Instructions Not Included: Part One

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“But where did you find them?” Gavin asked again.

“They were just sitting in the alley in a box. Someone must have been throwing them out.”

“How do you know? Maybe they were just keeping them there for safekeeping?”

Curtis shook his head. “I doubt that. But if you’re so worried, then you don’t have to be a part of it.”

“Well I wasn’t saying that…”

“Good. Help me get these sorted then.”

The two brothers worked side-by-side at the bedroom desk. The old box was tattered and warped on one side where the rain had fallen on it. It was dotted with black mold spots and smelled quite musty. But for how decrepit and trashy the box appeared, its contents were anything but.

Inside the box were two stacks of white…somethings. They were sturdy, very precisely shaped, and looked expensive. It was hard to say exactly what they were made of, plastic or painted metal it seemed to be at first glance. They were hard, heavy, and cold to the touch…or at least, cold at first. That was why the exact material was hard to guess, because the longer one touched the items’ surfaces the warmer the material got…warmer and warmer until it became uncomfortably hot and one had to draw their hand away! What sort of material behaved like that? And that wasn’t all. There was a strange tingle on the fingertip when touching them as well. Not like electricity, but almost as if it was sending microscopic waves through the skin.

One stack of the items was round, thin, disc-like. They were not quite perfect circles, each one of them had many notches and grooves cut into them. They were clean and precise excisions, with no stray fibers or detritus. The other stack was more rod-like in shape. Some were round, some were long, rectangular prisms, some were curved on one or two sides, and the opposite on the other ones. They were of inequal lengths, and some ended with a flat plane while others had slanted angles. Across all of the piece in both stacks there were intricate patterns of lines etched here and there. They were straight, with sudden right-turns like the traces on a circuit board.

Last of all, there was a single note included with the equipment, a small piece of paper on which someone had written “Some Assembly Required.”

The two boys had all of the equipment out of the box now, and handled one piece after the other, turning them over and over, trying to make sense of it all.

“What do you think it’s for?” Gavin asked.

“I don’t know. Doesn’t look like I’ve anything I’ve seen.”

“Some of the pieces fit together,” Gavin observed, slotting one of the rods into a disc’s hole.

“Yeah, so I guess you build something. Only…it’s weird.”

“Why?”

“There’s no screws or anything to keep it together. If we start stacking them together then pretty soon they’ll just fall apart.”

To demonstrate he flicked at Gavin’s rod, but to their surprise it didn’t topple over. He hit it harder with the back of his knuckles, still it didn’t fall.

“Hey, let me see that,” Gavin said, gripping the rod and trying to pull it out of its perch. It slid out easily.

“How did you do that?”

“I don’t know…it just came out.”

A few more minutes of experimentation and they determined that once two pieces locked together they could only be pulled apart at the exact angle they had slid together at. Any variation from that degree and they would feel like they were welded together instead. Thus they could be freely handled as one piece without fear of their falling apart.

“It isn’t magnets doing that,” Gavin said in bewilderment.

“No, never seen anything like it. Let’s see what other pieces we can fit together.”

After a quarter hour they had all of the most obvious connections sorted out. Rods had been slotted into about all of the holes that ran through the middle of the discs. Each of them connected at the rod’s end, so that it stood upright with the disc at its base. All of the notches along the edges of the discs were unfilled, though, and these were proving to be more difficult to solve.

“This notch looks like it should fit,” Curtis said, holding a rod against the edge of a disc. “But it isn’t locking in place like before.” He pulled his hand away and the rod clattered noisily to the table.

“Hmm,” Gavin said, picking the rod up. “Well, that notch is only encasing two of its sides. I’ll bet it goes between two discs, each covering half of it, and you need to put all three pieces together at once before anything will lock.”

“That’s a fascinating theory,” Curtis said with a yawn. “No, actually it is. But I think my curiosity’s run out on this.”

“What? You don’t want to keep playing with it?”

“What’s the point? It’s clearly not coming together into anything cool. It’s just some abstract art piece or something. No wonder it got thrown out!”

Gavin looked the pieces over. It was true that there was still no rhyme or reason to what they might be forming. They had just gone from random piles of discs and rods to a random pile of flagpoles. It clearly wasn’t going to come together into something cool like a toy or a radio…yet still…

“I want to keep working on it,” he declared.

“Great…over on your desk, I need this space for homework now. And you better get that ratty cardboard box out of here before Mom sees it.”

“Sure, sure.” Gavin knew Curtis felt pleased for having pawned all the junk off on his brother to take care of, but that didn’t matter. He dutifully moved all the pieces over to his side of the room, smuggled the box into the outside garbage bin, and then came back to work on the pieces.

He thought that finding the third piece for the rod and disc would have been simple. He systematically went around each disc, testing any groove that remotely matched the exposed edges of the rod. None of them were a perfect fit. He went through them all a second time just to be sure. No dice.

He shook his head in confusion, then decided to leave that particular rod for the time being. Instead he started finding all of the other partial fits that were possible. Fifteen minutes went by and the mystery thickened. Nearly all of the edge grooves had been accounted for: 47 out of 61. All 47 had a different rod that connected to them, meaning there weren’t enough remaining grooves to complete the fits.

“Great…there’s parts missing.”

He could hear his mother calling for dinner, so Gavin rubbed his eyes, flicked off the desk lamp, and left the room.

With homework and school the next day it wasn’t until the next afternoon that he sat back down at his desk and was reminded of the pieces. He frowned at them as his disappointment resurfaced. He really had been curious to see what they made, even if it was nothing more than some weird, abstract art-piece.

His mind wandered absently as he picked up on piece after another, feeling their weight and running his fingers along their lengths. For a moment he was lost in the sensations they made against his skin: the rippling, the heat. When he tapped them they made so muted a noise it was almost inaudible. That was strange, too. Sometimes they caught the light in a strange way, shimmering so brightly it seemed almost as if the illumination was being amplified.

He leaned in and looked at them even closer. It started to dawn on him how remarkably smooth they were. The rippling sensations on his skin had made it seem like they were textured but they weren’t. Not even a little bit. Smooth as glass, yet not made of glass. Even the lines etched into the sides were unbelievably uniform and straight. Not a single ding in any of them. The grooves which ran the full length of some of the discs never varied in depth or breadth. They just–

Gavin started with a shock. There were grooves cut down the middle of the discs! He had already seen them, of course, but had just dismissed them as just yet another oddity that couldn’t be accounted for. Now though he realized that they were the right length to hold a rod…when it was laid sideways.

Trembling with excitement he found the partially-enclosed rod he had been experimenting with the night before. One-by-one he fit it length-wise into the grooves running across the surfaces of the discs. As he did so he held the first disc firmly against the already-matched sides of the rod. He made it through eleven discs without finding a perfect horizontal fit. And then…

Click!

The three pieces locked into place. Two discs propped up at right angles to one another and the rod fusing them together at the corner. As with before, they stuck together as if welded. In fact undoing that weld was more difficult, because he couldn’t remove just one disc from the rod, he had to do both at the same time and still at just the right angles.

The epiphany made, it didn’t take him long to get all of the other partial-fits sorted out. Less than an hour later and he now had 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and 12 cobbled-together “islands.” Several of the islands had formed enclosed spaces, like square tubes that were open at two opposite ends. Well, usually square tubes, there were a couple where the discs did not actually meet up at exactly right-angles.

These new formations came with their own unique properties. When Gavin placed his ear by one of the openings he was able to make out a faint humming that emanated somehow from its center. Passing his hand into the disc-tunnels created even stronger skin-rippling sensations, powerful enough that he could see the skin rolling with little waves.

His next experiment was to hold a plastic toy soldier in his hand, reach to the center of the tube, and then let it go. The toy fell to the bottom, but it moved very slowly, and shook the whole way down like it was being buffeted by a silent wind.

Gavin looked around, trying to find something even lighter, something that might be able to float. He ripped off a small corner of notebook paper and it did indeed float lazily within the tube, never touching any of the surfaces, yet never coming to a rest either. It would follow a straight line, come close to a disc or rod, and then make a sudden hairpin turn away. Gavin tried to pick out a pattern to its movement, but it was much too complex.

What about…

Gavin grabbed Curtis’s hole puncher and emptied its contents into his hands. He dropped the whole pile in the middle of the tube all at once and watched as the cluster of paper pieces scattered in different directions. They tumbled around aimlessly for a moment, then slowly began to file into a line. Gavin could see now that their movement was not random, each paper’s turn was consistent with all the others. They made a sort of train, bouncing away from each surface at just the same angle, twisting and turning within the tube. Gavin fumbled through the supplies on his desk for a paper, pen, and ruler then he began to draw out the pattern he was seeing.

But the pattern never stopped. It just keep going and going, never repeating itself, until soon he had line-by-line drawn one massive dark splotch on his page.

A few more experiments followed, by which Gavin ascertained that each of his disc-tubes had distinct patterns from the others. Even the ones that weren’t fully enclosed would float the pieces of paper endlessly through their half-pipe or trench shapes. He also verified that he could lift up, rotate, and even shake the tube but the papers would continue unhindered. They wouldn’t even wiggle in their paths, as if all earthly forces such as gravity and air resistance simply did not apply within the tube.

Gavin made a note of these facts on a piece of paper.

The plastic soldier sunk to the bottom, he wrote, so I guess things have to be beneath a certain weight and then the tube takes them over entirely…

He paused and bit at the end of his pen.

What would happen if I were to step into a giant one of these tubes?

Would he be forever cut off from the rest of the world, unable to be pulled out by gravity or any another force? Well…he could still reach in his hand in and pull the pieces of paper out after they had been surrendered to the tube. And maybe that was because his hand was anchored to his arm which extended out of the tube. So as long as there was something that existed outside of the tube that could reach into it, it could alter things. But otherwise anything enclosed in the tube forever belonged to it. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought.

Unless…paper was dumb and it couldn’t move itself. What about something alive?

Gavin stood up from his desk and began scouring the room for the fly. When he couldn’t find one, he expanded his search to the whole house. Of course now when he actually needed a flay there was none to be found. So he went outside and found a few, but he knew he’d probably end up just squashing them if he tried to catch them. Instead he went back inside and looked up online how to make a simple fly trap with a mason jar. He modified the instructions a little. He didn’t add any dish soap to the sugar-water solution at the bottom of the jar so that the flies would avoid drowning. He needed them alive. His trap prepared, Gavin left the jar out on the porch and called it a night.

 

As I said on Monday, my intention with this story was to create a story that originated in an ordinary world, but which opened a gateway into the fantastic. One common element of stories like these is that they don’t need to spend a lot of time time in the ordinary world. Indeed, many of them enter into the new world within their very first chapter or two. All that really matters is that the reader have a familiar point of reference to begin with.

I’ve been having a lot of fun so far with this piece, but I do wish to give credit where it is due. This story of mine is written an homage to a highly skilled storyteller named Shane Carruth. This Monday I’ll explain a little bit more about him and his work, and then discuss how one can approach writing stories that are inspired by others. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

The Death of Simon Bowie

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“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in–” Simon stopped speaking abruptly and turned to look about the room. He was the only one here. He was speaking to…no one.

What had he been talking about? Who had he thought he was saying it to?… He honestly couldn’t even remember. Perhaps he had been sleeping. He didn’t think he had been, but perhaps.

These things did happen to him from time-to-time. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started. Not until recently…he believed. And each time they occurred he felt his heart skip a beat. It was like jolting awake from the sensation of falling. Only it wasn’t his body falling, it was his mind, and he didn’t know how far it would have gone if he hadn’t woken in time to catch it.

A little shake of the head and Simon Bowie pushed himself up and out of the chair. He shuffled out of the room. He wanted to get away from the moment, to distract himself with something. He lumbered down the hall, eyes downwards to see that he planted his cane tip firmly into the carpet with each deliberate step. As he did so, he found himself face-to-face with a small girl smiling up at him, her hands clasped behind her back.

“Daddy, have you seen where my necklace got to?”

“No, Suzie. I don’t think I have.”

“Oh I know! It must have fallen off while I was swimming. I’ll go get it!” Without another word she bounded away with a youthful skip to her step.

“No wait,” he called out, suddenly concerned. “Suzie don’t go! It isn’t safe.”

He began hobbling after her. Something was wrong about this, he wasn’t sure what, but he remembered that it didn’t go well. “Please Suzie, don’t go so fast!” He reached the top of the staircase and paused. Though he needed to hurry he was afraid, and he took the steps slowly, clinging to the handrail with both hands for support. It was a spiral staircase, and he kept his eyes looking down the center to the floor below, trying to see Suzie and catch her before she went outside.

“Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!” he called feebly. “It’s been raining and it’s all slippery.”

“It’s rain,” a cold voice said. “That’s what it does.”

Simon cocked his head to look behind his shoulder. It was…her. What was her name? It had been too long, he couldn’t remember. She looked pretty, but in a very haughty and cruel way. A teenage girl with a face blanked by malice.

“I don’t like it,” he heard himself say, but the voice was that of a small boy.

“If you don’t like it, then get Mother to buy you an umbrella.”

“She won’t.”

“That’s right she won’t. She doesn’t have to put up with you, does she?”

Simon shook his head.

“And why is that, Bowie?” she strained the last name like it was a disgusting creature. It wasn’t really his last name, it had been the other woman’s.

“Because I’m a half-breed,” he said dejectedly, reciting his assigned title.

“Good, glad you’ve been listening.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

Simon shuddered at the memory of cold rainwater trickling down his spine.

“You didn’t have to be so mean to me, Margaret,” he said with a tear in his eye.

“What’s this? Tears?” It was yet another voice this time. A tender one. He knew at once to whom it belonged.

“Joyce,” he breathed in awe. She still looked so beautiful. How had she not aged as he had?

“Darling, I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling him close and burying his face in her shoulder. “I didn’t want to go.”

That was why. Because she left.

He tried to suppress his sobs, but that just made his whole body shake so that he might as well have let them out.

“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say between gulps. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t cry.”

Joyce lifted his head to look into her eyes. “Darling, you can cry! It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you?”

“I don’t want you to see me so broken-hearted.”

“It’s alright, you can be broken-hearted.”

Simon was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t remember getting here. He was looking across the hall towards the door. What was it he had been doing before Joyce and that other one came? It was important. He needed to remember, he needed to fix it, but it just kept slipping from him.

“Did you want to help me look for my necklace, Daddy?”

Oh that was it.

“Suzie, something’s wrong. I can’t remember what–”

“I’m going to go look for my necklace in the swimming pool. I’m going to slip in and drown.”

“No,” Simon shook his head. “That wasn’t how it happened. I was afraid of that, I think, but that’s not how it happened with you.” He screwed his eyes shut and pressed his fists against his temples. What was it? Why couldn’t he remember?

“Why?” Suzie asked with a frown. “Why do you say it was different?”

“Well…I just know that it was…you didn’t die here. Other things happened. Like–” he winced, unable to recall. For a moment he felt a dread, as if forgetting would mean that the other things never did happen. “Like you grew up and got married, remember?”

She paused, then smiled and nodded. Cool relief swept over Simon.

“Yes I did, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”

“Of course darling.” She vanished from his view. “Anything for you, darling.”

He paused and closed his eyes. He could not hold onto the present moment even if he wanted to. He just started to drift absently. It felt less like he was standing and more like he was floating on the top of a wave. He opened his eyes again. Had he been sleeping? Or was he sleeping now? Joyce was here again.

“You’re looking better,” she said kindly.

“I think I was able to help Suzie, I think she’ll be alright now.”

Joyce nodded. “I miss her.”

“I haven’t forgotten everything you know.”

“Not everything? What are some of the things that you remember?”

“I remembered the promise you made me make before you went.”

“Don’t lose your heart.”

“That’s right.”

“How is it going with that?”

Simon sighed long and hard. “I don’t know, Joyce. I really don’t… I try. But some days–these last days particularly–it’s been very hard.”

“What makes it so hard?”

“I feel so bad for getting to stay here when you had to leave. I feel guilty that I got to.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

A coldness took him and he pulled himself in tightly, as if to let it pass him by. But it didn’t. Even beneath his lids he could see her. She looked so beautiful. So haughty and cruel.

“Hiding away down here?”

“Leave me alone, Margaret,” his young voice said sourly.

She sneered. “It would be my pleasure, but I’m afraid the adults have left, so it’s my responsibility to see that you are taken care of.”

There is a world of difference between “cared for” and “taken care of.”

“Well I’ll just be down here, so you can leave me be.”

“But I haven’t even told you what today’s rule is though.”

“No more rules, Margaret.”

“Oh no? I think you’ll find this one particularly interesting…”

“I’m not playing.”

She smiled, and there was something triumphant about it. “Suit yourself,” she said softly as she turned away.

Something seemed terribly wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just been duped. He frowned and tried to remember what had happened. It was important. Maybe if he remembered in time he would be able to change it…

“Sootie!” he cried, leaping to his feet in a flash of horror. His eyes opened and he was looking down to the bottom of a swimming pool. His daughter was in a rabbit hutch there. He reached down and pulled her out, but she was already lifeless.

“You should have listened to the rules,” Margaret was tutting behind him. “You might have made it in time if you hadn’t been so busy sulking. But that’s your choice.”

His temples were pulsing and his hands were shaking. He was going to hurt her. But before he could there came a sudden tear at his heart, like it beat too hard and had burst a little.

“Ohh!” he cried, collapsing to the floor. He tried to sit up but his heart rent again and he fell back once more.

“Oh no,” he murmured, “Joyce, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” A gentle hand cradled against his cheek.

“My heart, I haven’t kept it like I was supposed to. One rule, and I broke it. It’s gone!”

“Why do you hold onto all of these things, Simon? Don’t you see how they’re just tormenting you.”

“Well I–I have to–”

“No, you can let them go. Will you let them go, darling? Will you?”

Her hand was over his fist, not prying the fingers open, but inviting them to do so on their own.

“What’s inside of there?” Suzie was asking.

“What?” he asked, shaking his head. “Oh, it’s a surprise. I got it for you, but I haven’t given it to you yet.”

“Is it that necklace?”

“Why…yes it is. It is, in fact. It’s your necklace.”

“Oh thank you! May I have it now?”

“No…I mean I want to, but something happened…”

“Oh not the drowning at the bottom of the pool again.”

“No, I was mistaken, that was something else. But something still happened, and it was too late to give this to you.”

“Well give it to me now and things will be different then, won’t they?”

Simon looked down and tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t. It was locked like a vise, the way it would if he was writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Or the way it would if he were pulling her hair.

“Let go of me!” Margaret shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let her. “I will punish you so badly!”

He didn’t care, it didn’t matter. He had passed that point. He simply tightened his grip, one hand around her hair, the other around her neck.

“Please!” she said, the first time he’d ever heard her use that word towards him. “I didn’t even actually say half the things you remember me saying. Or at least not the way you remember them.”

“You didn’t have to.”

Another throb of his heart and for a moment his vision blacked out to perfect whiteness.

“Why did you name me Suzie, anyway?”

“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in a name.”

“And why do you think I drowned in that car accident, Daddy?”

“Didn’t you? Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!”

“There was an accident, but I didn’t drown.”

“Didn’t you? I’ve dreamt so many times that you did.”

Another throb, and he seemed to feel upside down, his lips were cold.

“Simon listen to me, it’s Joyce. Please let go.”

“I can’t,” he strained. “It’s broken. I never even got to give her your necklace.”

“You did, it’s around her neck now.”

“You’re choking me!” Margaret spluttered.

“No,” he snarled “I’m drowning you. I’m drowning–”

Wait no, he couldn’t breath. He was the one drowning! He opened his mouth but his lungs were deflated and couldn’t draw anything in. He was trying to swim up, but his hands were still in fists.

Just let go!

“Daddy, please let go, let me see what’s inside.”

“I can’t,” Simon cried. “I can’t let it go.”

“Please, Simon!”

“You’ll regret this!”

A shout was rumbling inside him, unable to break out into the audible world, tormenting him and constricting his throat. It kept growing. Louder and louder, though never heard. A suffocating wave of–

“Simon?” A quiet stillness fell. He seemed to be floating on the top of a wave. It was white all around him.

“Simon, it’s okay. I’m here with you now. I need you to try to focus on my voice.”

There was still a chattering, but it was strangely muted, like it came from far away. He tried to listen to Joyce’s voice, but it was hard.

“Just listen to me. The more you listen to me the more disconnected you’ll be from all the rest, the more you’ll be able to let go.”

“I broke it. I lost it.”

“You only say that because you’re holding onto those moments. There were good ones, too, don’t you remember them?”

“I–no.”

“It’s okay, just relax,” her hands were stroking over his fingers, teasing them apart. His heart was stopping.

“I lost them. These others are all I have.”

“It’s alright.”

“They define me.”

“No, you’ll find the rest soon.”

His fingers were unclenching. All his body seemed fuzzy, soft, disconnected.

“It’s alright,” she soothed. She was wiping away the last tears.

“I lost it,” he cried.

“I kept it.”

He let go.

***

I tend to be a very visual thinker, using mental images to represent emotions and experiences. For this story, everything began with me imagining two hands crumpling up a paper from a magazine. That crumpled page could no longer be read normally, but one could still make out individual words and pictures here and there, and could infer the basic meaning of it, such as whether it was an article, advertisement, or fine print.

I wanted to write a story like that. One where the reader didn’t need to understand the details, just the gist. As I suggested on Monday, my intention was to literally wrinkle a story, and by so doing give it the feel of a mind that is fraying.

The validity of all Simon’s memories and feelings are suspect. They blend so constantly into one another that one cannot tell whether he is recalling actual events, extrapolating implied meanings, or living out fantasies and fears.

But while the clear divisions may be impossible to find, I think the character of Simon is still understood. He is lonely, he is regretful, he is holding on to hurt. He has seen beautiful and wonderful things, but he is obsessing over the negative. It is his own grip that is crumpling his page, creasing it so that we (and he) cannot see the wholeness and completeness. His great quest is to relax his vise so that he may accept his full self.

And while Simon’s affliction may seem grim, I think that many of us can relate to it. Far too often we define ourselves from our trauma and regret. The emotions that tie us to our lives, to our very selves, are usually negative. We describe ourselves as “not something enough.”

Because of Simon’s insistence that his life be defined by these elements, it took an entire separation of self from life before he could let go of those parts. While he ended up finding his peace, hopefully each of us will be able to secure our own a bit sooner.

Does What He Must

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“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”

Those were the last words my father said to me before he left to fight in the great Civil War. He meant them by way of explaining why it was he had to go and leave our little farm and family, to fight for a cause he believed in.

It was the last time he said those words to me, but it was not the first. How he came by them, I do not know. For a man who lived as large as he, I would not be surprised to learn that he came up with them himself. In any case, they were his mantra all his days, a creed that he exemplified many times over.

My father showed the makings of a legend early in life, as early as the age of thirteen when he stood down old Hal Ritcher.

Hal Ritcher was the local drunk, a mean and spiteful man who led a life of profound disappointment and then punished all that were littler than him because of it. He was a particular nuisance to the children, and one day they caught his ire by playing too loudly in a nearby barn while he was trying to sleep off a hangover. He rushed out at them, brandishing a stick and screaming and cussing like the devil himself! He swore he’d see blood for their impertinence, then grabbed hold of the nearest one of them he could, poor, little Belle Sue.

Well my father wasn’t going to stand by to see her lashed, so he stepped forward and shouted at Hal Ritcher. Hal let her go and charged at my father with raised first. My father raised his own and in a flash laid Hal out flat with a single blow to the chin.

Now as I said my father was only thirteen years at the time, but all the children there said his blow rang like a hammer on an anvil! They wouldn’t have believed it possible if they hadn’t witnessed it with their own eyes.

“What did you hit him with?” one asked in awe.

“Just my hand.”

“But I didn’t think you could hit so hard.”

“Well neither did I. But I had to so I guess I just did. That’s how it is as a man, you know.”

“But you’re not a man, James,” Belle Sue frowned.

To which my father tossed the hair out of his eyes and grinned broadly at Hal Ritcher’s horizontal form. “Ain’t I, though?”

Five years later, when my father was eighteen, he attended a social party put on by the local cattle baron. After a great amount of coercion he had finally removed Belle Sue from the rest of the young men and was trying convince her to give him a kiss when a horrible shriek sounded from the fields.

One of the cattle hands had been giving the young children turns riding on his horse, when something spooked the critter and away it rushed with a small boy clinging on its back for dear life.

“Oh he’ll be killed!” a woman shrieked and a few of the ladies fainted straight away. Meanwhile the men bumbled about uselessly, calling for horses and ropes and all manner of things that wouldn’t arrive until it was much too late.

Not my father, though. He bounded out with steely determination, cutting through the property to the corner of the road where the bronco was sure to pass, reaching that junction at just the same moment as the steed. Somehow he leapt above its flashing hooves and threw his arm around its neck. Then he hauled down, running the creature’s head into the dust as he grabbed the poor boy off its back with his other hand.

I can only imagine the amazement that must have been on everyone’s face when my father came walking out of the cloud of dirt, the boy waving happily on his shoulder and the horse following sheepishly after.

“How’d you think to do that?” one of the cattle hands asked.

“I dunno,” my father said modestly. “I guess I just had to is all.”

Even Belle Sue threw up her hands in not-so-disappointed defeat. “Well, James, you’re a hero, now I supposed I’ll have to kiss you.” And she did just that.

That Belle Sue was quite a playful one, and I suppose you might have guessed already that the two of them got married. It was a long time before she relented and she led him on quite the chase, though she never had eyes for anyone else. The story of how they finally came together begins one day when a whole crowd of young men were gathered round her feet.

“When you going to stop playing your games and marry one of us?” they asked her.

“When I feel like it, I suppose,” she shrugged. “Seems you boys aren’t doing much to make me feel inclined that way, though.”

Boys?!

“Yes boys. And so I say until one of you proves your worth.”

“But how?”

“Hmmm…Oh I know! Haven’t any of you noticed that great, big lily growing on top of Heaven’s Peak? Now that’s the sort of flower a girl would love a man for! Honestly I can’t believe one of you hasn’t fetched it for me already, I’d say that I must have it.”

“On Heaven’s Peak?! That’s thirty feet of rock shooting straight up into the sky! Now how do you expect anyone to get up there to pick you a flower?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, I suppose only a man could manage it.”

Well that crowd of boys went away grumbling and she giggled to herself, never expecting anything to come of that conversation. But she hadn’t accounted for my father when he heard tell of what she said. Why he just walked away alone that same afternoon and came back before dark with that flower for her. Then the two of them had a quiet little conversation together in the gazebo, and when they came back they announced their engagement!

All my days growing up I heard her pester him to know how he had scaled that rock, but he never told his secret. He only ever said: “You said you must have it, so I had to get it.”

It was a happy home my siblings and I grew up in, at least for the first years while father was still there. I was only six when he left, as I said, to war. And as you might imagine, he quickly became a bona fide hero there, too. Soon he was made a Second Lieutenant and led a platoon of thirty men.

I met several of those men in the years after, and each told how when he first received his station he sat down with those men and promised that not a one of them would die on his watch. Though it might seem incredible, he delivered on that promise too, though they found themselves in many the tight spot during the war.

He managed that feat partly by his excellent training and marshaling of the men, and partly by taking on the most dangerous roles for himself, such as when they made their retreats and he would linger in the back to give the Johnny Rebs a target of his own hide to shoot at.

It was at one such retreat that they found themselves in a most dire strait. Their commanding officer had required them to dig their ditch with a cliff wall at their backs. When the bugle sounded retreat they knew they were all dead men. Though the wall could be scaled, it would be a slow process, and there was no chance that they would have it cleared before the enemy rushed into their trenches and picked them off like flies.

Well they all looked to my father in despair, but he just grit his teeth and said they all better get climbing then. One of them protested, said it would be better to die fighting than take such grim chances. My father swore again that not a one of them would die that day, except perhaps himself.

“C’mon now, Lieutenant,” one of them protested, “a slim chance is better than none. We’ll all run and see which one or two of us is lucky enough to escape. Not even you can hold back such a tide!”

“Maybe I can’t,” my father replied, “and yet I must.”

He ordered his men to retreat one last time, then stood at the lip of their ditch to welcome the enemy. As his men scrambled up the rock they heard the whooping and hollering of the foxes come for their prey. Though there was all manner of gunfire not a one of my father’s boys took a serious shot. Every now and again one of them would turn to see what went on below, and they saw my father bounding back and forth, cutting down the cowards who dared to aim at the backs of his men.

One man saw how my father took a shot himself, but still he went on. Another witnessed how he was skewered by a bayonet, but still he fought. A third said four men tackled him to the ground, but up he rose from their midst. Not a one of them saw exactly how or when he fell, but he must have at some point, though not until after his men were all safely away from that place.

And that was the last anyone knew of my father. Anyone but me.

While I wish I could say that I followed in his footsteps my whole life long, the truth is that growing up without him was hard. We lost our farm and home, we scrimped and scrounged our way through the rest of my childhood, and somewhere along the way I grew disheartened. I decided I had to find an easier way, a shortcut to happiness.

In short I fell in with some bad men, ones who weaned me off of the straight-and-narrow path that my mother had so painstakingly taught me to follow. At first it was drink, then gambling, then getting into fights in back alleys. I remember the day they brought me along for my first robbery. A part of me wondered how I had ever come to this, another part answered it had been coming for a long while now.

My posse promised it would be a quick holdup. No one was going to get hurt, and there was no chance of running into the law. Both of those statements were lies, for no sooner did our heist begin than it turned sideways. The man we were trying to rob resisted us, and the leader of our group, a fiery, short-tempered man, shot him dead on the spot. My shock didn’t even have a chance to set in before we heard the whole town erupting all around us. We tried to get out of there, but the law swept around on all sides and chased us towards a solitary barn.

I was the first to make the entrance, and as I turned to hold the door open for the rest of my gang I found that not a one of them still stood. Some were already laying dead in the street, the others were quickly getting that way. So I bolted that door shut and lay on the ground, trembling like a leaf.

“Hey you come out of there!” the Sheriff roared. ” And with your hands held high! I’ll give you thirty seconds to get sense and then we’ll unload on you!”

“I’ll fight them off,” I muttered, cocking my six-shooter. “Or I’ll grab a horse and escape. I’ll set fire to this barn and sneak out in the smoke. I’ll never let them take me alive–”

“Son.”

I turned in surprise, though I knew the voice so well that it did not frighten me. Standing at the end of a trough I saw my father, looking exactly the same as the day he rode out to war. He was viewing me with a sort of aching love, as if it hurt him to see me this way.

“Pa…what are you doing here?”

“Son, what are you?”

My face broke and I cried like the six-year-old I was when I lost him. “I’ve lost my way, Pa. I don’t know when or how, but I’m ashamed for you to see me like this.”

“I ain’t ashamed to see you, son. But you have done wrong, and it’s time to turn yourself in.”

“I can’t do it,” I gulped. “Once they brand me a thief and a killer that’s it! Even if they don’t hang me I’ll never escape the shadow of what I already done. I’m all alone now.”

My father nodded understandingly, but his face was firm. “You are alone, so long as you keep on this path you’ve been on. But if you turn son, if you turn right now, I’ll be in it. I promise.”

“…I would if I could. But I can’t.”

“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”

Well that was that.

I took a few stabilizing breaths, then stood and took a few more.

“Alright, I’m coming out!” I shouted, throwing my gun out the window where the lawmen could see. I turned to look one last time at my father, and I almost asked how he was even able to be here like this. But then, I already knew his answer to that.

Raising up my hands, I walked out into the sun.

 

As I stated on Monday, my purpose with this was to create a piece that blended the elements of principle and example. I wanted it to be one part allegory, with archetypes that represented a core idea, and one part realism, with characters who were relatable.

Obviously the character of “the father” was a larger-than-life allegory. He is a flat character, one that is intended to only channel one personality trait: confidence. He always comes through, there’s nothing he can’t accomplish, he always knows exactly what to do and say.

The son, meanwhile, is a little more in-between. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he is entirely lifelike, as we simply do not have enough time with him to get a fully fleshed-out personality from him. Even so, in the short time that we do hear from him, he still shows a wide range emotions, including reverence, bitterness, fear, shame, and redemption.

His comment towards the end about how hard it was for him to live without a father is meant to jolt the reader out of the rose-tinted fairy tale and into a more somber reality. It’s meant to suggest that the idealized story of his father is nothing more than the perspective of a six-year-old boy who still believes his father could do no wrong. A perspective that he has maintained for the man who sired him, but lost for himself.

And that, ultimately, was the crux of my idea in marrying these two different perspectives. By laying them side-by-side and even having them overlap I meant to explore the way our view of the world changes as we age and mature. In some ways I believe our love for fairy tales is nothing more than a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of our childhood minds.

As I wrote this piece I realized I was writing “father” a lot, and reached a point where I thought someone ought to call the man by his name. It was at that point that I decided to add a little quirk to the story, something to give it personality. Do you know what I am referring to? I’ll talk a little bit more about it on Monday, as well as how to add indirect personality to stories and characters in general. I’ll see you then, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

I Hated You, Jimmy

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It was years before I forgave my parents for dragging me to Jimmy’s funeral. It’s not like they had fond feeling for the boy, but they just kept saying something about “community” and “civic duty” and stuff like that.

You’ll notice, by the way, that I spelled his name out properly, even at fifteen I knew that that “Jimi” moniker he wanted us to use was just stupid. You’re not important enough to rebrand yourself like some Rock and Roll Hall of Greats inductee.

In Loving Memory of James “Jimi” Watson…

I remembering sitting in my pew, looking down at the obituary, and rolling my eyes on the very first line. I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands were shaking at the injustice of a revisionist history.

Friends remember James as a brave, yet tender boy. He was always so concerned about the smaller children at school, standing up for the underdog every day.

Perhaps you meant “standing them up” in their locker? Slamming their faces, spitting in their mouths, cornering the girls. He was starting to get old enough to be really scary, carrying a knife in his pocket and allegedly cutting someone on more than one occasion.

So, are we really all going to sit here and just pretend we don’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?

I guess so. I’m sure not going to stand up and rock the boat.

I remember sitting there, trying to not feel so relieved about my life’s biggest obstacle having been removed. To be clear, I never wanted the school’s biggest bully to die in a car crash, I never wished any such thing on him. I had always just imagined his family having to move, or him getting thrown into juvie. This was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I was. I sat there thinking all the rest of High School was going to be so much smoother.

And you know what? It really was.

I had always told my parents that Jimmy had some personal vendetta against me and they had always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they had been wrong. Because sure, there were still other bullies, and they still sucked, but life was noticeably better ever after his drunk step-dad got the both of them killed.

Sorry, that was cold.

I’m just not so used to expressing all my frustrations…. And really, now that I think about it, I lied earlier when I said I never wanted Jimmy to die. Sort of anyway. You see I did think those thoughts “I wish Jimmy would just die,” but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not a person. And ever since that accident I’ve been piece-by-piece appreciating that Jimmy really was a person.

Strangely enough I first started picking up on that fact one day when I was feeling particularly grateful to not have Jimmy around anymore. It was a couple years later in the back of the theater with Grace. I was still trying to work up the nerve to put my arm around her when she leaned her head down onto my shoulder. In that moment I was really, truly happy, and the thought occurred to me that the happiness was only complete because I wasn’t afraid of Jimmy being around to ruin it.

And then, out of the blue, the thought occurred to me that Jimmy wasn’t around to experience it either. I mean sure, he’d had his “honeys” as he called them, but he didn’t know what it meant to really want to care for someone else. For the first time in my life I actually felt older than Jimmy.

The next time I found myself thinking about Jimmy was a year later at graduation, while we stood in line for our diploma ceremony. With his last name being Watson, and mine being Watts, he would have been right in front of me in line, instead I now stared at the back of Berkley Warren’s head instead.

Would he have had plans for going to college? Would he have even made it to the end of High School? Quite possibly not. Jimmy certainly wasn’t the most gifted of students, he was already struggling even in the Freshman year. A fact that probably made him quite bitter.

Or maybe not. With all the other problems he had going on at home, his school performance probably didn’t even compare.

Those problems were ones we kids understood only on the surface at the time. We knew his dad had been abusive, had been taken away to jail, and that his new step-dad was abusive, too. But we didn’t have any clue what that term “abusive” really amounted to. It was just a word back then. We were all told that we were supposed to be nice, no matter what, so that meant Jimmy didn’t have any excuse. None but the kids who were actually facing that stuff knew what it meant to live with it. Not even all of them knew.

I guess I still don’t really know what it means, do I? And I certainly don’t know what it meant to Jimmy personally. All I really know is that it’s heavy stuff, and I respect the fact that Jimmy’s behavior towards me was driven by that weight he carried.

After High School I moved away from my childhood home and went to college. Life started coming fast and I didn’t spend much much time thinking about the people I had once known. By the time the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion showed up in my mailbox I got a job, married my wife, had a child, and bought a home.

It didn’t take too much encouraging from my wife to decide that I would go, ever since the birth of our son I had been thinking nostalgically about my old childhood home. The time was right for a pilgrimage.

For the most part I was amazed at how much everyone felt just the same to me. A little more weight, a little more facial hair, some bags under the eyes, but still the same people I had always known.

At least so it seemed until I started talking with Blake Johnson.

At first I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, he had been another of the bullies, after all, and I didn’t want to fake a smile and pretend that bygones were bygones. He came directly up to me, though, shook me firmly by the hand, and gave a very sincere apology. That was why he had come here, he explained, to try and make amends for being such a burden to others in school.

It caught me entirely off guard, and all my preconceptions began to melt. We stood there for another fifteen minutes, going over all the usual talking point of one another’s work and families. As we did, I found that he was indistinguishable from all the other people here. He had grown up, he had changed, he had become a healthy member of society.

We didn’t talk about Jimmy in that conversation, but still my thoughts turned to him as I sat in my car later that night. Rather than start my drive home I was wrestling with something inside, trying to understand something that I hadn’t before.

At last it came through and I realized that I had been allowing myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t ever considered that today he could have been someone different. And maybe he wouldn’t have changed, maybe today he would be a hardened criminal stewing in some jail cell. But that wasn’t the point. The point is he never got his chance to decide. Blake got his chance, but Jimmy never would.

All I would ever know of Jimmy was a fifteen-year-old kid who really didn’t know a thing in the world.

I thought about my own son waiting for me back home. He’s a pretty good kid, but not perfect. I would hate for anyone to write him off before he’s had a chance to come into his own.

I had thought several times about Jimmy over the years, but the first time ever I cried about him. I cried for a soul interrupted.

 

I mentioned that one of my problems in Harold and Caroline was that the criticism only flowed one way. Caroline was too passive of a character, and so their relationship lacked a back-and-forth to its give-and-take. The thing was, sometimes your character should be passive. In today’s example, the narrator was definitely the victim of Jimmy’s bullying, and that meant he had to hold a more submissive role.

My solution, though, was to write this from the narrator’s perspective, where the reader could hear the sharp barbs in his thoughts, without having to hear them coming out of his mouth. From this view we can tell that he is fighting back against Jimmy, just from a more passive-aggressive stance. Also the fact that this is written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past gives him a maturity that Jimmy never holds. Overall I feel a lot better about how I maintained an equal tension between the two while still allowing one to dominate over the other.

 

My other concern with Harold and Caroline was how it didn’t use sideplots effectively. It would introduce new characters and motivations, keep them around just long enough to push the main plot forward slightly, and then drop them without any sort of meaningful resolution.

In today’s piece I wanted to cover more than a decade in a very short span of time, so I knew that meant utilizing the same vignette-style separate scenes. This time, though, I toned them down to the point that they were just backdrops that the main narrative marched continuously in front of. My main technique in accomplishing this was in not having any of the other characters speak. We learn a couple names, Grace and Blake, but because we only hear of them second-hand we never mistake them for central characters and then have our expectations in that disappointed.

As a whole I liked this piece a good deal more than Harold and Caroline. There are still criticisms I could make of it, but for now I’d rather move on to something else.

This story and Harold and Caroline were some of my more grounded pieces, stories where nothing supernatural occurred whatsoever. Perhaps the way things work out for the characters might seem a little convenient or contrived, but that’s as strange as things get.

Softer, slice-of-life tales and rollicking power fantasies have more in common than you might think, though. More often then not, they both deal with the same basic themes, just they paint them with different colors. Come back on Monday where I will explore this concept even further.

Harold and Caroline: Part Two

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Part One

“Alright, and that’s the Shipping List, the last of the reports. Once you see all three documents you know you’ve got them all.” Harold picked the still-warm papers off of the fax machine and walked with Caroline over to the computer.

“Shipping List, Sales Timecard, Employee Report,” Caroline recited. “I mean Sales Report, Employee Timecard! Sorry!”

“It doesn’t really matter if you know their names,” Harold sighed. “Just make sure you get all three. Then you’ll come over to the computer. I’ve already created a guest account for you to login under. The username is ‘caroline’ in all lower-case. And the password is ‘enilorac’ which is just your name backwards, see?”

“Oh let me write that down.”

“Sure…Now as you can see there’s hardly anything here on the desktop. Just the shortcut for the web browser. And when you open that it should automatically load the two tabs you’re going to need. Just in case you ever open it and they aren’t already open you should probably write down these URLs.”

Caroline scribbled furiously.

“This first one is where you enter the information. See I choose the date first, then I get a form. Each field has a corresponding one on the paper, you just copy the values over. It’s very simple. Then this other one is the email. Here you’ll just need to send me an email with a few of the values from the faxes. The ones that I’m highlighting right now.” He pulled out a marker and began to run it across the pages. “Any questions?”

Caroline shook her head.

“Alright, then why don’t you go ahead and try it? I’ll watch and see that you do it right.”

“Oh…me? Already? Don’t you think I should watch how you do it first?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary Caroline, this is literally just transcribing from one form into another.”

“Oh, of course…Well I’m sure you have some other work you want be doing. How about you take care of that while I work on this, and then you can come back to check it afterwards.”

“Caroline…” Harold said testily.

“Of course…sorry.” Caroline pulled the keyboard over to her and began tapping away. She could feel Harold’s unflinching gaze on her, and she scrunched her shoulders as close to her body as possible. “Okay…so I guess I’ll do the Shipping List first…since it was the first that came through?”

“It doesn’t matter which one you– sorry, I mean go ahead. That’s fine.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “So this first field is the ‘Identification Number.’ Oh, but I don’t see that in the webform, just this one labelled ‘ID Number’ here. That’s probably the one I want…right?”

Harold sighed heavily. “Maybe I will go stretch my legs. Be back in a few.”

*

“Enjoy your break, boss!” Janet beamed from the receptionist’s desk as Harold left his office on the eve of his six-week vacation.

“Thank you. I’m sure it will be…an experience. Now I won’t be available at all these first couple days, but go ahead and email me about anything urgent even if I’m not responding. I’ll get around to things as I can.”

“Of course, sir. Oh, and Caroline is here.” Janet pointed over to the chair against the opposite wall.

“Oh good. Caroline, I just wanted to check one last time if you had any questions before I head out.”

“Um, no sir. I think I’m all ready.”

“Alright, well if anything goes wrong just send me an email right away. I’ll be sure to get things sorted out. HR already knows to expect your timecard changes, so they won’t give you any trouble about the extra hours. And thank you for volunteering to take care of this. I’ve–gathered–that your family is going through a trying time right now. You have my–best wishes.” Harold’s voice was uncharacteristically stiff and awkward, like he didn’t know how to talk about such things.

“Thank you, I’m sure we appreciate that.”

“I’m sure that you do,” Harold rolled his eyes, shifting back to his normal state of exasperation. “Alright then, have a good night Janet.”

“You too, Harold.”

Harold made his way to the elevator. As soon as its doors clanged shut behind him Janet rounded on Caroline with narrow eyes. “If anything does go wrong, you will not email him. You will let me know straight away and we will take care of it. You understand? Not that it’s any of your business, but this ‘vacation’ of his is nothing that we want to disturb.”

“Of course, Janet. Whatever you say. I’m sure I’ll manage alright, though. I’m certain of it.”

Janet’s frown seemed to suggest that she was less certain.

*

It was the second day of Harold’s six week vacation. He was in a hospital bed, listening to the doctor lecturing him as to what he could expect in recovery.

“…and certainly no heavy lifting for the duration,” the woman said, finishing her mental checklist.

“And the recipient?” Harold asked. “Things are…going well?”

“We make a point to not say anything definitive at this stage. It may be a matter of weeks before we know if his body is going to accept the kidney or not.”

“Of course, I understand.”

“But as far as the actual operation was concerned, everything went well and he is recovering just fine.”

“Good.”

“Actually…I wanted to ask you about something on your registration form. You said you were open to the possibility of meeting the recipient if they expressed a similar interest? Now I know its been a while since you filled this out and here in the moment you might feel differently–”

“No, no,” Harold said quickly. “I’m still happy to if they are.”

“They are. The boy is obviously not up to visiting just yet, but I could go and check on whether the family wanted to come over now.”

“I’d like that.”

“Give me a few.”

The doctor left him and Harold gingerly adjusted the pillows behind his back, careful not to disturb his tender side. He grabbed his book off of the nightstand, but soon discovered that his mind wasn’t in the mood for reading and he put it back. Instead he just breathed deeply and waited. The seconds slid into minutes, and the minutes into a half hour. He was just starting to think that his doctor must have gotten sidetracked when a soft knock came at his door.

“Come in,” he said.

The doctor swung the door inwards with a bright smile. “Alright Harold, I’ve brought you some very grateful visitors!”

She stepped into the room and off to the side, clearing the way for the family to come in. Two little sisters, about four and seven, a balding father with a large belly, and a mother who was…

“Caroline?”

 

That brings us to the close of Harold and Caroline. I mentioned a week ago that I tried to use a more meandering approach in how I crafted each of these scenes. I feel like this looser method made the story feel more organic, but it also resulted in a few sequences that distracted from the overall narrative.

One such sequence was at the very end when Harold was waiting in his hospital room to meet the family of his kidney recipient. I wanted this to be a quiet moment, which meant that Harold was going to be alone in that room. But that detail made me ask myself, “well why aren’t there any family or friends here with him?” As I reflected on that I started to see the character of Harold becoming better defined. He was a man who was alone in life, prickly and off-putting, but nonetheless trying to do something good in private.

I liked that idea, and I added a few lines about how he was thinking of the young boy that had received his kidney. He considered how that boy was supported by a grateful family, which brought on a wave of loneliness and Harold began to gently cry. Then he realized what a fool he would look if the doctor came back now, and quickly composed himself.

It was a nice, sentimental scene, but suddenly it was raising new threads and questions when I was actively trying to close them! Though I feel it made Harold’s character better, it frayed the overall story. So, as I recommended in my last post, I decided to remove that segment. If this were a larger piece that I was continuing to work on I might try to find a way to reintroduce those concepts elsewhere in the tale.

But…there’s something else about this piece I want to talk about: it didn’t measure up to my expectations. There are elements of it that I do like, and I do think it was a useful exercise, but I think it could have been better. The ending, in particular, just didn’t resonate in the way that I had hoped.

Any critic that only says “I just don’t like it” is wasting everyone’s time, though. If something is flawed there are reasons why. I know the reasons for why Harold and Caroline let me down, and on Monday I’ll explain them. I’ll also take some time to talk about why it’s okay to sometimes dislike your own work, and how to move forward when you do. Come back then for a healthy dose of unfiltered honesty!

Harold and Caroline: Part One

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“Janet said you wanted to see me?” Caroline asked cautiously from the doorway.

“Yes, yes,” Harold cleared his throat. “Don’t just stand there, come in.”

Caroline closed the door and shuffled forward timidly, coming to a stop a few feet from his desk. She had her arms wrapped around herself, as if trying to shrink herself into as small a form as possible.

“Please sit,” Harold sighed. Why did she always have to be so diminutive and awkward?

She tried to smile politely, though it came across more as a grimace, then perched herself on the edge of the leather-cushioned seat. She did not appear comfortable at all.

“How are you Caroline?”

She nodded. A few seconds later she actually processed what he had said. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine Caroline” he sighed again. “Why don’t we just get right to what I called you in for?”

“Yes, good idea.”

“Alright, well that last week I said we didn’t have any of those overtime opportunities you were hoping for… But, I think I’ve found something that you might be able to help out with if you’re still interested.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll take whatever I can get! Thank you.”

“Well, let me explain it to you and then we’ll see if you’re still interested. In six weeks I’ll be taking a sabbatical for a while. I’m not entirely sure for how long, but perhaps as much as two months. Gus will be flying in to cover for me during that time. He’s a good man and he’ll handle the day-to-day things just fine. But he will have his hands full, and I don’t want to burden him unnecessarily.”

Caroline nodded.

“The thing is we have a few faxes that don’t come in until after hours. It’s basic invoicing from the Western shore after the factory closes, and I usually stay late enough to get those. They have to be received, transcribed, and filed before 8 pm. If you want it, then you’d probably be able to pull an extra hour or two each day taking care of that.”

“You don’t think that Janet would be better able to handle that?”

“I try to not keep Janet after hours when I can help it. I’m sure she would be willing if I asked her, but I thought I might as well offer it to you first, since you requested the overtime after all.”

“Oh I see. But would she be better at it?”

“It’s really not difficult. I would show you how I do it one evening and that’s all the training you would need.” Harold smiled. Clearly he felt he was doing a nice thing for Caroline, but she didn’t even try to hide the discomfort in her face.

“So…you said starting in about six weeks?”

“Yes. The fourteenth of June.”

She nodded. “I had been thinking to take some time off myself then, actually…I’d been hoping to get some overtime before then if possible.”

Harold shrugged. “Well I still don’t know of any overtime opportunities before then. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. On your way out could you tell Janet I’d like to speak with her?”

“Well, I’m not saying no,” Caroline piped up.

“Then what are you saying?” Harold said tersely, not at all amused by how she meandered around her decisions.

She bit her lip, and spoke out loud her inner reasoning. “I’ll just have to figure things out at home. I don’t know…but we can’t afford not to.” Caroline nodded resolutely to Harold. “I’ll do it.”

“Alright then,” he said slowly, as if waiting to see whether she would change her mind again. “When we get a little closer I’ll have you stay after hours and show you how everything works. That will be all.”

*

“How’s your son, Caroline?” Betty asked one morning after they had their first gap between calls.

“He’s doing really well,” Caroline asserted. “I mean, well, he’s still in a lot of pain of course, but he’s so patient and understanding with it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “It just kills you, doesn’t it? I always told my kids if you’re hurting go ahead and yell! It breaks my heart when they think they have to be so grown up all the time.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“How are you and Dave holding up?”

Caroline sighed. “We’re tired. It’s really going to help things having some overtime pay, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse. I’ll hardly be there for Zach during recovery at all, but I guess its for the best. I’m just anxious about keeping myself going with the extra hours–”

A sudden voice from behind made both Caroline and Betty jump in their seats. “Yes, especially given that you can’t even keep up with your regular hours already!”

Both women spun around to see Harold standing behind them with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. He slowly pointed an accusing finger to the blinking light on Caroline’s phone which designated a waiting caller.

“Sorry sir,” Caroline gasped, clutching her chest as her heartbeat raced. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing so that she wouldn’t huff and puff during the call. As she picked up the phone and answered she heard Harold’s feet stumping away.

“Tech support? Please hold while I transfer you.” A silent tear trickled down her cheek.

*

“Yes, come in.”

“Hiya Harold!” Lucas said brightly as he strolled into the boss’s office. He was holding a small woven basket with a pink bow on the front.

“Lucas,” Harold said in a measured voice meant to counter the other man’s overbearing cheerfulness.

“I’m not sure if you heard, but Caroline’s got a son who is going into surgery next month. Expensive stuff, and we figured we could do a good thing and ask people to contribute to help her out a little bit. I know it would mean a lot if the boss-man made a healthy donation himself!” He laughed and extended his basket expectantly.

The “boss-man” peered with a wrinkled nose at the crumpled bills already sitting in the basket. “You’ve been going around to the employees and asking them for money?”

“Yes, well…it’s for a good cause, you know!”

“The cause doesn’t matter, its against corporate policy. People aren’t supposed to feel pressured by their peers to contribute while at the workplace. Don’t you think if people heard that their manager had made a ‘healthy donation’ that they would feel obligated to do the same?”

“Oh, uh–I suppose you’re right,” Lucas’s face suggested that that was exactly what he had been intending.

“Lucas,” Harold sighed as he massaged his temples, “the company provides proper methods for those who need extra financial aid to receive it. There is the Family Hardship Fund which provides large contributions each year to qualifying employees. However–”

“Yeah, Caroline said she already tried that but you said–but she was told that she couldn’t get any help.”

Harold frowned at Lucas’s weak attempt to iron the accusation out of his complaint. “She only started here four months ago. Certain programs are only available after employees have been here for a year. But my point was that there are proper channels for this sort of thing. Another option that’s available to her right now is if you coworkers diverted a percentage or two off of your paychecks towards a general fund. Then include a note that you want the contribution to go to Caroline, and I’ll see that she receives a lump sum. That way everything stays anonymous and no one feels pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”

“I see,” Lucas said flatly. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to go.

“And make sure you hand back the money you’ve already collected!”

*

“Well this is never going to work,” Betty scowled as she looked over the flyer Lucas had made. He dumped a tall stack of those fliers on Caroline’s desk. She also took one to look over and quickly frowned. Printed on the flier was a detailed list of instructions for how one could donate a percentage of their paycheck to aid Caroline.

“It’ll never work,” Betty repeated. “It’s way too complex.”

“I know,” Lucas groaned, “but Harold says that’s the only way.”

“What that man’s problem anyway?”

“He hates people.”

“It’s alright,” Caroline shrugged. “It was really nice of you guys to try anyway.”

“Caroline,” Harold’s stern voice rang as he marched into their cubicles.

“Uh-oh,” Caroline whispered.

“Caroline these forms are all wrong,” he said in exasperation as he dropped a stack of papers on her desk. “See that top one there? It’s the order sheet for Asper Co. and you’ve filled out the contact information for Jake Sutherland. But I know Jake personally, and he’s from DeltaRay!”

“What?–oh.” Caroline thumbed through the papers. “I must have gotten a sheet or two off from my call list. I’m sorry!”

“That’s nice that you’re sorry,” Harold rolled his eyes, “but we can’t bill any clients if we don’t know which company they’re representing now can we?”

“No, of course not. I’ll fix these up first thing tomorrow–”

“That won’t cut it, your team’s quota is due today. You need to stay and take care of this now.”

“Oh but she had plans,” Betty piped up, earning a frown from Harold.

“I don’t like asking people to stay late, Betty. I make a point of not imposing unfair demands, but when a team has made a commitment and then they don’t deliver on them that’s on their own heads.”

“Well I could cover it for her tonight.”

“Do you think I hired Caroline for you to do her work, Betty?”

“Um…no sir.”

“If I’m not made confident between now and my vacation that she’s capable of handling things on her own, then maybe she won’t belong in this company much longer! Do I make myself clear?” With the last question he steered his focus back to Caroline.

“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it right now, sir.”

“I’m sure that you will.”

Harold turned a strode away, leaving the three in stunned silence. Caroline clenched her fists, screwed her eyes shut, and for a moment her whole body shook in stifled aggravation.

“That…man,” Lucas seethed. His pause between words suggested that ‘man’ was not the first word that had popped into his head.

“I’m never going to survive doing that training with him,” Caroline moaned. “The two of us alone for two hours, can you imagine?!”

“Well sure, he’s a monster,” Lucas agreed, “but so what? I get him angry at me all the time and you know what I say? I say ‘so what, I’m still going home at the end of the day and there’s nothing he can do to me.'”

“I just…when he gets angry he shouts and I really don’t like it when people shout. If I’m around him I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to explode! I get so self-conscious, I make silly mistakes, and then he must think I’m making those sorts of mistakes even when he isn’t there! And even if he doesn’t shout, there’s still just the way he looks at me. It’s like he sees right through me! Somehow he knows everything I’ve done wrong and he despises me for it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “Just remember that you’re not doing anything for him. This is all for Zach, and that’s all that matters.”

Betty sighed deeply. “Of course. You’re right. I’ll manage…somehow.”

 

On Monday I discussed how many stories treat the protagonist’s biases as gospel. If the hero views another character as evil, then that character is evil. In these stories there is little space for different perspectives, ambiguity, or misunderstanding.

And depending on what the objective of your story is, that might even be the best approach. But obviously for a more nuanced tale, you would probably also want a more nuanced take on the characters. That approach is my intention with this latest short story.

To help with this objective, I decided to not portray the story from just one character’s perspective. By using a third-person voice I am able to avoid having one character cast shade on the other exclusively.

Next it was obvious I needed two characters that were both flawed. I imagine most readers will take the dimmer view toward Harold. He certainly is harsher than he should be, but it is also understandable why he is frustrated. Caroline is legitimately incompetent, though sympathetically so. My hope is that characters can empathize with Harold’s frustrations, even while wishing he would give the poor woman a break.

Another thing I experimented with in this story was to make hard cuts between each scene. This makes them feel more like isolated vignettes, like a sample of everyday life for these individuals. It’s been an interesting format to experiment with, but one side effect I hadn’t anticipated was the significant pruning I had to or else the story would become too distracted.

On Monday I’ll take a closer look at this idea of how not every scene belongs in a story, even if it is a good one. Then on Thursday I’ll present the second half of this story. I look forward to sharing these with you then, in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

The Anther-Child

closeup photo of white rose
Photo by Plush Design Studio on Pexels.com

Nestled in the heart of the forest there grew a cluster of Marrowberry bushes, sprung up around the bases of the Elder Trees. The bushes grew directly from the roots of the great trees, sapping all their nutrients from the undiscerning hosts.

Crowning each of the bushes was a cluster of flowers, each such a light shade of purple or pink that they were almost white. They had velvety petals that never fully unfolded, and they always rustled, even when there was no wind. Hidden beneath the layers of petal was the entire plant’s greatest secret: a little community of living anthers, small and bright white beings, each shaped with arms and legs and a head. They were all tethered to their own filament at the navel. Most days the Anther-people lived in a perpetual joy, deriving constant pleasure from the conduit with their nourishing mother. They waved about inside the petals in a carefree manner, bumping into one another and giggling lazily.

They were never fully awake, after all they were still embryos and ever would be. Life was naught but a hazy, blissful dream. Every now and again one would sway into another with a squeal of delight, and the second would dash away to collide with a third, and so continue, chasing one another round and round in a circle, never pausing to wonder what they did, never understanding any of the causes or effects in their life.

One day, in one of the bushes, and in one of its flowers: the anthers were carrying on in just this manner when a passing Wolger happened to hear their play. Not many Wolgers knew the secret of the flowers, and this was one that did not. Even so it paused for a moment, then decided to investigate.

It turned on its stumpy legs, whinnied, lifted its large front hooves onto the Elder Tree, and stood as tall as it could. Then it felt its long snout into the recesses of the flower, and extended a long, flexible tongue to explore what it could not see. It felt about until it touched against one of the anthers, then it seized down and plucked it loose.

The Anther-child cried out in a shocking agony, a sound so harrowing that it was enough to disturb the reveries of its brothers and sisters. With eyes seeing properly for the first time they witnessed in horror as the captive brother was pulled up into the sky. They heard the death shrieks and crunching sounds on the other side of the petal walls, and then worst of all the total silence that followed.

They barely began to look about in confusion before the rushing sap from the flower’s filaments flooded their senses. It suppressed their fears and lull them back to a placid ignorance. That was its function: to numb the senses, still the mind, and invoke a deep and peaceful trance upon them all. One-by-one they flowed back into their swaying euphoria, their playful giggling, their blissful ignorance.

Another shriek broke the trance and a second sibling, this time a sister, was pulled away to her doom. Again they were soothed by their mother-flower, and again they were awoken when a third of their siblings was pulled to her doom. Five more times this occurred, and each time they awoke from their reverie for a longer and longer duration. They began to cry and stare about helplessly, looking for one to save them but finding no hero in their midst.

And so they reached out with hands and feet, grasping one another and pulling themselves into a communal ball, somehow hoping to find protection among their masses. They held one another close and quivered, but in their mutual comfort the trance was able to set in again. One-by-one they slipped into their fitful dreams, let go of one another, and swayed back into their previous positions.

This time there was no more disturbance. The Wolger was satiated for now, and so trundled off through the forest’s thick vegetation.

Although they slept, the Anther-children’s dreams were not so pleasant as they had ever been before. There were sudden stabs of fear and melancholy, nightmares that made their sleeping forms wince and shudder.

It was three days before the Wolger returned, but in their unconscious state it seemed more like an eternity. So much so that when the tongue invaded and plucked away another shrieking child they could hardly recollect that this sequence of events had already transpired before. It felt like trying to recall an event from a different lifetime, not so much remembered as just sensed. This sense that came upon them was in the form of a dread understanding, a knowledge that there was a pattern here, and soon it would be their time to be eaten, too.

They huddled together in their tight ball again, clutching each other as close as possible. In apprehension they watched as the long, gray tongue returned, just as they knew it would. It felt about in confusion, unable to find them at first. They were so tightly bound to one corner of the flower that they might have escaped, if not for their quivering cries. They were too ignorant to know that such sounds could give their position away, and so it was that the monstrous shape bore down on them, gripped their mass, and pulled until limbs broke and bodies split. With a great tearing seven anthers were carried away all at once. Of those that remained, most were broken and torn in one way or another, and so writhed on the ends of their stalks until they stilled forever, slumping lifelessly upon their spear-like filaments.

Only three Anther-children were left unscathed, two males and a female. They felt the numbing flow of the flower’s nutrients beginning to cloud their minds and they squinted their eyes and shook their heads, trying desperately to hold to the clarity of the moment. One of the males reached to his navel and gripped the filament with his thin fingers. He pulled, and as he did so he cried out in an agony. The stalk grew into his very flesh, and he would have to tear himself to pry it loose.

Still, at least the pain gave him a clearer grip on his senses. He dug his fingers into the body of the filament, and pressed outward in a long, consistent push. Slowly its fibers began to stretch and snap, breaking their hold on his body one-at-a-time. His brother and sister stared at him in horror. They made a weak effort to imitate him, but ceased once they tasted the agony that it involved. They looked at him with pitying eyes that slowly grew duller and duller until at last they fell back to sleep.

With a pop the Anther-child wrenched the last of the filament from his body and fell to the bed of the flower. His small body lost some of its luster, turning a dull white that was almost gray. He seized his knees to his chest as an irrepressible trembling and sobbing convulsed his body.

For the first time in his life he was deprived the sweetness of the flower’s nutrients. Above his head, on the tip of the broken filament, great drops of sap were accumulating like tears for the lost child. He had torn himself from his home and there could not be any reattaching. He was alone and naked in a world of fear.

There was a deep rustling sound all about him, and he stared about in confusion. For the first time he saw how it all began, how the petals shook and then how the long, gray tongue pierced into their sanctuary. The whole flower swayed backwards, and with no tether to hold him anymore he tumbled with it, falling against the back petals, tumbling through their folds, and then out into the open air. The last thing he saw of his home was how the tongue felt out his brother and sister and began to twist itself around their writhing figures.

Then a rush of color assaulted his eyes and he clapped his hands to his face. In blindness he hit the ground, bounced a few times, then finally came to a rest on his back amidst the grass. There was a snap and he opened his eyes to see the Wolger drop back to all four hooves in front of him.

Though he had never seen the outside world before, the child immediately understood that this large gray thing with its stubby legs, iron hooves, rounded flanks, watery eyes, and serpentine snout was a being, just as he was a being. And he knew, of course, that this being sought his destruction, though why he could not fathom. It simply seemed to be in its nature.

The Anther-child watched as the Wolger drew its tongue into its mouth and ground its teeth on his brother and sister, forever silencing their cries of pain and fear. He trembled and his fingers shriveled like dried reeds down to his palms.

By seeing his persecutor he also discerned that he might be seen himself, and he shrunk deeper into the tangle of grass he had fallen among. The Wolger did not see him, though, and having eaten its fill it turned about and waddled away through the thick brush of the forest.

The Anther-child sat petrified. Where before he and his siblings had been motionless in their tranquility, now he was made motionless by fear. What sort of world was this that had come and broken his old one?

Though that terrible gray thing was gone he now felt as though something else was present. A writhing and many-legged thing, one that was inside of him and trying to force its way out!

All at once his anguish burst from him in a torrent. His eyes freely streamed their tears, and he howled in an agony. He heaved and retched. Then his body expanded and tightly compressed. Glistening silver drops flushed out of every pore of his body and pooled on the ground. His body shrunk, deflated, went limp, and collapsed to the ground.

And still his body continued to ooze, every drop squeezed out of him in an agony. All that defined him excreted until nothing was left. Then, after all the moisture was out of him, he stopped crying. There simply was nothing within him left to mourn.

His body was dry now, shriveled. He trembled fitfully in the wind, and if a strong gust had struck him in that moment it would have broken his brittle form into pieces. His heart beat slower and slower, and finally came to a stop.

The vacuum was complete, and now he reached a withered hand and pressed it against the blade of the grass he rested on. He knew, instinctively to breath deeply and draw in from that plant. As he did so a new moisture began to flow into him, something greener and sturdier. Where before he had been soft and malleable his body began to form tough fibers. His webbed fingers fully detached, his formless face became more angular. He stood and he found he was a little taller, a little leaner.

His mind was altered, too. He understood this world better. That gray thing had been eating. Eating was common. There would be many that would wish to eat him. He must not let them. Perhaps one day, if he grew still larger and changed his nature, he might be able eat them instead.

Indeed he wanted to eat. And not out of hunger.

The Grass-child’s eyes flicked open, dark pupils set in pale green.

 

This was a very interesting piece to write. I conceived of it as I tried to think of a story that would be surreal, deeply rooted in an emotion that was hard to define, and might lodge itself in the reader’s mind for a long while. As I explained on Monday, sometimes emotions are impossible to explain, and better suited to be expressed in a narrative that summons the emotion within the reader. When an author is able to effectively craft this experience, then the reader will forever remember it whenever that emotion arises anew in regular life. The Anther-Child was meant to capture the sensation of lost innocence. The experience of hurt, confusion, and the resultant resentment that follows.

Interestingly, as soon as I finished it I immediately recognized that it actually has a very similar atmosphere and style to a previous piece of mine: Deep Forest. But whereas that piece was meditative and escalated to a moment of euphoria, this one was brooding and escalating to a moment of dark resolve. Both of them were meant as expressions of natural emotions, and both represent true states of mind. There is a natural hurt to this world, but also a natural wonder. It all depends on which one chooses to define themselves by.

Perhaps the character from Deep Forest and this Anther-child would make for a good protagonist and antagonist in a larger work. Really, though, I conceived of each one as a completely separate and individual project.

Another point of interest to me in this story is the nature of the Wolger. In stories we most often see things from a solitary point of view, where the good is good and the evil is evil. But in this story isn’t the Wolger just a creature adhering to its nature? I’d like to take a deeper look at this idea of how some stories cast characters into firm shades of black and white, while others try more nuanced approaches. Come back on Monday to read about that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!