; that was another strike against his being real.
Once the Barrow was safely locked down again he relaxed. "So,"
he said, "here we are, just the two of us. I'm hoping this means
you've finally dumped the boy genius?"
Rain had long since learned that the best way to deflect Chance's
relentless flirting was just to ignore it. As far as she knew, he had
never taken a lover. She took a deep breath and counted to five. Unu,
du, tri, kvar, kvin. The air in the Barrow had the familiar damp
weight she remembered from when she first woke up at Nowhere; it settled
into Rain's lungs like a cold. Before her were crates and jars and barrels
and boxes of goods that the people of Nowhere had asked the cognisphere
to recreate. Later that night Ferdie Raskolnikov and his crew would
load the lot onto trucks for delivery around town tomorrow.
"What's this?" Rain bent to examine a wide-bladed shovel
cast with a solid steel handle. It was so heavy that she could barely
"Shelly Castorp thinks she's planting daffodils with this."
Chance shook his head. "I told her that the handles of garden tools
were always made of wood but she claims her father had a shovel just
like that one." He shook his head. "The specific gravity of
steel is 7.80 grams per cubic centimeter, you know."
"Oh?" When Rain let the handle go, the shovel clanged against
the cement floor. "Can we grow daffodils?"
"We'll see." Chance muscled the shovel back into place on
its pallet. He probably didn't appreciate her handling other people's
orders. "I'm racking my brains trying to remember if I've got something
here for you. But I don't, do I?"
"How about those binoculars I keep asking for?"
"I send the requests ...." He spread his hands. "They
all bounce." The corners of his mouth twitched. "So is this
about us? At long last?"
"I'm just looking for a book, Chance. A novel."
"Oh," he said, crestfallen. "Better come to the office."
Normally if Rain wanted to add a book to the Very Memorial Library,
she'd call Chance and put in an order. Retrieving books was usually
no problem for the collective intelligence of humanity, which had uploaded
itself into the cognisphere sometime in the late Twenty-third Century.
All it needed was an author and title. Failing that, a plot description
or even just a memorable line might suffice for the cognisphere to perform
a plausible, if not completely accurate, reconstruction of some lost
text. In fact, depending on the quality of the description, the cognisphere
would recreate a version of pretty much anything the citizens of Nowhere
could remember from the world.
Exactly how it accomplished this, and more important, why it bothered,
was a mystery.
Chance's office was tucked into the rear of the Barrow, next to the
creche. On the way, they passed the Big Board of the MemEx, which tracked
audience and storyteller accounts for all the residents of Nowhere and
sorted and cataloged the accumulated memories. Chance stopped by the
crèche to check the vitals of Rahim Aziz, who was destined to
become the newest citizen of Nowhere, thus bringing the population back
up to the standard 853. Rahim was to be an elderly man with a crown
of snowy white hair surrounding an oval bald spot. He was replacing
Lucy Panza, the pro and Town Calligrapher, who had gone missing two
weeks ago and was presumed to have thrown herself over the edge without
"Old Aziz isn't quite as easy on the eye as you were," said
Chance, who never failed to remind Rain that he had seen her naked during
her revival. Rahim floated on his back in a clear tube filled with a
yellow, serous fluid. He had a bit of a paunch and the skin of his legs
and under his arms was wrinkled. Rain noted with distaste that he had
a penis tattoo of an elephant.
"When will you decant him?"
Chance rubbed a thumb across a readout shells built into the wall
of the crèche. "Tomorrow, maybe." The shells meant
nothing to Rain. "Tuesday at the latest."
Chance Conrad's office was not so much decorated as overstuffed. Dolls
and crystal and tools and fossils and clocks jostled across shelves
and the tops of cabinets and chests. The walls were covered with pix
from feelies made after Rain's time in the world, although she had seen
some of them at the Ziegfowl. She recognized Oud's Birthdeath,
Fay Wray in full fetish from Time StRanger and the wedding cake
scene from Two of Neala. Will claimed the feelies had
triggered the cancerous growth of history; when all the dead actors
and sports stars and politicians started having second careers, the
past had consumed the present.
"So this is about a novel then?" Chance moved behind his
desk but did not sit down. "Called?" He waved a hand over
his desktop and its eye winked at him.
"The Last President." Rain sat in the chair opposite
"Precedent as in a time-honored custom, or President as in Marie
He chuckled. "You know, you're the only person in this town who
would say the latter. I love that. Would you have my baby?"
"Sleep with me?"
He sighed. "Who's the author?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?" Chance rubbed under his eyes with the heels
of his hands. "You're sure about that? You wouldn't care to take
a wild guess? Last name begins with the letter ... what? A through K?
L through Z?"
He stepped from behind the desk and his desktop shut its eye. "Well,
the damn doggie didn't know either, which is why I couldn't help him."
Rain groaned. "He's been here already?"
"Him and a couple of his pooch pals." Chance opened the
igloo which stood humming beside the door. "Cooler?" He pulled
out a frosty pitcher filled with something thick and glaucous. "It's
just broccoli nectar and a little ethanol-style vodka."
Rain shook her head. "But that doesn't make sense." She could
hear the whine in her voice. "They're agents of the cognisphere,
right? And you access the cognisphere. Why would it ask you to ask itself?"
"Exactly." Chance closed the door and locked it. This struck
Rain as odd; maybe he was afraid that Ferdi Raskolnikov would barge
in on them. "Things have been loopy here lately," he said.
"You should see some of the mistakes we've had to send back."
He poured broccoli cocktail for himself. It oozed from the pitcher and
landed in his coffee mug with a thick plop. "I've spent
all afternoon trying to convince myself that the dogs are some kind
of a workaround, maybe to jog some lost data loose from the MemEx."
He replaced the pitcher in the igloo and settled onto the chair behind
his desk. "But now you show up and I'm wondering: Why is Rain asking
me for this book?"
She frowned. "I ask you for all my books."
He considered for a moment, tapping the finger against his forehead
and then pointed at her. "Let me tell you a story." Rain started
to object that she had neither goods nor services to offer him in return
and she had just drained her MemEx account to dry spit, but he silenced
her with a wave. "No, this one is free." He took a sip of
liquid broccoli. "An audience credit unencumbered, offered to the
woman of my dreams."
She stuck out her tongue.
"Why does this place exist?" he asked.
"Ah, eschatology." She laughed bitterly. "Well, Father
Samsa claims this is the afterlife, although I'll be damned if I know
whether it's heaven or hell."
"I know you don't believe that," said Chance. "So
then this is some game that the cognisphere is playing? We're virtual
"What happens when we step off the edge?"
"Nobody knows." Just then a cacophony of clocks yawped, pinged,
buzzed in six o'clock. "This isn't much of a story Chance."
"Patience, love. So you think the cognisphere recreated us for
"Maybe. Okay, sure." A huge spider with eight paintbrush
legs shook itself and stretched on a teak cabinet. "We're in a
zoo. A museum."
"Or maybe some kind of primitive backup. The cognisphere keeps
us around because there's a chance that it might fail, go crazy -- I
don't know. If that happened, we could start over."
"Except we'd all die without the cognisphere." The spider
stepped onto the wall and picked its way toward the nearest corner.
"And nobody's made any babies that I know of. We're not exactly
Adam and Eve material, Chance."
"But that's damn scary, no? Makes the case that none of us is
Rain liked him better when he was trying to coax her into bed. "Enough."
She pushed her chair back and started to get up.
"Okay, okay." He held up his hands in surrender. "Story
time. When I was a kid, I used to collect meanies."
"Meanies?" She settled back down.
"Probably after your time. They were bots, about so big."
He held forefinger and thumb a couple of centimeters apart. "Little
fighting toys. There were gorilla meanies and ghoul meanies and nazi
meanies and demon meanies and dino meanies. Fifty-two in all, one for
every week of the year. You set them loose in the meanie arena and they
would try to kill one another. If they died, they'd shut down for twenty-four
hours. Now if meanies fought one on one, they would always draw. But
when you formed them into teams, their powers combined in different
ways. For instance, a ghoul and nazi team could defeat any other team
of two -- except the dino and yeti. For the better part of a year, I
rushed home from school every day to play with the things. I kept trying
combinations until I could pretty much predict the outcome of every
battle. Then I lost interest."
"Speaking of losing interest," said Rain, who was distracted
by the spider decorating the corner of Chance's office in traceries
of blue and green.
"I'm getting there." He shifted uncomfortably in his chair,
and took another sip from the mug. "So a couple of years go by
and I'm twelve now. One night I'm in my room and I hear this squeaking
coming from under my bed. I pull out the old meanie arena, which has
been gathering dust all this time and I see that a mouse has blundered
into it and is being attacked by a squad of meanies. And just like that
I'm fascinated with them all over again. For weeks I drop crickets and
frogs and garter snakes into the arena and watch them try to survive."
"No question. But then boys can't help themselves when it comes
to mindless cruelty. Anyway, it didn't last. The wildlife was too hard
on the poor little bots." He drained the last of the broccoli.
"But the point is that I got bored playing with a closed set of
meanies. Even though I hadn't actually tried all possible combinations,
after a while I could see that nothing much new was ever going to happen.
But then the mouse changed everything." He leaned forward across
the desk. "So let me propose a thought experiment to you, my lovely
Lorraine. This mysterious novel that everyone is so eager to find? What
if the last name of the author began with the letter ...." He paused
and then seemed to pluck something out of the air. "Oh, let's say
"And just for the sake of argument, let's suppose that the first
name also begins with 'W' .... Ah, I see from your expression that this
thought has also occurred to you."
"It's not him," said Rain. "He was revived at nineteen;
he's just a kid. Why would the cognisphere care anything about him?"
"Because he's the mouse in our sad, little arena. He isn't simply
recycling memories of the world like the rest of us. The novel your
doggies are looking for doesn't exist in the cognisphere, never did.
Because it's being written right here, right now. Maybe imagination
is in short supply wherever the doggies come from. Lord knows there
isn't a hell of a lot of it in Nowhere."
Rain would have liked to deny it, but she could feel the insult sticking
to her. "How do you know he's writing a novel?"
"I supply the paper, Rain. Reams and reams of it. Besides, this
may be hell, as Father Samsa insists, but it's also a small town. We
meddle in each other's business, what else is there to do?" His
voice softened; Rain thought that if Chance ever did take a lover, this
would be how he might speak to her. "Is the book any good? Because
if it is, I'd like to read it."
"I don't know." At that moment, Rain felt a drop of something
cold hit the back of her hand. There was a dot the color of sky on her
knuckle. She looked up at the spider hanging from the ceiling on an
azure thread. "He doesn't show it to me. Your toy is dripping."
"Really?" Chance came around the desk. "A woman of
your considerable charms is taking no for an answer?" He reached
up and cradled the spider into his arms. "Go get him, Rain. You
don't want to keep your mouse waiting." He carried it to the teak
Rain rubbed at the blue spot on her hand but the stain had penetrated
her skin. She couldn't even smudge it.
But Will wasn't waiting, at least not for Rain. She stopped
by their apartment but he wasn't there and he hadn't left a note. Neither
was he at the Button Factory nor Queequeg's Kava Cave. She looked in
at the Laughing Cookie just as Fast Eddie was locking up. No Will. She
finally tracked Will down at the overlook, by the blue picnic table
under the chestnut trees.
Normally they came here for the view, which was spectacular. A field
of wildflowers, tidy-tips and mullein and tickseed and bindweed, sloped
steeply down to the edge of the mesa. But Will was paying no attention
to the scenery. He had scattered a stack of five looseleaf binders across
the table; the whole of The Great American Novel or The Last
President or whatever the hell it was called. Three of the binders
were open. He was reading -- but apparently not writing in -- a fourth.
A No. 2 pencil was tucked behind his ear. Something about Will's body
language disturbed Rain. He usually sprawled awkwardly wherever he came
to rest, a giraffe trying to settle on a hammock. Now he was gathered
into himself, hunched over the binder like an old man. Rain came up
behind him and kneaded his shoulders for a moment.
He leaned back and sighed.
"Sorry about this afternoon." She bent to nibble his ear.
"Have you eaten?"
"No." He kissed the air in front of him but did not look
She peeked at the looseleaf page in front of him and tried to decipher
the handwriting, which was not quite as legible as an EEG chart. ...
knelt before the coffin, her eyes wide in the dim holy light of the
cathedral. His face was wavy ... No, thought Rain straightening
up before he suspected that she was reading. Not wavy. Waxy.
"Beautiful evening," she said.
Will shut the binder he had been reading and gazed distractedly toward
Rain had not been completely honest with Chance. It was true that
Will hadn't shown her the novel, but she had read some of it.
She had stolen glimpses over his shoulder or read upside down when she
was sitting across from him. Then there was the one guilty afternoon
when she had come back to their apartment and gobbled up pages 34-52
before her conscience mastered her curiosity. The long passage had taken
place in a bunker during one of the Resource Wars. The President of
Great America, Lawrence Goodman, had been reminiscing with his former
mistress and current National Security Advisor, Rebecca Santorino, about
Akron, where they had first fallen in love years ago and which had just
been obliterated in retaliation for an American strike on Zhengzhou.
Two pages later they were thrashing on the president's bed and ripping
each other's clothes off. Rain had begun this part with great interest,
hoping to gain new insight into Will's sexual tastes, but had closed
the binder uneasily just as the President was tying his lover to the
Louis XVI armoire with silk Atura neckties.
Will closed the other open binders and stacked all five into a pile.
Then he pulled the pencil from behind his ear, snapped it in two, and
let the pieces roll out of his hand under the picnic table. He gave
her an odd, lopsided smile.
"Will, what's the matter?" Rain stared. "Are you okay?"
In response, he pulled a baggie of cookie dust from his shirt pocket
and jiggled it.
"Here?" she said, coloring. "In plain sight?"
Usually they hid out when they were eating dust, at least until they
weathered the first rush. The Cocoa Peanut Butter Chunk made them giggly
and not a little stupid. Macaroon Sandies often hit Rain like powdered
"There's no one to see." Will licked his forefinger and
stuck it into the bag. "Besides, what if there was?" He extended
the finger toward her, the tip and nail coated with the parti-colored
powder. "Does anyone here care what we do?"
She considered telling him then what Chance Conrad had said about
small towns but she could see that Will was having a mood. So she just
opened her mouth and obediently stuck her tongue out. As he rotated
the finger across the middle of her tongue, she tasted the sweet, spicy
grit. She closed her mouth on the finger and he pulled it slowly through
"Now you," she said, reaching for the baggie. They always
fed each other cookie dust.
Rain and Will sat on the tabletop with their feet on the seat, facing
the slope that led down to the edge of Nowhere. The world beneath the
impossibly high cliff was impossibly flat, but this was still Rain's
favorite lookout, even if it was probably an illusion. The land stretched
out in a kind of grid with rectangles in every color of green: the brooding
green of forests, the dreaming green of fields under cultivation and
the confused gray-green of scrub land. Dividing the rectangles were
ribbons the color of wet sand. Rain liked to think they were roads,
although she had never spotted any traffic on them. She reached for
Will's hand and he closed it around hers. He was right: she didn't care
if anyone saw them together like this. His skin was warm and rough.
As she rubbed her finger over the back of his hand, she thought she
could make out a faded blue spot. But maybe it was a trick of the twilight,
or a cookie hallucination.
The rectangles and the ribbons of the land to the southwest had always
reminded her of something, but she had never quite been able to figure
out what. Now as Eddie's magic cookie dust sparked through her bloodstream,
and she felt Will's warm hand in hers, she thought of a trip she had
taken with her father when she was a just a kid to a museum in an old
city called Manhilton, that got blown up afterward. In the museum were
very old pix that just hung on the wall and mostly didn't do anything,
and she remembered taking a cab to get there and the cab had asked what
her name was but she wouldn't tell it so it called her little girl
which she didn't like because she was seven already, and the museum
had escalators that whispered music, and there was one really, really
big room filled with pix of all blurry water lilies, and outside in
a sculpture garden there were statues made of metal and rocks but there
were no flowers because it was cold so she and Dad didn't stay out there
very long and inside again were lots of pix of women with three eyes
and too many corners and then some wide blue men blocked her view of
the Mona Lisa so she never really saw that one, which everyone said
later was supposed to be so special but one she did see and remembered
now was a pix of a grid that had colored rectangles and with ribbons
of red and yellow separating them, and she asked her Dad if it was a
map of the museum and he laughed down at her because her Dad was so
tall, tall as any statue and he said the pix wasn't a map, it was a
mondrian and she asked him what a mondrian was and then
he laughed again and she laughed and it was so easy to laugh in those
days and Will was laughing too.
"I want to go down there." He laughed as he pointed down
at the mondrian which stretched into the rosy distance.
"There?" Rain didn't understand; the best part of her was
still in the museum with her father. "Why?"
"Because there are people living there. Must be why Chance won't
give out binoculars or telescopes." He let go of her hand. "Because
it's not here."
"You're going to step over the edge?" Her voice rose in
"No, silly." He leapt up, stood on the tabletop and raised
his arms to the sky. "I'm going to climb down."
"But that's the same thing."
"No, it isn't. I'll show you." He slid off the picnic table
and started toward the thicket of scruffy evergreens and brambles that
had overgrown the edge of Nowhere. He walked along this tangle until
he came to a bit of blue rag tied to a branch, glanced over his shoulder
to see if she was still with him and then wriggled into the scrub. Rain
They emerged into a tiny clearing She sidled beside him and he slipped
an arm around her waist to brace her. The cliff was steep here but not
sheer. She could make out a narrow dirt track that switched back through
scree and stunted fir. Maybe a mountain goat could negotiate it, if
there were any mountain goats. But a single misstep would send Will
plunging headlong. And then there was the Drop. Everyone knew about
the Drop. They traded stories about it all the time. Scary stories.
She was about to ask him why, if there were people down there, they
hadn't climbed up for a visit, when he kicked a stone over the edge.
They watched it bounce straight down and disappear over a ledge.
"Lucy Panza showed me this," said Will, his face flushed
Rain wondered when he'd had time to go exploring the edge with Lucy
Panza. "But she stepped over the edge."
"No," he said. "She didn't."
She considered the awful slope for a moment and shuddered. "I'm
not going down there, Will."
He continued peering down the dirt track. "I know," he said.
The calm with which he said it was like a slap in the face. She stared
at him, speechless, until he finally met her gaze. "I'll come back
for you." He gave her the goofy, apologetic grin he always summoned
up when he upset her. "I'll make sure the path is safe and I'll
make all kinds of friends down at the bottom and when the time is right,
I'll be back."
"But what about your book?"
He blew a dismissive breath between his lips. "I'm all set with
"It's crap, Rain." His voice was flat. "I'm not wasting
any more time writing about some stupid made-up president. There are
no more presidents. And how can anyone write the Great American novel
when there is no more America?" He caught his breath. "Sorry,"
he said. "I know that's what you wanted me to do." He gave
her a sour smile. "You're welcome to read it if you want. Or hand
it over to the dogs. That should be good for a laugh." Then he
pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
Of course Rain kissed him back. She wanted to drag him down on top
of her and rip his clothes off, although there really wasn't enough
room here to make love. She would even have let him take her on the
picnic table, tie her to the damn table, if that's what he had
wanted. But his wasn't the kind of kiss that started anything.
"So I'm coming back, I promise," he murmured into her ear.
"Just tell everyone that you're waiting for me."
"Wait a minute." She twisted away from him. "You're
going now? It's almost dark. We just ate cookie dust." She couldn't
believe he was serious. This was such a typical boneheaded-Will-stunt
he was pulling. "Come home, honey," she said. "Get some
sleep. Things might look different in the morning."
He stroked her hair. "I've got at least another hour of light,"
he said. "Believe me, I've thought about this a long time, Rain."
Then he brushed his finger against her lips. "I love you."
He took a step over the edge and another. He had gone about a dozen
meters before his feet went out from beneath him and he fell backwards,
skidding on his rear end and clutching at the scrub. But he caught himself
almost immediately and looked up at her, his face pale as the moon.
"Oops!" he called cheerfully.
Rain stood at the edge of the cliff long after she could no longer
see him. She was hoping that he'd come to a dead end and have to turn
back. The sun was painting the horizon with fire by the time she fetched
Will's binders to the edge of Nowhere. She opened one after another
and shook the pages free. They fluttered into the twilight like an exaltation
of larks. A few landed briefly on the path before launching themselves
again into the breeze and following their creator out of her life. When
all the pages had disappeared, Rain took the whistle that the dogs had
given her and hurled it as far into the mondrian as she could.
Only then did she let herself cry. She thought she deserved it.
Rain found her way through the gathering darkness back to
the apartment over Vronsky's Laundromat and Monkeyfilter Bowladrome.
She put some Szechwan lasagna into the microwave and pushed it around
her plate for a while, but she was too numb to be hungry. She would
have gone to the eight o'clock show at the Ziegfowl just to get out,
but she was mortally tired of The Wizard of Oz, no matter whom
the cognisphere recast in it. The apartment depressed her. The problem,
she decided, was that she was surrounded by Will's stuff; she'd have
to move it somewhere out of sight.
She placed a short stack of college-lined, loose-leaf paper and four
unopened reams in a box next to The Awakening, The Big Snooze,
and Drinking the Snow. Will had borrowed the novels from the
Very Memorial Library but had made way too many marginal notes in them
for her to return them to the stacks. Rain would have to order new ones
from Chance in the Barrow. She threw his Buffalo Soldiers warmup
jacket on top of several dusty pairs of Adidas Kloud Nine running shoes.
Will's dresser drawers produced eight pairs of white socks, two black,
a half dozen gray jockey shorts, three pairs of jeans, and a stack of
tee shirts sporting pix of Panafrican shoutcast bands. At the bottom
of the sock drawer, Rain discovered flash editions of Superheterodyne
Adventure Stories 2020-26 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fetish.
She pulled his mustard collection and climkies and homebrew off the
And that was all it took to put Will out of her life. She shouldn't
have been surprised. After all, they had only lived together for just
over a year.
She was trying to talk herself into throwing the lot of it out the
next morning when the doorglass blinked. She glanced at the clock. Who
did she know that would come visiting at 10:30 at night? When she opened
the door, Baskerville, Rover and Spot looked up at her.
"You found the book?" The bloodhound's bowtie was crooked.
Beneath her, Rain could hear the rumble and clatter of the bowling
lanes. "There is no book."
"May we come in?"
"You threw the whistle off the edge," said Baskerville.
As if on signal, the two terriers sat. They looked to Rain as if they
were settling in for a stay. "Where's Will?" said Rover.
She wanted to kick the door shut hard enough to knock their bowler
hats off, but the terrier's question took her breath away. If the cognisphere
had lost track of Will, then maybe he wasn't ... maybe he was .... "I
hate dogs," she said. "Maybe I forgot to mention that?"
Baskerville regarded her with his solemn chocolate eyes and said nothing.
The terrier's hind leg scratched at his flank. "Has something
happened to him?" he asked.
"Stop it!" Rain stomped her foot on the doorsill and all
three dogs jumped. "You want a story and I want information. Deal?"
The dogs thought it over, then Rover got up and licked her hand.
"Okay, story." But at that moment, Rain's throat seemed to
close, as if she had tried to swallow the page of a book. Will was
gone. If she said it aloud, it would become just another story on
the MemEx. But she had to know. "M-My boyfriend climbed over the
edge a couple of hours ago trying to find a way down the cliff. I pitched
the goddamn novel he was writing after him. The end."
"But what does this have to do with The Last President?"
"That was the name of his book. Used to be. Once." She was
out of breath. "Okay, you got story. Now you owe me some god-damn
truth. He's dead, right? You've absorbed him already."
Rover started to say, "I'm afraid that we have no knowledge of
...." But she didn't give the dog a chance to finish; she slammed
She decided then not to throw Will's things out. She dragged them all
into the bedroom closet and covered the pile with the electric blanket.
She made one more pass around the apartment to make sure she had everything.
Then she decided to make a grocery list so she could stop at Cereno's
on the way home from work tomorrow. That's when she discovered that
she had nothing to write on. She gave herself permission to retrieve
a couple of pages of Will's paper from the closet -- just this once.
As long as she was writing the list, she didn't have to think about
Will on the cliff or the dogs in the hall. She cracked the apartment
door just enough to see that all three of them were still there, heads
on paws, asleep. Spot's ear twitched but he didn't wake up. She sat
on the couch with the silence ringing in her ears until she got up and
muscled the dresser over to block the closet where she had put Will's
stuff. She thought about brushing her teeth and trying for sleep but
she knew that would be a waste of time. She was browsing the books on
her bookshelf, all of which she had long since read to tatters, when
the phone squawked.
Rain was sure it was the dogs calling, but decided to pick up just
Rain recognized Sheriff Renfield's drawl and was immediately annoyed.
He was one of her best customers -- an avid Georgette Heyer fan -- and
knew better than to call her by her proper name.
"Speaking, Beej. What's up?"
"There's been some trouble down to the Laughing Cookie."
He was slurring words. He pronounced There is as Thersh.
"Fast Eddie said you had dogs in the store today. Dogs with hats."
"What kind of trouble, Beej? Is Eddie all right?"
"He's fine, we're all just fine." Everybody knew that Beej
Renfield was a drinker and nobody blamed him for it. Being sheriff was
possibly the most boring job in Nowhere. "But there's been what
you might call vandalism. Books all over the place, Rain, some of them
ripped up good. Teeth marks. And the place stinks of piss. Must've happened,
an hour, maybe two ago. Fast Eddie is ripping mad. I need you to come
down here and lay some calm on him. Will you do that for me, Rain?"
"I'll do you one better, Beej. You're looking for these dogs?"
His breath rasped in the receiver so loud she could almost smell it.
"Because I've got them here if you're interested. Right outside
"I'm on my way."
"Oh, and Beej? You might want to bring some help."
She sat at the kitchen table to wait. In front of her were the shopping
list and the No. 2 pencil. They reminded her of Will. He was such a
strong boy, everybody in town always said so. He had run that
4:21 mile, after all. And she was almost certain that Baskerville had
looked surprised when she'd told him that Will was climbing down the
cliff. What did surprise look like on a dog? She'd see for sure when
Beej Renfield arrived.
For the very first time Rain allowed herself to consider the possibility
that Will wasn't dead or absorbed. Maybe the cognisphere ended at the
edge of Nowhere. In which case, he might actually come back for her.
But why would he bother? What had she ever done to deserve him? Her
shopping list lay in front of her like an accusation. Was this all her
life was about? Toilet paper and Seventy-Up and duck sausage? Will had
climbed over the edge of Nowhere. What chance had she ever taken? She
needed to do something, something no one had ever done before.
She'd had enough of books and all the old stories about the world that
the cognisphere was sorting on the MemEx. That world was gone, forever
and ever, amen.
She picked up the pencil again.
I scowled at the dogs through the plate glass window
of the Very Memorial Library. They squatted in a row next to my book
drop. There were three of them, haughty in their bowler hats and silk
vests. They acted like they owned the air. Bad dogs, I knew that for
sure, created out of spit and tears and heartbreak by the spirits of
all the uncountable dead and sent to spy on the survivors and cause
at least three different kinds of trouble.
I wasn't worried. We'd seen their kind before.
© James Patrick Kelly 2005, 2007.
First published in Asimov's Science Fiction (June, 2005) and
subsequently reprinted in Year's Best Science Fiction #11 (edited
by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer) and Fantasy: The Best Of
The Year (edited by Rich Horton).
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