The very last days before the release of the next wave of Blut Branson’s novel.

Several (hundred) people claiming to be Blut Branson’s assistants have been tweeting updates to the Mayor’s office daily for weeks. The next visit to our man alone in his island resort, which could mean anything, is imminent. They are coming for him by sea. Whether as friends or foes is anyone’s guess. And the guesses are many. They fly high and wide, to the far right and the far left, speculation far wilder than any routine alien sighting out in the crops.

We wait indoors, dressed in our finest. All delivery service has been suspended in these final stages, so we dig into our reserves of canned and dry goods, rationing or not depending on our particular orientation toward the imminent endgame.

Our main phone lines are off the hook. All houses in Dodge City come equipped with a second line exclusively for direct communication regarding the status of Blut Branson’s novel. Usually quiet, this we now monitor in the genuine sense of the word “religiously.” Rarely does it even ring before we answer, so attuned are we to its vibrations.

Updates come daily. Prepare yourselves, people.

On the night before the day of, Michael Shannon arrives in a midnight convoy.

At dawn, he is spotted in the costume and character of Curtis LaForche, his self in Take Shelter. We see him out our windows and on our television sets, tuned to round-the-clock Blut Branson news (all other channels are not only disabled but have ceased all programming).

LaForche makes a broadcast on the dedicated phone line, graciously accepting the invitation to be this year’s mediator of Blut Branson’s message. “I am only too glad,” he enthuses, “to allow my person to serve as the conduit through which this novel will reach us.” Of course new waves of the novel do not arrive yearly, but we understand what he means when he says “this year’s.”

We are only too glad too.

We continue to wait. I eat my last ice cream sandwich and, in a mild End Times gesture, toss the wrapper facedown on the rug and mash it in with my heel.

*****

IT DOESN’T COME.

Our phones remain silent long into the day. Some of us believe it has already happened, that this is it, here we are, so much for all that was.

I’m tempted to think this way too, but I can’t quite. Things seem too similar, sensations too familiar. I’ve never been in Dodge City when any part of Blut Branson’s novel has hit, so what do I know, but … I don’t think it could be just this.

It’s like one of those Polish villages in the 1600’s where some itinerant holy man comes from Istanbul or Thessaloniki proclaiming The End and everyone slaughters and eats all their livestock and gets a bunch of STD’s, and then it’s not The End and their village is kind of fucked, going forward, and that guy is long gone.

I don’t know. Finally, around noon, the phone rings. It’s Shannon / LaForche, reading what sounds like a message written for him by someone else:

Blut Branson’s people report an unforeseen and never-before-experienced hindrance regarding his third testicle, which has on every previous occasion been summoned to the fore in the final stages of completing any part of his novel, transforming him into the super-potent deity-figure capable of “conceiving and completing novel-length work” that we all know and revere him as.

He pauses, and makes a sound like he’s wiping a tear:

On this sad and troubling occasion, credible sources report, Blut Branson’s third testicle has retreated somewhere deep into his body, perhaps lodging inside another organ, and has made itself felt instead as a SEED OF DOUBT. Doubt regarding the efficacy of the novel as a 21st century art form, and of his own aptitude for this work, whether or not it continues to be relevant to the mindsphere we are all currently …

Static, then:

He offers you all, citizens of Dodge City, instead of the novel you’d all been waiting for, two brand new and formally innovative SHORT STORIES. There will be a reading tonight at the …

I hope never in my life to have a better occasion to use the word bedlam.

It is total unadulterated bedlam on the streets of Dodge City. “Two Short Stories!” is the savage cry issuing from all the houses as people stream forth.

There will be tear gas. There will be tramplings, cars on fire, fire hydrants gushing into smoke-blackening sky. Dogs swarm among the rioters as furious creatures surge out of manholes. Stores are looted, telephone poles are torn down. Somehow an entire city block is overturned.

*****

I lay low, keep my head down.

When they storm into my house, I run out the back door and into the woods.

I spend the afternoon wandering in a creek bed, wet in some areas and dry in others. I find a small cave and the remnants of a tree fort.

AROUND DUSK, more or less unintentionally, I find myself in the Superdrome by the highway where the short story reading is scheduled to occur.

I let myself in. All the lights are off and no one’s around. I smell meat though, and am intrigued.

Then Michael Shannon turns up. He’s ditched the Curtis LaForche getup and is just dressed as and playing himself now.

He checks me out, trying to determine whether I’m armed and irate.

When he determines that I’m not, he says, in a loud announcer’s voice, as if the place were full of thousands, “OKAY FOLKS! Let’s get started here.”

He launches right into Blut Branson’s two short stories, written despite or with the help of the seed of doubt.

The first is called “Equilibrium.” Branson, or Shannon, describes it as the more experimental, ephemeral, and unabashed of the two.

The second is called “Neighborhood.” Branson, or Shannon, describes it as the stricter, more fanatical of the two, the one less gently assembled, based more directly on what he calls “compulsive realtime.”

I stand at a fair distance from Shannon, who already looks lost in a trance. I can’t tell if he’s transmitting the stories verbatim, or describing them from memory.

I know enough to steer clear of him, though this is easier known than done since he starts weaving and even lunging erratically while the stories unfold. After a while, we sync into a workable rhythm.

The first story, “Equilibrium,” concerns two figures, both pretty androgynous. One stands in an opulent courtyard, the way you might imagine the King’s courtyard in Medieval Armenia, full of citrus trees, doves, and shooting stars.

The other is in a lower area, like a cistern or catacomb, a place with something hellish about it. The basic action is an exchange of air through a special jewel-encrusted glass breathing pipe. The one from the lower area comes up while the one in the courtyard holds his or her breath, nearly fainting / dying, until the lower one emerges and breathes some of that lower-air through the pipe into his or her desperately waiting mouth.

Then they switch. The one from above brings air to the one below, who holds his or her breath to receive it.

This action, which I suppose it how the Equilibrium is established, repeats an incredible number of times.

Then, long after I’d assumed he never would, Shannon segues into “Neighborhood.” This one, as promised, is more plot-based. It concerns a spate of deaths of elderly people. The initial claim or supposition is that they all die peacefully in their sleep, one after another in a short span of time. For reasons he can’t quite grasp, the protagonist, Ball, goes to all of their funerals. He doesn’t know these people very well — they were all just generic elderly hi-how-are-you? neighbors, but he goes to every single funeral, every day for a week.

After a couple of these, Ball starts to cull faint memories of dreams of sleepwalking, which develop into memories of dreams of having sleepwalked into the houses of these elderly folks and strangled them very gently in their beds. As the deaths mount, all still officially of natural causes, he starts to see other young men at the funerals. They seem familiar but he can’t quite place them. They all wear the same troubled expression, a dawning suspicion of themselves, and are all equally improbable as legitimate funeral guests.

It’s not long until Ball is convinced that he along with all these young men has truly sleepwalked into the homes of the elderly and truly strangled them in their sleep. He even starts to believe that some unseen Mabuse type is controlling the operation, deploying them all as assassins. It’s the only explanation, he believes, though, as the Preacher stresses each time, DEATH IS THE EXPLANATION.

I get the feeling that this story is going to loop on and on as well, with the body count mounting until it becomes a global epidemic.

I don’t find out, though, because of how much I’ve eaten. There was all this BBQ from a place in Kansas City laid out, and a cask of Boulevard beer, enough for all of Dodge City, and I realize that I’ve eaten and drunk almost all of it myself. There are bones and crushed cups all around me, and my fingers are painted with sauce, as is my shirt and the area of my pants near my pockets.

In reasonably short order, I collapse. Then it’s just Michael Shannon traipsing through the hall of these vastly unconsummated festivities, transmitting Blut Branson’s compressed vision of the mounting deaths of the elderly and the young men who will believe at any cost that they are to blame.

He never steps on me, though he most likely comes close.

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