“So what’d you think, was Adapters Hollow the abomination you thought it would be? Or do we finally have a Caleb-worthy adaptation?” Jimmy emphasized the movie title and braced himself for Caleb’s relenting onslaught as their eyes adjusted to the room lights, still sunk in to the dark leather recliners after removing their full face vantahelmets.
After a long hesitation, Caleb sighed and answered, “You know, surprisingly, it was true to the book. They glossed over the Scavengers to get to the Builders, but that’s forgivable, there’s only so much you can cram in. A bit too much emphasis on the Blue Ada-Elk. But it was beautiful to dive in to. Bravo, whoever-the-hell-the-director-was.” A slight frown escaped his face and he shrunk just a bit, drifting off in thought.
Jimmy felt his shoulders release the subconscious tension built from expecting a diatribe on plot modifications, flat actors, and extracanonical furry animal friends. Caleb never liked anything. Nothing ever met his standards, at least when it came to sci-fi - and especially adaptations of his favorite childhood books. The industry had moved on from bastardizing contemporary fiction and turned its Eye of Sauron to the beloved sci-fi novels of a much anxious Caleb and the small cadre of other Calebs who knew the titles. Even fewer Calebs truly loved the books. This particular Caleb wrote treatises on them, to himself of course because, as the foreword stated in every paper he wrote on the subject, “the common person would only cheapen these diamonds in the rough with their fly-by-night attention spans and leave only the husk of a once great novel in their wake.” So why did it seem like he had just resigned himself to a regrettable death?
“Monica Neuhaus.” Jimmy said as he got up from his recliner.
Caleb’s connection severed. “What?”
“That’s the director’s name. Monica Neuhaus. Same one who directed Dark Matter.”
“Ah.” Caleb remembered, copying Jimmy on his exit from comfort and adding a lower back stretch as he stood, extenuating his newly minted mocha potbelly. “Cheap sequel to Light Matter. Now that was a carefully crafted sliver of a vast and complex world. The sequel? Stretched that sliver outward too far and the whole thing deflated like a popped balloon.”
Caleb’s whiskey glasses were already out on the homemade blue pine bar behind the recliners, empty and seeking libation. Jimmy turned, obliged both, then added a follow up bartender’s tithe in his own. He retorted, “It was shot well. Great use of Wide Environment Mapping and bright Non-Visitable Area backgrounds. All that light space made the characters pop. The score is still on rotation in my house. Besides, everything you dislike is because you dislike Dark Matter the book.”
“True, true…decent transition to the big screen considering the crap novel, I’spose.” Caleb bristled at the fact that Jimmy could still make him soften his hard line stances after all these years. Again, he copied Jimmy to the bar.
“Why do we keep calling it that - ‘big screen’? Those screens died, we need to move on. They were dying even before the 21st Man Ban.” Jimmy said, referring to the legislation restricting gatherings of 21 or more people - one of the earlier crackdowns in an effort to stop the swell of mass-psychosis induced violent events some attributed to an undetectable virus; others blamed a genetic expression anomaly likened to a neural network with human nodes; still others claimed a sociological slant shrugging that the tension had been percolating for decades. He took stock of his vantahelmet on the coffee table, “An immersive screen might be better…an ‘I.S.’ I always liked it when my little brother called it a Voxelar. ‘See the latest Voxelar?’ or ‘Rebecca diddles herself to Johnny Li porn when her husband thinks she’s watching the latest Voxelar with him.’” He laughed at his own joke. Although he was sure that happened somewhere, and he didn’t blame her.
“Whoa, too far there boy-o. That’s Rebecca’s business, whoever-the-hell-that-is. Calling it ‘a Voxelar’ just because Voxelar Entertainment makes most of the garbage out there is insulting.” Caleb said. He noticed cigars had emerged on the bar top in front of them, even while he felt like was staring at the spot. Jimmy’s sleight-of-hand was still impeccable; Caleb suppressed a pang of nostalgia.
“That’s true. Cool name, crap company. I revoke my stance. And sincerely apologize to Mrs. Rebecca-cum-whoever-the-hell.” Jimmy had no issue modifying his stance, a skill he was adept at doing abruptly in order to revel in Caleb’s silent squirming. Caleb hated change. Someone changing their mind was blasphemy and demanded a trial. He lived in a forest of static pillars atop which it was dangerous to upset the carefully balanced man. Changes make pillars domino into one another. In the twenty-five years they had been good friends, and the first fifteen where they had been the best of friends, Caleb cemented this persona even in the face of constant chaos.
Jimmy, on the other hand, refined himself in chaos. He bounced from job to job seeking relief from the attention his mind tried to attune to the subjects he fought to forget. He wanted more than anything to scrub his memories of the valleys and leave only the peaks.
“Alright, we got whiskey, we got cigars, just like the old days! Where’s that beautiful cigar circumciser?” Jimmy said, exaggerating his slight drawl, then reached over the bartop and started opening drawers behind the bar randomly, searching for the custom Damascus steel cigar cutter he gave Caleb for his birthday a decade ago, right when Jimmy moved for his new job. Caleb slammed each drawer behind Jimmy and managed to get out a “Stopstopstopstop” before he explained, “I don’t have it anymore.”
“Whaddya mean you don’t have it?”
“I sold it. I never used it. We stopped smoking cigars together ten years ago, it was nice and I hated it just sitting in a drawer.” Caleb stooped.
Jimmy’s pale skin turned red. “Well we need it now, don’t we asshole?” He slammed the remaining drawer closed. “ We can’t even buy cigarettes anymore so this is the last bit of tobacco left for us. That thing was fucking expensive, too.”
A warm shame pooled in the tips of Caleb’s ears as he slunk around Jimmy’s sphere of anger to the kitchen entryway, reached around the wall, and retrieved a chef’s knife off the magnetic bar. Jimmy’s anger slipped into puzzlement. “What’re you gonna do with that?”
Caleb seemed to stand just a bit taller. He had grabbed it by the handle like a cheap horror-movie villain intent on stabbing innocent camp-goers, such that the blade traversed his arm rather than extend it, tip poised for penetrating flesh and edge perfect for slicing on the way back up. The knife hung in mid-air between them, the tip an anode of potential threats. Caleb did not intend harm, but he thought it was nice to know that Jimmy skipped the obvious utility and relinquished some control over the exchange. “It’s for the cigars, dumbass.”
A self-deprecating chuckle escaped Jimmy, embarrassed he missed the obvious. Caleb lined the cigars up and sliced through the shoulder of the caps, leaving loose tobacco on the counter and a partially peeled wrapper. He handed one to Jimmy and took his own in one hand with his whiskey glass, freeing up the other to point outside. “Let’s hit the porch, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Stacks of cards in various heights were arranged three a side across the wood slat table on the porch outside. As Jimmy cocked his head to take in the unfamiliar intricate illustrations and gold filigree on the card faces, he noticed a box at the end of the table with the words Adapters Hollow in enough matching gold filigree as to partly obscure the words. Points off for bad art, Jimmy thought, although he was intrigued. Caleb introduced him to the novels many years ago as if revealing a state secret; and while Jimmy wasn’t on the fanatic level, he did like them enough to read them once through.
“It’s in the review sprint stage for testing. Not sure how but they found my reviews on A.H. and sent me one. Pretty cool huh?” Caleb said.
“Wow, that’s pretty slick, how do you play?” They took a seat across from each other, whiskey glasses poised, and lit their cigars. Smoke drifted in the still air up to the pergola above them.
Caleb drew five cards into his hand from the smaller stack. “The objective is to build out your base using these Building cards,” Caleb put down a card with a drawing of a small wooden shack, “and be the last player with one left. These Creature cards attack your base each round based on the accumulated risk score of the Buildings in your base.” He pointed to a number - RISK +1 - on the Building card and then pulled a card from the top of the larger stack. It looked like a mountain lion on steroids to Jimmy. “Ah that would have been bad luck, the King Ada-Lion’s Attack number is much higher than the Defense number of my Hunt Stand, so it gets destroyed,” he removed the card to the side.
He finished explaining the rules and strategy of the game to Jimmy. Five rounds in, Jimmy started to see where this was going - each round, the number of Creatures attacking continued to rise and they were soon likely to overwhelm the base. He wished he had pulled better Building cards into his hand, a Ship Hull Wall or even a Spiked Turret would do; his risk was increasing but the defense was not increasing fast enough.
Jimmy’s turn. He drew a Log Cabin card on which the illustration showed ice hanging from the roof and laughed. Turning it to Caleb, he said, “Oh man, whatever happened to Amanda?” Even in the dim lighting, Caleb’s dark face clearly drained at the sight of the glass-like crystals.
“I have no idea where that mental case is.” His awareness shifted to behind him, around him, checking his security.
“Oh come on man, yeah she was a little nuts, but she was hot as hell and a helluva lot of fun.”
Jesus Christ, thought Caleb, is that how he remembers her? “I wouldn’t call that stunt with the broken bottles in my room while I was asleep a ‘little nuts,’ nor was it fun having to figure out how to step, with bare feet, around all that glass on the floor to get out. Fuck that bitch!”
“You’ve gotta give her points for inventiveness and execution. She either broke all that glass knowing you two’d fight or she did it so quietly that you never woke up. Either way, she grabbed any pair of shoes or anything that could be used as shoes, spread the glass around on the floor, and,” Clap!, “she split!” Jimmy almost doubled over laughing and nudged the table, causing the neat stacks of cards to loosen their grips on the top cards.
Caleb felt a pit in his stomach. The “Remember when?”s are why he hated hanging out with Jimmy.
The feeling played out on Caleb’s face. “Hey man, you’ve been in a shitty mood all night, what’s up?” Jimmy asked, brushing off his own brief dalliance with anger.
More pit. This is not where Caleb wanted to go. “I’m fine,” he said, “let’s just finish the damn game.”
“No, this is our annual thing. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we will see each other more than that, it never materializes. So if there’s something up, I wanna hear it. Right now.”
Caleb executed an expert oil-soaked slide - “That fuckin’ movie. Or Voxelar, or whatever. It sucks that it will be so popular now. All I’ll hear for the next several months is how ‘better the books are,’” he mocked, “and ‘oh I just read his other trilogy - well it’s actually a tetralogy, snort, the first part was a short story.’ It’s bullshit.” He threw his cards in disgust, scattering the Creature stack.
“Hey man, you don’t own the story. Hell, the author barely owns the story, legally speaking sure, but it’s in the ether now.” Jimmy said.
Caleb slammed his hand down on the table, some cards edged close to the slat openings in the table. “Can’t I have just one thing of my own?”
“See, this is what I don’t get about you, man. You cling to these books like you’re sucking milk out of their tits. But anything or anyone else newer than them? Nada. A custom cigar cutter from your best friend? Trash. Times like with Amanda - when the danger is well past - you can’t appreciate it for what it is. You actually lived that! You didn’t live these books. Anyone could have stumbled into the clearance section in a bookstore and picked them up. It’s not unique to you. It’s not yours. You know what is yours? Those things you did - those things we did - those are the only things you own!”
The cigar smoke curled and stared at them, these curious creatures so concerned with time. The pale creature spoke first, “Look, man, I kn-” but the darker creature interrupted. “It was my mom, not a bookstore.” “What?” “It was my mom that gave me the books. Well, technically she read them to me when I was a kid and then I inherited them…when…”
Shit, thought Jimmy, I fucked up. His mom…those recurring dreams of her violent death and at only four years old…and then for it to actually happen…
“It is what it is,” Caleb said, he recognized that look on Jimmy’s face. Pity. The enemy of recovery. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t care much about what books she read to me. I mean, I was four, so I was far more concerned with making a pallet on the floor of her bedroom and getting to stay up late on a Friday night. Other planets and spaceships, weird blue elk aliens, politics, human nature - that was just noise. I would just stare at the wall, listening to her. She did the voices of the characters, even the Reverend. I still hear it when I read them. I think that’s why I didn’t completely tune those stories out.” He flicked a card on its corner and it spun around, coming to rest on the edge of a slat.
Another ten years passed.
Caleb put on his vantahelmet to join his inaugural book reading. This was a surreal experience beyond the explosive attendance numbers; he glanced at the count and saw yet again they updated upward past the believable. All I did was write a stupid book about my mom, he thought. He ran through a series of more probable scenarios: they were simply in the wrong spot; or the publishing house somehow resurrected the long-ousted army of fake vantahelmets or otherwise had created their own; or they were here to watch him stumble through it… The vantaroom was loud so he reached up to his ears with both hands, grabbed the knurled dials, and gave them a swift turn. The slight imbalance of the volume as he was making adjustments amplified the right side of the room over the left - and as his head made a slight tilt to the right, he recognized Jimmy amid the poor lost strangers. He must have wanted to be seen, Caleb thought, why else use a real face?
He flipped up his vantahelmet and took a drink of whiskey to calm his brutalized nerves as he sat in his dark leather recliner. He then turned to the side and stared out of the window at the patio table, the last place he had seen or talked to Jimmy. He sometimes sat out there and smoked a cigar, watching the smoke cloud watch him back.
He reached into his front pants pocket and found what was always there, fingers sliding over the gloss coating, thumb hunting rounded corners, and memorizing the worn edges over again. Caleb pulled it out, studied the thick black lines and the white and blue triangles of ice contrasting on brownish-red, then put the Log Cabin card in front of him at the coffee table, and flipped down his vantahelmet.