Short story: Truest Chains

For consideration at the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.

Time Limit: 7 days. Word limit: 2,500. Genre: Fantasy. Character: Novelist. Subject: Revenge.

Truest Chains

A troubled man is given unique therapy in the form of a visit to a most extraordinary fantasy world, but his angry thirst for revenge threatens to stop him from enjoying the land and bettering himself.

Ben was sitting on luscious grass with his back against a smooth tree. His head jerked with shock, only one second ago he was sitting on a leather chair in his new counsellor’s homely office taking his prescribed pill and now here he was.

Behind the tree was a small pond, he ran to it and checked his reflection for anything untoward. There wasn’t. He was still wearing his favourite red, short-sleeved shirt – as a personal rule he’d never wear a top in public if he’d embarrassed himself in it before. That was the only one he had left. He looked into his piercing blue eyes. Eyes that had a permanent sheen of tears and a dark shadow under each; they were eyes that had seen too much, adjacent to a brain that had hurt too much. He was tall and proud but the disheartening storm of anger and negative memories in his mind humbled and minimised him and the most recent winter of his life saw it come to a head: a workplace incident that resulted in his beloved novelist career being derailed courtesy of his sour-faced, snapping superiors who terminated him and the one semblance of society that he could tolerate.

He had nothing.
Months of nothing had followed; idle couch-sitting, hollow time-wasting. Spending his long days stretched on a shapeless couch reading. Every page just echoed around his crowded mind before dissipating lamely in favour of the cinematic memories that only made his insides writhe with fury at them and himself. He’d written nothing in that time, there were no stories to tell. He wanted revenge. He hated himself for his involuntary predicament but more than that hated the people who aggravated his predicament before terminating him and completely voluntarily at that. Months had passed since that happened. The distance of time was usually enough to dilute the rawness of any such events but these particular events proved gangrenous. He’d constantly wish for some giant hand to either wind back the clock so he could give them what they deserved at the time or for it to crush them. The best he could do was try counselling; on that occasion it had somehow led him to another world.
After pacing in irregular circles and seeing absolutely nothing that resembled the counsellor’s office or even Australia, he found that the more he looked, the more he relaxed into enrapturement at the sprawling beauty that surrounded him. The unspoiled lush of green that extended far and wide from beneath him, encircling it appeared to be a skyline of spectacularly architected places. Fantastical, oddly-shaped, oddly-coloured and glistening; they appeared as far from him as the stars in the sky. Stars in the sky? Ben did a double take at the very blue sky overhead, it was full of stars! Sparkling with an even brighter, clearer glean than they ever did on a normal night, many more of them too. The air was cold but it was an otherworldly, comforting cold – his heart remained in a sustained flit. Whatever was coming he felt was OK and he delighted in having all his senses momentarily derailed from the lingering rage of memories. Like those people never existed.
Ben continued gawping at the stars, his mouth simultaneously smiling and dropping when they began to move. First one, then a few, dozens, hundreds – all slowly rearranging until what resulted was, flatteringly, “Welcome, Ben.” It was legibly written in thin lines of stars.

His mouth widened when underneath those words, something very large and glittering appeared and slowly fell to earth. Ben took some instinctive steps backward from what he decided looked like a giant cube-shaped chandelier. It stopped on the grass, about ten steps from him and opened up from the middle, revealing a tall shadowy figure standing inside bathed in the intense glitter. He walked out into the daylight and Ben saw that he now stood face to face with…himself. But it wasn’t. This Ben’s face glistened, his eyes were without worried creases or sleepless shadows, his physique had no evidence of late-night binges. He wore an immaculate, tailed tuxedo and held a black cane with a red ruby on top. Ben never had so many questions, they all bottlenecked into his jaw and he just stared silently stared.

The better-dressed Ben spoke.
“Not bad, eh?” he smiled, a worthy contender for understatement of the year. “I needed some cheering up,” Ben said which would probably be a worthier one. He didn’t know what else to say or even how to address this person (Ben? Us? Sir? Me?)

“You’ll be glad you came,” he continued, his voice more booming and joyful than Ben’s but still very much Ben’s. “This is a very special land. The realest and most magical of places you could hope to see. There’s much to discuss, take a seat.” Ben looked away from his counterpart for the first time since he appeared; they no longer stood on the grassy centre of the spectacular circle but on a mosaic courtyard on the cusp of it. They both sat on the white marble bench behind them.

“There’s much wonder to explore. That building there…” he pointed his cane diagonally at what looked like a kaleidoscope warehouse. “All the shopping you’d ever want; wallets that double money, self-cleaning dishes, face masks that increase handsomeness (not that we need it!), books of spells. All free. And that, across from it, is the Church of Truths; have any and all questions answered. Any mysteries of the earth; ever wondered what really happened? What people were really thinking? No limit..it’s gotten a few angry letters but I personally recommend it.”

Ben licked his lip , the cane-wielding Ben then pointed it jewel-first in the direction of a quaint brick structure. If they were seated at 12 o’clock, it was 7. “A very special train station; will take you anywhere on earth, for real, for free and…” He pointed the cane straight ahead and his scintillating positivity seemed to lessen. Ben’s eyes met with the very tall, menacing tower that lay directly opposite them, very far indeed. It was grey stone, the ugliest site to be seen and the tallest, no stars were above it. “The people you want vengeance on; all of them: they’re in that tower…”

Fantasy land or not, the mere mention of them irritated the spear in Ben’s brain that their actions had thrust in long ago, he recoiled with familiar anger and gloom.

“They’re all chained and blindfolded, Ben, face-down on the top floor. Go there and you can get back at them, however you wish”.

Ben’s eyes gleamed and he smiled, not even hearing about the rest of the places. It would’ve overloaded the memory and imaginative capacity of any listener anyway. “So what do you choose?” Other Ben asked, taking a serious breath.
“The tower,” Ben answered, more conviction and immediacy in those words than any he can remember saying. The other Ben nodded impassively. He clicked his fingers and in front of a still smiling Ben appeared a pristine sword, completely made of gold. It looked deadly but not heavy. Ben grabbed it from its mid-air float. “Off you go…Just know that you can change your mind at any time,” the tuxedoed Ben declared before pointing to Ben’s right.
“I’m supposed to go all the way around? It’ll take me days.”
“It’ll take just as long as it has to,” he said with a wise nod.
Ben exhaled and rose. Hitting his sword against the bench as if to bless the quest he’d suddenly found himself in. Very soon after setting off down the winding sand path he felt a searing clang across his wrist and saw that a gold chain now bound his wrist to the sword. He quizzically looked behind at the other Ben but he was no longer there.

He passed flora, interesting animals and lovely complexes and despite thirsting curiosity he totally ignored them. He had to; he had a long journey ahead and was soon to be a few sword-swings away from complete healing. As he marched, he joyously envisioned all the smug, mean-spirited faces tied up at his mercy, taking some mock swings and stabs at passing branches and mentally corresponding each branch with a hated person – after going through the Madeleine, Jack, Dean, Hugh, Liam, Sam, Michael, Andrew, Rebecca, James, Fiona, Michael, Rohan, Beryl, Chris branches he finally stopped, his wrist beginning to sting.

He finally came to a site he just couldn’t ignore; a multi-storied establishment. It was awash with neon lights and embedded precious stones; blinding to Ben’s eyes and equally assaulted was his nose. The smell hit him like a brick-walled waft; absolutely delicious food; it smelt like every combination of meat and condiment possible was being sizzled and served in there. His empty stomach convulsed at the thought – he was hungry, thirsty, tired, blistering, in fact each one of his bodily needs were unfulfilled but the only one he was keen on rectifying was his lack of revenge and he had no intention of changing that. Ben then turned his impressed eyes toward a most unimpressive, worrying sight not far to his right. A moustachioed man chained with a golden chain onto a long, upright mirror. He was stick-thin, looking at his reflection with hollow eyes, shaking his head.

“Not hungry?” Ben humorously asked.

“Why would I be? Look at me,” he responded glumly, pointing to the mirror with his chained hand.

“Is it any good?” “Marvellous from what I’ve heard – the first floor is just for the menu. Oh and the unicorn ribs! You’ve gotta eat them with a bowl underneath, they’re so succulent. And diamond trifle……Get in there,” his speech slightly livened at that but remained weak and confused.

“I’m a little busy,” Ben said, pointing his sword to the tower. “Looks like you need it though.”
“Seriously?” he cried and pointed a bony finger to the mirror again.
Ben went to look in it. The mirror showed that very same guy but obese – glaring at him with piggish eyes and messily tucking into a massive feast from his basket. It was as clear as a mirror image but absolutely not what a conventional mirror would reflect of him. He shook his head and slumped with misery.

Ben was taken aback at this; he forlornly looked at the nourishment he couldn’t enjoy and the damaged stranger he couldn’t help. He continued walking with a heavy heart…and what felt like a considerably heavier sword. Ben looked down to see that it had not only thickened in girth but the chain had snaked further up his arm. His walking became a bit more like trudging, the left side of his body straining as he held the added burden on his right. It wasn’t enough to sway his resolve to the tower even though much was decreasing his enjoyment of the journey there. As the walk went on the welcoming, picturesque sights diminished, his eyes which had formerly been the only part of him being pleasantly stimulated were now bombarded with masses of monstrous trees and grimy, abandoned structures. They all seemed to thicken and cast a lightless shadow over the lessening path between Ben and the tower.

The only other site that stopped him was what looked like a gated mine going deep underground, the “Story Mine” according to yet another chained fellow nearby. This one was a ragged teenager whose head was shackled by a long golden chain to this traffic light-esque signpost that said in negative red lettering “Not right.” The teen walked around a tree in very quick circles without stopping, whimpering to Ben that he couldn’t enter the mine until he’d done so “right.” Down the mine were infinite catacombs and within each an expansive simulation of every fictional world from every great novel ever written with the author of each novel in each one. The novelist in Ben almost fainted at the prospect of a tea with Shakespeare in Elsinore, a peruse down the poppies with Baum and his mind didn’t dare conjure more examples or he’d jump down there head-first as he always envisioned he would at such an opportunity. “I’ll go in soon, once I’ve done it right. Has to be done right or else!” The teen continued as he completed his goodness-knows-which lap of the tree with his stressed eyes fixed on that post.

With profound labour of the heart and body, and neck as the chain spread to fasten itself around it, Ben kept walking to the tower. To think that he now craved revenge more so than his fundamental reason for going on it, novels – was a puzzling irony but not one Ben was willing or able to ponder. The chains constricted his ability to really think about or feel anything other than physical pain. Sweat and tears of exertion were encrusted on his face, he began to doubt his propensity to even swing or stab a sword at all once arriving. He had to keep moving; no longer walking, he started taking it one step at a time – a lengthy pause and pant following each. Nothing that any of those people ever did to him was as bad as this. Ben then paused to reflect for a moment, it really never was. However, any further pondering wasn’t done, then and there – Ben collapsed. Gasping and groaning onto the hard pavement. Ben truly had nothing left. A familiar hand touched his chin and gently lifted his head.
It was the other Ben.
“The truest chains are the ones we put on ourselves, Ben. Not many bind as much as revenge,” he said with meaningful wisdom. He put a hand down to Ben’s chains and pulled them away as easily as if removing wet tissues from a window. He took the sword and made it disappear.

Ben gasped and staggered to his feet slowly. Above them was a rich night sky but with no stars or moon; there was a glowing sun.
“Just walk in and say where you want to go,” he told Ben and pointed his eyes toward the train station that stood right beside them. Steam and loud choo’s welcomingly billowing from behind the quaint brick facade.
“Thanks,” Ben said and they shook hands. With renewed energy and newfound positivity, Ben marched through the entrance onto the waiting, empty steam train.“Home, please.” The driverless train departed, Ben plonked onto the nearest seat with relief.
Ben painlessly woke up in his bed. He wrote a dozen novels before the end of that year…he now not only had a full-headed repository of ideas but great joy with which to put them in writing. He never looked for the counsellor’s office again. His mind didn’t dwell on it. It all began in his head, and it all ended in his head. Or did it?

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