[Estimated reading time: 6 minutes]

I read a story about this lady who had about a hundred or so cup-and-saucer pairs. Guess she was a collector or something, can’t recall. So she had this long narrow shelf that snaked around her kitchen, and every single inch of this shelf was covered in the cup-and-saucer pairs, each one a different color and character, different theme for each of them. A friend had asked her how she managed to keep her entire collection so spotless clean. The woman replied that she had a systematic approach to cleaning the cup-and-saucer sets, and that was to take one down every day and use it. She’d put on the kettle, pick a theme for the day, pull down that cup-and-saucer, wash them, and use them for tea. After she was done with the team, the dynamic duo would go back up that shelf. She had about three cups of tea throughout the day, which meant that she cleaned her entire collection about once a month.

I thought about that for a while. The woman in the story developed an approach to making sure that every single cup was used and washed. It’s not clear if she chose the cups in order - certainly the easier approach - or had a complex order where she used every third one and through careful calculation she knew that this would eventually hit on every cup-and-saucer.

This was a curious thing for me. And then Marc Healtie entered my world and I found someone who also thought about these concepts. He had a particular pattern that he would go through, just like the lady in the cup-and-saucer story. In Marc’s bathroom there were four candles, shotglasses with wax in them essentially, and each had a letter on its side, so that together the candles spelled out LOVE. He had these candles in his bathroom as long as I’ve known him, but he was also single the entire time, so I’m not sure who got these for him or when.

Marc started a strange tradition of swapping two of the candles, changing the overall word to LEVO or LVOE. He did this every time he went into the bathroom, and pretty quickly it became habit: walk in, swap two random candles around, piss, wash hands, leave. Very quickly, though, Marc became bored with always swapping the same letters around, so he came up with a system where he could swap two adjacent candles and eventually run through all the possible sequences. He actually numbered the different orientations, and it worked out that if today’s orientation was 4, tomorrow’s would be 5, then 6, and so on.

Here’s where I came in. I would mess with the poor bastard, changing the candles from a seven to a three or something like that. I figured Marc would catch on to this pretty quickly, so I knew my fun would be short-lived.

The first time I changed EVLO (7) to VOEL (4). Marc came back from work, went into the bathroom to take a piss, saw that the candles didn’t match his expectation, and promptly pissed himself as muscle memory kicked in. Whoops.

It was funny, so I waited just a week before a repeat performance. To really mess with the guy I repeated the same change, 7 to 4.

He didn’t piss himself that time. He put up a camera, right in the bathroom, to keep an eye on the candles. Who does that?!

Well, next time I swapped the candles around, obviously I needed a way to avoid the camera.

You ever wonder about wireless cameras? You know, the security cameras that you mount in some corner of the house and it connects to your wifi and suddenly you can keep an eyes on your fancy shit from the office. Did you know that it’s easy to hack those things? Be even remotely smart and spend an hour online, you can get stuff to break into anything, just like the FBI and the NSA do. I’ll never install a wireless anything at home, that should be enough of an anti-endorsement.

So I mess with the signal coming from the camera, pause it and play back an earlier “nothing to see in this empty room” scene, and change the candles again. The most difficult part of that was concealing the change from the camera. Like, it’s staring right at the candles, and at some point they go from EVLO to VOEL. I decided to make the cut when Marc comes home and switches on the lights in the bathroom. The camera isn’t expecting the sudden increase in brightness and for a second or so the scene is overexposed to the point that the candles are unreadable. I had plenty of footage with EVLO footage that ended in this overexposure, so this is what I spliced into Marc’s video stream. That was the worst part, having to do this on the fly, as Marc immediately ran to his home office and accessed the footage.

I did the same move again a week later. Finally Marc broke down and cried out in a weird mix of pain and exasperation, loud enough and apparently plenty of times to get the cops called in. He didn’t say anything to them. I let the poor guy rest a bit.

Marc installed two more cameras in his place, one obvious and another pretty well hidden, camouflaged in a book on a shelf that overlooked his living room. The cameras were once again wifi, though, so I was able to mess with the signals again and managed to splice out the footage of myself moving the candles and, in what I later decided was a stroke of genius, pulling a popular science book off a shelf and leaving it on the floor. Marc’s a bit of a clean freak so of course he noticed the book on parallel universes lying on the ground the same day that his candles had once again changed places.

That set off an avalanche inside Marc’s head and he practically overnight concocted this theory that there was a parallel-world Marc - Mark with a K, because apparently Marcs have a thing about the spelling of their name - who was moving his own candles in a different pattern, and somehow the candles were the link between the two parallel realities. Hey, it made sense to him and that’s all you can ask for, right? Poor bastard dug his own grave with that high-level sci-fi shit.

So now Marc thought that he could communicate with Mark, if only he knew how. He thought for a while about how that would work, and decided to come up with a communications system that would seem perfectly logical to himself. After all, that was the other party, himself.

He talked to himself a lot. He also talked to the cameras, as a video diary of sorts. I sometimes watched through his own cameras as Marc discussed the alphabet he was designing. He’d look into the camera and for a moment I felt like he was staring right at me, but of course he was talking to himself in the future.

Marc came up with a way to use the candles to say yes and no, then started plotting out the most-likely conversation that he’d have with Mark. He decided on a universal “everything is fucked” signal between Marc/Mark, which with their cleanliness obsession obviously meant that the candles needed to be upside down. It took four hours for Marc to talk himself into this conclusion, and he started over a few times. I called it quits at that point, no way in hell was I gonna hang around for this, this was a bit too far down the rabbit hole for me.

The next day that Marc went to work, I snuck in and flipped all the candles upside down, fixed the footage on all the cameras, and called in a SWAT team. They were outside of his place and at the ready immediately after Marc came back home and slammed shut the front door. The SWAT was playing this cool and they patiently waited for my signal. I watched Marc through his own cameras and my own signal was a look of recognition that crossed Marc’s face as he saw the upside-down candles in the bathroom. And right at this perfect moment the SWAT broke through his front door and made Marc’s obsession so very real.

We told the cops where to check and they pulled almost two hundred pounds of stolen plastic explosive out of the walls in Marc’s house, along with some black-market guns and esoteric extremist propaganda. The computers they sent over to us to tear apart, guess I’ll have to go through the home-security footage now. Don’t think I’ll find anything relevant.

Marc’s gonna spend his life behind bars, trying to talk to his parallel-world alter-ego.

Hope every home-grown terrorist asshole decides to threaten the surveillance state on fucking social media, we’ll take all the help we can get in this fight.

3 thoughts on “VOLE

  1. Hey, Pavel. I picked this story at random a few days ago and have been musing on it since. I really liked the idea of starting with the teacups and moving by way of the candles only to finally land in the whole crazy conspiracy theorist stuff. I saw a few minor glitches along the way in terms of grammar or usage, but I’m not sure if it would be more effective to stick with that literary tone more consistently or to just smooth those parts out a bit. As to twists of plot, calling in the SWAT team felt abrupt to me. At least for me, surprise endings work best when they come as a total surprise (like yours does), but then once I’ve considered the whole story for a moment I then recall a couple of subtle hints from earlier in the story that, had I been paying closer attention, I might’ve seen the surprise twist coming. That sort of thing is admittedly difficult to pull off well. I find that ending the story is always the hardest part.This one has some really good hooks.If you get back to it at some point I’ll be interested to see how it develops further.

  2. On rereading this after a few months I still didn’t catch whatever subtle hints might have been there that Marc was a terrorist. I wonder how it might lie if the writer himself were the psychopath and used the whole setup to land roommate after roommate in the psych ward? That might make for a fun TV series.

  3. > I still didn’t catch whatever subtle hints might have been there that Marc was a terrorist

    This was somewhat intentional. I wanted to give the impression that the narrator was perhaps a friend and a practical joker, that the narrator was just messing with Marc “for fun”, so to this extent I avoided dropping hints about Marc’s true nature.

    Ha, a TV series is definitely possible. Showtime’s “Dexter” clearly demonstrates that viewers wouldn’t mind a “hero” who dispatches “bad guys” using unconventional methods. Maybe this’ll be a show about a federal agent who gets a kick out of gas-lighting terrorists and other criminals.

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