In celebration of the fact that our blog was featured as Blogger's "Blog of Note" of the day today (and along with it, the thousands of new hits from other bloggers!), we're sharing Dan Ross's zany and marvelous short story, "Moriarty and the Mattress King." Dan is an award-winning writer whose poem was published in Scholastic's 2008 edition of Best Teen Writing! Enjoy a new piece of fiction of his:
Moriarty and the Mattress King
by Dan Ross, 15
Before one can use the City of Mayonnaise as a setting, a small bit of description is required.
The City of Mayonnaise is abysmal. It is vile, putrid, smelly, and a blight upon the fair country of Mattress World. The streets are littered with trash and old people, waiting endlessly for an eternally off-duty garbage truck. It is literally assured that each citizen of Mayonnaise will commit one heinous and blasphemous act in their lifetime. Half of all Mayonnasians will be murdered before their fourth birthday, but half of those four-year-olds were intending to kill their fellow tots anyway, which makes the act slightly less reprehensible. Water doesn’t flow from their faucets; the citizens have been forced to wash their hands with blue ink ever since they became the largest ballpoint-pen dumping ground in the known universe. Toxic purple fumes rise majestically over each building as the sun sets on the horizon. An insignia on each of the public schools depicts a child weeping and the pithy yet despairing slogan, “If We Are the Future • The Future is Doomed.”
The City of Mayonnaise is smothered by potholes.
It is haunted.
It smells really bad.
At this point, the citizens would probably be better off if the whole city was burned to the ground, but both the water and the air of Mayonnaise are more flammable than the building materials themselves and any fire whatsoever would cause a hellish demise for the residents.
Most scientists agree that this still would probably be an improvement for the City of Mayonnaise, but ethical decisions like these have to be handled by the Hypnopope, and contacting him would be an arduous ten-month journey of unfathomable paperwork, perpetually revolving doors, and inexplicable mountain-climbing. Mattress World scientists decided unanimously to just chill on their barcaloungers and deduce things about fried chicken and television which was all around a much better use of their time.
To be honest, Moriarty agreed with them.
Moriarty, as in the Mayor of Mayonnaise—a man desperately in need of getting to his office, located somewhere between the 19th and 21st floors of his building. Currently, however, he was trapped in an elevator almost exactly at the 80th floor of his building. This, he thought ponderously, is not optimal.
He tapped his foot anxiously as he grimaced and took a quick look at the numbered dial near the top of the elevator. It wasn’t moving. Same as the last few minutes.
There was a very important meeting to be attended! He was expected to oversee the introduction of provisions regarding lunchboxes or rations or something. It had to with food, he was marginally sure. He didn’t really pay much attention during the pre-meeting.
Setting down his lumpy rucksack—a precious family heirloom he kept slung around one shoulder at all times—and haphazardly yanking things out one by one, Moriarty assessed with lightning-speed and acuity whether or not any of his assorted knick-knacks could help him escape.
“One barrette,” he said, a hint of distaste in his voice as he noted the tag stating,
“For Mundane Use Only.” He tossed it into one of the more distant corners of the elevator. “One spare change of pants.” They would be of little use in this situation. He grabbed the jeans and threw them over his shoulder, which would have been a more powerful gesture had one pant-leg not gracefully draped itself over his head. He reached yet deeper into the dank recesses of his bag and felt for the first object that he was sure had not been—at one point or another—edible.
“A…birthday card?” Moriarty was perplexed. Opening it speedily, he read the message inside.
To our favorite completely unsatisfactory mayor, your friends from the office, Luigi and Rosa.
“Aw,” said Moriarty. “What a nice sentiment!” But it wouldn’t help him now, would it?
Moriarty gazed upwards despairingly until the bright red button labeled “PUSH TO TALK” caught his eye. He happily obliged, carefully maneuvering his hand to avoid the other grime-caked buttons of the elevator.
“This is the Mayonnaise emergency call center, please state the nature of your emergency,” came the placid feminine voice, made abjectly robotic by the acoustics of the elevator.
Moriarty’s eyebrow arched. “Hey there, hon,” he replied, giving his closest approximately of suaveness. “How’s it going?”
“I have roughly the entire population of Mayonnaise calling the emergency center right now. If this isn’t an emergency, please get off of the line.”
“Well, babe, since you asked, I’m stuck in an elevator.”
“Hold on. Is this Moriarty, the current mayor of Mayonnaise?”
Moriarty grinned cheekily. “Yeah, babe. That Moriarty. I know you’ve heard of me.”
“I have a memo here saying that you owe Hugo, the Mattress King, one billion dollars from, ‘the loss of a truly memorable game of Trivial Pursuit Junior’.”
Moriarty swallowed and glanced around the small elevator nervously. It was exceedingly unlikely that the Mattress King would appear spontaneously in this circumstance, but he wasn’t taking any chances. “I…I don’t recall what you’re talking about.”
“It says ‘truly memorable’ right here on the memo. Or did you not get that part?”
“As I said, I don’t think I remem–”
“Truly memorable. Truly memorable.”
Moriarty gulped. His throat was getting quite a bit of exercise today. “Yes. Fine. It’s true. But listen, darling, couldn’t you table this issue for a little while? I’m trapped in a goddamn elevator.”
“Do you require assistance?” The voice was now audibly peeved.
Some manner of brazen idiocy came over him in a single fell swoop. “I’d love your assistance—IN MY PANTS,” shouted Moriarty with absolutely unnecessary volume. The line went dead.
“Nuts,” said Moriarty. “Wait—that’s it—pants!”
Leaping up to the conspicuous elevator vent above, Moriarty used his years of highly improbable spy training to ham-fistedly jam the zipper on the fly of his spare jeans into the tiny lock separating him from sweet, sweet freedom. After a minute or so of exasperated grunting, straining, and frustrated expletives, the lock finally shattered inexplicably into thousands of tiny shards and fell to the floor below. Slipping into the elevator shaft, Moriarty’s hat was instantly blown backwards and fell 80 dirty stories in a very slow and non-dramatic manner.
Moriarty looked up, anxiously taking great pains so as not to follow his hat to its certain demise. The ceiling of the elevator shaft was completely gone. Moriarty retched, not only from the appalling ambient stench of Mayonnaise, but because the man to whom he owed a billion dollars in gambling debts had finally decided to collect his payment. A shadow eclipsed the already barely-visible sun over Mayonnaise.
The shape of a dirigible is designed strictly to inspire fear in one’s enemies. Some dirigibles accomplish this modus operandi by moving through the air with a kind of lethal grace, a combination of aerodynamics and skilled piloting that inspires true terror. The more sluggish variety of dirigible still manages to invoke dread as a result of its sheer size and typically menacing color scheme.
The Mattress King’s dirigible was neither of the above, unless one considers “mauve” to be particularly frightening color. (It isn’t.) Yet for Moriarty, the sight of an enormous, portentously descending four-poster bed still roused the same overwhelming sense of horror. “The Mattress King,” he whispered. He would’ve said it louder, but the unique air of the city congealed in such a way that most, if not all, speech was little more than a feeble gurgling noise.
The side door of the bed-shaped dirigible burst open and flailed wildly. A disheveled man poked his head out from inside, graying hair whipping wildly to and fro, eyes wide with the uncomfortable knowledge that the air around him was a most stomach-churning shade of yellow.
“Hey,” shouted Hugo, the Mattress King. “You owe me money!”
“No!” screamed Moriarty. With spider-like dexterity he climbed up the remaining story of the elevator shaft, hurdled recklessly across the roof, and began his 81-story plunge.
When one begins a devastatingly long fall, a wide range of ideas flow through one’s head. Death, in particular, jumps to mind. Two emotions quickly present themselves as an alternative to outright despair, however: a choice between smug self-satisfaction and miserable remorse. Moriarty’s mind was more preoccupied with nausea and the peculiar fact that the air was so densely polluted that it was noticeably slowing his fall. After several seconds Moriarty realized that he had slowly rotated during his descent and was now plummeting headfirst. He was sure, absolutely sure, that he was about to die. “Oh,” he thought, and hesitated. “That’s it, then?” He could say at least this much about his brief and uneventful life: He had lived it with an average number of regrets. Said regrets were probably the reason he envisioned few people attending his funeral.
All of a sudden, he was given new appreciation for incandescent color of the pavement. The subtle form of a taxicab really popped against such a revolting hue of neon teal, a product of the almost-constant dumping of excess teal paint. It was Mayonnaise’s number one import, solely because people enjoyed chucking it on the streets for no apparent reason.
And then Moriarty realized that his crash might not mean certain death.
With an awkward banging sound, Moriarty fell perfectly through the open roof of the taxi with the slight exception of one of his legs, which, though still attached to his pelvis, managed to settle itself quite nicely on top of the car.
“Get away from that mattress!” Moriarty howled at the top of his lungs. The fact that his face was being pressed roughly against the leather seats muffled his voice, but it didn’t matter. The driver had already slammed his foot down on the pedal, because the reactions of most people when they see a massive mattress-dirigible are either “hackneyed corporate campaign” or “it’s gonna kill me.”
Glancing backwards and dragging his errant leg into the car, Moriarty saw the Mattress King’s frightful dirigible jackknifing alarmingly from ugly, outdated building to ugly, outdated building. “Turn here! Hard left! Hard left!!” Moriarty shouted. The car skidded across the pavement and careened into a pointlessly small side street littered with soda cans of varying degrees of emptiness. The bed was still overhead, floating menacingly above the car.
“Well,” said Moriarty, as machine gunfire rained down upon them from all four of the dirigible’s bedposts. “We’re boned. Pull over, will you?” The driver braked, threw open the door, and ran screaming from the taxi.
"Thanks!” Moriarty called after him. Lazily, he opened the door and positioned himself carefully to face away from Hugo’s airship.
It landed stylishly a few feet from Moriarty. He turned away and stared into the distance, fervently gazing toward the horizon as though looking for an approaching party bus or some delicious candy in order to avoid making eye contact with Hugo the Mattress King. The magnificent airborne contraption was roughly coliseum-sized, which made pretending it wasn’t there rather difficult, but Moriarty was up to the task. He was quite talented at ignoring things.
Then the door to the ship smacked him in the face, which made his task inordinately more difficult.
“Hey!” The Mattress King called out, silhouetted against the light that radiated out from within the mattress. “Hey!” He tried again, to no avail. Moriarty was clearly in pain, but seemed unaware of Hugo’s presence. “Pay attention, dammit!” shouted Hugo.
“I cordially refuse!” Moriarty shouted back, face glowing with a triumph that was followed immediately by a unique expression that blended the most distressing aspects of a snarl, a grimace, and a pucker into a gumbo of sheer contempt. “Dammit. Goddammit.”
The Mattress King grinned as he put on his steel-rimmed glasses and began to read from an egregiously long, purple document that looked poorly taped together. “These several sheets of construction paper entitle the winner of the game of Trivial Pursuit Junior on September 18th, to a sum not to exceed, fall short of, or deviate in any kind of weird way from one billion dollars.” Hugo tried his best to emphasize the “billion dollars” part to make it sound slightly snide but he overextended his thyroarytenoid, causing his voice to stumble comically and promptly plummet an octave or two. His voice quickly took up a grunting timbre usually reserved for wild boars and chain-smoking women named Mildred, of whom there were surprisingly many.
“I’m not giving you that money,” said Moriarty, whirling around flamboyantly to look his nemesis straight in the eye. The fact that Hugo pushed seven feet and was the five-time winner of the coveted “Strongest Dude” title was a stumbling block, but Moriarty would not be deterred.
“That’s bollocks,” said Hugo.
“Hey man,” said Moriarty. “That’s just the way I roll.”
“You want to know how I roll?” countered Hugo. “I roll with missiles. Big missiles.” Hugo bent down as close as possible to Moriarty’s face to make his point, but he had to stop halfway because his chiropractor had warned him against heavy stooping.
Moriarty met his glare. “You think you can come into my town, my place, my city, and make demands out of nowhere?”
“Yeah, actually,” said Hugo. “I’m the Mattress King. Furthermore, I think you’re forgetting your contractual obligations.” He waved the construction paper in Moriarty’s face.
“I’d bet I could kick you in the shins pretty hard.”
“That’s a federal offense. I’d have an armada of lawyers on your ass by morning. Good lawyers, too,” Hugo said haughtily.
“I’d like to see you try,” said Moriarty.
Hugo leaned in close. “They have briefcases,” he hissed, conspiratorially.
“My god,” Moriarty whispered, taken aback. “They have briefcases?”
“Big ones, too. Designer briefcases. Armani briefcases.”
Moriarty hesitated. His nemesis was more powerful than he could possibly have imagined. “I—” he stammered. “I just can’t. I can’t give you that money.”
“You’re going to give me that money, one way or another.”
“We’ll call a duel,” offered Moriarty. “Trivial Pursuit at three paces! Winner takes all!”
“Ditching the training wheels, I see?” shouted Hugo, the Mattress King, at the top of his lungs. “Hah! You’ve played right into my hands! Without the label of “Junior” to hold me back, I’ll show you real men play board games! I’ve practiced, you know. I’ve become more powerful than ever. My knowledge of the trivial, the mundane, and the outright impractical is beyond measure! But first, we must call in the Hypnopope to judge our duel.”
“Why is that, exactly?”
“Well, y’know…” Hugo stalled. “He’s the Hypnopope, man. He would probably want to know about this kind of thing.”
“He usually does. All right, we’ll call him in.”
Hugo and Moriarty agreed to meet the Hypnopope on the great lawn of the Mayoral Mayonnaise Mansion, which amounted to little more than an eight-foot-long patch of poorly mowed shrubbery. By Mayonnaise standards, where the only green in sight was the unholy color of the sky, the great lawn was sprawling and on bustling autumn days, when the chances of being irradiated by the sun’s beams were slightly smaller than usual, dozens of families would pack themselves into an incredibly dense cluster and have a jolly picnic on the grass. Moriarty dreaded those days and tried to keep the lawn as unkempt as possible, but today all of his worries were temporarily offset.
All of a sudden, and without any warning, a wondrous thing happened. A vast, thick shadow passed over them. Whirring noises beyond the capacity of any mortal ear filled the air.
Then they saw it. It was the most singularly awesome helicopter they had ever seen.
It’s easy to use the descriptor “awesome” for trivial things, like movies or clothing or music. Such uses dampen the impact of the word. The word “awesome,” in its true and distilled form, should carry enough impact to drop jaws, widen eyes, cause feeble gasping noises, and impregnate people at random. Anything that actually exemplified the undiluted essence of awesome should terrify but simultaneously fill with a glowing, inclusive warmth that expands the soul with its utter inconceivability. The untainted heart of the word awesome, somehow condensed into a thing, a material object, would cause mankind to fall to its knees and weep for the unadulterated majesty and splendor of life.
Such a thing existed.
Such a thing was the Hypnopope’s helicopter.
No other description can be used, for it would sully the unmitigated magnificence of the moment.
It landed with breathtaking silence. Nobody spoke as the rotors traveled through their denouement and halted with stunning abruptness.
The Hypnopope took no time in popping out of his vehicle.
“Hey guys,” he said. “How’s it hanging?”
Nobody knew how old the Hypnopope was, mostly because he had outlived every single citizen of the Mattress Kingdom born during his era, but it was clear just by appearances that he was ancient beyond measure. His face was creased, crinkled, and corrugated in every way imaginable. His skin was thinner than tissue paper, and emitted a soft, white light. He wore a killer pair of sunglasses to cover his disconcertingly milky-white eyes. On most parts of his body, his skin hung off of his bones like some sort of elaborate feather boa, except made out of flesh and not at all pleasant to look at. The Hypnopope wore a simple yet undeniably utilitarian black robe, as well as the traditional white collar worn by priests. Of course, when the Hypnopope felt threatened he could cause it to shoot lasers, but since he was a generally laid-back dude, such an occurrence rarely happened.
Moriarty and Hugo were too busy gawking at the Hypnopope’s fantastical helicopter to form a coherent reply, and instead mumbled habitual responses like “not bad” or “good, and you?” and the occasional “my dog died yesterday.” Had they been able to look away from the mesmerizing helicopter, they would have seen the more interesting if less awesome visage of the Hypnopope.
“I brought another guy to join the game,” he said to both Moriarty and Hugo, sunglasses glinting in the light. “He’s campaigning to improve Mayonnaise or something. I wasn’t really paying attention but it seemed like a good cause.” A gaunt, unimposing man with orange hair stepped out of the helicopter and dazedly landed on the grass. “His name is Jeremy.”
“What was it like, riding in that helicopter?” Moriarty murmured, situating himself next to Jeremy.
The man’s eyes were wide. “It was like feeling the heartbeat of creation beating beside my own,” he said breathlessly.
“Awesome,” said Moriarty. “Awesome,” he repeated. It bore restating.
“Let’s begin, shall we?” the Hypnopope announced. With a clap of his hands a Trivial Pursuit board appeared. “Since this event is going to be recorded and then performed as an epic poem, I’m going to explain the rules to each of you despite the fact that you already understand the game.” The Hypnopope bent down and picked up a box of Trivial Pursuit cards. “Since we’re going to be playing an abridged version of Trivial Pursuit, mostly because I’m booked to shake hands with unwed teenage mothers in a few minutes, each of you needs to answer one question correctly from each of the six categories. When you answer a question correctly, you will be given a little plastic piece of pie that you fit into this plastic pie-box. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what these things are,” said the Hypnopope, kneeling down and fiddling with one of the plastic components of the game. “Well, anyway, once you fill up the pie with all the different colored pie pieces, you will win the game and the one hundred billion dollar pot.”
The mention of one hundred billion dollars was enough to tug Moriarty’s focus away from the helicopter. “What? One hundred billion dollars? Why?”
“Eh, I don’t know. A billion dollars seemed kind of lame to me, so I accessed each of your overseas bank accounts and withdrew somewhere around thirty-three billion each. I hope you don’t mind.”
Moriarty and Jeremy were appalled.
Hugo smiled. “Oh no, not at all. Makes it more interesting. Where were we?”
Jeremy, Hugo, and Moriarty all sat themselves down cross-legged on the grass and chose their respective pie-box colors.
“All right then,” said the Hypnopope. “Moriarty, you’re up first. What category would you like?”
“Give me blue, Geography.” Moriarty’s concentration narrowed. Only Trivial Pursuit could cause a man like him to focus this intensely.
The Hypnopope cleared his throat. “What continent has the lowest highest mountain?”
The Hypnopope began to repeat himself. “What continent has the lowest highest—”
“No, no, I got that, it’s just…what?!”
The other players were silent. Moriarty was going to have to tackle the surreal grammar of the question on his own.
“Well,” he said, “I have only a few choices. It can’t be Asia or South America, can’t be North America…can’t be…I’m going to give ‘Antarctica’ as my answer.”
“That’s incorrect,” said the Hypnopope. “The answer is Australia.” Moriarty buried his head in his knees. “Jeremy, it’s your turn. What category would you like?”
“Sports and Leisure,” Jeremy said meekly.
“What sport features the fastest moving ball?”
“Jai-alai,” Jeremy answered almost instantly, eliciting cries of “come on!” and “this is bogus!” from Moriarty and Hugo respectively.
“That’s correct. You get an orange piece of the pie.”
Jeremy accepted the plastic orange pie slice with hands cupped, grinning giddily as the Hypnopope dropped it into his hands. “Hugo, it’s all you. Pick a category.”
“Whatever the green one is. Science and Nature.”
The Hypnopope chuckled. “What does a polyorchid man have at least three of?”
Hugo’s temple bulged abnormally as he desperately wracked his brain. “Er… ahh…” he mumbled. “Orchid pastures?”
“That’s incorrect,” said the Hypnopope. “The correct answer was: testicles.”
“You’re kidding me,” said the gaping Hugo. “God damn.”
The Hypnopope raised his hands to call for silence. “Moriarty, it has come back to you. What category do you want?”
“Gimme History,” Moriarty said.
“Who told a senate committee: ‘Billy Carter is not a buffoon, a boob, or a wacko’?”
“Uh,” said Moriarty, hesitating. “Billy Carter?”
“That’s correct. You get a yellow piece of the pie.” The Hypnopope flicked the game-piece at Moriarty, who nimbly snatched it out of the air and beamed triumphantly.
“I hate you!” Hugo screamed at Moriarty, spittle flying fitfully from his cavernous mouth.
“Settle down, Hugo, you big baby,” said the Hypnopope, who was attempting futilely to keep his eyelids from drooping even further. “To appease your whiny little face, we’re going to skip Jeremy and go straight to you.”
Jeremy looked upset, but was too preoccupied with staring at the Hypnopope’s helicopter to take any action. Moriarty and Hugo, on the other hand, were cunningly shielding their eyes with their tiny pie boxes, although Hugo’s tough-guy façade was being rapidly stripped away. “Select your whatever.”
“Sports and Leisure,” said Hugo. He had to fight to keep a torrent of tears from bursting forth.
“What sport,” began the Hypnopope, “has you herringboning to get uphill?”
“What?” said Hugo, slowly beginning to cry. “W-what?”
“Herringboning,” said the Hypnopope apathetically. “What sport do you do it in?”
“I-I don’t know!” exclaimed Hugo. “I just don’t know!” He started to moan between bouts of labored sobbing. “I just–,” gasp, “I just–,” gasp, “don’t know!” He was now indisputably bawling.
“OK, folks,” said the Hypnopope, voice strained with both annoyance and the fact that his larynx was the oldest object within an eight-mile radius. “Two rounds of this game and I am fed up with all of you. I hereby award the money to Jeremy.” With an exasperated hop, the Hypnopope leapt into his awesome helicopter and tossed a balled-up check for one hundred billion dollars to Jeremy. The helicopter began to ascend. “Au revoir, people I hate,” the Hypnopope shouted after them. “Oh, except you, Moriarty. You’re my bro. Also you Jeremy, you’re pretty cool.”
“What about me?” Hugo wailed, tears streaking his face. “What about me?”
“Hey, you might be the Mattress King, but you know what you lack? Mattress style,” the Hypnopope shouted, his voice barely rising above the sound of the helicopter as he disappeared into the smog. The thunderous sound of the helicopter’s rotors aptly punctuated the Hypnopope’s non sequitur.
All three of the men standing on the ground were shocked, each for different reasons.
“My goodness,” said Jeremy. “With all this money, I can restore Mayonnaise to its former glory! I can fix Mayonnaise in its entirety! I can usher in a golden age for my people!” He was beaming exultantly, elevated in the way that only a hundred billion dollar check can elevate.
Hugo was a crumpled heap on the ground. One could hear only whimpers coming from the pitiable lump of a man who had lost all composure in the face of two Trivial Pursuit questions that he couldn’t answer.
Moriarty, on the other hand, was still taken aback that he had thirty-three billion some-odd dollars in an overseas bank account that was completely unbeknownst to him and that he had lost said dollars in the first few minutes of a board game. But as the unsightly Mayonnaise sun set, he was struck by an idea.
“Hey,” he said, nudging Hugo. The Mattress King looked up and saw the insipid Jeremy holding his check up to the last remnants of light, a dull and tastelessly jovial expression plastered on his face.
“Whaddyou want?” Hugo said miserably.
“Do you want to beat up Jeremy and split the money? He’s just going to waste it anyway,” Moriarty said, kindness in his voice.
Hugo sniffled. “Yeah.”
“Let’s do it, then,” said Moriarty, patting Hugo on the back. “Get up and we’ll rough him up together.”
As the green Mayonnaise sun dipped below the horizon in the distance, the city of Mayonnaise was miraculously quiet. During this infinitesimal period of time, on the outskirts of town near the mayoral mansion, an amazing and melodious sound was heard for miles around. It was the subtle and winding tune that could only be heard when two angry political figures were punching a guy in the face for winning a game of Trivial Pursuit.
And for a few minutes, just a few glorious minutes, Mayonnaise was at peace.