Ludic Writing is a series of narratives generated through play, exploring the prospect of “Games as Writing Prompt.”
Bartlett’s Memory is an extended work of fiction in three volumes, inspired by a play through Yves Tourigny’s Arkham Noir: Collector Case #1 – The Real Leeds and by the collected fiction of “new weird” author Matthew M. Bartlett. In addition to the story, Part 1 of this series includes an analysis of the Arkham Noir card game, while Part 2 features a review of the two short fiction collections—Gateways to Abomination and Creeping Waves—that inspired many of the details in Tourigny’s card game and, by extension, this work of ludic writing.
Volume I of Bartlett’s Memory traces the investigation of two missing persons, Bill St. Clair and Susan Dimmsler, in the haunted village of Leeds, Massachusetts. It consists of five parts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Volume II reopens some old wounds and a cold case: the disappearance of our narrator’s cousin, Rangel Bantam, in the early eighties. This is the first part.
Volume III has yet to be broadcast.
Rumors of a fourth volume are unfounded.
The story will continue in roughly weekly installments until the final case is closed or the transmissions cease.
Part Six: Memories
A female voice spoke out, a familiar voice, the voice of a child.
“Aren’t you going to ask me about my costume?” the voice said.
“Why of course, I’m so sorry, Rangel,” said Ben. “What are you going to go as?”
“I’m going to go as a little lost girl.”
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “Rangel,” Creeping Waves
The new case file was waiting for me when I awoke. It sat in a heap by the door, the manila folder and its contents badly mangled by their passage through a mail flap—Why did a motel door have one of those?—that was too small to accommodate them. The file weighed no more than a sparrow’s wing. It was covered, as the others had been, with dark, oily fingerprints, as though left in the care of a mechanic in the process of dismantling an engine.
The torn and crumpled folder contained only three objects. The first was a photograph—not a photocopy this time but an actual photo, a Polaroid, in fact. It was one I knew very well. It showed a girl, about six years old, hair like an autumn sunset. She was standing at the edge of the woods, gazing intensely into the camera, cherubic features arranged into an incongruously earnest cast. When I’d left home two days before, the photograph had been where I always keep it, in a little drawer of my writing desk. I spend a lot of time at that desk, and it’s reassuring having the picture close at hand, even if I don’t open the drawer that often. I found it less reassuring now that it had somehow followed me to Leeds.
The second object was a sheet of white paper, folded at such an angle that its corners barely failed to meet. I smoothed it out. It was a note, written in a faint, spidery script. It read, simply, “FIND RANGEL.”
The third and final object was a letter-size envelope. It was saturated to the point of translucency with some kind of oil—like, I thought, a fast-food wrapper. On the front, where one would anticipate a mailing address, was a short phrase: “TO THE REAL LEEDS.” It was written in the same thin, unsteady script as the note. I wedged my finger under the V of the envelope, tried and failed to slide it through the gummy mess beneath, and ended up ripping the envelope open at the end like a Sweet’N Low packet. The contents tumbled into my palm.
At first, I took it to be some kind of stone. It was black and waxy, lumpish and hard. It oozed a kind of rancid grease, a bodily odor, like pus and sweat and semen and decay. It might have been a petrified turd or an especially prodigious plug of earwax…except that there was a sharp edge, here, a corner protruding from the dark mass. I carried it to the sink and held it under the water, watching the chunks loosen and separate. As the hard surface flaked away, the full force of the organic odor was unleashed. I turned my face away, picturing the immensity of bacterial colonies, the teeming microscopic activity required to produce such a stench, and I covered my nose and mouth with one hand while polishing the object with the other. I worked my thumb into the apertures that were starting to reveal themselves, pushing the accretions out the other end. I thought of owl pellets. I thought of mother-of-pearl.
Eventually, the thing was more or less clean, and I held in my hand an ornate key. A few loops here, something like a rune or sigil on the business end, the end designed to tease the tumblers just so. It was, I thought, brass or copper, some heavily tarnished metal.
A key. I only required a lock.
I Was the Last to See
Please welcome Mr. Nicolas Ripsternum Lusk and James Pemhigus Morphew. Between midnight and two they will stand outside of windows in the town and call after you. If you are lucky enough to awaken, they will bid you follow.
—Matthew M. Bartlett, “WXXT’s Community Outreach Program,” Dead Air
I sat down on the bed and thought of Rangel.
Growing up, we had been close, as close as two cousins of different ages can be. We’d seen each other at Christmas. I’d gone to her birthday parties; she’d come to mine. We’d played together in the summers, staged epic games of pretend that ranged from Rangel’s backyard to places deep in the woods of Leeds, places only she knew, ponds thick and black with wriggling tadpoles, secret ditches where the roots came down and tickled you on the back of the neck, places so packed with trees that they were dark as night even in full daylight. Rangel had known everything about those woods.
And she’d had a rich imagination, always reporting on new friends she’d met on her rambles, friends of the Beatrix Potter variety, forest creatures in waistcoats or blue jackets—though Rangel’s friends were more often of the predatory variety. No Peter Cottontails for Rangel; instead, her retinue consisted of a black bear wearing nothing but a pair of battered brown boots and exquisite black leather gloves; a human-sized bat in a beetle-infested powdered wig; a milk snake sporting a false mustache and one long, badly darned stocking; a smelly, crazy-eyed old goat named Benjamin; a fox in a girl’s tattered communion dress; and a star-nosed mole who wore nothing at all and told Rangel, in immense detail, when and where to lie in wait so she could spy on the grown-ups doing grown-up things. It demanded full reports afterwards. As far as I could tell, Rangel had had no real friends other than myself, no playmates of her own age. I was the last person to see her before she disappeared.
Rangel’s parents, Red and Shirley, existed to me only to the extent that someone else’s parents exist to any child, as a kind of background radiation. Playing with Rangel, I would sometimes turn to see Red watching from the shadows, his face impassive. Or Shirley would appear suddenly bearing a tray of refreshments, which she would deposit silently, departing in the same manner. Our interactions never went any deeper than that. I sometimes heard them talking, to each other, or to my parents or the other adults that crackled and hummed in my periphery, but their voices were muffled by the thick walls, and besides, I wasn’t interested enough to listen closely. After Rangel’s disappearance, our families became estranged, and the Bantams faded silently from my life. I never saw them again, never returned to Leeds until I’d gained adulthood. They’re both dead now.
As I’ve mentioned, I was the last person to see Rangel, which might explain why Red and Shirley grew to despise me, if that’s what happened. I was the elder, after all; I was supposed to be watching over her. They must have blamed me for her…I can’t say “death,” because even now, despite all evidence to the contrary, she doesn’t feel truly gone. It doesn’t happen every day, but every once in a while I think of her, wonder what she is doing, even pick up the phone to call her, before the memory of what happened resurfaces. It’s as though there is another world, a truer world, in which my cousin got to grow up, experiment with boys too young, have her heart broken, join the softball team, drop out, become an artist, get a job at the local Frostee Kone, return to school at twenty-five, fall in love, start a family. She sends me pictures of her wife and their daughter—Rangel’s daughter, really, genetically speaking. Her hair is darker than Rangel’s was at that age, as are her eyes. They let her dye it crazy colors, but it always washes out brown within a month. It gets darker as she grows. One time, I asked her if they knew the father. I knew right away that it was the wrong thing to say. She doesn’t like to talk about it.
And then, as my finger hovers over the keypad, trying to remember whether her number started with a six or an eight, as the hum of the dial tone reaches my ear, I remember, and I set down the phone and cry. That’s why I keep the photo in my desk: to remind me that that’s the real Rangel, that six-year-old girl with hair the color of the leaves the day she disappeared.
There was something strange about what happened. I never told anyone. There was nothing to tell, not until it was much, much too late. I only remembered it later, when I dreamed about her. At first, the dreams were blanks; I’d wake up in a knot of cold, wet sheets, soaked through with night-sweat and sometimes urine, choking on my own sobs, and my memory would be a crevasse I’d have to claw my way out of, and I’d only know I’d had another Rangel-dream. These blanks overflowed the memories of Rangel; sometimes even basic things would be swallowed by them: my name, where I was. I’d have to get them back piece-by-piece with every pinprick of the terror-sweat evaporating.
Then, as I got older and more distant from it, from her, the Rangel-dreams became a thing I could remember. I’d get fragments at a time: her sly, taunting smile; her small form getting smaller as she approached the vanishing point; the fall of her hair; words we had exchanged earlier. She’d been talking about her friends, again, someplace they had said that they were going to take her. And then, the final memory: of Rangel walking toward one of those overgrown places where the light never touches, and of the woods parting like a curtain to admit her.