The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale
by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Sheila split open and the air was filled with gumballs. Yellow gumballs. This was awful for Stan, just awful. He had loved Sheila for a long time, fought for her heart, believed in their love until finally she had come around. They were about to kiss for the first time and then this: yellow gumballs.
Stan went to a group to try to accept that Sheila was gone. It was a group for people whose unrequited love had ended in some kind of surrealist moment. There is a group for everything in California.
After several months of hard work on himself with the group, Stan was ready to open a shop and sell the thousands of yellow gumballs. He did this because he believed in capitalism, he loved capitalism. He loved the dynamic surge and crash of Amazon's stock price, he loved the great concrete malls spreading across America like blood staining through a handkerchief, he loved how everything could be tracked and mirrored in numbers. When he closed the store each night he would count the gumballs sold, and he would determine his gross revenue, his operating expenses, his operating margin; he would adjust his balance sheet and learn his debt to equity ratio; and after this exercise each night, Stan felt he understood himself and was at peace, and he could go home to his apartment and drink tea and sleep, without shooting himself or thinking about Sheila.
On the night before the IPO of gumballs.com, Sheila came to Stan in a dream. She was standing in a kiddie pool; Stan and his brothers and sisters were running around splashing and screaming; she had managed to insert herself into a Super-8 home movie of Stan's family, shot in the late 70's. She looked terribly sad.
"Sheila, where are you?" Stan said. "Why did you leave me, why did you become gumballs?"
"The Ant King has me," Sheila said. "You must rescue me."
Stan woke up, he shaved, he put on his Armani suit and drove his Lexus to his appointment with his venture capitalists and investment bankers. But the dream would not leave him. "Ant King?" he asked himself. "What's this about a goddamn Ant King?"
On the highway, near the swamp, he pulled his Lexus over to the shoulder. The American highway is a self-contained system, Stan thought. Its rest stops have video games, bathrooms, restaurants, and gas stations. There's no reason ever to leave the interstate highway system, its deadness and perfection and freedom. When you do reach your exit, you always have a slight sense of loss, as when awakening from a dream.
Stan took off his shiny black shoes and argyle socks, cuffed his Armani suit pants above the knees, and waded through the squidgy mud and tall reeds of the swamp. He saw a heron rise, flutter, and soar into the midmorning sky. Ant King, Ant King, he thought.
Miles underground, the Ant King was watching an old episode of Charlie's Angels on cable.
"Which one do you identify with?" he asked Sheila. "The blonde one, or the pretty brunette one, or the perky, smart brunette one?"
"Stan may come rescue me, you know," Sheila said.
"I like how you never see Charlie. And how Boswell -- is that his name, Boswell? -- how he's kind of a foil and audience for the girls. There's all this unrealized desire - Boswell desires the girls, but he's got no chance, and I think they desire Charlie, but Charlie's invisible."
Sheila picked at a seam in the orange sofa. "It is possible. He might come rescue me."
The Ant King blinked and tried to smile reassuringly. "Sure. No, yeah, definitely. I think the two of you are just going through a phase, maybe. You know, it took him a while to deal with, ah, what he's going through."
Sheila glared at him. "You are so full of shit!" she said.
The Ant King threw his bag of Doritos at her. "Fine! I was just trying to be nice!" he shouted. "I'm full of shit? I'm full of shit? What about your dorky boyfriend?" He grabbed the remote and changed the channel, showing Stan, sitting in his Lexus with the door open, toweling off his muddy feet. "He's a lost cause, baby. You want me to respect a guy like that?"
"I hate it here," said Sheila.
The Ant King smoothed his antennae and took a deep breath. "Okay, I'm sorry about throwing the Doritos. Maybe I overreacted. Okay?"
"I hate you, too," said Sheila.
"Fine," said the Ant King, savagely snatching up the remote control and turning back to Charlie's Angels. "Be that way."
"Gumballs are more than candy, isn't that right, Stan?" said Monique, smiling broadly.
Stan nodded. His feet were still wet, inside his argyle socks. "Yes, gumballs have a lot of, ah, a lot greater significance than just candy."
Monique paused and looked at Stan brightly, waiting for him to go on. Across the table, the three Credit Suisse First Boston underwriters, Emilio Toad, Harry Hornpecker, and Moby Pfister sat stone-faced and unreacting in their gray double-breasted suits.
Stan tried to remember the gumballs.com business plan. "They have hard shells," he said. "People, ah, they want challenge... the hardness, the gumminess..."
Monique broke in smoothly. Monique, all seven post-gender-reassignment-surgery feet of her; Monique, always dressed to the nines and tens; Monique was a Valley legend for her instincts, her suavity, her rapacious, exemplary greed. Stan had sold Monique on the idea of gumballs.com, and she had invested -- found him the right contacts, the right team - and here they were at the Big Day, the Exit Strategy.
"Stan!" she cried joyously, fixing him with a penetrating stare. "Don't be shy! Tell them about how gumballs are sex! Tell them about our top-gun semiotics professors, tell them about gumballs as a cultural trope! You see," she said, swooping onto Hornpecker, Pfister & Toad, "you can't think of this as a candy thing, a food & bev thing, a consumer cyclic thing; no way, Josť! Think Pokemon. Think World Wide Wrestling. Think Star Wars!"
"Could we get back to the numbers," said Emilio Toad in a voice that sounded like a cat being liquefied in an industrial-strength mixer. The gray faces of Harry Hornpecker and Moby Pfister twitched in relief.
Later, after the deals were signed and the faxes were faxed, Monique and Stan took a taxi to a cigarillo bar to celebrate.
"What, like, is up with you today?" said Monique, crouched somewhat uncomfortably in the taxicab, her knees almost touching her chin, but exuding her usual sense of style and unflappability.
"Um... just IPO jitters?" said Stan hopefully.
"Cut the crap," said Monique.
"I had a dream about Sheila," Stan blurted out.
"Oh goddess," said Monique. "Not this again."
"It seemed so real," Stan said. "She said I had to rescue her from the Ant King."
"Well, you're not my only weirdo CEO," Monique said, giving him a manly, sidearm hug, "but I think you're the weirdest."
The next morning, nursing a cognac hangover and a throat raw from cigarillo smoke, Stan stood bewildered in front of a two-story building in downtown Palo Alto. It looked a lot like where he worked. There on the signboard were the other companies in his building: Leng Hong Trading; Trusty & Spark, patent attorneys; the Bagel Binge, marketing department; MicroChip Times, editorial. But no gumballs.com, Inc.
"I thought you might be here, sir," said Pringles, his secretary, appearing at his elbow.
"Huh? Pringles!" said Stan. The day before, Pringles had been dressed in a black T-shirt reading "Your Television Is Already Dead" and twelve earrings, but now she was in a smart ochre business suit, carried a mahogany-colored briefcase, and wore pearls.
"We've moved, sir," she said, leading the way to the limousine.
On the highway to Santa Clara, something occurred to Stan. "Pringles?" he said.
"You didn't use to call me sir - you used to call me Stan."
"Yes, sir, but we've gone public now. SEC regulations."
"You're kidding," said Stan.
Pringles stared out the window.
The Gumballs.com Building was thirty stories of mirrored glass windows with its own exit off Highway 101. A forty-foot cutout of the corporate animated character, Mr. Gumball, towered over Stan, exuding yellow hysteria. Pringles escorted Stan to his office suite on the thirtieth, after giving him a building pass.
"Wow," said Stan, looking at Pringles across his enormous glass desktop. "Nice work, Pringles."
"Thank you, sir."
"So what's my schedule for today?"
"Nothing lined up, sir."
"Oh. Could I look at the numbers?"
"I'll order them from Accounting, sir."
"Can't I just ask Bill?"
"Sir, Bill is the CFO of a public company now. He doesn't have time to look at the numbers."
"Oh. Shouldn't I have a staff meeting with the department heads or whatever?"
"Vic is doing that, sir."
"Vic? Who's Vic?"
"Vic is our Executive Vice President for Operations, sir."
Stan looked at his desk. There were gold pens, a golden tape dispenser, a framed picture of Sheila and a glass jar full of yellow gumballs. They were the last of the Sheila gumballs.
"Pringles?" Stan said.
"I don't have a computer."
"That's right, sir."
There was a pause.
"Anything else, sir?"
"Um, yeah. Pringles, what do you suggest I do today?"
Pringles turned and walked across the expanse of marble floor to a teak closet with a brass doorknob. She opened it and returned with a leather golfing bag, which she leaned against the glass desk.
"Pringles, I don't golf," said Stan.
"You need to learn, sir," said Pringles, and left.
Stan took a gumball from the glass jar and looked at it. He thought about biting into it, chewing it, blowing a bubble. Or at least sucking on it. I really should try one of these sometime, he thought. He looked at Sheila's picture. He put the gumball in the pocket of his Armani suit jacket.
Then he went to look for Vampire.
"Hi," said Stan, looking around a corner of a cubicle on the seventeenth floor. "I'm Stan."
"Yeah, whatever," said the occupant of the cubicle, not looking away from her monitor.
"No, really, I'm Stan, I'm the CEO here."
"Yeah, I believe you, so? What do you want, a medal?"
"Well, uh," Stan said. "So what are you up to?"
"I'm storyboarding the Mr. Gumball Saturday morning cartoon pilot, and I'm past deadline, and I'm paid shit, Mr. CEO."
"Oh, OK." Said Stan. "I won't bug you then."
"Great," said the cartoon storyboardist.
"Hey, by the way, you don't know where the sysadmins and stuff are though, do you?" Stan asked.
"I thought you weren't going to bug me, then."
After many such adventures, Stan found himself in the third sub-basement of the gumballs.com building, close to despair. It was 8pm, and his building pass expired at 9.
Suddenly, faintly, from far off, Stan heard the sound of horrible, ghostly shrieking and rhythmic pounding.
Thank God, Stan thought, heading toward the sound. And indeed, as he got closer he could tell he was listening to one of Vampire's thrash goth trance doom CDs.
Stan had feared that, like Pringles, Vampire might suddenly be wearing a suit, but as he emerged into Vampire's blacklit cavern, he saw that Vampire was wearing knee-length jet-black hair, a black trenchcoat, fingerless studded leather gloves, and giant surgical-steel ear, nose, lip, and tongue piercings, as always. Perhaps he was surrounded by an even larger array of keyboards, monitors, and machines than yesterday, but it was hard to tell.
"Vampire!" Stan shouted over the music. "Am I glad to see you!"
"Hey, man," said Vampire, lifting a hand in salutation but not looking away from his monitor.
"So, hey, what are you up to?" said Stan, looking for somewhere to sit down. He started to take a broken monitor off of a folding metal chair.
"DON'T TOUCH THAT!" Vampire shouted.
"Oops, oops, sorry," said Stan, backing off.
"No problem," said Vampire.
"So, ah, you were saying?" Stan said hopefully.
"Lotta new machines coming in," said Vampire. "What do you know about NetBSD 2.5 routing across multiple DNS servers?"
"Absolutely nothing," said Stan.
"OK," said Vampire, and nodded.
Stan waited a little while, looking around. Finally he spoke again. "Ah, Vampire, ever heard of a, the, this is going to sound silly but, the Ant King?"
"Nope," said Vampire. "I knew an AntAgonist once, on the Inferno BBS."
"Oh," said Stan. "But, um, how would you go about finding out about the Ant King?"
"What search engines have you tried?" asked Vampire.
"Well, none," said Stan.
"Well, try Google, they're good."
"OK," said Stan. "Um, Vampire?"
"I don't have a computer anymore."
Vampire turned and looked at Stan. "You poor bastard!" he said, and pointed. "Use that one."
The Ant King was sound asleep on the sofa, cans of Dr. Pepper littered around him. Sheila got up gingerly, took off her sneakers, and held them in one hand as she crept for the door, clutching a Dorito in the other.
It was a lucky moment. Sheila passed several of the Ant King's henchmen (who were all bald and stout and wore identical purple fedoras) asleep at their desks, and threaded her way through the dark rooms of the Ant King's lair to the tunnels at the edge of it. She stopped at the mouth of the biggest tunnel. Far off, she could hear running water.
Something moved in the darkness beyond, a great hulking shape. Sheila moved cautiously forward. With a horrible dry clicking and rustling, the gigantic Black Roach of Death scuttled forward.
With trembling hands, Sheila fed it the Dorito, as she had seen the Ant King do, and reached up to pat its enormous antennae. Then she slid past it into the passageway.
She walked forward, into the darkness. Ten steps; twenty. Nervously she chewed, and blew a bubble. The bubble popped, echoing loudly in the tunnel. Sheila froze. But there was no movement from behind. Carefully she spat the wad of gum into her hand and pressed it into the wall. Then she moved forward. Thirty steps. I can do this, she thought. Forty.
Suddenly Sheila was terribly hungry.
I'll eat when I get out, she thought grimly.
But that didn't seem quite right.
She searched her pockets and found another Dorito. She lifted it to her lips and stopped. No. No, not that. Something was troubling her. She let the Dorito fall to the ground.
I didn't prepare properly for this, she thought. This isn't the way you escape. You need a plan, you need resources. Anyway, there's no rush.
She began creeping back down the tunnel.
It's not so bad here anyway, she thought. I'm all right for now. I'll escape later. This was just a test run. She stroked the antennae of the Black Roach of Death idly as she passed.
Damn Stan anyway, she thought as she crept back through the dark rooms. Am I supposed to do this all by myself? That guy! Big talker, but no action.
On the TV, some CNN talking head was upset about market valuations. "Ten billion for gumballs? This is the perfect example of market froth! I mean there's no business model, there are no barriers to entry; only in today's..."
Sheila switched to MTV and sank into the couch next to the Ant King.
"Hi," said the Ant King drowsily.
"Hi," said Sheila.
"Hey, I missed you," said the Ant King.
"Stick it in your ear," said Sheila.
"Listen, your ambivalence about me is really getting old, Sheila," said the Ant King.
"Ambivalence about you? Dream on," said Sheila. She took a yellow gumball from the dish on the coffee table, popped it in her mouth, and bit down. A crunch, a rush of sweetness, the feeling of her teeth sinking into the gumball's tough flesh. Sheila smiled and blew a bubble. It popped. She wasn't hungry anymore. "I hate your guts," she said.
"Yeah, whatever," said the Ant King, rolling over and pulling a pillow over his head. "Grow up, Sheila."
The search on Google.com had returned several bands and music CDs, an episode of the King of the Hill cartoon, the "Lair of the Ant King" slide at the local waterpark, and several video games in which the Ant King was one of the villains to beat. Stan listened to the CDs in his car, watched the cartoon in a conference room with a video projector, and installed the video games on a receptionist's computer on the fifth floor and played them at night, hiding from the security guards. He popped down to visit Vampire a lot, and avoided Pringles and his office entirely.
"I'm on level 5," he said, "and I just can't get past the Roach."
"And you've still got the magic sword?" said Vampire, not looking up.
"No, I lost that to the Troll."
"You don't even have to go to the Troll," said Vampire, who never played video games but read the video game newsgroups religiously. "You can cross the Dread Bridge instead."
"I always die on the Dread Bridge when it breaks in two."
"You're not running fast enough," said Vampire. "You've got to run as fast as you can, and jump at the last moment."
"It's tough," said Stan.
"How are things with you?" Stan asked.
"The patch for mod-ssl 220.127.116.11 is totally incompatible with the recommended build sequence for Apache on Solaris. Solaris is such crap."
"Oh," said Stan. "OK."
"Hey, I got you something," Vampire said.
"What?" said Stan.
"That," said Vampire, pointing.
On top of a rack of dusty computers Stan saw a four-foot-long sword in a gilded leather sheath. Its ivory handle depicted a spiral of crawling ants. Stan pulled the sword a little out of its sheath, and an eerie blue light filled the room.
"Cool, huh?" said Vampire. "I got it on eBay."
Holding his magic sword, Stan left the elevator on the thirtieth floor and cautiously approached his office. He hadn't been there in a week; he felt like he should check in.
Pringles met him at the door. "This isn't your office anymore, sir," she said.
"It's not?" Stan said. He tried to hold the sword at an inconspicuous angle. Pringles ignored it.
"No, sir. We moved Vic in there."
"Oh, really? Say, when do I get to meet Vic, anyway?"
"I'm not sure, sir. He's quite busy these days, with our acquisition of Suriname."
"We're acquiring Suriname? Isn't that a country?"
"Yes, sir. Follow me, please."
"Um, Pringles," said Stan, hurrying to catch up. "Am I, ah, still CEO?"
Pringles opened the door of his new office. It was a lot smaller.
"I'll check with HR, sir," she said, and left.
That afternoon, as Stan sat at his new, smaller desk, Monique stopped by.
"Hey hey," she said, "so here's where they've got you, huh?"
"Monique, what's going on? Have I been, um, usurped?" It seemed like the wrong word.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about it, tiger," she said, sinking into a leather visitor's chair, and crossing her legs. "Gumballs is doing great. Vic's doing a good job, you should be proud."
"But Monique - I don't do anything anymore."
"Oh, stop whining," Monique said. She rolled her eyes. "God, you make such a big deal out of everything. Cool sword."
"Thanks," said Stan glumly.
"Look, you're a startup-stage guy, not an operations-stage guy. Just enjoy the ride."
"I guess," said Stan.
"There you go. Listen, you clearly need cheering up. I'm babysitting my sister's kid on the weekend, we're going to the water park. You wanna come?"
"Sure," said Stan. "Why not?"
Monique came by Stan's apartment Saturday morning, and Stan came outside, dressed in a blue Oxford and chinos and carrying a bathing suit and towel, and his magic sword. Monique was wearing a silver blouse, a blue miniskirt, a silk scarf and sunglasses. Her sister's kid had a shaved head, powdered white skin, black lipstick and kohl, and was wearing combat boots and a wedding dress adorned with black spiders.
"Stan, this is Corpse, my sister's kid," Monique said.
"Hi," said Stan.
Corpse snarled, like a wolf.
"Great, everybody ready?" said Monique.
In the car, Stan said, "so Corpse, what's your favorite subject in school?"
"Shop," said Corpse.
"Aha," said Stan. "And what do you want to do when you grow up?"
"Bring about the violent overthrow of the current political order," said Corpse.
"Really? How come?" asked Stan.
Corpse's eyes rolled back into their sockets, exposing the white.
"Takes after me, don't you, Corpse?" said Monique happily. Corpse said nothing.
"But Monique," said Stan. "You're a venture capitalist. You are the current political order."
"Corpse," said Stan. "I hope you don't mind me asking this, but ah, are you a boy or a girl?"
"You teleological totalitarian!" Corpse shouted. "Your kind will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes!"
"Now Corpse, be nice," said Monique. But she was grinning.
Stan stood in line for the water slide, in his bathing suit, behind Corpse, who was still wearing the wedding dress. He had left his sword in the locker room. He felt naked without it.
Corpse sat in the mouth of the water slide tunnel, waiting for the "Go" light to turn green. Stan looked over at the slide to his left. It was a boat ride; in a puffy inflatable boat, four stout, bald men in business suits and purple fedoras sat waiting for the green light. Behind them was a Mexican family in bathing suits, waiting with their boat.
That's funny, Stan thought. He looked closer at the fedora'd men.
In their boat was a glass jar filled with perhaps three hundred yellow gumballs.
The lights turned green; Corpse vanished into the slide and the men in the boat slid into their tunnel. Despite the sign reading One At A Time, Wait For The Green Light, Stan jumped in after Corpse.
Halfway through the twists, turns, splashing chaos of the tunnel, Stan collided with Corpse. "Hey!" Corpse yelled, and was sucked away again.
Stan was dumped out into a great basin. He went under and came up spluttering, chlorine stinging his nose. Standing unsteadily, he looked over at the end of the boat ride. There was no sign of the men with the fedoras: the water there flowed peacefully.
"Hey!" said Corpse, splashing him. "You're not supposed to go two at once!"
"I thought you wanted to overthrow the current political order," said Stan, still watching the boat ride.
"Oh, right, so let's start with the water park," Corpse said.
"Why not?" said Stan. The Mexican family, in their boat, emerged from the boat ride. There was no question: the other boat had vanished while in the tunnel.
Monique was standing next to the basin in her polka-dot bikini, yelling into her pink waterproof cell phone. "No, you idiot, I don't want you profitable! Because we can't find backers for a profitable company, that's why! Well find something to spend it on!" She clicked off the cell phone and shook her head. "Some people are so stuck in the Old Economy."
"Can I borrow that?" Stan asked.
"Okay," Monique said, handing him the phone. "Don't lose it."
"Meet me at the boat ride in five minutes," Stan said, and dialing Vampire, hurried off to get his sword.
The light turned green, and the boat containing Monique, Corpse, and Stan, holding his magic sword, slid into the tunnel.
"Did you get in?" shouted Stan into the pink cell phone over the roar of rushing water. The boat surged through the great pipe, spun into a whirlpool, then rushed on.
"Yeah," said Vampire, over the cell phone. "It wasn't easy, but I'm in. Actually, after I cracked the session key it wasn't that bad, they've got a continuous telnet session going over a Pac Bell router, so..."
The boat lurched and heaved to the right and a cascade of water flew over them. Stan shouted, "so, did you, you know, open the secret door or whatever?"
"Oh, right," said Vampire, and typed a command to the water park's main computer, setting the "Lair of the Ant King" ride into 'real' mode.
The rubber boat rushed into a curve. In front of them, a section of wall swung away and the boat flew out of the pipe, into darkness and space, falling between black canyon walls.
"This ride is cool!" said Corpse, as they fell.
When the boat hit the great subterranean river below, it bucked, and Monique and Corpse grabbed onto the handles set into its sides. Stan thought about whether to drop the pink cell phone or the magic sword, and while he thought about it, he flew out of the boat and disappeared into the icy rapids.
"Stan!" Monique yelled.
"Bummer," said Corpse.
The surging river slowed as it widened, they glided past massive black cliffs, and at last the rubber boat coasted up to a dock, where several stout men in purple fedoras helped Monique and Corpse onto dry land.
The Ant King bowed, and his antennae bobbed. "Well, this is an unexpected pleasure," he said.
"Cool lair," said Corpse.
"Why thank you," said the Ant King. "You both look soaked. We have robes and changing rooms right over here. Care for an espresso?"
"Sure," said Monique.
"Got hot chocolate?" said Corpse.
"Why yes we do," said the Ant King.
"Okay, there's a little yellow bird here," Stan said.
"You still got the rod?" said Vampire over the pink cell phone.
Stan looked down at the crook of his arm, where he was uncomfortably carrying a rod, an axe, a loaf of bread and a key. He was still in his bathing suit, dripping wet, and exhausted from wandering the tunnels for hours. The blue glow of his magic sword dimly illuminated the room, including a small yellow bird, which watched him suspiciously.
"Put the rod down," said Vampire. Stan let it slide out from the crook of his arm and clatter to the ground.
"Now catch the bird," Vampire said.
With the pink cell phone wedged between his ear and his shoulder, and his collection of found objects in the crook of his sword arm, Stan edged towards the bird. It looked at him dubiously, and hopped away.
"I can't seem to get ahold of it," Stan said.
"All right, forget the bird. It's only extra points anyway."
"Extra points!" shouted Stan. "I'm not trying to get extra points, I'm trying to get Sheila!"
"OK, OK, keep your hat on," said Vampire. "Get the rod again and go north."
While Stan wandered a maze of twisty little passages, leaving found objects and pieces of bread according to Vampire's instructions, in order to differentiate the rooms from one another and thus navigate the maze, and Corpse and Monique changed into fuzzy purple terry-cloth bathrobes, and Sheila watched the Comedy Channel and felt inexplicably restless, the Ant King logged onto a network and sent a message, which appeared in the corner of Vampire's screen.
Think you're pretty smart, huh? it said.
"OK," said Stan, "uh, I'm in the room with the axe again."
"Hold on," said Vampire. "Message." He did some tracking to find out where the message came from, but no luck: he found a circular trail of impossible addresses.
I know I'm pretty smart, he typed back at it.
Not as smart as you think, the Ant King typed back at him. You think I would leave sendmail running on an open port on my real proxy server? As if I didn't know about the security hole in that baby.
"OK, I think I see the way out here," said Stan. "This is the room with the two pieces of bread -- have I gone east from here?"
"Hold on a sec," muttered Vampire.
"I don't think I have," said Stan.
Okay, I'm stumped, typed Vampire. If that's not your real proxy server, what is it?
It's my Palm Pilot, the Ant King typed back. With a few tweaks to the OS. And you're hogging a lot of memory on it, so I'd appreciate it if you logged off, Vampy.
Hey, hold on, Vampire typed. Is this Ant-Agonist?
Used to be. Not any more, typed the Ant King.
"Hey, I'm out!" Stan said. "It's opening up into a large cavern. Wow, this is great, Vampire!"
No shit! typed Vampire. How have you been, man?
I've been great, but I can't say the same for you, typed the Ant King. You are rusty as hell. What are you doing selling gumballs for a living anyway?
"Oh, shit," said Stan. "Oh, shit!"
"What?" said Vampire curtly, typing furiously in the chat window.
"Vampire, it's the bridge. It's the Dread Bridge! I always die at the Dread Bridge."
"I told you, man," Vampire said, absently, as he chatted with the Ant King. "You've just gotta run fast enough."
Cell phone in one hand, sword in the other, Stan began to run. His bare feet slapped against the planks of the Dread Bridge; the bridge swung crazily over the chasm, and he fought for balance. As he neared the middle he threw the sword ahead of him, and it clattered onto the ground beyond the bridge. He stuffed the cell phone into the waistband of his bathing suit, and ran on. Suddenly he heard a snap behind him, and he jumped. The bridge broke beneath his weight, and swung away. Stan flew through the air, but not nearly far enough; he fell, and barely managed to grab the planks of the bridge beneath him. He hung on as the ropes strained; he thought they were going to break, and he screamed in terror. But the ropes held. Stan swung over the dark canyon, clutching the planks.
"Hey, are you okay?" Vampire said.
"Yeah," Stan panted. "Yeah, I think so."
"Great," Vampire said. "Listen, I know this is kind of a bad time, but there's something we need to talk about."
"Huh?" said Stan. "What?"
"Well, this is kind of awkward for me, but, you know, I haven't really been feeling fulfilled professionally here lately..."
"What?" said Stan.
"So, well, I've decided to accept another offer of employment, basically."
"You're kidding," said Stan. "From whom?"
"From the Ant King, actually. I'm pretty excited about it, it's a whole different level of responsibility, and --"
"The Ant King?!" yelled Stan. "The Ant King?!"
"Yeah, actually it turns out I know him from way back and --"
"But Vampire!" yelled Stan. "Listen, aren't we in this together?"
"Hey, Stan," Vampire said. "Let's not make this hard on ourselves, okay? This is just the career move I think is right for me right now..."
"Vampire, we can give you more responsibility!" Stan could feel the cool air of the endless chasm blowing against his feet. "More stock! Whatever you want!"
"That's great of you to offer, Stan, really," said Vampire. "But, you know, it's getting really corporate here, and that's just not my scene. I think I'll be happier in a more entrepreneurial climate."
"But Vampire!" Stan shouted, and just then the ropes above him groaned and one snapped, and the planks he was holding onto twisted and spun. Stan was slammed against the wall, and the pink cell phone popped out of his waistband and fell into the darkness. He waited, but he never heard it reach the ground.
Crap, he thought, and began to climb the planks, toward the ledge above.
"Yes!" said the Ant King. "Exactly! Wile E. Coyote is the only figure of any integrity in 20th century literature."
"Totally," said Corpse.
"Come on," said Monique. "What about Bugs Bunny?"
"An amateur!" said the Ant King. "A dilettante! No purity of intention!"
"Pinky and the Brain?"
"Losers! Try to take over the world, indeed!"
Sheila cleared her throat. "Um, does anyone want some more pretzels?" she asked.
"Are you the one we're here to rescue?" Corpse asked. Sheila blanched.
"Yeah, she's the one," said the Ant King. "So listen - Star Trek or Star Wars?"
"Oh, please," said Corpse. "Babylon 5!"
"Excellent choice!" said the Ant King.
"I like Star Wars. Particularly Darth Vader," said Monique.
"I'll just go for some more pretzels, then," Sheila said.
"But then he bails on the Dark Side in the end!" the Ant King said. "See? No integrity!"
Cold and angry, clutching his magic sword in both hands, Stan stood before the gigantic Black Roach of Death.
"Come on, big boy," he yelled. "Make my day! Meet my sword, Roach Motel! You're gonna check in, but you're not gonna check --"
With a lazy swipe of its great claws, the Roach batted the magic sword out of Stan's hands. It flew away and clattered into the darkness. Then the Roach grabbed Stan around the throat and lifted him high into the air.
"Eek!" Stan screamed in terror.
"He's a friend of mine," yelled Sheila, sprinting out of the darkness.
"Sheila!" choked Stan.
"Here, c'mon boy, put him down, here's a Dorito," Sheila said.
Reluctantly the Roach dropped Stan, ate a Dorito, allowed itself to be petted, and crawled back into the tunnel.
"Thanks," croaked Stan, as Sheila helped him up.
Hand in hand, Sheila and Stan made their way through the tunnels leading away from the Ant King's lair.
"Don't look back," Stan kept saying. "Okay? Don't look back."
"Okay already," Sheila said.
Suddenly Sheila stopped.
"What?" said Stan, careful not to look back at her.
"I'm, um, I'm hungry," said Sheila.
"Me too," said Stan. "Let's go."
"But listen, we could just sneak back and grab a bite to eat, right? I mean, I ran out here because I heard you were finally coming, but I would've packed a sandwich if I'd --"
"Sheila, are you nuts?" said Stan.
"What's that supposed to mean?" said Sheila.
Stan felt in his pockets. The left one was empty. The right one had something in it - a gumball. Dry. He pulled it out and squinted at it in the dimness. He remembered putting a gumball into the pocket of his suit jacket, but...
"Okay, so I'm going back," Sheila said.
"Quick, chew this," Stan said, handing the gumball back to her without looking back.
She chewed the gumball, and they walked onward through the tunnel.
"I never thought I'd say this," said the Ant King, stirring his espresso nervously. "Sheila will be angry, but -- well, how can I put this --"
"Spit it out already," Monique said.
"Yeah," Corpse said.
"Corpse, I just -- I feel like you really get me, you know?"
"Yeah," Corpse said softly. "I feel the same way."
"Would you..." the Ant King blushed. "Would you like to stay underground with me forever and help me rule the subterranean depths?"
"Wow, that would be totally awesome!" Corpse said.
"Oh god, your mother's going to kill me," Monique said.
"Oh come on Aunt Monique, don't turn into a hypocrite on me! You always told me to follow my heart! You always say it's better to get into trouble than be bored!"
"I didn't say you can't do it," said Monique. "I just said your mother's going to kill me."
"So does that mean I can?" asked Corpse.
"How about if we do this on a trial basis at first," Monique said. "Okay? And you --" she pointed a menacing finger at the Ant King. "No addictive gumball crap, okay?" His antennae stiffened in surprise. "Yeah, Aunt Monique knows more than you think. You watch your step, buddy." She turned to Corpse. "You have one month," she said. "I'll talk to your mom. Then you come back up and we talk it over."
"Oh gosh, thank you, Aunt Monique!"
"You have my word," said the Ant King. "Corpse will enjoy life here thoroughly. And it will be very educational."
"I bet," said Monique.
"Hey, can we violently overthrow the current political order?" Corpse asked.
"Sure," said the Ant King. "That sounds like fun."
Stan sat across the desk from Lucy the HR person, who smiled at him brightly. "So what are your skills?" she asked.
"I founded this company," he said.
"We try to be forward-looking here," she said. "Less progressive organizations are focussed on past accomplishments, but our philosophy is to focus on current skills. What languages can you program in?"
"None," said Stan. "I can use Microsoft Word, though."
"Mmm-hmm," Lucy said. "Anything else?"
"I'm pretty good at financial analysis," Stan said.
"We are actually overstaffed in Accounting," Lucy said.
"I could work in Marketing," Stan said.
Lucy smiled indulgently. "Everyone thinks they know how to do Marketing. What about Customer Service?"
"I think I'll pass," said Stan.
"Okay," Lucy said brightly. "Well, I'll let you know as soon as something else opens up. Gumballs.com cares about you, as an employee. We want you to know that, and we want you to enjoy your indefinite unpaid leave. Can you do that for me, Stan?"
"I'll try," said Stan, and he left.
Stan finally met Vic at the company Christmas party in San Francisco. As he expected, Vic was tall, blond, and athletic, with a tennis smile.
"Stan!" Vic said brightly. "Good to finally meet you. And this must be Sheila."
"Hi!" said Sheila, shaking hands.
"Hi, Vic," said Stan. "Listen, I..."
"Great dress," Vic said to Sheila.
"Thanks!" Sheila said. "So what's running the show like?"
Stan said, "I wanted to..."
"It's actually quieted down a bunch," Vic said. "I'm starting to have time for a little golf and skiing."
Stan said, "I was wondering if we could..."
"Wow!" said Sheila. "Where do you ski?"
"Tahoe," said Vic.
"Of course," laughed Sheila.
Stan said, "Maybe if we could take a few minutes..."
"So is your wife here?" Sheila asked.
Vic laughed. "No, I'm afraid I'm single."
"Wow, are you gay?" Sheila asked.
"About 80-20 straight," Vic said.
"Hey, me too!" Sheila said.
Stan said, "It's about my job here at..."
"But really, I just haven't found anyone I've clicked with since moving to the Bay Area," Vic said.
"I know what you mean!" Sheila said.
Stan said, "Because I have some ideas about how I could..."
"So where were you before the Bay Area?" Sheila asked.
Later Sheila came up to Stan at the punch bowl.
"Stan, you know, things haven't been going so great for us lately."
"Uh huh," Stan said.
"I want you to know, I really appreciate you rescuing me..."
"Hey, no problem," Stan said.
"But since then, it just seems like we aren't going anywhere, you know?"
"Sheila, I love you," said Stan. "I'd give my life for you. I've never found anything in my life that means anything to me, except you."
"I know, Stan," she said. "I know. And maybe I'm being a bitch, but you know, that's kind of hard to live up to. You know? And I'm just not there yet." She put her arms around him. He stiffened. She let go and sighed. "I just think..."
"Are you going to run off with Vic?" Stan said. "Just give it to me straight."
Sheila sighed. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I guess I am. I'm sorry."
"Me too," Stan said.
Stan left the party and walked to the Bay Bridge. He looked down into the black water. He thought about jumping, but he didn't really feel like dying. He just didn't feel like being him anymore.
He decided to become a bum and walked to South of Market, where he traded his suit, shoes and wallet for an army jacket, a woolen cap, torn jeans, sneakers, a shopping cart, three plastic sacks, and a bottle of Night Train in a paper bag. But he wasn't a good bum. He was too polite to panhandle, he didn't like the taste of Night Train, and at campfires he felt alienated from the other bums -- he didn't know any of the songs they liked, and they didn't want to talk about Internet stocks. He was hungry, cold, lonely, tired, and sober when Monique found him.
"You look like shit," she said.
"Go away, Monique," he said. "I'm a bum now."
"Oh, yeah?" said Monique. "And how's that working out?"
"Lousy," Stan admitted.
Monique got out of her BMW and squatted down next to where Stan lay. The other bums moved away, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads in disgust.
"I've lost everything I love," Stan said.
"Aren't you the guy who loved the dramatic surge and crash of Amazon's stock ticker? The concrete malls spreading across America like blood staining a handkerchief? How everything can be tracked and mirrored in numbers -- numbers, the lifeblood of capitalism?"
"Well, yeah," Stan said.
"Get in the car," Monique said. "You're hired."
Stan got in the car.
Copyright © 2001 Benjamin Rosenbaum
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 2001.
"The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale" is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
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