Royal & Ancient, M.E. Proctor
Previously published in The Wire's Dream Magazine – 4th collection – December 31, 2018
Alex was relieved the meeting was finally over. This mind-numbing exercise in futility took place once a month, and after a year and a half he still had no idea what purpose it served. It was depressingly like the corporate world, where getting the entire organization in a big room for hours of pointless PowerPoint presentations was mostly to prove that you had the power to do it. Look how many people report to me, look how many productive hours I can waste! Alex thought he had stepped miles away from a conventional lifestyle–and that was putting it mildly–only to realize that the things that irked him most in his previous life were still an irritant in the new one. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same, according to some dumb law of the universe. He sighed. It was no use complaining, there was nothing he could do about it, he had to suck it up. Very funny, in this context. He doubted anybody attending the meeting would appreciate the humor. This was not a light-hearted crowd. Dead serious they all were, yes indeed, and that was no laughing matter. Alex had quickly repressed any snarky comment he may have been tempted to make. He had been blown away by the tremendous power that surrounded him, the elemental force running through the assembly, the energy he shared with the other attendees, and it was exhilarating. It reminded him of those tent revivals–only seen in TV shows and movies–where rustics would suddenly jump up and proclaim they were saved after the hopping-mad preacher had brought them to the edge of hysteria. Alex could have leaped out of his seat too; the urge was that strong. He didn’t know what he would have screamed but it certainly wouldn’t have had anything to do with salvation. On the contrary. And just like the black-clad preachers of yore alternated glory and brimstone, the leaders of this strange congregation distributed rewards and punishment, and in classical dictatorial fashion penalties bore no relation to the crimes. Failing to attend a meeting was deemed a major offense. After witnessing what happened to the poor wretches who had missed roll call, Alex wisely decided to sit far in the back, keep his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself. In this company, he no longer was an entitled smart-ass investment banker turning in fat expense statements and racking in bonuses in the high six figures; he was a newbie learning the ropes, and there was a daunting lot to learn. In this company, time served meant dominance and a nearly explosive geometric progression of abilities. Seniority wasn’t a synonym for a stack of gift cards or a gold pin with a logo.
The woman sitting on the podium on what could only be described as a throne was the supreme ruler, referred to as the Royal and Ancient (until his induction Alex thought the R&A label was reserved to St Andrews Golf Club.) Her title wasn’t honorary. She could, according to Julian, “bring the temple down.” Alex visualized the New York Stock Exchange, the only temple to the only divinity he ever worshipped, toppling over into Wall Street. It wasn’t at all what Julian had in mind as events soon made clear. At first Alex wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t sold a truckload of bull, but he was so in awe of all the nifty things he could do that he gave Julian the benefit of the doubt. Over time he developed a healthy terror of the R&A. It didn’t make it any easier to sit quietly through the monthly meetings. The unfathomable thing, maybe Royal and definitely Ancient, sitting on her pedestal spouted incomprehensible and never-ending gibberish that the nitwits in the room absorbed religiously. Pilgrims probably swallowed the ravings of the Sibyl of Cumae with the same ecstatic expression on their dumb faces. Not that anybody attending this dank cellar reunion would have the slightest notion who the Sibyl was, or the Pythia on her tripod, or the Fool on a Hill for that matter. Alex Hastings, thirty years old, English lit and a smattering of Greek, Latin and classic rock, was probably the only one in attendance fashionably over-educated. Maybe not by the standards of a Princeton faculty cocktail party, but definitely way above the creeps in this crypt. Quite amazing, when you stopped to think about it. Because this crowd had plenty of opportunity and unlimited means to access higher learning. This crowd had enough time to not only learn to read and write, but to absorb everything, literally everything, human intelligence ever produced. But not so, nope. Lazy bones, all of them. Bones, ha-ha. They didn’t even have the excuse that the transformation impacted the brain. It didn’t. Far from it. Alex felt sharper than he’d ever been. Reasoning, intuition, feeling and senses tingled from the top of his skull to the tip of his toes. Alex felt more alive now than when he banged Teresa in that boathouse in the Hamptons, and that had been the high point of his life so far.
The transformation was a wondrous gift, all right. And it had come from the most unreliable and shallow source imaginable–Julian–who described the miracle with less creativity than a Shopping Channel sales pitch. No wonder Alex had dismissed the whole thing as boozy nonsense, silliness on a scale unheard of even from his unreasonable and rarely sober friend. Not that Julian ever needed to make sense. You just looked at the guy and you felt weak at the knees. Listening to what he said was totally superfluous. Alex had been drawn to Julian because girls were drawn to Julian. Lots of girls. Alex could sit back, observe and relax. Julian would soon disappear with the pick of the litter, leaving the others to realize that Alex–handsome in his own right if not in the same flowing-golden-hair category as his friend–was still there with his boyish all-American smile and regularly replenished Dom Pérignon in an ice bucket. Innocent, enjoyable nights those had been, until Julian let slip that they could do this forever. “You hear me, Alex? Forever!” Yes, Julian, I give you another five years tops partying the way you do before everything starts sagging, your chin, your six-pack and the junk below. Julian laughed. “Not so, not so Alex. You’ll be forever young. Ain’t that a dream, dude?” Yeah, right, how long have you been hawking that story to suckers like me, Julian? “Eighty years or so,” Julian said without missing a beat and that was something, because Julian couldn’t lie to save his life. He was all true, all the time, what you see is what you get. Alex was in that wonderful state, half drunk half lucid when almost anything was possible or could be believed providing the punch line didn’t bring him back to drab reality. He must have told Julian to keep talking but he didn’t have any memory of doing so. “It’s easy, believe me,” Julian said. “You only have to agree, and bingo, you’re immortal. Cool, right?” Not the words Alex would have used in similar circumstances, but they were both extremely drunk so what do you expect? Alex said immortality was intriguing from a philosophical point of view but its consequences should be carefully considered; in hindsight, he doubted he used so many multi-syllabic words, his champagne-soaked tongue was long past eloquence. He vaguely remembered Julian leaning on him and putting his head on his shoulder. It was oddly intimate and closer than Alex was comfortable with but he was in a mellow mood. Okay Julian, whatever you say, just don’t fall asleep on me. “You agree then?” Julian said. Agree to what? The topic of the conversation had already slipped Alex’s mind. Sure Julian, whatever makes you happy.
What happened after was never clear. Alex thought he had come down with the flu, despite the shot. Did they ever get that vaccine formula right? He called his boss to say he was feeling like shit and didn’t think he could make it to the office, and got the predictable answer: stay home, take it easy, drink lots of fluids, and don’t bring your germs over here, buddy. After a few days, Alex knew he would never go back to his nice sleek desk with the comfortable chair and the big Ansel Adams photograph over the credenza. He had experienced a dramatic change of perspective.
Julian had been helpful, sort of. “I don’t have a good grasp on it, dude. I roll.” A shrug, fatalistic. “There must be books but I never read them, and I’m not worse off, so… I’ll tell you what I know and you’re smart enough to find out the rest by yourself.” Alex did find out, remarkably fast considering a single night had been enough to upend his entire existence. He had been wildly excited at first; so much to explore and try out that he wished he didn’t have to stop at sunrise. It was fun to check off the old clichés. No reflection in mirrors, check, although he could still take selfies, go figure. Otherworldly beauty, check. It was more a kind of glow to tell the truth, like a really good facial, and a two-week vacation on a Caribbean beach. Maybe he had the right bone structure for this. Full sunlight was unbearably painful, check, but a misty or overcast day was tolerable, and he didn’t have to crawl below ground at daybreak; pulling the curtains close or shutting the blinds was sufficient. The rules had been set down before the invention of LED lights after all. The pointy canines were a little bothersome but they only shot out when he was hungry. Alex learned restraint early in the process, to Julian’s surprise. Amusing how some dietary guidelines crossed over universes. Portion control, high protein, low carb! “Some of us never get the hang of it,” Julian said. “It took me a while. The world is a big endless buffet.” Precisely. Alex never felt the urge to stuff his face in all-you-can-eat joints. It was reassuring to find out that being undead didn’t change your personality. It certainly didn’t make him more patient even if he contemplated eternity. Stupidity, not surprisingly, shredded his nerves. That was something Julian omitted in his management summary. Heightened perception meant exactly that. Feelings were magnified. It made the full moon impossibly gorgeous, every piece of music was both sweeping and technicolor evocative, and a walk through the Met left him both exhausted and elated. Those were the positives. The negatives, unfortunately, were similarly enhanced. The monthly assembly was pure, exquisite torture. When Alex had told Julian, after the first meeting, that he would not attend another, Julian had turned a ghastly white. “You have to be there,” he said. “They have ways to make you forever miserable, and they’ll punish me too. I’m your sponsor. I’m responsible for you.” Julian’s terror was entirely justified. The punishment inflicted to whoever offended the R&A gave Alex a glimpse of Hell he would never forget, even if he hung around for five thousand years.
A bell rang somewhere in the darkness, signaling the official end of the reunion. Alex put on his coat, took his place at the end of the line behind Julian and waited for his turn to bow in front of the presiding creature. Royal and Ancient. What a joke. He felt sad, somehow. Was it God’s revenge? Immortality, the ultimate gift, being wasted on the stupid and the unworthy? Alex vowed he would not let his mind turn to mush, and when he decided to make an apprentice he would be very careful and choose well. Somebody with similar tastes. Somebody he could have an intelligent and very very long conversation with. There was no hurry, he had all the time in the world.
M.E. Proctor worked as a communication professional and freelance journalist. After forays into SF, she’s currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in Bristol Noir, Tilde, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, The Bookends Review, The Blue Nib, Fiction on the Web, and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas.