Bubbles like champagne, like jazz, like a cadenza running down the piano, four hands on the keys, sharps and flats and white notes whistling down in a –
–no. The bubbles are all wrong.
They should be at the bar with the others. The Misfit. That was the name of the bar. They were – they were in a story. That’s right. The author had mulled them into being. They were the twins, and they had an act, and everyone loved them, even though they were always in the background, and –
Bubbles. Why are there so many bubbles?
They should breathe.
Maybe not here. Were they underwater?
Oh. They’re underwater.
They kick up, they try to swim – did they know how to swim? The author never figured that into their backstory. They really didn’t have much of a backstory. Hopefully they know how to swim.
They burst to the surface, drops of dirty water flying off them like music bouncing off a bad dancer. It smelled like the bar after closing, when all the drunks had left behind their tips and stench. The air reeked of regret.
Benny dragged himself up onto the muddy shore first, wiping the filth from his eyes. A swamp? How did they get to a swamp?
Wanda pulled up next to him, flopping over onto her back, panting hard. “Benny, who’d you piss off this time?”
“Hey, all my debts are paid up. Well, the big ones, anyway,” Benny gasped. “Where are we?”
“The Swamp.” The voice was jarring, like an augmented fourth. Benny looked around for the owner and found it.
A scrawny man in dirty brown robes perched atop a fallen log. He leaned on a pencil-thin branch that looked like it might be an anorexic staff. The man had tiny squinted eyes, a twitching white mustache, and a beak-like schnozz that dwarfed the rest of his head. He looked like some sort of deranged political cartoon.
“What was that, pal?”
“You’re in the Swamp,” the old man responded. “And you have been rejected. You weren’t good enough.”
“Carlisle wouldn’t get rid of us,” Wanda spat. “People come from all over the state to hear us play.” She struggled to kneel in the slippery mud.
“Sure, maybe, in your story. But your writer might have found a better act.” The schnozz sniffed at them. “Yeah, I can smell the disbelief on you.”
“Scuze me?” Benny glanced at his sister.
“Let me see…” The old man sniffed again. “You’re Black-Note Benny, and you’re White-Note Wanda. You’re twins who play piano at The Misfit, the best bar this side of the state line. Your gimmick was good, but too strange for a serious crime novel. Your author replaced you with someone less flashy, actually. And when you got dumped out of your story, you wound up here. In the Swamp.”
“Yeah. I’m White-Note Wanda. Everyone knows that. Big deal.” She shoved a mop of dirty blond hair out of her eyes. “You dump us here? Someone hire you?”
“No one hired me. I’m the Sniffer. I smell all of time and space, and can tell everything about someone with a single whiff. Let’s see here. You, Wanda. You’re worried that your brother gets all the glory since he gets the accidentals, but at least you can play a whole key by yourself without his help. Your author imagined you so you’d enjoy a martini, but you’re pretty sure they taste bad. You think you should be smarter, but can’t figure out why you think that. You also wish that music was a color.”
Wanda wrinkled her nose. “You ain’t nothing special.”
Benny stumbled to his feet. His good shoes, all covered in mud! And his tux was ruined, no doubt about that. “Listen, pal, you ain’t making any sense.”
The Sniffer squinted at him. “Of course I’m not. You’re not listening. I can tell; you smell like the rear end of a horse. That means you’re too stubborn to listen. Your sister might have a chance, though. She’s got the scent of someone with a lick o’ sense.”
“Why you –“
Wanda sat back. “Wait, Benny. Look around. This ain’t the story we were supposed to be in.”
“Course not! The author hadn’t figured out where she was going. All we had was the bar! Maybe there was a swamp outside!”
“No. Look. This is nothing like she’d already outlined.” Wanda shook her head. “She cut us.”
Benny felt like someone slammed the keyboard cover on his head. “No. No way. We were too important to the story!”
“We were window dressing, Benny!”
“But you were the prettiest window dressing anyone ever thought up!”
Wanda looked down. She whispered, “My dress is ruined.”
“Only for now,” the Sniffer answered. “You’re new enough; your clothing’ll revert back to what you used to be soon enough.” He cocked his head. “Listen, it’s normal for people to wrestle with rejection. I mean, it’s not like breaking up. Your writer rejected your very existence, and now you’re here instead of your comfy tale of misery and woe.”
Benny turned to the old man. “So we’ve got some new sheet music to work off of? Or is it improv all the way?”
“A little of both. I’ve decided to help new arrivals so they get a feel for the land. If you’d like me to show you around, I’ll be content to.”
Benny looked back at Wanda.
Wanda lifted her eyes from the muck. “Why would she reject us? She loved us! She made us!”
The Sniffer answered, “She rejected you because you’re bad characters. Or just not right for what she wanted in the story. Or maybe you were boring. Maybe it was you, not her. Who knows? I do know this: You’re here now. Let’s get you out of the swamp and dried off. And then… let’s show you this world of rejects, eh?”
“You make a guy feel like a thousand bucks,” Benny spat.
The old man shrugged. “I speak only truth. Would you like to follow me to town?”
Benny reached out a hand to his sister. “Come on, Wanda. Let’s get outta here. We’ll figure it out as we go. Like we always do.”
Wanda lurched to her feet, took Benny’s hand, and the two walked after the hobbling old man with the huge nose. They wandered to the next song of their existence… a little town called Barrelbottom.
This is a Barrelbottom Tale.
Benny and Wanda return in Registering Rejects.