For National Short Story Month, a Game of Exquisite Corpse

Posted by Jade on May 1, 2013
What's the best way to celebrate May's National Short Story Month? With a brand-new short story, of course!

We've enlisted 15 brave and brilliant authors, starting with Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan, for a bout of Exquisite Corpse—the classic parlor game popularized by the Surrealists, wherein each participant continues a story based only on the previous person's lines.

All of the writers are seeing the full story for the first time with this post, but our Internet experiment isn't over. Last up was the legendary Margaret Atwood, and now it's your turn. Keep the game going in the comments section!

Jennifer Egan
Author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Keep, and
Look at Me.
My oldest brother had a best friend in grade school and high school and even into young adulthood called Jack Anderson. Jack was one of those people you could look at at any age and say that he hadn't changed at all. He was the boisterous impresario; as a little boy he'd traded in action figures and contraband candy; as a teen he was the keg bearer, the late night swimmer, the deflowerer—the rascal that no one could ever seem to stay mad at for too long.
My brother eventually moved to the city, and when I graduated, I followed him there. We allowed ourselves to drift apart, tethered only by the occasional phone call or a slice of pizza at the joint halfway between our apartments—it was hard to talk and we both reminded each other too much of home. Jack was in the city, too, but I never once saw him the whole seven years I was there. In fact, I didn't see Jack again until he showed up to my brother's funeral. I found him in the parking lot after the service and asked him how he could show his face here, after what had happened, and he said, "I love you, but you have no idea what happened."
Charles Yu
Author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Third Class Superhero, and Sorry Please Thank You.

Francesca Lia Block
Author of Weetzie Bat, The Elementals, and the upcoming Love in the Time
of Global Warming
I guess no one really does know. What happened. What ever happens. It is all filtered through our perceptions, and mostly our pain. Once in a parking lot much like this one Jack had confessed a secret to me. That was before the harm had been done. Maybe that moment was the beginning of it—the doing of harm. Now, seeing him with the lines on his forehead and around his eyes, testaments to each worry and shock of the past ten years, I wished we were leaning against his pickup truck with the moon looming above us and the loss erased from our faces as easily as light eradicates shadow. Mostly, I wished with a sick ache, that my brother was still alive. And that Jack had never whispered those words into my ear.
Wished that he had never said, "The moon, the sun, the stars, the sea, the sky, and the clouds have their meaning and I have mine. Your face is my meaning, your eyes that take in the visible world are my meaning, you are my meaning and my secret."
Frederic Tuten
Author of Tintin in the New World, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, and Self Portraits: Fictions.

Robin Sloan
Author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and
Annabel Scheme.
Mostly because it was such an expensive thing to say. Forty-three words at six bucks each. Each had to be transcoded, amplified, packed in bosons, and flung across the rift at something close to the speed of light. The leading edge of his monologue had probably reached the other side by now. THE MOON, THE SUN. . . No, it was good. It had been the right thing to say. He swiped his card ($270 with tax) and stepped away from the microphone. The next customer had his message ready to go, written out on the back of a receipt. Just three words: RETURN TO ME. Smart.
He went over his message in his mind, once it was sent. Wondering if he should have said something different. Even the order of the words felt wrong. Too late now. It'd be months before a response was possible, even if anyone was still out there to hear, or to understand. Months now of waiting: alternately urgent and forgetful. Months of thinking sometimes: "Have they seen it? Are they sending a message back now, or now, or now?" and finding the not-knowing unbearable.

Some people had themselves suspended during the wait, closed down in a frosty sleep so that they'd be fresh and perky for the reply, if it came. But then sometimes the Sleep-Your-Cares-Away booths broke, in uncomfortable ways. Or got stolen—especially if you looked a little odd, you might end up displayed on someone's private channel for amusement. Or worse than amusement. No, if you wanted to continue to have a say in what happened to your various organs, you'd have to endure the wait.

Naomi Alderman
Author of Disobedience, The Lessons, and The Liars' Gospel.

Heather Cocks
Jessica Morgan
Authors of Spoiled, Messy, and the popular blog
Go Fug Yourself.
But what to do during the wait? He wandered over to the compound's extensive fridge and pondered the endless array of compact, clear bottles, each filled by precise government equipment to the same prescribed line. Ever since the Veganing, nobody drank anything but juices with unappetizing names like Bowels Be Free (cayenne, lemon juice, and a painfully effective dose of salmonella), or Pressed Begonia, Saffron, and Baconberry, the product of creative gardeners who bred "natural" berries that tasted like outlawed meats, a conciliatory gesture from the Overlord that rang, to him, as hollow as his stomach. He picked out an unlabeled orange concoction—juices of that color tended to be the least disgusting—and took a tentative sip. It tasted like a partially frozen meatball parm. It would do.

Rubbing his eyes, he felt overcome with a sense of put-upon tedium. Why was it always him in charge of the menial tasks? Why couldn't they have made him await The Answer at the beginning of the new TV season? Couldn't his brother have snuck him more than one bag of black market potato chips? Patrick was the only person he knew who was able to get contraband, and it was highly inconvenient that he'd taken that knowledge with him to the dream sphere. A post-Veganing world was no place for a person who once only ate whatever they used to sell at gas stations; he found it blasphemous to jam nuts in some tofu, coat it with hardened turnip milk, and call it a Snickers, but it was treason to question the Overlord's cookbooks. His stomach rumbled, and he sighed. Might as well make the rounds.

Supervising the Sleep Booths was the creepiest of his tasks he'd been stuck with, as it involved essentially spying on someone's most vulnerable moment. But no one else was awake to do it, and at the very least he felt he should be rewarded for the upcoming months of loneliness by gazing at the one person whose visage could fill him up the way juices never did, the person he was too afraid to drink in with his eyes when she was awake and could look back. He slid his ID card through the slot and punched in his passcode—her birthday, of course—and as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he blinked, then blinked again. He'd expected to see her curled up in Booth 137J, a teasing smile playing at her lips as her eyelids twitched with an elaborate dream. Instead, he was staring at a locked, seemingly unbreached, and totally empty space.
Instinctively he peeped the live cam at the head of Booth 137J, streaming video from every booth every day every minute. Whatever had happened to her had probably already been viewed. Being first on the scene was no guarantee you were the initial witness. In fact there might be others on the way already, and not menial task guys like him. So he hit the green button at the base of Booth 137J thinking he might do her the favor of destroying evidence. Evidence of what? Who knew? The shatterproof lid squeaked and rattled as it slid backward, even the Overlord couldn't guarantee great equipment. He leaned over the bed of the booth. Where had she gone? Was she safe? As he reached out his hand he hesitated. He turned his ear to the booth. Faintly he heard it. Heard her. Still there. In there. Breathing. He must've gasped or cried out because she stirred. The empty booth groaned. Her disembodied voice, the one he could never mistake, said, "Is it my shift already?" The live cam practically purred as it corroborated the miracle.
Victor LaValle
Author of The Devil in Silver, Big Machine, and The Ecstatic.

Anne Lamott
Author of Imperfect Birds, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing, and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.
She was alive. His heart fluttered with relief, and then fear. His mind raced, but he had to think clearly: yes, she was his only real friend here, one of the few people he could still trust. Yet her very existence called his own into jeopardy.
She knew about the key, had seen it, the brass-plated skeleton key.
Was there a way for them both to come out of this unharmed? It did not seem possible. Yet he cared for her, maybe even loved her.
Again she called out softly. "I don't want to be late," she said.
"Let's go." With just two words, he had allied himself with her; pitted himself against the Organization. It was stupid, madness, but he knew that he didn't really have a choice. Hadn't had a choice since she'd broken through the fever of his dreams, drawn out of that terrible liquid suspension, that murky place between alive and not.
She took his hand. Her touch made everything shift, made him feel, just for a moment, as if everything would be all right.
There was a faint click; and then a deafening roar, as the world exploded.

Lauren Oliver
Author of Delirium, Before I Fall, and Leisl & Po.

Craig Johnson
Author of The Cold Dish, Death Without Company, and the upcoming A Serpent's Tooth.
The door to the playground flew open, and it was, as he'd expected, a mad house.
Still clutching his wife's hand, he looked into the limpid pools of her eyes, the same terror there as in his own. Who would've thought that getting their child into school would be this difficult, this competitive, this. . .dangerous? He squeezed Bianca's hand as a young, blond woman with an eye patch approached, floating along upon the wave of screaming, miniature minions who flowed in a current around their knees like blood-thirsty piranhas.
"Can I help you?"
Snatching off his Tom Ford Marko TF144 sunglasses and jutting his chin forward, he let her know just with whom she was dealing. "We're here for the interview with the Organization's Advanced Preschool?"
She nodded. "The Jones'—is that correct?"
She caught him studying her patch, and he wondered if it was real or just a clever disguise; who knew what evil machinations labored behind the darkness of that hidden and all-seeing eye?
"It's pirate day."
Of course it was pirate day. That was the thing about schools as exclusive as this one: every day had to be something MORE than simply what it was. Just looking over the materials—OK, studying as if a life itself depended on it, which if you believed the hype was actually the case—he'd felt a mix of both awe and horror at how much preschool had changed since his own childhood. He remembered practicing letters, making macaroni necklaces, sitting in circles to start the day. At this school, however, if she were to get in, his daughter would be learning Mandarin, practicing the art of French pastry, and doing a daily yoga practice. And that was just in one week! He swallowed, looking around the room again at the children, who were now basically attacking the play stations, voices raised. This was not just the future. This was his future. And it scared him to death.
Sarah Dessen
Author of The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, and the upcoming The Moon and More.

Valerie Martin
Author of Property, Mary Reilly, and The Confessions of Edward Day.
"Ahoy Matey."
He looked away from the looting of the play stations into the amused dark eyes of a tall female pirate. Piratess? Her blouse was ruffled and she wore a red sash about her hips, in which she had thrust a plastic sword.
"You look like you've had your timbers shivered," she observed.
He frowned. He recognized the scream from the huddle at the water table as his daughter's. She made up for her size with powerful lungs and when pressed, as she was now, by two runty boys who were trying to wrest a wooden boat from her grip of steel, she could sometimes achieve a sonic triumph. He fought down his urge to rush to her rescue. Parents were not to interfere in the children's squabbles. Learning was taking place. Children didn't need prodding to learn; they should be free to follow their interests. Even the yoga classes and Mandarin Chinese would be "facilitated" rather than "taught." He'd read all that in the brochure. "Are you one of the teachers?" he asked the piratess glumly.
"Are you kidding," she replied. "Do you think they'd let a teacher in here with a weapon?"
Just then the screaming intensified. The water table had gone over. For a moment, in the company of the piratess and in possession of a screaming headache, he was tempted to let the children "learn" their way through the mess. But his daughter's costume—a robot ensemble that he had spent hours making with cardboard boxes, tinfoil, and hangers—would melt if it became too wet (although she looked like the Tin Man, in matters of water-solubility she was more Wicked Witch).
He sighed and went to rescue her.

Ally Condie
Author of Matched, Crossed, and Yearbook.

Margaret Atwood
Author of The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin, and the upcoming MaddAddam.
But just as he touched her, a horrifying transformation took place. Tiny fangs sprouted from her rosebud mouth, her blue eyes gleamed red, and leathery wings unfolded from her shoulders. She slipped his grasp, and with a banshee screech vanished up the chimney. The diminutive pirates and Munchkins gasped in astonishment. "How'd you do that?" one of them asked.
"I didn't do it," he replied. But he knew who had done it: his estranged first wife, Glamorgan, repudiated long ago in his search for a normal life. He'd cast her off when he'd traded his black unitard with the skull on it for the standard jeans and Ts of the doting father. He should never have referred to her as "that Satanist bitch" in an e-mail to a mutual friend from those magic days—magic in every sense of the word. The Internet leaked like a sieve. Now she'd made a vengeful move and stolen his beloved daughter.
He clenched his jaw. All right, it's war, he thought. Now where had he put that amulet?
"Don't worry, kids, your parents will be here soon," he said reassuringly. He'd shoo them out the door as fast as possible. Then it would be his move.
En garde, Glamorgan, he whispered.

Where is the brass-plated skeleton key? Does Glamorgan end up meeting Jack Anderson? Will the hero's daughter ever learn to speak Mandarin? The story is now yours, Goodreads writers!

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Nico (new)

Nico Damn it! Not Again! He told himself as he strained back to consciousness. A silent beep tells him it's already three in the morning and it was almost the end of his shift. He left the booth to get some fresh air and tried to recount what had just happened. It was always the same thing. The same dream for the past month ever since she came. It was always in Booth 137J, one moment he’s observing the monitors, then the next thing, gone.
But something was different this time, he felt a strong sensation that something was taken from him. The only problem is that he wasn’t sure what it is. Yet, a silent phrase kept ringing in his ear - “En Garde, Glamorgan”. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. He knew it was his voice. He knew it was all a dream but everything seemed so real. He rubbed his temple as this was too much for him right now. He told himself Glamorgan can wait. Right now, he needed something familiar. He needed her.
He went back to the booth eager to catch a glimpse of her face before he leaves. He gazed at the monitor and felt all his insides drop. It was Blank. He knew something was wrong.
He charged out of the booth and ran to the other side of the compound where the doors to the rooms are located. He struggled to enter the room hoping that it was just a mistake. He pushed the door open and his worst fear was realized. There it was, on top of the bed. A small parchment with words scrawled on it -
“Jack Anderson, bring me the skeleton key if you want her alive”.

message 2: by Jade (new)

Jade Nice job, Nico!

message 3: by Marissa (new)

Marissa ... if by "parchment" you meant "Post-It note." What was it with villains these days? Didn't they teach them not to cut corners in Evil School? Everyone knew that eliciting fear was 25% content and 75% presentation. Jack shook himself out what promised to be an enjoyable tangent on the correct curriculum for adolescent hooligans and focused on the empty booth.

There, wedged between the fiberglass bottom and IKEA foam mattress were a few strands of red hair and a parking stub for the shuttle garage next door.
"Ah ha!" Jack cried, "Should've left it on the dashboard like it says, vile kidnapper!" Stuffing the stub into his pocket, Jack sprinted down the suspended walkway towards his locker. This morning he'd had the unsettling feeling that he would need his trusty taser X26C and he was right.

message 4: by Wouter (new)

Wouter Drucker My head :(

message 5: by Sherry (new)

Sherry “And so it begins again,” he thought, opening his locker with the special toe-kick that worked better than a combination lock. This endless cycle of lost and found. He grabbed the taser and shoved it between his belt and the small of his back. No. He had to get it right this time. Reluctantly, he put the taser on the locker’s top shelf beside the Snickers bar he’d been saving since his daughter’s birth for just such an emergency. He’d need it now. It would be his best weapon against Glamorgan and he knew just where to find her, shacked up with Merlin.

First, though, the unitard. Would it still fit? Maybe he could get out without anyone seeing him. He kicked off his boots and began to undo his belt.

message 6: by [deleted user] (last edited May 09, 2013 01:11AM) (new)

Since becoming a father, he’d become fitter than ever. Running around after his daughter, so full of energy and pyromaniac tendencies, had made his already attractive body drool-worthy. His arms bulged and his back rippled with muscles. The unitard, if anything, was too tight. He flexed his biceps and heard fabric rip.
But that didn’t matter. He picked up the snickers bar and, unsure where to put it, tucked it into his boot. He went to the window and looked out on the city. Out there, somewhere, Glamorgan would be gloating over his defeat, Merlin wheezing at her side. It had been years since they met, but Jack still remembered the feel of Glamorgan’s red hair, smooth and slippery like writhing snakes. The scent of her, spicy and intoxicating. Her eyes so green, so deep, like pools of toxic waste.
Jack took a breath. And then, he leapt from the window. The air rushed past him, but his solar-powered-thruster boots took effect almost immediately. And he was speeding through the air, towards Glamorgan. Towards Merlin. And, he prayed, towards his daughter.

message 7: by Diane (new)

Diane Argh! The solar-power-thruster boots had spent too much time rolled in his closet, bundled inside the unitard. The solar charge was weak; sheer determination kept him sailing above the blackened stumps of decimated skyscrapers. The never got used to the acid sting of every breath. He was lower now. Gentle wisps of an oily breeze brushed against his cheek, and perhaps that was a tear sliding across their surface. The ground was almost visible. But his feet would not be landing on the sharpened edges of pavement. No, he was gliding atop a building, an odd wooden building, shaped like a...ship? Even more jolting was the sound of children's voices, splashing water. What the...? As he landed on the broad planks, he glimpsed a flicker, almost missed, above his head. It was a flag. On it was the Old Jolly Roger, winking.

message 8: by Steve (new)

Steve Cook "'En garde, Glamorgan,' are these the only words he's uttered since he's been in here?" Glenn Colton asked his friend and former student, Brad Felts.
As the somewhat inexperienced acting director of the Institute, Felts had sought the advice of his mentor. Nodding, Felts answered, "That, and he keeps mumbling something about booth 137J. I'm baffled...totally."
"And you've not spoken with any family or friends," Colton asked.
"We don't even know his name. The local police ran his prints. Nothing."
"Do you think he would react badly if we pulled the covers off of him," Colton asked. "I'd really like to get a closer look."
"Go ahead," Felts said.
Colton moved to the side of the small, plain, metal bed and gingerly reached down and tugged at the worn, somewhat dingy, brown, wool blanket, revealing the face of "John Doe."
As he looked at the mysterious patient, who had been locked away in the William Veganing Institute for over three months, he quickly dropped the edge of the blanket as if it were on fire.
Stepping back quickly, he exclaimed, "Oh my God! Do you know who this is?"
"I have no earthly idea," Felts said moving towards the bed, wondering what had disturbed his friend so dramatically.
"It can't be. It' cannot possibly be," Colton whispered. "That's Jack Anderson."

message 9: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Great story with plenty of "twists." I did one of these types of stories in which we all used our favorite mystery characters to solve a murder. So fun.

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