Five writers. Five chapters. Zero communication. Welcome to SN&R’s staff fiction experiment.

SN&R staffers cobble together a story one chapter at a time—and hope it all makes sense in the end.

Illustration by Jefferson Miller

Chapter 1: A constellation of two

He was a walk-in. Lind Alexander hated walk-ins. A waste of time 99.9% of the time. The new receptionist let him through. Lind asked for a first impression. The receptionist shrugged and said, “He doesn’t seem crazy.”

Even money remained on crazy. Lind grabbed a notepad and dragged herself to the lobby where the man stood fidgeting. He wouldn’t talk until they were alone. After the receptionist took the hint, the man reluctantly admitted the voices in his head and the things they told him to do—switch his cable to Xfinity, tell the newspapers about the abandoned van under the X Street overpass, the one that people got into but never came out of. He smelled of spearmint and soap, another young Sacramentan sliding into the early stages of schizophrenia. Tragic, yes. Newsworthy, no.

He said his name was Donovan. He wouldn’t part with a surname or phone number. He crinkled a plastic water bottle in his hand and droned on with a dry mouth. His gums stuck. He connected dots like stars of a constellation only he had mapped.

Well, he and one other person.

That person also noticed the white van. That person wrote a suicide note with the van’s license plate number on it. That person disappeared two weeks ago. Now Donovan had the note.

“Do you want to see it?” he whispered.

Lind palmed her cellphone and checked the time. Donovan squirmed.

“I know how this sounds,” he stammered. “But if this was like a mental thing, like if my mind—something would’ve happened to me. Trauma, right?”

Lind didn’t contradict him. She absentmindedly felt the scar under her knee. You don’t tell a crazy person they’re crazy.

“What do you want to happen here?” she asked, point blank. She held Donovan’s hungry stare. She saw something tilt.

“Lindsey,” he said. “It’s me.” (RFH)

Chapter 2: ‘Away’

“Lindsey … Lindsey … Hey! Lindsey!”

Lind quickly sat up from another daydream whiplash thanks to her friend Mike, a fellow gutter punk and all around know-it-all. The two sat on a red park bench at their usual kick-it spot in Lincoln Park as the chaotic echoes of afternoon traffic surrounded them.

“Where’d you go this time?” Mike asked as he took a quick sip from a cheap pint of Four Roses concealed in a wrinkled, brown paper bag.

“Away,” Lind coldly responded before grabbing the bag. She took a long swig before lighting a cigarette. As the smoke curved between her fingers with chipped nail polish, she began thinking about where she’d just been. A newsroom?

Lind had a knack for slipping into her subconscious, a place where she often escaped to imagine her life differently. Different city. Different parents. Different job—or any job for that matter. She enjoyed the escape. After all, who wouldn’t? (S.R.)

Illustration by Jefferson Miller

Chapter 3: We don’t talk about the van incident

“You working today?”

She nodded, only slightly. The less she acknowledged the question, the less she had to think about her job. Her real job.

“I don’t get why they had to put you on wax duty. If I could’ve explained we were just testing out the van—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Lind cut him off. It was bad enough having to work at her family’s auto mall, a multi-brand dealership with “super great vehicles, hot hot deals and just okay financing.” She tried to persuade her dad to change the slogan. No one was going to buy a car with just okay financing. And now this van incident. What a mess.

Before Lind could slip back into her thoughts, Mike clocked a figure in the distance.

“Hey!” He waved. Mike seemed to know everybody.

“So who’s this guy?” she asked.

Mike motioned for the figure to join them.

“Him? Oh, that’s Don. Donald? No, wait … Donovan.” (R.M.)

Chapter 4: Donovan X

At the sidewalk’s edge he stood, head slouched, crushed by heavy thoughts and the world’s forbidden knowledge. Of the Del Paso sex cult and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Of doors to other dimensions and a dead woman who knew too much.

“You good, Donovan?” Mike asked.

“They wouldn’t let me sleep last night,” Donovan said, eyes trapped on Lind. “They told me all about you.”

His cracked lip twitched. His metal pincer for a hand shook, holding a crumpled sheet scribbled with pen marks that Lind recognized.

Lind blinked and he was still there. The ghost with a story to pitch, now a half-man, half-machine standing right in front of her.

“Lindsey, it’s me,” he said. “I’m looking to buy a used car.” (M.Z.)

Chapter 5: Hot off the lot

Donovan got ready in front of a mirror. He’d switched out of the red blazer again. It was ostentatious. Today didn’t call for it. To be fair, it didn’t fit anymore, either.

Scraping his dull safety razor across his left cheek, Donovan took a moment. It was supposed to be his final day working the car lot. April 3, 1977, the fancy Kentucky Derby horse calendar read. Almost four years to the day spent clocking in, hocking cars to parents, to prom kings, to the worst people in this town.

Never again.

With a last glance into his own deadened eyes, Donovan left his bathroom, stepped out of his apartment and approached his van. Peeling open the back doors, he exposed a maze of wires, PCBs and a harem of other electronics, gears and strange contraptions. He pushed a series of numbers on a keypad, pulled a rusty lever and pressed a silicone button.

He slammed the doors shut, staggering to the driver’s side door. Inside, he released the emergency brake and pulled a cluster of wires out from underneath his seat. He pulled back his sleeve, revealing a port spliced into the flesh of his wrist. With a breath, he slid the wires into the port and turned the ignition. It sputtered to life.

“I’m coming for you, baby,” Donovan said, pulling a note from his pocket as the engine began to scream. “I’ll be there soon.” (M.M.)