Thursday, June 28, 2012

Riley's Story All Together

Here is the complete version of Riley's story, the latest of the Collaboration Challenge pieces. Our writers were Leonard Suskin, Nicole Pyles and myself, each taking on two pieces of this piece. Read through, then let us know what you think at the end.


What is the price of answering Fate's call? What is the price if you don't?

Riley isn't quite sure why the Assistant to Fate job includes riding through people's lawns, leaving notes or delivering flowers. All that's certain is there's something more going on behind the scenes, particularly when Fate's daughter shows up to shadow one of those jobs and discover's Riley does more than just follow instructions.


Part One: Riley
Carrie K Sorensen

Caleb sat straight up, arms shooting into the air as he praised his favorite striker for making a goal. I grinned as he relaxed back into his seat, coaching the team now that they were tied. Soccer wasn't really my thing, but it was always entertaining to watch Caleb.

I rearranged myself on the opposite edge of the hand-me-down couch. I kept far away, knowing Caleb could explode again, whether it was in excitement or anger. I didn’t always understand what caused his reactions, but soccer wasn’t the reason I was here, anyway. I hadn’t spent much time with Caleb lately and it was cool to hang out like old times.

"So where did you go yesterday?" he asked me suddenly. I was surprised by the question, not expecting much conversation with the game on. "You got that phone call, then just dashed. The party wasn't that lame considering there was no beer on the premises."

"You always think there needs to be beer," I teased.

Caleb tensed, then hissed in relief at a failed attempt by the rival team.

"A beer would be good right now," he grumbled.

"So go steal one from your parents." Caleb snorted in answer, leaning toward the TV with traditional sports fan energy.

"Don't be stupid, Riley. You know they count them. It’s crap there isn’t a TV at your house. I bet your parents would run to the fridge every time we needed a refill."

He wasn’t far off. My parents believed in living by self-discovery just as strongly as they felt technology would lead to the world’s ultimate destruction. I could stay at Caleb’s house for weeks without worrying my parents, provided the school didn’t call to report any absences.

My phone vibrated, pulsing through the couch. Caleb's eyes left the game for the first time since it started. I was reminded of why I hadn’t hung out with him very much. He had noticed a while ago my cell phone ringing meant I wouldn’t be around for much longer.

"You going to bolt again? Who is it that calls you?"

"I have this weird job," I finally settled as I pulled the phone from my pocket. "It's this on-call thing."

"On call at sixteen? Your folks really are hippies if they’re good with that." Caleb turned his eyes back to the game. My phone buzzed again and my hand fisted around it. I waited for a long minute to see if Caleb would say anything more.

"See you later. Hope your team wins." Caleb nodded, his eyes tracking the players on the screen. I watched for a second more before leaving his basement rec room and heading out of the house at the demand of my cell.

Part Two: Fate Calls
Nicole Pyles @ World of My Imagination

I went to my bike parked behind the bushes in front of Caleb's house and nudged the kick stand. I balanced the bike with my thigh and checked the missed call. The number on the recent calls just said, "0." I didn't need to know the number, though, I knew where to go. I pushed my bike to the sidewalk and looked around the empty neighborhood. The late Thursday afternoon seemed uneventful for the most part. On the outside, it could have been a normal day. I squinted into the sky as the clouds took control of the weather and threatened rain. I knew I better hurry.

I climbed onto my bike and pushed the peddles as each surge forward sent me on towards my destiny. Destiny. It seemed like such a funny word now. The wind blew my hair back. I almost dared to shut my eyes. The houses flew past me as I maneuvered the streets and headed towards downtown. Only a few weeks ago when my class visited the local state college to consider applying there for our freshman year, I spied an obscure job posting on the bulletin board. 

"Assistant to Fate Sought," it read. "Apply within." It listed an address a few blocks from the school and instead of taking the cheap yellow bus back to school I went to apply to the job. My parents worked pretty late, so I know that they wouldn't catch wind of me not returning back to school.

The address led me to an office building that looked like a failing insurance company. I figured "Fate" meant someone's unique last name.

Turns out I was wrong.

When I first saw the building I thought there may have been a mistake of some kind. Most of the offices were empty, but the single story building and single hallway finally led to a office with the nameplate, "Fate" on the  door.

I pushed open the sticking door and found a rumpled looking man, who could have been 20, 30, or 40 (I was never good with ages), scribbling into a large notebook. No computers were in the office. Just stacks of notebooks.

"Are you here about the job?" He asked. He picked at his hair as he stood to greet me. He stuck out his hand and I shook it. I met his eye and the sparkle told me he was more than excited to see me.  I remember thinking I should have brought Caleb with me. He went back around to his desk and sat down.

"Yes, you are looking for an assistant?" I wanted to feel brave, but I wasn't. So, I stood by the door and didn't sit down when he motioned to the chair across his desk.

"Ah," he said at the time. He noticed my discomfort and stood again. "You see, I need an assistant. My name is Fate and I control the fate of everyone in this city."

I almost left and thought him to be a mad man. Before I could leave, as I turned to the door, he called out my name. "Riley. You are friends with Caleb. You wished he noticed you as more than just a friend, but he hasn't yet." He picked at his hair again, flakes of dandruff puffing out of his hair. He smiled. "He will. It's fate that you will end up together. Just not yet."

"How did you know my name? How did you know about Caleb?" I clutched my bag to my chest and wished I followed my class back to the high school.

"I'm Fate, remember? Please, sit." He motioned to the chair across from him. "I will explain everything.

And he did. As I maneuvered past the parked cars and speeding drivers to my next assignment, I remember he told me that my duties as his assistant would be to keep people on track for their fate. For their destiny. He told me the two words were interchangeable. He explained the position required I be on call and that he needed my help because too often people get off track. It could be overwhelming at times how many people do, so it was up to me to help get them back to where they were meant to go. So far, it's been an interesting job, to say the least.

At least the job was interesting in my mind. I'd once read a book about spycraft, and this felt exactly what like that. Not  the James Bond car chase and gunfight kind of spycraft. Not even the Jack Ryan NSA analyst genius behind the action kind of spycraft. No, this was the invisible kind. A puzzle made up of a million tiny random acts, painting some big picture seen only by Fate.

Like my first assignment on that very first day, when he'd spoken my name and that damn lie about Caleb. I was still leaning towards the door, wishing I'd left before he nailed me into the room like some kind of taxidermied butterfly with his cheap "I know your name" parlor trick. Was it a trick? Knowing our names was one thing, but that other stuff he said... well, I  just wasn't quite ready yet for some secrets to be out. So I stayed. Besides, it would be an adventure. He turned back to his notebook - one of those marble composition things they make you buy for first grade - and ripped out a page. The tearing paper sounded like thunder in the small office, and it felt shocking. If this was Fate's own notebook, should it be torn?

The paper was just ordinary, torn a bit unevenly with the corner missing. It was filled with numbers and letters written in a spidery, cramped hand,  what looked like astrological symbols and, in the middle, a few recognizable words,

"Bob Linton. 3PM, Hicksville Station, east end of platform. Brown sportcoat, black loafers. Say hello."

I looked from the paper to the strange man - I still wasn't ready to call him Fate - and back again, "Is this some kind of joke? Say "hello"? What kind of job is this?"

He turned back to his notebook, started scribbling something as he answered. It's the same way a teacher will kind of sort of answer your questions while starting to grade papers or something. The message was clear: he was done with me. "You're my assistant. Some people need a nudge. Just a tiny one. Maybe hearing his name when he isn't expecting it will change his mind about something he was going to do today." He looked up at me for just a moment. "It changed your mind, didn't it?" He broke eye contact, looked back down at his papers. I stared at the slightly uneven part in his sandy hair as he talked to the desk, not to me. "And Riley, this is the last time you get an explanation." he glanced up, his lips curled into the barest hint of a smile. "You'll have to put yourself in my hands."

The assignments were all like that, more or less. Packages delivered at odd hours or simply left on a bench in the park.  "Accidentally" bumping into someone on their way off of a bus and apologizing to them by name.  Knock over someone's trashcan. Ride my bike across their lawn, tearing up the grass a bit. Dropping off a letter or spilling water on one,  dissolving words of love or sorrow or anger into a blur of ink and pulp. Whenever I had a letter to destroy, I'd always hope it was words of anger. It must have been. How could it be Fate to erase words of true love?

The trip to Fate's office grew familiar, but each little job added to the mystery. How did he know where so many people would be, what they'd need to see? What, really, were these little nudges accomplishing? Even the pay was weird. He'd give me an envelope containing eighty-seven dollars and forty-one cents cash every other week; one twenty dollar bill, one ten, one five, a single, all the way down to one penny. There was even one of those dollar coins in there. I saved the fifties and spent the rest, except the dollar coins. Those seemed special enough that I tucked them into a drawer along with his notes. Yes, I kept every note. Eventually I'd be glad I did.

Fate never mentioned a deadline, or even a rush, but it just felt wrong to keep Fate waiting. So I'd push, standing on the pedals, sucking the kind of dry sharp air that cuts up the inside of your throat and makes you want to puke It was worth hurrying. This is, after all, Fate.  Finally, I'd lean my bike against the wall of the office complex, force myself to walk not run to his door, willing my heart to slow down just enough for him to not see me sweating. "It's just a job", I'd tell myself. "He's just your boss. Not even that cute."

It never worked.

Today's assignment started like any other. The paper this time was from a spiral notebook, cheap and wide-ruled. He didn't look up, didn't acknowledge that anything about this one was different. I read the note twice before folding it twice and slipping it into my pocket, not realizing how the arrangement - and my life - was about to change.

Part Four: Unexpected Fate
Carrie K Sorensen

The ride to the hospital wasn't a long one. The nice thing about having a bicycle was I could park it right next to the entrance. My first stop was the gift shop. I picked out a large crystal vase filled with red and pink roses. I told the cashier they were for room 320. She made a note in her computer, then waved me along.

I walked the hospital like I knew where I was going. I followed the signs to the elevators and went up to the third floor. The nurses on the floor directed me the rest of the way. I found the old lady's room where she was sleeping upright, head tilted slightly to the side. Her transparent skin looked bruised and thin over the IV in her arm. I moved quietly, setting the vase gently on her bedside table and turned to leave.

Stretched out in a leather chair was a man in a crumpled business suit. He was slouched to his shoulders in a padded chair, his phone still resting on his stomach, though his hand had fallen lower. I went directly to him, picked up the phone and manipulated it until there was a past reminder to buy flowers, the notification already setting his phone blinking.

Shrugging my shoulders, I left the room with the knowledge of a job complete.

"My dad will know you changed it."

"His phone?" I turned quickly to see a girl leaning against the pale green wall of the hallway. Her ankles and arms were crossed. Big sunglasses acted as a headband to her chocolate hair. I tried to judge the thoughts behind her honey eyes. Thankfully she seemed more amused than accusing.

"Nope. The job," she countered. "Have you changed all of them?"

A trickle of sweat tickled my spine. I started to walk away but the girl just followed.

"You know, he looks out for stuff like that."

"Then why hasn't he said anything?"

"He wants to see how far you'll take it."

Awesome. I was being tested and didn't even know it.

We made it to the elevator. I jabbed the button for the main level as she watched.

"Don't you want to know why? What for? Any of the usual questions?"

"Who are you?" I demanded. Her grin was too bright for the confining elevator car.

"I'm Kate, and don't you make a single joke about how that rhymes."

"Rhymes." I wasn't sure what this girl was talking about.

"You know. Kate. Fate. I've heard them all."

"Because you're Fate's daughter." I just wanted to hear her say it.

"Boy, you're slow," she glared as the elevator bell rung. Her bouncy stride led the way out. I followed with cautious steps.

"I'm actually one of three sisters," she informed me. "Patti is Keeper of the Weaving. That means she guards the happenings of the past. Right now she's off on some pilgrimage to try and discover her worth. Turns out humans are caring less and less about what happened before them," she ended in a conspiratorial whisper.

"Then there's Desta, the Spinner. She's currently teaching Yoga. Thinks she can tame humanity one chakra at a time, or something like that. She wants to have better thread for the future."

"Wait. Past and future? So you're present." There was that brilliant smile again.

"Yeah, the Weaver."

"As in the three blind sisters who share an eye."

"Ugh, don't remind me," she gagged. "Good thing we can remake ourselves as time goes by. New names and everything. Gotta fit in, you know."

"Uh-huh." I was ready to leave. When I looked up to orient myself, I realized we were at the cafeteria, not the entrances.

"Come on. You're hungry," she informed me.

"Look, I really gotta go."

"No you don't."

"Yeah, I do. This may be a weird job, but there's only so much I'll get involved in."

"You don't trust us."

"You seem surprised," I noted dryly.

"But we're the Fates."

"That doesn't mean you can't lie. I've done it for your dad. He's lied to me-" Kate's laugh stopped me.

"Dad doesn't lie. Why do you think he needs an assistant?"


"Look," she ordered. "Think about his words. Think about what they could mean, other than your first knee-jerk reaction to them."

I looked at Kate for a long minute, her eyes boldly meeting mine. No flinching. Not even a blink.

I'd had enough. I shoved my hands in my pockets and walked away from this last job, from Kate, back toward the outside world where I thought things made sense.

Saturday morning and I needed a break. From Fate and Kate and all this. It had started off as a lark, but what if it was real? Like I told Kate, I knew some of their stories. Not much of it, but enough to know one thing. You can't cheat fate. The storybooks - and maybe the history books - are littered with the broken fragments of people who thought they could. The problem is I didn't know what Fate wanted. Or what I wanted. For the fifteenth or twentieth or hundredth time I shuffled through the stack instructions torn off Fate's notebook. For the fifteenth or twentieth or hundredth time they made no damn sense to me. What does Fate even need an assistant for? I was jolted from my study by the sudden and unexpected ringing of the doorbell.

It was Caleb, and he  had that look. The one where the muscles on his face tighten up just a bit, like he's about to cry or hit someone. The first time I'd seen that look I'd asked what was wrong, got nothing but an angry glare and a defiantly muttered "nothing". So, I learned. The look means he doesn't want to talk. Not about anything real. Not that he ever does.

"Hey Riley. I was around. Thought I'd join you, maybe play X-box, maybe a beer?" The last hopefully, almost a question. 

I stepped back to let him in. "uh...sure. My folks're out and..." he brushed past me, up the stairs. 
It went the way I'd expect. Caleb sitting next to me at the edge of the bed, leaning toward the TV, the game controller tightly clenched between to fists, grimly slaughtering virtual legions of space marines, soldiers, aliens. He'd leave a half-finished beer sitting on the side-table half forgotten, then suddenly grab it and take a deep pull.

Something else was wrong. He smelled. Caleb's never been the most impeccably groomed kid, but this was something different than usual - a faint but definite body odor, as if he'd gone a day or more without showering. I glanced sidelong at him, saw the tightness in his jaw and neck, then turned back to the TV,  content with the companionable silence of gunfire and explosions for the time being. I was sure he'd open up eventually. It's fate, right?

The buzz of my phone jolted me out of the game-trance. Caleb flinched away from me as he felt the phone buzz, dropped his game controller to the floor. I didn't have to look. I knew who it was.

Caleb knew too. He dropped the controller to the floor, stood up with a quick, jerky movement. "That job again." He looked me in the eye for about a half second, then looked out the door. " I guess I'll go."

I got up, took the phone out of my pocket. The same no-number number as always. I took a deep breath, silenced the phone and tossed it back onto the bed. "No. I ... I deserve a day off." I grabbed his empty beer bottle. "Lemme get you a another."

Caleb nodded, sank back down to the bed. He muttered something under his breath that might have been "thanks". I trekked down to the kitchen, grabbed a couple of beers, carried them back slowly, willing the muscles in my gut to unclench. I'd just abandoned Fate, but if felt like the right thing to do. I hoped it wouldn't end badly.

Part Six: The Final Call
Nicole Pyles @ World of My Imagination

A couple of hours later, and two beers later, Caleb left my house. I looked at my cell phone, knowing some time soon that I would have to respond to Fate's call. I sat on my bed or a second, wondering what would happen if I never responded again. I reached for my phone and before I could do anything else, I heard a knock at the door. Thinking it was Caleb having forgotten something, I opened it up.

It was Kate. 

She stormed in and by the energy she emitted, I knew she was pissed. Just for missing one call, I can't understand why.

"You missed your call." Kate said, clearly out of breath. Before I closed the front door and looked outside. No car. No bike.

"You ran here?" I asked.

"Quit avoiding the subject. You missed your call. Do you know what you did?" Sweat poured from Kate's forehead. 

Confused, I shook my head. "No, wait. Why didn't he just do it himself?"

Floored, Kate threw her hands up in the air. In a foreign language I've never heard of before, it sounded like Kate swore. She continued pacing in my living. I know that soon my parent's would be home, and I didn't want to explain the strange girl in the middle of my living room. 

"Do it himself?" She yelled. She ran over to me and pushed me. I staggered a bit before righting myself. "Do you realize that at any given moment we have 20,000 hired assistants worldwide trying to keep everything right and everyone following Fate's design?" 

The number shocked me. "20,000? So why didn't you want to get one of them? And how come so many people know about Fate?"

Kate shook her head. "You are one of the only ones who really know what you're doing. The others don't. Some are just sent messages without any explanation and after the task is completed are given payment." She laughed, the bitterness filling her face. "You would be surprised what people are willing to do for money. They don't even care what it is we ask for them to do." 

Somehow I gathered that the last comment wasn't meant for me to understand or even hear. "So why me?"

Kate's shoulders fell. She hung her head. "You were meant to replace him. He wants to retire. You were meant to become Fate."

For a brief second I thought about asking where Fate would retire. The North Pole? Wait, that was Santa Claus. "So, what now?" I regretted missing the phone call. What had I done to my own life that one small misstep set me off track? "What happens to the others that miss their call?"

Kate's face contorted with rage. But as if something clicked, the rage disappeared and a grin burst on her face. "You'll have to find out for yourself.

And she left. 

The apartment felt chilly now that she was gone. I knew I had to leave. I couldn't stay. I left a note for my parents explaining I would be back in an hour, that I left something at Caleb's. I ran out of my house. I needed to hurry. The daylight was fading and something inside told me that this needed to be fixed before the sun went down. I barely felt the peddles under my feet as I biked downtown - back to the office where I first met Fate. Where everything began.


Twenty minutes later, I walked down the empty building. Everything seemed blurred as I walked towards his office and I burst through the door. Expecting to see the usual stacks of paper and notebooks, I was shocked at what I saw. It was empty. He was gone and instead of hundreds of norebooks, only one remained on the desk.

I walked over to it and my hands shook as I opened the cover of the spiral bound notebook. On the first page, there was a note. It was from Fate.

"Riley -

I knew one day you would take your fate in your own hands. Good job.

I've retired. And to answer your original question, there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

And of all the places I've been, I decided to retire in the Bahamas. Visit me there when you have the chance.

The choice is yours of course, but I offer you the job of Fate. 

Just so you know, you won't be working alone and some of the stories write themselves. 

That's all Fate is, Riley - a writer with just a mightier grasp on the pen.

Will you answer this one final call?



P.S. Let Kate know of your decision. She doesn't stay mad long. Don't worry.

And one more suggestion, Caleb would make a fantastic new assistant."

I looked up from the notebook, and Kate stood in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest. "It didn't occur to me until you asked what happened to the others." She shrugged as she stepped into the office. My new office. "That's all we really want, you know? People to take their fate into their own hands. It makes our jobs easier. Most don't though." She looked up at me and squinted. "But you did."

She swaggered over to the desk and leaned forward to read what her father wrote. She glanced up and cocked her head. "So, are you taking the job?'

It took me less than five seconds to decide my own fate.

And I couldn't wait to offer Caleb his first job as my assistant.


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