Hack

A Short Story By

Kevin P. Keating

I

The Jesuits place a high value on the written word, so much so that they hire an outsider to run the literary magazine. Under the direction of Batya Pinter, The Millstone garners recognition as one of the finest publications produced by any high school, private or public, in the United States, its stories and poems one step removed from the divine Logos, its contributors destined to achieve great things, heirs to the throne of Carver and Cheever, tutelary gods that guide the pens of these fledgling scribes and lead them toward the sweet promises of alcoholism and sexual dysfunction.

With the release of each issue, agents and publishers pore over the journal, hoping to discover and capitalize on the most original voice of a new generation, some enfant terrible who will gleefully stir up trouble on the literary scene, but The Millstone has, at least so far, produced only well-mannered boys who dwell on mainstream subjects almost hagiographic in their depictions of common people. According to these young men, the world is populated not by cynics and miscreants, but with unrecognized saints who feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. While many of these teenaged boys fall prey to the shameless sentimentality of conventional storytelling, some of them do recognize the sad fact that life is not without its tragedies and injustices, and occasionally they compose poignant pieces about the unexpected loss of a beloved parish priest or a loyal family dog. With whatever protection pseudonymity affords them, they even publish the rare ribald story, chronicling the secret liaisons of an unconventional couple whose forbidden relationship ends, depending upon the temperament of its author, in either comedic or catastrophic circumstances.

Despite the journal’s repetitive themes, the small but loyal readership remains strong, even passionate, and Edmund Campion invariably picks up the latest edition. Copies are scattered around campus like stale breadcrumbs left for the screeching grackles that swoop from their roosts high on the gothic bell tower. Glancing left and right to make sure no one sees him, Edmund stashes the journal in his book bag and then scampers off to the palatial library where he passes through untold numbers of hexagonal galleries until he finds a cosy alcove behind a shelf of neglected books. Safe from the ridicule of his philistine friends, he holds the magazine close to his nose, takes in the heady perfume of glue and ink, strokes the glossy cover page, and for an entire hour, he immerses himself in the stories, his eyes growing misty at the splendour of the imagery and the slightly discombobulating effect of the parataxis style of the prose, the journal’s trademark.

As he races through the final pages, his admiration turns to envy. They make it seem so easy, these writers. They possess an uncommon ability to translate their experiences into words that continue to confound and evade him, and he finds it hard to believe that those same blundering boys who walk the halls with him are capable of such sophisticated insights. How do his classmates intimate suffering without sounding puerile and self-serving? How do they describe the mystical without coming across as lunatics and zealots?

Ever since his sophomore year, when he discovered the dazzling wordplay of Vladmir Nabokov, Edmund has had ambitions to become a serious writer, a member of The Millstone’s revered pantheon, but his fiction is consistently rejected, the manuscripts often returned without comment and accompanied by a terse form letter printed on thick gray paper. The words look like they’ve been etched with hammer and chisel into a heavy stone tablet; there is a kind of finality about them, but to question the judgment of the editor would be more than merely impertinent, it would be tantamount to blasphemy, and Edmund knows better than to provoke the wrath of a redoubtable god like Batya Pinter.

He settles for working on the school newspaper as a sports photojournalist, an unremarkable position that comes with a number of mundane responsibilities: he dashes off puff pieces about the refulgent reign of the mighty football team, conducts long interviews with the forever fuming head coach, and photographs the dim-witted and narcissistic quarterback. In this new Dark Age of short attention spans and almost total disdain for the printed word, Edmund suppresses his imagination and uses raw, whittled-down prose to grab his readers, but he assures himself that he can rise above the mediocrity of reporting and craft a story so beautiful, so subtle, so profound in its unflinching examination of the human heart that the editor of The Millstone will surely read it with bated breath and regret ever having declined his previous submissions.

Greatness is close at hand, he can sense it, but lately, whenever he stares into the void of a blank piece of paper, he finds himself reeling from a lack of inspiration, and though he is reluctant to admit this to anyone, even to himself, it has been months since he has set pen to paper. No matter. The life of any young writer is essentially one of self-deception, and the tenacious few who persist in their aspirations have simply learned to make their delusions work for them rather than against them.

II

Even though he is unable to gain a foothold on the trackless slopes of creative enterprise, Edmund has no problem turning out enthusiastic term papers for English class, detailed fifteen-page analyses of The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies that he hopes will impress his teacher, but whenever he tries to engage her in a conversation before class begins, he cannot summon the right words to describe his love for literature. He rambles from one topic to the next, his arms swinging erratically like a marionette jerked around by an amateur puppeteer. He forgets to pause for breath and feels his face turn bright pink, then dark purple. His lips start to twitch. He’s making a fool of himself, he’s aware of this, but he can’t help it. His adoration for his teacher isn’t something he can easily disguise.

As is the case with the other instructors at this august prep school, Batya Pinter has mastered the indispensable arts of insouciance and Schadenfreude and can wield them about with great cunning. She never attempts to conceal her boredom with teaching or contempt for her pupils, doesn’t lift a hand to cover her mouth as she lets out a long leisurely yawn; she merely points to his desk and asks him to take a seat. Most disturbing of all, however, are her cold blue eyes, which have a supernatural power that trumps that of the conjuring priests with their tiresome trick of transubstantiation.

Edmund submits his essay and then slinks to the back of the classroom.

The Minotaur, who sits next to him, shakes his head and laughs. “Shit, man, you actually get a hard-on for that crusty, old cougar?”

Edmund is genuinely puzzled by this remark. Old? It’s impossible to determine her age. She might be thirty-five or forty. She looks youthful, and it’s obvious, to him at least, that she spends as much time working on her appearance as she does editing the award-winning journal. She primps and preens, plucks and polishes. She selects her outfits with utmost care, tight skirts that accentuate her muscular thighs, scandalous button-down blouses that reveal far too much of her supple, honey-hued cleavage, but if her sex appeal is hard to mistake, so is her aura of inquisitorial wrath. With her hands clasped behind her back and chin thrust forward to slice through the rumbling heat of adolescent desire, she paces up and down the rows of desks in her shiny black boots and demands that her slouching students sit up straight and pay attention. Hypnotized by the rhythm of her sashaying hips, Edmund squirms in his chair, crosses his legs, and uses the fig leaf of his notebook to hide the embarrassing bulge in his pants.

Only the Minotaur dares to ignore her. He falls asleep with his textbook propped open with one shaggy elbow, drool trickling from the corner of his mouth and forming a shallow pool around his chiselled jaw. He farts and belches and picks his nose. Sometimes he scribbles football plays in his notebook–a sweep pass roll out, a trick split end pitch. Edmund observes him as a primatologist might observe the behaviour of a Bonobo chimp in the wild while it scratches in the dirt with a pointed stick to capture termites. To his amazement, Batya Pinter doesn’t reprimand the Minotaur for this crude and disruptive behaviour. Instead, she treats him like an adorable circus bear, gently taps his head, yearns to smooch his enormous muzzle, deliberately drops pens and pencils beside his desk and then bends over to retrieve them, giving him a tantalizing flash of her sequined-studded bras and a better vantage point of her cloven ass.

Though he knows it’s an absurd idea, Edmund becomes more and more convinced that Batya Pinter is smitten with the Minotaur, but if she has feelings for that doltish, drawling meathead, it isn’t because of his imposing physique or devastating good looks or incontestable virility; no, it’s because she is impressed by his mind, his intellect, his surprising ability to write exceptionally erudite essays. Little does she know that Edmund, for a modest but non-negotiable fee, has been composing all of the Minotaur’s term papers, a morally dubious enterprise, true, but one he is able to justify since he uses the cash to buy paperback editions of the classics he admires.

A magician with words, Edmund is able to take the Minotaur’s violent jumble of declarative sentences and transform them into miniature masterpieces on Pnin and Pale Fire and Lolita. These papers are so insightful that it almost seems a pity to give a cretin like the Minotaur any credit, and Edmund can’t help but drop subtle hints and clues about their true authorship. He cites Charles Kinbote and Claire Quilty in the footnotes, quotes Vivian Darkbloom at length.

Edmund prides himself on his clever deception until, as class ends and the bell rings, a suddenly cantankerous Batya Pinter turns her eyes to the back of the classroom and shouts, “Remain seated, gentlemen! I have an important announcement to make.”

Edmund turns white with fear. Even the Minotaur seems nervous and slides a little lower in his seat. The two boys exchange worried glances. Their teacher marches across the room and stands at the lectern, her mouth tightening into a severe smile, her long nails tap-tap-tapping against the burnished wood. Has she discovered their crime? If so the consequences will be dire. Not only will it result in Edmund being permanently blacklisted from The Millstone, it will mean automatic failure in the class and almost certain expulsion from the school. Edmund cannot understand academia’s peculiar obsession with plagiarism. All of existence is a form of plagiarism, everyone is more or less a fraud, steeling thoughts and ideas and identities. Why, even the Bard himself is said to have–

“Your attention please! I wish to inform you that The Millstone is holding its first annual fiction contest. The winner will receive one hundred dollars and have his work showcased in the next issue of the magazine. I will personally judge the finalists. The deadline? October thirty-first. Season of the witch.”

No one has the nerve to laugh at this joke except, of course, the Minotaur who slaps Edmund hard on the back. “Holy shit, man,” he whispers. “I thought we were caught for sure. Turns out to be good news, huh? Here’s your big opportunity, your one shot at fame and fortune.”

But Edmund feels no sense of relief at all. In fact, he begins to tremble even more violently. His heart palpitates. Sweat trickles down his spine. Competition is something he abhors. There are too many cutthroats at this school, too many cheats, too many unscrupulous, blue-blooded boys willing to do just about anything to pad their resumes so they can get into the best universities. The contest won’t be fair, that’s a given, but at this stage in the game, he has no other options. He is a senior now, time is running out. Action must be taken. No sense dreaming about things. Sooner or later he must find out if he is to be one of the chosen, the anointed, or if he is to be dismissed, forgotten, tossed aside, just another anonymous loser destined to live out his best years in an office cubicle while editing copy for a small town newspaper.

If he wants to make a name for himself, he must learn the secrets of narrative, the techniques of plot and pacing, and somehow, someway he must get an acceptance letter from Batya Pinter before he graduates.

III

Traditionally the newspaper has always appealed to the less promising students, the ones of middling intellect who have yet to prove themselves worthy of ascending the treacherous steps of the extracurricular hierarchy. Serious writers, those whose philosophical meditations and deft, ironic tales of middle-class despair are featured in The Millstone, shun the paper for the derisive tone of its editorials, a critique not without justification. Since truly compelling stories are so scarce at a boy’s prep school, Edmund Campion and his colleagues resort to writing cruel reviews–of the annual musical, of the garish décor at the homecoming dance, and especially of the foppish and effete authors who contribute to the literary magazine, but if these budding reporters and columnists succumb to the temptation of leaden sarcasm, it’s only because sarcasm is cheap and easy, an indispensable tool for a writer with a limited palette of ideas and a strict deadline.

Each Friday afternoon, when school lets out for the day, the boys promptly gather for a weekly editorial meeting, but Edmund Campion, hard at work on his short story for the fiction contest, plods into the office nearly one hour late. His friends glower at him. By nature they are a peevish and inquisitive lot; they’re journalists after all, and Edmund must remember that no question they ask is ever an innocent one.

“We have to go over the layout tonight,” they say. “Did you forget?”

“No, I didn’t forget. I was…busy.”

“Sure you were. Pulling your pud.”

“I was writing a term paper. For you know who.”

Yes, they know, they are in on the secret, but Edmund hopes they don’t notice the way he shifts his eyes and fidgets with the pens in his shirt pocket. They are experts at detecting a lie and are ready to exploit it to their advantage. If they uncover the truth, they will mock him without mercy; they’ll call him a fool, a dreamer, a turncoat. Though most of them are only seventeen-years old, they already know something about professional jealousy and long to see him fail. When the results of the fiction contest are announced and his name is not among the list of honourees, they will be waiting for him, unforgiving tormentors eager to apply the screws to his inflated ego. They will publish the names of the finalists and make a special point of mentioning how Edmund Campion submitted a story but failed to garner any recognition. Never again will he be allowed to set foot in this office. He must watch his step. Without the newspaper, he would have no social life at all.

Grudgingly, they make room for Edmund at the table and tell him the Jesuits want another full-page feature about the Minotaur for the next issue.

“You must be joking,” he says in exasperation.

His friends laugh. “Yes, this will be the sixth story you’ve written about that animal. Oh, the cruel realties of crass commercialism!”

For the first time since taking the job as sports journalist, Edmund feels a real sense of helplessness and despair. It’s like the priests have condemned him to a semester-long detention and have cast him into a kind of intellectual purgatory. He has grown to hate the sewagey smell of the newspaper office located in the dank sub-basement of the main building, “The Bunker” as his fellow reporters fondly call it. Mayhem lurks at the fringes of this reinforced concrete vault. Duplicity and paranoia lurk in the eyes of its surly, sallow-faced inhabitants. A firestorm of death metal opera thunders from the portable stereo–Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung. The heavy crash of cymbals drowns out the constant whistle of the radiator and loosens the cracked paint from the ceiling and cinderblock walls.

At an oval table, under the glaring white light, the boys sit as if awaiting the Final Judgment and study a brigade of plastic infantrymen staged for a horrific siege. Dozens of small, green toy soldiers stand at the ready, bazookas on their shoulders, grenades in their hands. In a little game of war, the boys move the figurines around the perimeter of the table. Edmund Campion, never taking his eyes from the make-believe battlefield, slides away to observe the onslaught from a safe distance.

Is it bravery, he wonders, or insanity that inspires certain young men to join in the fray and face life’s brutalities and hardships? Whatever reasons they may give and whatever regrets they may have once the fighting begins, some of them learn the meaning of self-sacrifice, what the priests call agape, which is the highest form of love, and the lucky few who survive the terrible ordeal come away with compelling stories to tell.

Edmund is a coward, he’s willing to admit as much, and he’s beginning to worry that he may never have a story worth telling. As he gathers his equipment for the photo shoot, he remembers what the history books have taught him–that cowardice and the decadence of art will, sooner or later, lead a man to a grim and violent end.

IV

As football season gets underway, Minotaur Mania infects the entire city. Hundreds of avid fans line up outside the doors of the school to buy season tickets. The cafeteria staff names a series of gruesome dishes after the beloved quarterback–Minotaur Meatball Subs and Minotaur Meat Pies. Edmund, obligated to photograph these steaming piles of inedible mush, holds the plates aloft to better attract flies that dive like fighter pilots and bounce off the grease-splattered glass partitions of the buffet.

On Friday afternoon, before the team begins its scrimmage, Edmund snaps several photos of a bare-chested Minotaur running laps and doing calisthenics. In the golden sunshine, the Minotaur’s grotesquely defined pecs and abs glisten with sweat, the fibrous muscle tissue ripples like chain mail under his taught skin, and the great dome of his shaved head shines like a gazing ball. The pictures seem almost pornographic in nature, homoerotic even, and Edmund makes sure that the Minotaur poses in such a way that his fingers appear to be grasping the mighty shaft of the bell tower in the background.

“If things don’t work out with football,” says the Minotaur during the interview, “if the agents don’t come pounding on my door with endorsement deals, I’ll just become an English teacher. That way I can coach high school football. Big money these days in high school football. Look at Coach Kaliher. Guy’s gotta have, like, a hundred grand in the bank by now. Or I might study journalism, become a sports columnist. Like you, right? I can give readers an athlete’s perspective of the game. There’s money in that.”

Edmund smiles but doesn’t bother to explain that in the writing profession, if such a raffish activity can be considered a profession at all, money is nearly impossible to come by. Why should he explain any of this? What does the Minotaur know about the nuances of language? He has never read the great books, and while it is true that Edmund has never read most of them either, not from start to finish, he has made a concerted effort to try to read them, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, monumental works of the human imagination that demand a mediator stand between them and the common reader, a self-appointed priesthood charged with interpreting the avalanche of words that make as much sense as certain passages from the gospels, Gnostic or canonical.

The Jesuits do not consider reading an especially spiritual exercise. They are practical men who believe all intellectual endeavours should have practical applications. Only geniuses, schizophrenics, and schismatics experience the numinous and transcendent while reading books. Ah, but the thrill of witnessing physical punishment on the holy ground of a football field can send true believers into fits of ecstasy. For this reason, the principal frequently asks students to get down on their knees and pray on the Minotaur’s behalf.

Can the man be serious, Edmund wonders? Does he actually think the creator of the universe will answer such prayers? What the principal doesn’t seem to understand is that prayer, like reading and writing, is a solitary pursuit. In his feature column, Edmund includes a passage from scripture: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

His pen drips with special contempt for the Minotaur, who as the Jesuits continually like to point out, “is blessed with supernatural talent and ability.” But herein lies a conundrum that Edmund is quick to expose. “Is talent really a blessing,” he asks his readers, “a supernatural phenomenon bestowed upon the pious, the humble, the meek by a compassionate God? Or is it a purely natural phenomenon inherited from selfish, battle-hardened genes and exploited, often by the least worthy among us, to attain goals that are less than admirable? The Church seems to hold contradictory views on the subject.”

The Jesuits express their consternation with this pabulum, particularly the garrulous principal, who suggests that with a little more Christian servility Edmund might one day be blessed with a special gift of his own: “From piety comes wisdom and from wisdom comes greatness.”

Edmund bows his head and endures this tedious tongue-lashing, but he can detect a note of insincerity in the man’s voice. Though he never tires of saying that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, the principal clearly favours some boys over others. After all, the principal would never dream of interrupting class to ask his flock to hold an all-night vigil for an aspiring writer, especially one like Edmund Campion, a humble child of God quietly toiling away in the shadows, forging a dangerous work of art that will expose the hypocrisies of this school and its antiquated priesthood.

V

Like a monk charged with the illumination of a manuscript, Edmund spends many lonely afternoons sequestered in the library, but despite his hard work and dedication he makes very little progress on his short story for The Millstone’s fiction contest, and when the deadline finally arrives, he is left with a pile of hastily revised drafts, each one worse than the one before. In fact, he has revised “The Lady Who Loved Lightning” so many times, that it no longer makes much sense to him. Maybe like his vigorous jack-off sessions, it never made any sense to begin with, and yet a long time ago someone pondered the sad and ridiculous life of Onan and made even that a sin. Our most desperate attempts at distraction are said to be evil, and Edmund is surprised that the priests haven’t yet condemned creative writing as self-abuse, the spilling of intellectual seed, the murder of a million sacred ideas.

In frustration he signs the smudged and crinkled manuscripts with a series of preposterous non de plumes–Pink E. Vintage, Kit Van Peeking, Kate E. Kingpin–but he knows that a serious and discerning editor like Batya Pinter will see through the ruse and recognize his distinctive style.

Oppressive thoughts of failure begin to weigh heavily on him, but he persists with this hopeless enterprise until he has a neatly typed final draft free of spelling and grammatical errors. While the mechanics are flawless, the story itself is trash, there can be no denying this. The prose is mannered, the symbols obvious–white doves, red roses, gently ringing chimes. The plot concerns a seventeen-year old boy, who over the course of the semester becomes so infatuated with his teacher that he boldly makes a pass at her. She resists his advances, but the principal, who happens to be snooping outside the classroom, sees the clumsy kiss, misinterprets the situation, and has the woman sacked.

Edmund tries to conquer his self-doubt by imagining a luminary like Nabokov submitting one of his own stories to a silly contest. Had he been a young man today, Nabokov would probably need to enrol in a creative writing seminar, forced to listen to the inane comments of his fellow students, those sensitive and easily offended part-time scribblers who complain without end that they don’t feel the story, that it’s well written, yes, but that it’s still missing something, that it’s nasty, malicious, hurtful, all under the direction of an indifferent instructor who pinches her chin and silently ponders her own successes and failures.

He wonders why any reasonable human being would want to write for a living, why anyone would do something so egregiously masochistic. He comes to the conclusion that, at least for those with an artistic temperament, life needs to be unnecessarily difficult and unpleasant; artists yearn for anguish, and when misery cannot be found, they simply invent anguish for themselves. It keeps things interesting. And that’s a writer’s main obligation to the reader, isn’t it? To keep things interesting?

When the library closes at six o’clock, Edmund gathers up the pages and tries to prepare himself for his fate, but before he makes the arduous climb up the stairs to The Millstone’s office, he must first visit the Bunker to retrieve his camera, lenses, and several rolls of film. Tomorrow is the Holy War, the most important football game of the entire season, and he is responsible for chronicling the team’s inevitable victory, a contest that will guarantee the Minotaur’s status as a legendary sports figure.

When he descends into the subbasement, Edmond is relieved to discover that his friends have already cleared out for the night, presumably gone to their various parties. It’s Halloween, he almost forgot, a night of mist and clouds, a night of black and gritty winds, a night when mischievous boys are transformed by the ripe breath of autumn into dumb lumbering beasts, howling and leaping in anticipation of the moonrise. But Edmund, left alone in this dank dripping pit to ponder his inferiority as a writer, feels that he has become a ghost–invisible, insubstantial, utterly insignificant.

VI

The offices of The Millstone are a honeycomb of six interconnected rooms, each one guarded by a set of gargoyle bookends squatting on cluttered shelves, their unblinking eyes scanning the stairway for any unworthies who dare enter that sanctum sanctorum. They are the devourers of uninspired tales, shitting them out in hard little pellets on the windowsills and leaving them to freeze against the frosted panes of glass. Edmund imagines the gargoyles fluttering down from these shelves late at night, creeping through the crackling maple leaves to whisper their secrets in the ears of those who have the gift to decipher their cryptic tongue and to transcribe it for readers who will then tremble at the power of their singular vision.

Hoping to slip his manuscript under the door and hurry away, Edmund reaches the landing and is surprised to see the door wide open. The walls dance with dappled blue moonlight that seems to blur the edges of things. He pauses. Behind a massive oak desk cluttered with dog-eared manuscripts sits Batya Pinter, a dark presence extracted from a beautiful body. She drinks one cup of tea after another, shaking her head, snickering, scowling, murmuring unholy things under her breath. In her hand she holds a red pen the way a butcher holds a serrated knife before a steaming carcass on a slaughterhouse floor, and she uses it with skill and precision to slash sentences and to scribble hostile comments in the margins. She tears out entire pages and feeds them to a shredder, conveniently located next to her chair.

Edmund backs away from the office, cringing every time the floorboards creak and echo through the desolate archways. He decides to leave the building without submitting his story. He cannot face his teacher, cannot in good conscience show her this insular schoolboy melodrama he has written, but when he hears the word “plagiarism” he is forced to stop and listen closely to the sibilant whispers inside. Batya Pinter, he realizes, is not alone. Beautiful women rarely are.

“There’s no work on your part,” she assures a figure standing just outside Edmund’s line of vision. “None whatsoever. Just relax. Relax and enjoy.”

“What if someone catches us?”

“No one visits this office. Least of all the Jesuits. It’s six flights up.”

“I don’t know…”

“Trust me. Here, let me help you with that.”

“I’m not so sure about this.”

“You want to pass my class, don’t you?”

“I guess so.”

“Plagiarism is a serious offense, my boy, and you don’t really expect me to believe that you’ve written this essay all by yourself, do you?”

“Oh, hell.”

“Wait. Let me take it out. That’s no petseleh you have there, gunsel.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

“This won’t take long, will it?”

“That’s all up to you.”

Batya Pinter laughs at her own pun, but she is so mesmerized by the monstrous thing pulsing before her that the laughter dies deep in her throat. She wheels her chair forward, positions her head, opens her mouth. The Minotaur steps forward, stamps his feet, grinds his pelvis against her puckered lips. His eyes roll back until they are white. He runs his fingers through her shining hair.

Shaking with outrage, feeling betrayed in a million different ways, Edmund gasps and staggers against the wall. His fingertips go numb, and he almost drops the pages of his manuscript to the floor. He forces himself to count backwards from ten, takes a deep breath. He can easily imagine the awful things the Minotaur will do to him if he is caught. He turns to leave but then has a sudden flash of inspiration, an idea so vulgar, salacious, and unambiguously American that it cannot fail but change the course of his life. Suppressing his misery and heartache, Edmund opens the camera case, carefully loads the film, and attaches the telephoto lens.

The Minotaur gasps. “What the hell was that?”

But Batya Pinter can only gurgle, and choke, and try to reassure him with her bulging blue eyes. Her head never stops bobbing.

Edmund focuses the camera as best he can. It’s a lowlight situation, the pictures will be a little grainy, that’s to be expected, but he has an unwavering faith in his abilities as a photojournalist. He may not be a great writer of fiction, but he can take a damn good picture, and he has just stumbled upon the story of the year, or at least the story of the week (stories rarely last much longer than that these days), a scene of complete and total depravity. It will almost certainly lead to an arrest, criminal charges, a drawn out legal battle. The media jackals will salivate at this simple story of a scarlet woman who has robbed a vulnerable boy of his innocence and reduced a mighty empire to ashes.

Edmund smiles. Soon he will be the master, the person in total control of the situation, and it is he who will dictate the terms. The sensation of triumph is so alien to him that, for one terrible second, he feels nauseous, but he controls his stomach long enough to snap several pictures in quick succession, one after another until the inevitable, hideous finish.

VII

The Jesuits have their spies everywhere, this is something every student understands implicitly, and when Edmund races from the main building, he is hardly surprised to see a half dozen figures smoking cigarettes under a streetlamp like a cadre of secret police. In the dread silence they walk toward him, the entire staff of the school newspaper.

“Where have you been, Campion?” they ask.

“Up in Batya’s belfry?”

“Tell us, has the bitch gone batty yet?”

“Were you busy reciting from your masturbatory magnum opus?”

“Drowning her in the roiling river of your powerful prose?”

“Plundering the putrid pink petals of Pinter’s pussy?”

“Or is it purely platonic between you and the supreme priestess of poetry?”

As they unfurl their gaudy banners of alliteration, his friends snicker, but beneath the rush of words there is real venom.

“We’ve been observing you, Campion.”

“You can’t hide from us.”

“We’re the press, the paparazzi.”

“We know what you’ve been up to.”

“You lust for accolades and awards.”

“And the favours of the quintessential literary slut.”

Edmund turns away without answering them. He must escape this wicked labyrinth of hunger and ambition. As he passes the chapel he hears voices. The priests are holding their vigil for the football team. He wants to cast stones at the stained glass window of Jesus but dares him to do it with sweet mocking eyes. If it’s true that God punishes talented people for their hubris, what does he do to the mediocrities of the world when they behave in the same way, how does he rectify their arrogance? But Edmund knows the answer to this, has always known. He has the uncanny sensation that the whole universe is just a thin sheet of paper, a delicate piece of parchment, and that at any moment it can be ripped apart, and everything, every word, every letter, every trace of meaning, will slip from the page and tumble into the void. Things that now seem imperishable are no more real than some poorly told story composed in vanishing ink.

“Why do you look so pale!” his friends shout from a distance. “Guilt is written all over your face!”

Edmund opens the carrying case slung over his shoulder and examines the camera. Clutching his head, lurching along the slick cobblestones, he bemoans his nightmarish fate, that for the rest of his life his own unceasing stupidity will follow him around like a curse. He concedes defeat, and though his friends fail to understand the meaning of his words, he repeats them over and over again.

“The lens cap!” he cries. “The lens cap! It’s still on the camera!”

Kevin P. Keating currently teaches English at Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

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