The Jesuits place a high value on the written word, so much so that they hire an outsider to run the literary magazine. Under the direction of Batya Pinter, The Millstone garners recognition as one of the finest publications produced by any high school, private or public, in the United States, its stories and poems one step removed from the divine Logos, its contributors destined to achieve great things, heirs to the throne of Carver and Cheever, tutelary gods that guide the pens of these fledgling scribes and lead them toward the sweet promises of alcoholism and sexual dysfunction.
With the release of each issue, agents and publishers scour the journal, hoping to discover and capitalize on the most original voice of a new generation, some enfant terrible who will gleefully stir up trouble on the literary scene, but The Millstone has, at least so far, produced only well-mannered boys who dwell on mainstream subjects that are almost hagiographic in their depictions of common people. According to these young writers, the world is populated not with cynics and miscreants but with unrecognized saints who quietly feed the poor and provide shelter for the homeless. These contributors, while a bit idealistic as teenage boys are apt to be, do occasionally recognize the sad fact that life is not without its tragedies and injustices, and from time to time they write about the unexpected loss of a loved one -- an ailing grandmother, parish priest, family dog. Sometimes they even write an unconventional love story, chronicling the secret liaisons of a couple whose forbidden relationship, depending upon the temperament of its author, comes to either a comedic or catastrophic end.
Despite the journal's repetitive themes, Eddie Campbell invariably picks up the latest edition. Copies are scattered around campus like stale breadcrumbs left for the screeching grackles that swoop from their roosts high on the gothic bell tower. Glancing left and right to make sure no one sees him, Eddie stashes the journal in his book bag and scampers to the library where he hides in an alcove among so many forgotten books. There, safe from the ridicule of his friends, he holds the magazine close to his nose, takes in the heady perfume of glue and ink, and strokes the glossy cover page. For an hour he immerses himself in the stories, his eyes growing misty at the splendor of the imagery and the slightly discombobulating effect of the parataxis style of the prose, the journal's trademark.
As he finishes the last story his admiration turns to envy. They make it seem so easy, these writers, so simple. Sometimes it's hard for him to believe that these are his fellow classmates. They seem wise beyond their years and possess an uncommon ability to translate their experiences into words that continue to mystify and evade him. How do they intimate suffering without sounding puerile and self-serving? How do they describe the mystical without sounding like lunatics and zealots?
Ever since his sophomore year when he discovered the dazzling wordplay of Vladmir Nabokov, Eddie has had ambitions to become a serious writer, a member of The Millstone's revered pantheon, but his fiction is consistently rejected, the manuscripts often returned without comment and accompanied by a terse form letter printed on thick gray paper. The words look like they've been etched with hammer and chisel into a heavy stone tablet. There is a kind of finality about them. To question the judgment of the editor would be more than merely impertinent, it would be a sacrilege, and Eddie knows better than to provoke the wrath of a redoubtable god like Batya Pinter.
He settles for working on the school newspaper and takes the first job available to him -- sports photojournalist. It's an unremarkable position that requires him to go on mindless assignments, interviewing and photographing the snarling, short-tempered football coach and the egomaniacal quarterback, but Eddie assures himself that he can rise above the mediocrity of reporting and compose something so subtle and profound, something that will so stir his readers that the editor of The Millstone will regret ever having declined his work.
Greatness is close at hand, he can sense it, but lately whenever he stares into the void of a blank piece of paper he finds himself recoiling in dread, reeling from a lack of inspiration, and though he is reluctant to admit this to anyone, even to himself, it has been months since he set pen to paper. No matter. The life of any aspiring writer, he believes, is essentially one of self-deception.
Even though he may be suffering from a temporary lack of inspiration, Eddie has no problem churning out term papers for his English class with Batya Pinter, miniature masterpieces on Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye, insightful little gems that he hopes will impress his teacher, but when he tries to speak to her about these books before class begins, when he tries to explain his passion for literature, he ends up rambling, drifting from one subject to the next. As his lips spew nonsense he forgets to pause for breath, his face turns red, his knees begin to quake. He's making a fool of himself, he's aware of this, but he can't help it. He's terrified of Batya Pinter's long silences, her pregnant pauses. There is something about her that disturbs him. Her eyelids flutter with boredom and contempt, and she doesn't even attempt to disguise her lack of interest, doesn't lift her hand to cover her mouth as she yawns. Like the other instructors at this prep school, she has mastered the indispensable arts of insouciance and Schadenfreude and can wield them about with great cunning.
She asks him to please take his seat. Eddie slinks off to his desk near the back of the classroom. The Minotaur, who sits next to him, shakes his head and laughs.
"Shit, man, you actually get a hard-on for that crusty, old cougar?"
Eddie is genuinely puzzled by this remark. "Old?"
It's difficult to guess her age -- thirty-five? forty? forty-five? She looks youthful, put together, polished, and it's obvious that she spends as much time working on her appearance as she does editing the award-winning journal. Her dark hair and blue eyes have a supernatural power that trumps that of the conjuring priests with their tiresome trick of transubstantiation. She wears tight skirts that accentuate her muscular thighs and button down blouses that reveal her cleavage. She has unmistakable sex appeal, but she also has an aura of inquisitorial wrath about her, a demeanor so serious that it borders on severe.
She begins her lecture promptly when the bell rings. With her hands clasped behind her back she paces up and down the narrow rows in her shiny black boots and demands that her students "sit up straight!" and take detailed notes. Hypnotized by the rhythm of her sashaying hips, Eddie squirms in his seat and crosses his legs to hide the embarrassing bulge in his pants.
Only the Minotaur dares to ignore her. He falls asleep at his desk, his textbook propped open by one shaggy elbow, drool trickling from the corner of his mouth and forming deep pools around his great chiseled jaw. He farts and belches and picks his nose. Eddie turns to watch him like a primatologist studying the behavior of a baboon in the wild, observing it scratch in the dirt with a pointed stick to capture termites. To his amazement Batya Pinter doesn't reprimand the Minotaur for this crude and disruptive behavior. In fact, she treats him like an adorable circus bear, gently taps his head, yearns to smooch his enormous muzzle, drops pencils in next to his desk and with an incredible flourish bends over to retrieve them.
Though initially it seems incomprehensible, Eddie becomes more and more convinced that Batya Pinter is smitten with the Minotaur. But if she has feelings for that dolt it isn't because of his imposing physique or his devastating good looks, no, it's because she is impressed by his mind, his intellect, his ability to write exceptional essays. Little does she know that Eddie has composed all of the Minotaur's term papers. True, it's a morally dubious enterprise, but it's one he is able to justify since he uses the money to buy paperback editions of the classics he admires, Pnin, Pale Fire, Transparent Things. His dimwitted client pays well, but then the work isn't exactly easy.
The Minotaur can write simple declarative sentences but only under great duress, and his feeble attempts at revision are a total waste of time. Rather than correct any errors, the Minotaur inserts more of them. Luckily, Eddie is a magician with words and is able to transform this incoherent trash into something not only passable but actually rather remarkable. It almost seems a pity that the Minotaur gets to take credit for them, and Eddie has to constantly resist the temptation to confess his crimes. The consequences would be dire. Not only would this result in automatic failure and possible expulsion for them both, it would probably lead to Eddie being blacklisted from The Millstone. Never again would he be allowed to submit a story. Still, he must let her know the truth, it's killing him, and he drops subtle hints and clues in these spurious papers, makes all kinds of references to Lolita and Sebastian Knight.
Eddie prides himself on his cleverness until class ends and the bell rings.
"Remain seated!" a suddenly cantankerous Batya Pinter shouts.
She marches to the front of the classroom and demands total silence from her students. Eddie turns pale with fear, feels his heart race. Even the Minotaur seems nervous and slouches a little lower in his seat. They exchange worried glances.
"Gentlemen, I have an important announcement to make." Her mouth tightens into a smile that is thin, humorless, reproachful. "Today I wish to inform you that The Millstone is holding its first annual fiction contest. The winner will receive one hundred dollars and have his work showcased in the next issue of the magazine. I will personally judge the finalists and decide on a winner. The deadline? October 31st. Season of the witch."
No one dares laugh at this little joke except, of course, the Minotaur who lets out a heavy sigh of relief and slaps Eddie hard on the back. "Holy shit, man. I thought we were caught for sure. Well, this is good news, huh? Here's your big opportunity, your one shot at fame and fortune."
But Eddie feels no sense of relief at all. In fact, he begins to tremble more violently. Sweat trickles down his spine. Competition is something he abhors. There are too many cutthroats at this school, too many cheats, too many unscrupulous bastards willing to do just about anything to pad their resumes so they can get into the best colleges. The contest won't be fair, that's a given. But at this stage in the game he has no other options. He's a senior now, time is running out. Action must be taken. No sense dreaming about things. Sooner or later he must find out if he is to be one of the chosen, the anointed, or if he is to be dismissed, forgotten, tossed aside, just another anonymous loser destined to live out his best years in an office cubicle, editing copy for a small town newspaper.
If he ever wants to make a name for himself he must learn the secrets of narrative, the techniques of plot and pacing, and somehow, someway he must get an acceptance letter from Batya Pinter before he graduates.
Many years ago a student went to the top of the gothic tower and jumped. The priests, strolling along the quad, chanced to see him sitting on the ledge with his arm slung around the neck of one of the great stone gargoyles and demanded that he come down immediately. A few years later a chemistry teacher tried to light his cigarette with a Bunsen burner and accidentally set fire to his lab coat. The poor fellow lingered for several days in the intensive care unit before eventually succumbing to his horrific injuries. Out of compassion, the Jesuits dedicated the new smoking section behind the gym to him.
These tragedies have become the stuff of legend, the priests still refer to the stories in their Sunday sermons, use them as parables about the moral failings of their pupils and instructors, but since then very little of note has taken place, no suicides, accidents, scandals, and because truly compelling stories are scarce at a boy's prep school, Eddie Campbell and his colleagues on the newspaper resort to writing cruel reviews -- of the annual musical, of the band concert, of the garish décor at the homecoming dance, and especially of the foppish and effete authors who contribute to the literary magazine. If the boys succumb to the temptation of sarcasm it's because sarcasm is cheap and easy, an indispensable tool for a critic with a limited palette of ideas and a deadline to meet. It's also a shameful reminder of their own lack of creativity, their lack of ambition.
Traditionally, the newspaper has appealed to the less promising students, the ones of middling intellect who have yet to prove themselves worthy of ascending the treacherous steps of the extracurricular hierarchy. Serious writers, those whose philosophical meditations and deft, ironic tales of middle class despair are featured in The Millstone, shun the paper for the derisive tone of its editorial columns, a critique that is not without justification.
To Eddie Campbell, writing for the paper sometimes feels like a prison sentence. He's grown to hate the smell of the small windowless office located in the dank sub-basement of the main building, "The Bunker" as his fellow reporters fondly call it. They gather there on Monday afternoon for the weekly editorial meeting. Mayhem lurks at the fringes of this reinforced concrete vault. There is much suspicion here, duplicity, paranoia. A firestorm of death metal opera thunders from the portable stereo -- Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung. The heavy crash of cymbals drowns out the constant whistle of the radiator and loosens the cracked paint from the ceiling and cement walls. Its dozen or so inhabitants sit at a rectangular table under a glaring white bulb as if awaiting the Final Judgment and study a brigade of plastic infantrymen staged for a horrific siege, dozens of small green soldiers with bazookas on their shoulders and grenades in their hands.
The boys move the plastic figurines around the table in a little game of war and, never taking their eyes from this make-believe battlefield, address Eddie Campbell as he creeps into the office.
"Why are you late? The deadline is tomorrow. Did you forget?"
His friends are inquisitive by nature, Eddie must always keep this in mind, and no question they ask is ever an innocent one.
"No, I didn't forget. I was busy."
"Sure you were. Pulling your pud."
"I was writing a term paper. For you know who."
Yes, they know who, they are in on the secret, but Eddie hopes they don't notice the way he shifts his eyes and fidgets with the pens in his shirt pocket. They're experts at detecting a lie and are always ready to exploit it to their advantage. If they ever uncover his real secret -- that he has been working tirelessly (and rather desperately) on a short story for the contest -- they will torment him without mercy. Worse still, they'll call him a traitor and ostracize him. Never again will he be allowed to set foot in the Bunker. He must watch his step. Without the newspaper he would have no social life at all.
As the meeting gets underway, Eddie is told that the Jesuits want a full-page feature about the Minotaur for the next issue, and Eddie, as the sports photojournalist, is given the assignment, one that he grudgingly accepts -- what choice does he have?
The boys make other editorial decisions but do not stop playing their game of war. Eddie stands off to the side to watch the onslaught. Is it bravery, he wonders, or insanity that inspires so many young men to join in the fray? Why do some people participate in life and learn to endure its hardships, while others choose to observe things from a safe distance? Whatever it is and whatever regrets they may have once the fighting begins, some people learn the meaning of self-sacrifice, what the priests call agape, which is the highest form of love, and those who survive the terrible ordeal usually come away with compelling stories to tell.
Eddie, on the other hand, is a coward, he's well aware of this, and he's beginning to worry that he may never have a story worth telling.
As football season gets underway Minotaur Mania infects the entire city. Hundreds of avid fans line up outside the doors of the school to buy season tickets. The cafeteria staff names a series of gruesome dishes after the beloved quarterback -- Minotaur Meatball Subs and Minotaur Meat Pies. Eddie, obligated to photograph these steaming piles of inedible mush, holds the plates aloft to better attract flies that dive like fighter pilots and bounce off the grease-splattered, glass partitions of the buffet.
On Friday afternoon, before the team begins its scrimmage, Eddie Campbell snaps several photos of a bare-chested Minotaur running laps and doing calisthenics. In the golden sunshine, the Minotaur's pecs and abs glisten with sweat, the fibrous muscle tissue ripples like chain mail under his taut skin, the great dome of his shaved head shines like a gazing ball. The pictures seem almost pornographic in nature, homoerotic even, and Eddie makes sure the Minotaur poses in such a way that his fingers appear to be grasping the mighty shaft of the brick bell tower in the background.
"If things don't work out with football," says the Minotaur during the interview, "if the agents don't come pounding on my door with endorsement deals, I'll just become an English teacher. That way I can coach high school football, see? Big money these days in high school football. Look at Coach Kaliher. Guy's gotta have, like, a hundred grand in the bank by now. Or I might study journalism, become a sports columnist. Like you, right? But I can give readers an athlete's perspective of the game. There's money in that."
Eddie smiles but doesn't bother to explain that in the writing profession, if it can be called a profession at all, money is hard to come by. Why should he explain any of this? What does the Minotaur know about the nuances of human language? Has he ever read the great books? Of course not! And while it's true that Eddie has never read most of them either, not from start to finish, he has made a concerted effort to try to read them, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, grandiose works of fiction that demand a mediator stand between them and the common reader, a new priesthood of self-appointed critics charged with interpreting the avalanche of words that make as much sense as certain passages from the gospels, Gnostic or canonical.
The Jesuits don't really consider reading a spiritual activity. Ah, but touchdowns, lots of touchdowns can send acolytes into fits of religious ecstasy, and the principal frequently asks the students to get down on their knees and pray on the Minotaur's behalf. Eddie is outraged. Can the man be serious? Does he actually believe the creator of the universe will answer such prayers? The principal would never dream of disrupting class to ask everyone to pray for an aspiring writer, to hold an all night vigil in the hopes that someone like Eddie Campbell will write a timeless work of fiction.
What the priests don't understand is that prayer, like writing, is a solitary pursuit. In his feature column Eddie includes a passage from scripture: "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." His pen drips with special contempt for the Minotaur who, as the Jesuits like to say, "is blessed with talent and natural ability." But herein lies the conundrum that Eddie is quick to expose.
"Is talent really a blessing," he asks his readers, "a supernatural phenomenon bestowed by a loving god upon the pious, the humble, the meek? Or is it a purely natural phenomenon inherited from selfish, battle-hardened genes and exploited, often by the least worthy among us, to attain goals that are less than admirable? The Church seems to hold contradictory views on the subject."
The Jesuits express their consternation with this pabulum, particularly the principal, who suggests that maybe with a little more humility Eddie will one day be blessed with his own special gift. "From piety comes wisdom and from wisdom comes greatness." Though they never tire of saying that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, the Jesuits clearly favor some boys over others. Eddie bows his head and patiently endures this tongue-lashing, but he can detect the insincerity in the principal's voice and plans to one day write about it, a scandalous book that will exposes the hypocrisies of the school and its antiquated priesthood.
Throughout the month of October, Eddie toils away on his short story for The Millstone's fiction contest, but as the deadline approaches, frustration sets in and deepens and thoughts of failure begin to rattle his nerves. He signs each draft with a comic non de plume -- Pink E. Vintage, Kit Van Peeking, Kate E. Kingpin -- but who is he kidding? A serious and uncompromising editor like Batya Pinter will see through the ruse and recognize his distinctive style.
He tries to rationalize his fear and self-doubt by imagining a luminary like Nabokov submitting one of his own stories to a silly contest. Had he been a young man writing today, Nabokov would probably need to enroll in a creative writing seminar, forced to listen to the inane comments of his fellow students, those sensitive and easily offended part-time scribblers who complain without end that they don't feel the story, that it's well written, yes, but that it's still missing something, that it's crude, nasty, hurtful, all under the aegis of an indifferent instructor who pinches her chin and silently ponders her own small successes and failures.
He wonders why any reasonable human being would want to write for a living, why anyone would do something so egregiously masochistic. He comes to the conclusion that for the true artist life needs to be unnecessarily difficult and unpleasant, that there must be a part of the psyche that yearns for anguish, and when misery cannot be found, writers simply invent anguish for themselves. It keeps things interesting. And that's a writer's main obligation to his readers, isn't it? To keep it interesting?
Finally the deadline arrives, the last day for fate to intervene and rescue one gifted writer from the slush pile, and Eddie Campbell, sequestered in the shadows of the library like a medieval monk hard at work on an illuminated manuscript, pores over every word of his tale one more time. The story is neatly typed, properly formatted, its grammar and mechanics flawless, but for all that it is an absolute piece of garbage, there can be no denying this, and Eddie won't attempt to do so now. The prose is mannered, the symbols obvious -- white doves, red roses, gently ringing chimes. The plot concerns a seventeen-year old boy who over the course of the semester becomes so infatuated with his teacher that he boldly makes a pass at her. She resists his advances, but the principal, who happens to be passing through the halls, sees what's happening, misinterprets the situation, and immediately has the woman sacked.
A pitiful effort. Eddie has revised it so many times that the story no longer makes any sense to him. Maybe like his vigorous jackoff sessions it never made sense to begin with, and yet a long time ago someone pondered the sad and ridiculous life of Onan and made even that a sin. Our most desperate attempts at distraction are said to be evil, and Eddie is surprised that the Jesuits haven't yet condemned creative writing as the spilling of intellectual seed, the murder of a million sacred ideas.
After the last bell of the day rings, Eddie gathers up the pages of his manuscript and mentally prepares himself for certain failure. Before he climbs the stairs to slip the story under The Millstone's office door he must first visit the Bunker to retrieve his camera and lenses and several rolls of film. Tomorrow night is the Holy War, the biggest football game of the season, and Eddie is responsible for capturing the team's performance, a contest that is sure to turn the Minotaur into a legendary figure in the school's long history.
Eddie descends into the subbasement and is relieved to discover that the other staff members have already cleared out for the weekend, gone to their various parties. He almost forgot. It's Halloween, a day of mist and clouds, a day of black and gritty winds, a day when the ripe breath of autumn has turned stale and rank, a day when mischievous boys costumed in masks and ragged robes are transformed by the distant smell of wood smoke and rotting apples into dumb lumbering beasts that howl and leap in anticipation of the moonrise. And Eddie, left alone in this veritable catacomb, feels that he has become a ghost -- invisible, insubstantial, totally insignificant.
The offices of The Millstone are a honeycomb of six interconnected rooms, each one guarded by a set of gargoyle bookends squatting on cluttered shelves, their unblinking eyes scanning the stairway for any unworthies who dare enter that sanctum sanctorum. They are the devourers of uninspired tales, shitting them out in hard little pellets and leaving them on the windowsills to freeze against the frosted panes of glass. Eddie imagines the gargoyles fluttering down from the shelves late at night, creeping through the crackling maple leaves to whisper their secrets in the ears of those who have the gift to decipher their cryptic tongue and to transcribe it for readers who will then tremble at the superiority of their vision.
He has visited the offices only once before and found Batya Pinter seated behind a massive oak desk cluttered with dog-eared manuscripts, drinking one cup of coffee after another, shaking her head, snickering, scowling, murmuring strange and unholy things under her breath. In her hand she held a red pen the way a butcher holds a serrated knife before a steaming carcass on a slaughterhouse floor, and she used it with skill and precision to slash sentences and to scribble hostile comments in the margins. She tore out entire pages and fed them to a shredder conveniently located next to her chair.
"Insular melodramas ..." she grumbled to herself. "Molly-coddled schoolboys ..."
Now, however, as he reaches the landing he is surprised to see the door wide open and the room suffused with a muted gray light that blurs the edges of things. The editor sits at her desk, wearing an enigmatic smile. She looks phantom-like, a dark presence extracted from a beautiful body.
Backing slowly away from the office, cringing every time the floorboards creak and echo through the desolate corridors and gothic archways, Eddie decides to leave the building without submitting his story. But it's the word "plagiarism" that forces him to stop and listen closely to the sibilant whispers inside the office. Batya Pinter, he realizes, is not alone. Beautiful women rarely are.
"There's no work on your part," she assures a figure standing just outside Eddie's line of vision, "none whatsoever. Just relax. Relax and enjoy."
"What if someone catches us?"
"No one visits this office. Least of all the Jesuits. It's six flights up."
"I don't know."
"Trust me. Here, let me help you with that."
"I'm not so sure about this."
"You want to pass my class, don't you?"
"I guess so."
"Plagiarism is a serious offense, my boy. And you don't seriously expect me to believe that you've written these essays, do you?"
"Wait. Let me take it out. There. That's no petseleh you have there, gunsel."
"This won't take long, will it?"
"That's all up to you."
Batya Pinter laughs at her own pun, but she is so mesmerized by the monstrous thing pulsing before her that the laughter dies deep in her throat. She wheels her chair forward, positions her head, opens her mouth. The Minotaur steps forward, stamps his feet, grinds his pelvis against her face. His eyes roll back until they are white. He runs his fingers through her shining hair.
Shaking with outrage, feeling betrayed in a million different ways, Eddie gasps and staggers against the wall. His fingertips go numb, and he almost drops the pages of his manuscript to the floor. He forces himself to count backwards from ten, takes a deep breath. He can easily imagine the awful things the Minotaur will do to him if he is caught.
"The hell was that?" the Minotaur whispers.
But Batya Pinter can only gurgle and choke and try to reassure him with her bulging eyes. She never stops bobbing.
Eddie has a sudden flash of inspiration, an idea so achingly beautiful, so vulgar and salacious and unambiguously American that it cannot fail but change the course of his life. Soon he will be the master, the person in total control of the situation, and it is he who will dictate the terms. The sensation is so alien to him that for one terrible second he feels nauseous and fears he might vomit. He snaps open the camera case, carefully loads the film, attaches the telephoto lens. Focusing the camera as best he can, he snaps several pictures in quick succession, one after another.
It's a lowlight situation, the pictures will be a little grainy, that's to be expected, but Eddie has an unwavering faith in his abilities as a photojournalist. He may not be a great writer of fiction, but he can take a damn good picture, and he has just stumbled upon the story of the year, or at least the story of the week (stories rarely last much longer than that these days), a scene of complete and utter depravity. It will almost certainly lead to an arrest, criminal charges, a drawn out legal battle. The talking heads will salivate, the public will devour it, this simple story of a scarlet woman who has robbed a boy of his innocence and reduced a mighty empire to ashes.
Eddie shivers and moans and patiently waits for the inevitable finish.
The Jesuits have their spies everywhere, this is something every student understands, and when Eddie races from the main building he is hardly surprised to see a half dozen figures smoking cigarettes under a streetlamp like a cadre of secret police. In the dread silence they walk toward him, the entire staff of the school newspaper.
"Where have you been, Campbell?" they ask.
"Up in Batya's belfry?"
"Busy writing your masterpiece? Your magnum opus?"
"Tell us, has the bitch gone batty yet?"
"Were you drowning her in the roiling river of your powerful prose?"
"Were you seducing her, plundering the putrid pink petals of Pinter's pussy?"
"Or is it purely platonic between you and the supreme priestess of poetry?"
As they unfurl their gaudy banners of alliteration his friends snicker, but beneath the rush of words there is real disgust and anger. They long to see him fail and have come here tonight to deliver an unequivocal message: that when the results of the fiction contest are announced and his name is not among the list of honorees they will be waiting for him in the Bunker, unforgiving tormentors eager to apply the screws to his inflated ego. They will publish the names of the finalists and make a special point of mentioning how Eddie Campbell submitted a story but failed to garner any recognition.
"We've been observing you."
"You can't hide from us."
"We're the press, the paparazzi."
"We know what you've been up to."
"You lust for accolades and awards."
"And the favors of the quintessential literary slut."
Eddie turns from them and hurries away. He must escape this wicked labyrinth of hunger and ambition. As he passes the chapel he hears voices. The priests are holding their vigil for the football team. He wants to throw stones at the stained glass windows but doesn't dare. If it's true that god punishes talented people for their hubris, what does he do to the mediocrities of the world when they behave in the same way, how does he rectify their arrogance? But Eddie knows the answer to this, has always known. He panics, opens the carrying case slung over his shoulder and examines the camera.
"No," he whispers, "no, no, no ..."
"Why do you look so pale, Campbell?"
"Guilt is written all over your face!"
Suddenly Eddie has the uncanny sensation that the whole universe is just a thin sheet of paper, a delicate piece of parchment. At any moment it can be ripped apart and everything, every word, every letter, every trace of meaning, will spill off the page and plunge into the void. Things that now seem permanent and imperishable are no more concrete than a tale written in vanishing ink. Clutching his head, lurching along the slick cobblestones, he bemoans his nightmarish fate, that for the rest of his life his own unceasing stupidity will follow him around like a curse.
He concedes defeat, and though his friends fail to understand the meaning of his words, he repeats them over and over again.
"The lens cap!" he cries. "The lens cap! It's still on the camera!"