"Emma. you can't just start in the middle - in medias res - without any idea of what the story is," said Charlie. "Writers who get away with that have a lot more experience than you do."
"You don't think it's a charming way to start?" asks Emma. "Seriously? I thought you found that sort of thing delightful. You know, reflexivity, self-reference, metafiction, all that."
"Mabe one day, Em, but for now, you need to just get to your comfort zone first," said Charlie, hoping that Emma would realize that the way we write, the way we tell stories, is built on an edifice supported by the shoulders of Titans.
"I have it on good authority that we are going to win," said Emma. "It's just a matter of writing it up now.
Charlie laughs sarcastically, "oh? Good authority? Whose?" then added, "and 'it's just a matter of writing it up now' is a great attitude and all, but it's also the sort of pathological optimism that concerns me about you."
"Charlieeeee, just chill out, okay? Maybe if you want to actually contribute something rather than just being a smug critic . . . "
Charlie asks her, "Seriously though, what makes you so sure you're winning this contest?"
Emma smiles. "It's in this one line I found in the prompt. I think I cracked the code." Emma shows Charlie:
PUVZVPUNATN NF ZRGNCUBE
"Um," says Charlie. "Emma, I'm worried now. This is starting to sound a little like you're crazy. What is a PUVZNPUNA whatever CUBE?"
"Ah!" says Emma, "you noticed! Cube! That's the whole key to the prompt. The winner will recognize that this is a three-dimensional contest! And I know it now, so basically anything I write that reveals that clever insight . . . it can't help but win hearts and minds."
"Fine," says Charlie after privately rolling his eyes, then audibly sighing. "So you notice it ENDS with 'CUBE' . . . and you take that to be significant in some specific way that I can only say is . . . very creative . . . but what about the PUV PUNA ZONE part?"
Emma corrects him: "UVZVPUNATN NF ZRGN, actually. And those letters can be rearranged to spell PUN FANZ PUT IN GRN ZN. See it?"
Charlie stares at Emma, blankly, as she continues to explain as if this were some matter of fact, some verifiable clue to the significance of the string of letters. She says, "Well if it's not obvious to you, I'm starting to feel less certain that it's right. But to me it's pretty obvious that the judges are going to be pun lovers . . . pun fan(Z). Pun fans are put in the Green Zone! The way to win is with puns, which are the very foundation of ambiguous thought.
Charlie suddenly smiles, impressed. "That actually makes a lot of sense, but don't get carried away with these grandiose, confident conclusions. But I do like where you're headed with this now. Who wrote the prompt for this thing again, by the way?"
"Their handle is 'candycane' . Probably named Candace or Andy, but obviously a pun lover."
And this thing is called a Chimichanga?" Charlie asks.
"No, it's a fajita actually, which I like to say as "fa JITE ah" because it sounds like 'vagina' " Emma says, with a somewhat childish giggle.
Charlie mumbles a pun that comes to mind, which he very well could have kept to himself, but Charlie finds it hard, when the word 'vagina' comes up, to control himself so well. "Red Vadge of Courage, Emma?" he says with a laugh.
Emma ignores him because she had already thought of that pun a very long time ago.
They both now stare at the code: UVZVPUNATN NF ZRGN CUBE
Thinking out loud, Emma narrates her line of thought on this, based on what she has divined so far: "OK, so pun lovers . . . Green Zone . . . Cube . . . inCUBE! Incubate? Incubus?"
"Yeahhhh but Emma, fine, puns, winning, green zones, cube, incubation, masturbation, whatever you're trying to do with this, it feels like it could hurt at the end. I mean, you know how some people tell those fantastic, unendingly engrossing stories that finally reveal themselves to be built entirely around a meaningless kernel? You and I love those. Most people get pissed off about puns for some reason. They groan, they put you down, and they act like they didn't have fun along the way just becaue they didn't get to . . . " (here Charlie giggles to himself again, childishly, realizing the perfect metaphor to use in this case) "They didn't get to cum.
It's like a whole symphony of beautiful music is 'ruined' by a botched final note."
Emma pretends to listen, nods, and returns to her outward narration of her inner line of thought. "The thing is, I need to make the fa-JITE-ah (fajita) an element of the story itself."
Charlie interrupts, "Emma! Enough with the postmodernist metafictional crap. It's just ponderous and dull. You don't have to mention any foods in your narrative. That's the metadata."
Reflexively, Emma blurts out, "I never met a data point that didn't fit somewhere in the story itself. But fine, I'll leave it out."
And so, Emma left it out. She left out almost everything she had come up with, in fact, because she finally knew the one thing she had never figured out the first time around.
She knew how it would end. And she wrote as much in the essay, with, "I know how this will end."
And that is where she left it.