An excerpt from a novel I’m writing, tenatively entitled Leviathan, which will be out whenever I manage to finish it. Warning: coarse language (just the way you like it…)
Twenty seven thousand and five feet above England and dropping fast. A mad lurch in his stomach and Charlie Cox, grinning wildly, wonders if he isn’t responsible for a miracle.
Go back twenty minutes and ten thousand feet. The interior of a very large airliner, economy class, some nebulously immense distance between San Francisco and London. 500 miles an hour and still not halfway there. Charles Evans Cox, named after a Supreme Court Justice and wearing a green baseball cap, sits in an aisle seat, limbs crammed in a space too small for his not especially massive frame, staring at a black glass slate and fidgeting. The little television, the sole thing keeping the flight mildly tolerable, has frozen up, and an attempt to reset it has resulted in nothingness, Charlie’s own slightly fuzzy visage staring back at him from a few feet away, a severe expression, a thin line of a lip curving towards a frown. The last thing he wants to see. Gaze drifts around to the people next to him, high school students, napping through the unnatural lateness of the hour––they’ve long since tired of mocking the name of the innocent airline currently bearing them above the Atlantic, and by extension the stewards and stewardesses wandering about the cabin–– and thus nobody to talk to. Too dark to read. A groan, and then a last resort; a pen from a backpack, a thin sheet of lined paper plucked from a notebook. The fold out plastic tray comes out, and––sighing as he realizes that this probably won’t last him nearly long enough––Charlie Cox begins to doodle.
A ship, a castle, a bit of a geometrical oddment that means as little to Charlie as it might to anyone else. In short ten minutes of passable time––and then Charlie looks up again at the dark screen, the dark cabin, considers the gentle throbbing of his ass cheeks, and begins to write out a simple non-Haiku over and over again:
I want this fucking flight to be over.
I want this fucking flight to be over.
I want this fucking flight to be over.
Once, twice and nothing. A third time nothing seems to happen until Charlie forcefully plants a period behind Now and the pilot comes over the intercom. A British leavened version of the jocular refrain universal to all pilots. The altitude, and the weather, and the announcement that they will be on the ground shortly. A number of bodies throughout the cabin grunt, jerk upward in shocked, pleasant surprise. Charlie wonders if this is some sort of implausibly timed joke, and then, as promised the plane starts to descend. Incredulous window shades pop open and brilliant morning sunshine floods the cabin. Several hundred people wonder if they can really have been lucky enough to fall so thoroughly asleep as to last through such long flight. Charlie Cox wonders what the hell is going on. Then after a minute it occurs to him not to care, simply to enjoy the fact that they are here so far ahead of schedule. Because after all his knee jerk reaction can’t possibly be right.
This throws him off for about two weeks. Not that it doesn’t occur to him to try to use his gift; not an hour later, stuck in the interminable snaking customs line at Heathrow he starts to doodle out ‘I want to be at the start of this fucking line’ in the naked air, but nothing happens and after a moment Charlie notices a gruff faced, ancient wraith of a woman staring dubiously at him. He stops.
For the next week Charlie Cox is in London, and the world blurs. A high school theater troop let loose in London can’t experience anything but a blur. Piccadily Circus and Big Bend and the little cards prostitutes stick in phone booths to advertise themselves and the London Theatre and the giddy realization––on the part of the seniors at least––that they can legally purchase and imbibe alcohol. Chaperones attempt to stop them, but of course they fail. Charlie is not yet 18, but this doesn’t prevent a great quantity of hooch from tumbling into his presence, and down his throat. In the pleasant fog of drunkenness the thought of writing anything, of touching pen anywhere close to paper, doesn’t come close to his head. Except, on a drunken Monday night, well into Tuesday, when an acquaintance––almost but not quite a friend, but pretty and thoroughly intoxicated and caught in a momentary lull in conversation––stumbles brokenly on about the unexpected shortness of the flight, and Charlie Cox leans forward in a not quite Platonic way, and whispers that the arrival was his doing. An expression of drunken incredulity which Charlie picks up on, but––faculties slightly addled––he soldiers onward, explains the white bit of paper, the stanzas of ‘I want this fucking flight to be over’ and the miracle. The girl watches him talk with polite incomprehension, then at the end, bursts out laughing. “Oh fuck Charlie you’re funny when you’re drunk.” a barbed mirth, “And you are fuckin’ drunk.”
And somehow in the moment this makes sense to Charlie Cox––a drunken figment of his imagination, a mirage, a nothing–– and so it is put off a little longer. No attempt at further magic is made, or even considered in London, nor even on the unnecessarily interminable flight home; this time out Charlie least has a functioning television, and though he has ample time to dwell upon such things he can’t quite bring himself to haul out pen and paper and make the flight end. He doesn’t really think he can do it.
It’s not until Charlie Cox is back on American soil, back in school, that an appropriately pressing moment––one with the possibility of total annihilation––will prompt him to again try his hand at rewriting the world.
Charlie Cox lives in a fetching nonentity of a town called Pleasant Hill, located in the Eastern Suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Bucolic suburbia of the highest, most stultifying order––cool trees, endless winding avenues and––an incongruous flatness imposed upon a gently declining slope––a high school.
The high school is not special; merely a collection of squat one story buildings, situated between the relatively imposing massiness of a cafeteria and a gymnasium and flanked on all sides by parking lots and athletic fields and the long oval of a track circumnavigating a football field, a thousand people drive buy it every day without a second thought.
Charlie Cox, being sensible and moderately ambitious, hates the school with every ember of his being. Charlie Cox’s ambition is tempered by a certain laziness, undermined by the fact that he is not quite so clever as he likes to imagine. And so––undermined by the pleasant delusion common among clever high school students that one ought to try and get into Harvard––Charlie Cox has allowed himself to go a bridge to far. To whit: Physics. Charlie Cox doesn’t have a goddamned idea how to do physics. And yet at the beginning of the school year he had gravitated naturally towards the subject, spurred on by the sense that the word physics would decisively bolster the impressiveness of his transcript. He has compounded his folly by taking an honors course––the dread letters A and P before the course title should have scared him off but didn’t––and so now via the course he has buried himself in tremendously deep shit. Actually the little vacation to Europe was the bridge too far, since it required him to miss a week of classes. He had been told by every last one of his teachers, as though in a chorus, not to neglect his schoolwork in London, not to allow himself to fall behind… But of course the moment he had set foot on the plane all thought of Economics, or Statistics, or advanced French, or Jane Austen and certainly of physics had been lifted from his shoulders. Only to come crashing down with ruinous force seven days later. And so more shit to do than Charlie Cox can possibly do. A sort of a desperate triage becomes necessary––Charlie Cox concentrates on completing those assignments that he can complete halfway well, and more or less ignores the dread subject where he is likely to screw up anyway. All of which makes perfect sense right up until the moment Charlie Cox is handed his physics midterm.
Charlie Cox has no idea how to do the first problem.
Not the faintest idea in hell. Half read, half remembered explanations for things come bubbling up from his memory, but crumble before they can be put to any practical use. Charlie Cox, too clever by half, but now not half as clever as he needs to be, at least for this… Pencils scratch enviably around him, heads down, engrossed in accomplishable work… Charlie hops forward to the next problem, praying that question one is just a fluke, an anomaly––but of course it’s not. Rising panic. Question five turns out to be unexpectedly answerable, as is question seven, but after an hour Charlie comes to conclude that he definitively does not know how to do sixty percent of the test. A gulp of raw disbelief, and on to the desperate options for salvation. Prayer is rapidly vetoed as laughably ineffectual. Going up and simply asking the teacher for answers––or mercy––is even more rapidly ruled out. That leaves––what the hell does that leave?
At this point Charlie Cox remembers the airplane. Impossible… But then again, so was the test… He flips over the test paper and on the back writes:
I want my answers to be right.
I want my answers to be right.
I want my answers to be right.
He then goes through and takes absurd stabs at the questions––for a half page long question requiring an almost embarrassing amount of math he simply scrawls out three and a half. For the next question, for absolutely no reason, he writes out 1974 not bothering with the requisite comma. And so on. When the absurd farce is finally over Charlie manages to make it a full hundred paces out of his classroom before he goes weak at the knees. “Holy hell, what have I done?” He doesn’t quite shout, but the words come out loudly enough to attract the attention of all those around him to the figure suddenly curled into a tight ball against the railing.Charlie doesn’t notice the attention; he’s more concerned by the fact that he is, for the moment, certain that he has lost his marbles. And then––because certainty of one’s own madness is a psychologically untenable state–– the self justifications come:
You didn’t know how to do any of it…
Your score can’t be any worse…
He might not even read the back…
And then the crowning one of all:
Fuck it, it worked the first time…
With the last one he breaths in very deeply, stands, wobbly to his feet, tries very hard to suppress a scream. Or something. What the hell to do? There’s nothing left. Somehow this is enough to puncture the swelling bubble of agony within Charlie and he exhales, walking away from the thoroughly befuddled faces that surround him.
It takes two days for the class to come around again, two days of pure agony. Waiting for the mockery to come back, the purest hell of all. It’s all he can do to drag himself into the classroom on his own two feet. Sur-reality. He stumbles over to the table on which the tests have been arrayed and steels himself up for––
B minus. He stares at this dumbfounded for a few moments. The last grade on the earth he’d expected. Talent should have gotten me an F, a D tops, magic should have gotten me an A+… And then he sees the note scrawled at the bottom:
Dear Mr Cox:
Yes all your answers were correct. But in order to get the grade you deserve you’ll need to do a better job showing your work––JR.
An exultant howl of laughter. Charlie’s lost it, somebody whispers, quite loud enough for Charlie to hear, but he doesn’t care. The heavens open in Charlie’s mind and choirs of singing angels descend, chorusing hallelujah! hallelujah! Charlie Cox is God.
Charlie Cox is not God.
But he’s close. Certainly close enough that sussing out the exact differences between his own powers and those of a deity is amusing.
Where do you begin? Where does Charlie begin? A solid two minutes after the test––suddenly both relegated to the past and rendered incredibly picayune in the grand scheme of things––Charlie, still standing in the middle of a hallway and giggling like an idiot, begins to quietly, rationally consider the possibility that he may have magical powers.
He pinches himself first, because––well, frankly, the possibility that he is asleep really does make a hell of a lot more sense than any other possible explanation for what is going on. But somehow the world around him fails to dematerialize into a darkened bedroom and disappointment, and Charlie again finds himself giggling. A troupe of sophomores wandering past stare at him but he pays them no heed. After a minute more he remembers himself, trudges back to his physics class, grins in perfectly contented disinterest as an appalling boring hour and forty minutes drift past. His mind of course isn’t there. Instead he stares down at a piece of paper and begins to imagine limitless possibilities…
Vast notions of wealth, power, ease and whatnot immediately flood in. But Charlie Cox does not quite give in to the desire to act upon them. Not yet anyway. To go from hoping for a passing grade on an exam to willing oneself vast earthly wealth or incalculable power seems… Presumptuous. Like asking for trouble.
Instead Charlie Cox decides to start small. Very small. Writes multiple times that he wants an addition pencil, and that he wants it on his desk as a coda. And, instantly obident to his whim, the universe conjures an extra pencil on his desk. No smoke, no puff of anything, it’s simply, un-showily there. Not even sharpened terribly well, though in the moment this goes unnoticed. Charlie has to work very, very hard to stifle a scream of triumph.
Charlie Cox seriously thinks of prestidigitating himself out of the class there and then, but he holds back for a dozen interlocking reasons, many of which will seem, in retrospect, to be laughably absurd, such as a childish fear that he might somehow fail, spectacularly, and have every last person in the room staring at him as though he is batshit crazy… And then there’s the part of him that wants to crow, to tell somebody… The class lets out and Charlie begins a long, wandering loop around his school before retreating to the grassy knoll next to the library where he and his friends eat lunch. Half a dozen times he starts to say something, but holds back, because he still can’t quite believe it himself, even though a perfectly functional number 2 pencil cavitates within his restless fingers, a talisman of his own sanity. Charlie Cox forces himself to make normal smalltalk about the normal absurdities of teenage life. Several people comment upon his unusually buoyant mood; still quashing an ever strengthening desire he merely references the B- on the test and friends (several of them also in the class) nod sagely and in one or two instances express envy that he managed to pull such a high score out of that fucker.
French class proves all but unendurable.
After that though he is free. Hitches a lift back to his house with a friend, to whom he confides with a grin that he’s having ‘one hell of a day’ though when quizzed on this point he is vague in the extreme. The friend doesn’t care. Just deposits him at his doorstep and drives away with a wave, and Charlie Cox is in his house and performing magic…
It is worth noting that at this point Charlie is a mere shadow of the colossus that he will eventually become. But this is only natural. Take any ultimately mundane skill––driving a car, learning to write your name, standing up on your own two feet––and you can be certain that a person will be fairly terrible at it, at least for a while.
Charlie attempts to levitate books with wobbly results, attempts to conjure a $5 bill but notes on close examination that the filigree isn’t quite right. (Also on not so close inspection Abraham Lincoln is Grover Cleveland.) Even the conjured pencil will prove to have a worn eraser and what would appear to be inexplicable toothmarks. (For the record it will be a long, long time before Charlie even thinks about trying to transport himself anywhere via magical means.) He orders up a copy of Hamlet that, upon inspection, really does appear to have been written by a large army of monkeys. But such misadventures don’t deter Charlie in the slightest, and, of course practice makes perfect. Charlie rapidly sucks through every available pit of scrap paper in his room, and then realizes triumphantly that he can simply create paper more out of thin air (it’s grey and not college lined, but at this point he is not about to complain.) To begin with Charlie Cox labors under the ultimately false assumption that he actually needs pen and paper to accomplish magic. Write something out three times, include a bit of nonsense at the end, and wait for something to happen. This is reasonably effective––sufficient, certainly––though it will hold Charlie Cox back for some weeks…
Though to go into too much detail on this point would be to get ahead of ourselves.
Little setbacks, small inabilities somewhat temper Charlie’s enthusiasm for his newfound ability. Certainly they prevent him from attempting to add another wing onto his house, from impelling an astoundingly fancy car into his driveway. He considers, momentarily trying to conjure something living––a hamster or a small mouse both spring into his head as possibilities––but he thinks of his attempts with the book and the $5 bill and he does nothing.
Charlie Cox’s parents come home in rapid succession a few hours after Charlie does. His father X is a Y; his mother is a school librarian of all the damned things in the universe. Charlie doesn’t tell them a thing, doesn’t alter a thing in the family areas of the household, except to create a six pack of Cherry Cokes (one of which he furtively sips to ensure that it does in fact taste like it’s supposed to.) His mother comes in, asks him how his day went, and is in no way surprised or suspicious when he provides an evasive answer. (Her son is a teenager, after all.) Charlie Cox forces down a meal then rushes upstairs, both to get his homework out of the way. Charlie magically wills into existence an essay on the Federal Reserve’s response to 1970s stagflation, but the grammar of the resulting piece clearly leaves something to be desired, and Charlie winds up spending nearly as much time ensuring that the information is in fact accurate as it would have taken him to write the article in the first place. The same goes for answers to a Statistics problem set––Charlie is somewhat surprised to see that the larger universe seems to write the number seven with a strike through it, in the European fashion. Still once these particular pills are over he goes straight brainstorming interesting ways to practice with his new found magical powers.
Here a somewhat amusing coincidence: in his more youthful youth, Charlie Cox had been a magician. He had performed in school talent shows and the like, and even though he had not taken to the stage in years there’s still a bag full of magic tricks lodged in the bowels of his closet. He unburies these and starts to play with them. After several unsuccessful tries Charlie successfully empales a fully inflated balloon on a needle so large it could reasonably double as a sword. He even manages a somewhat effective performance of the linking rings in midair without the benefit of direct human manipulation. It is about here that there’s a knock on the door and Charlie’s Mom comes in, even as the rings go plunging from the air. “Oh,” Charlie’s mother says as she sees over-sized playing cards and circles of metal scattered around Charlie’s floor. She raises an eyebrow, “You haven’t touched those in years?”
It’s a question, and Charlie manages to force out a good answer. “I just came across ‘em.” He says, somewhat smoothly. “Just figured, what the hell, see if I still had it.”
His mother shrugs. “Okay then.” And after a pause: “have you finished your homework?”
Indeed Charlie has.
Over the next few days Charlie continues to practice, continues to hone his ability to bend the universe to his will. After three days he works up the nerve to skip a day of school––sending in a wholly fictitious phone call from what sounds like, but is not, his mother––and then he wanders off, into the hills, and… Does things. Hills expand and dales contract and the reverse and many other things besides. Hikers wandering through Briones Regional Park for some time thereafter will wonder if there isn’t something bloody wrong with their maps. Charlie Cox, now in the flower of confidence in his ability to do whatever the hell he wants quits the park that evening wondering why he is bother telling his parents a cock and bull story about what he’s been up to with his day.
Charlie Cox is not God. Through repeated experimentation he determines that he cannot force people to do things against their will––mostly a fact that he determines by attempting to psychically convince both of his parents to leave the house at the same time, or shower him with loose twenties, experiments that both fail utterly. Frankly this is weirdly reassuring to him––while godlike powers are undeniably fun, the idea that he could do literally anything, with or to anyone, on a whim is ultimately sort of unnerving. Charlie Cox is oddly happy to know that there are in fact some boundaries. And yet at the same time this will prove to be deeply problematic, especially in light of what is ultimately to come…
Charlie Cox before power, fame and less desirable things begin to crash down on his shoulders. He is human. And just to look at him one wouldn’t imagine him being much more than that. He is not particularly tall, not particularly short. He has black hair, brown eyes, is just very slightly pudgy, as is virtually everyone else in an overfed society. Just sort of there, at least at a first glance. But you could say that about a lot of people. Talk to him, before IT happens, and he projects an air of reasonable pleasantness, leavened periodically with a fairly acerbic wit and a reasonably honed cynicism, but this is in line with any number of other teenagers.
As is common for reasonably witty teenagers he likes to show off the fact that he is reasonably witty. He does not quite comport himself in a way that allows for close classification within the Byzantine system of of recognized high school cliques, but if you ask him he consider himself a nerd, and a geek, and someone who could not possibly be considered cool at all, and he gravitates towards the company of others who feel the same way. He plays video games, hikes a bit, hangs about with friends, and tries not to let rancorous mountains of homework get him down. He engages in various extracurriculars––not out of any particular passion, but because they are part of the kabuki dance necessary to enter a decent college. An exception to this is a penchant for theater––it’s an outlet for his inner ham, and from a young age Charlie Cox has gotten a certain rush out of throwing himself up in front of a large number of people and not making some kind of spectacular mistake. At first blush it’s a little surprising that he should be so immediately recalcitrant to make his powers known to the world; but then again at least half the appeal of acting for Charlie has involved flirting with a dread fear of making a fool of himself in front of a crowd. And besides in spare moments he already finds himself wondering as to how he might reveal the magnitude of his powers to the world… (And when the time comes the result will be spectacular, to say the least, but the results of the show will prove more than a little problematic.)
He is more intelligent than average, though perhaps not so much so that it would really make him stand out in a crowd.
Of course these things won’t last. Charlie Cox has been blessed with one and only one truly exceptional characteristic; but that thing allows him to become exceptional in any other way that he should choose, and it is beyond normal human restraint to forgo the ability to make oneself spectacular entirely. Charlie Cox is both contented and cautious enough that he doesn’t immediately seek to completely redesign himself. But the hour is coming…
And yes, there will be a girl involved.