The Last Story

After almost three years, Arnold was still kept in the basement.  He slept on cold concrete, regardless of the season.  They gave him a bowl of water every morning, and scraps of food, sometimes vegetables, sometimes leftover meat, usually not much more than bread, some cereal, crackers.

There were no windows in the basement, no color, and only the slightest bit of light from a 25-watt bulb in a lamp beyond Arnold’s reach.  It’s often hours before anyone else realizes the bulb has gone out.

They took him out at night, when the guests in their Armani suits and Betsey Johnson dresses sipped champagne and nipped at fancy French pastries.  They led him to the main library, sit him behind the big wood desk and in front of a wall of books, and had him perform.

Otherwise, he sat in the basement, testing the limits of the iron chain, the neck cuff, the rivets that held the other end into the wall.  Arnold could hope for rust, but it would never happen; the basement was cold, not damp, well-sealed against the outside elements.

If he performed well, they rewarded him with scraps from their hors d’oeuvres, and sometimes one of the younger women would give him something bubbly to drink.  They liked when he tipped to one side or the other.  They liked when his stories went a little out of bounds.

The master of the house, a man who seemed only to be called Charlton, sometimes had Arnold give private performances.  It wasn’t always fancy dress parties.  Sometimes, it was potential business partners, or distant relatives, or a small gathering of academic intellectuals; about once a month, Charlton was the beginning and the end of Arnold’s audience.

He told stories, of course.  Every night, he recited something different, sometimes making things up, sometimes stealing from forgotten legends and former masters.  He told stories about sailors and their adventures at sea, versus pirates and leviathans and barracuda.  He spun tales concerning space walkers, space shuttles, space food, space cadets.  He told stories about bears, lions, eagles, griphons, dragons, and vampires.  Ghosts and lovers and fiends.

At night, Arnold dreamed of the mundane.  He longed for a day when he might put on a striped shirt, red tie, and a jacket, walk into the office, throw his boss woman a wink, and settle behind the computer to play with numbers.  His boss always wore a red dress in his dreams, red lipstick, red fingernails, even red hair.  Her only other color was in the eyes, which differed night to night, blue or green or gray or violet or brown.

One disturbing night, Arnold’s boss had no eyes at all, merely sockets where the eyes might have been; he used that image in his story that night, which caused one of the women to faint.  The butler gave him lashes that night, though it was hard to remember any particular strike of leather on flesh.

In a past life, Arnold believes he spreadsheeted for a living, filling in columns, totaling and averaging and leveraging, doing things the way things were done.  None of this story nonsense.  None of these tales.  It wasn’t normal, for a man to fall into such fancies.  Stories were the playthings of children, nothing more.

At least, that’s what most people believed.  As it turned out, the elite, the aristocracy, had a penchant for a good story.  They kept storytellers as pets.  Arnold hadn’t known.  But now, he heard the fancy people whispering, how they preferred Carlton’s tale spinner to the one Jacoby kept, how Mangrove’s mad poet had died a horrible, never-explained death, how Manson’s escaped storyteller might’ve been aided by a woman in love.

As if such a thing as love existed outside of fairy tales.

Two months shy of three years into this life, Arnold was brought from the basement to the library for another performance.  Always, he heard the comments as he was brought out.

“Watch this monkey sing for us.”

“Oh, look, how cute, Carlton dresses the poor little thing.”

“I want a storyteller of my own.”

Over time, Arnold came to recognize many of the patrons.  Though he sometimes knew their real names, he often labeled them in other ways.  This made it possible to incorporate them into his stories without direct offence.  Mr. Reynolds became Raymond and, in Arnold’s tales, acquired an accent.  The lady Worthington became a homeless, drug addicted whore.  The butler, Arnold’s keeper, had been devoured by tigresses, shot in the back, stabbed, burnt to death, mutilated by animated paper clips, and poisoned twice.

The party quieted.  One of the younger women, in a powerfully distracting red dress, stepped forward, toward Arnold in his chair, and turned to the others.  Her name was Denise.  She’d attended many of these soirees, and had actually exchanged words with Arnold as though he were really human, or something close.  She’d won, or bought, the honor of giving him his title for the evening.  Noticeably, she did not have a glass of champagne in her gloved hand.

“Ladies,” she said.  “Gentlemen.  And Mr. Carlton.”  She smiled, and was answered with proper giggles and a grin from the host.  “It gives me the greatest pleasure to give your boy his title for tonight.”  She turned then to Arnold, so no one could see her face but him, and winked.  “Poisoned Love.”

The title got a reaction, a combination of interest and disinterest, ahs and whys.  Arnold, who had been recently lashed, sat quite still in his chair and surveyed the room.  For a brief moment, he was their king, even their god.  They couldn’t make stories of their own.  Imagination was a rare commodity these days.  “Poisoned Love,” he said, meeting the eyes of his audience.  Under any other circumstance, and at any other time of day, he might be shot for such boldness.

“She speaks, of course, of our good friend Alan.”  He always used easy names.  They were easy to remember.  “And Kim.”  Once, he liked a girl named Kim, or knew a girl with that name, or at least had met one.  “Star-crossed lovers, if ever there were.”

He did not get the response he expected.  Even after almost three years, it astounded him that all these people had no other source of storytelling, plays, poetry, or fiction.  He easily forgot that all the books in this library were about numbers or medicine or history or philosophy.  No Poe.  No Homer.  No Bradbury.  No Hawthorne.  No Dumas.

“Kim and Alan,” he went on, “met as many a couple met in those days, at a coffeehouse, in the shadow of a war, in a neglected corner of the city of Berlin.”

“It’s always Berlin,” someone said to their neighbor; both laughed, but Arnold went on.

“There, they plotted a grand escape, by which he would take her across the border, through the badlands, over the mountains of madness, beyond the desert, and into a foreign land where they might elope, and then together build their fortune, and then have a dozen children and a hundred grandchildren.”

“Sounds like your sister.”  If they had any true appreciation, there would be no comments, and they would not bother with the diamond cufflinks and necklaces.  But the storyteller, as Arnold had recently surmised, was a trend, a fad that would eventually fade.  And Arnold would likely be left in the basement, forgotten, to starve.

“Only three things worked against them,” Arnold said.  Three was always a good number.  It reminded people of mystical things.  Magical things.  Things they had no business being reminded of, as they had never had any actual experience.

“Three things,” Arnold said.  His eyes, having swept through the audience once or twice, settled on Denise.  “His family.  Her family.  And the war.”

He was already tired.  And weak.  It didn’t help, starting out that way.  He was expected to go for an hour or two, the short breaks dictated by the needs and wants of the audience, not the storyteller.  He has less rights than the family cat.

“The war,” Arnold said again.  “The big war, the grand war, yet another final war, this was supposed to be it, the end either of war or the world, it was always difficult to know whilst in the midst of such things.  But over the mountains, across the deserts, in foreign lands, they would be beyond the reaches of war, beyond her family, beyond his.”

“Wait,” someone said, someone in the back whom Arnold did not recognize.  He’d put up a hand and put down his drink.  “I need a pause, but I absolutely must hear the rest of this.  I must know how it ends.”

Arnold nodded, as though he had any power here, and thought, I haven’t even yet told you how it begins.  But he said nothing.

Scattered conversations, little ones, broke out, and the party continued as though there’d never been a storyteller.  Except Denise went around the side of the desk, stood near to Arnold as she examined the titles on the shelves directly behind him, and whispered, “I’ve done it.  I’ve done it for you, you must know.”

Arnold didn’t move.  It took no effort to keep his voice low.  “The butler?” he asked.

“Taken care of.”

Someone collapsed.  You simply didn’t do such a thing at such highbrow affairs.  Women stepped away.  Only one man was brave enough to step forward.  He knelt beside her.  Without reason, he said, “Give her some air.”

From another room, a man screamed.

They started dropping quite quickly then, men and women both, slumping over each other in provocative ways, slipping, tumbling, faltering, sputtering.  Arnold watched it all.  Denise busied herself by reading the spines on the shelf behind him.

Carlton, the man in charge, the owner, who owned the great storyteller, clutched his throat but did not fall.  He rang a bell, the little one that would summon the butler.  If the butler had a name, Arnold had never heard it.

The butler was an old, solid man, a former wrestler perhaps, or secret agent, who looked damn intimidating in his tuxedo.  It was rare, indeed, that he would wait for the sound of his master’s bell.

The butler never came.

Foaming at the mouth, Carlton turned his wicked gaze on Arnold.  He had trouble speaking, but managed to say, “You.”

Arnold smiled.  “Us,” he said.

Carlton crashed to the floor, flailing and spinning, the last of them all to fall.  Denise finally turned away from the books.  She looked down at Arnold and said, quite simply, “Come.”

He did.

He followed her through the maze of rooms to the front hall, the foyer, then out onto the massive front porch.  Down the steps, her chauffer waited with an open door into the back of a traditional black limousine.  She slipped in like the femme fatale she was.  Arnold hesitated, but the chauffer said, “Sir,” and that was all he needed.  He slid in behind her.

The back of the limo felt as big as the library, though surely it wasn’t.  It was more free, perhaps, and that was all that mattered.

Denise kissed him.  She kissed him good and well and long and wet.  She handed him a bottle of sparkling water, and drank from her own.  She giggled.  She said, “I can’t believe it.  I stole a storyteller.”

“Freed,” Arnold said.

“Yes, of course,” Denise said.  “Freed.”  She giggled some more, like a schoolgirl reading her first naughty fiction.  “Will you tell me a story?”

“Should I continue?” Arnold asked.

Denise shook her head.  “I think we’ve just seen how the poison turns out.  Tell me about a girl and her storyteller.  Tell me a love story.  Tell me a story about the chains that bind man and beast to a woman.  Tell me a story about romance and passion and magic and mystery.  But mainly, my dear, dear storyteller, tell me how you think our story will end.”

Arnold smiled.  He was drunk on sparkling water and fresh air and the first kisses he’d tasted in almost three years.  This had been a long time in planning.  “It ends with death, I’m afraid,” he said.  “All of our stories end with death.”

“So morbid.”


“You’ll have to do better, when I entertain.  I expect you to perform.”

Arnold shook his head.  “I’ve told my last story.”

Denise put a hand on his knee and leaned close.  “That,” she said, “is not how our story ends.  You will perform for me, or you will be punished, and I don’t mean that in a good way.”

Too late, Arnold realized the bubbly water had, in fact, been spiked.  Briefly, he hoped it would be as strong as the concoctions inside Cartlon’s library, which had left two dozen dead and dying.

Instead, he woke in a basement.  She’d left him a pillow, a small luxury, and a plastic jug of water rather than a bowl.  The concrete was cold, and damp here.  At least he could hope that someday, in some far distant future, the chain around his neck might rust.

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