Aaron Steinmetz

...be very still...the bird's angry...and I think he can see us.

Cocoa Tales: Episode 26

She enters their home without knocking. Today, her hair is red. He never really liked it red. He preferred blonde. So most days she was blonde. Today, like the day she left him, it is red. She runs her hand along the backside of their couch. It is covered in cat hair. The cat is nowhere to be seen, but that’s nothing new. The cat always runs when the door unlocks. Unless he comes home. The cat always knows when he’s home.

She steps through their apartment feeling wave after wave of nostalgia for the good times. That’s the reason she’s here. The nostalgia, the pleasant memories. As she passes by the kitchen table where they had breakfast countless times, uncontrollably her hair glistens and turns blonde. A reflex, and she doesn’t even know she’s doing it.

He’s not here. She didn’t know if she wanted him here when she came by, and now that she knows she won’t see him, she’s sad.

Movement catches her eye. The computer is on, the white page of his word processor visible. Though no sound is coming from the computer, she crosses the room and watches letter after letter, word after word slowly appear in the ever-growing manuscript. The page count is high. The words are appearing fast. And he’s nowhere to be found.

Her hair trembles and turns black. She mutters, "Oh no..."

Faber’s body, steered by the re-embodied spirit of Nibbles, crossed the cell and grabbed Floyd by both shoulders. Nibbles said, "Detective Floyd, please, for my sanity and the floor of this cell, please stop pacing."

Nibbles stepped back to the bunk and sat, Floyd frozen in place with a scowl on his face. "I’m trying to figure out a way to get us out of this," he hissed.

A sudden crash of glass startled him, and then footsteps commanded their attention. From the corner of the jail cell, out of sight, they heard fast-paced steps loudly approaching them. Around the corner a young balding man rounded and approached the cell. "Faber," he said, "there you are. What day is it?"

Faber and Nibbles exchanged glances. "Who are you?" Floyd asked the man.

He glanced askance at Floyd and said, "You don’t know who I am, Floyd?" He didn’t wait for a response. Just raised an eyebrow, and then he looked around. "Ah, yes. I’m in the prison. Of course. I’ll be going now. None of you should be here right now."

As the balding man walked away, Floyd hollered, "Who are you!? How do you know who I am?"

"I’m Domino," the man replied without turning around. "Hang in there, Floyd. You’ll be out of there very soon."

"Domino?" Floyd sputtered. "You know Monty Gerald is looking for you!?"

Rounding the corner, Domino disappeared from sight but hollered back, "I imagine he is." Another window smashed.

The Sandman said, tilting his head to the side, "Why would he break two windows to get in and out?"

Pounding on the cell bars, Floyd shouted, "What the hell is going on!? This is the worst Storyteller in the world!"

Hurrying through the gray, poorly described, and curiously ever-changing per the whims of the Storyteller hallway, Cocoa and Harold ran. "We don’t have much time," Cocoa said. "I bought us some time by running away from him, but he could catch up to us at any second."

"Just hang in there, Cocoa," Harold replied. "Give me time to do my part."

And what part would that be?

They skidded to a stop before me. I was leaning against the wall, my eyes half-closed. Like I knew full well what they were up to.

I didn’t.

I was bluffing.

Cocoa Tael quickly grew a large smile as she said, "Hey, buh-dee! I missed ya! How you been?"

I know what you’re up to, Cocoa.

I didn’t.

Still bluffing.

"Well, then you’ll be quite pleased with my Grand Scheme," Cocoa said. "So just sit right back and enjoy the ride there, Storyteller, I got this."

"What’s your deal, Storyteller?" Harold demanded. "You’re working for my father now?"

I have plans too, you know.

"Do they involve Domino?"

Domino? Is that...is that a person or what?

"Oh, holy bleeping bleep, do you even know what story you’re telling!?"

Look, Harry, you know how hard it’s been for me since my muse left me. I’m just scrambling to keep this story going here.

"I want to punch you in the face," Harold stated, waving a fist in the air. "I want to knock you to the floor and not stop hitting you ‘til I hit concrete."

Been getting a lot of that today. Listen, Harry, trust me. I got this, and this Domino...person?

"He’s a man, yes!"

He was probably just left behind when my muse left me. Find him, tell him we don’t need his services anymore and that’ll be it.

"And you’ll tell my father to stop looking for him?"

Your father’s looking for Domino?

Harold exclaimed, "Yes!"

Oh. Well. Then talk to Monty. He probably knows more than I do about this.

An alarm caused us all to jump. I looked around and said, What’s that all about?

"You’re worthless, Storyteller," Harold stated, shaking his head.

Et tu, Harry?

As he walked away, Harold said, "Just keep your head down and don’t bleep anything up!"

Stop using profanity!

"I’m not! You won’t let me!"

I looked down to the floor. Cocoa? Where are you, Cocoa?

She was gone. Slipped away from me. Again. Not good.

The alarm was blaring in Cell Block ‘S’. "What set it off?" Floyd shouted, his hands over his ears.

The Sandman shrugged as Nibbles said, "I have no idea, detective."

"Maybe it was that Domino guy?" Jessica Holiday said. "When he broke the windows?"

The alarm slowed, distorted, and then slowly faded out with a dying warble. Letting his hands off his ears, Floyd turned to see sparks blast out of the lock holding the door shut. It flew open, clanging against the other side of the cell bars. The metal hummed with vibrations of contact, the hum seeming louder with the alarm silenced.

"Huh," Floyd said.

"Yeah," The Sandman said.

"Do you think," Nibbles said, "that all the cells are open like this one?"

"I think so," Jessica replied.

The sound of men yelling and footsteps pounding above them and around them confirmed their fears. The occupants of the Redding jail were flooding out all at once.

"Come on," Floyd said. "Follow me. This is more than we can handle, we need backup."

Monty Gerald’s cheek was pressed against the cold concrete, a line of drool pooling beside it. His head rocked back and forth, a guard shaking him by the shoulder. "Sir," he said, "sir wake up. Some real bleep is going down right now."

Monty moaned.

The dart, so deeply imbedded in his neck, fell out and clanged on the floor. Tranquilizer fluid which was supposed to be in his body dribbled out of the defective dart.

Behind the guard attempting to wake his boss, two other guards were heaving the other unconscious guards onto gurneys. "Sir, we gotta get out of here. Can you walk?"

The drool dragged across the floor as Monty slowly nodded. "Here, lemme help you up, sir. I’ll have you on your feet in no time."

Floyd led the rest of the team along the hallway just outside Cell Block ‘S’ when he heard thumping, the sound of someone very large running toward them. He motioned everyone back into the doorway and then ducked back in as Pludd ran by, still sobbing. "Big guy’s got issues," Floyd muttered.

"What was that?" Jessica asked.

"Pludd," Floyd said, "and I think we’ll be okay as long as he’s crying."

The slurred voice echoed down the hallway: "Why are you still crying!?"

They listened as Pludd responded to Monty Gerald: "I’m sorry, boss! I so sorry!"

"I forgive you," Monty shouted in desperation. "Now pick me up, I can barely walk right now!"

"I carry you," Pludd said, suddenly excited, "like a baby!"

"No, no," Monty pleaded, "don’t cradle me...never mind. Just get me back to my cell block!"

Floyd sighed. "Looks like we’ll be taking the long way out. This way."

He led them along the hallway away from the sounds of Pludd, gleefully dancing along the hallway with Monty Gerald in his arms.

"Is it just me," Jessica whispered as they hurried along the hallway, "or has this whole thing devolved into hallways and poorly described sight gags?"

I rolled my eyes and said, Everyone’s a critic.

"Bleep," Floyd cursed, stopping the group.

Look, guys, just relax, all right? I’m well aware this project has gone completely off the rails. So you know what: I’m going to help you out.

His hands on his hips, Floyd stated, "You’re working for Monty Gerald. How can we trust you?"

I stepped to the side revealing a door they couldn’t see and wordlessly kicked the door open. Lamplight spilled in. Floyd stared through the door at a cement path through grass, lit by lamps and the moon. The sun had long since set, and midnight was fast approaching.

Cocoa Tael calmly trotted up to the door from the outside. "There you are," she said, bits of metal wire sticking to her face. She shook her head and the remains of the alarm flew off. "Sorry about setting it off like that," she said, "but hey, not only did I stop it, I let everyone out in the process."

A half a dozen hooting and hollering prisoners ran across the lawn behind her.

"So you let us out," Floyd said, rubbing his forehead, "by letting everyone else out at the same time."

"Well, you know," Cocoa said tilting her head to the side, "Grand Scheme-wise, it was kinda necessary. So: I have precious few minutes left to kill someone. I need to get into the Felidus, if you recall, and I have to kill one of you to get in. Who’s it gonna be?"

Floyd sighed, a slight groan slipping out. He stepped through the door and silently walked by Cocoa.

"Ah, Detective Floyd then," Cocoa said.

"I will step on your spine and snap your bleeping neck if you try to kill me, cat," Floyd growled.

"Not Floyd," Cocoa said cheerfully, "but who will it be?"

"I’m not volunteering," Jessica said, "but I would like to follow Floyd."

Because you’ve fallen in love with him, I said.

"No, no I have not!" Jessica said smacking me on the back of the head. "Why do you think you can control us!?"

She didn’t wait for an answer. Just stormed outside.

The Sandman didn’t say anything as he walked by me. Just patted me on the shoulder, and Nibbles followed him out.

As he passed, Nibbles said, "You’re a right wanker. You know that right?"

I don’t know what that means.

He nodded and then left the prison. I shut the door, still inside, and I leaned against the wall. Did my muse ever have problems like this? Do all storytellers have to go through this with their characters? I didn’t have an answer. All I had was an angry antagonist being carried by a character lifted rather heavy-handedly from a Steinbeck novel.

"Where are they?" Monty demanded, cradled like a baby in Pludd’s arms.

Steinbeck. Now there was a storyteller. Will I ever have the right to park my stories next to his in the bookstores? Will the contact of my stories poison the legacy left by such a great storyteller?"

"Storyteller!" Monty exclaimed, "pay attention! Where are they?"

I sighed. They’re in there, I muttered, my shoulders deflating. I continued, They think they’re outside but they’re really trapped. I told them I would help them, but they’re waiting for you to do whatever you want with them.

Monty relaxed in Pludd’s arms. "Well," he said, "all right then. Finally something has gone right today."

Not sure if betraying my own characters to their probable deaths is right, but at least it ends this thing.

Cracking his knuckles, Monty said, "Lead me in there. I’d like to have another chat with Floyd." I stepped aside and waited as Pludd opened the door. "You’re all right, Storyteller," Monty said as Pludd carried him inside.

The door swung shut behind him.

I leaned my head against the wall of the prison. I closed my eyes, savoring the moment. I inhaled long through my nose, held it, and then let it out slowly.

And then I smiled.

Monty Gerald and Pludd found themselves not outside a jail, but instead they stood in white, surrounded by a vast expanse of white. Pludd turned them both in circles with confused looks on their faces staring at the nothingness they found themselves in, alone.

Except for me. I was there too.

Gee, gosh, sorry Monty, something has apparently gone wrong with my narrative.

Monty struggled out of Pludd’s hold, landing on two weak feet. He wavered, like a newly born foal as he tried to stand. "What’s going on, Storyteller!?"

You see, sometimes a writer just, well, runs out of ideas. Writer’s block can be a bit finicky, you know? Never really know when it’s gonna strike.

"Bull-bleep," Monty stated, "take me back to the prison."

I tilted my head to the side and said, Or is it a jail? Never really figured that one out...

"Take me back there!"

I shrugged. No matter. I’ll figure it out in revision.

"You can’t do this to me, I’m Monty Gerald!"

I’ll get back to this project, which currently is languishing in writer’s block, at some point, I promise. In the meantime, we ask that you be patient during this crisis and await a positive conclusion.

"Did you hear me!?" Monty exclaimed, turning circles in the world of white. "You can’t do this to me! I’m Monty Gerald!"

But I was gone. Didn’t really want to stick around for the aftermath, you know?

Strolling confidently out of the prison...jail...whatever, I had a large smile on my face as I approached the semicircle of my characters. They had to have been happy with me, right? I dispatched the villain and saved the day. But to my surprise, they waited for me with scowls on their faces, almost as though they weren’t very happy with me.

Floyd said, "We’re not very happy with you."


"You’ve turned a story about a cat with homicidal tendencies and the officials trying to stop her," Floyd said, "into a story about you. All about you. What should’ve been a light-hearted story with comic implications has turned into a meta-masturbatory exercise in narcissism!"

That’s a lot of five dollar words for nickel-notion, Floyd.

"You’ve turned our story into your story!"

Throwing my head back I groaned. Seriously, what’s wrong with you guys? I never betrayed you! I was just pretending to trick Monty into trusting me!

Harold said, "And where is he now?"

Trapped in writer’s block.

"You trapped my father in writer’s block."

What do you care? You never got along with him.

"We connected!" Harold exclaimed. "Didn’t you see it happening? Something happened when we were talking about Domino. I broke through and started to see him as the flawed human that he is! And now I won’t ever keep that dynamic character shift going because he’s trapped in writer’s block...whatever the bleep that means!"

So, you brought up Domino and Monty Gerald stopped being a one-dimensional character?

"None of us are one-dimensional!" Harold shouted. "Don’t you get it!? You don’t even know who Domino is!"

"Oh, we met him," Floyd said, "he came in through a window and asked us what day it was for some reason."

"Really?" Harold asked. "He told me he’d wait for me at my house. Huh. That’s weird."

Wait, wait, wait, I said, Domino is a person?

"Yes!" Harold said, clenching his hands into fists, "we’ve been through this already!"

Floyd said, "Do you even know why Naomi is here?"

Naomi isn’t supposed to be here, she kinda slipped in.

Lifting a finger, Jessica said, "Storyteller, what we’re trying to say is we don’t trust you anymore with our lives."

Nibbles added, "It’s only a matter of time before your haphazard storytelling gets one of us killed." He pressed a finger against his temple and said, "Hold up: someone else wants to talk with you."

Tilting his head to the side, Nibbles’s eyelids quivered for a moment and then Faber opened his own eyes: "There the bleep you are you bleeping bleep!"

Faber, buddy, how you been?

"All day today," Faber said, "I have either been passed out or possessed by the spirit of a bleeping cat!" He looked to the ground and said to Nibbles, "No offense, pal, you’re actually kinda all right for a cat."

Nibbles replied in his flawless British accent, "No worries, detective, you’re all right for a human."

Faber lifted his head up again and said to me, "I don’t like being bleeped with!"

"And that’s another thing," The Sandman said, "what’s with all the ‘bleeps’ and ‘bleeping’ going on? We’re all adults here. A few swear words won’t hurt anyone."

I’m trying to keep this one kid-friendly.

"As a house cat tries to kill its own master," The Sandman added. "Not exactly Dr. Suess."

"And, Storyteller," Nibbles said, "you know ‘wanker’ is a fairly profane bit of swearing in England, right?"

Oh, uh, I didn’t know that. So stop saying it.

"I guess what we’re trying to say," Floyd said, "is we’re done. You’ve run this story and we’re not playing along anymore." He turned to the semicircle and said, "Ready?"

Faber and Floyd, Jessica and The Sandman, and even my sometime buddy Harry all lowered themselves in to the lawn and quite literally sat on their hands. They sat silently staring at me, not moving, not saying anything.

Really? It’s come to this?

They didn’t respond.

And what about Cocoa Tael, how does she feel about all this?

They still didn’t respond.

Does anyone even know where she is? She’s gonna try to kill one of you, you know that right? Time is running out. Do you even care?

They said nothing. They didn’t seem to care.

Fine, whatever. You have been a nightmare to write for, and I’ll be glad when this project is over.

I turned and swung open the door, stormed back into the prison.

Cocoa, where are you? I hurried through the empty jail. Cocoa Tael, where are you hiding? I’m sorry, okay? I haven’t been the best storyteller, I get that. Just tell me where you are.

I hurried through Cell Block ‘S’ but didn’t find her there.

My muse left me! Don’t you get what that means? Not every storyteller gets one! And I had mine for a very, very long time. I don’t know how to do this without her. Don’t even know if I’m a storyteller or not.

I stepped into the visitor’s room, the one separated by glass with phones on each side. Cocoa had been here, hiding in the shadows with a dart gun, but she wasn’t there now.

But I’m trying to get better at this, I really am. Give me another chance, and I think I can really blow your minds. I mean, I have an idea about this other cat Naomi, I think you’ll like it. It involves The Rift...whatever that is.

The prison/jail was empty, devoid of human life. Cocoa wasn’t anywhere to be found. At least, not until I found her.

She was in an empty room attached to the nondescript hallway, that perfunctory tool which allowed me the flexibility to add and remove rooms at my will. Maybe I leaned a bit too hard on that hallway. I should do a better job describing locales in the future.

She was seated in the middle of the empty room, her back to me. There you are, I said, look: I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m sorry. I want to be a better storyteller, and I can’t do it without you. I mean, you’re the story. It’s Cocoa Tales. Not Storyteller Tales. I get that now. There’s more to tell, and I need you with me to tell it. You with me for Part Two?

Cocoa Tael sat silently for a moment, and then slowly lowered her head. Then she turned to look at me. She smiled, and it was a warm smile, full of affection and adoration. She slowly walked over to me, a loud purr escaping her throat. She leapt into my arms rubbing her face against my cheek.

Oh, well...I wasn’t expecting a reaction like this.

She laid herself across my arms and purred as I scratched her back.

This level of affection, I said, it’s almost a bit too much.

She rolled around in my arms spraying a cloud of hair in the air. I coughed, felt a sneeze rising within me.

Cocoa, I said, you’re a lot more affectionate than I thought you’d be. I mean, it’s almost like...almost like...you’re laying it on...too...thick...

Cocoa Tael stopped purring suddenly and I felt the body of the cat in my arms vibrate mechanically.

The clickity-clack of claws on concrete chilled my blood and I turned slowly to see thousands of kitty-bombs running through the hallway, dozens of them turning into the very room I was in. They flooded between my legs, filling the room with their mechanical presence. The cat in my arms dislodged its jaw along with all the others at the same time, and I muttered, Son of a bitch.

They all exclaimed, "Kitty bomb!"

And then they exploded all at once, destroying the prison, killing me instantly.

Really should’ve kept a better eye on that cat.