Bewildering Stories

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by Lou Antonelli

The email message just fit on the screen without scrolling. Murphy looked long and hard, as it presented a number of problems for him. Interpreting the shoddy spelling was not one of them, in light of his experience with the Texas educational system. But the date was all wrong, both in the message and the header. It was exactly two years in the future.

His confusion over the date was quickly overcome in his mind by the much more difficult puzzle presented by the text of the message. A high schooler claimed to have read, and was asking questions about, a book he had not written yet, for a class project.

Steve Murphy’s one-bedroom apartment was a small crackerbox hidden in a warren of asphalt and nondescript two-story apartment buildings nestled in an urban planning afterthought — in this particular case, the wedge of land between Coit Rd. and the LBJ Freeway in North Dallas.

This landscape shimmered in the 105-degree late afternoon heat as Murphy dragged himself to the door and slipped the key in the lock. He deftly slipped the thermostat lever sideways in one smooth move as he slouched into the apartment; he couldn’t afford to keep the a/c turned very low while he was at work.

He dropped down in the couch he had bought at the Salvation Army furniture store and stared at the impressionistic pattern of cracks decorating the opposite wall as a result of the slow and gentle heaving of the ground due to the Texas heat combined with the usual slapdash construction of fast-buck Dallas contractors.

“What a dump,” he thought. “And I can barely afford it.”

He had made so little as a first-year English teacher in the Dallas school district he had to work a summer job, watching the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie on Ross Ave. in a neighborhood so rough people knifed each other in the parking lot to steal each other’s bottle returns.

He took the day shift — brutal because of the heat, but he honestly doubted he could have survived the night shift.

After a few minutes of catching his breath and sucking in the cool air, Murphy gained enough strength to shamble to the fridge and dispose of some two-day old atomic chicken wings.

As his strength returned to his body and intelligence revived in his mind, he remembered why he had no plans for tonight.

“I need to write,” he thought.

Like so many English majors who sauntered out of the University of Texas, Murphy wanted to write, and indeed, his highest grades and most praiseworthy recognition had come because of his creative writing — “a well-written combination of realism and imagination” was how one paper was described in a writing workshop he attended recently.

But he hadn’t made a penny yet from his writing; instead he spent the first year out of college baby-sitting a bunch of drug addicted teenagers at Sunrise High School for whom English was a foreign language — indeed, any form of communication which didn’t include penetration by a bullet, knife or phallus was foreign to them.

Murphy would come home — then as now — drained, but after some minutes of recovery, he would regain his strength and confidence and work on an outline of the novel he contemplated writing.

Now, after ten months of outlines, research and chapter synopses, he was just about there. “I need to rock off center and start writing,” he said, this time out loud as if to convince himself. “I can’t go on like this forever.”

He looked at the clock. “I can get a good six hours of writing in before midnight,” he thought. He sat down and stared at the blank monitor, and then nudged the mouse.

The screen glowed, and he agonized whether to check his email. “It’s probably the usual collection of spam,” he thought. “I need to stop procrastinating.”

But he weakened and logged on and received an authoritative admonition that he had mail. He clicked his spam filter software. Thirty-six of 42 messages were definitely spam, and he deleted them without reading. Six were questionable, ranked in order of probability. They were still mostly bogus, but tied in to his personal interests.

“Re: Big refund due you!”

“Manhood enlargement: $39.95”

“Huge Profits with Internet auctions”

“For your splendiferous enjoyment - Katmandu Temple Kiff!”

“View photos of singles in your area”

“Mr. Steven F.X. Murphy: I just finished reading your new novel and love it!”

He was ready to click on “Delete All” when he realized what the last one said. The first thing that caught his attention were the initials.

He blinked and squinted and rubbed his forehead a couple of times, back and forth, like he was trying to reboot his brain. Who does he know now, who knows his middle initials?

In keeping with family tradition, and acknowledging an old family debt to the Jesuits — who had given his great-grandfather the education he needed to set the the family towards comfortable middle-class status in Baltimore — he was dubbed “Francis Xavier”.

In places such as Boston, Baltimore or New York, “F.X.” is not an uncommon set of middle initials. Growing up in suburban Dallas, it was a killer.

By the time he was in middle school, half the kids thought he was retarded because of his nickname, “Special”.

Special F.X, get it? Ha-ha.

He managed to lose the initials in high school, and hadn’t used or thought of them in eight years. So who sent him this last email?

He deleted the others and then opened the last one. He didn’t recognize the address — (Server Protocol/Precog Authorized Mailer) — and the subject line made no sense.

The message was in the form of a letter, strangely formal.

July 14, 2006
Mr. Steven F.X. Murphy
Dallas, Tj.

Dr. Mr. Murphy,

I have juste finised reading your new novel, "In Giddy Anticipation of a Glorious Defeat". I agree with what moste of the critics have said, its fun and extremly well writen. I enjoyed it immensly. I am doing a report for my high school english class on "The Contemporary American Novel" and I wondered whether you would be so kind as to answer a few questions for me.

Did you get the ideas for moste of the story from real live events, or is it mostly from your imagination? Did you actually know people who were like Chu Chu, Marina, Toby, and Judge Strange? Is one of the characters really you?

I was wondering whether the beste place to get ideas for such an entertainin story is from real live or your mind?

Thank you in advanse for your help. I am 14 years old and very eagre to have your advise.

Annetje Vandemerwe-Mantanzima

“Giddy Anticipation of a Glorious Defeat” seemed to be an amalgamation of some probable titles he had jotted down for the story which as yet only existed in outline form. The story he was ready to start tonight, before he checked his messages.

How could the girl — he thought it was a girl’s name — ask specific questions about a book he hadn’t written yet? And why would the message come just tonight, when he felt he was really about ready to rock off that writer’s block he was hung up on and get rolling?

He did have an idea, though, and so he hit reply and began to write:

Dear Annetje:

Thanks for the very nice message, but I am a little perplexed. You say you read my novel, but I find that hard to believe. I am just beginning to write it now. Perhaps you used the wrong words. I noticed from your message that English may not be your first language.

Maybe we met someplace and I discussed my story idea with you, perhaps in a pub or club. I am certainly happy you like my characters and ideas. I'm sorry I don't remember you; perhaps if you could jog my memory, maybe I will remember you.

If you like to help critique my story as it comes along, I would welcome the help. In general, though, I am confused by your message.


Steven F.X. Murphy

Murphy did not recall blabbing about the plot or characters to anyone, but there was the possibility that some night, while he grabbed a few beers in a local pub, he might have discussed the story to someone he was trying to impress, after liquor loosened his tongue.

He knew he certainly never discussed it in a writers’ workshop, fearful of plagiarism. He thought he had a good story idea — and apparently, so did Annetje. The question was, how did she know about it?

He hit “send”. Everything reset to normal, although there was no confirmation message. “I wonder whether it went through?” he thought.

He turned on the Instant Messaging and went back to the kitchen to brew some coffee and cook — or at least microwave — some fresh food. It was time to get serious, and he wanted to stay up late and finally get a start on his story. Darkness was coming around and over the little urban man-made nowhere where he lived.

He was a few pages into the first chapter story when the Instant Messaging went off. The same strange address appeared, “Server Protocol/Precog Authorized Mailer”. It was the reply from Annie, as she styled herself this time.

Mr. Murphy,

I'm sorry my Amglish is so poor, but the truth is I really dont speak your lanjuaj. I will tell you what you want to know, but you really muste please promis not to tell anybody. This message is fries only. Do we have a deel?


Murphy was taken aback at how much more the language (lanjuaj?) had deteriorated, and it took him a few seconds to realize the silly-sounding “fries only” must be a pidgin contraction of “for your eyes only”. This message might be from Malaysia or Indonesia or some place like that, he thought. He began to wonder whether he was being dragged into some drug or sex sting.

Against his proverbial better judgment, he decided to play along. “First, some strong coffee, I need to stay alert on this one.”

After he sat down again, he clicked reply and jabbed off a short message:


I promise to keep your secret, but you better be honest, up front and clean about this. I am not into tricks, drugs, sex or scams. I am a poor struggling writer. I have a little talent, less time and no money at all, so please don't waste what I have of these.

He quickly hit the send button. This time his screen blinked briefly, but there was still no confirmation message. He went back to writing and tried to put the exchange of messages out of his mind.

It was hours later, almost midnight, and he was thinking of knocking off. He had managed to write up at least a draft of the first chapter of the novel. He was in his boxers and brushing his teeth when he heard the instant messaging go off.

When he looked, he saw two messages together, which wasn’t supposed to happen. One was a spam that said “See a hot 18-year old girl have sex with her horse” (“God almighty, I need stay away from porn sites”) and the other was from Annie.

Dear Mr. Muprhy,

I took some time to run my message through some babel software, so it would be more intelligible. I was trying to write in early 21st century English as best I could. I am happy that you agreed to keep my secret. I could get in a lot of trouble over this, but my father is an important man and I am a juvie, anyhow. I will take my chances. I was already in trouble when I sent you the first message.

Part of what I told you is true. I am 14 and I am in what you would call high school. I am making a report for my class in "21st Century Amglish Literature". I attend the Reef Preparatory School in the city that was called Joburg in your time. My country is called Azania. I think it was still called South Africa when you are.

Reef is very competitive, and I would like a good grade. My father works for the supranational agency that polices time travel. He is the head of the branch that coordinates operatives in the past. He doesn't know, but I have seen him working at home in his office.

The messaging system they use to communicate with operatives in the past has a parallel time-line with a 200-year difference, and you don't have to use any special settings if you send a message this way. I remember how angry my father was a few years ago when one of his staffers sent a message warning a half dozen people not to be in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, especially after the death toll dropped almost by 2,000 between the historic record and the archives in the stasis control server. Daddy sent the man to work on Callisto.

When our teacher, Mrs. Iddo, gave us the assignment on 21st Century Am Lit, I did some searching and found a story in archives which described how you wrote "Glorious Defeat". You said you began and ended on July 14. I was able to figure out how to use the Precog Protocol Server, and as father is an authorized mailer, all I needed was the password, which I correctly guessed was the name of our family's pet galgosh [Error Message babel translation failure].

Because I was excited, I got confused, I guess. Since it is 2204, and today July 14, I knew I could get on my father's system and send you a message without using any settings because of the parallel time line. I forgot to notice that the story said you began writing on July 14, 2004, and ended on July 14, 2005. The book was published in 2006. I guess I had a brain fart or something like that.

You were the greatest writer of early 21st Century American English. I am happy you read my message and did not think it was what you call spam - junk mail. I know the word from a story my father once told some friends, when he didn't know I overheard.

The nickname for these messages come from the abbreviation of the system, the same system I am using, "Server Protocol/Precog Authorized Mailer";. In the 20th century, when operatives could begin to send messages through normal, for those times, computer systems, one man working in the past slipped up one day and said he was logging on to check his "spam".

When some 20th century person asked him what spam was, he made up story about it meaning email nobody wants. I think he made up some really long and silly story about its origin, having something to do with a 2D video skit by a 20th century vaudeville group, the Rocky Python Flying Horror Show, I think it was called.

I would be very grateful if you kept my secret, and also if you gave me some of the insight I asked for you when I was pretending to be an American school girl.


Murphy stared at the message and didn’t move a muscle for a half hour. Then he stirred himself and sat up very straight. He hit “reply”.

Dear Annie:

Although your story seems fantastic, it makes sense in light of the mistakes in your first message. Since you have been nice enough to tell me something about my future, I will answer your questions.

Chu Chu, Marina, Toby are characters based on different aspects of my own personality. Toby is most closely modeled on myself, but there are times I have done things or acted like all three of them. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in a writing class was that you should write what you know. I know myself, and so I created characters by expanding aspects of my own personality.

Judge Strange is modeled on a real Justice of the Peace I know. I won't tell you his real name, though: That would unfair. As far as the plot, that is where I got real creative and I made most of that up, although the scene in Judge Strange's court is based on a real story I heard from a friend.

I hope this is helpful. Perhaps I never discussed these aspects of my story publicly because I gave you my word to keep a secret. I am worried more about you. Won't your teacher wonder where you got your research? What will you tell her? I hope you won't get in a lot of trouble.

Good luck.


Murphy really thought hard before he hit “send”. He wanted to know so much more, but what could he ask, and what was fair of him to ask? It was as if he had called Robert Louis Stevenson on the telephone in the late 19th century and asked him about his plotting and characterization for “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde”. What would Stevenson have asked him back, and what could he tell him?

Murphy felt he somewhat unfairly wanted Annie to email him back, but he didn’t want to push, press or prod. He would scare her off. He clicked send, and then saved the message to a folder. “This is a keeper,” he thought, feeling alternately happy, smug and nervous.

It was early in the morning, and he certainly couldn’t sleep, so made more coffee and began to work on the next chapter. He was halfway through it and it was almost 3 a.m. when the Instant Messaging went off. He jumped with a start, and clicked. It was from Annie.

Steve I may be in troublem, but you maybe too. Don't try to reply anymor. I think {transfer interrupted by remote server}.

He jumped up and lunged for his uniform pants, putting them on with one hand while punching buttons on the computer with the other. “How could I be so damn stupid,” he thought. “There must be a server here routing these messages!”

He was at the door in 30 seconds opening it with one hand while tucking a dirty shirt in his pants with another. He stopped with his hand down the front of his pants as he popped the door open wide to see a half dozen men in suits lined up like bowling pins on the landing in front of his door.

The man in front raised his eyebrows and gestured for him to step forward as the other five men flowed into his apartment.

“Ummm, let he guess, you’re from a government agency I’ve never heard of, right?”

The man nodded.

“And I didn’t get any email messages tonight, right?”

The man nodded again.

“Annnndd... if I never open my mouth and be a good boy,” he suggested hopefully, “I won’t have any problems?”

“What’s done is done, Mr. Murphy,” said the suit with a slight accent. “What happens next is up to you.”

“Nothing happened tonight,” he said brightly. “I have no reason to complain, do I? I mean, I can still write, can’t I?”

“We’re not going to change history any more than is unavoidable.”

The suit put his hand on Murphy’s shoulder in a gesture both reassuring and menacing. “You’re an intelligent young man, and you’ve received a remarkable gift. Accept it quietly and go on with your life.”

“I have no complaints. I’m not going to look a gift horse up the tail.”

Murphy could tell from the sounds from inside they were searching his apartment and hauling off his computer equipment.

“I didn’t initiate the contact, you know.”

“Still, Mr. Murphy, do you respond to all your spam email?”

“What would you have done, if you were in my shoes?”

“We’ll just double-check your computer.”

The phalanx of suits were hauling off his computers, peripherals and disks in crates. When he saw his CPU go by, he realized the backup disk with his outline and draft chapters was still in the drive. He groaned.

The head man noticed and flagged down the man with the box, and popped out the disk. It was orange and Murphy has written “Glorious Defeat” with a marker on it only a few hours ago.

The man handed it to him as the others streamed away. “History says you started July 14, and so you have.”

“Thanks. I hope Annie isn’t in too much trouble.”

The man smiled. “You might be able to hear her posterior being flogged some 200 years away.”

Murphy brightened. “Tell her I said hi.”

The man wagged his head in a gesture of “maybe” as he turned around and left.

Murphy returned to the shambles of his apartment and sat down in the chair where his computer used to be. He tossed the disk down and stared at the empty desktop.

After a while he felt he needed to do something, so he dressed a little more neatly and walked outside into the early morning air. It was probably only 80 degrees, a nice cool morning for summer time in Dallas.

He looked around from the second floor railing and saw the sign for a Waffle House two blocks away. He stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled over to where truck drivers, insomniacs and early risers congregated in a glass and plastic smoke-filled shoebox of a building.

He sat down at the counter and the waitress handed him a plastic laminated menu.

“That’s OK, I know what I want,” he said. “Two scrambled eggs with salsa and Texas Toast.”

“Any meat?”

Murphy usually didn’t get meat with his breakfast, to save money. But he thought about it.

“What the heck, I got some good news tonight. I’ll splurge.”

And in a moment he had a flash of insight. “I’m a lucky bastard. The man was right, I really have received a gift.”

He looked around at the other people in the diner. “You never know what the future will hold for you, what will even happen the next day. Here I am, dirty and exhausted — but I know something none of these other people can know, or ever probably hope to know.

“I know I’m going to be a success.”

He didn’t realize he said the last thought aloud. “I’m happy for your good news, bubba,” the waitress snapped, “but what kind of meat do you want?”

“What kind of meat ya’ got,” he said, trying to regain his composure.

“We got breakfast links, bacon, ham or Canadian bacon, spam...”

He interrupted. “You have spam?”

“Sure, would you like a slice of grilled spam with your eggs?”

He looked at her far more incredulously than the suggestion warranted. After a few seconds she gave him a questioning look.

He snapped out of it and began nodding broadly. “Yes, I love spam.”

She scribbled in her pad and turned away. Murphy felt a kind of stupid giddiness coming over him. He turned towards the biker to his left and said enthusiastically “I love spam! I really do!”

The man ignored him as just another early morning kook. Murphy swiveled around towards the delivery man to his right and started to laugh.

“I really, really, no shit, love spam!”

He cracked up completely and burst out laughing out loud. The biker, the delivery man, the waitress, everyone in the diner ignored him.

He began to sing.

“I’m a happy man, I am, I am.
“Hot damn, hot damn, ’cuz I like spam.”

And for one of the last times in his life, the world ignored Steven F.X. Murphy.

Copyright © 2003 by Lou Antonelli

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