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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.