A TWIST TOO FAR • by Peter Wood

The antennae sprang from the cashier’s head. Jim rolled his eyes. He had come to the North Carolina mountains to exorcise writer’s block. He didn’t need another pull-the-rug-from-under-you plot twist. He had enough bad ideas on his own.

Aliens did not work in the Ashe County Cheese Factory. He focused on the four bags of cheese curds he had just placed on the counter. If anyone else noticed the alien behind the counter, there was a risk the hackneyed trope of subversive aliens could become reality — at least for a little while.

The cashier punched buttons on a 1950s-era cash register. A reptilian tail slithered from her long coat and slapped the homemade-fudge display case.

Fantastic,” Jim muttered. After two days of plot twists, he was desperate to ditch the tropacyte, a pesky little literary imp that made bad writing real. Stereotypes. Clichés. One had glommed onto him when he left for his weekend getaway.

The cashier laughed maniacally. “Stupid humans!” Her evil alien voice was straight out of a bad cartoon. “We have studied your primitive ways for months from this so-called cheese factory.”

“No, you haven’t,” Jim said. He needed to find a tropologist.

“Your—”

“I don’t believe you.” Jim held out his Visa.

Shoulder-length red hair replaced the antennae. The cashier was human again. And, she worked in an ordinary cheese shop. She blinked. “Sir?”

“Nothing,” Jim said.

***

Larger cities needed dozens of tropologists. Rural Ashe County had one.

Jim doubled checked the address he’d gotten from the clerk at the Exxon. He knocked on the rusty double-wide’s front door.

A hound dog lounged on the pine straw by the concrete stoop. The animal looked like it hadn’t moved in years.

A grey-haired man in a tweed jacket opened the door. His sleeves even had elbow patches. “Yes?”

“I’m looking for Mark Hawkins, the tropologist.”

Professor Hawkins.”

In the background the television blared about the upcoming presidential election. One of the candidates was coming to nearby Wilkesboro that night.

“Sorry,” Jim said. “I have a tropacyte with one really annoying trope.” He wondered where in the sticks this professor taught. “Plot twists.”

“A plot twist isn’t a trope per se,” the professor harrumphed. “Rhetorical devices of twists are labeled anagnorists and peripetia. The complex versus the simple plot. Hardly a trope.” He pulled a pipe from his vest pocket.

Jim had no idea what the man was talking about.

“All I know is aliens aren’t running the cheese factory.”

“Certainly not. I would have heard of that.” The professor scratched the head of the still unmoving dog. “Good boy, Sartre.”

“What about my plot twist problem?” Jim asked.

“You don’t believe them, right?”

Jim sighed. “Of course not. Aliens selling cheese? Give me a break.”

The professor took a puff from his pipe. “Yes. Not very literary. Perhaps in one of those pulps.”

“What if a twist comes along that people believe? Suppose I spend all week getting ready for a PowerPoint presentation for work and then wake up Monday morning and it’s all a dream? My boss won’t believe a damned tropacyte used a plot twist so my work never happened.”

The professor took a wrinkled plastic bag from his pocket and removed a few purple leaves. He stuffed them in his pipe and blew a violet smoke ring at an azalea bush. “Tropenip might make him materialize.”

Something coughed.

The professor reached down and pulled out a little man dressed in a white seersucker suit. He looked like a cross between Mark Twain and the tooth fairy. “Gotcha, you pesky tropacyte!”

The sky shimmered. The trailer blinked away and was replaced with several men in silver jumpsuits standing behind a massive control panel.

“Stop it!” the tropologist thundered. “We are not in a controlled environment orchestrated by futuristic scientists.  This is not The Matrix. I hate that movie.”

The trailer turned solid again. The tropacyte glared at the tropologist.

The tropologist squinted at Jim. “The tropacyte senses that you maybe want to believe its twists. Why?”

Jim paused. “I write science fiction.”

“Anything published?”

“No,” Jim admitted.

“Perhaps if you understood the difference between tropes and anagnorists and peripetia, you’d have sold something by now.

Can you get rid of it?”

The professor sat on the front stoop. He kept a firm grip on the struggling tropacyte. “You have just enough belief in the impossible that the tropacyte can subsist. You need to find somebody even more gullible than you.”

***

It was surprisingly easy to shake hands with the Presidential candidate during his brief stop in Wilkesboro. The eager tropacyte leapt off Jim onto the shoulder of a man who had concocted more stories that Jim could write in a lifetime.

Jim hurried out of the campaign rally to his car before the tropacyte changed its mind.

***

Two hours later Jim turned his living room television to an all-news station.

“The political world is still reeling from the revelation that Parker Jameson has an evil twin,” the moderator said. “Let’s see what our panel says.”

“Well, Paul,” a spectacled sixtyish man said. “It’s not clear who exactly is the evil twin. The so-called evil twin has views I agree with. He supports retirement with full social security benefits at 35 funded by a corporate tax rate of 90% and—”

“He’s a phony,” a redhead said. “I want to see his birth certificate.”

“We’ve seen his birth certificate,” the man said.

“Anybody who advocates a free Tesla for every adult over sixteen is a fraud,” the woman said.

“And, we should take somebody seriously who wants to eliminate the IRS and the Federal Reserve and go to a barter system?”

Jim got a beer from the fridge and leaned back on the couch. This was going to be a great political season.

Then it hit him. He muted the television and picked up the laptop. He was getting some great ideas. He wasn’t going to argue with plot twists like these.


Peter Wood is an attorney is Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his patient wife and surly cat. He has had stories published in Bull Spec, Every Day Fiction and Asimov’s.


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Rate this story:
 average 3.9 stars • 36 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I enjoyed the idea behind this story, as well as its execution. I wasn’t sure what to make of the professor pulling the pipe from his jacket, then three paras later pulling the pipe from his vest pocket. Was this a simple mistake or the actions of the tropacyte? Then there’s a ‘then’ that should have been a ‘than’. Not sure if that was a typo or that pesky tropacyte again. Anyhow, a 4 from me.

    • Pete Wood

      Good catch. This was corrected in a revision which apparently never made it to Everyday Fiction. Sorry about the multiple pipes.

      • Carl Steiger

        I’d never speculate that the editors had been smoking tropenip and just forgot to make the correction…

      • Camille Gooderham Campbell

        Sorry about that, Pete! If you’d like to email me any corrections, I can make them for you.

        • Camille Gooderham Campbell

          And the corrected version has now been put in place. No more double pipe!

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Encountering one Presidential election where I’d fled to avoid the vile spectacle of another has made me particularly surly.

    I thought this was a charming idea struggling to break free and soar. In my view it needed some brutal pruning and tightening. Trust me–I’m desperate for a good laugh today. Didn’t get it. Two stars.

    • S Conroy

      If someone had written the real-life scenario a few years ago, I’m not sure I’d have found it believable.

      • Pete Wood

        Yeah, the real world passed me by. Thanks for reading!

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for reading. This story was more a comment on how much I hate twist endings than a political satire, but then after the story was finished the real election left it in the dust.

  • Dorothyanne Brown

    Good idea, made me smile at the quirkiness. Needs a bit of finessing but I know how a word count limit can mess with things like plot twists!
    Pertinent, alas. Perhaps this explains everything….

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for reading!!

  • Made me chuckle. Not actually laugh. My pic shows my happy laughing face.

    It is what it is. A Chevy, not a Cadillac. And as with any dependable ride, it got me there. To Cleveland, but not to Cannes.

    A pleasant ***

  • Carl Steiger

    Cute, but I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it four years ago. I am fully in the grip of Election Anxiety Syndrome, and I also am feeling surly. I’m not that crazy about recursive fiction, but EDF would probably be the ideal venue for finding readers who do appreciate it. I think I’ll recuse myself from voting on this one.

    I really would have enjoyed the tropologist lighting up both pipes at once, but I guess he really only had one.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for reading!
      Sort of like that skit on the Carol Burnett Show where Lyle Waggoner lit up two cigarettes and then smoked both instead of giving one to
      Carol.

  • S Conroy

    Need to reread later to ‘get’ it all.
    On first read this passage was pretty cute:

    The professor took a wrinkled plastic bag from his pocket and removed
    a few purple leaves. He stuffed them in his pipe and blew a violet
    smoke ring at an azalea bush. “Tropenip might make him materialize.”

    Something coughed.

    • Pete Wood

      Exactly!

  • Stephen

    I enjoyed the sheer creativity of the story for its own sake.
    Peter, you obviously have a good imagination, and a sense of humour. The first part could easily be interpreted as an LSD trip, or similar, especially later when the prof blows a violet smoke ring…
    Nice. A happy, smiley, cheeky, cheerful 5 stars. Well done!

    • Pete Wood

      Thank you for your kind words.

  • Darius Bott

    I’ve always thought there’s untapped potential in these narrative game-playing stories–too often they’re academic, smart-alecky migraine-inducing things. But this excellent piece of comedy proves me right.

    The humour rises to a peak during the professor’s scene. “The man pulled a pipe from his jacket” was the moment I laughed out loud–lovely deadpan line. And the interplay between the story’s unfolding plot and the plot-twists-as-plot-device was nicely rendered, tantalizing and enjoyably discombobulating without ever being difficult or coldly “clever”.

    The only thing stopping me one short of a five-star maximum was…the twist too far. I found the shift into political satire flattened out all the earlier intrigue and subtlety and laughs. I’m sure there exists a parallel plot twist where the tropacyte remains firmly on Jim’s shoulder and helps him mystically disappear up the fundament of his own plot.

    But a very fine four star comedy.

    • Pete Wood

      Wow. Thank you. Endings are really tough, aren’t they?

  • Jeff Matthews

    I liked the story, however I noticed he pulled the pipe out twice. The first time he pulls it out of his coat when he introduced himself as Professor Hawkins and again about ten sentences later he pulls it out of his vest.

    • Peter Wood

      Editing glitch. The revision didn’t make it online. My mistake.

      • Darius Bott

        Don’t admit error — attribute it to the tropacyte! A moment of malice from the little blighter when his powers to disrupt a narrative were trumpeted with unabashed vulgarity.

        • Tropacyte

          I wish you’d all stop picking on me…

          • Ahh, the Charlie Brown from the 60s – “Why’s everybody always picking on me?”

            🙂

        • Aha, Hillary had a tropacyte! That explains it 🙂

          • Darius Bott

            Oh, Jeff–with lines like that, you’ll provoke my own twisted tropocidal rant…but I won’t go there, I won’t go there, I won’t go there. I’m NOT going to be spanked by Camille two stories running!

          • Ohh. Ohh. A Camille spanking? I’m nearly inspired to write something dark!

          • James Hadley Chase Fan

            Imagine…
            Camille as a Great Literary Goddess, more beautiful than Aphrodite, more powerful than Zeus, attended by every Muse, worshipped by mere mortals all struggling to scribble down flash fiction as sacred offerings to her, and her alone!
            Her high priests (Mr Kauffman, et al), dressed in dark robes, sacrificing in her honour signed hardcover first editions of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Edith Wharton on ancient, blood-stained altars designed by Robert E. Howard and H. P Lovecraft.
            Writers could submit work to the Great Goddess Camille. Any writer submitting work of inferior quality would be punished, severely. Obviously, Peter Wood would be spared for having written such a good story, but other, lesser mortals, might suffer a terrible fate – like a jolly good spanking!!

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            But–she IS a great literary goddess!

            And I’m for anyone ready to put a stake through Hemingway…

          • Darius Bott

            Now there’s a literary salon worth belonging to! But I’d have the Great Literary Goddess precede those Greek whelps. Cybele, for me, is She Who Must Be Written, the ancient Phrygian Goddess personified by the cold stony record of meteoric scintillations. Writers submitting inferior work will be allowed to wander off, get a job, raise a family. But for the select few, ecstasy, self-castration, final election…

            Look at the two blokes who invented the modern novel: Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson. Both were obsessive psychic transsexualists, eunuch priests of the Great Goddess.

            So I hope Camille has a strong stylus.

          • The crack of her whip. The pain of the lash. I hoped my screams sounded authentic. With each bite of the whip I tried not to smile lest she see my pleasure.

            “Have you learned your lesson?”

            “Yes, mam. I’ve learned.” But I hadn’t.

            “Mam? Mam! You insolent old fool. Sarah Crysl is a “Mam.” I am “Mistress!”

            With a flick of her wrist she uncoiled her whip. All sixteen feet of it. Woven with passion from innumerable run-on sentences. And at its tip, a thorny ball made of unneeded em-dashes, exclamation marks and semi-colons.

            Her lips sneered far beyond what any string of adjectives could describe. “If this doesn’t teach you proper respect for your editorial “betters,” then the red pen is next.

            The whip bit into my buttocks. My scream this time was real. My fear immobilizing.

            “Yes ma.. I mean yes, mistress. I am repentant for my writerly sins.”

            “We’ll see about that. I’m not through with you yet.”

            I cringed, waiting for the next fusillade to fall.

            “To make sure you are repentant, I am retaining your stories in slush for another thirty days.”

            “Noooo,” I wailed. You have already held “The Fairy Ring” captive for 96 days. Not another thirty. Please.”

            “Enough! I have spoken.” She turned to her favorite editorial lackey, hpesoj. “Take him away. Now. And put his stories at the bottom of the heap.

            Find me a good story. Something like a hermaphroditic zombie AI crustacean with a personality disorder who believes he is Jesus reincarnated. That’s what our readers want. Believability. Not this crap that Switt writes.”

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I breathlessly await Chapter 2…
            Long live pulp serials!

          • James Hadley Chase Fan

            Later, in her penthouse on 5th Avenue…

            The beautiful Goddess Camille reclined in a bubble bath of asses milk, sipping champagne whilst her glamorous handmaiden, Sarah Crysl, read selected passages from the most promising submissions of flash fiction. A few pieces were almost worthy of Camille’s attention, almost.

            “These stories are terrible,” said the Goddess. “Why are they so awful?”

            Sarah Crysl shook her head. “Talent is in short supply, my Illustrious and Gracious Mistress.”

            “I despair,” declared the Goddess, sipping her champagne. “Where is the next Hunter S. Thompson? Where is the next Mark Twain? Where is the next Truman Capote? If only somebody somewhere could write something!”

            Like a swan gliding across a silver lake lit by a blazing sunset, Camille stepped from her bath. Sarah Crysl scattered rose petals at Camille’s feet before wrapping her in warmed towels scented with jasmine, lavender and hyacinth. Taking her hand, Sarah Crysl led the goddess to her boudoir. Camille reclined on her emperor-sized feather bed, swathed in silk sheets, staring up at the stars through a domed glass ceiling. She closed her eyes to dream of dining in Paris with Samuel Beckett…

            Little did the goddess know that down in the basement, down in the darkness, down in the concrete and steel bowels of her skyscraper, a massive army of starving, resentful, enraged hidden Tropoctyes were eating into digital storage vaults of as yet unread submissions.

            Giant Tropcytes ordered smaller, foot-soldier Tropocytes to take any action required. Like termites, the millions of tiny Tropoctyes nibbled away at rhetorical devices and plot twists, destroying similes, metaphors, allegories, motifs, alliteration, parables, anything, even down to sentences, phrases, clauses, deleting commas, munching through full stops, gleefully inserting typos everywhere. It was a secret infestation of
            Tropocytes planning to ruin the entire literary world…

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I ain’t no one’s handmaiden, buster…

          • James Hadley Chase Fan.

            Sorry, Sarah. I got carried away with the flow of the narrative. I thought you might have added a “chapter” of your own. Never mind. No offense intended.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Take my comment in the spirit in which it was written…

            (Pox, pox, be poxed….not really…)

          • Darius Bott

            He took it, as is his readerly right, in the spirit in which it was NEEDED…

            Divine punishment is in the lowered eyes of the beholder.

            (These long stretches between drinks are dangerous.)

            [does html code work here?]

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Lowered eyes and a purposeful caning. ‘Nough said.

          • S Conroy

            I thought that was Sarah’s chapter.

          • Camille Gooderham Campbell

            [blinks] Uh, I’m just going to pretend I didn’t read this thread… everyone seems to be back on topic now.

      • Camille Gooderham Campbell

        Fixed now. Sorry about that.

  • “Good boy, Sartre.” was my favourite line in this story. I found it interesting and amusing. It was also remarkably topical of course. Wild horses couldn’t get my opinion of Donald Trump out of me. His evil twin though – he’s a piece of work 🙂

  • A very rare 5 stars from me.

    This was well executed. Funny, unique, and has the style of writing I find really engaging (stream of consciousness). I have no complaints about it being released at election time because the election didn’t leave me feeling desperate and adrift, and even if it had I think I could still differentiate.

    Good stuff

    • Darius Bott

      I agree the writing was engaging, but this wouldn’t be called “stream of consciousness”, would it? Third person subjective?

      I’m not sure if you can have an unreliable third-person narrator, but the tropacyte certainly introduced that effect: the validity of every single sentence is suspect, and in the professor scene, with his cliched elbow patches and pipe, it puts the reading experience into a sort of sublime suspension.

  • John

    Holy, this was absolutely brilliant. So much beneath the surface and I enjoyed the very cheeky writing voice. I had to read it a few times to fully appreciate it, but sensational, well done.