Curioddity by Paul Jenkins is a quirky, fast-paced debut novel that is as peculiar as it is fun to read (Available August 30, 2016).
Will Morgan is a creature of habit―a low-budget insurance detective who walks to and from work with the flow of one-way traffic, and for whom imagination is a thing of the distant past. When a job opportunity enters the frame in the form of the mysterious Mr. Dinsdale―curator of the ever so slightly less-than-impressive Curioddity Museum―Will reluctantly accepts the task of finding a missing box of levity (the opposite of gravity). What he soon learns, however, is that there is another world out there―a world of magic we can only see by learning to un-look at things―and in this world there are people who want to close the Curioddity museum down. With the help of his eccentric new girlfriend Lucy, Will will do everything he can to deliver on his promise to help Mr. Dinsdale keep the Curioddity Museum in business.
WIL MORGAN awoke from his regular anxiety dream, in which he had just finished second in a World’s Biggest Failure competition.
Outside the window of his one-bedroom apartment, another overcast morning grudgingly announced the start of yet another overcast week. Wil closed his eyes and considered going back to sleep. He briefly flirted with the notion that he hadn’t woken up at all, and that his lumpy old bed was just a part of his dream. But it was no use—he’d long since forgotten how to escape reality by use of his imagination. This was going to be much like any other miserable Monday in his life. It would lead to a tiresome Tuesday, a woeful Wednesday, a thankless Thursday, and a forgettable Friday. Wil didn’t even want to think about how dreadful the next weekend was already shaping up to be.
He groaned as he rolled out of bed. His left arm had gone back to sleep, and he silently cursed it for its good fortune. The various murmurs and screeches of the city began to filter upward through the damp fog. Wil cursed those as well, just for good measure. As always, a faint smell of mushrooms lingered throughout the apartment but Wil chose to ignore this; partly because the smell of mushrooms made him nauseous but mostly because he had neither purchased nor cooked mushrooms at any time during his entire life. Stepping over a discarded travel magazine, he trudged over to the bathroom mirror, rubbed his eyes, and stuck out his tongue. Not a good time to make eye contact with his reflection, he decided, and he hastily backed away. This particular Monday was already shaping up to set a new record for something, and whatever that something was it was probably going to be something bad. Feeling slightly empty, Wil pulled on his least rumpled set of clothing, grabbed his coat and keys, and headed for the door as a knocking sound coming from beneath his sink leveled up in intensity from mildly annoying to ever-so-slightly obnoxious.
As Wil shuffled past his apartment building’s broken elevator and began to trudge down the stairs (he was good at trudging), he wondered for a moment if his devotion to endless repetition wasn’t nudging him ever closer to permanent and irreversible madness. No doubt Mrs. Chappell, his landlady, would be waiting for him in the lobby of his apartment building. She would utter any one of four variations of the same pleasantry she had greeted him with since the day he’d moved in, and he would smile and issue one of his three standard responses, and be on his way before she could rally enough of her brain cells to attempt further conversation.
Wil paused on the flight of stairs before the lobby and stared at a deluded old calico cat that was attempting to sun itself on a windowsill. In the middle of the landing, a second, scruffy ginger thing was licking itself in an unmentionable place. It eyed Wil with a slightly annoyed expression that suggested it would have preferred if Wil had tripped over it and gone clattering down the final thirty steps headfirst. From below came the sound of Mrs. Chappell’s rusty old voice, cooing to another of her thousand-and-one furry reprobates.
Wil steeled himself and rounded the corner. The old lady was nowhere to be seen. So far so good.
He turned his trudge into a kind of shuffle-cum-sneak, hoping Mrs. Chappell had walked back into her office or—better yet—had suddenly been rendered invisible. It was the use of this particular tactic that allowed him to make it within five feet of the front door before a voice like a sheet of forty-grit sandpaper wrapped around a kitchen knife put paid to his false sense of security.
“Guten Morgen, Mr. Morgan!” came the cry from behind him. “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine! The weather’s fine!”
Wil gritted his teeth. Involuntarily, he dug in his pocket for his lucky English penny that he always carried with him—gripping it so hard, in fact, that he felt it digging into his skin. Might as well get it over with, he thought, as he turned to face his landlady. By now, his pained expression was morphing into a fake grin.
Mrs. Chappell stood at the far end of the lobby holding something scraggly and brownish wrapped around a pair of accusing green eyes. She had an expectant look upon her face.
“Hello, Mrs. Chappell,” said Wil. “Looks like it’s going to be another nice day.”
He thought about adding a “don’t you think?” to the end of his sentence but decided he’d stand a better chance of eliciting a response from the scraggly brown cat. The old lady was already beginning to look vacuous, and the silence was rapidly becoming awkward. With a quick wave of his hand, and not wishing to push his luck, Wil turned tail and hustled out of the front door before any further damage could be done.
* * *
OUTSIDE, THE city streets were gray and sodden. Indeed, Wil often fancied this was the city where they had invented the color gray. He settled quickly into the same routine he had practiced since the day he’d arrived, which involved a large amount of trudging and a general avoidance of eye contact with anyone passing by. As he headed off to work, Wil slowly rolled his old English penny in and out of his fingers, feeling its smoothed-down edges and thinking of days long gone. And as he trudged, he allowed his mind to wander. Though not too far, just to be on the safe side.
He thought about his oh-so-predictable life and—not for the first time—he considered the meaning of his recurring dream. If the World’s Biggest Failure competition had any significance at all, then why second place? Lately on his morning trudge, he’d come to the conclusion that such was the depth of his inadequacy he couldn’t even finish first at finishing last. Somewhere out there was a proper failure, a memorable loser of epic proportions—someone you could look at and say, “Now there goes a real idiot!” Someone who—at the very least—possessed a spark.
Wil settled into a medium-paced trudge, which soon took him across an old stone bridge in the center of town: a decrepit former railway crossing that no local government official had ever seen fit to condemn, and that was fed by a confusing one-way system. Each passing vehicle rattled the bridge in such a way that Wil was reintroduced to every single one of his silver fillings as he crossed. Up ahead, an old brown edifice loomed on the skyline like a fungal growth of brick and mortar: the Castle Towers. Wil’s office on the nineteenth floor was the only place in town where he could afford the rent, and from which he was under constant threat of eviction. He glowered at the Towers, and they glowered back at him.
It was Wil who blinked first. He sighed, feeling inadequate. If his life had a soundtrack, he imagined, it probably sounded something like this:
Trudge, trudge, trudge … KLONNG.
* * *
HAVING SUCCESSFULLY navigated the bridge—as he had done for innumerable consecutive weeks, rain or shine, with no days off for either sickness or vacation—Wil headed for the temporary sanctuary of his local coffee shop. The morning fog was thickening directly over his head, and the cold moisture felt like little needles on his skin. Maybe the weather was singling him out, he thought. No one else looked as cold as he did.
* * *
LATELY, WIL had become more philosophical about life in general and his mediocre contribution to it in particular: So what if he was a damp squib in a world of fireworks? It may well be, he thought, that people always remember bottle rockets that accidentally explode and no one remembers the cheap ones that are left out in the rain. But at least a man living a soggy and boring life would get to the end of it relatively intact. No, he decided, he wasn’t going mad. Insane people were those who made the same mistakes with the expectation of a different result. Wil had lowered his expectations to the point where he could comfortably go about his daily routine and anticipate only minimal success.
He paused at the front entrance of the aptly and unimaginatively named Mug O’ Joe’s, letting the bitter aromas and the whoosh of the latte machines wash around him. If there was an isolated pool of happiness in his world, it was at Mug O’ Joe’s, where he could be found dipping his toes on a daily—and sometimes hourly—basis.
Exactly the same people seemed to be scurrying in and out of Mug O’ Joe’s as had been scurrying in and out of it since it had been named Koffee Korner and before that, the short-lived Ye Olde Towne Café. (Like most of the patrons, Wil had felt no purveyor of the simple coffee bean deserved a name with an e on the end of all four of its descriptors, and he had avoided the place like the plague until sanity had been restored. Those painful three weeks without caffeine had been a test of endurance and mental resolve but one had to make a stand somewhere.) Wil closed his eyes for a moment, losing himself in the bustle of energy coming from within, and wishing for all the world that some of this energy might somehow rub off on his day. Here was his Garden of Eden, a place where Chocolate Vanilla Lattes fought a never-ending battle across the elaborate chalk menu with Mocha Pumpkin Spiced Thingamajigs, and other such earthly delights.
Wil resolved to order his usual, a large regular coffee with space for extra cream. This was not the time to try anything that might interfere with his Monday-morning routine. Opening his eyes, he sent up a quick prayer to Saint Joe, the Patron Saint of False Hope, and headed inside.
Behind the counter stood an indifferent teenager of indeterminate background. Wil could never remember one day to the next if this was the same indifferent teenager he’d ordered from the day before; they seemed to come and go with alarming regularity. Yet while the faces changed, the attitude remained the same: namely, one of bored confusion. Not for the first time in his life, Wil felt he had been here before.
“I’d like a large regular coffee with space for extra cream, please,” said Wil.
“One Hefty with extra space,” replied the teenager. “Would that be a latte?”
“No, a large regular coffee. And I don’t want a ‘Hefty.’”
“But you just said—”
“I said large. I’m not going to fall victim to Mug O’ Joe’s’ corporate vernacular. I just want a large coffee.”
The teenager blinked, confused. This was beginning to go in the exact same direction it normally went whenever Wil stood up for himself: namely, south.
“Hefty means big. So does Bulky. And so does Outsized. We’ve had this conversation before.”
“No we haven’t. This is my first day.”
“Well, I’ve had it with all thirty-five of your predecessors. I’m not using your terminology because it doesn’t make any sense.” Wil pointed at the overly indulgent chalk-drawn menu just to make it clear he and the teenager were discussing the same issue. “Just because someone in marketing happens to own a thesaurus, and just because your shareholders insist all of your drink sizes must appear bigger than they are, and just because you are in between liberal arts colleges and wish to bring your artistic talents to bear on today’s menu, it doesn’t mean I have to join in. I would like a large coffee with space for extra cream. Please.”
“Don’t say it.”
“One large coffee. Regular. What flavor?” The teenager was beginning to get the hang of this argument. He wasn’t about to go down without a fight.
Wil looked at the ridiculous array of exotic coffees from around the world piled inside rack after rack around the entire store. True to form, he resolved to ignore each and every one of these exotic flavors individually.
“What’s the flavor of the day?” he asked, thrusting out his jaw and widening his stance.
“French Roast,” replied the teenager, who at this point was beginning to realize a concession of defeat would probably maximize his chances of receiving an adequate tip.
* * *
ROUGHLY FORTY-NINE seconds later, Wil found himself glowering in the general direction of the Castle Towers, this time armed with a large cup of French Roast. The daily dose of caffeine confrontation he endured at Mug O’ Joe’s was beginning to grate. He consoled himself with the thought that while his job was marginally less enjoyable than working in a coffee shop, at least he’d left behind the acne of his teenage years, if not the angst.
Trudge, trudge, trudge … KLONNG.
Monday was getting longer and louder by the minute.
* * *
THE WALK to Castle Towers would take another ten minutes or so—time enough for Wil to harden his heart and appropriately lower his expectations for the day. He trudged past an oversized billboard upon which was an oversized poster of a man with oversized hair, a spray tan, and teeth so white you could have skied on them. This was the ubiquitous Marcus James: a national TV personality of no apparent talent who nevertheless possessed the ability to persuade millions of people to part with something useful in exchange for something useless, usually in three or four easy payments. “Do you want teeth as brilliant white as mine?” asked the ad copy below Marcus James. “Then you want the Gleemodent toothpaste system.” Further ad copy suggested three easy payments of $19.99 for what appeared to be a double order of ordinary toothpaste and the second (and most vital) part of the Gleemodent system: a toothbrush. Wil quickly decided that no, he did not want teeth as brilliant white as Marcus James for the simple reason that he preferred people not to stare at him and point. Besides, he had no desire to be held responsible for snow blindness or traffic delays.
Wil moved past the billboard and settled back into his reluctant trudge, subconsciously conforming to the flow of the city’s one-way system. The warmth of the coffee near his lungs was now putting up a barrier against the freezing mist. While Wil maintained his steady course toward the Castle Towers, he allowed his thoughts to wander, as he always did at this point of the walk. He began to think of better days, all of which lay in the opposite direction from the one he was facing. He thought of those long, lazy afternoons when the future seemed less full of freezing mist. He thought of swimming holes and summer days. And, naturally, he thought of his mom.
* * *
MELINDA MORGAN possessed a healthy sense of mischief and a love of life unparalleled by any other adult Wil had ever met. It was she who encouraged Wil to learn, to embrace knowledge as if it were a glittering prize. It was Mom who taught Wil about the value of imagination, and the acceptance of magic. Wil’s dad, Barry, was an accountant at a large firm in town. He generously tolerated his wife and son’s bond of adoration, and though he barely understood the first thing about science and magic, he always knew when to get out of the way and let the magic happen anyway. Barry Morgan was a good man: a good, solid, unimaginative man. Together, he and his wife made an effective and unorthodox team.
True to her off-the-wall nature, Melinda was a scientist who worked at a jet propulsion laboratory built into the side of a small mountain on the outskirts of town, where she performed exotic experiments understood by no more than twenty people on the entire planet. Young Wil understood the very basics: these experiments involved something called “electromagnetism,” which was a fancy term that Mom used to describe big magnets powered by ten squazillion volts of electricity. On the rare occasions Wil had been inside Mom’s lab, he’d been struck by the generous amounts of fizzling material and the fact that everyone’s hair stood up on end. Mom’s laboratory carried the distinctive smell of fresh ozone formed by any one of the fifty electrical experiments that littered the various test stations, and legend had it that her building could often be seen at night from space.
At home, Wil and his Mom spent countless hours designing exotic inventions and creating elaborate experiments. She bought him his first chemistry set at the age of five, and his first fire extinguisher a couple of weeks after that. Together they had tested the combustibility of virtually every substance in the neighborhood. Using a mixture of soluble starch and baking soda, Wil had once set fire to a local waterfall, which event had made the nightly news. Unbeknownst to him at the time, word of his alarming pyromaniacal tendencies would spread as far as the North Pole. That same Christmas, he received the most stupendous gift of all time: the Nikola Tesla Junior Genius Mega-Volt Test Kit.
Santa was a big fan of Mr. Tesla; and by sheer coincidence, so was Melinda Morgan. Wil had never met the man but he had it on good authority that Tesla was a mad genius who liked to give pretty much anything a good jolt of electricity just to see what would happen. He was Mom’s hero, and—by default—he became Wil’s. At the urging of his mom—and with his trusty Nikola Tesla Junior Genius Mega-Volt Test Kit always on hand—Wil pushed the limits of creativity to their maximum levels of stretchiness. At the age of six, he designed the ill-fated five-dimensional multicube out of an old cardboard box. It would have worked, too, if he had remembered to take it in out of the rain. A year later, he created the ill-conceived Magnesium Volcano experiment, which garnered him an impressive last place at his school science fair after it covered the gym floor with a noxious substance that lingered long after the gym floor was eventually replaced. And then there was the ill-advised Unsinkable Electro-Concrete Troop Carrier, which had transported Dad’s model soldier collection on its maiden voyage across a local lake. The less said about that, the better. Suffice it to say, Wil learned that day that cement is less buoyant than, say, the engine block of a Ford Crown Victoria, and that certain tin soldiers are worth more of one’s allowance than they have any right to be.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 Paul Jenkins.
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Paul Jenkins is a British born comic writer who lives in Atlanta, GA. He began his career at Mirage Studios working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jenkins has written some of the biggest characters for Marvel and DC Comics, including Spider-Man, Batman, Incredible Hulk, and Hellblazer. He is best known for reviving The Inhumans as part of Marvel Knights and creating The Sentry for Marvel Comics. Jenkins also writes for video games on hits like The Darkness, Incredible Hulk, and God of War.