Something about newsprint... the smell, the texture... always intrigued me. I can trace it all back to when I was a kid, playing under the dining room table. Within this shelter of table legs coupled with the legs of adults, I created an entire world of made-up, half-baked adventures.
Every so often, a page from the newspaper would descend to my level, working its way back and forth through the air before making that final, decisive slash toward the floor.
These discarded, lost pages would become any number of playthings. Boats, hats, (same thing), or even perfectly rectangular islands. If they were crumpled, all the better for mountain exploring.
Through these pages I learned little bits of world events, just what my attention span would allow. I learned who "Fergie" was... no, not THAT Fergie... I saw Princess Diana marrying some guy, and I saw the Challenger exploding in mid-air.
This is part of why I was hit by a mixture of nostalgia and guilt when, as an adult, I saw someone trying to sell newspaper subscriptions. The guilt came from the fact I'd gotten all my news from television and the web for a little over a decade.
The newspaper guy was standing near the entryway of the local supermarket. He had a folding table of "The Morning Star" newspapers, all crisp and folded and lined up like perfect roof tiles.
"Hey," he was basically accosting anyone who passed, "Can I interest you in a free newspaper?" People shook their head "no" or just blew past without acknowledging him.
The guy looked exhausted. His face was stubbly, and his clothes looked as if he'd put them on in his car. He might've lived in his car, for all I could see... with only heaps of newspapers to keep him warm.
"Hey," he noticed my interest and locked eyes, my mistake, "Can I interest you in a free newspaper?"
The situation struck me as so awkward that, before I even thought about what I was doing, I had stepped up to the table. I had now abandoned my safe distance in which I could have forgivably ignored him.
"What's the deal?" I asked, casting my eyes to the papers instead of the man.
"The papers are free, and we'd like you to sign up for a trial subscription. You can cancel at any time."
"Well... Okay. What do I have to do?"
I figured I could just cancel right away, and I'd at least have the free paper and the look of relief on this guy's face. Only after I was walking away with the item tucked under my arm did I realize he'd probably lose his commission if I didn't stay subscribed for a certain period of time.
After shopping, I stopped off at a Café in town. I hadn't been there before... hadn't been to a café at all, really... but it seemed like the kind of thing a man with a newspaper would do.
Ordering a pastry and a coffee whose name I had pronounced incorrectly, I sat at a table by the window and began dissecting the paper's inky, black and white cadaver.
That's how it felt. Like I was studying the body of a well and truly dead medium.
Headline. Page one.
"FIFTH BREAK-IN AT LOCAL ACTOR'S HOME"
"The home of actor R.J. Willis was the scene of yet another crime this weekend. The accomplished performer's premisis has seen multiple break-in attempts recently, and authorities are at a loss to explain the motive..."
Interesting story. Page four.
"REWARD FOR INFO ON MISSING CHILD"
"Police say local boy Eli Stahl disappeared after school on Wednesday. Police say Eli had seemed troubled during recent weeks, and was being treated for an undisclosed psychiatric issue ..."
Infuriating story. Page five.
"POLITICIAN SAYS PREZ SPACED OUT"
"City Councilwoman Gloria Peets says President Obama is engaging in wishful thinking. 'All he does is talk, as if that will get anything done.' She then went on to quote the Star Wars franchise, saying the President commands others to 'make it so'..."
Any geek worth his or her salt is now shouting: "That's Star Trek, you idiot!" - I know, that's what I said, too.
Funny photo. Page ten.
"BOYSCOUT LEADER HOLDS CHARITY BBQ"
"Dillon Troep takes two things very seriously. Shaping the nation's youth through the Boy Scout Association... and grilling. This weekend, a BBQ will be held to raise funds for the reward offered in the Eli Stahl case..."
There's nothing quite as hilarious as a bunch of doughy 40-somethings dressed in nasty-neat Boy Scount uniforms. So serious. So ridiculous.
I debated whether or not to call the paper about that Star Trek/Star Wars thing. This, I thought, is why nobody reads the paper. There's no "edit" button so writers can take back a mistake instantly. No, with the printed page, your every flaw is permanently recorded for all time.
In the end, I decided that they would probably WANT to know... you know, to avoid problems like this in the future. Research your movies!
I dialed the paper's number, only to be greeted by an automated system. After a series of button presses and exactly two accidental returns to start, I was nearly about to hang up and forget about it.
Then, someone picked up. A live person.
"Yeah?" Not a very good greating.
"Hi, I'm calling about a mistake in the paper..."
"Well, I'm not sure if there's a department for that, or..."
Five full seconds of silence. If that sounds short, count it out in your head. It was brutal.
"You can just tell me." The gruff, emotionless voice seemed more likely to ignore the information than jot it down.
"The political story, 'POLITICIAN SAYS PREZ SPACED OUT'. The quote you attributed to Star Wars is from Star Trek."
"Is that it?"
"I guess so."
This was yet another checkmark on my list of reasons to use the internet. I would've cancelled right then, just out of spite, but I couldn't shake the idea of that haggard, tired guy losing money specifically because of me.
The next paper arrived at my doorstep. The thump of that heavy cylander against my door gave me the most fleeting vision of a pending home invasion.
I skipped through the paper that morning and went straight to the retractions. I wanted to see if Mr. Personality had actually told anyone about what I'd said.
I leaned back in my dining room chair and sighed with a satisfied smile. There was the line I had been looking for.
"In our last installment we attributed the quote 'make it so' to the Star Wars film franchise. We meant to say that the quote originated on the television series Star Trek."
I wondered what else they screwed up, and read on...
"We also expressed that authorities had no motive for a series of attempted break-ins at a local celebrity's residence. We meant to say that the authorities know said actor's spurned homosexual lover has been the cause of these events. At the man's request, authorities have buried this information."
That was odd. I never knew that guy was gay... I looked over to my entertainment center, where like five of his action movies were lined up on the DVD shelf. I didn't hold it against him or anything, it was just weird to find out like that.
I read on.
"Additionally, we stated that Eli Stahl is missing when in fact he is dead."
I mean, I literally said this out loud. "What?"
I closed the paper again and looked at the cover... flipped through a few pages. there was no story updating the Eli Stahl case, and I hadn't heard anything about them finding a body anywhere else. I mean, it's not like I was glued to the story or anything, but they definiteily would have mentioned this on the local news.
The retraction seemed strange at best, and at worst it was an incredibly mean-spirited jokes.
I turned back to the retractions and made sure I read and understood that line correctly. There it was in black and white... how many times can you say that and have it literally be true?
I shook my head at the cruel text and read the final retraction.
"Lastly, we wrote about Boyscout leader Dillon Troep's charity BBQ. What we failed to mention was that a portion of the meat served was human flesh, and for that we greatly apologize."
Now I knew someone had been playing a prank. Some disgruntled employee, probably the asshole I talked to on the phone, had clearly left a last "Screw You" for his employers.
Then, the next day, I saw the television news update. A search party had found some of Eli's clothes in a deep section of forest. Police said that marks on the clothing... knife-marks, I imagine... gave the impression Eli was no longer alive.
In my head, I connected the retraction to this new update. However, there was a missing child... now he was dead... unfortunately, this is all too common and there was nothing supernatural about it.
The story proceeded with no further information, and nothing to tell me I was wrong about this being just another sad kidnapping/murder.
Then, they ended the piece and the talking heads at their little anchor desk started conversing. It was that forced sort of banter you always see at the end of a big story. Not only do they expect us to believe these people care about the kid at all, but they also want us to think the anchors actually want to talk to each other.
"It's so ironic," started the bleached blonde who had no idea what the word meant, "I think they said the clothes were less than a mile from that BBQ."
"Tsk," the blow-dried douch clucked his tongue, "To think all those people were such a short distance away."
I immediately started to get a stress headache. I felt shock, fear, and complete all-out rage within the span of a few seconds, and it gave me a full-on head rush. Within moments, I was on the phone to the newspaper. I wanted to ask how exactly they knew Eli was dead, and what exactly that final retraction meant.
I circled the automated answering service a few times, and never found the path back to that live person. It seemed a lot like the option had been completely removed, as I thought I remembered how to do it.
I went to the Police with the newspaper.
They took it from me... or rather, the person at the front desk did... and they said they'd be in touch. There had been hundreds, if not thousands of bogus tips in the Eli Stahl case by now, and I had little to no hope they'd actually look into this.
When "Psychics" were telling them the boy was all over the county, and when one had even claimed the boy was abducted by lizard men, I guess saying a Newspaper predicted the future sounded like just another wank job. I could've easily printed up the page, and by now there was nowhere I could think of to buy a fresh one and prove authenticity.
All I could do was wait and see if they ever talked to Dillon.
Well, that's not entirely true. I could also drive by Dillon's house... every day... several times a day. Whenever he was outside, he would wave to me just like any other passing car. There he would stand... t-shirt... khaki shorts... even his regular clothes looked like a man-child scout uniform.
On one occasion he was sitting on his porch, chewing away at a leftover hamburger.
Finally... FINALLY... there was a new report on the case. A Police sting had caught Dillon arranging to meet an underaged boy online. Little did he know he was actually chatting with a Cop. When they went into his house, they just found this massive megaton of pornography. Photos, videos, even full-sized posters on the sick idiot's walls.
They brought out boxes and boxes of the crap, over the course of two days.
When they were taking boxes out of the cellar, they found the door. Behind the door, they found the room. Inside the room, they found what was left of Eli.
Eli and a handful of others from over the span of a decade.
That article... the one announcing this guy's complete and utter downfall... I wanted to frame it and hang the thing over my fireplace. I was that happy to see him get what he deserved.
"AUTHORITIES ARREST BBQ BUTCHER"
That was the headline. Cheap, stupid, but leading a delicious story.
"Dillon Troep was arrested today on several counts of posessing illegal pornograhy. Authorities say that more charges are pending and it is likely Dillon will spend the rest of his life behind bars. A local man is said to have brought Dillon to the attention of authorities on a previous occasion, citing an unknown clue within a newspaper article. Fearing arrest, Mr. Troep doused himself in lighter fluid as Police arrived, and..."
I slept well that night. The past few had been hectic. I tossed and turned throughout until morning, and on a couple occasions I gave up and just watched infomercials.
It was so good to get a full night's rest that I didn't even react when that loud newspaper "THUMP" against my door pulled me out of a dream. I just flicked one eye open... then slowly closed it again. I was happy.
The second "THUMP" did keep me awake. I'd either dreamt the first one, or a bird had hit the house. ... Or maybe this time was the dead bird...?
Annoyed at being disturbed from such a cozy slumber, I shambled to the front door, flung it open, and scooped up the newspaper on the front step. There was just one, as I'd expected. I took off the rubber band, wobbled back to the dining room table, and opened the news of a new day.
Ever since that first paper, I'd made a habit of flipping directly to the retractions. Nothing quite as interesting had come up since, but there had been a few strange ones. For example, a glowing story about a football hero was retracted with comments about him being "a vicious drunken wife-abuser".
There was only one retraction this time, and as I read it, I knew my good feeling was about to go away fast.
"In our last installment, we stated that Dillon Troep, murderer of missing child Eli Stahl, would spend the rest of his life in prison. We apologize for the error. Dillon will escape Hospital security and travel to the home of a man whose license plate he previously traced."
I heard the floor creak behind me.
I smelled grilled meat.