THE SHAMING OF CONRAD 25 • by Dale Carothers

When his mother opened the door, Conrad didn’t know whether he should close his laptop or cover his lap with the blanket, so he did half of each. “Can’t you knock?”

“I’m your mother, I don’t have to knock.” She scanned the room. Posters of famous authors filled the gaps between the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Asimov, Le Guin, Zelazny and Delaney kept watch over the varied army of action figures. “What are you doing?”

Conrad hunched over. “Nothing.”

His mother strode across the room and opened the laptop. After a moment she said, “Open the blanket.”

“But, mom, I—”

“Now.”

Conrad let the blanket fall away.

His mother gasped. She walked over to the door and opened it. “Steven!”

His father’s voice was faint. He was downstairs in his office. “What?”

“Get up here!”

Conrad sat frozen with shame. It was bad enough being caught by his mother.

His father appeared at the door. “What’s going on?”

“Look at what I caught your son doing.”

Conrad felt a hand on his shoulder as his father leaned over him, looking at the screen and then Conrad’s lap. He let out a long exhale. “It’s all right, buddy, lots of kids—”

“Steven! Don’t do that. He should be ashamed. I thought I told you to talk to him about this.”

His father spun Conrad’s chair around and took his place near Conrad’s mother.

His mother waved a hand. “Go ahead.”

“Son?”

Conrad looked up. “Yeah?”

“In this family… we don’t write fan fiction.”

Conrad’s mother, Rachiel Hibbing, had a best-selling series of novels set in the Petrachian Cycle universe. Cosplayers and burgeoning writers mobbed her at cons, and often camped out on their lawn. Conrad’s father, Steven Hibbing, wrote literary science fiction full of impenetrable meaning and obscure references to long-forgotten stories from the pulps, and he used the word postmodern more than anyone else in the universe. Conrad had been named after the main character in Zelazny’s This Immortal, and after 25, a popular minor character in his mother’s series.

Conrad held up the action figures of the Mighty Thor and Belldandy from Ah! My Goddess. Thor was from Conrad’s collection, but Belldandy had come from a box of his older sister’s stuff in the attic. She was off at college and didn’t know that Conrad was touching her stuff. “Just listen for a minute, okay. Both universes have Norse themes, so I thought—”

His mother raised her hand. “You can do what you want when you turn eighteen and move out, but this,” she waved a hand and frowned, “is not happening in my house.”

“Maybe he’s doing some kind of ironic, postmodern interpretation,” his father said.

“Are you kidding me? That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“He’s just a little boy, he’s experimenting.”

“That’s what you said when you wrote that Star Trek novel?”

His father’s face went white. “You said we didn’t have to talk about that anymore. You said you forgave me.”

“I’m sorry you had to hear that, Conrad. But it needed to be said. You needed to know about your father’s… indiscretion.”

His father raised his fists. “I used a pseudonym!”

“There’s no need to yell. I just don’t want our son to think that it’s okay to be unoriginal.”

Conrad’s father deflated. “I’m sorry.”

Conrad’s parents hugged.

“I’m sorry too,” his mother said. “I promised not to throw that in your face anymore.”

“It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not.” She leaned in close and whispered. “Later tonight I’ll come into your office… and we can co-write a story set in my universe.”

“Really? I’ve been asking for years to—”

She held up a hand. “Don’t spoil it by talking too much. We still have our son to deal with.”

They walked over and stood on either side of Conrad.

“You understand what you did wrong?” his father asked.

“Yes.”

“And you know what you need to do?” his mother asked.

“Yes.”

His mother put her hand on his shoulder. “Show us.”

Conrad opened his laptop, and with shaking fingers keyed Ctrl-A. He hit the delete key. Five pages of prose gone. Just like that. He took a deep breath and sniffled.

“Now save, so you can’t get it back,” his mother said.

Conrad’s hands hesitated over the keys.

“Kill your darlings, darling,” his mother said.

Conrad keyed Ctrl-S. His chin dropped until it rested against his chest.

“It’s okay, son,” his father said. “You’ll come up with something new.”

“Can I be alone for a while?” Conrad asked. “I need time to brainstorm a new idea.”

His mother kissed him on the head and his father gave him a reassuring pat on the back, and then they left.

Conrad replaced Thor on the shelf amongst all his other action figures, vintage and in-box mixed with new ones that’d been worn down with use. He sat on his bed, holding Belldandy. Life was so unfair. And his father? What a hypocrite. What a total dick.

His father had read to him—dragging in his lectern, and giving dramatic readings, voices and all—for as long as Conrad could remember. Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness lay on Conrad’s bedside table. They’d been working their way through Zelazny’s classics for the last month, and they never failed to thrill.

Upstairs in the attic, Conrad opened the box of his sister’s stuff. As he laid Belldandy in the box his fingers brushed a deck of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards held together by a rubber band.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Creatures of Light and Darkness. The Egyptian connection.

Two worlds and two stories began knitting together in his head.

Before he let the story go too far, Conrad made a plan to hide his dirty secret.


Dale Carothers lives in Minnesota with his wife, Sara, and an emotionally demanding beagle. He provides independent living skills for adults with disabilities and eats way more cake than he should.


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