Free Cleaning Service: Part 2

close up photo of rotary telephone
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

It was the next afternoon and Jim fumbled with the lock on his old apartment door. The deadbolt finally slid back and he took hold of the knob, pulling upwards as he also swung the door inwards. He and his family had learned that this was the only way to prevent the bottom of the door from scraping across the floor, and there were little arcs carved on the tile from before they had this solution. Jim had promised that one day he would fix both the door and the tiles, but that day still had not arrived four years later.

His wife switched off the vacuum she was pushing across the old living room carpet and looked up to him in surprise. “You’re home early, I thought you said something about staying late today.”

“Unfortunately not,” he sighed, placing his hat and coat on the rack.

Unfortunately,” she repeated accusingly, her dark brows furrowing together. “You mean you’d rather not be home with your family?”

He opened his mouth to give an explanation, thought better of it, and instead shook his head and murmured “That’s not how I meant it.” What exactly was he supposed to say? ‘Unfortunate’ because a warrant didn’t come through and a homicidal maniac is roaming our streets for another day?

Sarah didn’t press the matter. Her eyes had just settled on the two casefiles in his hand and a grim look of understanding shadowed her face. She had learned during the first years of her husband’s career the significance of two files. One file meant a murderer, two meant a killer. The difference was subtle but significant. A murderer existed only in a brief, singular moment. A murderer’s work happened and then stopped. Most people became a murderer without even meaning to. A killer, on the other hand, was deliberate. It was a profession. A way of being.

Jim followed Sarah’s eyes and he winced. She hated whenever he brought the nasty trappings of his work home, but he had honestly forgotten the files were in hand when he left the office. They both stood there in heavy silence, and after a moment he broke eye contact and shuffled off towards the kitchen for a drink. Jim dropped the casefiles on the counter next to the mail, then filled a tall glass of water and took it down in large gulps. It was too cold and it stung his parched throat, but after a hot and muggy day he rather enjoyed the pain of coldness. He heard the vacuum start up again in the living room again and shook his head. It seemed Sarah vacuumed every day, no matter how many times he told her it wasn’t going to help. The fabric was too shallow and the stains were too deep. Her vacuum would never clean it, and his salary would never pay to replace it. It simply was what it was and had to be accepted. The last drops of water trickled out of the glass and he set it down as he scooped up the casefiles, a single paper falling out of one of them and resting on the pile of mail. Jim didn’t notice though, and he went to the bedroom and shut the files in his nightstand drawer, hiding them from view.

“Dad?” he heard his son’s voice call from the bedroom down the hall. “Is that you?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Hey, could you come read through this essay with me? It just doesn’t feel right but I can’t tell how come.”

“Uh, well see, I was going to catch the–” he paused as his eyes fell on the nightstand clock. 4:15 pm. He had forgotten, coming home early meant there weren’t going to be any games on the television yet. “I’m coming” he sighed in defeat, rubbing his weary face, and then lumbering down the hall to help his son.

As the two of them mulled over the essay Sarah finished the vacuuming and took a moment to stare back at the floor in complete dissatisfaction. She placed the appliance back in its corner, then made her way to the kitchen to start something stewing for dinner. She put a pot on the stovetop and started it heating, then pulled various leftovers out of the fridge and placed them down on the counter. She mechanically reached for the mail and her face brightened as she read the first item, a flier promoting a new carpet cleaning business. Free Cleaning Service. A slight smile crossed her lips and for a moment dinner was forgotten while she reached for the phone.

*

It was the middle of the night, yet sleep only came to Jim in small waves, each throwing him back onto the shores of wakefulness. He couldn’t recall the last time he had had a full night’s rest. Though he craved the slumber, he dreaded the idea of relinquishing all vigilances for hours on end. He couldn’t help thinking of how helpless it left him, paralyzed and exposed to the mercy of an unmerciful world. Jim turned his nightstand clock to check the time, but its face was blank. The power was out. He kneaded his brow with his palms, then swung his legs out of bed and exited the room.

It was remarkable how the darkness in the house seemed thicker than on other nights. As he groped about like a stranger he realized how much he depended on little things like the microwave’s clock face and the television’s indicator lights to serve as anchors, waypoints that helped him to map out his orientation in the home. Now, though, it felt like a thick sheet was smothering all of his senses, and he softly cursed as he walked full-on into a wall.

Finally staggering his way into the front room he found the sofa and dropped onto it. He almost reached for the television remote before he reminded himself that there was no power. So instead he paused and just listened. There was nothing. Not even the chirping of crickets or rumble of cars out on the street. The more he sat in the emptiness the more it unnerved him. Somehow the world just didn’t seem right in this moment. He kneaded his forehead again, pressing the palms firmly against his eyes until little fireworks appeared against the closed lids. He was so tired, so weighed down, so tainted by association. He opened his eyes and still all they saw was darkness. Shouldn’t they be adjusted to this already?

Rising to his feet he stumbled over to the deck’s sliding glass door and pulled back the curtain. Nothing. All the other apartment porchlights were out, so were the streetlights. The sky was cloudy again and the moon and stars were too weak to break through them. It was not a cool night, rather the air was warm, stagnant and clammy. It added to the sense that he had been plunged into a suffocating ink and there was nothing in his power that he could do about it.

Jim leaned forward and rested his head on the cool glass. That, at least, felt nice. He swayed slowly on the spot, closing his eyes, letting his mind rest. He lost track of time. One minute. Two, three. Though standing, Jim’s mind was beginning to stray into the subconscious. As his mind sunk from the present moment he had the sensation that he was slowly falling down and backwards. Down towards something that was reaching up for him. Something malevolent stretching up higher… folding around him… closing… and…

Jim snapped his head up and turned to face the opposite direction, his eyes fixated on the front door. Every hair on his body stood on end. He hadn’t heard anything, he hadn’t even imagined anything, but somehow it was as though he had sensed a rift. Even as he stared at the dark door the sensation was continuing to mount within him, finally breaking in a shiver that traveled the length of his spine. Without knowing why, Jim held his breath and moved as silently as possible across the room. He could feel his heart thudding in dread and beads of sweat were forming along his brow. He reached the entrance to his home and pressed an unblinking eye up against the peephole.

A man stood immediately on the other side of the door, staring back at him. The form was tall and broad, entirely shrouded in darkness save for the two glistening eyes and a row of white teeth popping into view along a widening grin. Jim had the distinct impression that somehow the man knew Jim was looking at him, was watching him watch him. Jim’s heart didn’t race anymore, it entirely skipped its beats. His mouth opened to call but only a vague rattling of air escaped his throat. His initial horror was broken with another as he realized that the doorknob was turning beneath him. Instinctively he gripped it with both hands and tried to hold it secure. Even so, the force at the other end was not to be denied and the metal rubbed slowly but surely under Jim’s sweaty palms. A weight was brought to bear on the wood and the door began to push inwards. Jim threw himself against the barrier, kicking his feet against the ground for extra force, yet the door continued, slowly but steadily inwards, the low bottom scraping along the floor now, wood and tile vibrating together in a long shuddering scream.

***

The power, and horror, of dreams comes from their ability to portray a world that is convincing and real to us, but then seamlessly interweave manifestations of the intangible: emotions, ideas, fears. You may well have a conversation with greed or literally chase after happiness. By this method they help us give voice to that which we could not speak and understanding to that which we could not think. My purpose with this story was to write a story that felt like a nightmare from the heart.

As I said in my most recent post, it was not my intention to shoehorn this story to fit a particular genre or trope, I really wanted to let it just be its own thing. As I’m sure became evident, this isn’t actually some hard-boiled detective mystery, it is a tale of being haunted by oneself, a fear of conjuring up an evil that will sooner or later come into your most inner places. The use of its main character and setting were selected not to follow some tired cliché, but rather for the way they naturally lent themselves to the central themes of danger and invasiveness.

Of course, writing a quality haunting tale is difficult to do, and at the end of the day I’m still not sure if I succeeded or not. There was an image I had in my mind of what I wanted this story to be, and there is a chasm between that and what actually has made it into the final draft. I remain convinced that what was in my head was terrifying, but how much of that was lost in translation? This is a quandary every writer will face, and I imagine one that never wholly dissipates, no matter how much experience you have. On Monday we’ll dig into this topic a bit more. Until then, if you missed out on the first half of Free Cleaning Service you can go to this page to view the story in its full form, and you can also go here to see every story that I’ve posted on this blog. Have a wonderful weekend!

 

Free Cleaning Service: Part One

silhouette of a man in window
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Jim Morgan ducked under the police tape and pulled his coat tighter against the wind. He moved with hurried steps, little splashes of muddy rainwater billowing around his ankles. He gave a final glance upwards to the dark, cloudy sky, then pushed through the creaky wooden door to the cozy diner within. The layout of the place was extremely basic. A dozen circular tables crowded around the floor, with a cashier’s counter fronting a kitchen along the left wall. Across the back wall was the occasional window offering a view of the neighboring Main Street, or at least they would have been under fairer weather. On a stormy night such as this, the interior lights overpowered the external darkness and the windows became large black mirrors. Jim was drawn to the image of his duplicate in the glass, watching him come in from the cold, cup his hands to his mouth, and blow into them for warmth.

“Sir?” a police deputy stood up from his chair and approached him. The officer couldn’t have been older than twenty-two, and the way he nervously loitered around made it clear he had no idea what one was supposed to do at a crime scene.

“Detective Morgan,” Jim gestured to himself, but didn’t trouble to pull out his badge to prove it. “Let Barry know I’m here, if you will.”

“Barry?” the young man repeated, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“Detective Barton,” Jim clarified and comprehension dawned on the deputy’s face. “He phoned that he wanted to see me here.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” the officer said, yet he remained on the spot, shifting his weight around uncomfortably. “It’s just that—well, he’s occupied with the crime scene presently.” The young man started to turn his face in the direction of the kitchen doors, but he halted halfway through the motion and instead jerked his thumb over the shoulder instead. Now it was Jim’s face that broke in comprehension.

“You haven’t been in there yet, have you son?” he asked bluntly. The deputy dropped his gaze to the floor and shook his head. For the first time Jim paused to look at the man’s badge and read his name. “There’s no shame in not wanting to see, Ellis,” he said compassionately. “And I’ll tell you right now there’s no special trick to stomaching that sort of stuff, it’s just hard. Always is.” Ellis looked back up and Jim held eye contact for a few moments, trying to remember a time when his own face had been that innocent. Still, if the man was expecting to be let off the hook, he was about to be disappointed. “But that’s the job,” Jim said flatly. “Go tell Detective Barton that I’m here.”

There was a firm finality in Jim’s tone and Ellis didn’t try to argue the point, instead exhaling slowly and dejectedly shuffling off towards the kitchen door. Meanwhile, Jim turned and walked deeper into the diner, making his way to the dark mirror of a window where he could peered closely at his own reflection. To be sure, there wasn’t any of that old innocence left in him now, and not even the miles of tracks under his eyes did justice to the distances he had traveled for this job. He was tired. Tired in ways he couldn’t begin to explain. His blinked, then so did his reflection.

“Jim?” A voice called him out of his reverie and he spun around to see Barry emerging out of the kitchen. Barry had barely cleared the door before Ellis followed behind him, much paler in the face now and moving with nervous, rapid footfalls. Barry strode the rest of the way to Jim with a few giant paces, and the two shook hands with a well-practiced familiarity.

“Hello, Barry,” Jim said, thus concluding the formalities of their greeting. Now they could get to the heart of the matter. “You said you wanted to see me?”

“Right. And you brought the file I asked for?”

Jim nodded, pulling the manila folder out from the dryer confines of his overcoat and handing it to Barry who began thumbing through its contents. The folder was aged, but the case was not. In fact it was so recent that Jim’s thumb still bore a black mark where he had smudged it against the freshly-typed details of the case, details that were similarly smudged across his mind.

Harold and Ava Harrison, both in their late sixties.
Both retired.
Found dead in their apartment, by the landlord who had responded to a neighbor’s report of loud shouting.
No sign of forced entry.
Little sign of struggle.
All in broad daylight, yet with no one having seen the perpetrator.

Those last details were a bit uncommon, but not enough to make the case particularly stand out. Thus far Jim had made little progress on the investigation, but that was how many of these went.

Barry had gone directly to the section for evidence. Jim knew there wasn’t much there. A couple statements, the phone records, and some stray pieces of mail taken from the home. Barry selected one of these and held it up in its plastic bag. Jim squinted at the paper. Free Cleaning Service.

“The new carpet cleaning business?Jim asked, remembering the advertisement.

Barry nodded.

“Yeah…come to think of it, that was one of the bits you helped me follow up on, wasn’t it?”

Barry nodded again. “That’s why I remember it.”

“Sure…what was it they said to you?”

“Not much. Was just a one-man operation, said he didn’t keep track of names or addresses, just went to people when they called. Asked if he had been to the Harrisons, he said no, said sometimes he had to turn people down because of conflicting schedules.”

Jim nodded, memories of Barry’s report trickling back. At the time it had been buried like one drop of data within a stream but now, when it stood on its own, it did seem a bit odd. “Strange for a one-man operation to be sending out free services. Seems like he’d never be able to keep up with all the calls.”

“That’s true. Of course, you didn’t know that when you sent me there. Was there something else that made this flier stand out to you.”

Jim closed his eyes and called back the remembrance of that day. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I was trying to piece together why it would’ve happened in the middle of the day and with no forced entry. A service-man just made sense for it.”

“Good thinking,” Barry agreed. “It would also explain an owner found dead in his diner, again with no forced entry but this time in the evening… after closing hours.”

At last Jim was seeing the connection, and the reason why Barry had called him down here. “You found another flier.” It wasn’t a question.

Now it was Barry’s turn to reach a hand into his overcoat, pulling out a plastic bag with an identical Free Cleaning Service flier in it. “The owner was holding it.”

Jim closed his eyelids and exhaled slowly. As if things hadn’t been bad enough already… A part of him wanted to resist agreeing with Barry, simply because he didn’t want to face the conclusion that stood at the end of this this line of reasoning. But that was the job. He opened his eyes and blinked them back into focus. “Alright, we’ll work it together from here on. I can go back to the office and fill out for a warrant on the cleaner’s place. If we get it before end-of-day tomorrow then maybe we can wrap it up in a hurry.”

“Works for me. Tell you what, though, I’ll go back to the office for the warrant. You can head home, or else have a look around here if you want to see.”

Jim scoffed derisively. “No one wants to see, Barry,” his eyes glanced briefly back to Ellis who had sunk back into his chair from before. “But yeah, I’d better go check it out. See you tomorrow.”

Barry nodded, handed Jim the casefile he’d been putting together, then left out the front door. Ellis looked up as he left, then back to Jim, evidently uncertain of which detective he was supposed to remain with.

“Go call the morgue to come for the body, I won’t be long,” Jim told him. “Then go ahead and get home, I’ll wait here for them.” As the young man enthusiastically left his perch for the phone, Jim swallowed something back that had been rising in his throat and strode towards the diner’s kitchen.

*

Jim held the kitchen door open for the morgue workers as they shuffled out, each carrying an end of the black bag. When they were through he hurried ahead to do the same for them at the diner’s main entrance. They thanked him as they progressed to their hearse and he grunted in response. He stepped back into the empty diner and gave it one last sweeping glance, then strode to each of the room’s chandeliers to turn them off. The thought occurred that it was a strange thing to do, seeing as there was no living owner to thank him for the gesture. Still, courtesy even to the dead, wasn’t that right? Courtesy especially to the dead.

He approached the last table, the one set underneath dark window he had used for a mirror before. He peered back at his reflection and asked himself what he saw there. Was he imagining things, or had a new line appeared under his eyes that very night? His reflection blinked, then so did he.

Jim turned back to the last chandelier, reached up, and turned it off. With the last light doused, darkness swept through the room and the light within the diner no longer overpowered the blackness without. Now visible for the first time was a man outside, staring in through the same window. The man was tall and thin, his hair a motley mess of dark strands, framing a shockingly pale face. His eyes were open in a wide stare, glistening as though they bore unshed tears. His lips were curling back and opening, exposing his teeth in a broad grin. Jim’s back was already turned though, and he remained oblivious to the watcher as he walked to the opposite wall, out the front door, and into the night.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, a good horror story should take residence in the core, fundamental fears inherent to the human condition. My purpose in this story was to focus on a few, such as the fear of innocence lost, the fear of being watched, the fear of being our safe places being made unsafe, and the fear of being powerless. The first two of these you can see in the first half already, and the other two will crop up in the conclusion next week.

One thing that I debated when writing this story was the portrayal of Jim Morgan as the gruff and jaded police detective. I felt that that was such a tired trope, and I didn’t want to be going that route just to follow some trend. As I thought about it, though, I felt that within the context of this story it was essential for his character be this way. At his core, Jim fears that he has been tainted, that he has walked through a dark mist and now wherever he goes a part of it might be following him. It is a fear we all have experienced in our moments of guilt, and I could think of no better way to establish it than to write him gruff and tired.

This question of whether your story decisions are being motivated by its needs versus just shoehorning it to match a certain trope or genre deserves further examination, though, and next Monday I will discuss the point further. I’ll see you then.

Sculpting Light

lighted candle
Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

The Matter Tool

The “matter tool” was small and held in the hand like a paintbrush. Its small, flat tip had the curious ability of being able to both deposit and siphon matter with the flick of a switch. Thus, where a traditional artist would etch the mere image of a hill and valley, the “matter tool” was utilized to actually create literal hills and valleys, tunnels and towers, and all manner of strange geometric patterns.

Intriguingly, the ease of use also disvalued the tool. As creation was effortless, many people made rampant and effortless creations. Always the same sorts of things: bridges, tunnels, mazes, pretty geometric patterns, few endeavored to try something outside the box. Of course the true artist learns not only how the medium has been used in the past, but also how it can be used to create that which was never conceived of before.

That brings up a question, though, does the artist actually create or merely discover? There is an idea expressed that the sculpture is already existing in the rock, and it has only to be uncovered. I watched a sculptor working on a large slab of granite, noting that it was nothing more than a cocoon. As the artist created a rough-form I noted he was merely removing the larger parts of the encasing excess. As the finer details were etched onto the face I saw that he was merely pulling the clinging residue off the polished form that was within. All the artist had to do is find it in there. Perhaps we are all of us pristine sculptures burdened by excess yet to be removed.

I looked back to see what had become of the “matter tool”, and now found a new use for it. It was the complement to the sculptor’s work. Taking it in one hand and grabbing a block of stone in the other I began hollowing out the rock’s interior. I twisted and gouged its insides, transforming the block into a mold for the figure of David. It was a sculpture’s negative. When I was done I closed up the bottom of the hollow cavity and set it on a pedestal in an art gallery. All anyone could see was the flat external faces of the rock, unknowing that the art was within. I knew later sculptors would come to dig the form out of it, that is what they know to do. The irony, though, was that since the sculpture was the absence of stone, digging it out would destroy it.

Our Purpose on Earth is to Measure Mountains

Of course, while some people wish to carve the stone, others seek only to measure it. I now stood on the peak of a mountain on a windy, blue day. Beside me were geologists with their surveying instruments, measuring angles to distant peaks and scrawling on notepads a tome of figures. That done, they took the numbers and from them calculated the exact altitudes of the main land features all around them. They too are not creating, only discovering. They do not invent the heights of the landforms, they only discover what the inherent measurements already residing in them are. Their artistic work is the numbers and the data, all which serve as an image representing the original form, just as a sculptor’s figure is an image to represent the original form.

Why do we measure and draw the world? The world already exists, yet we seek to discover and recreate it constantly, seeking for lessons from the natural ways things are. Do we study the ascensions of mountains that we may learn how to raise our own selves to a higher nature? Do we weigh the mass that they bear upwards so that we may learn how to better balance our own burdens?

Of course, if you’re going to measure this world you have to get up high. The taller you get, the more distant your horizons will be. Not only that, but you have to stand clear of clutter. You may be elevated to a peak and have miles of rolling landscape ahead, but if you stand near a wall, though only seven feet high, then all the miles of open plains and the distant mountains behind them are hidden. All you can see is the wall.

There are intangible walls as well. You might be in the clear open, but veiled in the darkness of night. To be visible, every form requires that first it must not be obstructed, and secondly that it must have a medium of light to carry its image to the beholder. Otherwise it may as well not exist at all.

Light-Forms

Light, of course, extends forever. However its visible range is quite limited. For what begins as a concentrated streak of illumination quickly spreads apart so finely that it appears to dissipate and loses all definition. What if light were to be more cohesive and physical?

I imagine to myself volumes of light, rectangular prisms that maintain a consistent form, with well-defined faces and edges. It does not fade at any end, but rather holds the same intensity throughout until it comes to an abrupt closure at bounds of one foot by two feet by three feet. Each of these volumes is capped by a thin sheet, which is the source of the light. The sheet is very thin, more so that paper, and is a malleable substance, though sturdy enough that it can hold a shape and not tear. Each one is perfectly translucent.

The volume of light seemed somewhere between a wave and a solid, it was in appearance very soft and hazy, as though millions of minute dust particles were lazily floating within its form. I decided to test the physicality to the beam, and so I turned one of the sheets downwards and let it go. It dropped a short distance and then remained suspended in the air, supported entirely by the light-volume that now rested on the ground. I placed another sheet above the first, turned downwards in the same manner, expecting it to stack. However, because the screen of the first was transparent, the light of the second passed through it, resulting in the first sheet rising until it collided with the second sheet, each of them resting together on a stack of light twice as high as either originally projected. I added a third sheet and the column of light was three times the height now.

For the fourth sheet I did something a little different. I angled it so that its column of light entered my main one at a shallow slope. When I let go it held its place, creating a branch from the trunk. I placed several more extending off of this branch until it grew out five light-volumes out to the side. From this I realized the usual requirements of balancing a fulcrum did not apply to this light sculpture, as the light was entirely weightless. For the next while I continued adding more and more sheets in every imaginable angle and connection. Branches grew off of branches, beams were stuck in upside-down, sheets were folded to form curves in large dome-like arcs. Gradually I had constructed a sprawling web all around me.

At this point I had explored stacking the sheets as thoroughly as I cared to, and now turned my attention to further pursue folding the thin sheets and seeing what became of the light that emanated from it. I grabbed a fresh sheet and curved it up into a concave curve, resulting in a volume of light that resembled a cone. The light did not pass beyond the intersection point that was the tip of the cone, instead it remained bounded within, increasing in intensity where it overlapped.

An interesting property I noted was that where the light was more intense, the surrounding space around it grew more dark. I do not mean it appeared darker as an illusion, but rather it literally grew darker, as if to counteract and balance the light that it neighbored. I decided to invert the darkness and the light, now resulting in a room that was filled with hazy light everywhere, except for at my cone of darkness, that darkness now being more intense at the peak of the cone and the room-light more intense where surrounding that peak.

Voids

I changed my dark cone for a sphere, and that sphere grew and became a world. It was a world that was nothing but a hollow, dark void within, but over which lay a thin crust of light and matter. All flora and fauna, all that we perceive the earth to be, all of it was within that thin crust of light. As before, it was apparent that this opposing crust of light was in direct balance with the void beneath, as if all our nature exists only to balance out a core blackhole.

At first the void was perfectly uniform in its distribution of nothingness, but in swirls and eddies it started to intensify in some places and lessen in others. Where the void-sphere deepened in its nothingness, the crust of life grew outwards and burst with life, bulging out thicker and upwards, literal mountains growing before my eyes. Elsewhere the void-sphere lessened in its deep nothingness, and so, too, the crust thinned and faded, until void and crust blended into a neutral gray haze that was neither form nor lack of form. The depths of the void continued shifting and the areas that were intense grew more intense still, eventually all pooling together to a specific point, all the rest of space consumed by the gray monotone.

All my attention was wrapped on that single deepening point of intensity, watching as all of the life and creation became intertwined in one another, such that I lost any ability to distinguish between rock and plant, all blending into one column pressing out into space, a union of both of geology and botany. So tightly were they coupled that all their colors, the greens and blues and reds and browns and yellows, all of them bled together and became a pulsating and glowing white light. The column extended with increasing rapidity and soon became a single beam of infinite light extending through the heavens, a single photon to raze and burn through all the cosmos.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, sometimes a story can exist outside of a traditional character arc or chronological plotline. Sometimes it can be freeing to start with an image and just run with it wherever it wants to go. To the mind this serves as both active exercise and relaxing meditation all at once, and it promotes both emotional and mental wellness and stability, which is already its own reward. It’s not too often that we get to act as both the inventor and discoverer at the same time, but that is the reality here. What is happening is your subconscious is composing, and your conscious is observing. Your conscious does not know what the subconscious is going to construct, and so it is entirely possible, and likely, for you to end up surprising yourself.

Also, it’s entirely likely that your little stream-of-consciousness journey might bring you to some personal insights that are helpful in your life. The sequence that I wrote above was something I pursued on a whim once, with no specific message or intent in mind. Even so, there are elements that came up in it that I personally find thought-provoking, calming, and useful.

As you might have noticed, the irregular transitions make for a piece that feels a great deal like moving through a dream. Though it is a more grim subject, I do think it is important to explore the alternative, too, the motions and motives of a nightmare. On Monday I will discuss about how to bring meaningful elements of these into your stories and will follow it up with an example on Thursday. Until then, sweet dreams!

Phillip the Mouse: His Mask and Grandfather’s Kite

Phillip the Mouse and His Mask

One fine Summer day Phillip the Mouse was outside stacking some blocks on the ground. He was so busy trying to build it as high as possible that he didn’t notice when Baxter, the local bully, came over by his side. “Hey, watch out!” Baxter shouted, and then he punched the tower apart with a laugh. All the blocks went flying and one of them hit Phillip right on the nose. Phillip was both surprised and hurt, and before he knew it he was sitting back on the ground crying. Baxter looked a little uncomfortable about that, but he shook his head and said, “Why are you screwing your face up like that? It makes you look all ugly!” Then he stomped away.

Phillip felt very self-conscious and ashamed. He tried to stop crying but it was very hard. He didn’t want to just sit there and look ugly, so he thought of what he could do. Suddenly he had what seemed to be a wonderful idea. Without a word he stood up and rushed into his house. He found some paper and string, markers and glue, and he set to work making a mask. He made a beautiful mouse-face and drew the biggest smile on it that he could. It looked perfect. He tied it on and decided to wear it forever.

Later that day Phillip’s mother came home and gave him a big hug. She smiled at his mask and asked him how his day was.

“It was great!” Phillip tried to say enthusiastically, but there was a little shake in his voice.

“Are you sure?” she asked compassionately. Phillip wasn’t sure why, but there was something about her soft voice that made him feel his sadness growing behind the mask.

“It was okay,” Phillip said, and wet tears were starting to show through the paper of the mask.

“Phillip, can you please take your mask off?” she asked.

Phillip shook his head and stepped back. “It’s a good mask,” he said. “It’s always happy and handsome, it never scrunches up or cries.”

“Phillip,” she said gently. “I like your real face more, I’d always rather see that.”

“Even if it’s ugly and crying?”

“Always,” she repeated. “And it’s never ugly.”

Phillip slowly took the mask away and his Mommy saw how sad he really was. She gave him a hug and just held him for a while. Then he told her about what had happened with the blocks and Baxter. That made him cry even more and she held him for all of that, too.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you today, Phillip,” she told him. “Thank you for telling me, that was a very brave thing to do. Phillip…I want you to always remember that you never need to be ashamed of your tears. Your face is the most beautiful thing I know and always will be.”

And with that, Phillip smiled. A real one this time.

Phillip the Mouse and His Grandfather’s Kite

One gray and windy day Phillip was feeling very confused. His parents had told him that his grandfather was very sick, and that he might not get better. Phillip didn’t understand this. Every time Phillip got ill his parents just gave him rest and maybe some medicine and then he felt better soon enough. Why was it different with grandfather? Phillip’s parents said it had to do with being very old, and that grandfather might need to leave them, which was also confusing to Phillip. Phillip didn’t want his grandfather to leave them.

All of this had made Phillip think about a fine kite that he had made with his grandfather just last summer. They had decided to make it on a blustery day like today, but by the time the glue set the wind had died down and they hadn’t been able to fly it. Phillip’s grandfather had said he would come back another time to fly it with Phillip, but that day had never come. And so, Phillip now decided he had to fly it by himself. For some reason that seemed like a good thing to do with this concerning news from his parents.

Phillip went outside with his kite and soon he had it soaring through the air. It really was a very good kite. It caught the wind easily and held its position very straight and strong. Phillip never had problems with it swirling down or crashing into the ground. As Phillip continued to fly it the wind started to become even stronger. Soon he could feel the kite pulling hard against the reel in his hands. He gripped it tightly, and decided he better pull the line in before the wind picked up anymore. Phillips started turning the reel, pulling the line down as a sudden gust of wind came, pulling the line up.

SNAP!

The string broke in two and it tumbled lifelessly to the ground at Phillip’s feet. Phillip stared down at it for a moment, then back up to the kite. He expected the kite to fall as well, but it didn’t. It swayed around for a little bit, and then a wave of the wind carried it up higher and higher towards a cloud. Phillip felt very strange. Sad… but not like he needed to cry. As he watched, the kite slowly faded into the cloud until he couldn’t see it anymore. Phillip kept watching the same spot on the cloud for a while, just thinking and feeling.

As Phillip turned to walk home he still felt sad, but also alright. It wasn’t the happiest thing to lose grandfather’s kite, but at least he knew where it was. Any time a cloud would pass its shadow over him he couldn’t help but wonder if grandfather’s kite was there, watching him from afar. Somehow that made everything okay.

***

It’s been a wonderful privilege to share these Phillip the Mouse stories. These last two in particular were ones where I wanted to imbue the stories with something special, something that I’m proud of. Even though they were designed for my toddler son, I didn’t want take advantage of his more accepting nature, I wanted to work on them until I could get them right and make them of as high quality as I’m capable. Like I said in my post on Monday, our children, of all people, are the most deserving and needing of our very best.

Also I feel these stories are not just children’s stories. They are stories for everyone. They explore concepts we all deal with and all need to face one way or another. Perhaps my son won’t fully understand all these ideas now, but I hope the seed will be there so he recognizes them when they do come up in life.

This will conclude the Phillip the Mouse series, and next week we’ll be off to somewhere entirely new. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.

Phillip the Mouse: Being too Small and The Terrifying Frog

animal blur close up cute
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Phillip the Mouse and Being too Small

One day Phillip found himself with his dad at the home of the Dotty family. The Dottys were his neighbors three-mouseholes-down, and he and his dad were helping Mr. Dotty to dig a new guest chamber. While they were working, Mr. Dotty’s son Felix came in.

“Dad!” he said. “The fair just opened in town this morning! Can I go?”

Mr. Dotty thought, and then said that would be alright. Phillip thought the fair sounded very exciting, so he tugged his dad’s paw and asked if he could go, too.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Felix said quickly. “The fair is for us big mice, you are too small to go.”

“Felix…” Mr. Dotty said sternly. “Phillip has been being a big help to us, and the fair is for everyone. If Phillip’s father says he can go then you’ll take him with you.”

Phillip’s dad said it was fine for him to go, which Felix wasn’t too pleased with. Even so, he had to mind his father, and the two of them set off down the country road to town. They went along silently, following the road through a grove of trees until they came to a part where they came to a narrow point between two cliff faces. Here a recent rockslide had fallen across the way, and was blocking their path forward.

Felix looked left, then right, and then up at the obstacle for a moment. Next he crouched down and waggled his tail, jumped up high, and grabbed the top edge of the nearest rock. With a little scrambling he pulled himself onto the top, and then leapt for the next boulder. Phillip tried to copy him, looking left and right and up, crouching down, waggling his tail, and leaping! But he fell far short of the rock’s edge and fell back on the ground. After trying a few more times it was clear he just couldn’t make the jump.

“Wait, help!” He called out. “I can’t reach.”

Felix looked down and shook his head. “I told you that you were too small. If you’re not big enough to reach that first rock, then there’s no way you’ll make it over this whole pile. You’d better head back home.” Then he turned and continued on his way.

At that Phillip sat down and cried. Maybe Felix was right, maybe he really was too small. And now would miss out on all the fun. But as he sat there, drying his eyes, Phillip happened to notice a hollow log that had fallen underneath the rockslide, laying on the ground with its end pointed towards him. He scurried over and saw that it ran all the way to the other side of the rockslide and, even better, was just the right size for him. Phillip bolted through, and then laughed the rest of the way to the fair.

Some time later Felix managed to get over the rockslide, down the other side, and finally arrived at the fair. He was amazed to see that Phillip had not only made it there himself, but also beaten him to it!

“Maybe you are bigger than me,” Phillip admitted. “But I’m just the right size for me and I can get where I need to go!”

Felix nodded sheepishly and apologized, then the two of them went and had a lot of fun.

 

Phillip the Mouse and the Terrifying Frog

Phillip the Mouse was out exploring in the marshes one day. Whenever he came to a little stream he would hop across the lily pads to the other side, and if there weren’t any lily pads he would climb the tall grasses until they bent over and made bridges for him. He was imagining that he was a great explorer, traveling into a deep and ancient forest. Who knew what sorts of monsters might be lurking just around the corner?

To Phillip it had just been a pretend game, but then, as he lifted a leafy branch, he found himself actually face-to-face with one of those monsters! It was a low, hulking, green creature with giant, bulging eyes. Even as Phillip was staring at the creature it started swelling up bigger and bigger, getting even larger than Phillip! Phillip could feel his heart racing and his whiskers twitching. He felt very afraid, so he dropped to all fours, puffed up his fur, stood his tail out straight, and opened his mouth wide to show his teeth. “Hhhhkkk!” he hissed threateningly.

If there’s one thing you don’t expect a monster to do, it’s to cry, but that was exactly what this one started to do. The creature’s whole body deflated, and Phillip could see now that it was shaking. “Stop it!” the creature said with a small voice. “Why are you being so mean?!”

Phillip felt a little ashamed and his fur smoothed down a bit. “What? I’m not being mean. You’re the one who’s a scary monster!”

“I’m not a monster!” the supposedly-non-monster sobbed. “I’m just a little frog. And if you’re not being mean, then why am I the one who is crying?”

Phillip realized the little frog had a point and he stood back up on his back paws and stopped baring his teeth. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to be mean, I was just trying to protect myself when I saw you puffing up there.”

“Oh… did that frighten you? That’s just what I do when I’m startled. I wasn’t sure what to think when I first saw you.”

Phillip paused, a thought bubbling up inside of him. “Maybe we were both being mean and scary,” he finally admitted, “but we only did that because we felt frightened of each other.”

The frog thought this over. “Yes…I think that happens with people sometimes. But…I’m not really afraid of you anymore.”

“Me either. I’m Phillip, by the way, and I’m a mouse. What’s your name?”

“Chester. What were you doing here anyway?”

“I was exploring,” Phillip said proudly, “and looking for exciting secrets in the marshes.”

“Like me?” Chester laughed. “Well, you know, I live here and I know where some more great secrets are. Would you like me to show you?”

Phillip thought that sounded wonderful. Exploring the marsh together was going to be a lot less frightening if he had a friend along with him, and unless he was very much mistaken he had just made one.

***

On Monday my post was about imbuing your stories with messages or principles. These two stories for my son were ones I developed as a way to deliver tailored lessons to him, concepts that I hope will help him deal with his day-to-day situations.

The first story was based off of his being at that awkward stage where he wants to be big and do everything on his own, but then gets frustrated when, sometimes, he isn’t physically capable of actually accomplishing those things. I wanted in this story to tell him that it’s okay to still be growing. He’s just the size he should be, and maybe sometimes he needs to find his own way to do things.

The second story has to do with his anxiety when meeting new people, particularly ones that are loud and flamboyant. He’ll shrink into his mother or me and informs us that that other person is too scary. I thought I might start suggesting to him that sometimes people are loud or intimidating because they, themselves, are trying to hide their own fears or insecurities. Those that are the most scary are often those that are the most scared. This isn’t meant to discourage him from seeking safety when he is uncomfortable, but to help him broaden his perspective.

Clearly there are some concepts here that aren’t just for toddlers, either. There are times I would do well to better internalize the very lessons I am sharing with my son. I would like to explore that more in my post on Monday, how children’s stories can be written for all ages and, indeed, should be. See you then.

Phillip the Mouse: His Very Special Talent and The Camping Trip

brown rodent on gray fence beside green leaved plants under sunny sky
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Phillip the Mouse and His Very Special Talent

One morning, Phillip’s father made his special Cinnamon & Cheese Morning Delight for their family breakfast.

“Mmmm!” Phillip’s mother said while chewing her food. “Your cooking is always so delicious, dear!”

Phillip’s father smiled and said “Well of course, that’s my special talent!”

That got Phillip’s mind working. Did he have a special talent, too? He thought he must, but as he sat there, trying to think what it might be, nothing came to mind.

After breakfast he decided he would go out and try to find what it could be, and as long as he was going out, he thought he may as well walk down the road towards the train tracks. He loved going to the train tracks. Along the way he thought about some of the talents his friends had. Marcus the hedgehog could juggle, that was a pretty neat talent. Suzie the duck could memorize long poems and sing beautifully, those were definitely talents as well. Robbie the Sheepdog was very, very strong, and that was a talent, too.

Phillip reached the hill that looked over the trains passing down below, and he sat on a rock to watch them crawling by. He thought about if there were any talents he could do, but all he could come up with were just the ordinary sorts of things. He had learned how to tie knots last summer, but so had all his friends. He could drink from an open cup without spilling now, but all the adults had been doing that for years already.

Phillip was interrupted from his thoughts by the sound of the 507 Freight Train churning down below. The 507 was the biggest and heaviest train that came on these tracks, racing by like a great, red dragon. Phillip loved how the ground churned beneath him as it rolled past. It was always the last train of the day, too, so Phillip stood up and made his way back home.

On his way he passed by the hole of Jane, the rabbit, who was always the smartest one in class. Definitely a talent. Next came the home of Benny, the Tortoise. Everyone always said how patient Benny was. Phillip supposed that was a special kind of talent, too.

“I’m home,” he called out as he walked back inside.

“Were you watching the trains again?” his mother asked and Phillip nodded. “I’m glad,” she smiled. “I always think it’s so special how you love them.”

Just then it Phillip felt a rush of excitement. Could it be that loving trains so much was a talent of his?

He asked his mother and she agreed. She even said “being able to see the beauty in things is one of the best talents of all!”

That night, as Phillip lay in bed, he felt very special indeed. Marcus might juggle, Suzie might sing, Robbie might be strong. Jane might be smart, Benny might be patient. But he knew that not a one of them loved trains as well as he could!

 

Phillip the Mouse and the Camping Trip

One morning, after Phillip awoke, his parents came into his room with big smiles and told him that they were going camping today! It sounded very exciting…but Phillip wasn’t exactly sure what camping even was.

“It’s a time when the humans leave their homes to come live where we do, so meanwhile we go and live in their house for the weekend,” his father explained.

As soon as they had had their breakfast and got ready for the day, they whisked off to the humans’ big, fancy home. Phillip had never even peeped inside the house before, and he was very excited to see what might be in there. They waited in the bushes while the humans loaded up their car and drove away, then Phillip’s mother and father led him up the outside walls, inside a small hole in the rafters, across the attic to a chewed-through air vent, and from that into the home itself.

There were all sorts of fantastic things for them to do. They pushed something called a “tap” to get water flowing in a large, white thing called a “tub.” Then they could slide down the smooth porcelain into a pool of water and swim all around. There were some other bristly things in the room called “toothbrushes” and Phillip’s parents showed him how to use them to dry off afterwards.

Next came a great, poofy, bouncy thing called a “mattress” that they jumped on for hours and hours. There was a “ceiling fan” they could turn on as well, and they had dangled some “suspenders” from it so they could hold their ends and swing around very quickly. Then they would let go and try to zoom across the room to land in some nice, soft pillows. Phillip missed one time and knocked over a “vase” that shattered everywhere but his parents said not to worry about that.

Best of all, though, was the place they called the “kitchen.” Here there were all sorts of foods Phillip liked. Fruits and vegetables, plenty of cheese, and even new things like “cereal” and “pie.” It was all quite excellent.

After two days of their vacation, Phillip’s parents said the humans would be back soon, so there was one last thing they had to do. They went on top of the end-of-hall door, lowered a string around its handle, and opened it to let out the family cat. Phillip’s parents explained that this way the humans would just blame Mr Tiggles for the big mess. Of course, having now let the cat out, Phillip and his family couldn’t stay around any longer, so they whisked out a window and hurried back to their home, whooping and hollering the whole way.

***

As I mentioned on Monday, the purpose of these two stories was to illustrate how I designed some bedtime stories for my toddler son that were specific to his interests and life events. For the first story, its design came about from the fact that my son loves trains very, very much. I just wanted to make a story that could convey to my son how I love that he loves trains, how proud I am that he lives with passion. For the second story, I came up with it just a day or two before we left on a camp-out for our Summer vacation. We had been talking about it with our son and he was pretty excited for the trip, so I wanted to craft a story that let him live out his happy anticipation through Phillip’s silly antics.

From these two examples it’s probably apparent that many of the stories I tell to my son carry messages or themes. Sometimes these come across as just playful, but other times they are meant as a more serious teaching moment. That’s a concept I’d like to explore with my next post: teaching through stories. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then I’ll do an example of it with more Phillip the Mouse stories next Thursday.

Phillip the Mouse: The Lion’s Toothache and The General’s Horse

animal apodemus sylvaticus brown button eyes
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Phillip the Mouse and the Lion’s Toothache

One day Phillip the Mouse was out on the Savannah, watching a lion laying under a tree. He had been warned that lions were dangerous and sneaky creatures, so he remained hidden in the tall grasses and didn’t make a peep. However, though he was hidden from sight, he hadn’t accounted for the lion”s excellent sense of smell.

SNIFF went the lion. “Ahhh,” the lion said to himself. “There is a delicious mouse out there. I wonder how I could get him to come closer?” He suddenly had an idea and he called out “OH LITTLE MOUSE! LITTLE MOUSE, PLEASE COME QUICK! I NEED SOME HELP!”

“He needs help?!” said Phillip, and he scurried out into the clearing. “Help, did you say?”

“Oh yes, indeed,” said the Lion, smiling to himself. “You see, I have the most frightful toothache and there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t have such clever little paws like you do, mine are much too large and clumsy to reach into my mouth. Here, I’ll open wide and you go take a look inside, please.”

The lion opened his mouth as wide as he could, and Phillip helpfully scurried over, standing on the lion’s tongue he peered back along the row of sharp, pointy teeth. Suddenly he realized that he had stepped into a trap and even saw the lion’s mouth starting to close!

“Oh, lion!” Phillip called out, thinking as fast as he could, “You were right! There’s a most frightful tooth infection here!”

The lion abruptly stopped closing his mouth. “Thewe is?” he asked in surprise.

“Ohhhh, absolutely! It looks like it might soon rot your whole mouth away! We need to get it out straight away. Luckily for you I’m just the mouse for the job.”

“Den pull ih out!” the lion cried.

“I will. But first, your mouth is starting to droop. You’ll need to keep it wide open while I work.”

“Pwop it open wiv somefing!”

Phillip scurried out, grabbed a large stick, and wedged it between the lion’s teeth, forcing the mouth to stay open. “Also,” he continued. “I’d better go get some numbing grasses so this doesn’t hurt you too much.”

“Good ideah!”

Phillip leapt down to the ground, rushed back into the tall grasses, and ran all the way home. For the next few hours the lion lay there with his mouth propped open, unable to do anything but stare around confusedly and repeat “Oh, liwwle mouse, liwwle mouse! Whewe awe you?”

 

Phillip the Mouse and the General’s Horse

One day, Phillip learned that the noble General’s Horse was in town, and he wanted to go and meet this legendary hero. He went into the village and walked through the streets until he found him. The General’s Horse was standing at a post with a crowd of admiring creatures around him. He was tall, strong, and a magnificently wild gray color. But as Phillip was very small, he could not see the horse as well as he would like and he decided to go get closer.

Phillip ran and leapt upwards, grabbing the horse’s tail with his paws and scurrying up it onto his back. Phillip started moving forward to the horse’s front when suddenly the General himself swung into the saddle. Before Phillip had a chance to get off the General clicked in his heels and the horse sprang away! Phillip lost his balance, and fell backwards barely managing to grab the passing saddle bag with his tail. He held onto it for dear life, bouncing upside down and watching as the village raced away behind them.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” he squeaked out, but his voice was too quiet to be noticed. There was nothing to do but wait until the General and his horse had reached their destination.

After a while the three of them arrived at a neighboring city and the General dismounted and left. Now that things weren’t so rocky Phillip was able to climb back up the saddle bag and all the way across to the horse’s ear.

“Excuse me!” he said into it.

“What? Who’s there?” the General’s Horse asked in surprise.

“My name is Phillip, I’m a small mouse from near the village that you just left. I really do need to get back home, though, I was wondering if you could take me back.”

“Oh certainly,” the horse laughed kindly. “The General won’t need me for a while now.”

The horse turned around, but didn’t move. “Oh dear,” he finally said. “This is all very embarrassing, but you see, the General always steered me which way to go and I don’t always pay attention to all the turns we make. Do you know the way back to your village.”

“Oh, well, I’m not sure…” Phillip started to say. Everything he saw looked familiar, but somehow also different. Suddenly he realized the problem, it was all the wrong-way-up from how he had seen it before! Wrapping his tail around the saddlebag he let himself fall upside down again, and now everything was perfectly clear. “Take a left down that dirt road!” he called and the horse whisked away in that direction. They kept on going, Phillip giving each direction until at last they came back to the village. He felt a swell of pride, thinking to himself how impressive he must look to all his friends and family, swinging into town, hanging upside down from the saddle bag of the General’s Horse.

***

As I said in my Monday post, these two stories are from the bedtime stories I make up for my son each night. It all started when we were still trying to establish a regular bedtime routine, one that would allow him to be soothed and relaxed enough to sleep. One of those times I had the idea to make up one of these stories for him. Apparently it made an impression, and the following night he asked for another story and soon it was a tradition. Every day I have that motivation to be a little creative so I can create a new story for him, and I feel that it has been a very good exercise for me.

Now these two examples I shared are pretty generic adventures for Phillip, but as I’ve had to search for continual sources of new ideas, I’ve found it works very well to draw from my son’s own characteristics and day-to-day experiences. That makes the stories more personalized and he often reacts well when the story winks at his real life. On Monday I’d like to talk about that concept a little more: using a specific individual as the intended audience for your stories. After that I’ll share an example or two next Thursday of how I’ve done that in other Phillip the Mouse stories.