Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy opens with “The Assurance Salesman,” a story composed as a creative writing assignment that later went on to win the IUPUI Rebecca Pitts School of Liberal Arts creative writing award and ended up in the school’s literary magazine. (“genesis” spelled with a small g because Liberal Arts Students) College was a prolific time for me, as I imagine it is for many young writers, but this is one of only two stories that survived to have a second life years later and make it into this collection. It was even picked as one of the “Best of” in a one-shot 25 year retrospective of the publication. Neat.
The story was rewritten in 2004 (major overhaul would be more accurate), sold to Midnight Graffiti, and tweaked yet again for DWACOW. The major plot points, however, have remained the same. Here’s a short excerpt.
The setup: Five passengers on a midnight train to London are interrupted by a mysterious cloaked “stranger” who inserts himself into their philosophical discussion on love and affection. He reaches into his cloak to withdraw… ?
Gary sees the transparent center of the rose cloud with swirling blue smoke.
The stranger shrugs. “This little beauty—diamond, pendant, crystal, charm, I don’t really know what—is rather special. It took away all my doubts about love.” His eyes harden. “It’s also why I’m currently without companionship.”
They all wait.
The stranger delights in the moment, letting it linger before continuing. “You see, this rose is magical. I don’t know how it works, I only know that it does. I found it on a train rather similar to this one, under a seat, and I was ready to give it to the stationmaster when I accidentally discovered its powers.”
“A charlatan.” Stewart speaks, shaking his head. “You’re a con artist. I should’ve known better.”
“Oh, no. No gimmick here. Although I’m sure you’ll think so at first. You see, somehow, the crystal center can tap into the mind’s eye of another person. I don’t pretend to understand magic. Imagine, though, an object that can read your mind, find out who you love, and present you with an image of yourself … from that person’s frame of mind.”
There is a loud chuckle from Stewart’s corner. “Of course. And how much do you ask for this miracle?”
“Fifty pounds for one gaze.”
Gary’s excitement dampens at the offer. “That’s ridiculous. For a silly parlor trick?” But his voice cracks, exposing his lack of conviction.
“I’m sure it makes you feel better to keep insisting that, and I can even see where you’re coming from. Which is why—” The stranger spaces his words carefully, aiming them directly at the transfixed woman. “—Janet can have a free look. Once you’ve taken her word for it, I’ll take your fifty pounds, each in turn.”
“Really?” Gary says, feebly, “and what makes you think it’s really worth fifty pounds?”
“Fifty pounds to know the unknowable? To make faith fact? Isn’t that worth fifty pounds to you?”
Janet’s hands are already clasped around the folded petals, which direct the light to make her face shine an eerie blue. She looks at the stranger uncertainly.
“What do I do?”
The stranger releases the rose into her hands. As she leans away from him, the stranger blends into the darkness. “Close one eye, and focus directly into the center. Don’t worry about light, it works even in total darkness. The image will be perfect.”
Janet holds the rose close. The stem burns against her trembling fingers; she needs both hands to steady the crystal. She can see the center, not simply clouded, but filled with smoky, animated, swirling, mist. An actual light of unknown nature within the rose causes the blue glow.
She hardly has time to reflect on this when the mist clears, and she finds herself staring at an image … of herself.
She is seated in the train, as she was moments earlier, leaning against her husband’s shoulder. Only Kevin is not in the picture, at least not his face.
Her breath leaves her body as she realizes that she is seeing through Kevin’s eyes, looking down on his new bride. She can see her own face from his viewpoint.
She remembers the daily routine of seeing her own face in a mirror, angry at the puffiness of her cheeks, at the way her hair would never settle quite right.
In the rose, the flaws remain, but are filtered to the point of insignificance. She sees herself, all the features the same, but there is an image, a golden glow over her face and body that is almost angelic. A finger caresses her cheek, and the skin—her skin—feels the softest, smoothest, most beautiful silk she has ever touched.
Images superimpose themselves rapidly over her body. She can see herself in her nightgown on their wedding night, a sense of pleasure mixed perfectly with tenderness. Purity and passion somehow become one and the same, and she is the source. She tries to force the flaws she sees in herself, the hair, the weight, the temper tantrums. They don’t exist in this image. She sees herself, but now she is his perfect woman, sexy, funny, beautiful, giving,
The rose drops from her hands into the stranger’s. She buries herself in Kevin’s arms, the joy in her sobs tearing from her.
“iloveyouiloveyouohgodhowiloveyou …” Her arms squeeze her husband’s shoulders as she cries. There’s no shame left, nothing to hold back, not now and not ever again.