Short Fiction – Who Tells Your Story

18 May

This isn’t Hamilton fanfic. This is what happens when there is Hamilton fanfic in a world where ghosts gain or lose power based solely on “how well and widely they are remembered”, and takes place in that oddly physical limbo between life and whatever comes next as seen in A Girl and Her Fed.

Who Tells Your Story

The tavern was a hodgepodge. It had started out as a copy of a little place outside of Baltimore, but that was only because John Hanson had gotten there first. As the others started to trickle in, the tavern changed. It took on the hand-hewn beams of underground cellars in Boston, and the plastered walls of upscale Philadelphia salons. There was indoor plumbing, because the recently dead couldn’t imagine an existence without it, and there had been quite a bit of cheering when John F. Kennedy had introduced them to televised sports. A fire burned in a hearth large enough to roast a whole side of venison, although the men complained about how the local deer never stayed dead long enough to boil down a decent gravy.

All in all, it was as close to comfortable as they could agree upon.

They rarely quarreled in the tavern. It was a place to come together, they said, a shared venue that was open to every dead American who had served their country. If you wanted to discuss the state of affairs back in the living world, you came to the tavern. You could argue, yes, and shout all you want, but any real anger had to exhaust itself in the streets. Neutral ground, they told each other. Everyone was equal in the tavern.

And those who worked the taps to keep the Founding Fathers in their beer would look at each other and roll their eyes.

There was something of a crowd in the tavern these days. It had always been busy, but it had never been bustling. Now, there was a flood of ghosts, all of whom came to gather around a man with a long nose and a wry smile.

Their conversation seemed to have bits of song in it.

At the other end of the tavern, two men watched the crowd. The first had a shock of wild white hair and wore a leather jacket that had seen hard days. The second was as close to bald as could be said of a man with long hair, with busy deep-set eyes behind wire spectacles.

“Bastard,” growled the first man.

The man in the spectacles took a slow sip of tea from a porcelain cup.

“Look at them, fawning over him!”

“Calm down, Jackson,” the second man said. “Nothing good comes of envy.”

“Envy?!

The man in the spectacles gave a smile and a jolly wave to the crowd, and those who had stopped talking to see what the fuss was about waved back before resuming their conversation.

Andrew Jackson glared at them. “He wasn’t even a President!”

The bespectacled gentleman raised an eyebrow.

“You know what I mean,” Jackson said. After a moment, he added, more quietly, “No offense.”

“Not every important figure was a President,” the other man said. “Some of us had to make do with the crumbs of history.”

“Damn your false modesty, Franklin. You’re the most powerful joker in this hole, and you know it.”

Benjamin Franklin smiled. “I was lucky,” he replied. “Right place, right time. I didn’t so much build my own legacy so much as I helped others build theirs.”

“Same with him,” Jackson said, as he gestured with a mug of beer towards the figure in the center of the crowd. “Except his legacy is getting rebuilt, not remembered. Some foreign goose reads a book about him and decides to put it to music. Then the rest of us—the ones who worked to set their lots in life!—get thrown aside to make way for Hamilton.”

“May I remind you that Hamilton isn’t the only one who has served as the subject of a musical?”

Jackson shot the Founding Father a dead-eyed glare. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he muttered.

“Did you know that sometimes you have to shoot the storyteller in the neck—”

Shut up, man!”

“Don’t feel too badly, sir.” Franklin leaned back in his leather chair, chuckling. “I fared rather poorly in 1776 myself.”

Across the room, Hamilton and his friends began to laugh. One of them proposed a toast. To friendship. To new beginnings.

To righting old wrongs.

There was something of a silence after that last one, with the ghosts turning ever so slightly away from the two men sitting at the other end of the room.

“Did you see that?” Jackson said. “Children on the playground, all of them.”

“There’s a reason his show is so popular, you know,” Franklin said. “Its message . . . it resonates with the audience. They are desperately in need of ideals. Of knowing that truths from our past are still relevant today, and that there is still room in their country’s history for their own legacies.”

“It’s revisionist history,” Jackson snapped. “It’s a couple of decades twisted up in knots, just for the sake of entertainment.”

“Or perhaps history was wrong in the first place, and is being rewritten to reflect a shift in our priorities.”

Jackson spat on the floor. “That’s the type of mealy-mouthed horseshit I’d expect from you,” he said. “You’d rather play eight games at once than pin your opinions down.”

“It’s called politics,” Franklin said. “Or politeness.”

Jackson ignored him. “And that friend of his, the fellow who stares at me as though he wants to punch me, that John Lawrence—”

“Laurens.”

“What?”

“His name is Laurens. John Laurens. He’s served you drinks for nearly two hundred years.”

“Oh?” Jackson’s attention moved to the men behind the counter. “Thought he seemed familiar. What’s he doing on this side of the bar?”

“Hamilton reminded John that he was a prominent figure on his own merits, back in the day.”

“Now, who went and gave Hamilton that idea, I wonder? Why did’ja invite me here, man? To throw all of this in my face?” Jackson snapped his fingers until he got the attention of a barman. “Whiskey!” he shouted.

Hamilton’s head came up at the call. He and Jackson locked eyes for a moment, and then the crowd shifted and pulled Hamilton away.

“That boy’s always taken issue with me,” Jackson said. “The day I died, he was shouting at me about his precious banks.”

“You tried to dismantle his legacy,” Franklin said.

“Don’t be his apologist. You’ve barely remembered he’s here. Then that damned musical comes along, and you decide he’s worth your precious time again.”

Franklin placed his cup on his saucer. “Watch,” he said.

He covered the empty cup with one hand. When he removed it, the cup was full.

“Jasmine,” he said. “Straight from a tea house in Beijing.”

“Yes?” Jackson replied. The barman arrived with a fresh tumbler and a bottle of whiskey. The President took these and waved the barman away. “A simple summoning. Your point?”

Franklin didn’t reply, but his eyes moved to the tumbler and bottle.

Jackson’s own eyes narrowed. He held up a hand, and an identical bottle of whiskey appeared in it. “Straight from the Midleton Distillery in Ireland,” he said. “You think my fame has faded that much, that I cannot pull a simple bottle to me? I’m a legend. Old Hickory himself!”

“Sir, that isn’t the point I want to make,” Franklin said. “If anything, your powers have grown thanks to Hamilton’s newfound celebrity. More people have mentioned you in recent memory than in the past fifty years.”

“Fucking ten dollar bill… Fine, sir. What is your point?”

“My point,” Franklin said, “is that you could have fixed your own drink and not bothered to trouble the barman.”

“That’s what he’s here for!”

“No,” Franklin replied, “it’s not. Do we pay them? Of course not—we’ve never even considered paying them. They serve us for the privilege of serving us, whatever that might be worth.

“I would also like to point out,” he added, “that there are no women here, and every face is white.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with the living,” Jackson said with a shrug. “These rumors of civil war among the dead—”

“Sir, they are not rumors!”

Franklin’s fury blew the tavern apart. Mirrors shattered; wood splintered. The leather of their club chairs and the old oak floors beneath their feet became motes of thought. Nothing was left but the ghosts themselves, and the alcohol they had stolen from the living. The rest was a field of empty, featureless gray.

The men stared at Franklin in stunned silence.

Franklin bowed. “My apologies,” he said. “Please. Forgive the interruption.”

He waved his hand, and the tavern rebuilt itself from the scraps of a million shared experiences. It took longer for these to come together than apart; there was a proper order in their assembly. This was, at points, quite difficult: as he sifted through the memories, Franklin learned that some of those ghosts who had first shaped the tavern lacked attention to detail; one or two of them had even been colorblind.

But the tavern had its own memories. Enough ghosts had gathered within it over the centuries to help it form an identity. As Franklin called upon those energies that had comprised the form and function of the tavern, they poured themselves into their remembered purpose.

He returned to his chair when it was done. The tea cup was gone; a green glass bottle waited for him. The label was in Cyrillic, and the smell of it suggested something much stronger than whiskey.

The two men sat and watched as the tavern slowly returned to its usual good humor. Someone told a joke; the words were lost in the distance, but the laughter rolled its way around the room.

“Don’t you see what’s happened here?” Franklin finally said. “He’s given them hope.”

“I don’t follow,” Jackson said. He settled into his chair suspiciously, as if assuming it was a false copy of itself and bound to come apart beneath him.

Hope, man! Hope that someone might come along and dust off their memories, perhaps give their lives new meaning. If that happens, well… they won’t have to catch our crumbs anymore.”

“The world’s full of mudsills, be it in life or in death,” Jackson said. “Should they expect something different?”

“Mudsills?” Franklin stared at him. “Surely you mock me. That man was a noted Senator from Kentucky. They were noted explorers. And he was the Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army following the First World War.” His long fingers pointed at each person in turn. “These aren’t laborers, store clerks, or gadabouts. They are accomplished, sir, every one of them, and they stayed behind to watch over the country they loved. Same as myself. Same as you.”

“There’s not enough room in the history books for every little soul,” Jackson said. “Kings survive, and only the best of those.”

Jackson paused. “You’re right, Franklin, you got lucky. Hamilton? He got lucky once in life, and then lucky again in death. Do those new sycophants of his think that luck’s going to rub off? There’s not enough theater companies to keep the whole of the Afterlife in roses.”

Franklin chuckled. “I know,” he admitted. “But that’s the joy of hope. If it can happen to one, it may happen to another.”

“If it happens to a few more, we might actually have that revolution of yours.”

This time, Franklin didn’t take the bait. “All they want is what was promised them,” he said. “That all men are created equal.”

“So? We’re no longer alive, we’re as free as can be, and they were promised they could pursue happiness,” Jackson said. “Happiness was never a guarantee. If they’re miserable here, they can push off and go see what waits for them in the Unknown.”

“Would you excuse me, sir?” Franklin stood and adjusted his frock coat. “I feel the need to step outside for a pipe.”

“Fucking regulations,” Jackson snarled. “Fucking regulations in the Afterlife! How many kinds of stupidity is that, I ask? Have your smoke in here.”

“Some of the others dislike the smell.” He turned to leave, and was outside in the cool autumn night before Jackson finished blustering.

There was a universality to autumn nights. The feel of summer’s end spoke to parts of the mind that were not found in conscious thought: comfort, shelter, and the warmth of community remembered their own worth as winter came calling. The tavern existed within an everlasting autumn for these reasons, and because the night helped to hide the changing nature of the town around it.

He was considering packing a second pipe when the sounds of a fight came from within the tavern.

“Good for you, President Jackson,” he said softly. “You have more restraint than I expected.”

A small table flew through the nearby window. It bounced twice, then rolled over the curb. As it toppled onto the cobblestones, it fell apart in a burst of blue light, then vanished.

Franklin tapped out his pipe on the curb, and returned to the tavern to watch the fight.

He had seen better.

He had expected the crowd to pile on Jackson, but they seemed hell-bent on resolving quarrels of their own. Jackson and Hamilton held the center of the room, with fistfights among the other ghosts breaking out along the edges.

A fight between two powerful ghosts was something to behold. Jackson and Hamilton traded punches like untrained boxers, driving their fists into each other as hard as they could. These blows would kill the living; a powerful ghost merely shrugged them off before throwing himself back into the fray.

“No finesse,” said a voice by Franklin’s ear. He looked up to find a pair of hard eyes, a nose hooked like an eagle’s beak…

“Hello, Mister President.”

“Franklin.” George Washington nodded to him. “Did we always fight like this?” he said, as he unscrewed the cap on his leatherbound kidney flask. “Just . . . punching?”

“Your fights with Patrick have spoiled you, I think,” Franklin said, grinning. “Training in the martial arts was a rarity in our day.”

They watched as Hamilton and Jackson hammered on each other, hard. The idea of blood was so heavy in the air that the tavern began to smell like copper. Then, when it seemed as if the fight was in stalemate, Hamilton caught Jackson in a headlock. He began pummeling Jackson’s face with his free hand, blue sparks flying with each punch.

There we go,” Washington said. “Why bother watching the UFC Championship if you aren’t going to learn?”

“It’s the UFC, not the UFC Championships. The title is already—”

“Franklin?” The President took a nip from his flask. “Stop.”

It was another few minutes before somebody noticed the man standing beside Franklin. The whispers started, and the fighting stopped, with the ghosts looking down at their shoes, the ceiling . . . anywhere but Washington.

“Not here for you,” Washington told them. “Got something to settle? Do it without me.”

The ghosts glanced at each other, ashamed. Most left. Some of them filed out through the front door, but others vanished in a loud POP!

Hamilton and Jackson stayed. They righted the tables and repaired the glassware with a wave of their hands, then retired to the hearth, staring at each other like tomcats who have finally accepted they have to share the same space.

The two Founding Fathers waited until they were sure the fighting was over, and then returned to the autumn night. The road beneath their feet twisted as it tried to decide whether it was the bare earth of rural Virginia or the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia, and then gave itself over to anonymous asphalt. Around them, the city blurred before it fixed itself into large columns and statuary.

“You rarely visit the tavern these days,” Franklin said.

“A friend called,” Washington replied. “Said a fight had broken out.”

“Hamilton still has your ear?”

“I have very few friends,” Washington said. “If one of them goes to battle, I’ll stand beside him.”

They walked in silence through the streets of downtown Washington D.C. Gas lamps hung above hybrid cars parked along the curb. Other ghosts passed them from time to time, exploring someone else’s memory.

After a time, Washington said, “When Jackson realizes you set him up, there’ll be hell to pay.”

“He may never realize it. Jackson’s most endearing trait is his willingness to fight. His sole purpose is to be aimed and fired at problems no one else wants to handle.”

Washington chuckled dryly. “You can’t force people to realize that war is coming, man! No one believes they have a revolution on their hands until the guns come out, and even after that they find reasons to convince themselves otherwise.”

“I know,” Franklin said, nodding. “But if there’s a better way to show a man like Jackson that there are discontents in the Afterlife, I don’t know it. Hamilton’s sudden rise to fame might be the best thing that’s happened to us—it calls attention to those who feel lost, forgotten . . . Their hope of rediscovery might help us change things for the better.

“The last time they tried to rise up, we won by luck and circumstance,” he added. “We’d be fools to think that we’ll find another Patrick. But if we continue to ignore them, they’ll try again.”

“What would you have us do?” Washington asked. “There’s no such thing as true equality. You know that. I know that. Little children know that. There will always be those in power, and they maintain that power at the expense of the weak. Best we can do is give everyone the opportunity to pursue happiness. Doesn’t mean they’ll reach it. Or even take it.”

“Yes,” Franklin said. “And that means the real challenge is the same as it was in our time.”

“There’s a king now, is there?” Washington said, an edge to his voice.

“No, sir, if only there were,” Franklin said, as he peered through his spectacles at the gloom of the city around them. “We could go to war against a king. Wars are easy.”

“Says a man who has never fought. What, then?”

“As you said—we must make sure that opportunity exists. For everyone. And that is as close to impossible a thing as I can imagine.”

 


This story originally went out to my Patreon supporters. Thank you!

 

 

7 Responses to “Short Fiction – Who Tells Your Story”

  1. Jeremy in Scotland May 18, 2016 at 9:46 pm #

    Hi, KB – this is interesting, but, as a non-American, I’m a bit baffled by the topic, i.e. Hamilton. I assume you are referring to Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers, but I seem to be missing some context as to why, of all the FFs, you have chosen this one. Again, based on context, I assume that there is something that has fanned the flame of his history, but all I can find is a bit of reference to a musical (the end of the Wikipedia article on him). Could you fill in some of the gaps, please, especially why you think he is important enough to bring into the AGAHF universe?

    • Will aka "scifantasy" May 19, 2016 at 2:13 am #

      (I’m not KB, but I play one on–wait, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express–no, nevermind. I just know the answer.)

      “A bit of reference to a musical” is something of an understatement. The hottest thing on Broadway right now is a hip-hop musical called “Hamilton” which is, well, the telling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, who as you noted was a Founding Father.

      The writer/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won the Pulitzer Prize for it, as well as a MacArthur Genius Grant, and basically it’s ignited a wave of interest in Hamilton, as well as other characters such as John Laurens and the Marquis de Lafayette. It’s pretty nationwide, especially among people under 35. Alexander Hamilton has just been catapulted from the C-list of Founders to the A-list. He hasn’t edged out Washington or Franklin, but he’s up there with them.

      So what KB is doing here is saying, given that in her cosmology ghosts are powered by how much they’ve been remembered, how much of a boost has Hamilton’s ghost just gotten…and what does that do to the politics of the Afterlife?

      • peakcrew May 19, 2016 at 8:10 am #

        Aha! Thank you so much for your reply, Will. I am now significantly better informed. No doubt I should have looked harder at the musical, in light of the fame issue that plays such a big part in KB’s stories, but a google.co.uk search didn’t so much as mention it in the first few hits!

        I confess that a hip-hop musical about a Founding Father sounds like an unlikely smash-hit, but there is no accounting for what becomes popular ☺☺

        • Alexander Leaking Pen Hollins May 20, 2016 at 2:59 am #

          You should give it a listen. It gives a main part to Lafayette and makes large mention of the aid France gave us and how dependent we were on “non americans” to win the revolution. Its very much a good piece on English Colonialism.

          • Jeremy in Scotland May 20, 2016 at 8:08 am #

            Thanks, Alexander – I plan to. I’ve done some more searching, and found a synopsis, and the idea looks good. I’ll also have a look at the biography it is based on. Time is the problem – my wife an I are expecting twins sometime in the next few weeks, so my only relaxation is a couple of blogs each day!

  2. Cadrys May 19, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

    Thanks for the story! I was wondering what the impact of the musical would be in your world, and now we know.

  3. Nyerguds May 23, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    Heh. I had to do a couple of wikipedia searches to figure out who the heck all those characters were, but after I figured that out it was a very enjoyable read. Thanks!

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