New Denver was the largest city Nathan had seen in a long time. It wasn’t just another occasionally-inhabited outpost, it was an actual, persistent community of seven hundred souls! New Denver citizens lived in actual houses, grew actual farms, and ran actual shops!
Most of that population was comprised of original members of the Coast-Seekers company. The expedition had paused at this location when its leader, Liam Blakes, recognized that the Bonneville Salt Flats (which lay just beyond) were a likely nesting ground for giant sand striker worms. Liam’s hunch proved true, as he and the rest of his surveying team were devoured only ten minutes after venturing onto the powder.
A few more surveying teams were sent out, each in a different direction, each hoping to find a path of safety through the dry ocean. Not a single one of them made it, though, and at last the company gave up their dream of reaching the California coast and sailing to New Zealand. What with the radiation to the north and the spawning grounds to the South, there didn’t seem to be any safe passages left.
And so they had settled, scratching out their lives in the very heart of chaos.
It was almost dusk when Nathan arrived at the city gates. The perimeter fence was nothing more than razor wire, corrugated zinc sheets, and concrete barriers. The gate was nothing more than a retractable garage door. At first Nathan was surprised that their defenses were so weak, but then he realized that when you lived on the fringe of sand striker worm territory, it didn’t matter whether your walls were made of paper or steel.
“Do you have a token?” one of the armed guards asked Nathan as he approached the gate.
Nathan had heard about this “token system” that the western states employed. A major city like New Denver was sure to draw all manner of criminal opportunists, so they had to be selective about who they actually let in. So all of the main factions in this area distributed unique tokens to their members, an emblem which proved that the bearer was vouched for by a trusted community. On each token was written a serial number, and there were ledgers which tied each number to a secret password. Those ledgers were regularly updated by each faction, and whenever someone presented a token they also had to provide the password that was associated with it. This was to discourage anyone from just murdering a token-bearer and using the item for themselves.
Nathan did not have a token.
“I’m not from here,” he said. “I’ve come from far to the east.”
“New Denver does not admit new recruits. You’ll have to join one of the smaller organizations instead. Once they decide you’re credible, they’ll give you a token.”
“But I have other credentials,” Nathan unbuttoned his shirt pocket and drew out an old and stained ID card. The picture was still recognizable as being of him, and all of the essential words were still legible.
“Nathan Prewitt,” the guard read. “You were a biochemist? For the government?”
The guard handed the ID back and exchanged a confused glance with his cohort. “I don’t see how that’s relevant. Just because you worked for the government doesn’t mean we trust you.”
“Before everything collapsed my department was paired with a Weapons Research team. We were looking for an effective means of killing the sand striker worms.”
“Please inform your superiors that I wish to speak with them. I have come to help.”
The two guards looked sideways at one another. This situation was outside of their standard procedure.
“It’s alright, I’ll wait out here,” Nathan took a step back and sat down on a rock protrusion.
After another moment’s pause the guards shrugged, and the one who had been speaking with Nathan retreated into the city, leaving the other at the post. That guard stared at Nathan for a full minute before he finally ventured to speak.
“But you didn’t find anything.”
“In your research, you didn’t find anything. If the government had found a way to stop the Onslaught they would have done it. So what’s the point of your being here?”
“You’re right, the government wasn’t able to stop the Onslaught. But I didn’t say that I was here to solve all of your problems…just that I could help.”
Five minutes later the first guard returned, accompanied by a man with copper-peach hair, which was so similar to his skin tone that it seemed to disappear into it.
“Doctor Hogue,” the man introduced himself, extending a hand to Nathan.
The two shook hands.
“Thompson tells me you’re some sort of government specialist, Mister Prewitt? That you were making weapons for them?”
“Biochemist, actually. We were studying the tissue of the sand striker worms, and then collaborating with Weapons Research on what tactics we could use against them.”
“I see. Well if you’re willing to leave your weapons here with the guards, I’ll take you in to talk with the council.”
Nathan removed his rifle, handgun, and knife, surrendering them to Thompson.
“Search his backpack?” Thompson asked. “And come along with?”
“No, no, I’m not worried about him,” Doctor Hogue waved his hand, then motioned Nathan to follow him through the raised gate.
Nathan breathed an inward sigh of relief and followed. His backpack was the one thing he didn’t dare entrust to another soul. What it held had been his sole responsibility all the way from Virginia to Nevada. He would die and he would kill before he would surrender its contents to anyone else.
Which was why Nathan kept one hand permanently affixed to his shoulder strap as he followed Doctor Hogue into the city. He didn’t expect to run across any thieves here, but he had a set of rules for how to conduct himself in a community, and those rules had managed to get him through this far. They would get him through the last leg of his journey, too.
Why are stories so full of magic and surrealism? Why do fantasy and sci-fi novels dominate the industry?
Even stories based in the real world push towards the fringes of fantasy. The underdog succeeds more completely than we ever will, the boy and the girl are unbelievably compatible with each other, and the bully is an unbelievable caricature of pure evil. Shakespeare often wrote of real-life events and characters, but it is a sort of historical fiction, where the stories are still steeped in the fantastic. Characters are pushed and pulled by unseen humors, motives are based on the call of destiny, and outcomes are ruled by fate.
Even our most true-to-life stories and documentaries are chosen from subjects that are so extreme that they sound like an alien world to the rest of us. Tiger King was such a popular documentary series on Netflix because it dealt with such flamboyant and dangerous events that most of us will never experience anything like it in our ordinary lives.
So once again, why is this? Why do we almost exclusively select stories that are so heavily steeped in fantasy?
I reject the answer that it is because stories are just an escapism, a vehicle for getting away from our ordinary, mundane lives. Yes, these fantastic stories can be great entertainment, but there is more to it than that. A story steeped in fantasy doesn’t just feel entertaining, it somehow feels more right. There is something truer and more real about a story because of its unrealism.
The Truer Fantasy)
In my latest short story, Secrets in the Mountain, I introduced a character who lives an absolutely realistic, mundane life. He drives to the office in his ordinary car, works in his ordinary cubicle, and attends an ordinary meeting.
The monotony of his life is so stifling and mind-numbing that it begs for something fantastic to explode onto the scene! Which is exactly what happens. In my last post I had him look to the mountain as it grew inexplicably brighter and brighter, finally bursting outwards while a beam of light shot from its depths and destroyed the entire city before him!
And while these events could not literally be true, the emotions they conveyed felt correct and fitting for the narrative. They resounded with real inner feelings, if not our real outer experiences.
And this, I believe is the secret to why we love fantasy: because of how well it captures the stirrings of what is inside of us. Fantasy resonates because we are not only a physical body, but also an emotional soul. And that soul is not at all constrained by what “really” happened in the physical world, nor is it satisfied by only a portrayal of those outer events. For events are not fully understood just by being seen, they also need to be felt.
Like that time I was a young boy and wanted to pet my neighbor’s big dog. I was afraid to when the thing was awake, but one moment I found it asleep and thought it was a perfect opportunity to touch its back. Very slowly and cautiously I scooted nearer, then extended a trembling hand to its fur. No sooner did I touch it than the dog suddenly startled awake and snapped its head back to lock eyes with me! I jumped six feet into the air!
Well, I mean, I didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration. I just needed to let you understand how it felt when that dog suddenly bolted awake and electricity started to surge through me!
Well, I mean, it didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration, too. But it leaves something wanting if I say that the dog snapped around to look at me and I just felt “very, very startled.” I naturally revert into more fantastic expressions, not to lie about the experience, but to be more true to how it actually felt.
Making the Metaphor Solid)
Another reason for delving into the fantastic is to embody the things that have no body, but are still very real. Sometimes we feel pushed and pulled by forces in our lives, but these forces have no names or faces, so in our stories we invent ones for them.
Consider the sensation of a woman who doesn’t feel like a traditional housewife, but feels pressured by society to conform to a preconceived model. They might say that they feel like the world is trying to smother them and replace them with a perfect robot instead.
And so that’s exactly what the story of The Stepford Wives does. It takes that “feels like” statement and turns it into a literal manifestation, allowing the audience to grapple with these intangible ideas in a way that feels visceral and real.
This same approach is visible in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which is steeped in an incredibly fantastical world. Superheroes and fairy tale creatures are realities in this story, and it is easy to think that the dramatic events have no bearing on reality. But actually there is a very powerful connection between this fiction and our everyday lives.
The main antagonist of the film is Prince Nuada, an elf whose father made a truce with mortal men eons ago, agreeing that humanity would keep itself to the cities and the magical creatures would keep to the forests. Of course that is a pledge that has long-since been forgotten. Humanity has continued to sprawl in an uncontrolled fashion, taking over both ancient culture and natural beauty, leading Prince Nuada to declare war on our species.
And obviously this is a commentary on Western society’s expansionism, which takes over real-life cultures and causes real-life extinctions in nature. And while the film is exciting and imaginative, it also brings the audience to appreciate the real-life fact that when one slice of humanity flourishes, it usually comes at a cost to other cultures and nature.
Our Need For Magic)
Putting magic into stories isn’t just for “fun” or “escape.” It is essential to capturing the deeper emotions of our heart, as well as the large, external forces that move us. Reality, it would seem, is much more than meets the eye, and story is the medium by which we make all of its invisible layers apparent.
Oscar sighed, then slowly began to turn the wheel. There was that brief moment of delay between cause and effect, that moment where he was still pointed toward the docks, but then his entire world shifted. Pier, berth, and the road up to Lenny’s Tavern slid away to the left, giving way to the long, low coast, the rising point of the cape, and finally the bleak, open sea stretching beyond.
Oscar corrected the turn, steadying himself towards the storm. Where before he had only given the mounting clouds a cursory glance, now he held them in serious scrutiny. It seemed to him that the muddled gray had grown suddenly much darker, and for the first time he noticed how the wind whistling around the wheelhouse made a constant, forbidding moan, and now that he was moving against the tide he felt it under his feet at double strength.
I’ve removed some of the more dramatic phrases in the previous paragraph, and the bit about Oscar considering turning around already. This is still too early in the story for such despair, and I believe the flow of the tale will be improved by this change.
“Turn a little back to the north,” he ordered himself. “Steady and brisk pace round the cape.” He turned the wheel until the cape came back to the forefront. Of course this made the oncoming waves buffet against the starboard side of his trawler, trying to push him homeward, but Oscar stubborned his hands against them. Never mind the discomfort, the fastest course was best. Sam had said Harry went around the cape, so that was where Oscar needed to get to.
Technically “stubborned” isn’t a real word. But it should be, so I’m leaving it in.
Once Oscar’s vessel had settled itself to the cadence of the waves he accelerated to full speed. He bounced vigorously up and down in the water, throwing up a high, white spray on the starboard side, and it wasn’t long before he closed upon his destination.
The Broken Horn it was called, and it rose very quickly from the otherwise flat coastline, outstripping the grass and the trees so that its promontory cliff was nothing but black and jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea.
I had the line “an ominous sigil to be sure” at the end of the last paragraph and I have removed it. I’ve actually been noticing a few times that I straight up tell the audience how to feel about the scene, rather than trusting my adjectives to convey that meaning to them.
Oscar worked the radio from time-to-time, trying to raise Harry, but to no avail. Clearly the man was still somewhere on the other side of the cape, and that meant something must have gone wrong indeed.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
Oscar spun the wheel to the right. He didn’t dare draw any nearer to the cliffs of the Broken Horn. There were treacherous shoals at its feet, and if one of those snagged his boat he would be held like a fish on a spear until the endless flow of water overran his vessel. Or if the waves managed to dislodge him instead, they would push his boat past the shoals and pound it into the jagged edges of the cliff beyond, tearing everything to shreds in an instant! Had Harry run into trouble anywhere else, Oscar would have left him to run aground and wait out the storm on a rain-soaked beach. But here there was no “aground” to run into. Rescue was the only option.
So Oscar pointed his vessel due east, letting the cape slip by him on the left. Of course due east also meant that the he was pointed fully into the face of the storm, and here the water ran much deeper. Here the waves did not merely bounce Oscar’s boat on the surface, they were long and deep, miniature mountains and valleys, which his vessel had to scale and descend in turn. And the longer he stayed out here, the more steep and treacherous those mountains and valleys would become.
Holding the wheel steady in one hand Oscar grabbed the mic and called out through the storm.
“This is the Last Horizon. This is the Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
Nothing. Oscar kept calling, though, once every minute as his trawler extended itself past the point of the Broken Horn. Once he had enough distance he turned his vessel slightly back to the north, cutting across the front of the cape. As he went by he roved his eyes over its shoals and cliffs, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat.
I’ve been cutting out sections here and there. I believe I had things overly verbose, making the audience wait too long for the story to break into the second act.
But again, nothing. Everywhere he looked there was only the black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and the black abyss of water spinning below, and his own vessel as the only white speck in between.
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing. Broken Wing are you there?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into line. As soon as he his vessel was stable again he roared his frustration into the mic.
“HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!”
At long last the crackle of static gave way to a small voice, timid and broken.
“Yes, yes, this is Harry here! I see you Oscar, I see you! Starboard side.”
Oscar turned his head to the right. There, in even deeper waters, veiled by the mists of storm so that it appeared almost like a ghost, was the faint outline of a boat.
The mountain lay to the west, and therefore the morning sun was just starting to shine on it from the opposite horizon, casting a blanket of pink color over its natural green and blue and gray and brown. Jason was sure it was just his imagination, but it seemed almost as if there was a discoloration in the spreading sunlight. It seemed to be disrupted by a golden arc, right at the point that he imagined the pocket of heat was emanating from. And as the sun’s pink light continued to crawl down the face of the mountain, he imagined that the arc continued to follow with it, widening to a point, then narrowing to make an almost-perfect circle over the mountain’s rugged terrain.
Jason blinked twice to clear the image from his mind, but the golden arc was still there. Was it actually his imagination, then? Jason walked up to the glass wall until his nose only an inch from the glass. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see all of his coworkers doing the same.
“What do you think it is?” Jeremy the intern asked.
“It’s–” Jason started to answer, but he was cut off by the power suddenly cutting off. The humming of the fluorescent lights, the white-noise of the mounted speakers, the muttering of voices from the television silenced so immediately that it startled them all.
“What in the world?!” Megan from Customer Service exclaimed. All of the employees gave worried looks to each other, but then turned their eyes back to the mountain.
The glow was increasing every moment, building in brightness, size, and intensity. Several times it seemed to reach as bright as it could possibly go, but then it pressed onward. The employees had to hold their hands over their faces to block most of it out, staring transfixed through a narrow slit between their finger. None of them said another word. None of them tried to leave. What would they even be running from? Where would they even go?
The locus of heat had changed from its golden hue to bright yellow to pure white. It was brighter than fire, brighter than the sun, brighter than the heart of lightning. The rock beneath the face of the mountain had started to melt, started to ooze out of any opening it could find.
Then, all at once, the outer face of the mountain burst apart in a single, shattering explosion!
Though Jason and the others were miles away from the mountain, the shockwave struck their building instantaneously, bursting every window into glassy powder and slamming the employees backwards through the air. From the hole in the mountain a sudden beam of white light burst out horizontally. It was as focused as a laser, but more than thirty feet in width. It stretched from the heart of the mountain and across miles of the sky, scorching the overhead clouds and evaporating them into steam!
Jason tried to raise himself out of the middle of shattered cubicles where he had been blasted. His legs were still shaking too hard to support his weight, though, so he had to settle for sitting in the middle of ceiling tiles, smashed monitors, floating sheaves of paper, and spilled printer ink.
All of the other workers were moaning softly in pain, nursing wounds that ranged from rough bruising to broken bones. One of them wasn’t even visible anymore, having been blasted clear out the other side of the building. Jason tried to stand once more, and this time, legs still quivering, he rose to his feet.
Before him was a complete scene of destruction.
They had been lucky that their building was still standing. In the valley before him were many that had not. In fact any construct within a two-mile radius of the mountain had been entirely obliterated, reduced to a black scorch all along the foothills. All throughout the city fires were raging, streets were upended, and cars were littered like little toys flung off of a blanket. The bodies were too small to see, but Jason knew they must be sprawled about in the tens of thousands. There came a new sound of crumbling, and the office building next to Jason’s gave in to its structural damage, folding downward in a cloud of smoke and debris. There was a moment of shouts from everyone that had been inside, but all was quickly muffled into nothingness.
Jason knew he ought to check himself for injury, ought to tend to the others, ought to run for safety before his building fell, too. But he, like anyone else in that valley who could, still had his eyes locked firmly on the mountain.
Surprisingly the whole thing hadn’t been blasted to rubble. Only the section that the beam burst through had been expelled, and now that the beam was dying down there was revealed a giant, black hole right in the heart of the rock. It was like a lake-sized bullet-hole.
And out of that hole things were emerging.
Tall things. Giant things. Things that were generally humanoid in shape, but seemed to be hewn from the rock that they emerged from. Staggering Titans of unknown ages, marching down the slopes of the mountain on legs that moved shakily after millennia of not being used. But with each step they moved more confidently, finding their old strength restored in the light of the sun.
Jason watched them descend, and as they did his lips narrowed to a line. His hands curled into fists. His hair ruffled even though there was no breeze. And then he started to rise. Up and up, until he was floating halfway between the floor and the ceiling, feet supported by nothing.
And all of this was biographical. During my previous job I worked in the exact building I described, with the same cubicle layout that I mentioned, and having the same sorts of conversation as the main character was having.
Not only this, but during that job I had the same lethargy that he had, the same longing for a life more meaningful. I have had mornings like him where the lights were off, hardly anyone had come into the office, and I had this inexplicable feeling that work didn’t matter because something important (I didn’t know what) was about to happen. In short, I have been that exact character in that exact place with those exact feelings.
Now at the end of the piece I started to build towards something more fantastic. The character’s premonition of important events coming starts to come true as a strange heat signature comes from the middle of a nearby mountain. In the next section the main character is going to walk to the glass wall of the building and watch as the heart of the mountain suddenly bursts apart!
And that will happen because that is exactly the fantasy I had one of those real-life days in that real-life office. I was longing for something mythic in my life, and as I stood at a glass wall staring at the nearby mountains, my brain imagined the whole thing exploding from a beam of light bursting through the rock.
That was a fun thought, and no sooner did I have it than I started to wonder, “well why would that happen? Is there some mythical being that was trapped in there? How would everyone in the building react? What would I do? What if I wasn’t afraid of it? What if I was somehow connected to it without even knowing it?”
And from that I started to piece together a story idea that I’d love to write out one day. A story that went from the mundane to the fantastic in a single, explosive moment, just as I now had a moment of pure creativity that randomly sprang from an ordinary day in my ordinary life.
Write What You Know)
Now I am far from the first author to take my real life, and from it concoct a story that blends authenticity with grandeur. Herman Melville is most famous for his epic novel Moby Dick, which follows a sailor on the Pequod, a whaling vessel whose captain is obsessed with catching and killing the eponymous whale.
Melville’s details of the whaling vessel are extremely precise. Take his description of the crow’s nest:
In shape, the Sleet’s crow’s-nest is something like a large tierce or pipe; it is open above, however, where it is furnished with a movable sidescreen to keep to windward of your head in a hard gale. Being fixed on the summit of the mast, you ascend into it through a little trap-hatch in the bottom. On the after side, or side next the stern of the ship, is a comfortable seat, with a locker underneath for umbrellas, comforters, and coats. In front is a leather rack, in which to keep your speaking trumpet, pipe, telescope, and other nautical conveniences.
As you might have guessed, Melville comes by this stunning level of detail because he is writing from his personal observations. He served as a sailor on both a merchant and a whaling vessel, and experienced firsthand the very settings that he describes.
But Moby Dick tells a remarkable and shocking story, and the sea voyages that Melville personally took did not culminate in his ship being destroyed by a massive, white whale and every crewmember drowned. Yes, some ships of the day were destroyed by whales, such as when the Essex was sunk in 1821, an incident which directly inspired Melville’s novel, but even real-life events like these were not as dramatic and mythical as those in Moby Dick. Melville had taken a foundation of authenticity, but then grafted an epic fantasy onto it. And because he was so intimately familiar with the craft of whale-hunting, he knew the perfect places that the fantastic could be welded onto the realistic for a seamless transition.
Even a narrative that leans even further into fantasy can still have its roots in the author’s personal experiences. Stephen King witnessed the death of a friend while still a young child. The event was so traumatic that he has been unable to recall the actual event, but it is a likely source of inspiration for his famous horror stories. Another real-life source of inspiration for King was his fight to regain sobriety after years of an alcohol and drug addiction. This is a common theme throughout his works, such as in Doctor Sleep, where the main character Danny Torrance must fight through the same alcoholism that plagued Stephen King…as well as psychic vampires!
Imagination Bolted Onto Reality)
In short, even the most fantastic of stories can have roots in the author’s reality. When I stared out of my office windows on a boring day, thinking to myself “imagine if something fantastic happened right now,” then I knew the exact right moment for the mundane to make a left turn into the amazing.
In reality, everyday life doesn’t suddenly burst into huge explosions, albino whales, or psychic vampires, but the wonderful thing about stories is that the fantastic absolutely can invade the mundane. In fact it must!
Last week I shared the second draft of my story, so that it would all be in one, tidy place for future reference. Today I’ll start revising it, and I feel a bit daunted by the size of the task. 8,720 words is a lot to get through, enough that it would be hard to read the entire thing in a single sitting. Thus far I’ve been reviewing it in fragments, but at some point I need to step back and take in the entire thing all at once.
But after taking a cursory glance, I’m not sure that now is the time to plow through the entire piece. There’s still enough mistakes that I can’t help but get hung up on them as I real along. So I think I’ll continue taking it piecemeal for now, polishing the individual sentences and paragraphs until I can read through them without hitting any speedbumps that take me out of the story.
I realize that this approach might seems backwards, I’ll be correcting the surface details before getting to the underlying structure. I just don’t see how I could do it otherwise at this point.
Clearly I’m not entirely sure of what I’m doing here. Revising a story utilizes a lot of skills that I haven’t developed as well as others. But that’s the whole point of this exercise: to get practice in the areas where I’m still inexperienced. Maybe I’ll change my process when I understand it better, but for now I’ll just go with what feels best and course-correct as needed.
So, without further ado, it’s time to get my hands dirty. I will be making numerous little edits as I go, and included bolded paragraphs to discuss wherever I made a more substantial change. Let’s get to it!
Well, right off the bat, I’m having some issues with the first paragraph. Very often I have a specific mental image for a setting, but trying to convey that in geometric terms just makes for clunky and confusing text. I need to make the descriptions flow instead. I certainly want to make this first paragraph sing particularly well, given that it is the introduction to my entire story! Here is my updated take on it:
Oscar regarded the sea behind him. The gray of the water below was matched perfectly to the gray of unbroken clouds above. Off in the distance was a similarly gray wall of rain, that bridged the gap between ocean and cloud, so that there seemed to be no separate bodies at all, only one massive volume of moisture. And in that elevated sea there was only a narrowing bubble of air, where Oscar and his trawler were scurrying forward, trying to make land before the wall of rain did. For that rain-wall of rain was no trifling shower, but the face of a much darker storm laying beyond.
That storm had not been expected until later that evening, but it had arrived several hours early, cutting Oscar’s excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. So there had been fuel and time spent, but nothing gained.
Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Most of the time the ocean yielded just enough for the sailors to pay their way with, but from time-to-time it cut them short. “The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh,” one might say, but also “it taketh slightly more than it giveth,” so that a man grew a penny poorer each day for trying to live by it.
Though sometimes the cost was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took far more than it ought. More than could ever be excused.
That you, Oscar? the voice crackled over Oscar’s radio.
“Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar raised his eyes to the red-and-white lighthouse in the distance, which cast its broad light into the gray. Sam was their lighthouse keeper, the watchful guardian who never lost tally of each man’s going and coming.
Sorry to hear that, Oscar.
“It’s just how it goes. Everyone else in already?”
All but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic, signifying that Sam would say no more until Oscar did. Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to the long pier below, where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was Oscar’s own berth, and as far away as possible to the right was Harry’s. The only empty ones.
Oscar grabbed the mic. “Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel. Around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it far enough back by now that we’d already see him.”
Crackling static again.
Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort of person to tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them figure it out for themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape when there was any storm warning at all, and that if he was caught in a gale now that was his own affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reason enough for it. But Sam would go out himself then. And he would be that much more delayed, that much more in danger of the storm.
Oscar swiveled his head around and surveyed the horizon. Not a single ship in sight.
“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.
If you think that’s best, Sam approved. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.
“I know you won’t, Sam.”
I got nervous when I started making extensive edits to the opening paragraphs, but once I transitioned to the dialogue I felt much more at ease with how the story’s coming long. Hopefully the entire story will go this way: being mostly ready, with just some rough edges to smooth out here and there. I guess we’ll see for sure when I continue things next week.
Jason allowed himself one last unstifled yawn, then shifted his car into park and turned off the ignition. For a moment he sat in his seat, staring at the three-storied office complex in front of him, its many-windowed surface reflecting the gold of the rising sun. It was actually very pretty, but Jason was too lethargic to feel moved by it.
The alarm on his watch buzzed, reminding him that the morning meeting started in ten minutes, and before it began he needed to be to his cubicle on the third floor, logged into his computer, and with his breakfast oatmeal microwaved.
“Perfect timing,” he sighed.
He pocketed the keys, grabbed his laptop and keycard, and stepped out of the car. Just as he closed the door he heard a caw from somewhere so near that he actually ducked for fear of getting razed. The dark outline of a bird passed over him and he looked up just in time to see a seagull swooping by. The bird craned its long neck downward, made eye contact with him and gave one last caw.
“What, am I too close to your nest?” Jason shot back, then tried to shake off the nerves as he made his way into the building.
“…because it’s not a question of whether the front-end needs to be updated, it does,” Jason droned into his headset a half hour later. “It’s just whether we can prioritize that over adding new features for the four-to-six months that it’ll take to do a full rewrite.”
“I still just don’t see why a rewrite is necessary,” Janice from Customer Relations spoke up.
Jason groaned, this was the last person he had wanted to have chime in. He stood up and began pacing the walkway that ran along the cubicles. If he was going to have to listen to her rant once again, he would need to be walking off the frustration.
“Look, if I understand you correctly you’re not even talking about doing a facelift to the UI. Just replacing already-existing code with new code that accomplishes all the same functions. How am I supposed to explain to our customers that their new features aren’t coming because we are making the web portal do the exact same things it already does?”
“Yes, at first it will be functionally the same as today,” Jason replied, “but the road ahead will finally be clear to do some of the changes we keep talking about. Support for newer browsers, turning the web portal into a single-page application, finally being on a framework that is still actively supported–“
“None of which the customers are asking for–“
“Yet,” Jason forced in. “They’re not asking for it yet.”
“Alright, but if they ever do, then let’s cross that bridge when we get there.”
“But then there won’t be a bridge to cross!” Jason raised his voice more than he’d intended. “That’s the whole point of–“
“Alright, alright, let me cut you two off there,” Nels’ weary voice piped up. “We’ve been through this all before, thank you both for restating your positions. But let’s be realistic. This is all a moot point with the Kronos Release ahead of us. Until we get that out, we don’t have capacity for any front-end reworks anyway. There’s no point in making a further decision now.”
Jason hastily reached up to the side of his headset and pressed the mute button so that he could vent his feeling in privacy.
“What do you mean ‘no point in making a further decision?'” he retorted to no one. “Not making a decision is making a decision! It means we’re still not getting our stack up-to-date.”
His pacing had brought him up to one of the wall-high windows that tiled across the entire length of the building. Out the window he could see the man-made canal on the other side of the office parking lot, and beyond that the rest of the city sloping down with the valley, with street lamps still shining in the dim morning light. Eventually the streets and houses sloped back up again, as the valley rose into the foothills, and then the suburbs gave way entirely to the hulking mass of the mountain that lay beyond. Mount Charon.
“…and at 4:30 we’ll have our release retrospective,” Nels was saying. “Last meeting of the day. Any questions? No? Alright, let’s get to it.”
Everyone said their farewells and then came the series of beeps as they all disconnected from the call. Jason switched his own headset off and turned to face the neat columns of cubicles before him. Office management hadn’t turned on the ceiling lights on the west side of the building for some reason, which cast everything on the floor into a strange half-shade. Jason was able to count only six other workers present, making the little cubicle-city feel like a ghost town. Where was everybody?
The mostly-absent building gave Jason a strange feeling, like he was missing out on something important. Like everyone else had remembered some event or holiday, and he was missing from where he was actually supposed to be. But no. It was August 6th, about as far away from a holiday or special event as you can get in the year. There wasn’t even a company party coming up. So what was it he was waiting for?
Jason knew that if he went to his desk he would just stare blankly at the screen without getting anything done, so he walked down the aisle instead, letting his thoughts spiral round and round. As he passed his own cubicle, he paused to kick his slip-on shoes under the desk, then proceeded marching on in his socks. With so few people present today, he really didn’t expect anyone to complain.
There was the droning voice of a news anchor coming from a television set mounted by a doorway. “…when the mining crew found an unexpected surge in heat, located at a point nearly four hundred feet beneath the summit of Mount Charon.”
Jason turned his head to look over his shoulder, back to where the real-life Mount Charon stood as a solitary sentinel over the city. Meanwhile the image on the television changed to that of a professor at the local University.
“To be honest it’s a very hard thing to explain. We’ve been drilling holes and taking temperatures, trying to find out the shape and size of what we’re dealing with. And usually you would expect to find some sort of conduit, like with a mantle plume, which is when hot magma is pushing its way up from the rock below. But that’s not what we’re seeing. We have measurements from above, beneath, and on every side of this heat spike, and the heat really does seem to be coming from a single, localized point, right in the heart of the mountain. And that’s–well that’s just baffling!”
Jason turned all the way around. The other six employees on the floor were each standing in their cubicles or wandering into the aisle, eyes locked on the television screen above Jason’s head. Each of them exchanged bemused looks, then turned their eyes to the imposing figure of Mount Charon.
The protagonist approaches the dark and strange mansion, seeking shelter after her car has broken down on a lonely stretch of the highway. In the darkness she doesn't spot a crow lurking in the rafters until the bird swoops right over her head, cawing loudly! She screams in surprise, but a moment later scoffs at herself for being so jumpy. She pushes the door inward and it creaks loudly on hinges that haven't been used for years. She has a moment of hesitation, but then presses forward, into the mansion's darkened hall.
When I was a teenager the local television network would show an old monster movie or horror film every Friday. And not high-production classics, either, but the low-budget, small cast, horribly written, obviously fake effects, filmed in one location sort of movies that 40s and 50s horror cinema was overflowing with.
And all the time these movies would start with a scene like the one I described above. Even before the actual antagonist was unveiled, some strange and startling event would happen, something that had absolutely nothing to do with all the rest of the story, but which made it abundantly clear that the protagonists were entering a place of evil.
And this sense of dread foreboding occurs even in quality pieces of storytelling, too. Consider the very first lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
What does it matter that this takes place at midnight, that it is a dreary night, or that it is in the middle of “bleak December?” Absolutely nothing. These details don’t directly tell us anything about the characters or plot. Everything that transpires could still have been done with all these factors left entirely unmentioned.
But no one would say that these little details are unimportant. Perhaps they have nothing to do with the broader narrative, but they have a great deal to do with setting the atmosphere and the reader’s expectations. They make us understand that we are to view all the following events in a grim and dreary light. Not only does this get us into the proper frame of mind, it also prevents us from misinterpreting later moments, such as this:
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,”
When we first meet the titular raven our narrator greets him in a jovial manner, finding its small sternness comical. But we, the audience, do not make the same mistake. Because of the grim foreboding at the start of the story we know to be wary of this solemn specter. The character may mistake his guest, but we receive the story beats in the correct context.
But is it possible for an introductory scene to not only set the mood, but also deliver narrative or setup plot? Let’s consider the very first scene in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. We open on trees rustling in the dead of night, and a group of heavily armed workers staring unblinking at whatever it is that’s approaching.
A moment later the trees give way to a forklift carrying a large crate, which is lowered to a paddock. All the workers move to open the gate and let whatever is inside of the box transfer into its new home. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan, as the dinosaur inside bolts against the gate, causing the crate to shift away, creating an opening through which it grabs one of the workers. Everyone panics and starts zapping at the creature with their stun batons, but the man who was grabbed is killed before the thing is subdued.
There is only one character in this entire scene that appears later in the film, and his dialogue does not depend on us having seen the event. The story really only starts in earnest after this mood-setting piece is complete.
But that isn’t to say that this piece has nothing to do with the narrative. In fact it does. We are soon told that the accident caused the park’s investors to become anxious about the risk involved with the project, and that they have demanded for a team of specialists review the facility before it opens. This, of course, leads to our main characters being brought in to see the park before it officially opens. Thus this first scene is setting the mood, but it is also laying the groundwork for all the narrative.
Making a Shift)
The use of foreboding imagery can also be used to alert the audience that there is going to be a shift in tone. Maybe everything seems calm and easy now, but don’t expect things to stay that way for long. The opening shot of Alien is a slow pan over the command modules of a futuristic spaceship. Everything is calm, everything is quiet, but suddenly there is a flash of light and screech of noise as an incoming transmission breaks the silence.
It’s a startling moment, which might seem entirely unnecessary. The entire first act is a lengthy sequence where the crew follows standard procedure to investigate a distress call, and they are all extremely nonchalant about the whole affair. But because of that introductory startle, the audience knows that things are not going to remain this relaxed for long. They are anticipating the shift into horror even before the menace of the movie arrives.
And I’ll be going for this sort of effect with the first half of my new story on Wednesday. The piece is going to begin in a very grounded, very mundane place. But I want to prepare the reader for the supernatural events that come in the second half, so I’m going to craft a startling moment for my protagonist. A bird will swoop close overhead with a loud screech, a foreteller of dramatic changes yet to come.
Last week I finished my second draft of the story. Now I need to read through the whole thing again, correcting awkward phrases and grammatical errors, correcting structural problems, and determining how I feel about the overall thing. First, though, I’m going to post the entire second draft here in one neat post that I can use as a reference throughout the rest of the process.
And, as it turns out, this is going to be quite long! I knew that I had added a lot of new material to this story, but I hadn’t realized how much. My first draft of The Storm weighed in at 3,894 words. This second draft is 8,720, more than double! Maybe it’s too much, but I guess I’ll see as I take it all in.
Oscar regarded the endless sea behind him. The muted gray of the water below was almost perfectly matched to that of the unbroken clouds overhead, and these were further blended by the distant wall of rain that bridged the gap between. It created the illusion that there were no separate bodies, but one massive ocean, and Oscar and his trawler were at this moment scurrying from that raised ocean’s advance, seeking to make land before the rain-wall did.
The storm had not been expected until later that evening, and Oscar had had to cut his excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. Fuel and time spent, but nothing gained. Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Not anymore. Some days just turned out that way.
Most of the time the ocean would yield just enough for the sailors to pay their way, but from time-to-time it cut them short. “The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh,” one might say, but also “it taketh slightly more than it giveth,” so that a men grew a penny poorer each year for trying to live by it.
But also sometimes it was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than it ought. More than could ever be excused.
That you, Oscar?
Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar looked to the edge of the pier where the red-and-white lighthouse cast its broad light into the gray. Sam was their lighthouse keeper, their watchful guardian who never lost tally of each man’s going and coming.
Sorry to hear that, Oscar.
“It’s just how it goes. Everyone else in already?”
All in but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic. Signifying that Sam would say nothing more until Oscar spoke first. Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to the long pier where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was his own berth, and as far away as possible on the right was Harry’s. Both empty. Oscar grabbed the mic.
“Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel, around the cape, came the ready response. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it far by now that we’d see him.”
Crackling static again.
Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape when there was any storm warning at all, and that if he was caught in a gale now that was his own affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reason enough for it. But then Sam would go out himself. And he would be that much more delayed, that much more imperiled by the storm.
Oscar swiveled his head around the spot and surveyed the horizon. No ship in sight.
“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.
If you think that’s best, Sam approved. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.
“I know you won’t, Sam.”
Oscar sighed, then slowly began to turn the wheel. There was that brief moment of delay between cause and effect, then the boat responded to his steering. Now his entire world shifted. The happy view of pier, berth, and road up to Lenny’s Tavern slid away to the left, giving way to the long, low coast, the rising point of the cape, and finally the bleak, open sea yawning wide.
Oscar spun the wheel back, steadying himself towards the storm. Where before he had only given the mounting clouds a cursory glance, he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray had grown darker since just a few moments ago, making it truly impossible to discern sky from sea, save for when a spike of lightning split the void. Oscar became aware now of the wind whistling around the wheelhouse, a constant, low, forbidding moan. And now that he was moving against the tide it rolled under his feet at doubled strength, raising and lowering him in a constant rhythm. All these particulars had had no weight on him when he was headed back to berth, but now that he intended towards them they were daggers of dread in his mind.
It was nearly enough to turn him back landward right then and there! But he gave himself a little shake and occupied himself with his work so that he didn’t have time to think about it.
“Back a little north,” he said to himself, “keep a steady and brisk pace for the cape.” So saying he turned the wheel until the cape came back to the forefront. Of course this made the oncoming waves buffet more strongly against the starboard side of his trawler, trying to push him homeward, but Oscar stubborned his hands against them. Never mind the discomfort, the fastest course was the best. These waves weren’t yet tall enough to roll him.
And so Oscar quickly advanced on the cape. The Broken Horn it was called, and it rose quickly from the otherwise flat coastline. Too quickly, in fact, for the grass and trees to keep up, thus its promontory point was naught but black, jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea. An ominous sigil to be sure.
From time-to-time he worked the radio, trying to raise Harry, but all to no avail. The man must still be around the rock, and something must have gone wrong with his journey.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
Oscar had nearly made it to the cape and he quickly spun the wheel to the right. He didn’t dare draw any nearer to the Broken Horn, for there were treacherous shoals at its feet, and if one snagged their boat on those they would be quickly overrun by the endless flow of water. Or if not swamped, the constant surf would push the vessel past the shoals, then pound it into the jagged edges of the cliff beyond, tearing it to shreds in a single instant! If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar might have left him to run aground and wait out the storm on a rain-soaked beach, but here there was no “aground” to run into.
So Oscar pointed his vessel due east, letting the cape slip by him on the left. Of course due east also meant that the he was pointed back at the face of the storm, and here the water ran much deeper than before.
The waves did not merely rock Oscar’s boat now. They were long and deep, shallow mountains and valleys that his vessel now had to scale and descend in turn. And the longer he stayed out here, those mountains and valleys would only become greater and more treacherous.
Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out through the storm.
“This is the Last Horizon. Repeat, this is the Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
Oscar reached to the throttle and pressed it up to full. Never mind the fuel spent, he’d have the surf to help carry him back to the shore. For now all that mattered was that he finish his duty as quickly as possible. Find Harry, or have done his due diligence and surrendered him to the sea, and then get straight back home.
With the extra clip of speed his trawler distanced itself past the point of the Broken Horn, to the point that he now turn back slightly north, cutting across the front of the cape. As he went by he roved the shoals and the cliffs with his eyes, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat.
But again, nothing. Everywhere he looked, his vessel was the only white speck between that black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and that black abyss of water spinning below.
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing, do you hear me?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. Being even a little bit broadside to the waves was becoming treacherous, and he didn’t like how much his boat tilted against each new crest. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration into the mic.
“HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!”
All at once the crackle of static gave way to a small voice, timid and broken.
“Yes, yes, this is Harry here! I see you Oscar, I see you! Starboard side.”
Oscar turned his head from the cape and looked to his right. There, in even deeper waters, he could barely make out the outline of a white boat through the outer mists of the storm.
“What’s your status, Harry?”
“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, Oscar, so I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady for as long as I could. I don’t mind telling you I was real scared, Oscar.”
“Yeah, well I still am! Stay put, Harry.”
Oscar opened up the throttle and spun the wheel. For a moment his vessel rocked up and down without actually making any advancement, but then it built up enough momentum and lurched forward, pressing deeper into the storm.
The first layers of rain broke upon the windshield, large, heavy drops splotching across the glass. This heavy rain had a formed misty barrier around the edge of the storm, a wall to conceal its inner workings. But after a moment of clouding his vision the heavy rain subsided, and now that Oscar had pressed through those curtains, far darker forms were unveiled beyond!
It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by strong winds into long wisps, thin and fragile, but so numerous as to entirely crowd out the sun. Under that grim ceiling was a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in an endless agony. Oscar crested the outer ripples and saw leagues of the deep yawning wide. There was a great depression in the middle of that floor, pulling it down into a massive bowl some eight miles across. The water was the green-black of thick ink, the darkness of untold fathoms beneath. Seeing all at once the huge expanse of it and the under-weight of it was enough to make one agoraphobic and claustrophobic all at the same time! And across that rolling landscape several shocks of lightning bristled every second, each bolt immense but straight, efficiently shooting the immense energy above down into the darkness below. It was also the loudest storm Oscar had ever known. All about was the cacophonic din of sharp thunder mingled with crashing water mingled with screeching wind.
And there, caught within it all, was Harry’s vessel, twitching and swaying erratically, almost entirely at the mercy of the storm, but on occasion coming to life just enough to jerk back to a nearly perpendicular line to the rolling waves. The boat must be taking on water already, growing more sluggish every minute, growing ever more difficult for Oscar’s vessel to haul out of the foment.
Oscar’s heart fell, but he only allowed himself a moment’s dread before he grit his teeth and grabbed the mic. “You gotta hold it more windward, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just to have you swing into my hull!”
“Okay…” came the timid reply. “I’ll try, Oscar.”
Oscar spat and shook his head. It was a hard thing he was asking, even if it had been of a good shipman, but it was absolutely necessary. “Yeah, you gotta hold her straight. And I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line as I pass. You be ready to catch it, and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”
“Okay, Oscar. Okay. I’ll try.”
Apparently that was as good as Harry was going to give.
Oscar held firmly to the wheel, maintaining as straight of a line as possible to Harry. He tightened his grip, readying his nerves for the tumultuous waterscape ahead. They would need to maneuver with precision and speed, minimizing those treacherous moments when their boats would be in close proximity to one another, relying on the mercy of the unpredictable waves to not careen one of their boats into the other and leaving them both in mortal peril!
Oscar quickly glanced backwards to the beam at the center of his boat. He punched the release, dropping the net off of its line, then snapped his eyes back forward as he pulled a lever, letting the rope run out, unfurling on the deck behind him. He waited until there would be about fifty feet of line let loose, then locked the lever back into place.
“Alright now, Harry,” he called into the mic. “You ready?”
Harry didn’t respond, but when Oscar’s eyes slid over the other sailor’s ship he saw that the man was already out on his own deck, waving his arms.
“You’re still supposed to be keeping your boat straight!” Oscar said in anger, then turned the wheel to create an even wider berth between the two boats. Then he turned the throttle up, pushing to just a little ahead of Harry’s boat.
“Alright, alright,” Oscar told himself encouragingly, then cut the throttle and locked the wheel in place. As his boat slid backwards he ran back to the rope pooled out on the deck. With practiced skill he found its end and coiled it around his hand as he leapt to the port side. His boat came level with Oscar’s for just a moment and he gave a mighty fling, arcing the rope through the air and into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled it to his chest for dear life, then sprinted towards the front of his trawler to ran it through his bow cleat. Meanwhile Oscar dashed back to his wheel and spun it rapidly to correct for drift. He wiped the back of his sleeve over his rain-soaked brow and tried to catch his breath.
“Harry, are you ready yet?” Oscar spoke into the mic, but there was no response. He raised the throttle, moving ahead of Harry’s boat and giving a safer distance between them, but he was very careful to not pull the line out before Harry had it secured.
It was very difficult to try and hold steady in such rolling waves, but the true challenge would begin only after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. One had to maintain constant tension or else something would break from the intermittent slacking and tightening of the line. One had to keep enough distance between the two boats so that Harry’s wouldn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. One had to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was down in the valley of the previous and vice versa. One had to be careful to keep the line straight between them, not letting the wind blow one off to an angle from the other. If that happened one or both might be pulled sideways into the drink.
In short, there were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong, and any of them could easily end in disaster. For any other fisherman in their small town Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.
Oscar paused to ask himself why it had to be Harry? Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?
“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice broke from the radio.
“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar immediately returned to the matter at hand. “Then you throw your engine on and you give whatever you’ve got to keep us level. I’ll do the pulling and I’ll warn you for every turn, you just make sure you stay right behind me and maintain the tension.”
“Of course Oscar. And…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”
“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference, it was an order. Oscar pushed the throttle control forward and his engine hummed loudly, slowly edging the trawler forward.
Oscar eased back a little. He didn’t want to hit tension on the rope too quickly and snap it. He watched as the last feet of slack pulled out of the line, and then his vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously. Nothing broke, though, and the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.
“Alright,” Oscar called into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little starboard here. You keep going straight at first and let the rope pull you into line.”
“I know, Oscar. I know.”
If you know so much, then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.
Oscar turned the wheel, swiveling his stern twenty degrees. The most efficient route back home would be to make a wide turn right, continue until they were past the cape, then right again and back to the docks.
Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat was now at a slant to the waves, and they were thundering against his hull and drenching his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked back-and-to-the right to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black, as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle, alone in their own, thick darkness.
A reverberating whine came from behind and Oscar saw Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling the rope at an angle.
“I said stay straight!” Oscar shouted into the mic.
“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!” Oscar bit his wrinkled lip and spun the wheel back to port. They would have to try a shallower angle into the waves, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could handle.
He brought their angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, then checked over his shoulder. No good, the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.
So he reduced down to twenty-five degrees and checked again. Still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, it continually wavered back and forth, never settling.
Twenty degrees and at last the rope moved back to center.
“We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” Harry’s voice was flush with relief. Oscar wasn’t relieved, though. Far from it. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get past the cape, meaning they’d be spending twice as long in the heart of the sea.
Twice as long in the ink. The murky green glow from beneath the waves had extinguished, and somewhere beyond the clouds the last remnants of the sun had expired. All was pitch black now, and the men could barely see each wave before they were already upon it. And those waves had progressed from small hills to sheer mountains. Each yawned high above the sailors, tipping their boats skyward, then breaking across their bows in a fury. Then came the rapid drop down the trough on the other side. The wind seemed to shriek around their wheelhouses in every direction at once, and the rain pelted them sideways.
Well, they had arrived…. This was the full height of the storm’s intensity and they would be locked within this fearful epicenter all the way back to shore.
Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles, locked his knees in place, and stared ahead with unblinking eyes. Each successive wave was a new trauma heaped upon the last like an extra brick on his back.
“I can’t do this,” Oscar said hoarsely to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
“I don’t think you have any choice in it anymore,” another side of him replied.
If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly, his eyes shone with unshed saltwater.
“I should have quit after I lost James.”
“No,” his other side returned. “You should have quit before you lost your son.”
“I’m sorry,” his chest quivered and the tears finally dribbled down his cheeks. “I should never have trusted him to Harry.”
The next wave slammed against the front of Oscar’s boat like a slap across the face. His feet jerked out from under him and he had to catch hold of a shelf to keep from falling.
“Keep it together!” he urged, spinning the wheel further to port to account for how the wave had pushed him off his line.
The boat swung laboriously back, just in time for the next wave to collide with it. This again turned him from his line, and Oscar had to turn the wheel even further to port. The third wave struck and his boat was turned until it was nearly broadside to the rolling current.
“Whoa there!–” Harry’s voice cautioned over the radio. Turning broadside would get Oscar swallowed in the waves very quickly!
For a third time Oscar turned his wheel to port, but his helm hit its absolute limit. His rudder could not turn any further. His boat was moving very sluggishly now, weighed down by the weight of water down in its hold. It would still make its turns, but only if granted enough time. And Oscar simply did not have “enough time” available, he only had the narrow window that lay between each crest of the waves.
“Alright Harry,” Oscar snatched the mic to his mouth, “we’ve got to go head-on into those waves. There’s going to be some tricky maneuvers coming up, so you just do everything you can to stay with me!”
Oscar locked the mic button down and set it on the panel. He would need both hands on the wheel for this next part.
Oscar knew it simply wouldn’t work cutting across the waves at a slant anymore. They would forget about taking the shortest line past the edge of the cape. The plan now was to turn fully into the waves, push against them, and put some more distance between them and the Broken Horn. Hopefully they could get distant enough that when they spun around there would be time to slice through the water to port, skimming past the cape’s shoals on their right.
Did they have enough fuel for that? Didn’t matter. They just had to deal with the situation now and worry about the rest later.
Oscar braced his legs as the next wave roared up to them. The whole boat creaked as it was pulled upwards, bow pointed towards the sky. As before, the wave was slowly turning his boat to starboard, but Oscar still kept his wheel locked as far to port as possible.
Now came a great whooshing sound and a burst of foam as Oscar crested the wave at an angle. The man swung his head around, watching until Harry’s boat burst through the top of the wave also.
“Harry, hold that angle and give me a little slack!” Oscar called.
Now the old seaman thrust his wheel hard to starboard, opposite the way he needed to go! All the water in the hold rushed over, making the boat careen onto its side. Oscar splayed his toes wide, feeling the vessel through his boots. He waited until the water to hit the hull wall and started to slosh back the other way. As soon as he felt that rebound he spun the wheel back to port as quickly as possible, encouraging the water as it flowed back across the hold and slammed into the other side of the hull.
The rudder and the sloshing water combined to give Oscar that extra push, just enough to finally pull his boat out of its angle and head-on into the waves.
“Now, Harry! Get back in line behind me!”
There came a heavy thud as the rope between the boats ran out of slack and the full weight of Harry’s vessel tugged hard at Oscar’s. Oscar gave a shout and gripped tighter on the wheel as it tried to spin out of control. The water down below barrelled into the stern of the boat, then rolled backwards, slowing him down.
“Full throttle, Harry, full throttle!” Oscar cried, punching his own speed up to maximum. The next wave was already upon them, and they would need all the speed they could get in order to push through. Otherwise it would flip them over backwards!
Oscar’s boat was slow to answer the call, its propellers spun valiantly, but the vessel was nearly double its normal weight, and as it crawled towards the peak of the wave it grew slower and slower. The stern tried to follow the path of least resistance, tried to tip either to one side or the other, and Oscar had to spin the wheel back-and-forth to counter its shying. He poured everything he had into the engines, forcing the craft to obey!
Then came a sudden blow from behind and the sound of crunching. Oscar’s boat had slowed down faster than Harry could turn his own boat out of the way!
“Harry!” Oscar shouted in anger, but then he felt the push. Harry’s vessel was still pressing forward, and even against the slope of the wave, Oscar realized he was accelerating again. So he snapped his eyes back forward and steered his way through the top of the wave. The surf finally broke over his prow, and the boat gained speed as it rushed down the wave’s backside.
“Alright, Harry, that was lucky,” he pulled the mic back to his mouth. “But you keep your distance on the way up these waves, you hear?”
Oscar didn’t hear any response, but then realized he still had the button on his mic locked down. He released it just in time to hear the last of Harry’s reply.
“–and I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want your ‘sorry,’ Harry,” he shot back. “Just competence.”
Oscar dropped the mic to the desk and busied himself setting the throttle. Through the next dozen waves he tried to maintain a steady clip forward. It was an agonizing balancing act. They needed to move forward quickly enough to make headway against the waves, but that meant consuming a lot of fuel, which the two of them were running dangerously low on. Harry, who had been fighting against the storm for longer, was running particularly low on it.
“Oh–oh–” Harry’s concerned voice came over the radio.
“What is it?” Oscar demanded, but just then he felt the strain of Harry’s boat pulling back against his own and he knew.
“I’m out of fuel.”
“I–I think so.”
“Don’t you have a spare tank?”
“Yeah, I used it already!”
They came to the rise of the next wave. Oscar’s boat started to burst through the crown, but Harry’s boat wasn’t able to maintain speed. It held Oscar’s boat like an anchor, and he felt himself moving backward with the wave. Harry cried out in fear as his boat cut low through the water’s rise, drenching his deck, and threatening to smash the windows on his wheelhouse.
“You there?” Oscar demanded as they finally broke through to the other side.
“Run out to the front of the boat, here comes my spare tank.”
Oscar locked his wheel in place, grabbed the plastic tank from under a seat, and dashed to the back of the boat. He paused to pour a fifth of its contents into his own fuel-starved engine, then he stood with his foot on the stern and threw the canister through the air into Harry’s waiting arms.
As Oscar looked backwards he tried to pick out the Broken Horn, to determine if they were far enough away to turn around. That spare tank had only had a gallon of diesel remaining, and divided across the two of them it wouldn’t last even an hour. Were they far enough from the cape to turn around now?
And in answer to his questions he saw only blackness. The Broken Horn wasn’t visible at all through the darkness that pressed close to them. Oscar couldn’t even see forty yards distant. Perhaps they had pushed away from the cape, or they might have been sliding even closer to it. He couldn’t tell. When they turned, they would have no way of telling how near the dangers were until they were right upon them!
“Oscar!” Harry’s voice broke through the howling wind, his hand pointed fearfully ahead. Oscar turned around just in time to see his vessel sliding up the ramp of the next wave!
Oscar muttered a deluge of insults to himself for being such a distracted fool as he turned on the spot and sprinted towards the wheelhouse. Too late, though. The wave burst across the prow of his boat just then, and he had to grab the nearest line for dear life. The torrent knocked his feet out from under him, endless gallons of water poured into his face, and all the world became confusion! All he could do was hold fast to his line and hope that he would come through at the other end.
Did he even still hold the line? Had it even been properly secured to the boat? Oscar couldn’t say. The sensations coursing across his body were so numerous that he couldn’t say whether he was on deck or in the ocean or holding water or holding air. But he clamped his fingers in place anyway, there was nothing else he could do, and finally the flood abated and he still stood upon his deck.
But he was standing nearly sideways! For without his guidance the boat had been pushed to the side by the wave, and now was careening to starboard, likely to capsize at any moment!
“NO!” Oscar shouted, fumbling hand-over-hand along the rope, trying to make his way to the wheelhouse. If he didn’t make it there before the next wave hit he would be left hanging upside down in the water, his boat suspended over him for a roof!
Suddenly there came a great creaking sound and the entire boat was yanked back to port, forcibly drawn onto its hull. Oscar looked to the edge of the boat and found himself facing the Broken Wing. Harry had quickly moved to the Last Horizon’s side, using their tether to pull the boat back into its place. Oscar gave a grunt for his thanks, then dashed to the wheelhouse and took hold of helm and throttle.
“Are you alright there?” Harry’s voice called nervously over the radio.
“Yeah, I’m here–” Oscar said dismissively. “I was–I just had–I’m alright now.”
“Harry, let’s get out of here,” Oscar decided, anxious to change the topic.
“We’re going to turn around?”
“We’re just taking too much of a beating. So yes, let’s hold through this last wave, and then turn back.”
The two vessels made their way through the next wave and then began the arduous process of turning around. They were so waterlogged now that what usually would have been a simple maneuver had become a herculean labor.
“It’s too slow” Harry shouted over the wave. “We’re going to get hit broadside by the next wave!”
“Turn back slightly!”
The two men barely got their boats swiveled back to enough of an angle to slice up the wave diagonally.
“Now keep up the other way!”
By the time the next wave reached them they nearly had their backs fully to it. Close enough to perpendicular that they were lifted and rushed forward, making their way back towards the coastline.
“Now keep your eyes open wide!” Oscar shouted into the mic as he leaned forward to stare intently through his own window. “If you so much as wonder whether you’ve seen the cape, call it out! And keep a steady pull to port!”
Oscar settled his boat at a twenty degree angle from the onslaught of the waves. He pumped the throttle forward during the low point after each wave, then cut power to better feel the movements of the boat as it lifted into the air. He reached up and turned off the overhead light and covered the blinking LED on the radio, casting himself into complete darkness so that he could see more clearly through the storm outside.
Would they even be able to see the cape? Quite possibly not. There was no moon and no stars, and the storm-mist around them was so black that there may not be any way to tell it from rock face. All they knew for sure was that they weren’t yet around the cape, for if they were they would be able to see the beacon from the lighthouse. So long as there was no light, they were still in danger.
One dark minute slid by, and then another. Then another three. And each one of them felt like a greater pronouncement of doom upon the lost sailors. How many minutes could they spare before they would already be upon a stone-hard reckoning?
“Further to port!” Oscar commanded.
Oscar spun the wheel to the left, coming thirty degrees from perpendicular to the waves. The next crest rolled into them and there was the unsettling sensation of being tilted far to the right as they glided up it, then rolled steeply back to the left as it left them in its wake, the boats threatening as they sloshed back and forth to roll all the way over at any moment.
“Whatever fuel we’ve got left, burn it now!” Oscar ordered, turning his throttle up to maximum. With new life the vessel churned forward…then came a jerking halt as the line ran taut and Harry’s vessel dragged Oscar’s back.
“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Harry grunted as he struggled to get his controls to respond. “There we go!” he crowed as his engines came fully to life. “Oh wait, no!” they cut out again after just a few seconds, causing the rope between them to snap taut again. “I think–maybe–” the engines came back for another moment. “Oh come on!” the engines cut out once more.
Oscar ground his teeth together. This relaxing and tightening of the line would snap it in two in no time. Much as he wanted to surge on ahead, he would just have to pace himself with what Harry’s boat could handle.
“Is it steadier at lower speeds?” Oscar asked.
“Yes, the engine holds if I don’t throttle over twenty percent.”
“Alright. You keep it there. I’ll tug.”
Oscar slowed his boat down until both he and Harry were travelling at the same, slow speed. Then he gradually sped up, until the line between came back to full tension. From there he added more power, but only in small increments, accelerating both boats together as one. It was working…but they were less than half the speed that Oscar’s boat could have gone at on its own.
“Come on, Harry, come on,” Oscar mumbled, willing the other man’s boat to spring to greater life. Every now and again he looked over his shoulder to keep bearings on what was going on behind him, and each time he saw Harry’s boat being an anchor, weighing him back into the storm, and he despised Harry for that. “How many sailors have to die under your hand before you’re through?” he muttered darkly.
Then he looked to the front, still watching for any sign of the cliff-face, or better yet, of the lighthouse. He saw neither, yet by looking so earnestly his mind started playing tricks on him, making him think he had caught a glimpse of one or the other out of the corner of his eye.
Oh was that a moving light?! No, just a reflection of sheet lightning on the rolling wave. Was that a rock springing out of the dark in front of him?! No, just one cloud moving past another.
“Turn deeper, Harry. “Let’s bring it to forty degrees!”
“Alright…if you’re sure…”
“No, I’m not sure of anything anymore.” Oscar replied, but only to himself. He was surprised that they still hadn’t seen either the saving light or the damning rock. Had he become more turned around than he realized? Was he actually headed away from the shoreline? His compass said no. Had he somehow travelled further south than the lighthouse, so that now it would be on his starboard side and not his port? But he looked to starboard and nothing was there.
The next wave rolled under them. Harry gripped hard to the wheel and planted his foot against the side of the wheelhouse to keep his balance as he careened to the right and then the left. But his ship still held steady through it all.
“Forty-five degrees, Harry! Make it forty-five!”
The next wave seemed an eternity. By slicing up and down its sides they were spending a lot more time tilted precariously, which meant a lot more time for the water in the hold to collect on the downward side. Oscar tried to feel through his boots how near the floor was to spinning out from under him, his hands twitching on the wheel, ready to throw to starboard at the first sign of trouble.
But then, all at once, he felt a sharp tug from behind, and without even looking he knew what it meant: Harry’s boat had started to roll, and if it did so it would take him down with it! Without thinking about it, Oscar threw his wheel all the way to port, swiveling his boat to be fully parallel with the wave. A sudden torrent of water slammed against the side of the wheelhouse, flooding over his vessel and threatening to swamp him at any moment! But only for a moment, and then the boat burst through the crest of the wave, hung suspended in the open the air, then crashed down on the backside of the wave, hauling at Harry’s boat until it had pulled him back from his roll without a moment to spare!
Oscar reached for his mic to bark out new instructions but out of the corner of his eye he saw that Harry’s boat was careening down the back of the wave on a collision course for his own! So he clutched the wheel and throttle instead, frantically maneuvering to get out of the way. He nearly managed to clear a path, but the two boats still scraped their sides alongside of one another. Harry’s boat kept descending down, while Oscar’s lingered in place, and soon the line snapped taut between them again, spinning Oscar’s boat around in a circle.
“Come on!” Oscar snarled, desperately fighting to get control of the situation. But they were at the low point between waves, and the next one was already bearing down on them. They were anything but prepared to ride through it. Oscar’s own boat was sideways to the oncoming wall, and Harry’s boat was swaying back and forth unpredictably.
Oscar’s hands fumbled back and forth over the controls, but there were too many competing forces at play to account for them all. Each turn or acceleration just seemed to add to the chaos. He had worn his nerves all the way down, and he couldn’t keep doing this any longer.
The heaving wave was upon them now, and Oscar gave up trying to find a clever maneuver through it. He just held onto the helm, held onto it dear life. The wave hit, and all became utter chaos. The rolling torrent poured into the wheelhouse and slammed against Oscar. His feet slid on the wet floor, and his clenched fists twitched left and right as he fought to maintain his balance. His eyes roved right and left as he tried to get his bearings, tried to make sense of the wind and the wave and his vessel. But his mind failed to register these things anymore. It had had enough trying to be clever. All was a pure cacophony, and he felt as if this was his first time standing at the wheel, absolutely clueless in what to do.
Yet for all his confusion, there was at least one thing that remained perfectly clear and certain to him. And it was doom. A doom that was so wide and so vast that it crowded out any other comprehension from his mind. At long last, after years of threatening to do so, it had come for him.
“Oscar…” Harry’s soft voice spoke over the radio. “We’re going to both die if we keep up like this. But I’ll bet you still have enough fuel to get around the cape…if you weren’t towing me that is.”
“But I am towing you Harry.”
“Oscar I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be. The sea knows I’ve done wrong by you…and it’s brought you here to make things right between us.”
“Harry, please stop. I don’t want—”
“I lied to you Oscar.”
The next wave yawned twice as wide as any previous. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and braced for impact.
Harry continued. “I told you that when I took your son out sailing he forgot to tie down his safety line in that storm. But James was too bright for that. He secured one for himself and for me. He did it just as soon as he knew we were in real trouble.”
The boats tilted upwards for the approach into the wave, like ants trying to scale a mountain. The wave’s broad slope created a wide surface for the wind to roar haphazardly down, shoving the nose of the boats erratically to right and left.
Still Harry went on. “That hour we dashed around the boat like mad, trying to tie everything down. I went up to the stern and he went aft. The boat just kept reeling from side-to-side, and each time seemed like the one that would finally throw us in the drink.”
A mighty crack sounded as one of the lines on Oscar’s boat snapped. He wasn’t sure which one it was and he didn’t check to see.
“Each wave swamped us, half drowned us! I was praying and cursing with all the breath I had left. I made my way back to the mainmast and kept throwing knots on and off at every turn. Trying to pull out the slack and tighten them better.”
Oscar’s boat broke through the crest, but rolled far to its side. He flung his arms our for balance as he slid down the water-hill sideways.
“Then the next wave washed over us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth. I couldn’t see. It seemed like an eternity, but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. Just nothing. James… wasn’t there.”
Oscar’s boat hit bottom and a tide of water swept into the cabin. Oscar slipped and fell to his knees. He gripped the wheel only by his fingertips, trying to hold his way through the wave unseeing.
If the storm still raged outside Oscar couldn’t say. Either the wind had actually gone silent and the waves had dissipated and the lightning had ceased flashing, or else he had just stopped hearing and seeing all these things. All that he could perceive were the words of Harry’s continued confession.
“I undid his safety line, Oscar. I–I don’t know how I could have, but I did. Somehow in all my blundering I pulled it up along with the other knots… I–I killed him!”
Oscar’s eyes flowed steady streams. His mouth was open but silent. His whole body heaved as it expelled the last of the air from his lungs. He gripped the wheel by only the very edges of his fingertips, his hands twitching on the cusp of letting go.
“And then I didn’t tell you the truth about it all, Oscar. I let you believe your son was lost because of his own mistake, but it was mine…. I undid the wrong lifeline that day, Oscar, and fifteen years later I’m still waiting for someone else to untie mine because I’m too much a coward to do it myself… So why don’t you let me go now and make for the shore?”
Oscar’s heart beat heavily inside him. Beat like it would tear him right in two. The pounding of his heart was matched by the pounding of the waves against his boat. They buffeted his vessel where they would and he did nothing to stop it.
He dropped his gaze to the controls before him. There, on the left, was the button to release the line from his boom. He could press it, and it would finally cut this cord that bound him to Harry. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong in pressing it. Just as Harry had said, they couldn’t survive this together, so he may save what he could: himself. Any other sailor would do the same. No one would say he hadn’t done his duty. He had tried, he had really tried. But there had to be a limit! There had to be a point where he had done all that he could and it just didn’t work and he could let it go now. At some point he had to cut off this weight that dragged him down.
Oscar rested his palm on the control panel, fingers stretching in the direction of the button, but his arm refused to extend enough to let them reach it.
Because no matter how justified he might be to cut off this rescue on paper, there simply was no way for him to press that button that wasn’t vengeful. There was no way to separate his emotions from the action, to be able to say in his heart that it was a calculated matter of procedure, and that it had no malice behind it. There would be a malice. The act would not be innocent, because he could not do it from an honorable heart.
Besides—Oscar looked out at the black horizon—what did it matter anymore? It was already too late. Whatever life had remained in him was already expired into the storm. The struggle had taken all that he had, and there was no more desire to find his way out of this place.
And as Oscar stared into that void, welcoming oblivion, a strange discoloration appeared in the dark before him. It was a patch of black that grew lighter and lighter, yellower and warmer, larger and larger. Or rather its edges grew larger, but it center grew smaller and more focused. And then, all at once, it pierced through the storm and became a shining light. A light that was tearing through mist and dark and night to fill Oscar’s eye.
“Sam?” he croaked.
“Oscar?” Harry’s awed voice came over the radio. “Is that–is that the lighthouse?”
“Yes,” Oscar said, though not into the radio. “I do believe it is.”
And in the face of the light Oscar could not consign himself to the watery depths any longer. He had been willing to quietly accept oblivion, but dark thoughts belonged to dark places, and with the path now illuminated ahead all he could think to do was follow it. So he placed his hands back on wheel and throttle and slowly raised the engine back to life.
“The waves,” he mused to himself, “the waves have been pushing us back home all this time.” The very forces of nature that had seemed to condemn them had actually steered them back to safety. Oscar couldn’t understand it, but if that was the will of the ocean, then who was he to refute it?
As the lighthouse beacon swung in its circle it briefly illuminated the sentinel figure of the Broken Horn. It was far to starboard and a little behind. How long ago had the two sailors made it around its treacherous shoals and didn’t even know it?
But never mind that place. Never mind it ever again.
Now with the waves and wind behind them and the lighthouse and shore ahead, they pounded forward with all the fury of the sea. The the wind, and the rain ushered them forward, and the shallower, smaller waves rocked them on their way.
When the two boats reached a thousand feet from the shore the lighthouse beacon stopped circling. Sam must have spotted them, and now he kept the giant searchlight fixed upon them, keeping their path in permanent illumination.
Oscar didn’t even try to navigate a proper landing at the dock, though. Any other day it would have been the most routine of maneuvers, but today he only had enough nerve for one target: the sprawling beach.
Closer and closer the shore loomed, until at last Oscar’s hull crunched across the sand, and the boat keeled to its starboard side until it came to a rest. Oscar tried to let go of the helm a few times before his clenched hands finally accepted the order. Then he stumbled out of the wheelhouse and tried to let himself over the railing. Halfway over it his arms gave out and he flopped unceremoniously onto the wet sand below, coming to a sitting position with his back against his boat.
The breaking waves lapped against his feet, the wind roared in his ear, and the rain pelted at his face, but he didn’t register them at all. He just sat in silence as Harry’s trawler crunched across the sand twenty feet ahead of him.
“Oscar!” Harry’s voice called out from above. “Oscar, where are you?!”
Harry flung himself over his own railing and onto the sand, almost running straight into Oscar before he finally saw him there.
“Oscar, are you alright?”
Oscar just looked up and blinked silently at the other man.
“Oscar, I’m sorry,” Harry cried. “I know that doesn’t change anything, but I’m just–I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know what to do Harry,” Oscar finally mumbled out. “I just don’t know what happens now.”
There was a long silence, and the two men just stared at each other. For the first time since James’ death, they really saw one another.
Then came the sound of a new voice calling out through the night. It came from down the beach and over the hill, where a single lantern was bobbing towards them. Sam was coming to find them.
“Oscar, let’s go talk to Sam,” Harry extended his hand out.
“Sam’s a good man. He’ll know what to do. He’ll know what happens now. Let’s just go talk to him and see what he has to say?”
Oscar thought for a moment, then slowly reached out and took Harry’s hand, letting the man pull him back up to his feet. Then Harry put his arm around Oscar’s shoulder and supported him as they turned their backs to the sea and hobbled away, making for the swinging light.
Normally I use Wednesdays to post a chapter of my current short story. But I’ve just wrapped up work on Covalent, and I want to take a moment to examine that story, what went well, and what could have been improved on. So next week will be the first chapter of my new short story: Secrets in the Mountain.
Where Are We Going?
Not for the first time, this short story got away from me! Covalent began with a very clear vision for how to begin and how to end, but all the in-between I would have to figure out along the way.
Many times this approach has worked for me. I get to roam freely, but having a clear destination in mind allows me to still end up where I want. Sometimes, though, I manage to thwart my plans the ending without even realizing it. I don’t recognize how the steps I am taking make the intended conclusion a poor fit until they’ve already been taken and published. At that point I have to let go of the ending and feel my way to a new sort of conclusion.
So what was the original intention for Covalent? Well, I always wanted it to be a story about three children in a strange and dangerous forest, where the youngest of them has a connection to a parallel world that he uses to help protect the others. That parallel world would provide them many advantages, but through it the boy would also inadvertently wake the most dangerous menace yet! Wielding powers he did not understand may have introduced their new foe, but gaining a true mastery of that power would be their only hope of surviving. The boy would have no choice but to delve still further into the parallel world.
Which is pretty much where the current story has brought us, so far all seems well. But the rest of the story was going to show how the boy had to surrender more and more of himself to the alternate world, which would result in his transformation, gradually changing him from human to machine. He would have to sacrifice his body and soul, giving up his own identity to protect the other two children.
And this arc has been compromised by some of the things that I recently wrote into the story. First and foremost, it is essential that the boy is sacrificing everything so that his friends can be spared the same fate. He is supposed to turn into the machine so that they don’t have to, just as young soldiers endure the horrors of war so that the “folks back home” don’t have to. But in my current iteration, I have already ruined both of the friends that the boy is supposed to be protecting. This completely undoes my central theme!
Tied in Knots)
I got into this conundrum through the best of intentions. First there was the matter of needing Cace to go back to the Ether after his last visit had nearly killed him. I realized that there needed to be a moment of desperate need, a situation that he would be willing to risk his life to resolve. So I had Rolar be attacked by a beast and left dying. Cace rushed into the Ether to save him, which was exactly where I wanted him to be.
But now, how was he to save him? I thought it would be cheap for him to just flip a few switches and bring Rolar back, right as rain. Things had been broken and I wanted there to be a real cost for saving Rolar. I went with the first idea that occurred to me: Cace had to swap parts of Rolar with those of another creature, which resulted in Rolar surviving, but also being transformed in the overworld.
But now Rolar was the one being ravaged from Cace’s expeditions to the Ether, not Cace. Rolar’s normal life is already ruined, which breaks half of that theme of Cace sacrificing himself to preserve normalcy for his friends.
But what about his other friend, Aylme? Well, I wanted to develop her while Cace was busy trying to save Rolar. I wanted to show how much grit and determination she had, trying to save the two boys while they were unconscious. Once again, though, I felt that there needed to be a cost here. I didn’t want the segment to be “oh no, something bad is happening, but Aylme works really hard and escapes the threat entirely, so it really didn’t have any impact.” Another major theme of this story is that the danger is real. It has teeth. So it only felt natural to have Aylme rescue the boys, but she ends up being taken by the threat instead. Which felt like a great story beat in the moment, but now the second half of my motivation for Cace’s ongoing sacrifice is gone.
At this point Cace is virtually alone. Aylme is completely unconscious and under the control of the enemy and Rolar has been reduced to a half-monster, almost entirely devoid of his original character and nuance. So now Cace wouldn’t be fighting for them at all, because they’re already pretty much lost.
At this point I could try and continue the story anyway, coming up with a new arc for Cace and a new conclusion. Maybe Cace doesn’t sacrifice himself to preserve them, but to retrieve them. But if I do that then it’s no longer the story that I was initially so excited to tell. I felt it would be better to fade to black instead, and then revisit it later.
And I really would like to revisit it, because there actually is a lot of good that came out of this free-roaming process.
For one thing, I now know the exact nature of the Ether and of the water-beast that Cace inadvertently unleashed. In my previous notes I didn’t really understand the rules of these things, but through this exercise I’ve been able to clear that all up. The Ether is a large machine, with individual modules interconnected, which modules can be rearranged to invent new things in the overworld. That’s a great mechanic, and something I didn’t have before taking this journey. The water-beast is based off of resonance and rippling effects. It disrupts all living things to force them into harmonizing with itself. That is also a compelling idea.
Another thing I discovered was the importance of characters flinging themselves into danger for one another. I still want to change things so that Cace is the one primarily making sacrifices for his friends, but I don’t want to lose the bit of Rolar and Aylme throwing themselves into the fire for their friends, too. There was a great segment in the middle of the story where Rolar rushed to battle to save Cace, then Aylme rushed to save Rolar, then Cace dove into the Ether to bring Rolar’s consciousness back, then Aylme hauled the boys to safety while they were trapped in the Ether. This was very endearing, and I absolutely want to hold onto that and have it as a central theme.
How I Would Move Forward)
If I had more of this blog written ahead of time, I probably would have tried to revise things before they were already published. I believe the simplest shift would be to keep the story beats mostly the same, but to cut down on the costs that Rolar and Aylme had to pay for their heroics.
First I would have had Cace fill the broken pieces in Rolar with his own submodules, resulting in a mostly-normal Rolar, but a drastically shifted Cace. And I still would have wanted Aylme to be attacked by the dark water entity, but instead of being entirely lost, perhaps she could have just had her consciousness split. Part of her would still be with Cace and Rolar, but it would be tormented by the other half of her consciousness, which now served the enemy and was trying to bring about their demise.
For what it’s worth, I do think I will end up making these changes to the story, just not yet. I’ll see how I’m feeling at the time, but right now my intention is to make Covalent the next story that I revise in The Editor’s Bench. I’ll wait until I’ve finished with The Storm before making the decision final, but one way or another I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of this story!