AUTHOR: Michael Moller
TITLE: “God Complex”
GENRE: Comic Fantasy (novel, first chapter)
SYNOPSIS: After the creator of the universe becomes trapped inside an eccentric winemaker’s body, a shy winery employee must save the world from destruction by incompetence.
ISSUES: This first chapter is a hook meant to foreshadow the first plot point occurring around the twenty-five percent mark. I’m hoping to learn if it holds the reader’s attention, if the dark humor tone comes across, and how the overall voice feels. All comments are appreciated.
a novel (partial) by
The peacock came out of nowhere. A fireworks display of violet and emerald feathers erupted above Travis Frug’s windshield, filling the world with color. After the impact, the bird vanished in a magical feathery poof.
It took some time for his brain to react. His pulse quickened when he looked in the rearview mirror and confirmed, to his horror, that he had indeed made contact with the unmistakable fowl. Or maybe someone had accidently dropped a colorful trash bag full of feathers in the street. There couldn’t really be wild peacocks roaming around Napa Valley, could there? Of course this had to happen on his way to his first day of work at the winery. But why did it matter? People crushed animals on the road all the time, as proven by the thousands of pancaked woodland creatures dotting the asphalt in the area. Not like this though–this felt like assaulting an exotic zoo animal. He pulled onto the shoulder and backed up, then stepped out of his car. What the hell am I doing?
A gentle spring breeze took hold of several long tail feathers, which danced along the pavement toward Travis. The peacock filled the air with piercing staccato shrieks sounding not unlike a cat in heat. Its head jerked up and down in time with the cries, but the rest of the body remained motionless, partially soaked with blood.
Looking at the mangled creature struggle for its life, he felt a flash of guilt and kicked some dirt in the air. These things were like the royalty of the avian kingdom, the fashion models, the A-list actors, the drag queens. Calling animal control occurred to him, but he’d left his phone at the apartment as usual. Soon enough there’d be another car racing down the single lane Highway 121 on course to deliver another blow, and there was enough of a blind curve to ensure they wouldn’t see it in time. If he ran down the road a little he might be able to flag someone down, though he doubted most people would stop for a stranger flailing his arms, even a harmless looking twenty-something wearing a Polo shirt and khakis. It wasn’t the best plan. There wasn’t any time for this. He started to turn back toward the car when he heard a man’s voice call out from behind.
“Ain’t no good thing ’bout hitting a cock in the road,” he said as he walked toward Travis. He was elderly man with only a few rotting teeth. He carried a gnarled wooden cane and wore a rainbow Rastafarian hat. “Reckon that’s some bad luck for you, kiddo.”
Travis jumped, having no idea anyone had witnessed his heinous crime. He staggered back as the old man shuffled toward him at a surprisingly brisk clip. Please just leave me alone.
“Looky, that there cock ain’t quite dead yet.” He pointed at the bird with his cane. “You gonna need to kill that feller for good. No bones about it. Hell, I’d do it for ya, supposin’ you ain’t got the grapes for it, but this old body just don’t move like it once done.”
The thought of putting the peacock out of its misery made his stomach turn. He looked at his car, which beckoned him to run toward it, get in, slam the door shut, and find comfort in its warm protective steel armor. The old codger had a point though, euthanasia seemed like the most responsible thing to do for the poor creature. Plus, if he made it quick enough he might get to work just on time. But it was a ridiculous notion to suggest that he, Travis the Pure, who had never intentionally hurt a living creature, could dig deep enough to find the intestinal fortitude required in violently snuffing out a life. How would he do it anyway? Where would he start? Besides, it was dangerous out there on that blind curve.
“Reckon the fastest way is to crush his head with your heel. Figure you need to be sure you slam it down hard enough or you might just make his day even worse. I’ll holler at you if I see a car coming at’cha. Go on then.”
Nothing came out when he tried to respond. He reminded himself once again how debilitating his damned social anxiety disorder could be in situations like this. What he wanted to say was: I’m sorry sir, but as much as I’d like to end that beautiful bird’s life in the most humane way, I lack the hard-earned resilience that comes with, oh, living on a farm–or being one of those crazy survival guys on TV who drink their own urine and use live cobras as tourniquets. The words formed quickly in his mind, but all that finally emerged was a weak, “Uh huh.”
“Go on then. More you dilly dally, more the cock hurts.”
“But I think–”
“I said go on then! Use that noggin and think if you was out there with half your guts spilt all over like spaghetti. That’s what they call empathy, kiddo. Or is it sympathy? Hell, don’t matter. ‘Sides, I tell you that there cock is different. Special. I can feel the critter from here, ready to have his pretty little soul released into God’s own critter heaven.”
After taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly through his nose as his psychologist had instructed for times of deep stress, Travis bolted out into the middle of road and stood above the dying peacock. He looked into the tiny onyx stone eye staring back up at him, grimaced, then positioned his foot so that his heel hovered a few inches above its entire head. Slowly, with a wobble, his leg came up into position.
“Truck’s a-comin! You best put that foot down hard and fast.”
A strange wave of warmth consumed him just then. All of his worries vanished, as if he were on some kind of powerful narcotic. And he knew, without explanation, that the feeling originated from the bird he was about to stomp. The old man was right, there was something special going on inside it. Maybe there was hope after all, maybe he could save the poor thing?
“Gonna git yourself squashed out there, goddammit!”
The panic returned. Something had to be done before the truck rounded the corner. Hands shaking, he scooped up the pile of feathery flesh and dashed back toward the highway shoulder, holding on tightly. He stumbled and took a dive as the truck zoomed by.
“You lost your damn mind or what?”
He lifted himself off the ground and picked up the quivering bird. “I’m… sorry.”
“Sorry’s exactly what you will be. That cock wants to die. Reckon you gonna find yourself in a mess of trouble now. Deep in it.”
Trying to ignore the old man’s shouts as he walked to his car proved impossible, since the warning echoed in his head. Deep in it. He opened the passenger door and laid the bird gently on the seat. There had to at least be a chance, however small, to bring the animal back from the brink. That crotchety old geezer didn’t know what he was talking about. Doctors don’t kill their terminally ill patients if they know there’s a chance to save them. Surely someone at work might know of an animal hospital that could administer some emergency poultry treatment.
He was going to be late for work if he didn’t get on the road, but the peacock just kept staring at him, pleading with that one little beady doll eye, its head twitching and its beak opening and closing rhythmically.
A thump on the window snapped him back into focus. The old man’s head appeared, face contorting into a pruned scowl. “You best hope you never feel that kinda hell, what he’s goin’ through now. Best hope some folks–better’n you–might put you down swift n’ true when the time come.”
The clock read nine-fifteen. His new job might have been over before it started.
Elephant Tears Winery showed off its majesty with massive columns leading up to a trellised, ivy-covered stone building. A creek flowed under an oriental wooden bridge along a winding trail toward the vineyards. Somehow, the landscape artists managed to combine Tuscan, Greek, and Asian styles in a way that didn’t cause a visual culture war.
To Travis, it was just another gaudy Napa shrine to Dionysus. He preferred the less conspicuous wineries, the ones that greet you with a rotting nineteenth century barn. It didn’t matter, he’d take any first step required in becoming a vintner, heck, any chance to get a job in the industry at all. A wine bar attendant was his last choice, since it meant dealing with wave after wave of drunken tourists, but he had to start somewhere. If he could even start at all. Being thirty minutes late on the first day didn’t make the best impression.
He let the familiar anxiety pangs wash over him as he sat in the parking lot. The best course of action would be to simply find the wine bar manager, apologize, explain the morning’s events, and politely ask if he could call someone to help save his dying peacock. Chances are they’d understand. They might even get a good chuckle out of it. Peacock Travis is what they’d call him–you can’t buy that kind of icebreaker. Or he’d get fired on the spot and humiliated in front of the staff.
Time didn’t allow for the usual procrastination. Rent was due soon, money was short, and his wheelchair-bound father had to be fed. Living in a single bedroom Oakland apartment with his father as a roommate didn’t do much for his love life–or any other kind of life for that matter. The goal, which sometimes seemed like far-flung fantasy, was to become successful and stable enough to inspire his father to move out and get his own job, either through guilt or pride–preferably the latter. Whenever people brought up their living arrangement, Travis was careful not to mention the fact that he had been at fault for crushing his father’s legs in the most senseless of car accidents. Taking care of him, even when he couldn’t afford it, became the best form of penance he could muster.
He looked down at the peacock at his side, struggling for every breath, and thought of his father’s shallow dog-like panting as he stood helplessly pinned between the crushed fender and the side of the Circuit City building. Two years of therapy couldn’t block that image completely, but its frequency and detail had abated over the last few months.
“Why do I even drive?” he asked the peacock. “All I do is hurt everything.”
With a pounding heart, he cracked a window for the peacock, opened the door and jogged toward the front entrance, deciding to get it over with quickly, like hopping into a freezing lake. The jog became a brisk run and finally turned into a sprint. Luckily, at such an early hour, no tourists were around to see him dash like a frothing madman trying to escape some imagined pursuer.
At a few yards from the tall, intricately carved oak doorway, a booming voice called out from the sky. It came from several directions at once.
He came to a halt and looked everywhere for the voice’s origin. There had to be speakers hidden somewhere, carefully camouflaged within the architecture. But there was such a rich clarity to the tone of voice–which possessed a hint of British inflection–that it might have come from somewhere in his immediate vicinity. Perhaps the acoustics at the entranceway had caused an omnidirectional sound effect.
“You will not enter through the front door. I have other plans for you.”
There was an excruciating pause. Plans? All Travis could do was continue to keep his feet planted on the marble flooring, searching uselessly for any sign of life. The only person he could see was a field worker in the distance, pruning the breaking buds on an old-growth grapevine trunk. Couldn’t this mysterious British guy just simply greet him in person?
“Travis, are you listening to me?”
“Uh… sure. Yes,” he said to the sky.
“Brilliant. Because it’s of the utmost importance that you follow my instructions to the letter.”
The peacock’s time was running out. Disembodied voice or not, he had to make an effort. “Okay, so you can hear me? Please, this is kind of a strange request, but–”
“Silence! You will speak no more.”
“Okay. But it’s an emergency. I have a peacock in–”
“Rubbish. There is no emergency but the one you face right now, with me, because you refuse to follow my directions. One more word and you’ll terminate any chance of employment. Do you understand?”
Travis said nothing.
“I asked you a question. Do you understand?”
“Are you daft? Why won’t you answer me.”
Of course he couldn’t answer if he couldn’t say a word. The question became whether or not his tormentor was unaware of the catch-22, or if it was all just a cruel game–the later seemed most likely.
“Wait, I said you couldn’t talk, didn’t I? Put you in a bit of a pickle there. Well think of it as your first test. You passed, so congratulations. Now let’s move along to more relevant matters, shall we?”
“Let’s see here, where was I? Oh, right. I wanted to direct you to my office. To your right, you will see a beautifully manicured boxwood shrub, clipped into the shape of an elephant. Find the open mouth.”
He walked toward the life-sized elephant bush and found the gaping mouth under its trunk.
“Now, put your arm into the open mouth. After enough feeling around you should find a switch. Flip it.”
Shoving his hand into the elephant bush mouth, his fingers fumbled through the twigs and cobwebs, until finally coming across a tiny metal toggle switch. He flipped it, then yanked his arm out to shake off any potential spiders.
A deep rumble of mechanical parts sounded from below, like a garage door opening. A large fake boulder next to the elephant began shifting to the side, revealing a narrow staircase leading deep into the ground.
“Good job he didn’t bite your hand off, eh gov?” The voice laughed. “I’m going to assume you know what to do next. I wonder sometimes if I should add another door with an eye-scan lock mechanism at the bottom of the stairs. As clever as this system is, it’s not exactly secure is it?”
Travis descended the stairs until he came across a long cellar hallway with American oak barrels stacked in threes on both sides. He inhaled deeply to soak in the wood’s fragrance, allowing himself a moment to escape from the morning’s uncertainty. Maybe later he’d get the chance examine the barrel labels closer.
“It felt like a good plan at first. How many people do you think get the idea in their head to shove their arm in a bloody bush? Maybe one in a thousand at the most. Kids, of course, would be more inclined to explore such a fantastical notion, especially considering its an elephant. Lord only knows how many playground animal statues I molested as a lad. That’s why I made sure it was too high for anyone under around ten years old to reach.”
The hallway seemed to go on forever, and so did the voice, whose owner made himself seem more and more incompetent with every word.
“That isn’t the only secret cellar entrance you know, just in case you thought that. It used to be a secret to everyone but me and the contractor who built it, but it’s just too cool not to show off, am I right? I’ve got tons of secret passages and cubbyholes and nooks around this place. Some of them I can’t show off, much as I’d like to. Maybe someday you’ll get the clearance. Oh brilliant, looks like you’ve nearly made it. Just before the main cellar, you’ll see a door on the right with a flat screen television attached. That’s my office. I’m going silent now, but you’ll need to listen to the television for further instructions.”
The imposing, intricately carved doorway stood at least twelve feet tall–more like the entrance to a mansion than an office. It looked more spectacularly expensive than the front doors to the winery itself, and appeared out of place in the otherwise spartanly decorated cellar. Attached to the left door, at eye level, was a flat screen television displaying a computer generated cartoon elephant head waving its trunk from side to side.
After a few moments the elephant head flickered, grinned widely, and began to speak.
“Good day to you–Travis Frug–and thank you for visiting the office of Monty J. Randal the First, Cellar Master and General Proprietor of Good Taste here at Elephant Tears Winery in beautiful Napa, California.”
At least the floating voice had a name and face to go with it now, cartoon elephant notwithstanding. He couldn’t help but think he’d stumbled into one of those cruel television prank shows.
“In order to accommodate your request to meet with Mr. Randal, you must answer a series of questions designed to confirm not only your general wine knowledge, but the depth of camaraderie you share with certain grape varietals in their incredible journey from vine to glass. If you answer two of three correctly, the door will unlock automatically. If you fail, the door will remain closed, and you’ll have botched your attempt to visit Monty Randal–in which case you will be permitted to try again in exactly twenty-four hours. I wish you the best of luck.”
“Please, Mr. Randal, If I could just borrow a phone real quick and call in an emergency, maybe we could continue this… whatever we’re doing, later?”
The elephant flickered again. “You have made an unauthorized statement. Question number one: What is the origin of the zinfandel grape.”
“Wait… I know this. I had a professor who was a zin freak in tasting class. I think they discovered its original domestication somewhere around Turkey?”
“Incorrect.” The elephant picked up a wine glass from off screen with its trunk, then dropped it onto the unseen virtual floor below. The resulting high-pitched shattering noise made Travis wince.
“The correct answer is: The Caucasus region.”
“Oh, come on. That’s basically the same thing. Listen, I’m really sorry but I just can’t play this game right now. I’m going back to find someone I can borrow a phone from. I hope this doesn’t affect my job.”
His chest pounded as he turned to walk back down the hallway, expecting an angry reprisal from the eccentric British elephant guy named Monty. He couldn’t believe those words had come out of his mouth, since usually, when he became frustrated enough, they’d just get scrambled into a jumble of nervous mono-syllable mumblings. Maybe it was the act of talking to a goofy pachyderm face that removed his usual verbal handicap. If only everyone in the world could wear cartoon animal masks all the time–it might cure him completely.
The door opened behind him. “Wait, come back Travis!” This time the voice clearly came from a person. “I just wanted to show you the Gatekeeper Lock. Come on in.”
The office contained a dizzying amount of unrelated items displayed on the walls, not unlike those casual restaurant chains trying to charm their customers with quirky old-fashioned tennis rackets, canoes, and giant novelty baseball pennants. But this room took that idea to an entirely new level. Among the objects was a golden surfboard, a colonial musket, two complete sets of samurai armor, a zebra skin, and an eight foot tall portrait of a nude woman with the head of an elephant. The rest of the office looked like a high-end cigar room, with dark leather furniture and hand-carved walnut woodwork.
Behind a commanding mahogany desk sat Monty, immaculately dressed in a glossy pinstriped suit. He was a large man, with a barrel-chested frame and a pronounced beer gut. His heavily-jelled spiked blonde hair looked out of place on his receding hair line.
On his desk, along with a fifty-inch computer monitor, sat several cans of Kidney Fuel brand energy drink. He guzzled one until the last drops tickled his tongue.
“You simply must try this new diet,” said Monty. “Someone posted it on the Chardonnay Weekly forums. It’s called the six week energy drink diet. Absolutely unreal. Two forty ounce energy drinks right when you wake up–the regular kind, none of that sugar-free rubbish–five for lunch, a six hour nap in the afternoon, then a sensible, well-balanced dinner. The best part is the science actually makes sense.”
“Oh, that’s okay, I’m trying to stay off the sugar these days. Can I borrow your phone?”
“Off the sugar? Are you mad? The latest research suggests that sugar is actually the healthiest nutrient known to man. When you’re on this diet, the sugar rush revs up your metabolism in the morning, see, and continues throughout the afternoon. It also makes your insulin levels go loony. Now, most so called nutritionists out there would tell you that’s a bad thing, but they haven’t done the real research, have they? They just parrot what they’re told by other nutritionists. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“Oh, but my manners,” said Monty, standing up and moving toward Travis with arms outstretched. He hugged him with a powerful squeeze. “You’re about to be part of the family, so it’s time to celebrate. I just so happen to have a two-thousand Chateau Lafite-Rothschild I couldn’t finish last night. Fancy a taste? I’d join you, but the energy drink diet prevents me from having any more than a glass or two in the evening. Must be vigilant on this thing, you know. No exceptions.”
“Oh, no thanks. I’d really just like to use your phone. Wait, a Lafite-Rothschild? Seriously? That has to be at least a thousand dollars.”
“More like twelve-hundred if I remember right,” he said, pouring the wine into a glass and handing it to Travis. “You’ll note a hint of cat urine on the nose, but that fades into a lingering suggestion of black pudding sprinkled with all-spice. Don’t be surprised when you’re hit by freight train of soapwort, just overwhelming really, until the more subtle flavors start crawling around your tongue, like wattle seed and geranium. The finish will send you rocketing back to childhood with the dense concentration of Lucky Charms cereal.”
It was the most outlandish wine description Travis had ever heard, though he’d never been entirely confident in his palate. Countless times he’d succumbed to the dreaded Taster’s Block, which felt tantamount to eating a steak with a condom on his tongue. In such cases he’d simply agree with whatever other people told him the flavors were. But now he was sure.
“I’m not getting any of that.”
Monty gave him a satisfied look. “Yes you are.”
“Nope, sorry, can’t say that I taste any of that at all. To be fair, I have no idea what soapwort or wattle seed are. And I can’t say I have a clue what a geranium tastes like. So, about that phone.”
“Oh, you silly monkey. You tasted all those things, you just don’t realize it yet. We’ll have to work on that palate of yours, won’t we? Your resume said you went to school for this. I haven’t taken a single wine class, and look how sensitive to detail I’ve become. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.”
Even the mildest of confrontation never sat well with Travis, especially with those in positions of authority, so he’d do what came naturally and just agree with this pedantic oddball. “I hope so. Anyway, like I was saying earlier, I have a peacock in my car–”
“A peacock? In your car? Well that’s quite a non sequitur isn’t it? Don’t hear that everyday now, do you?” He laughed.
“I know, right? He’s badly injured because I hit him with my car. So what I’d like to do is borrow your phone to call an animal, uh, place… where… because… so it’s dying and I think I’ve wasted time, not that you wasted my time because it was great getting to taste a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and everything, but this is really something important to me.”
“Well bugger me! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? But I can’t let you borrow my phone.”
“What? Why not?”
He grinned. “Because what would be the point when you’ll already have your own brand new company phone.”
As if performing a magic trick, Monty produced an expensive looking smart phone from his coat pocket, along with its charger. He handed it to Travis.
“I programmed it myself. The first number in the phonebook is mine. I made it easy to call me–there’s a big picture of my face on the screen.”
“I get my own company phone? Really?”
“Of course! What kind of cheap operation do you think we run around here? Never part with it. I’m serious, you must be available at all times. I forgot to charge it though, sorry about that. Hey, let’s go see that peacock at the car park. I’ll call an animal shelter myself if it looks dire enough.”
As they walked down the cellar corridor, Monty put his arm around Travis’s shoulder. “You and I are going to be best mates, I can tell already. Any bloke with the bollocks to pick up a peacock off the street and drive it to work with him has my full respect.”
“I just couldn’t leave the poor thing.”
“Right. You have compassion. You’re an animal lover, just like me. That’s another reason we’ll get along so well. Hey, I want you to know something very important.”
Travis prepared for yet another avalanche of words.
Monty inhaled deeply. “I’m not your boss. I don’t have anything to do with the wine bar employees, nor do I have the authority to fire them. So to be clear, there’s no conflict of interest in our relationship whatsoever. I want you to be completely at ease around me.”
Relationship? The last thing he wanted was any kind of relationship with this person. On the plus side, since he wasn’t the boss, maybe he could avoid him most of the time.
“Oh no, that reminds me. My sister Vanessa pretty much runs everything around here, so you’ll want to find her after this peacock business. One of her biggest pet peeves is tardiness. I’ve seen her fire people for being two minutes late. So you’re on shaky ground, I fear. She might let you stay if you tell her I held you up, but there’s no guarantees. I wish I could do anything else to help, but Vanessa doesn’t listen to me. None of this means we can’t still be best mates.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?”
Monty bowed his head. “Terribly sorry, I didn’t really think about it till just now. I had to show you our fabulous hidden speaker system and the Gatekeeper lock on my door. They’re quite stunning, really. State of the art.”
Travis resigned himself to the fact that his day’s fate became tethered to a wounded peacock and a raving, over-caffeinated British eccentric with neediness issues. Employment didn’t seem likely.
They arrived at the car. Surprisingly few loose feathers covered the interior, although a peculiar sulfur-like odor wafted from the open window. Travis opened the door to find the colorful bird hadn’t moved an inch. Its torso still undulated with rapid breathing movements, but the rest of the body remained stationary. There could still be hope.
“Bloody hell,” said Monty. “If the poor bugger bites the eternal cheese, do you mind terribly if I have him stuffed? He’d look divine in my office. I’d pay you for it, of course.”
“I don’t know. Please, just call someone.”
But Monty didn’t go for his phone. Instead, he just stood there staring into the peacock’s eye, arms straight down at his sides, head cocked to the left, jaw creeping open. Drool began streaming from the corner of his mouth and attaching to his tie. It looked like he was auditioning for the part of a zombie.
Without warning, Monty tumbled to the pavement and started trembling. Soon his limbs flailed uncontrollably and he let loose a barrage of incomprehensible grunts. His eyes became a bloodshot crimson.
A jolt of terror struck Travis’s chest. The first instinct was to run for help, which he started to do, fearing an epileptic episode just took place.
“Travis!” A voice called from behind. It didn’t sound like Monty.
Now on his hands and knees, but still wobbly, he peered up at Travis through his eyebrows. “Trapped inside.” The British accent had disappeared, replaced by a nondescript American voice of no particular region.
“No escape,” said the new voice.
“I’m going for help. Just stay right there.”
“No! Stay. Help me understand. Help me find the exit.”
“What exit? What do you mean?”
“I must leave… now.”
No answer. He coughed violently and shook his head while standing up. Bleary eyed, he looked at Travis with a confused stare. “I feel a bit off. Did I just pass out here in the bloody car park?” The British accent had returned.
“You, uh… well you might want to lay off those energy drinks.”
“Nonsense. The diet’s just starting to work.” He turned to look inside the car. “I’m so sorry. I think your peacock gave up the ghost.”