This story will tell you nothing in a straightforward fashion. Though the pages are numbered, you must not confuse sequence with consequence. The pages are paths, and you will have to choose among them.
That is to say, whatever happens here will be your fault. But I will try to help you. Really, I will. I’ll make the choices clear. And I’ll make it possible for you to retrace your steps, over and over and over again, if that’s what you feel compelled to do.
So now the story begins:
While few parents would describe their little girl as average, that’s what you are. Neither beautiful nor homely, neither brilliant nor stupid, you don’t stand out: you have learned to follow instructions, which pleases your teachers. You have learned to worship Barbie, and pink is your favorite color, not black, as you once believed. You were given a pair of white gloves for your First Communion, and you wish that you could wear them always, as you understand women used to do, back in the day. You wish you had an English accent, like the self-possessed ladies in the black and white films you watch on television with your father. On occasion, you’ve even affected a slight lilt, but people have either mocked you or asked if you had a cold.
You’ve been reading about Greek gods and have developed a particular fascination with Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. When you ask your parents for a bow and arrow, they say no, such a toy is dangerous. Your mother tells you a story about being hit in the arm with a dart by a drunken uncle.
Today you have worn your favorite dress to school. It is purple with pink flowers and has a sewn-on sash that ties at the back. The sash is meant to be tied in a bow, but you prefer to let it dangle down, like a train. Stephen Bailey, who has a blotchy explosion of freckles, keeps walking behind you and pulling at the sash, saying you have a tail like a rat. Saying you have two pieces of pooh coming from your bum. Finally you turn around and say, “Quit it!”
“Quit it!” he says in falsetto mimicry. “Quiiiit iiit! Quiiit iiit!”
If you give him a shove, turn to page 9.
If you start to cry, turn to page 26.
“At least guns haven’t been invented yet!” you shout.
“But stone-throwing has—ouch!” Dr. Professor begins to duck and weave, as you do, under a sudden shower of airborne missiles. Fortunately, Time Bender 2000 is exactly where you left it, camouflaged by a mesh of branches and leaves. You both tear off the coverings and climb into the circular module, securing the doors on either side. Stones have begun an alarming percussion on the machine’s shell, and you worry that the windshield will shatter.
“If we can just get back to where we started, none of this mess would have happened!”
Dr. P. nods as he slaps the control consul back to consciousness, flicking switches and pressing buttons in rapid sequence. He’s about to hit the large green button labeled GO when he pauses.
“Are you sure you want to go back? You may never be able to go back to the exact same time that you left.”
If you yell, “Yes, GO!” turn to page 12.
If you say, “Pick random coordinates! At the very least I’ll avoid getting involved with that asshole Adrian!” go to page 28.
In the end, it is Adrian who confronts you. You are having a fight about a woman who was pressing herself against him at a party, and he says that you are paranoid. That he doesn’t know how to feel about the fact that you’ve obviously been going through his things when he’s not home. “I feel my privacy’s been invaded,” he says. You blow up and tell him the extent of your discoveries. All the racy photographs and billets doux. The collection of panties.
“You’re like the fucking Nazis, you know that? Your downfall is that you need to document everything.”
“I can’t believe you just called me a Nazi.” Adrian has no respect for rhetorical clichés.
“You’re right. I meant to say you’re like a serial killer. With trophies.” You’re pleased with that one, even though it’s essentially a paraphrase.
When you pack, you’re not completely positive that all the underwear you pick up off the bedroom floor is yours. Just to be sure, you mash a suspiciously unfamiliar white nylon pair into the garbage.
On your way out the door, you remember that you left your watch on the bedside table. It was a gift from Adrian—very expensive.
If you go back to retrieve it, turn to page 2.
If you leave without it, turn to page 16.
In your twenties, you are as sleek as a kitten. You watch your calories, work out every day at the gym, and dye your hair blonde, blonder, blondest. You spend money on body-hugging clothes, and discard items of your wardrobe that could ever be described as “comfy.” You pay women to pour wax on you then rip it off, to euphemize the fuzzy area around your crotch into a bikini line. You wear G-strings rather than panties, lest the tightness of your skirts and slacks communicates anything other than a mannequin-like smoothness in your haunches. Every woman in the world is your competition.
You gain a reputation for being “good in bed.” You are game for anything, any fantasy: you are a pseudo-bisexual show pony. You own boudoir accessories that typically feature as risqué punch-lines in the background action of B movies. Your sleek, flirtatious line of patter matches the cut of your satin trench coat as you sit in an upscale lounge, sipping an $18 martini. This persona is as deep, as brittle as the dark red lacquer on your nails.
To see what this persona attracts, turn to page 38.
If you’d like to cash in your chips on this persona, turn to page 22. Go ahead, see what happens.
You’ve had enough of this. In your pocket is a lighter, and at the moment, you don’t care about conserving its fuel. After a rapid series of clicks, you manage to produce a flame. In its tiny glow, you look across the room to see just who it is you’re keeping company with.
It’s you. Only half your face if missing. In your horror, you cannot find the breath to scream. You feel yourself growing dizzy, and you don’t seem to remember where the door is ...
If you pick a direction and run, turn to page 21.
If you try to seek refuge under the furniture, turn to page 11.
The Filet Mignon was a bold choice. A selfish and reckless choice. “Never order the most expensive thing on the menu,” your mother always told you. You order it rare, because you wish to seem daring, a co-predator, a partner in sensual crime. It works. Adrian smiles knowingly as the pressure of your knife and fork make the little parcel of meat bleed.
After dinner, you go to a fancy hotel and order fancy drinks in their fancy bar. Adrian suggests picking up another woman who is drinking alone. She looks out of place in her sexily cheap clothes, and Adrian concludes that she’s a professional.
Later, in the hotel room, you look at her roots as she’s going down on you, and pray that she’s not giving you VD.
If you manage an orgasm, turn to page 2.
If you fake an orgasm, turn to page 27.
The water is cold and dark and pulls at you like a hundred treacherous hands, but you thrash against it, kicking and flailing for the shore. As you try to swim upstream, on a diagonal, you are constantly being dragged downwards—both under the water and closer to the direction of the falls. The pounding sound of the water’s cascade gets ever louder. Worse yet, in the near distance you catch sight of what lies up ahead. Pointed, jagged rocks, spiking through the water’s surface like a Kraken’s teeth.
Maybe drowning, you think, would be better than being smashed apart.
If you let yourself be pulled under, go to page 11.
If you aim yourself for one of the rocks, go to page 33.
It’s called gravity, dear.
Really, you’ve been aiming for the ground, all this time, so what did you expect?
The impact hurts with the magnified force of a belly flop. You are shocked when, unsteadily but slowly, you manage to pull yourself to a standing position. Just like that. No broken bones, very little blood. You expect applause for such a miracle. But the tent is deserted. Everything is dark except for a shrunken pool of light, partially covering the stage.
Although your body appears to have escaped serious damage, your costume is in ruins, spangles askew, your fishnet tights ripped—beyond repair. You will need to throw it away. Once you limp from the spotlight’s glare, you can make out a tent-flap blown open by a breeze. Muted sunlight over damp grass.
Before you leave, you turn and bow to the empty seats.
And I clap for you.
I clap for you loud and long.
Stephen seems shocked for a second, but then he shoves you back, hard. You return the shove, and soon you are both pushing each other back and forth in a fierce rhythm. Stephen punches you in the shoulder, and you are about to punch him back when you are jerked aside. Mrs. Heinz, a teacher, grips you by your arm and barks your name, like she’s identifying something that she’s found infesting her cupboards.
“She started it!” another girl offers, stepping forward and extending a finger that almost touches your nose, she’s standing so close to you. Mrs. Heinz holds you by the one arm and grabs Stephen by the other and walks you both to the principal’s office, pushing you ahead of her slightly with your arm angled uncomfortably upwards in the socket. It’s a disgrace, to be handled as roughly as a boy, you understand this. You will both have to stay after school and write lines. You write, “I will control my temper.” Stephen writes, “I will not fight at school.”
Later on, when you want to join in the girls’ skipping game, you have to be a “never-ender.” Turning the rope, but never taking a turn at skipping. This is your probation.
If you don’t care, turn to page 37.
If you care, turn to page 31.
You come back from your trip to find the apartment empty. Of course: your boyfriend, Adrian, is at work. When you take your suitcase into the bedroom and begin to unpack, you notice a manila envelope on the dresser. In appearance it’s just an ordinary, dog-eared envelope, but it has an aura of audaciously phony innocence, like a jar labeled “Peanuts” containing a coiled snake. A live snake. You tilt it from one end and out spill pictures of other women. Naked, partially naked, sprawled, spreading. You recognize a few of them as his ex-girlfriends, posing in lingerie and raised skirts, submissive for the camera. Looking at them is like looking at a projection of your own neediness and vanity. You are spying on the truth about yourself.
You understand that these pictures have provided him with inspiration in your absence. It’s not that the photos in themselves shock you: you’ve even seen a few of them before. It’s that they have been anthologized and left in your path.
When you confront him about it, he sighs. “They were just some things I was putting away,” he explains, “because I thought they might upset you.”
If you decide to leave him, turn to page 34.
If you decide to let it go, turn to page 15.
You’re drinking a lot. It’s mostly expensive wine bought by Adrian, but still. You, on your own, average a bottle a day. Sometimes two. Every morning you wake up hung over, tender with toxicity. You take several Tylenol and then sleep until noon. You tell yourself you will watch one hour, all right, two hours only of television and then you will work on your writing. But you watch television until dinnertime, which is when you begin drinking. In the evening, sometimes you have arguments with Adrian that you can’t quite remember. For the first time in your life, you begin to experience alcoholic blackouts. Like this one:
[To resume story, turn to any random page.]
Dr. Professor slams the flat of his palm against the green GO button like a driver applying the horn in rush hour traffic. The Time Bender begins to spin and a deep whirring drowns out the screams of the villagers, who, at that very moment, have drawn within cudgel’s reach of the module. They are now just a blur of color; the blur takes on a glowing intensity before it fades and blends into a uniform blackness. It would all be very beautiful if it weren’t so completely nauseating. You close your eyes and bite the tip of your tongue, trying to master your queasiness. You’ve never quite gotten used to this.
When you open your eyes, the time machine has stopped moving. You are enveloped in a foggy darkness, illuminated by tiny, twinkling crystals, which drift like falling snow. Do you actually see this or merely perceive it? You’re not sure.
“Where are we?” you ask. But Dr. Professor is gone.
If you decide to get out, turn to page 10.
If you decide to go to another destination in time, turn to page 33.
The Pumpkin Ravioli turns out to be near flavorless, as if all its splendor had been spent in the adjectives describing it: “Maple-infused puréed roasted heirloom pumpkin enveloped in translucent cracked pepper whole wheat pasta, lightly tossed with saffron crème and finely slivered Parmesan.”
The ravioli sits like a chore on your plate. As you slice and chew the bland, plump pillows, you worry about the state of your ass. How many calories to this meal? You are used to living on soup, tuna, lettuce, and coffee. This will not do.
“Don’t you like your meal?” Adrian asks.
“It’s delicious,” you say. “I’m just savoring it.”
“Take your time,” he says, and smiles. “Then we’ll have dessert.”
Because of the fashionably late hour that you arrived at the restaurant, it’s closing time when you have finished your meals. You are too hazy with wine to notice (or rather, to care) that the restaurant staff have become shifty and resentful of your lingering presence. No one is actually putting up chairs on tables, but they have polished all the table tops near you twice.
As you finally leave, the lights are snapped off almost before the door shuts behind you. “What next?” Adrian asks. His smile has become a smirk.
There are no foregone conclusions with expensive, innuendo-laden meals purchased for you by men with acquisitive sexual histories. It would be nice to think that.
Turn to page 29.
Although you try your best to pilot the canoe to the shore, the current’s forward pull is now too strong for you to fight against it. You throw your weight into a back-paddle, but the water snatches the wood right from your hands. All you can think to do is grip the sides of the canoe and hang on. Water sprays and splashes over you, filling the hull as you crash along in the rapid stream. Up ahead, a terrifying site: a swarm of giant sharks is heading towards you. But no—you experience a ridiculous feeling of relief when you realize they are, in fact, jagged rocks that you will hit in seconds, seconds …
The canoe has wedged itself between two rocks. To either side of you, more rocks are spaced like beads in a shattered necklace, forming a zigzagging line that almost, but not quite, spans the river.
If you try to climb and swim from rock to rock, turn to page 33.
If you decide to push the canoe free and brave the falls, go to page 11.
Your torch is burning low, but you feel you must continue down the stone corridor. Somewhere in this ruin of a castle is the Marie Femme Diamond, and you won’t leave without it. The wounds on your legs will need seeing to soon. Nasty rats—if that’s what they were. All your companions have turned back, telling you that you are mad (mad!) to go on.
You turn a corner and see a sliver of light, riding low in the surrounding darkness. You surmise that it’s coming from under a door, up ahead and slightly on your right. A few more steps forward, and you’ve reached it.
If you push open the door, turn to page 18.
If you knock first, turn to page 32.
You are standing in the center ring, dressed in fishnet tights and a spangled leotard. Ahead of you, a muscled young man in a beige bodysuit begins to climb a tall pole studded with rungs. He turns his head back to you and beckons with it, his handsome face creased with brief, quizzical impatience. This is it: you’ve been given the job as an acrobat. Although you should be happy, you aren’t. You’re terrified. You have no idea what you’re doing. You’ve never been on a flying trapeze in your life. And yet, somehow, you managed to talk your way into this.
Your arms and legs are numb with fear as you scale the pole, which goes up several stories, almost to the very top of the tent. You imagine yourself a robot, with limbs of tin propelled forward by remote command. Otherwise, it would not be possible to keep going.
Finally, you reach the tiny platform at the top. The young man in the bodysuit has already jumped, lightly, while holding a trapeze. In mid-air, he has moved so that he is dangling by his knees. You understand that when he swings back towards you, you are to jump into his arms.
You are falling, falling, falling. There is no net.
To miss the ground, turn to page 8.
To plummet to your death, turn to page 17.
You push open the door with some difficulty: the wood is heavy, and the hinges rusty. Before entering the room you hesitate. Did you hear a scratching noise, see some movement bending the deep shadows? With a shaking arm, you move your torch in a slow arc. A brief twinkle on the far wall catches your eye. As you play your sputtering light over the spot once more, you see it again, that unmistakable, flickering dazzle.
If you still think he’s going to marry you, go to page 22.
You do not hate boys forever and ever. Junior high school changes that. Well, you still sort of hate them. But all the other girls seem to like them, so you try to follow suit. Okay, it’s not hate, really. More like fear. You have no idea what to say to them. You study your Seventeen and Tiger Beat magazines very carefully, for clues. Sometimes, at the dentist’s office, you look at more sophisticated magazines. Cosmo. Vogue. Elle. Mademoiselle. You are awed by what awaits you. You wonder how you will manage it.
If you’re eager to find out, turn to page 4.
If you decide to gather more notes, turn to page 30.
As hard as you scrabble against the grass and the fabric of the tent, you just can’t pull it up high enough to fit your entire body through. You do not know whether to keep struggling through the gap in the tent, or to pull out and look around for the tiger.
Your decision is made moot by the hot breath on your backside. You feel a large paw on the small of your back. This will not be pleasant. But you’re prepared to bear it. After all, you joined the circus.
Turn to page 22.
You wake up with a throbbing head—you must have fallen in the dark and passed out. You see that you are lying in a dusty, ramshackle room, strewn with broken chairs and the shredded remains of books. Light enters from between rotting velvet curtains, one of which must have fallen down during the night. Across from you, propped up on the scarred surface of a wooden table, is a mirror.
It is blackened on one side, the mercury foxed with age. Perhaps that was your doppelganger. An illusion. Or perhaps an omen.
When you locate the door, you find that it’s open.
Turn to page 23.
You decide to move in with Adrian Shackleton Laroue, the man of your dreams, and let go of the lease on your apartment. You surrender to reveries about walking down the aisle with him, wearing a beautiful white dress, then retreating from the church into a life of adventurous bliss. “You’re the woman I’ve been waiting for,” he tells you.
You have already spent most of the advance on your novel, so the timing is convenient. You won’t have to get a day job. You couldn’t anyway, since to join Adrian, you will be moving to a country where you aren’t legally entitled to work. Funny, what a difference a border makes. Adrian has recently landed a position at an investment bank, and is sub-letting an apartment from a dot-com millionaire.
“I’m at the top of the food chain,” he remarks.
If you have some idea what’s in store for you, but suppress it anyway, turn to page 15.
If you remain blind to the inevitable, turn to page 28.
Please turn to page 35 because I need to tell you something.
For the next few moments, the tiger stares at you with tiny green eyes as you jiggle and jump, then it yawns and walks away. You wonder what you did wrong. Maybe you just don’t look appetizing. Have you considered that?
“Good,” you say, without really thinking. She smacks you across the back of the head.
If you don’t want her to hit you again, turn to page 30.
“Gonna cry-yi-yi,” trills Stephen. It’s part of some song he’s heard on the radio, and he’s made it into his trademark sneer. This makes you cry harder, as he knows it would. But the teacher appears and asks what’s the matter.
It’s hard for you to explain what happened without shaming yourself further—can you really repeat the word “pooh”?—so you just say, in a choked voice, “He was teasing me.” You have some satisfaction when Stephen is scolded, even though he is not given a detention.
If you decide to hate boys forever and ever, turn to page 19.
If you decide to just hate this boy, turn to page 25.
You are dressed as a clown, although you were hired to be an acrobat. You feel silly in the rubber nose, the floppy shoes, the yellow curly wig. You pictured yourself in fishnets and a satin-bodice leotard, sequins throwing off light into the cheering crowd as you rose to a standing position upon the saddle of a galloping white horse, arms outstretched, face serene. Well, at least you get to be a girl clown. You look in the mirror and apply an extra dab of white greasepaint to cover the black smudge near your left eye. Soon, you must walk over to the Big Top for your act.
Suddenly, the ringmaster rushes into the tent. His black moustache is wilting with sweat, and his silk top hat sits askew on his head.
“The tigers have broken loose!” he cries. “Sergio the Magnificent was doing his routine when the tigers turned on him! In his desperate rush to escape, he left the cage door open and they ran after him and … tore him to pieces! Everyone in the audience was already screaming and panicking and climbing over each other to get to the exits when the animals turned to them and …” The ringmaster falls silent, looks over his shoulder, then runs away. You walk to where he stood, to see what scared him. Then you walk backwards, slowly.
At the mouth of your tent is a large cat, orange and black and dripping blood from its muzzle.
If you decide to do a little dance in the hopes of distracting the tiger, turn to page 24.
If you turn and try to escape under the back edge of the tent, go to page 20.
The apartment that you share with Adrian is porous. It is not safe; it absorbs the unwelcome presence of other women. As you have become aware, first through accidental discoveries, then through more deliberate explorations, artifacts of Adrian’s women are stashed everywhere in the apartment. They upset you, yet you can’t stop looking at them. You can’t stop looking for them. Astonishingly, there is always more, just a little bit more, to find. Where are they coming from? More letters. More photographs. A bag full of panties and stockings. Even, weirdly, a photograph of a used condom. You would snoop through his email if you knew his password. A strange fact: a disproportionate amount of the women write letters, and of them, a disproportionate amount of them write with fountain pens. They are an epistolary lot, a confessional, romantic lot. An immodest lot. So many of the photographs are nudes.
You should be writing your novel, but you are hopelessly blocked. You are, however, becoming an expert snoop.
If you finally confront Adrian, go to page 3.
You are in a fiberglass canoe on a river. On both sides of you, trees, dense and dark, crowd to the banks. Your progress forward is difficult. The water yields almost grudgingly to your inexpert stroke. Your knees hurt as you pull the paddle in a long, crooked slice. One side, then the other. One side, then the other. There are songs people sing when they canoe—“Dip, dip, and swing … flashing with silver”—but you can only remember parts of them. You never actually went to summer camp. You become aware of a lightening of pressure—as if the water has become more agreeably liquid. Perhaps you are getting better at this. No, that’s not it: the current in the water has picked up. Your paddling is quickly becoming irrelevant. In the distance, you hear a sound like drums, like thunder folded in on itself. You are heading towards a waterfall.
If you decide to jump out and try to swim to the bank, turn to page 7.
If you decide to stay in the canoe and keep paddling, turn to page 14.
You are listening to your parents fight. As they stand in the kitchen and yell at each other, their voices are loud enough to be heard on the street outside the house. The fight began while you were sitting in the living room playing with the cat, and it continues as you walk past the kitchen on your way upstairs. Your father wears a three-piece suit in brown. Your mother wears a faded blue housecoat; her thick, black hair is cut like a man’s. She has no self-consciousness about her lack of glamour, and you find this vicariously humiliating. To you, she has always looked old. You think, “No wonder dad cheated on her.” And also, “I will never be like her when I grow up.”
To avoid growing up like your mother, turn to page 4.
To grow up just like your mother, turn to page 38.
If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be turning the rope for the other girls at recess. The girls decide that it’s okay for you to join in the singing. By the time you’re allowed back into jumping rope, you’re out of practice. In the skipping rhyme that goes
Ice cream soda lemonade and tarts
Tell me the name of your sweetheart …
when they start singing the alphabet, you can only get to D before you snag the rope with your foot. But there are several boys with D names in your class, so no one can say for sure who it means. Besides, if you got as far as S you might have to marry Stephen. The trick is to make it as far as U, because no one’s name starts with U, but you still get to stay in for a long time.
As the bell rings at the end of recess, you make a secret promise to yourself.
If you vow never to get married, turn to page 19.
If you vow to be a beautiful bride, turn to page 30.
Pushing open the door, you step over the threshold and enter a dim chamber. You are straining to make out the features in the scant light—high ceilings, misshapen chairs, shelves filled with moldering books—when a damp gust of wind blows the door shut and extinguishes whatever weak light source was burning in the room. Your torch gutters and dies with a faint crackle. But not before you see a hunched figure, skittering across a far corner. You are in perfect darkness. And you are not alone.
If you stumble for the door, turn to page 23.
If you shout “Who’s there?” turn to page 5.
You’ve taken to crying in restaurants. You cry while Adrian looks weary. Because of the long hours of Adrian’s job, and because Adrian always insists on eating out, this is where you spend most of your time together, apart from in bed. White tablecloths to white sheets: surrender, surrender. The tears begin to flow after the second bottle of wine—there is always a second bottle of wine, sometimes a third—and after the conversation turns to your relationship. It is all a predictable chemical reaction.
“Sometimes, I need to be alone,” he says.
He will not marry you. You are moving towards nothing.
“She’s just a very sexual person. It has nothing to do with you. If you ever get a chance to meet her, I’m sure you’d like her,” he says.
His former lovers will never completely recede into the background. They are a cursed harem of succubi. With new members every day.
“I love you, but I see myself as an independent person. This is going to sound really terrible, but I just don’t need other people,” he says.
You are stranded in a city where you have no friends, no job, and no money. Your book is going nowhere.
Plop, plop, plop go the little tears onto the white linen, joining the crumbs and sauce stains.
If you decide to leave him tonight, turn to page 34.
If you can’t bring yourself to leave, turn to page 29.
In the morning, you are still there. And the next morning after that. And the one after that. You complain to girlfriends, long distance over the phone and over email. They are properly appalled and sympathetic, as always. This makes you feel better.
If you really, really decide to go, turn to page 16.
If you decide to stay, turn to page 17.
PUT THIS DOWN AND RUN AWAY!!!!!!!!
GO THIS WAY →→→→→→→→→→
Sorry about that.
Maybe you should go back to the beginning. There are probably some things you want to do differently anyway.
Stephen Bailey is not to be put off, and seeks further opportunities to torment you. Finally, he does succeed in making you bawl. He has good instincts, that boy: one day, you wear brown velour overalls and he makes loud suggestions that your bathroom etiquette is not what it should be. He sniffs the air and invites others to do the same.
Turn to page 27.
You start dating a man who is a wolf in wolf’s clothing. His name is Adrian Shackleton Laroue. He’s a tall, tousle-haired investment banker with a private school pedigree. You have flirted with each other for years. Adrian has titillated you with stories of his outrageously confident sexual campaigns and maneuvers. You have titillated him by listening.
And now you are both in the same city, facing each other over a white table cloth. As Adrian casually weaves resume highlights through witty anecdotes, you consider your options.
If you decide on the Filet Mignon, turn to page 6.
If you choose the Pumpkin Ravioli, turn to page 13.