The presumably Russo-Lusophone man---the very one who had earlier delivered the canary colored envelope---opened the front door now without knocking. He was grinning, but it wasn’t obvious behind his cardinal red facemask. He switched on the bright light in the entryway, and said, "Not’ta bad guys!" He said it with an air of confidence and professorial encouragement, which always inspired Charles to passionately pursue his own greatness as a storyteller. There was no doubt that Petros was a hero to Charlie.

"Really good'a work you guys, seriously."

"I'm not a 'guy'," objected Emma as she walked into the foyer, wiping cold cream, fake blood, and makeup from her face with a damp cloth. Well at least she TRIED to say that, but it came out of her mouth as an unintelligible string of labiodental burps.

Emma peeled the prosthetic lip from her real lip and repeated "I'm NOT A 'GUY'!", this time with clearly discernible irritation.

"But I AM a guy," Charles retorted proudly, as if he had accomplished something just for that fact. Like a Boy Scouts badge or something. This irritated Emma even more.

Irritation was evident not only in Emma's voice, but also along the parts of her lower gums and lip that had been in contact with (and chafed by) the prosthetic lip for the last hour. She massaged her gums and lip for relief, as Your Narrator and Emma both--at once-- pondered the recursive semiotic pathways involved in creating such a prosthesis. The prosthetic lip would give its form to the flesh underneath, even after it had been peeled away and discarded.

The prosthesis' form mimics the flesh it represents, and in return, the flesh imitates the form of its own altered self. Art imitates life; life imitates art.

In the case of Emma’s plumped lips, they would imitate the aspect of making Emma "cock-penny" (‘talk funny’).

"Once more let me say, it was eh'fantasfic performance, both of you! We are all working with a very — how do you say inna English — uhh, Byzantinós’(? (βυζαντινός) also in English?) esstoryline. Not easy!"

"It’s ‘Byzantine,’ Pétros, Emma replied, "and you’re damn right it's Byzantine. And you're damn right that it ain't easy. Where do these writer-cadets get their bizarre ideas? There's not even a sensible story in there; we had to improvise almost every single element!"

She decided to dress down Charles a bit. She turned to Charles. "And improvise you did, Charles. You want to cast yourself as an accomplished promptwriter, Chuckface, and yet here you are, improvising the story itself — beyond coherence, mind you — despite your obvious lack of experience. Your thinly veiled characters--basically no different than you are every day--are such assholes that it makes me wonder which character is really you."

Then she added, "And hey: FOLLOW THE effing word count rules. Don’t waste people’s time with your driveling digressions."

"I don't have to; they're flexible; it's my birthday; haters gonna hate; and you’re not the boss of me."

He did have to; flexibility was limited; it was indeed his birthday two days prior, which fell within his self-imposed ‘truth-grace period’, a forgivable peccadillo, in any case; haters are in fact, by definition, going to hate, as a condition of their very existence as haters; and Charlie considered Nobody to be his boss.

Pétros sensed the spiraling digression that loomed, so he intervened, saying, "LISTEN YOU TWO! Yes, this first draft casts a wide net of characters, story arcs, props, and themes. So the net is tangled, so what? It’s exactly where everyone esstarts.

He smiled genuinely. "Producing a coherent story comes later. The point of this exercise was about how to MAKE literary babies, not how to raise literary eh’children into literary stalwarts. From here forward, seek to encourage and support each other in a silently negotiated collaboration. Of course, as usual you must not discuss the trajectory of the story outside of the story itself. It’s an undisussed agreement. Lead obliquely, whittle this story, and take it somewhere."

Pétros paused, sat in the living room, and lowered his cardinal mask. He produced a pipe he kept in his rear left pocket, stuffed it with a generous pinch of tobacco the color of cognac, and struck a match on the green slate tile at his foot. An absolutely heavenly Virginia broadleaf tobacco aroma curled from his nose and pipe, filling the room and relaxing all three of them. He puffed a few times, and quickly snapped his wrist to extinguish the match, in his effortless European stylishness. The pipe crackled hypnotically. He had their attention now, and so he began.

"You probably want to ask ‘what story exactly shall we tell?' My answer is 'what the hell are you asking ME for?' I won't tell you what your story is until YOU tell ME what your story is."

Emma and Charlie were both inspired at a comment they considered quotable and profound. But both of them took pains to never reveal their true vulnerabilities with each other, knowing that inspiration could be exploited by masterful storytellers. They were both secretly afraid that the other would become a masterful storyteller. It was the entire basis of their relationship so far.

"Look together at your script to find the strands that are most important to you. Ultimately it makes no difference what you want your story to be; the choice isn’t yours anymore, if it ever was. The story is not yours to choose; it's yours to tell."

"What do you mean?" asked Charles, awkwardly, feeling self-conscious about asking the question that Pétros must have practically assumed would be asked, as if scripted. His self-consciousness seemed warranted though, in light of the fact that Pétros seemed entirely ready to answer that question succinctly:

"THE True Story was chosen for us all, long ago. You’re not concocting a new story; there are none under the sun. And yet here you are, telling a story that seems new, that seems to be under your control. A fascinating paradox, no?"

Pétros was clever but not so clever as to come up with that profound statement so quickly. The reason it may have sounded scripted is that he had been crafting that paragraph for weeks for a book he was writing, "Esoteric Readings of Literary Self-Reference: The Sign of Postmodernism and Its Implications for Irreverent Academic Discourse in the Contemporary Printed Word". Coming up with the title was always the funnest part, and he relished his privilege to force his students to read his clever, sophisticated writing. And to make them pay handsomely for the chance to do so.

With his hands about in an effusion of authorial passion, Pétros stood up and continued.

"So work this paradox into your story itself! Always! It's the most important driving force of Story, this paradox of The Storyteller, he said.

"Consider, wouldn’t it disturbing to know that we are not in control of our own choices, and yet we depend on the assumption that we ARE in control in order to even to make those very same choices. Choices as mundane as whether we want fries with that, and as important as whether we will marry, all depend on this same paradox of choice. As human beings, as characters in the Universal Play, we are forced to operate as if both are true, knowing all the while that this is absurd. Further absurd is that we have NO CHOICE but to live within this paradoxical theater - no choice but to make the choice to ignore that we have no choice."

He coughed a few times to buy some time, having confused himself. He needed to change the subject before they started asking questions, so he clicked on his mental footnote next to the mental word ‘absurd’.

"Oh, I should clarify in case it’s ambiguous, self-contradicting ideas are defined technically in philosophy as ‘absurd.’ So, uh, say, we take Z. We would have a ‘Z’ in one column, and a ‘NOT-Z’ in the other. From the space between these opposing Columnar Z’s, all stories are born. The Z and NOT-Z are the twin guardians of the story, protecting the vulnerable zero — the womb — from external penetration into the story."

"Nazi . . ." mumbled Emma. It sounded declarative, but she was merely noticing that 'not-z' sounded like 'Nazi.' Her comment garnered no notice though, and luckily so, as it would have broken the soberness of the scene with a digression into unconstrained wordplay.

Pétros concluded. "In this gap will your eternal burden will lie." His voice trailed off then, and an absent stare came over his face. He gazed at the black slate tiles that lined the wall, as if they were speaking to him and as if he were listening intently, rapt. His face then abrputly softened. His voice began to change a bit, though, and Emma noticed. Pétros’ accent was now gone, as he said, with detectable sadness,

Your suffering will be exquisite and torturous all at once. These pains are the wages of your irreversible choice to tell a story that is true."


Pétros snapped back ‘into character,’ complete with accent. "Here's a copy of your draft with some markups and comments," dropped it on the coffee table, and stood up. "And now, I gotta go."

Emma immediately opened the envelope and flipped through the pages quickly.

He started toward the door.

"WAIT!" said Emma. "This is NOT the draft we wrote! What the fuck is this garbage?!"

They both looked at Charlie, whose egg-eating grin immediately hatched on his face, implicating him. "Okay well see what happened was . . ."

Emma and Pètros both sied and sat back down.

Charlie gathered his courage to admit his error. "Okay well see," he repeated, since it sounded like a good way to start a convincing and slightly self-exonerating plea. "I have this Google Chrome extension that I hacked together from Google Translate and an app called Simplenote. Don’t ask me how, but I lost hours of work because of that shitty app. Fucking Russians!"

Wincing, he added, "sorry Pétros, nothing personal. Anyway, the hack I wrote was supposed to save a unique version anytime a translation is applied. The deadline was coming up fast and I didn’t have time to go back and find the backup and start over, so I submitted what I could salvage. And so—"

Emma looked incredulous. "Stop. So you lost the last part," through clenched teeth. "That alone is bad enough. But what about all these extra characters, these — Who is Scott? What is SIGAR? What the hell did you do to our story?! And what is this hanging yourself crap?!"

"I’m getting to that part! God! Don’t be so uptight! So as I was trying to say, I accidentally hit the Translate extension and that overwrote the original somehow. I translated to Greek, but the menu file was corrupted, so when I selected English to undo the change, it actually picked Lithuanian. And so on through like eight languages. When I finally found the English one, I translated it back to English and submitted it right away. I knew it could make little grammatical changes but I had NO IDEA it would do that."

"Seriously, I’mma leaving now!" Pétros said. "The draft as it was submitted is the draft that I evaluated. It’s perfect for this, and in any case, you’ll have to use this draft and this draft ONLY, as the garden from which to harvest your story’s next telling."

With that, Pétros calmly walked into the kitchen, raised the chafing dish, and hurled it violently at the wall, denting it. "BUT new rule: NO chafing dishes. That isn’t ‘eh-cute’ anymore. Their literary function rubs me the wrong way." He raised his pipe, tapped his left lapel, and disappeared in a cloud of Virginia Broadleaf.

Emma and Charlie both grinned in shameful acknowledgment of Pétros concluding pun.

Unfortunately, Charlie hadn’t even read what he had submitted yet. He had been afraid to look, preferring the sort of terminal optimism that would probably get him into serious trouble one day. He asked Emma for the draft she was holding. She threw it at him and turned to the wall, in tears.

Charlie read.