Excerpt: Read from Storyland
Storyland starts in the modern day when a man named Ned, while attending ComiCon, awakens to find out that his childhood best friend Martin Brace has brutally murdered for people out in the woods back in his home town.
Martin and Ned lived next door to each other as kids and played a game called Storyland. Martin stated he believed Storyland was real and that they were part of the story itself, set out to defeat a giant evil he's named Grool. Martin is now a reclusive author of a popular series of novels - and no one can understand why he'd take a machete to four people out camping, and leave a young boy alive.
Ned's home town has had tragedy in the past. When they were children, a young boy named Billy Marsterson disappeared, never to be found. The town has never truly healed. Ned and Martin were relentlessly bullied by Billy, but no one else has ever believed them and as Ned delves into the mystery, and heads back home, he starts to believe that whatever happened to Billy is somehow connected to the horrific murders Martin committed today.
The memories start to resurface. Sometimes memories are best left buried.
As I lay there my eyes slowly close, but I cannot fall asleep. Instead, I keep seeing Billy and his red hoodie and his red bicycle. It is as if he has become synonymous with the Devil himself in my memory. I can picture him snarling and swinging a fist into my stomach, dropping me to my knees. I can hear his voice, sounding more grown up and threatening than could have been possible, telling me he is going to kill me. I remember being so afraid. I remember the sound of people nearby and darkness and dampness seeping into the knees of my jeans.
As I drift off, I start to dream. It's one of those cases where I am aware I am dreaming, standing beside and above myself, watching. How much of this is actually happening or happened, I don't know.
Martin and I are at the schoolyard not far from our house. One of those rare days we are not just inside playing Storyland or out in the woods doing the same. We're just there, on the swings for hours and then on the slide. Finally, as it gets near lunch, we sit on the monkey bars. These are old and rusty things and the ones we sit on looks kind of like stubby bullet dropped on its flat end, the rounded, bulbous, nose pointed at the sky. Kids sometimes go the top and hang from the bars forming a slight dome and try to knock each other off. We're just sitting up there, legs dangling down into the middle section and our arms around the bars. We're talking. I don't remember exactly what we're talking about - perhaps Storyland or baseball or something.
We hear the sound of a bicycle and turn around to see who else has come to the yard. I remember turning around and looking and see this kid coming. In my memory, now, he is wearing the red hoodie, but it was summer and he must not have been wearing something too heavy. However, in the dream, he is wearing the red hoodie and on the red bike. He's a kid we don't really recognize.
Billy had just moved to the neighborhood. Martin and I find out who he is and where he's from days later. He's from Pittsburgh, originally, but a job transfer for his father has brought him here. His dad works for a railroad and has been put in charge of a rail yard near our new home. It's a promotion, but Billy is pissed he no longer has his friends from Pittsburgh to hang out with. The day we meet him, we learn years later, he has had a fight with his mom about their new home and he heads out with a head full of anger. When he spots us, it's like a gun has set its sights on a victim. Billy is just a bullet and we are the targets.
He is not pedaling in a threatening way. In fact, he waves to us as he comes over and we wave back. Billy is handsome, with a crew cut and a rugged, if slightly wide face. He even has a small spray of freckles across the bridge of his nose and across both cheeks. He couldn't look more like a Norman Rockwell drawing of a typical American kid right out of the 50s.
We don't know who he is. We don't know about his father and his transfer. We don't know his father tends to get angry because, although this new job is more money and technically a promotion, he, too, feels like he's been exiled to Siberia and being punished. It is a home that is more full of anger than anyone realizes.
None of it matters now and neither I nor Martin know it. If we did, it probably wouldn't have mattered. Those things never matter to kids, right?
Billy rides over and he's smiling and seems so friendly. "Hi guys!" he says brightly. "Do you mind if I come hang out with you?. What ya, doin'?"
"Just hanging out here," Martin replies. There is a wary look in his eyes I can remember to this day. Martin wants the world to be him and me and that's it. Now there is a third party and not of his choosing. Whenever others in our class have been part of our party, Martin has agreed to it, even suggested who gets to play with us. "Who're you."
"Name's Billy," he says as he casually drops his bike and starts to climb the monkey bars to join us. He moves with the casual grace and speed of a born athlete. If Billy had not vanished when he did, he could have easily become the captain of the high school football team and probably gone on to get a college scholarship. "We just moved here."
He joins us at the top, his legs hanging over the edge. His eyes are bright, but they shift back and forth between me and Martin. I smile and ask questions. Martin is wary and unsure of things, not contributing much to the conversation. He's shy, I tell myself. This is how he is with new people - strangers.
"What's there fun to do around here?" Billy asks. "Do you guys play baseball or anything like that?"
"Not really," Martin replies. He has never hidden his disdain for the very idea of organized sports. I at least follow the Pirates and the Chicago White Sox and some other teams. My dad and I talk about baseball and there have been times I have been tempted to sign up for little league. Martin routinely makes fun of athletes and organized sports. "Organized sports are for idiots who don't know how to use their imagination."
This might have been the sentence right there that turned Billy against us. He came over angry, but perhaps seeing some other kids had given him hope. Hope maybe he had found some kindred spirits who would join him in playing baseball and football and other sports. Kids who could go with him to watch Pirates games on special field trips and listen to games on the radio. All of it was gone in a flash.
"Oh, really," he says with a crooked smile. "What do you guys do instead?"
"We play a game," I reply and there is a flash of anger from Martin. Given the years, I think he was trying to warn me right then and there not to say anything more. I don't pick up on the warning. "It's called Storyland. It's a lot of fun. Martin here comes up with the best stories and adventures."
Billy lets out a bray of laughter. I instantly realize something between all of us has changed. There is a sinking in my gut and a clutching at my heart. I look at Martin and he cannot meet my gaze. Instead, his face is red, right up to the tips of his ears, and he is looking down at his feet.
"Seriously?" Billy asks. "Baby games? That's what you guys do? Do you dress up like wizards and crap? Run around in the woods throwing bean bags at each other and shouting 'lightning bolt!' 'Lightning bolt!'"
He rears back and laughs so hard he has to hold onto his stomach. I can tell Martin is getting mad. It takes a lot to get him there, but you can tell by the shades of red on his face and neck. He is nearly purple.
"It's not a game for babies!" Martin says. "It takes intelligence and imagination to create complex stories and characters. It takes being plugged into something not everyone can be plugged into. Storyland is a real place!"
I cringe when he says that. No, I think, don't start with that stuff. This kid already thinks we're idiots and now he's just had it confirmed we're crazy.
Billy laughs even harder. His face is red and he can barely catch his breath between the gales of laughter. He slaps his hand against the metal bars and the entire set of monkey bars vibrate from him striking it. I want to crawl away. I want to get down off of the monkey bars and run back home.
"You have got to tell me you're kidding!" Billy says between deep whooping breaths. "You have to be kidding! A real place?"
He sets off into more gales of uncontrolled laughter.
Marin slaps the bar in front of him. "It is a real place! Ned and I are tapped into it. We can see what happens there. We get the stories. Just because you're too much of a moron to see it and understand it doesn't make it less real, it just makes you an idiot. Not smart enough to understand it. Too stupid to appreciate there's more to the world and living than smacking into each other playing some stupid, pointless sport!"
The words come tumbling out and halfway through his rant, Billy stops laughing. In fact, as I watch, I see a fuse has been lit the moment Martin suggests he's an idiot. Martin is so into his rant and so determined to shut Billy up he doesn't realize the bomb he is about to set off. Martin has lived a sheltered life, without bullies and without guys like Billy. I have seen guys like Billy before, back before we moved here, and I can tell the danger is building and real.
Billy reaches out with one hand without warning. One moment he is listening to Martin as my friend repeatedly tells him he's an idiot and unable to comprehend the world and some kind of caveman. Billy just extends his right hand, ending in a fist, and there is a meaty slap as he hits Martin directly on the left side of his face, just above his lower jaw and just below his ear. It's like hearing someone punch a slab of beef. Martin lets out a grunt and a sigh and his eyes glaze over for just a moment and he rocks to the side, nearly falling off the monkey bars.
"Don't talk to me like that," Billy says. "You say shit like that to me again and I will end you. You want some?"
I realize he's talking to me and I quickly hold up both hands and shake my head. I am thunderstruck. I've never taken a punch in my life or been in a real fight ever. I have no doubt Billy can punch me into oblivion without much effort and probably not even losing his breath.
Martin spits into the center of the monkey bars. I notice there is blood in the spittle when it hits the rubber mat at the bottom.
"You mindless asshole," Martin says and it's the first time I've ever heard him swear. I realize Billy did, too, just a few moments before. I am such an innocent fool I never use curse words, hearing my mother telling me smart people didn't talk that way in my head anytime I'm even tempted. "You fucker."
Martin reaches out with his hand and tries to hit Billy back, but weighs a fraction of what Billy does and is like a reed. His punch misses Billy's face by a country mile and glances of his shoulder instead. Billy laughs again.
"Is that the best ya got?" he sneers. "No wonder you don't play sports. You couldn't if you wanted to. Weak little shit."
Billy rears back and his fist shoots forward and this one takes Martin in his left eye. This time the meaty thump is louder and there is a sickening cracking sound that makes me think something broke inside of Martin's head.
Once again his head rocks back and this time his hands aren't working as well and he misses. This causes him to flop over backwards and only blind luck allows his ankles and feet to catch one of the bars so he doesn't fall completely from the playground equipment. Instead, he is hanging upside down, held there by his own feet and sneakers, his arms up over his head and blood runs from his nose down to his forehead and up his nose and he's sputtering and coughing and gagging.
"You want more?" Billy asks. "Go ahead, call me something one more time. Call me a name just once more."
Billy has lost interest. He doesn't apologize or help Martin. He just slowly gets up and then climbs down the monkey bars. He looks at me and then at the limp and hanging figure of Martin to his right. He shakes his head.
"I really hoped we could be friends," he says almost sadly. "Instead, I think I'm going to have to make it my mission to teach you two a lesson about the way the world works. Storyland. Jesus Christ. You two. Your life just turned into hell."
He laughs and turns, his feet crunching on the gravel. A moment later he's on his bike and riding away and I can still hear his laughter.
I just sit there for a time, unable to move. Shocked. What the hell just happened? How did things turn so fast? Did I just see Martin get punched in the face twice?
I jump down from the monkey bars and run over to the other side of the equipment. Martin is no longer laying back, upside down, like he was just a moment before. He is slowly getting back up. There is blood running freely out of his nose, down his chin and all over his shirt. I was expecting him to be crying and in pain (I know I would have been) but instead his face is burning red just like it was when he was getting angry at Billy.
He wipes absently at his nose, doing little more than smearing the blood and when he sees me, it's like he looks straight through me. The look is so withering and angry I back away and hold up both hands. Somehow I am sure I am going to get punched today no matter what I try to do.
"Why did you tell him, Ned?" he asks and I am totally unsure what he's talking about.
"Tell him about what?"
"About Storyland!" he yells this and I can hear his voice echoing off the houses around us. "Why would you tell him about it?"
Now the tears start and I realize Martin is upset not about being punched, but about the secret I apparently violated by telling someone else. Martin slowly gets up and climbs down off of the monkey bars. Blood is still flowing from his nose and I worry maybe it’s been broken. His left eye is already swelling, too. I need to get him home and get ice or something on it, but when I try to approach him he wheels on me, both hands clenched into fists.
"Get away from me!" he says. "Storyland is for us! Don't you realize that? It's not for assholes like him. It's not for anyone else. We've been given access to that place and that kind of thing is special. It's special, Ned. Not everyone is allowed in there. Especially not neanderthals like that guy."
"I - I'm sorry, Martin. I just thought he wanted to be friends. I just wanted to answer his question about what we do."
"You don't tell him or anyone about Storyland. They'll stop us from getting in there if you tell enough people. Do you want that to happen? Do you want to be locked out of Storyland?"
I am completely confused. "Who's going to lock us out, Martin? I don't know what you're talking about."
"Stop pretending to be stupid," Martin says, wiping at his nose again. "Just leave me alone."
"You have to get something on your eye," I say. "Something cold or it's going to swell shut. Let me help."
"Get away from me, Ned. Stay away from me the rest of the day."
He walks away and then starts to run. I stand there, shocked, unsure of what happened and what I did wrong.
I want to cry, but then feel like I shouldn't be blamed for this. All I did was tell some kid about a stupid game we play. The kid overreacted, but so did Martin. Instead of wanting to cry, I feel angry and it lasts the rest of the afternoon. That night, though, I am depressed and lonely and when my mom asks me about it, I just tell her it's nothing. I'm just tired.
The next day, Martin and I make up. Martin apologizes to me about it and he has a shiner on his eye. He says he told his mother we were playing and he got socked in the eye when we were throwing rocks at a sign and one of them bounced off and back into his face. It's a long shot story, but his mother always tended to believe him and she does this time, too. He's still angry, but not at me anymore and that means I agree with what he says and am relieved to have my friend back.
"I'm gonna get the son of a bitch," he says at some point. I have hardly ever heard Martin curse before. I am a little shocked and it takes me right out of whatever game we're playing.
"Yeah," he says. "You realize what he is, right?"
I look around as if the answer is written on the walls or the floor or something. I shake my head. "A bully?"
"Yeah, he's that, but he's more than that,too" Martin says and there is a look in his eyes unlike anything I have seen before. He's looking down at the floor and his pupils catch the light and it's like there's a burning ember deep down inside him. "He's Grool."
I look at him strangely and then, eventually, start laughing. "C'mon, quite teasing me."
Martin's face does not change. If anything, it darkens in some way, as if there's a shadow crossing his face. Something dark and deep that was within him and now has come out, through his pores, spreading across his face. "Not kidding, Ned. Think about it. How many times have we fought him? How many forms has he taken? How many times have we beat him in all of his forms? Did you think he wasn't in this reality, too? Maybe he wouldn't come at us right here where we live?"
I am frightened by this even as a kid. "Martin, c'mon. Stop doing this. People think it's weird."
He raises his head a bit and now he looks hurt. "What do you mean, Ned?"
I look at him wondering if he's joking. Sure, Martin's weird, but he's also one of the smartest people I've ever met. He can't be doing this seriously.
"Saying this game is real," I say cautiously. I am suddenly on edge, as if I have tread into things I should not disturb. "You keep acting like Storyland is real. It's a game."
Now the hurt really spreads across his face and his smile fades for a moment. He looks down at the floor and I wonder if he's going to cry. What did I say? I have no clue why he seems so hurt.
"Maybe you don't see it," he says quietly. "I thought you did, Ned. All of those drawings and stuff. I thought you were allowed in. Maybe it's just me."
I am worried now. "Martin, what are you trying to tell me. I don't understand."
He holds his head down and doesn't say anything for a while. Then, he lifts his face back up and now he's smiling. The switch is very sudden and sends fresh chills down my back and I am worried all over again. I don't fully understand what it means to be crazy, but I fear I am watching my best friend losing his mind right in front of me.
"Never mind," he says. "You're still my best friend, Ned. The best friend I've ever had. Look, Billy will pay for what he did. In the meantime, until I can come up with a plan, we'll just need to be careful. We're going to have to watch for him."
Just like that he's back to being the Martin I know. Given how children are and how fast their attention changes from one thing to another, I forget the strangeness and we start playing. We don't play Storyland for a while, but when we do, it's back to the fantasy land and pretending to defeat Grool in other worlds and other form. Billy stays out of our way for weeks, too.
But it doesn't stay that way.