We start our tale in a land where stories grow, where two incomplete characters are shuffling down a dark, empty street. They are human-shaped but a bit smudged around the edges, like featureless mannequins in a storefront window. Looking at them leaves you with the uncomfortable sensation of walking into a room and forgetting what you were entering for, or having a great idea when you're on the train or in the shower but then losing the thought before you can find a pen. The characters don’t so much walk as they glide in their inhabited space. A perfectly round moon rises in the ink-black sky above them.
“This is it,” says one of the characters. We’ll call him Narrator. He stops in front of an iron-wrought gate and pulls at the lock.
“We can still go back,” says Narrator’s companion, Subplot, who only ever tags along with our Narrator but never really enjoys it. “Let’s turn around before a Copyright catches us.”
“Everyone else is at the harvest. This is our only chance.” Narrator pulls out a fountain pen from his pocket and begins to pick the lock. The cemetery gates swing open, and gravestones begin folding up from the lawn like pages in a pop-up book. They walk down a line, inspecting each grave as they pass.
“Let’s pick the first one and be done with this.” Subplot looks over his shoulder after each step.
“We need a fresh one. An active one.”
The Narrator walks over to a large tree. Breaking off a branch, the Narrator uses the stick to poke at a mound of dirt. A moan rises up from the ground.
"Is that one good?"
"No, not quite," says the Narrator.
They follow the narrow cut through the Story Graveyard. More mounds of dirt are marked by gravestones. The Narrator squints through the dark to read some of the headstones: Vampire Romance Novel (2004-2009) is planted near Star Wars Fanfiction (2002-2004) and Sad Girls Fiction (2016-2021). A trio of small graves marked Pretentious College Fiction (1948-Present) lean atop one another.
May they rest in peace, Narrator thinks to himself.
"Is it just me, or does this place get more depressing every time we visit?"
“The only depressing thing is not finding a Story,” growls the Narrator. “I’m tired of waiting at the harvest. I’m tired of not being picked.”
“Yeah, but this is garbage,” says Subplot, waving his arms around the graveyard. "I mean, is it too much to ask for a well-rounded character set with a believable plot and meaningful theme?"
Narrator rolls his eyes. "Beggars can’t be choosers."
They reach the back end of the grave plot where the brush grows higher and the ground churns up in uneven piles. Subplot whimpers and looks away from the shifting mounds of dirt. "Story corpses always gross me out."
Story corpses are abandoned ideas, left to rot here in this graveyard after many attempts of turning them into true Stories. Some have been strung out and squeezed for all their worth, but occasionally you can find one with enough life to fuel a transformation.
"If this was easy, then everyone would be here." Narrator grits his teeth and nudges his toes into the loose soil, one tiny step at a time. The unmarked grave plots back here have the right consistency for what he’s seeking. Excitement grows and he clutches his stick to his chest.
Subplot sits down on the edge of an unmarked grave. "It would be nice if stories just floated towards you and sort of sparkled until you caught them,” he says with a wistful sigh.
"Are you a Subplot or are you a Metaphor?" Narrator asks. "Go to the Poetry graves if you're just going to talk nonsense."
"No, no, I'm good," says Subplot, wringing his hands. "That place is even more depressing.”
"Then stop whining and tell me if you see anything moving."
"Oh—there's one in the corner!"
Narrator looks and sees a mound of dirt turning in restless circles. "Perfect."
They creep around the edge of the grass, trying not to disturb the other corpses as Narrator and Subplot reach the perfect plot. A sudden shift kicks up more soil, sprinkling them with dirt. Something down there is dying to break out. With a deep breath, Narrator reaches out with his stick.
Narrator freezes, arm halfway extended. He glares at Subplot. “What is it now?”
Subplot looks left, then right. He wraps his arms around himself. “What if we don’t like this story? What if something’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know! What if one of us dies? What if we hate each other? A million things could happen.”
“Isn’t the point for us to finally know? Not all stories have a happy ending, but at least there is an ending.”
Narrator drives his stick down into the dirt. Immediately a jolt zings up his arm. Images, thoughts, flashes of backstory, memories, emotions—all bombard his mind. He drops the stick and falls to his knees.
"Oh!" Subplot gasps. "You have a face!"
"I do?" Narrator reaches up to touch his long nose, thin lips. He can feel hair brushing against his neck and behind his ears.
"That is so weird, I've never watched it happen before!"
The Narrator’s pulse pounds. He can actually feel his heart beating inside his broad chest. "Come on, we need to dig fast."
Subplot hands over a shovel. Grunting, the Narrator drives it into the dirt.
"Careful, don't hurt it!"
"Shut up, or I'll make you dig.” Narrator stomps down onto the shovel with his foot until only the handle sticks out from the ground. Then he wrenches up the earth and tosses it over to where Subplot's legs are outstretched. Beneath him, the ground moans and shudders. But Narrator keeps digging. Dirt sprays up and Narrator can feel it hitting his face as the corpse kicks and rolls. It’s a big story corpse—maybe the biggest he’s ever seen in this graveyard. Narrator's hands begin to crack and bleed around the handle, but he doesn’t stop digging.
"Hurry up, this is taking too long. The harvest will be over soon."
"This might go faster if you helped!”
Finally a leg kicks up from out of the dirt. Subplot shrieks and leaps to his feet. "This was a bad plan!"
"Too late!" Narrator keeps shoveling. He can sense the potential in the story corpse below the surface. It’s a good one. A really good one. Even with just one gloopy leg visible, the Narrator can tell. The ideas in this story feel ancient, saturated with many words and many faces.
The Narrator wedges the shovel beneath the shifting ground and leans his whole weight into it. Inch by inch, he pries the corpse out of the dirt until the gray, bloated mass flops over with a splat. The story corpse writhes on the ground, black eyes blinking up and flabby mouth gaping like a fish on a hook.
"Wow, it's huge!"
"It's probably a Novel." Narrator nudges the corpse with his foot, and it shudders.
"How are we going to take it back?"
"You grab its legs. I'll take the torso."
"You mean we're carrying it?"
"What else do you have in mind?"
Subplot huffs and crosses his arms. The Narrator glares back, bending over to grab the story corpse around the middle. Its gray skin is slick with mud, slipping through the Narrator's hold as the corpse flops around uselessly. It lets out a hideous moan that echoes in the empty night.
"Make it stop," Subplot hisses, now crouching over the grave hole to watch. "Someone might hear it!"
"I can't make it do a damn thing until you help me get it out!"
"What if there's a Copyright on patrol? What do we do if he sees us?"
"It’s too late to back out now," said Narrator, "the transformation's already started. Now pick up the legs."
Grimacing, Subplot reaches down for the legs. When his hands wrap around the gray flesh, Subplot flinches. "Oh!"
The Narrator looks up. Now Subplot has a face: brown hair and brown eyes, a round chin with a poor excuse of a beard growing from it. Despite his aching back and the urgency of the situation, the Narrator smiles sadly at his friend.
Subplot is too busy squinting down at the corpse to notice anything. "I can't see, why's it all fuzzy?"
"You have a face. And glasses in your pocket. Put them on."
Subplot lets go of the corpse, patting down his shirt until he finds the glasses tucked away in the front pocket.
"I have glasses," Subplot whispers. “Cool!” He pushes the lenses up the bridge of his nose.
Then the two characters stare at each other—face to face—for the first time.
“Oh,” says Subplot.
“Yes,” says the Narrator.
A moment of silence.
“So you know what’s going to happen now?”
The Narrator nods. “I do.”
Out on the street, the clip-clop of horse hooves strike the cobblestone. An approaching Copyright.
Subplot’s eyes glisten with tears. “Right. Well. Guess I can give you a head start.”
The Narrator nods. “Thanks.”
They stand for one more minute, looking at each other in full character.
“Too bad we couldn’t pick a better ending,” says Subplot. He’s already moving away, edging towards the street.
“It isn’t fully written yet.”
With ever-growing strength, the Narrator manages to heave the bloated story corpse out of the grave. The grey mass lets out another groan, gurgling out more details of backstory and a Western setting complete with swinging saloon doors.
“Copyright! Copyright!” Subplot runs towards the cemetery gate. “There’s a graverobber in here! Someone’s digging up story corpses!”
The Narrator curses, looking around for a way to lug the story corpse out of the graveyard. But he’s got nothing more than they came in here with—a shovel, his poking stick, his fountain pen. The story corpse is too big to move on his own, too slippery to carry. So much wasted potential, the Narrator mourns. From the street, he can hear the hoof beats stop. Subplot’s voice rises, repeating his warning to the Copyright.
There isn’t enough time.
Here is where our story ends: our Narrator abandons the story corpse and runs. He runs out of the graveyard, climbing up the overgrown brush and stumbling over the sidewalk to escape. Stuck in his own transformation, he will never be able to find another story. Subplot fulfills his purpose; he reports the crime to the authorities, but will never find Narrator after that. The two will orbit each other like the sun and moon.
Left in the graveyard, the story corpse remains a grey mass of potential. But this might not be the end of its story. Maybe you will find it someday and give it new purpose, new life. Maybe you can find the right ending for it.