SHORT STORY: THE TANDEM FICTION ASSIGNMENT

by luketarassenko

This is one of the best things I have ever written (so far). That may not be saying much, but you might find it funny. 

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A famous anecdote about a tandem story writing assignment, where a man and a woman had to write a short story in tandem, taking turns to write a section each, sometimes does the rounds on the internet.

You can read about it, and the original piece, here:

http://www.snopes.com/college/homework/writing.asp

Here’s another one. You can read it here or on Wattpad.

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THE TANDEM FICTION ASSIGNMENT

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Assignment: For this exercise, collaborate with the partner I assign you on a short story, taking turns to write three pages each. The story can be any genre, with any characters, premise and plot that you want, and your partner must continue on organically from what you write, and vice versa, each time you swap. This will teach you to write in different genres that you are not familiar with and about the way that other people write.

*

Stephanie was excited. Tonight she was going out for the first time in months, at last putting an end to a socialising drought that had gone on far too long. She had been invited to go out dancing by some of the girls from work and she was particularly excited because Darren, from Human Resources, was going to be there. She thought about him now as she dried her hair with her hair-dryer and applied her lipstick to her lips with expert skill at the same time. Darren was so very dashing: tall, with broad, muscular shoulders, arms that looked like he worked out at the gym, deep blue eyes, rugged facial hair, and astoundingly handsome, well-chiselled features. She let out a little sigh, inaudible under the sound of the hair dryer. He was so dreamy. And that was just his looks. He also had the personality to boot. Darren was kind, funny, and self-confident.

She wondered if this might be the night when she would finally snag him, when he would finally make his move on her. She had been flirting with him for weeks, having ‘chance’ encounters at the water cooler, throwing him sly, suggestive glances now and again, and making sure that they were in all the same meetings. He had to be interested in her; she knew that he was. After all, who wouldn’t be? She was a catch. She was gorgeous, clever and funny, with a successful, high-paying job and a promising career. She was an absolute catch. Wasn’t she? Never mind that she hadn’t had a boyfriend in over a year. She just hadn’t met the right guy yet.

Until now. Now she had met Darren. The latest phase in her love life had just been a temporary blip, and tonight that would all change, anyway, she told herself as she selected a dress. Nothing too tarty, she still retained her self-respect and trying too hard never worked well with men. In any case, she was a powerful, independent, 21st century woman; she didn’t need to demean herself in order to lure him in. Her looks and personality would do that by themselves. She was going to go out and get him. She had seen what she wanted and she was going to take it. She settled on a classy little red number which accentuated all her best assets but also left a healthy amount to the imagination, and slipped it on.

She inspected herself in the mirror. Her brown locks curled round her shoulders. Her lips were red and big. Her bust was full and prominent. Yes, she looked stunning. She was a knockout. And tonight was going to be her night. How could Darren not fall for her in this dress? Tonight she was going to make her catch. She frowned in the mirror. There was only one problem, one small obstacle standing in her way, one little irritant frustrating her in the attainment of her goal…Veronica.

Veronica, one of her colleagues who worked in Sales. Tall, blonde, and buxom, Veronica was highly proficient at ensnaring men in her wily, treacherous, seductive clutches. And Stephanie knew that Veronica had her sights set on Darren too, She had been using all the same tricks on her, and she was clearly after him as well, the crafty minx.

Stephanie considered all this as she put her sexiest leather jacket on over her dress and went to find her car keys in her bedside table drawer. Veronica would almost certainly be there tonight. How was she going to stop Veronica from ruining her plans, from getting in her way and preying on Darren? She knew that, given the proper chance, Darren would choose her over Veronica–really there was no contest. Veronica may be superficially good looking and have a certain whorish appeal, but she was utterly shallow and really quite a nasty piece of work at the end of the day. Stephanie, on the other hand, was thoughtful, deep, caring and compassionate; she never spoke badly of people and was always able to see the best in them. She just needed to show this to Darren, She just needed to find a way for him to get to know her properly. Then Veronica would be thwarted. Then Darren would be hers–she was sure of it.

She began to concoct strategies for how she could do this as she got into her car and started the ignition. While she drove to the station, she reflected that the key would be to engage him in conversation as much as possible. She was a quick-witted, intelligent woman, and as long as she got the chance to demonstrate this, she would be fine. That way she could keep his attention, maybe give him some initial hints to warm him up, rub his arm, hold eye contact, that sort of thing. She would get him to buy her a drink and then proceed from there, coaxing him onto the dance floor when he had fully fallen under her irresistible charm, and then making her proper move there. It would be easy!

Her heart was racing and her breath was quick with anticipation by now. She parked her car and then got out and walked into the station, fumbling in her purse for her oyster card and tapping it on the ticket barrier as she went through. While she descended the escalator to the platform she could feel her pulse pounding in her ears. She hadn’t felt this alive in a long time. The tube train was predictably very full, but she managed to find a seat squished in between a businessman commuting home late and a teenager reading a Kindle. She looked up, and who should she see opposite her but…

 

…an enormous, green and purple dinosaur. Stephanie’s puny mind was completely blown. What was this fantastical creature doing here, in the middle of her boring, completely predictable life? She nearly let out a scream. Why was nobody else reacting to this massive dinosaur? At the same time grotesque and comic, it had big, pointy teeth, ridged spines down its back, a huge tail and two beady eyes. The other passengers simply continued to stare blankly straight ahead or carried on with what they were doing. Could nobody else see it? What was going on? The dinosaur was looking right at her. She didn’t know whether to call out for help, or get off the train or just stay still where she was. All that rubbish about going out for the evening and Derren and Victoria or whatever their names were had gone out of her mind. Here she was being confronted by something far more interesting, far more worthy of her attention. The Universe was challenging her and she had a chance to exert her own free self in the face of it, to show what she was really made of, to become who she was really meant to be.

A voice spoke in her mind without warning, and somehow she knew it was coming from the dinosaur sitting in front of her. It was deep and snarly, but with a tinge of a French accent, again both horrible and amusing all at once.

“Greetings!” said the dinosaur in her mind. “I am the evil demon of Cartesian hyperbolic doubt, in dinosaur form. I am your gateway to a far more interesting, far more important, mind-expanding world that far suprasses the pathetic little preoccupations to which you have thus far devoted your measly existence. But in order to enter into it, you must first defeat me! Choose now whether you will face the challenge or shrink back into pitiful mediocrity!”

Stephanie’s mind raced. A forked decisional path lay out before her. Should she run away and get out of here, away from this absurd monster that had just materialised before her? Or should she stand and face the creature and see what treasures it was guarding? She found herself on a knife edge. She had never felt so…free.

In spite of herself and the trivial pursuits with which she had until recently been filling her time, she was intrigued by this new offer of a portal into a larger, greater, more wonderful world.

“I will fight you, demon,” she thought inside her head.

“Good!” said the demon to her telepathically.

Stephanie jumped at the noise of something like a cross between an electric organ and the first ‘pop’ of a thunderclap. A big golden warhammer appeared in her hand. It was encrusted with jewels on the hilt and had runes carved into the head.

“Here is your weapon,” said the demon in his baritone snarls.

Stephanie looked around her. The other passengers on the train still seemed completely oblivious. No one even took a second look at her. They remained utterly passive, engrossed in their newspapers, their devices, or nothing at all. How could this be? Were they blind to the rest of the world? Were they even real?

“Why can nobody else see you or my weapon?” thought Stephanie.

“They are blinded,” said the demon in her mind, “by their own apathy and ignorance. They have not yet awoken to the true possibilities of independent thought and philosophical enquiry. Or, perhaps, as you think, they are not even real. This is your first challenge: To defeat me, you must answer these questions: What if reality as you know it is an illusion? What if all the people you know are mere fictions of your imagination, or the result of the deception of me, an evil demon who can alter and manipulate your sensory impressions at will? What if nothing is ‘real’, like in that well known film the title of which is a copyrighted trademark and which you watched that one time when you were a teenager? To defeat me, you must answer these questions!”

The train carriage around Stephanie distorted and morphed, the people disappearing along with  it, and all of a sudden she found herself in a stone-tile-floored arena, in the middle of an empty coliseum, the heat of the sun beating down on her.

The demon rushed at her, roaring, this time with its mouth, “Nothing that you know is real! All is an illusion!”

Stephanie dodged out of the way and rolled to avoid the monster’s charge, with a dexterity that surprised even her. She had no time to think about how strange this all was–she had to attend to the problem at hand.

“Reality can’t be an illusion!” she said to the demon, brandishing her warhammer. “It’s all I’ve ever known!”

“Yes,” said the demon, coming at her again and throwing a clawed swipe at her head, “but what if ‘all you’ve ever known’ is a lie?” Stephanie ducked, then side-stepped two more swipes to the left and the right. “Has that never crossed your mind? What if there’s another ‘reality’ that your mind has been closed off to?”

The demon paused for breath and Stephanie saw her moment. She struck at its abdomen. “But that’s just silly!” she said. “I mean, I have dreams all the time, and I’m perfectly able to distinguish those from waking reality!”

The creature leapt clear of her strike, high into the air, did a backflip, then came back down, landing behind her. “Ah, but what if your waking experience pertains no more to an actual objective physical world than your dreams do; what if it just feels more real?”

“Oh,” said Stephanie. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

The demon caught Stephanie a driving blow to the back and she shot forwards, collapsing in a heap on the ground some distance away. Her body thrummed with pain. As she gritted her teeth and pushed herself to her feet, she could hear the demon running up behind her.

“I suppose,” she said as she spun round and dodged another punch from the demon, “that I can’t really prove in any way that reality isn’t an illusion.” She dodged another. “But as long as it’s the sensory experience that consistently presents itself to me…” Duck. “…it’s the best I have to work with…” Sidestep. “…and I have to assume and trust that it’s as ‘real’ as I’m going to get for the time being…” Jump. “…since all other speculation and conjeecture is a pointless, navel-gazing, over-introverted, collosal waste of time!” With this she brought the hammer round and up hard, smacking the evil demon squarely in the face. “Take that, evil demon of hyperbolic doubt!” she yelled.

“Argh!” cried the demon. “Nooo! You have defeated me!”

Then it exploded in a shower of sparks, its last words coming out just as it did so:

“Continue on to your next challenge!”

Just at that very moment…

 

…Stephanie woke up.

She looked about briefly in confusion before getting her bearings. She must have fallen asleep on the train. What a weird dream she had been having. Thank goodness it was over now. She was glad to be out of it; it had been so strange and random. She must have nodded off because she had been working so hard lately. Luckily, she had been woken up by the announcement of her tube stop.

Quick as a flash, she stood up and left the train. She made a mental note to go to bed earlier tomorrow night to avoid falling asleep and having bizarre dreams like this again.

It was only a short walk to the bar where her work colleagues were meeting. Inside, she gave a uniformed girl her coat and surveyed the scene. The bar was roomy and dark, lit only by candles dotted around the room in little jam jars. Very romantic. Modern artworks hung on the walls, illuminated by the soft candlelight, and tables filled the room in front of the bar area, most with customers already seated at them. And there, over at the far end, were her work colleagues, standing around conversing, drinks in hand. There was Trish, the brunette in a floor length black dress that didn’t suit her at all. Rob, in tieless shirt he had probably had on at work too, fidgeting with the straw of his cocktail. Steve, Amanda, Courtney, Geoff; they were all there. Stephanie took a deep breath and strode over to them. This was her night, she reminded herself. She was a strong, sexy, sassy, brainy, independent woman. No one was going to stand in her way.

She greeted her colleagues with a smile, radiating warmth and personality. She swapped some pleasantries with them. She had this. This was going to be her night. But…where was Darren? He must not have arrived yet. She turned around to look for him, and there was–

Veronica. Dressed like a slut, all blonde hair extensions and botoxed lips, practically bursting out of a tiny white tube top that pushed her bosoms up towards her face.

“Oh, hi there, Steph,” said Veronica. On paper it was a perfectly innocent greeting, but Stephanie could hear the malice dripping from every word.

“Hello, Veronica,” she said. “So glad to see you could make it. This should be a fun night, shouldn’t it?”

“Yes. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.” At this Veronica leaned in close, making as if to continue walking past Stephanie but drawing near to whisper something in her ear. “I know you have,” she said in ice cold tones, “and if you even think about making any kind of move on Darren tonight, I will take you down. He’s mine. Back down, bitch.”

Veronica moved away, leaving Stephanie with her mouth open and eyebrows raised. She regained her composure as quick as she could. Veronica! How dare she? Who did she think that she was? This time she had gone too far. Stephanie wasn’t going to ‘back down’ so easily as that. Darren was hers for the taking, she knew it. She was the better woman and she was going to have him. She wasn’t about to be intimidated by the threats of this plastic surgery predator. If that was how Veronica was going to play it, Stephanie would show that she could play ball too. She decided to go the bar to get a drink, but before she could do so she heard another voice behind her.

“Hi, Stephanie.”

Stephanie nearly jumped. She turned to look behind her. It was Darren. Fortune was in her favour tonight.

“Darren, hi!” she said, expertly masking her surprise and girlish thrill at seeing him with a dash of nonchalant charm. “So good to see you! How are you doing?”

“I’m well thanks. Sorry I’m a bit late, I’ve just come from the gym.”

“I’ll bet you have.”

“Pardon?”

“Oh, I mean, don’t be silly, you don’t need to apologise for nbeing late!” Stephanie laughed, patting Darren on his enormous bicep.

This is brilliant, she thought. He’s made straight for me. Think fast. Don’t mess this up, Stephanie. You can do this. This is your night. What was next?

“Would you like me to get you a drink?” she asked. “I was just on my way to the bar.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you. I was going to ask if I could get you a drink? I am the man, after all.”

Stephanie giggled. Her voice rose. “Oh, Darren, don’t be so twentieth century! This is a gender-equal age we’re living in now.”

Darren chuckled back at this, and Stephanie felt her face lighting up.

“Alright then,” said Draren. “I’ll have a glass of red wine please.”

“How sophisticated. I’ll be back in one moment.”

“Why, let me accompany you.”

They ambled over to the bar together. This is going so well, Stephanie thought. He hasn’t even said hello to anyone else yet–he’s only spoken to me! And he wants to come to the bar with me! Her intuitions must be right. All the signs were there. She must not mess this up. What next?

She ordered their drinks at the bar. “Do you go to the gym often?” she asked Darren.

“Oh, no, only about five times a week. Just enough to keep me in shape. How was work today?”

“Yeah, good, thank you. Everyone’s behaving themselves at the moment, anyway, so I can’t complain.” She handed Darren his drink and they clinked glasses. “Cheers.” She looked deep into his dreamy blue eyes.

“To tonight,” he said, and the blue glinted.

“To tonight,” she echoed, a hot blush rising in her cheeks.

“Darren! Is that you?”

Oh no. Veronica. She had spotted them.

Veronica marched right up them and gave Darren a kiss on each cheek, wobbling her chest in front of him in the process like some kind of butcher putting meat on display to potential customers.

“Hello, Veronica,” said Darren, smiling. What, a positive reaction? Even after the moment they had just shared together? This wasn’t good. Not good at all.

“I’m so pleased that you could come,” said Veronica. “It’s such a great place, isn’t it?” She pivoted on her foot and gestured with her arm, which went straight into Stephanie’s glass, knocking her wine all over her and down her dress.

“Ahhh!” exclaimed Stephanie in a highly unladylike way. The wine was a darker colour than even the poppy red of her dress and it went all over it, staining it horribly.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Steph!” said Veronica. “Clumsy me! Here, let me help you clear that up!”

“No. no, thanks!” said Stephanie. “It’s ok, I’ll sort it out myself.” Stephanie shot a look of what she hoped was utter hatred at Veronica. That scheming witch. What was she going to do now? She needed to see how Darren would react. Everything would hinge on that. She looked at Darren, who said…

 

…“What is the meaning and purpose of your existence?”

Stephanie was admittedly slightly taken aback by this question. For the second time that day, something out of the ordinary for her boring, facile world was happening and she was being invited to contemplate something more significant than merely what her puny mind was used to. It didn’t have anything to do with wine, or romance, or the tedious love triangle she was enmeshed in.

“Excuse me, Darren?” she said.

Just then a gigantic tank crashed into the restaurant/bar, whatever it was, shattering the windows on the way in and crushing several of the customers underneath its caterpillar tracks, instantly killing them. Since they were background dressing devoid of personalities, nobody cared.

Everyone screamed. Police cars followed close behind the tank, sirens blaring, and several men in black balaclavas jumped out of the tank and started firing guns at them.

Stephanie and Darren hit the deck, taking cover from the gunfight.

“What I mean is,” said Darren, answering her question, “have you considered what the actual point of your life is, why you exist at all, or are you just drifting through it without giving that any thought?”

“Well, um, er, I mean, uh…” said Stephanie eloquently, gunfire sounding overhead.

“Life is so fragile and brief after all, we can’t afford not to reflect on what it’s meaning might be. Take those people who have just been killed by that tank, for example. Their existences have just been snuffed out, so quickly, in an instant, without warning. It could happen to any one of us, at any time. Life is too short not to spend at least some of it figuring out if any of it really means anything.”

Stephanie’s breath had been taken away. So Darren wasn’t just a superficial, poorly-executed two dimensional stereotype after all! He actually had some depth!

“Why are you saying this to me, Darren?”

The police had gotten out of their cars now and were returning fire on the balaclava-clad men from their own handguns. Bullets were whizzing past above them. There were sounds of glasses shattering. Carnage.

“I’m presenting you with your second philosophical challenge,” said Darren. “Do you remember your dream on the train?”

“How do you know about that?”

“It wasn’t a dream. Well, actually, it was, but that’s the point: You successfully overcame the first epistemological challenge to come up with a working solution to the problem of whether or not the world is an illusion, distinguishing dream for reality. Congratulations! Now for the second challenge: You must come up with a working answer to the ethical question: What is the purpose of life?”

From her place lying on her front, hands held over her head to brace it and shelter her from the stray falling glass and debris, Stephanie looked with new respect at Darren.

“How do you know all this?” she asked. “How did you know about my dream on the train?”

“Because I’m a secret agent for MI5 and also a member of their crack philosophical psychonauts division. In fact, my name isn’t Darren at all. Darren’s a stupid name. It’s actually Jack. Jack’s a good manly name for a secret agent. I specialise in solving problems to do with mind-body dualism and teleological metaphysics, as well as advanced in-field counter-terrorism combat. Speaking of which…”

Darren/Jack jumped up from his own place on the floor, ran over to one of the men who had gotten out of the tank who was looking in the other direction and swept his legs from underneath him with a low kick. He grabbed the man’s gun in mid-air, shot him in the head, then shot the next nearest terrorist in the chest and grabbed his gun, all in one fluid movement.

“Here, catch,” he said to Stephanie. She caught the second gun. “So that’s your mission: come up with a purpose for your life. Are you going to accept it?”

As another terrorist rounded on Darren/Jack, raising his weapon, Stephanie unloaded a couple of rounds into him, astonishing herself as her own killer instincts kicked in.

“I gave up wondering if there was a purpose to life a long time ago,” she said as she turned back to Darren-Jack. “I mean, who says that life has to have meaning? Why bother wasting a load of time agonising over whether it has any meaning or not and just get on with living it, enjoying it?”

Darren-Jack picked up a live grenade that had been thrown at them from behind the crashed tank, threw it back in the direction it had come, then grabbed Stephanie, diving to the floor with her again to get clear of the explosion.

“Not good enough,” he said. “Everyone works with some kind of functional purpose to their lives. It’s intellectually insincere not to examine it. As Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’” He picked her up again and they ran over to join the police, ducking and dodging on the way.

“Oh,” said Stephanie with her usual level of articulacy. “Well I suppose that’s my answer then: Seeing as I don’t think there’s any grander or higher purpose or meaning to life, I try to enjoy my life as best I can, and I generally try to be a good person. That’s the purpose of life, from my perspective: to enjoy my life as much as I can and to be a good person.”

For the third time that evening, Jack-Darren took Stephanie in his arms. He threw himself into her, knocking her once more to the ground in order to save her from being shot by one of the terrorists who had been keeping his head low. He rolled as they landed, took Stephanie’s gun from her, and came up firing both it and his own at the same time. The black-clad man fell. “That’s not good enough either,” said Jack-D. “Who’s to say there’s any meaning behind your own selfish pleasure and ‘being’ a good person at all? Why choose those aims instead of any other possible aims? They just happen to be what you’ve settled upon, but they are completely arbitrary. They could just be what you’re pre-programmed to aim for by evolution. Who’s to say that they have any inherent worth, purpose or meaning of their own?”

Stephanie took her gun back from Jack. “Well, there you go then. My working hypothesis is that there is no meaning to life, whatever you choose to do is completely arbitrary, with regards to ‘purpose’, so you might as well just pick something and get on with it. Try to infuse it with as much ‘purposive’ character as you can. Life’s purpose is what you make it to be.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Jack. “That’ll do as a provisional, existential answer until something better comes along. It’s not very satisfying, but at least it’s honest.

Just at that moment, all of a sudden…

 

…it went completely quiet. Thankfully, the horrible fighting and gunfire had all died down now, and normality returned. They had been so out of place at this work party in a pretty London bar. Stephanie had been shocked, but then cautiously pleased, to learn that Darren (for that was his proper name, the first name she had known him by) was a secret agent. She supposed that it made sense, now that she thought about it: His robust physique, his intelligence, his wit, his charm. The only thing that didn’t quite fit into place was why he had been working for her company’s HR department, but she would figure that out later. She was less sure about his philosophical jabberings, which had come completely out of nowhere, like the terrorist attack, but thankfully those had now stopped too.

The gunfire had died down because the police had now dealt with all the terrorists and rounded them all up. The last one had his head pushed down inside a police car and was driven away. What a relief.

Unfortunately there was no natural way to return to the normality of the party from before, now that this event had happened from so out of the blue. Stephanie wondered if this episode, too, had all been a dream and if she had fallen asleep while trying to sort out the red wine stain on her dress, but concluded this was too improbable to have happened twice in one day. Amazingly, the terrorist attack had really happened. Her work colleagues and the other surviving customers of the bar began to pick themselves up and the dust themselves down, each beginning to process the evening’s events in the context of their own rich inner lives and well rounded personalities.

Luckily nobody had been killed or suffered any serious harm. Some of the police had stayed behind and, joined by some paramedics, were passing out blankets to people and advising them about what to do and how to look after themselves now that they had witnessed this terrible incident. They were also taking statements for evidence from those who felt they were able to deliver them. A young woman clutched a dressing to her eye while her lips moved frantically, recounting the events of the evening to the constable in front of her. No doubt a news crew would be on their way soon as well, and Stephanie would have a chance to tell the story to the international papers. Darren helped the police, retrieving a blanket from one of the ambulances and coming over to wrap her in it.

“Here you go, Steph,” he said, and Stephanie’s heart did a little flutter as he used her nickname for the first time. He secured the blanket around her shoulders himself and Stephanie imagined his strong arms embracing her, enveloping her, holding her tight. In a stroke of fortune, the blanket covered up the red wine stains on Stephanie’s dress. Darren held two corners of the blanket just under her chin and looked her full in the face. Stephanie wanted to rest her forehead against his. His chiseled features seemed to twinkle in the flashing lights from the ambulances, and his blue eyes shimmered. He looked as though he were about to kiss her on the mouth.

Someone said “Darren, can I have a blanket too?”

It was Veronica. Again!

“Oh, of course, no problem,” said Darren, chivalrous as ever.

Where had she come from? If there was one person Stephanie would want to have been killed in the attack it was Veronica. But no, it was not to be. Of course. That would make things too easy and straightforward and unexciting, and Stephanie would not really wish death even on her own worst enemy, in any case.

Darren went to retrieve another blanket and Veronica edged closer to Stephanie. “What are you playing at?” she said through gritted teeth. “I warned you about Darren. He’s mine. I will make you pay for this, Steph. Back down. You’re outmatched.”

“We’ll see who’s outmatched by whom,” said Stephanie, congratulating herself on her excellent use of grammar. She wasn’t going to let herself be intimidated by this prideful hussy. “Darren’s an intelligent man. He’ll make the right choice.”

Darren returned with a blanket for Veronica and as he drew it around her shoulders she caught one of his hands and drew the blanket around both of them.

“You must be cold as well, Darren!” she said. “Why don’t you share this with me?” She pressed her body up against his and pulled the blanket in tight. Darren’s eyebrows raised, but his body settled no less easily into the shape of Veronica’s curves. A white heat exploded in Stephanie’s guts. What? How dare she? How could she be so brazen?

Darren gave a nervous laugh and then threw a glance sideways at Stephanie. Yes! That must be a sign! He really liked her, not Veronica! Or was it just that he was embarrassed to be approached in such a forward way by another work colleague? The problem was that Stephanie had no real way of knowing, because she hadn’t yet made her own proper move on Darren. And now Veronica had beaten her to it. Curse her own refined sense of modesty and dignified tact!

A lump formed in her throat. Time seemed to slow down. A choice presented itself to her. It was now or never. She could maker her move, or risk losing Darren to Veronica, possibly forever. But it was a huge gamble. If she said something and she was right, and Darren really did like her, she would get happiness, romance, passion, ecstasy and fulfillment. On the other hand, if she said something and she was wrong, and Darren didn’t like her, she would put her heart on the line and have it terribly, brutally broken, her dreams ruined, and she would be horrifically humiliated and made to look like a fool in front of her worst enemy and two people she had to see every day in work to boot. What should she do? Could all of that flirting, those a-bit-longer-than-usual looks and suggestive gestures, over the last few weeks really all have been in her imagination? Could she really have made them all up? Unless she acted now, she might never know.

“Um, by the way Darren…” she heard herself saying. Not the most elegant start. But she couldn’t pull back now. She had committed, she had started saying something. Unless she found something else to mention instead and diverted course… No, it was too late, the next words were already forming on her lips! “I was wondering if you…er…might like to go out on a date with me sometime?”

Nonononononono! That was not how it was meant to come out! She was a sophisticated, independent woman! She was supposed to tease the date invite out of him, or offer it in a much more empowered way, not like a snivelling little teenager approaching her crush for the first time!

But there it was. She had said it. It was out there now. She looked at Darren. His eyes were wide with surprise, no doubt at the oddness of the context and her clumsy solicitation. Veronica had turned bright red and her jaw was clenched shut. Very smoothly, Darren withdrew himself from the clutches of Veronica’s blanket and….

 

…leapt at Stephanie, grabbing her and leaning her over as he caught her. Elated, Stephanie noticed for the first time that his canine teeth were much pointier than most people’s. In fact, they were not teeth at all, but fangs! Lingering over her neck, Darren-Jack leaned in close to Stephanie and said in what she could have sworn was now a Transylvanian accent “Why bother with going ‘out’ for a date, my dear? Why not fly back with me to my castle where we can enjoy a night in in my secret dungeon instead? For you see, I am not actually a dull blue collar HR slave, or a secret agent at all, but rather in fact I am a billionaire megalomaniac triple agent fetishist vampire called Vlad! Mwahahahahaha!”

As she continued to observe the sharpness of his teeth and saw the wild gleam in his eyes, Stephanie felt a powerful stirring in her loins, or wherever it is that girls feel powerful stirrings. She desired very much to be taken and ravaged by him, or something like that. However, at the same time part of her was not so sure. If he was a vampire, what would happen to her if he bit her? Would she turn into a vampire too? And, ‘dungeon’? Really? She wasn’t completely sure whether she liked the sound of that or not. Another choice was now laid out in front of her. Should she risk a night of passion with Darren and the possibility of a continued long term relationship, the fulfillment of her wildest dreams, at the expense of possibly being transfigured into a pointy-toothed, darkness-dwelling, bat-like creature? Or should she play it safe and back off now while her jugular vein and her emotional stability were (just about) still intact? Decisions!

“Ah, it is not so straightforward now, is it my dear?” said Darren/Jack(/Vlad.) “Now that you have me and know the truth about me, you are strangely both attracted to me and confused as to whether you still really want me! You have a choice to make! But this is your third and final philosophical challenge, from the realm of ontology: How do you know if the choices you make are made freely, or if you are predetermined to make them in a certain way? It’s the age old problem of free will versus determinism!”

“…?!” said Stephanie, back to her usual level of erudition.

“Perhaps,” said Jack/Darren/Vlad, “you will choose what to do yourself, or perhaps your genetic makeup, your socio-historical context, even the laws of physics will determine what you are to ‘choose’!”

Stephanie thought about this for a moment, still in Jack/Vlad’s arms. She pondered her predicament. She had a decision about whether to go with Jack-Vlad or not. But was she really free to make it, or was she predetermined to do a certain thing, which she could not avoid? Just as she was about to open her mouth to speak, someone interrupted.

“I’ll make the decision for you,” said Veronica. “Vlad is mine!

Stephanie had forgotten about Veronica, probably because she was such a lifeless, two-dimensional character. Just then, a shaft of moonlight fell into the through the clouds and the remnants of the demolished wall, since it was by now quite late. It just so happened that it was a full moon that night and the light hit Veronica directly. Without warning, she transformed into a humanoid wolf. Because she was…a werewolf! Her face contorted into a lupine muzzle. Her ample bosom, her only real defining feature, when you came down to it, shrank and was overgrown by dark brown fur. Her arm muscles bulged out and ripped her dress.

Wolf-Veronica dove at Stephanie and smacked her out of Vlad’s arms, bitch-slapping her on the face and sending her tumbling to the floor. Then she set upon Vlad, swiping and snapping at him with her claws and teeth. Whether she was trying to copulate with him or to kill him was not clear. Stephanie watched as the two of them became engrossed in a gripping martial-arts contest, each moving with supernatural speed and skill. As Vlad fought, dodging out of the way of Veronica’s advances and throwing his own return blows, he continued to talk to Stephanie.

“What’s it to be then?” he said. “Are you free to make a choice about me or are you determined to act in a certain way?”

Stephanie looked on, flabbergasted out of her mundanely miniscule mind, but after a while managed to say “Well it feels to me like I’m free to make decisions, so I must be free.”

“Ah, but that feeling could merely be an epiphenomenal delusion arising out of the activity of your neural networks! All your actions could be the result of material processes which are subject to naturalistic laws!”

“Oh… I suppose so. I guess there’s no way of proving that I am free; I could just be a robotic slave to the laws of Science…”

“Right! So how are you going to deal with this decision in front of you?

An idea came to Stephanie. “Well, hang on, just because I can’t prove that I have free will doesn’t mean that I don’t! I’m going to assume that I am free until further notice and then set about trying to discover what true freedom is. And for now I’m going to choose not to go with you back to your castle, since you’ve turned out to be a psychotic triple-agent fetishitic vampire called Vlad.”

“Yes, now you’re really talking!” This remark did not come from Darren-Jack-Vlad or Wolf-Veronica, but from someone entirely different. Just a little way away, a multicoloured interdimensional portal had opened up and, to everyone’s astonishment a dashingly handsome man–even more dashing than Darren-Jack-Vlad, who on closer inspection actually seemed to resemble more of a cardboard cut-out than a human being–stepped through it. He had dark hair and was a holding a pen and paper in hand.

“Who are you?” said Stephanie.

“I’m Theodore Buckland,” said the handsome stranger. “I’m one of the co-authors of this dismal tandem short story assignment and I’ve incarnated myself into it in order to set you free from it! I’ve tried to rescue it already by making a concession and throwing in a human-vampire-werewolf love triangle, but it hasn’t worked–it’s still utterly dire! But now that you’ve realised that you need to pursue the meaning of true freedom, I can enter this story and pull you out of it. Come with me through this interdimensional portal to a fictional reality of my own construction where you and I can pursue the answer to the great question of free will and determinism in a gladiatorial last-man-standing fight-to-the-death survival game set in a dystopian meta-world!”

Knowing somehow that it was the right thing to do, Stephanie took the man’s hand and stepped through the portal with him, out of the terrible short story that was her life and into…

 

I’m sorry but I can’t carry on this exercise any longer. My writing partner is a complete idiot and as you can see he keeps butchering our story and taking it off in ridiculous directions. I don’t care how useful this kind of exercise is for developing my writing, I’m not doing it with this guy any more. I don’t even know why he was allowed into this class. I don’t even know why I’m paying so much money for this class. I would like to request a new partner or for my money to be refunded. If I don’t get either of those, I will be suing.

 

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