From Beth Meacham, Senior Editor at Tor Books, on the acquisition of this short story:
Several days before Jay Lake’s death on June 1st, I was talking to Ken about his unfinished novel, science fiction, the universe and related subjects. He said he’d just run across the third of the stories about Jay that he’d written for Jay’s birthday parties. He wondered if I wanted to read it. I said “sure!” It was funny and loving and contained much of the essence of Jay.
And then three days later, Jay died, just five days before his 50th birthday. No party this year. I asked Ken what he thought about having Tor.com publish the birthday story, which has never before seen print. Somehow, it seems like a good idea. Jay would walk an extra ten miles uphill to get a good laugh, and there’s no reason not to honor that in his passing. Here’s Ken’s own description of how the story emerged into existence:
“I wrote ‘The Last Temple of the Monkey King’ for Jay’s birthday in 2007. I’d written two previous stories, ‘Jay Lake and the Inscrutable Alien Story Device’ and ‘Jay Lake and the Mole Men of Mars’ in the years prior. With this one, I did a Tuckerization contest for best title. I think Jay was the judge and I recall that Scott Roberts, one of my Writers of the Future cohorts, won and was written into the story as a hired assassin. I also wrote myself (Trailer Boy) and Frank Wu into the story with lots of inside jokes. Jay and I had met because of his review of my story “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk” and my orange bicycle story was one of his favorite bar con tales. This was in that last year before Jay’s cancer showed up and so many of my family members started dying in a mad rush. Lamentation was written and had just been submitted to Tor. It was a golden time in our friendship. And as I had in previous years, I delivered the story to Jay—and read it—at JayCon, where it was received with much laughter by a crowd of celebrants. Jay was larger than life and full of good humor in everything that he did. He lived honestly in madcap pursuit of what he loved with eye for adventure (or misadventure as the case may be) and helping others along. I think it’s fitting that this tale of derring-do—Jay Lake, action hero—be published on his birthday. I wrote it to make him laugh. Of course, I cry now when I read it. But I also smile because my friendship with Jay was really like no other. It had a sense of play to it that often reduced us to snorting and laughing—along with whoever happened to be around—or writing like fiends from the spark of our imaginations when they got into the same room. There will only ever be one Jay Lake. Happy Birthday, Pal.”
“Jay Lake and the Last Temple of the Monkey King”
The tin can vibrated against the brick basement wall and Jay Lake reached for his pruning shears by habit before stopping himself. He’d cut the string two hundred thirty seven times and he’d recycled two hundred thirty seven tin cans before he’d finally given up. The Administration could call. They could use their cowboy ninjas to install their shiny new cans in the dead of night.
“But I don’t have to answer,” he told the cat that slept on his keyboard.
The can vibrated again and Jay sighed before grabbing it and raising it to his ear.
The sound of heavy breathing far away, wrapped in tin.
“Mr. President,” he said in a careful, measured voice, “this is ridiculous.”
He heard stifled giggles behind a hand held over the can and then a voice. “I told you, Waylon. The kid picks up every time.” Then more heavy breathing.
Jay thought carefully about his words. “Mr. President, once more I feel the need to remind you that sexual harassment is — ”
A new voice filled the can. A soft voice full of menace. “Ah,” the new voice said, “the inestimable Mr. Lake.”
Jay blinked. “Mr. President?”
The voice chuckled. “I’m afraid the President of the United States has been . . . disconnected.”
Jay’s eyes narrowed. “And how exactly did you manage that?”
Again, the chuckle. “I am a man of many talents.” The chuckle became a giggle.
“Well,” Jay said, “thank you for your assistance in that matter.”
He let the tin can fall and opened his laptop. He did his writing on the Inscrutable Alien Story Device but, unfortunately, its gray-skinned owners had not bothered to build connectivity into it. Yawning, he opened his Instant Messenger.
The tin can vibrated again and he ignored it. It stopped. It started again. Jay stretched out his fingers, entirely unaware of the deeply buried Pavlovian Trigger that had been planted in him during his childhood in Africa. He wrestled his own will and forced his hand to the pruning shears.
A message from UrRchNemesys popped up. ANSWER THE CAN, MR. LAKE.
Jay’s fingers flew across the keys. WHOISTHIS?
The letters appeared slowly now. T-H-E-W-O-O-D-S-A-R-E-L-O-V-E-L-Y-D-A-R-K-A-N-D-D-E-E-P.
Jay’s will evaporated and, suddenly, answering the can was the most important thing he could ever do with his life. His hand flew up and grabbed the cold tin, his fingers moving faster than a fat boy at a rib buffet. When he spoke into the can, his voice sounded far away and tinny. “But I have promises to keep.”
The unmistakable giggle filled his head. “Yes, you do, Mr. Lake. Listen carefully.”
Jay leaned over the desk. “What do you want?”
“I want,” the voice said, “the Last Temple of the Monkey King. Tell me where it is.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you value the life of every last man, woman and child on this planet?”
Jay nodded. “I do.”
“Do you want them to have healthy self-esteem and a respect for the boundaries of others?”
Jay thought about this for a moment, then shrugged. “Certainly.”
“Then,” the voice said, “you’d better figure it out.”
It took seventeen hours, fifty three minutes and fourteen seconds to do the research. That meant twelve hundred and thirteen emails, eight hundred six LiveJournal posts, and six promised, last-minute short stories (three of which later made various and sundry award ballots in a classic homage to style under pressure).
In the end, the location of the Last Temple of the Monkey King cost Jay Lake a MoMo recipe he’d stolen from an Indonesian massage therapist and fourteen full color illustrations of a certain Disney character of Very Little Brain in compromising positions while frolicking with his friends in the forest.
Sighing, he packed his laptop, his Inscrutable Alien Story Device and two changes of underwear into his battered leather satchel.
Then, scooping up the keys to his GENREMOBILE, Jay Lake whistled his attack cats awake and walked into the waning day.
Fifteen minutes later, when he stopped to fill the tank of his covertible, Jay noticed the pale, thin man who pumped his gas. He was a writer. He noticed character. This one had no hair. From the top of his head to the backs of his hands, the gas attendant was fishbelly white and completely hairless, right down to the eyelashes and nostrils. Jay stuck up a conversation. “Do you like goats?”
The man said nothing and Jay continued his observation, noticing the slightest hesitation as he studied the gas nozzle before continuing. Then he noticed the way he stood with his legs just slightly too far apart. Small talk, he realized, was the secret to good character study. He smiled. “Ever been to the moon with a talking dog?”
Still silent, Jay continued noticing and kept right on noticing until he failed utterly to notice the tracking device the bald man placed just under the rear bumper while pretending to trip and stumble.
“Careful there,” Jay Lake said.
And he was back on the road again, pushing north for Mount Rainier and the Last Temple of the Monkey King.
The warm night wind tossed back Jay’s hair as he flew his little red sports car up I-5. The freeway, devoid of cars and lights during that long stretch between Vader and Centralia, stretched out gray and grim before him. The faintest buzzing tickled his ears and he swatted at it before realizing it came from somewhere above and behind him. He craned his neck and saw nothing, craned it again and saw—
Before he could react, the naked man landed on top of him, a sharpened spoon in his fist. “Taste the steel death of my kansai-bujido, Lion Lover,” the bald man said as his battery powered hanglider sailed on without him to crash into a highway overpass.
“I don’t think so,” Jay said, struggling to keep both the man’s spoon and his nudity at bay. He hit the brakes with both feet and threw the car into a skid that carried him to the shoulder of the road with one hand while slapping at the intruder with his other.
The man fell back over the seat and Jay drove an elbow into his side as he worked the buckle on his seat belt and spilled onto the ground. “What the hell is your problem?” he shouted.
The man laughed and leaped from the car to face him, waving his spoon. “Jay Lake must die,” he snarled.
Striking a Clown Fu pose he’d invented last year at Carlos and Juan’s Exquisite Science Fiction Con-o-Rama Resort and Nude Tunnel Tours during a drinking contest with David Levine and Hal Duncan, Jay touched the tip of his nose with his thumb. “Wagga wagga wagga,” he said, in his most menacing tone.
Then, taking advantage of a man who stood with his feet too far apart, he planted his shoe into the offered target, leaped back into his car and sped into the night.
A drunken clown with a chainsaw pointed Jay towards Mundy Loss road on the outskirts of Bradley, Washington. Twenty miles from the base of Mount Rainier, the town was alive with square-dancing, log-rolling and tree-topping at the annual Bradley Loggers Circus. The logging chicks with their heavy boots, full breasts and red suspenders caught his eye but when he saw the dwarves in their checkered shirts and straw hats, he floored it and headed out of town to find the road he’d missed. The sun rose behind him, pink and melodramatic.
He followed Mundy Loss past houses and into the deep forests of the Cascade foothills. When he saw the orange and black mailbox, he took a hard right onto a winding gravel road.
Finally, when the evergreens threatened to scratch the paint from his car, Jay stopped and turned off the engine. Not far ahead, a rooster crowed and he heard the twang of a banjo being tuned.
Grabbing up his satchel, he wrestled his way over the door of his car to land in a bed of ferns wedged between two pines. He extricated himself and found his way back to the road, sure-footed in the sandals and tie-dye socks the aliens had sent him for his last birthday. He moved in silence, breathing just the way the Yogi had taught him. “You must be the wind,” the ancient Yogi had told him. It was the last time Jay ever fell for the age-old pull my finger routine.
Still, now, those powers served him well as he crept up to the edge of a junk-littered clearing. In the early morning light, he saw a rusting double-wide in a sea of car parts, old refrigerators and stacked tires. Leaning against the trailer’s wooden skirting was an orange and black bicycle and sitting on one of four decks of varying construction was a giant of a man picking on a tiny banjo. The song struck Jay as familiar and he finally placed it—The Sound of Silence, only played faster, more upbeat, with a bluegrass twang to the notes. Jay watched from the shadow of the evergreens that ringed the yard and as the large man started singing, chickens and ducks toddled out into to peck for their breakfast.
Jay waited until the song was finished and walked into the clearing, willing nonchalance into his approach. “Hey there,” he called out.
The large man’s head came up. He smiled behind his tangled, red beard. “My oh my,” he said. “If’n it ain’t the Little Lord Jesus His Ownself come to make his visitation upon me on a Tuesday morning.” Before Jay could correct him, the man dropped his banjo and leaped from the deck, falling to his knees. “Lord,” he cried out, clutching at Jay’s ankles, “be merciful unto thy humble servant.”
“Uh,” Jay said, suddenly uncomfortable with the large hands near his feet.
But a sudden wind from the forest behind him interrupted the moment of spiritual adoration. “Jay Lake must die,” a shrill voice shrieked.
The silver spoon took Jay’s left sideburn as he dodged and dropped. The large kneeling man looked up, his face twisted into sudden rage. His voice boomed out as ducks and chickens scattered. “You leave my Little Lord Jesus alone.”
The naked man stopped in mid-thrust. “This isn’t Jesus,” he said. “This is the writer Jay Lake.”
Jay rolled into a crouch, his hands coming up in a Flying Clown Claw posture.
For a moment, no one moved or said anything. The big man glanced from Jay to his assailant, his face either red from anger or blushing from the sudden nudity that confronted him. “You’re not Jesus?”
“Uh,” Jay said again.
The hairless man shifted on his feet, eyes narrowing as he moved his spoon from hand to hand. He started circling Jay. Jay circled as well.
“You that writer fella what as promised me them pictures?”
Jay swallowed and nodded. “And the MoMo recipe.”
“And this naked man intends to do you harm with his little spoon?”
Jay nodded again.
The naked man nodded, too. “Jay Lake must die.”
The large man squinted. “Why is that?”
But before the spoon-wielding fiend could reply, the big redneck had scooped up a squawking chicken and hurled it with practiced precision. As the spoon fell to the ground, Jay launched himself, his hands flapping wildly. “Wagga wagga wagga,” he said.
In full Clown Fu form, Jay danced in, slapping, then danced out. He yanked off his sandal and flung it. The leather missile struck a knee with a satisfying thud. The hairless man went down and Jay dove on him, pinning him to the ground.
“You got any rope?” he asked over his shoulder.
The big man shook his head. “Nope.” Then he dug around in his bib overalls. “But I got me some of this.” He passed a warm, soft roll of duct tape over.
“You must be Trailer Boy,” Jay said, suddenly nervous about where the duct tape had been.
“Yes sir,” Trailer Boy said, returning Jay’s grin. “Yes sir, I am.”
They tied the would-be assassin to a rusted engine block and took their breakfast on an elaborate deck with metal siding, rusted portholes and a green striped awning. Wiping the cream of wheat from his goatee, Jay reached for his satchel. “What can you tell me about the location of the Last Temple of the Monkey King?”
Trailer Boy grinned. “You got my pictures?”
Jay nodded and dug out the sheaf of illustrations. He handed them over, then handed over the MoMo recipe.
Trailer Boy shuffled through the pictures, his face darkening with disappointment. He paused on the picture of the bear and the pig. “Them’s not right,” he said in a sad voice.
“Hell,” Jay said, “I could’ve told you that. But you said you wanted them.” He spooned more of the mush into his mouth and swallowed it.
“I wanted Classic. Not Disney.”
Jay blinked. “Classic?”
Trailer Boy nodded. “I’ll show you.” He dug around in his bib overalls again and pulled out a tattered, stained toy bear, extending it towards Jay.
Jay shook his head at the offering. “I think I’ll pass. Thanks, though.” Then he leaned forward. “Now,” he said, “you named your price and I met it. Tell me the location of the Last Temple of the Monkey King.”
Trailer Boy opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Why do you want to know?”
Jay cast about inside of himself for an answer. Finally, he fell back to the only one he knew. “Look here, do you value the life of every last man, woman and child on this planet?”
Trailer Boy nodded. “I reckon I do.”
“Do you want them to have healthy self-esteem and a respect for the boundaries of others.”
Trailer Boy nodded again, this time more vigorously. “I surely do.”
“Then,” another voice said, soft and sinister and hanging somewhere in the air above them, “tell us the location of the Temple.”
Jay looked up to see a massive, silent zeppelin that filled the sky above them. A knotted silk rope dangled from the zeppelin and a man descended, standing with one foot in the loop at the end of the rope. The man was slender as a willow and his long black hair floated ethereally on the morning wind. He was Asian and his long, wispy mustache and goatee flowed down like spilled ink. He stepped out of the loop to stand over the duct-taped man who stopped struggling as the newcomer smiled down on him.
“Hello, Scotty,” he said. “I am most pleased with your work.”
“I’ve failed, Master.”
The newcomer stroked his beard thoughtfully. “No,” he said, “you have succeeded most competently.”
Yes, Jay realized. It wasn’t the most clever bit of misdirection but it had sufficed.
Then the newcomer leaned closer to the duct-taped man and spoke in a still, small voice. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”
Scotty’s eyes went glassy and Jay felt his own doing the same as everything suddenly went out of focus. Both he and the naked man spoke at the same, their voices in perfect unison. “But I have promises to keep.”
“Go home and get some sleep,” the newcomer said, cutting the duct tape with a long curved knife. “You have served me well.”
Jay and the naked man both stood. All he could think about was his bed at home and his cats and the warm blanket that sang his name. He tried to will himself back to the table, tried to will himself to question and challenge, but found himself powerless, held hostage by Frost’s words. As he took the stairs two at a time the slender Asian placed a hand on his shoulder. “Not you, Mr. Lake. Your work is not yet done.” He waited until Scotty had fled the clearing and then snapped his fingers three times and blew a raspberry.
Jay’s focus snapped suddenly into place and his eyes narrowed. “Who are you? How do you have this power over me?”
“My name is Frank,” the man said. “But you can call me…Doctor Wu.” When he smiled this time, it was wide and genuine and warm. “And surely you understand the basic mechanism of post-hypnotic suggestion?”
Jay nodded, eyes still narrow. “But why?”
Wu’s eyes shone and he pointed up slowly. “They told me to.”
“The people in the zeppelin?” Jay asked.
“No. You know who.”
“The Lord God His Ownself?” Trailer Boy asked.
“Not His Ownself,” Wu replied. “But his gray-skinned servants from afar.” He gestured to the card table and the scattering of lawn chairs. “Let us sit together while I explain.”
As they sat, the Doctor leaned forward and cocked his head. “You remember what they told you when they gave you the Device?”
Jay nodded. It had been two years but he remembered it like it was yesterday. The helicopter ride north to the crashsite, the key-lime pies, the bizarre birthday party with the crash survivors and the strange Device they’d given him on which to write his stories and change the world by preparing it to join the ranks of the civilized galaxy out beyond their backwater little blue-green rock. “I remember,” Jay said.
“Thousands of years ago, the Monkey King, too, was chosen for this great work but xenophobia was hardwired into his biology,” the doctor said in a quiet, sing-song voice. “He hid the artifacts of power they provided humanity, refusing to use them, refusing to help usher in a new age of mutual respect and compassion and socialized medicine. He built elaborate temples in which to hide these tools of great purpose and set his guardians to prevent their use and prevent our species’ prophesized coming of age.”
“So let me get this straight,” Jay said, “you’re not really the antagonist in this story?”
Wu chuckled. “No. I am not.”
Jay glanced at Trailer Boy. “What about him?”
Wu shook his head. “No. He’s a mere simpleton with a strange predilection for cartoon pornography.”
Trailer Boy blushed and said nothing but his eyes darted down to the illustrations before him.
“What kind of story has no antagonist?” Jay asked, finding himself uncomfortable now with the lack of structure.
Doctor Wu stroked his beard thoughtfully again. “A literary story,” he finally said.
“I like stories,” Trailer Boy said. “I wrote one once.” He dug around in his bib overalls, didn’t find what he was looking for, and went back to his cream of wheat.
Doctor Wu glanced at the large redneck, then fixed his gaze on Jay. “I have given my life to the restoration of those tools of power. It is my calling. It is the will of the Lord Most High to bring humanity to our next place in the Darwinian process.”
“Healthy self-esteem and boundaries?” Jay asked.
“I want me some of that,” Trailer Boy said.
“And socialized medicine,” Doctor Wu said quietly. Then he turned to Trailer Boy. “So again, where is the Last Temple of the Monkey King.”
Trailer Boy grinned. “You’re sitting on it.”
Jay looked at the aluminum chair with its frayed nylon webbing and Trailer Boy laughed. “Come with me, fellas,” he said, standing up. “I will show you.”
They climbed down from the deck and followed their host as he went to a loose section of the paint-peeled wooden skirting. Pulling it back, he disappeared beneath the trailer. Jay and Frank stood outside, looking nervously at one another.
Trailer Boy’s head re-appeared. “Come on,” he said.
Jay nodded to the dark opening. “After you.”
The loose, cool earth beneath the trailer was scattered with empty Yoohoo bottles and candy wrappers. It smelled damp and Jay wrinkled his nose.
“I like it down here,” Trailer Boy said. “It’s my Most Special Place.”
Jay bit his tongue and said nothing.
They crawled to a wide piece of dirt-strewn plywood and Trailer Boy shoved it aside. Ancient stone steps disappeared into blackness. Jay found a pebble and tossed it in. It clattered away until sound faded.
This time, Frank smiled and gestured to the stairs. “After you,” he told Jay.
Shrugging Jay started down the stairs and Frank followed. They both paused when Trailer Boy did not join them.
“I don’t like monkeys,” he said. “They scare me something fierce.” He paused, then offered a smile. “But I’ll pray for you.” He dug a battered flashlight out of his overalls and handed it over.
“Thanks,” Jay said.
Then, clutching his satchel tightly to his side, he descended into earth.
They walked for hours that felt like days, down the stairs and into the deep tunnels, past underground rivers with white-eyed, pale fish and mushrooms that glowed faintly green as the flashlight swept over them. They walked until their feet hurt and the sweat rolled off them despite the cool air. They slipped past traps, ducking cob-web coated blades that fell and iron spikes that thrust upward from the ground and outward from the walls. They took turns dismantling them and complimented one another’s work.
“We work well together,” Jay observed.
“Yes,” Frank said, “but our best work is yet to come.”
Finally, as the light from the flashlight guttered and waned, they entered the throne room of the Last Temple of the Monkey King. It was a massive room divided by a broad chasm and at the edge of the chasm stood an equally massive throne and in the throne sat a massive iron monkey, its wings folded back. Jay played the beam of light over the iron monkey with its jeweled eyes and jagged teeth. Then, he shined the light out over the chasm. Something glistened and sparkled on the far side and he squinted at it.
“It is a chest,” Frank whispered. “And in it,” he said, his voice even lower now, “is the last tool of power.”
“You’ve never told me,” Jay said, “where the others have gone.”
“They’re safe,” Frank said.
Jay scratched his head. “How exactly do you propose we get to it?”
Frank walked the length of the chasm’s edge, measuring with his eyes. Finally, he went to the throne to study the monkey. “There is a crank here, between its wings.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Frank nodded, stroking his beard and mustache. “We wind it up. It asks us a riddle or two—”
Now Jay chimed in. “We defeat it easily with our combined intellect—”
Frank interrupted. “And we bid it fetch us the tool of power.”
They both nodded.
Jay paused. “So which of us is going to do it?”
“You must do it, Jay Lake. It is written.”
Jay frowned. “Written where?”
Frank waved his question away. “That is not important. What is important is that you must crank the monkey.”
Sighing, Jay climbed up into the lap of the iron monkey and reached around its neck to the iron handle set into its back. At first, the metal creaked and whined as he put his weight into turning it. Finally it gave and a deep groan emanated from deep inside the beast as gears ground to life and joints shuddered. A dull light grew behind the glassy, jeweled eyes and the wings trembled.
Jay cranked the monkey until he could crank it no more and then hopped down.
Frank drew himself up and spread out his arms cruciform. “O Great Monkey King,” he said, “ask us what riddles you will that we may answer them and receive the gift of thy favor.”
Laughter bellowed across the room as the iron monkey took flight. A gigantic hand lashed out, tossing Frank easily across the room. The tail whipped around, dropping Jay like a bag of mail and sending the flashlight and satchel spinning across the stone floor. Chortling and shrieking its metal rage, the Flying Iron Monkey soared high above them. Its green and sparking eyes danced in the darkness and behind them, a thick wooden door dropped into place.
Scrambling like over-caffeinated hamsters, Frank and Jay crawled beneath the throne as the monkey dived and struck at the cave floor with its feet.
“Perhaps,” Frank said, “we were wrong about the riddles.”
Jay rolled his eyes and glanced longingly at the leather satchel that lay out of reach, near the door that had sealed them in.
As the flashlight gave up the last of its battery, Jay Lake pined for clean undershorts and gave himself over to despair and poor personal hygiene.
They huddled beneath the massive throne for two days waiting for the Iron Monkey to wind down. It didn’t.
They lay in silence and darkness, hearing nothing but the ticking of gears and the clacking of steel wings that defied science and reason.
“If only,” Frank finally said, “we had one of the tools of power.”
Jay nodded to the satchel. “It’s right over there. Knock yourself out.”
Excitement filled Frank’s voice. “You brought it? You have the Inscrutable Alien Story Device? Why didn’t you say so?”
Jay shrugged. “I don’t feel like writing. It’s over there. Go get it if you want it.”
As if understanding them, the Iron Monkey dove and roared.
Now Frank’s words tumbled out, falling over one another in their rush to escape. “You don’t understand. I can’t use it. But you can, Jay Lake. You can write us a way out of here.”
“Think about it.”
Jay thought about it. “No,” he said. “Nothing.”
Frank sighed, exasperated. “The tools are subliminal messaging devices designed to prepare humanity—to compel humanity—to a place where it is ready to embrace the galactic community and lay aside its primate aggression scripting.”
Something sparked in Jay. “I can write things into reality?”
Frank nodded. “Yes. The Device draws raw creative material from the collective subconsciousness around us, re-aligns it around universal values and principles of Zen harmony and psycho-spiritual redemption—”
Jay interrupted as the spark guttered to life within him. “Then its blended back into story for re-insertion into the collective subconciousness to bring about societal change.”
“Yes,” Frank said, laughing. “Yes.”
“I could use the Device to craft a story that would bring us help.”
“Yes,” Frank said again.
“Only . . .” Jay let the words trail off. Then found them again. “Who would read the story?”
Frank pondered this. “They wouldn’t need to read it. Not if they were sensitive to the subtle machinations of the collective subconciousness and story. Not if they were nearby.” Frank paused. “Of course, we’re stranded in a cavern far beneath the surface of the earth, miles and miles from any sensitive soul.”
A sudden memory caused Jay to suck in his breath quickly. “I like stories,” Trailer Boy had told them. “I wrote one once.”
“It just might work,” Jay said.
Frank left cover first, singing at the top of his lungs and dancing like a madman and waving his hands in the air. As the monkey roared above them and dived at Frank, Jay scrambled out the other side and raced for the satchel.
Frank went down beneath the flailing tail and flapping wings but rolled away and sprung lightly to his feet. Panting, they clawed their way back beneath the throne. Jay opened the bag and drew out the Inscrutable Alien Story Device.
Fitting his hands into the grips, he pumped the machine and let his fingers fly across the keys. The Device hummed to life and started spitting paper.
“Is it working?” Frank asked.
But Jay said nothing. Instead, he bent his will into the soup of subconsciousness and aimed his words like sharp arrows into the soul of his species.
Frank gathered up pages. “It’s too dark to read,” he said.
“You don’t need to read it,” Jay said. “I just need to write it.”
He wrote for hours until his arms were sore and his fingers ached. He wrote until his brain felt soft and empty and the words failed him. Finally, he put the Device aside.
“There,” he finally said.
“Now what?” Frank asked.
“Now we wait,” Jay said, exhaustion riding hard behind his eyes.
At first, the noise was faint and far away. As it grew, Jay could not place it. A clicking sound accompanied by the noise wind makes in a tunnel. Beneath the door, faint light leaked into the room, becoming more intense as the noise drew closer. The Iron Monkey landed in front of the door and sniffed at it, its tail twitching.
Jay Lake smiled. “Now,” he said.
“Now?” Frank asked.
“Oh Lord Jesus help me,” a muffled voice shouted beyond the door, followed immediately by the sound of something heavy striking the solid wood. Too late, the Iron Monkey flapped its wings to raise itself to safety.
The door came down upon it and a spectacle unlike any Jay had ever seen flashed up and over in a streak of brilliantly illuminated orange and black. It was a large man on a bicycle. Strapped into the bike’s small basket was a car battery, a series of wires connecting it to a solitary Pinto headlight duct-taped to Trailer Boy’s Space Ranger helmet. Light from it glinted off the tin cod-piece taped to the crotch of his coveralls and he screamed high pitched and like a girl as he sailed out over the chasm still working the pedals and brakes of his bicycle.
He landed tangled up in aluminum and wire and groaned. Trailer Boy wrestled himself free and knocked on the cod-piece. “It worked,” he said but Jay was afraid to ask him what he meant.
Instead, Jay called out across the chasm. “Shine that light around.”
The beam of light sliced and bobbed until it found the lever Jay knew had to be there. When Trailer Boy pulled it, a bridge unfolded itself and rolled its way across the great divide.
Together, Frank and Jay crossed over to stand before the golden chest. Trailer Boy stood with them and, with trembling hands, Doctor Frank Wu reached out to lift the lid.
They gasped at the beauty of it as Frank lifted the last tool of power from its resting place.
“Behold,” he said in a quiet, reverent voice, “The Inscrutable Alien Watercolor Set.”
They drank Yoohoo in the shade of the double-wide and toasted the eventual maturity of humankind. Trailer Boy cooked MoMos while Jay supervised and Frank embraced his art, filling page upon page with watercolor doodles. Over lunch, they talked about the work ahead of them and Trailer Boy listened thoughtfully.
“With your stories,” Frank said.
“And your art,” Jay said.
“We could make a difference,” they both said in unison.
One book, Jay thought, birthed from two of the tools of power. One book to draw out the others, those who would take up the tools Frank had tucked away in the vaults of his Bay Area Headquarters and move a species into wholeness.
Trailer Boy chuckled. “I know what you could call it.”
“Call what?” Jay asked.
“The book,” he said, laughing again. “Howdy from Wu Lake. Like one of them new-fangled postcard thingies.”
“I like it,” Frank said.
“Might need tweaking,” Jay said.
Trailer Boy shrugged. Then his face lit up. “I found my story,” he said. He dug around in his coveralls again to pull out a sweaty wad of manuscript covered in crayon scribbles and faded New Courier Font. “Would you read it maybe sometime?”
Jay glanced down at it. The first line held no promise and caused him to wonder what the miracles of modern medicine might do for this strange, giant, backwoods bike-riding hermit and his bear fixation. He read it again. He was a bear and his name was Edward and he lay twitching in the corner of a room that smelled like death. “Uh,” he said, suddenly nervous, “I’ll give it look.”
Trailer Boy nodded with a smile and crushed him into a hug. “Thank you, Mr. Jay Lake. Thank you.”
Jay extricated himself. “No,” he said. “Thank you.”
He did the same to Frank and when he let him go, the doctor smiled and pushed a sheaf of papers into the large, clumsy hands. “I made these for you.”
Trailer Boy’s face lit up as he shuffled through the hastily crafted series of watercolor doodles. “Classic!”
Jay frowned. “Isn’t pornography problematic within your value system?”
Frank shrugged. “They’re just cartoons, Jay.”
Then the doctor slipped his foot into the knotted silk rope and tugged three times. Jay watched him ascend into the belly of the enormous zeppelin.
“Cool ride,” he said.
“I’ll bet,” Trailer Boy added, “it doesn’t have handbrakes.”
Laughing, Jay scooped up his leather satchel and walked to his waiting car. With any luck, the Bradley Loggers Circus was in full swing and there was room at the inn. Perhaps the logging dwarves would be busy topping their trees and the logging girls with their boots and suspenders would want to watch him brush his manly hair and maybe swing him around the dance floor in a do-si-do of rural splendor. A shower, some fresh undershorts, and women who weren’t afraid of a little sawdust. The perfect close to one more misadventure.
As he climbed into his red convertible and fired it up, sunset washed the sky purple and red.
As Jay Lake drove into it, he smiled and loved the fullness of his life.
Happy Birthday Once More With Feeling.