Around 8 years ago, on my old and defunct blog, I put myself through a daily writing exercise to learn some consistency and discipline.
The rules were simple:
It was a good exercise, and it definitely served its purpose. But it only ever produced a handful of things I liked. I found that old folder of stories again today, and I'm far less happy with most of them than I remember being at the time.
That said, there was one exception. The prompt was "Create a character that sees a phone number on a restroom wall. Describe what happens when he or she dials it."
Rereading the result, I was pleasantly surprised. It has heart, even if it is kind of melancholy. It almost f reminds me of Brian Niemeir's "A Gen Y Tale" (narrated here by David V. Sewart), touching on the same Generational feeling of being lost and unmoored in today's world. That said, it is a much angrier piece than Niemeir's.
In retrospect, I think I was grasping towards more heroic and inspiring subject matter, even if I didn't know quite how to do it yet. Maybe because I had some other influences going on at the time, like Robert E. Howard's Conan tales and Hawkwind's Chronicle of the Black Sword album. Sharp-eyed readers will even spot a line lifted directly from the latter.
Needless to say, it's not my best work. Especially now. But I'm still proud of it, warts and all. I might even try to revisit it someday, and write a better story using the same characters and set-up.
The piece never had a title at the time. It was just "Exercise no. 1" in my folder.
I almost called it "A Gen Y Isekai" for this post, partly as a nod to Niemeir's work. But I think "Wasteland Dreams" does the job better. Especially considering the discussions and commentary happening in my online circles today.
It's presented here the same way it was on my old blog: rough, frantically written, and and edited only once.
I hope you all enjoy it.
A Gen Y Isekai
There it was, buried beneath promises of blowjobs, handjobs, and at least one offer for a “titty twister.” Though it was probably in the wrong bathroom for that last one, Gary thought.
Near the bottom of the toilet stall, written in black sharpie, there was a simple two-line message. “Adventure and Glory!” it said. “Call today!” A toll-free phone number followed it.
It was weird. Maybe it was some kind of viral marketing thing? He fished his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture. Maybe he’d Google it later, when he got home.
He forgot about the number for weeks. He only came across it again when he was deleting pictures off of his phone. Pictures of Jess, the cheating bitch. How could she smile in so many of these?
Because she was fucking Brad behind your back, Gary. It’s easy to smile when you’re getting laid every afternoon on your lunch break.
He almost deleted it, too. But he scrolled over to the next one. It was Jess, eating an ice cream cone at the beach. The mental image was too much, and he threw the phone.
He was on his third straight day of playing video games in the dark. He hadn’t answered his phone in weeks. He’d only even left the apartment once, when Brad and Jessica came by to pick up her stuff.
The boss killed him again, blowing his space marine off the platform and into the black void. He gave up, more bored than frustrated. He turned the game off and started scrolling through Netflix. He was halfway through a list of “Thrilling Comedy Murder Mysteries” when he remembered the phone number.
He scrolled through the pictures on his phone until he found it. He ran a quick web search for the number. It was probably advertising for an upcoming game. Smaller studios couldn’t afford big ads. He knew they sometimes pulled stunts like this.
A web search turned up nothing. The number wasn’t registered to anybody.
Huh. How weird is that?
An hour later, with nothing better to do, he called it. It rang three times. The line picked up, and there was a brief delay followed by a very recognizable background hiss.
Recording. Then again, what did he expect?
There was a swell of trumpet music. A call to arms. Soon a small orchestra joined in. Strings, then percussion, followed by all the rest. And they began playing a half-assed rip-off of the theme from Conan the Destroyer.
“Are you a man of action? Do you long for the days of High Adventure? Press 1 for ‘yes.’ Press 2 for ‘no.’” The quality of the recording was poor. The voice sounded so far away. This had to be a shoestring budget thing.
Gary pressed 1. And he waited. And he waited.
“Are you a sorcerer? Are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
Maybe it was the Conan music. Gary pressed 2. He waited. The music abruptly stopped in mid movement. The recording immediately looped back to the beginning, to the swell of the trumpets.
Then there was a click and a dial tone. “Piece of shit,” Gary muttered. He went back to playing video games.
That night, Gary sailed the skies on a Drakken bird. His sword rested in a scabbard built into the saddle, a saddle hand-worked by his father. He felt the crisp, cool wind against his bare skin. In the distance, nestled between two of the Argan Mountains, was the Needle. It rose nearly as high as the peaks behind it. It was perfectly straight and impossibly thin.
No normal stone structure could stand like that. Any tower raised that high by mortal hands would crumble beneath its own weight, or be sheared in half with a gust of wind. But the Masters of the Needle were not mortal.
Gary could die there. He knew it. He felt it. But he knew there was no other place he’d rather be. He felt the exhilaration of the hunt. The anticipation of the battle. He was alive in these moments. Truly alive.
Gary inhaled deeply. The air was sweet. The wind was in his hair. He lightly kicked the flanks of the Drakken bird.
The Drakken bird cawed. And with a stroke of her wings, she accelerated.
Gary woke up covered in pizza crumbs. The TV was tuned to the cartoon channel. Even before he opened his eyes, the smell hit him. The air in his apartment felt so stale. So thick. How the hell did he never notice it before?
He stood up and stumbled to the window. He kicked oold Chinese food boxes out of the way. He opened the window, but the air outside wasn’t any better. All he could smell was exhaust and filth. The city stank. Christ, he could almost taste it. He went over to the sink for a glass of water. But as soon as he turned on the faucet he smelled the burning, chemical scent of chlorine.
There was no way he was drinking that. The only thing in his apartment that didn’t smell like chemicals was an old bottle of whiskey. He poured himself four fingers. As he swallowed, he wished he could just have a drink from the cold stream that ran behind his house. But...
But there was no stream behind your house. You grew up in Quincy. You lived three blocks from a T Station.
It was the dream. He’d never had one so real, so vivid before. It was like he was really there. The smells, the tastes. Hell, he even remembered the childhood of the guy he dreamt about.
He looked at the clock. It was seven AM. He’d have to go back to work today. He already burned through all his sick leave. One more call out and he’d be fired.
Then again, maybe that was a good thing. All this isolation was starting to affect his head.
He spent the whole day in sluggish funk. His clothes felt stiff and rough against his skin. He wished he could just rip them off. The air in the mall was even than the air in his house. Here he could smell the perfumes and the colognes. It was disgusting. It was so...
That was it. Everything around him felt so fake and thin. Yet in that wonderful dream, he’d been free. He’d been soaring above the clouds. He’d been alive. He folded another pair of pants and arranged them neatly on the display table, wishing he could go home and dream again.
That night, he dreamt his usual dreams. He dreamt of Jess. Only in his dream, she didn’t move out of the apartment. She moved Brad in. He dreamt of the three of them living together. Of Jess and Brad laughing and holding one another on the couch while the three of them watched TV.
He woke up with a panic attack.
The TV was on, playing the same show as in the dream. He threw an ashtray at the screen. He couldn’t get back to sleep after that. Hours later, he was still staring at the ceiling as the sun slowly crept through the blinds.
He decided to call that phone number again tonight, after work. It couldn’t hurt anything.
The line rang three times. The cheesy music started up again. Then he heard that crackling, far away voice.
“You are a man of action!” the recording told him. “You long for the days of High Adventure!”
Huh. The recording was slightly different this time.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you still a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 fro warrior.”
Well, what the hell? Gary pressed 1.
Again, the music cut off in mid-movement. And again, it looped back to the beginning. Then, just like before, the line went dead.
You’re being stupid, Gary. It was just a dream. That’s all. This isn’t going to help you sleep any better.
There were still some of Jess’ old Ambien tabs under the sink, from when she was going through that thing with her mother. Gary checked the date. They were two years old. They’d probably los some potency. Plus he outweighed Jess by about sixty pounds. He took the recommended dose, plus one extra tab. Then he went to bed.
Gary’s hands were bound in with rough, rawhide cords. The savages had him. All of his power, all of his studying, all of his training. And it wasn’t good enough. The savages still took him. And now he was going to die.
They threw him to the ground in front of the chief. Behind him, an enormous bonfire roared. Among the burning timbers, he could still make out the charred form of Tak. Poor, loyal Tak. Gary could hear the sizzling of the fat beneath his skin.
The chief glared at him from behind a horse-skull mask. “Tell us what your masters have done with my daughter, Conjure Man!”
Gary felt the heat of the flames against his skin. He sat up. He tried to say something, but his mouth was too dry. All that came out was a hoarse croak. He worked his tongue back and forth, to moisten his lips.
An instant later pain exploded against his head. He back fell to the ground. A warrior stood above him, holding a short, sharp stone pick. The tip was red and wet.
“No spells, sorcerer. Keep your spirits on your tongue. Or I will cut it out.”
Gary reached up and touched the fresh gash on his forehead. It was an old superstition among the savage tribes. They believed that Witch Men and sorcerers couldn’t use their powers if they suffered a wound to the Third Eye. And like many superstitions, this one was true.
Only the young imbicile had missed his mark by about an inch. Gary hid a smile. He could beat these fools yet. He just needed to buy time.
He began to tremble. He let out a long, low whine. “Please! Spare me, oh great Lord of the Wastes! I’ll tell you everything I know!”
The chief smiled, showing a row of rotten, blackened teeth beneath the horse’s mandible. He pointed at Gary, and he raised a fist in the air. The gathered tribe let out a cheer. Then the chief began to chant his own name.
“Savrik! Savrik! Savrik!” The tribe took up behind him.
That’s right. Eat it up, you horse-headed halfwit.
Gary continued to cry and beg at the chief’s feet. At the same time, he focused his Third Eye. The savages and their camp disappeared, giving way to a cloudy gray plain. In the murk, he could see dark shapes. They were indistinct, like shadows against shadows. They moved like insects, crawling and skittering. Some were no larger than his hand. Others were bigger than a Goliath Bear.
In his Astral Voice, he called to one of the big ones.
Around him, the chanting of the warriors died down. The chief was standing over him. “You cry like a woman, sorcerer. And I grow tired of hearing it. Now tell me! Where have your masters taken my daughter?”
“Why, back to the Needle, of course.”
Gary’s answer stopped the chief in his bluster. “What?”
“You heard me, Savrik. The Masters of the Needle have her. And if you and your people hadn’t been so stupid, I might have even helped you find her.” In the fire, the logs began to move.
“You’ll speak to me with respect, sorcerer. Or you’ll be joining your friend in the fire soon.”
Now Gary smiled openly. “No, I won’t. In fact, I believe he’ll be joining us.”
There was a loud crash, almost like a thunderclap. Flaming logs scattered across the camp. Warriors cried out in fear. The thing that stumbled out of the fire was wearing Tak’s body. But it was roaring for blood with an Astral Voice.
Gary woke up at noon. He sat up groggily. Again, artificial smells and stale, stagnant air assaulted his nose. He opened the window, and he poured himself another four fingers of whiskey.
His head hurt. He reached up, and he felt a tackiness there. And pain. He made his way to the bathroom mirror. There was a gash on his forehead. Just off center, to the left of where his Third Eye was.
In the dream, he corrected himself. Where the Third Eye was in the dream.
There were three messages on his phone. He already had a pretty good idea what they were going to be. The first two were from the floor supervisor, asking him where he was. The last one was from the daytime manager, informing him that he would be receiving a final paycheck in the mail.
“You took two weeks of sick time without a doctor’s note, Gary. You showed up smelling like alcohol yesterday. And now, you’re a no call, no show. You aren’t leaving me any choice. I’ve already talked to Human Resources. We’re going to have to replace you with someone more reliable.”
Well, at least that meant he didn’t have to go out today.
At about four o’clock, he got another message on his voicemail. This one was from Jess. She’d heard that he’d been acting funny lately. Missing work. Not talking to friends. She just wanted to know if he was all right.
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant it to be this way. Please, just call me back and tell me how you’re doing. Okay?”
By nightfall, she’d called two more times. He didn’t answer either one. He looked around the room. It was such a small place, his apartment. He felt so closed in. So trapped. But he knew that going outside wouldn’t be any better. He’d still have to deal with the dirty air, the artificial light, and the stink and the feel of people all around him. Their perfumes. Their soaps. And their endless chatter.
In the Wastelands, they wouldn’t last. Their noise and their smell would attract Goliath Bears. Or worse.
He thought of the dream again. The clean air. The smells. The life and the freedom. Even the last dream, with its sense of danger and terror, was so much more vivid and so much livelier than this dull, shitty life.
I don’t even work at a fucking department store anymore. I’ve got nothing. Nothing to look forward to, except those dreams.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He did have half a bottle of Ambien left. And he still had his cell phone.
He washed the pills down with the rest of the whiskey, and he dialed the number one last time. The line rang. The cheesy Conan-like music came on. And the distant, far off recording of the voice followed it.
“You are a man of action, Gary. You long for the days of High Adventure. Even if it means your life.”
Gary laughed. The recording knew his name. He could feel the pills working already. He felt drowsy.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
By the time the line went dead, Gary didn’t even remember what number he’d pressed.
*The book of prompts was The Writer's Block by Jason Rekulak, a gift my wife bought me to encourage my writing some years back. It's still available.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.