A Minute at a Time

clock close up time
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Christopher slowly cracked the door open, taking a peek into his son’s bedroom. Heavy curtains shaded the room in a perpetual dusk, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. His hopes of finding the child fast asleep quickly faded as he instead made out the silhouette of the little two-year-old sitting upright on his bed, clawing at the tube running into his nose.

“I don’t like it!” Teddy squawked in frustration as he caught sight of his father.

“I know, Ted, I know,” Christopher muttered, quickly closing the distance to his son and gently pulling his chubby hands down from his face. “I don’t like it either.” He tutted sympathetically at the red marks on the cheek where Teddy has successfully pried the tape loose. “Here, let me fix this.”

“No! Take it off!” the child squirmed, trying to fight Christopher off as he realigned the tube and taped it back into place.

“Don’t you remember what we said about this?” Christopher asked, his voice strained by the ongoing struggle. “We know it’s really, really hard. But this is so important because this is how you get your medicine. If you don’t get your medicine you’re going to be really sick like before. Understand?”

Teddy did not understand. He only became more agitated and began to lunge for the side of the bed, trying to get away from his father. “Let me go!” he whined.

“If you can’t sleep you don’t have to,” Christopher conceded.

Naps with Teddy were hit or miss these days. When he was able to sleep things were so much better. Sleep was the one time that he was free from the otherwise constant aches and pains, even if only for a short time. On the other hand, not being able to sleep meant that those aches and pains would now be compounded with general crankiness. The little boy might escalate in frustration for hours until sheer exhaustion would finally force him to lose consciousness. It looked like this afternoon was going to be one of the hard ones.

“Let’s try and eat some food, then,” Christopher suggested. Teddy had refused to eat any lunch before his nap.

“No,” Teddy shook his head as Christopher scooped him into his arms. “It’s ouchie.” By way of explanation he wrapped his hands around his throat.

“We’ll get some formula, then, something that isn’t too rough on you.”

Teddy didn’t protest, but he gave a small whimper of dissatisfaction. They made their way to the kitchen, and once there Christopher put his son down in a chair and began preparing the bottle. The child whimpered louder and rubbed his eyes slowly, but he was too tired to try and move from the spot.

“I want Mommy,” Teddy finally moaned.

“I know, buddy, I know,” Christopher sighed. “Mommy pulled the midday shift for today, though,” he explained before realizing his son wouldn’t understand. “Mommy had to do some extra work.”

“No,” Teddy shook his head.

“It’s important. So we can pay for your medicine.”

“No more medicine,” the toddler started clawing at his tube again.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that!” Christopher chided in exasperation. He spun the lid onto the bottle and rushed over to stop Teddy. “Kiddo, c’mon…”

Another brief struggle ensued as Christopher resettled the tube again. He tried to think of how to explain these things to his son, not for the first time. After a moment he shook his head in defeat, not for the first time. How was a toddler to understand having to hurt for his own greater good? A toddler shouldn’t have to understand those sorts of things. “Teddy I know you don’t want to have your medicine. But Mommy and Daddy need you to have it.”

“Why?” Teddy croaked.

“Just because we need you to.” Christopher stroked his son’s hair. “And we also need you to trust us. We need you to do this just because we love you.”

Teddy grimaced, and squirmed to get away from his father’s affection, too grumpy to accept that kindness right now. So Christopher grabbed the bottle instead. “Here, try this,” Christopher placed the nipple into his son’s mouth, where it hung loosely as Teddy just gave his father a withering look. “Don’t you want to try to drink some?”

“It’s ouchie,” Teddy merely repeated, tapping his throat lightly.

Christopher hung his head in defeat. The child didn’t go into a tantrum, he didn’t scream, and he didn’t throw anything. His eyes just started welling up with tears until he blinked and they gushed down his cheeks, a whimpering cry quivering from his lips.

Christopher felt the tension in him break and he started to cry as well. He knelt down on the floor and wrapped his hands around Teddy’s legs, clasping them behind his bottom, holding him ever so gently yet with such fervent intent.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Teddy,” Christopher gulped out. “I’m just so sorry.”

For a sweet, bitter moment they just rested there, breaking the silence only with the soft sound of their mutual sobs. Every now and then Christopher would look in his son’s eye and briefly reaffirm the difficulty of the situation.

“It’s really hard. Isn’t it, Teddy?” he’d say and Teddy would nod sadly and say “Yeah.”

“You don’t like doing this, do you?” he’d say and Teddy would shake his head and say “No.”

“You just want to be all better right now, huh?” he’d say and Teddy would nod again and say “Yes, daddy.”

As the tears started to slow down one last thing broke in Christopher and behind a fresh curtain of tears he muttered. “I wanted to never let something like this happen to you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

Teddy didn’t say anything, but he looked at his father intently, and as he did so his eyes stopped watering. Finally he raised the bottle back to his lips and took a few deep gulps from its contents.

“Good boy,” Christopher smiled, wiping away both of their tears. “You want to read a book?”

Teddy nodded and Christopher scooped him back up. Together they moved over to the living room bookcase, and selected a favorite story, one about an anthropomorphic boat. Christopher sat down on the nearby couch, Teddy on his lap, opened the book and began to read.

At five pages in Christopher noticed that Teddy had stopped sucking from the bottle and when he glanced down he found that the child was asleep. Christopher sighed contentedly, closed the book, and reclined more fully into the couch.

He began gently stroking his son’s back and he looked upwards, mouthing a silent prayer of thanks. Things were still hard and in only an hour the struggle would start all over again. But for now, this was enough.

*

As I mentioned on Monday, our nature is such that we give and take influence to and from those we are closest with. We are defined at least in part by where others’ shadows intersect with our own. In this story I tried to present a father and son that are hurting together. Though their specific roles in their shared challenge are different, they still do share that challenge. When one of them hurts, both of them feel it.

Also note how this story is presented in contrast to the short piece from last week. In both cases we began with a father trying to connect with a son. In this one, as in Cursed, the father is trying to give something to the child. Ekal was trying to give his son moral strength and Christopher was trying to give his son understanding. In both cases the son was not able to receive it. The difference here is that then Christopher transitions into taking, allowing himself to empathize for a moment with his son’s pain instead. Many relationships struggle when both parties are trying to actively push their influence on one another, never stopping to receive back in turn. We know that to converse is to exchange words in a back-and-forth discourse, but sometimes we forget to do the same with our emotions and empathy.

If there was a single word I would use to describe this short piece it would be “need.” Both Christopher and Teddy are coming into the situation with their own needs. At first they don’t even know what those needs are, and have to dig a little deeper to find what truly resonates. Character needs are obviously a huge consideration when sitting down to author a story, and I’m going to take some time next week to delve further into it. We’ll look more closely at the needs presented in this short story, and then consider ways other classic stories have incorporated their characters’ needs in a nuanced and meaningful manner. I’ll see you on Monday for that post!

Tico the Jester

silhouette of girl during night time painting
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Kara lifted the doll and cupped its face between her hands with intense earnestness. “Tico, the light locket is the most important thing forever,” she proclaimed with grave severity, adding a scowl and a nod to really drive the point home.

Tico’s painted eyes flickered and came to life as he awoke to a world that was a chubby little face framed in dark curls. He adopted her scowl and nodded in return. “Most important” he echoed, the tiny little bells on the ends of his jester’s hat tinkling softly.

“Good,” she approved of his understanding. Then, feeling the plot needed to be thickened, she added “we have to keep it safe with us no matter what happens.”

“Oh,” he said thoughtfully. “Is someone trying to take it, then?”

She seemed surprised by the question, and a look of worry passed over her face at the thought. “I don’t know, we’d better go check.” Tucking him under her arm she rushed out the door and down a hallway.

“Oh my,” he exclaimed, trying to make sense of the rapid changes in sensation he was experiencing.

“Don’t worry,” she told him.

“I won’t.”

She rounded another corner, sprinted to another room, and finally skidded to a halt. “Look, we’re here now.”

“Where’s here?”

“A mountain,” she breathed in awe, and even as she said it he realized it was so obvious that it embarrassed him to have had to ask.

“What’s a mountain?”

“Up now, quick!” and without another word she flung him through the air in a long arc. With a flop he landed on top of a cabinet.

“Oh, so this is a mountain,” he said, feeling the cheap, grainy wood.

“Yes. Now you have to watch while I look for the locket.”

Tico was realizing that these high places had a tendency to make one very nervous, but he didn’t want to disappoint the girl, so he pushed that nervousness from his mind and dutifully looked about in every direction. Seeing nothing he turned and called down to the girl “What am I watching for?”

“You have to watch for the Gleer!” she hissed back ominously.

“The Gleer?” he repeated, feeling a little tremble of fear. “What’s that?”

“A big, big monster.”

“Oh, I think we should go.”

“But you have to find the locket first!”

“I thought you were looking for the locket.”

“No, now I’m watching you and you have to find it.”

“Oh. Okay… is this it?” he held aloft a lost penny.

“Ummmm…” she cocked her head thoughtfully before enthusiastically declaring “Sure!”

“Oh good. Now get me down from here.”

“You have to jump, I’ll catch you.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good plan.”

“It’s good. You have to jump, then you’ll be down.”

“It doesn’t sound like a good plan for me.”

“It’s good. I’ll catch you.”

“Will you?”

“Sure.”

He flailed out his little arms and tumbled over the edge, turning round and round as he fell until he hit her hands and bounced off onto the ground. “You said you’d catch me!” he wailed.

“I did.”

“Well then?”

“And then I put you on the ground.”

“Very quickly!”

“Oh, I’m sorry. You’re okay now.”

“At least we got the locket.”

“Yes, very good,” she praised him. “Now you hold it and don’t ever lose it.”

Tico nodded solemnly, but before he could utter another word they were interrupted by a horrible sound; it was approaching them from the floor below with raised and sharp tones, ones that sounded like fear mistaken for anger. Something about it pierced the two of them straight to their cores.

“Ohhhh!” Tico trembled. “Is that the Gleer?!”

Kara didn’t answer, instead flashing her eyes at him and urging “Come on!” She pulled him close to her bosom and rushed back to her room, closing the door behind. She threw Tico onto her bed and he lay there panting for a bit before thinking to make sure he hadn’t lost the locket in his fright. It was still there and he tucked it safely behind a seam in his breast, then he closed his eyes and just rested from all the excitement.

*

The door was opening and Kara returned holding a large something in her arms.

“Oh, hello,” Tico said, dropping the pencil he had been trying to balance on his little palm. He started towards her but then paused in wonderment of what she was carrying. “What’s that?”

“A present, I guess,” Kara said offhandedly.

“No, what is it,” Tico asked again, approaching the thing cautiously and craning his neck to look around its side.

“A rabbit. Mommy gave me this, just like when she gave me you.”

“Mommy gave me?” Tico repeated very slowly, not understanding the words in the slightest.

“Never mind, I forget you don’t remember things.”

“I remember the light locket!” Tico threw out his chest proudly.

“The what?”

“The light locket,” Tico repeated, a little hurt that she didn’t recall. “I got it on the mountain.”

“Oh right, that was a long time ago.”

“Ah…is long time yesterday or tomorrow? I get mixed up on those.”

Kara just shook her head, she had tried explaining time to Tico before but it just wasn’t in his nature to understand.

“So what do we do now?” he gestured to the rabbit.

She turned the large stuffed creature to face her and sat down on the bed next to Tico with a light frown. “He looks a little suspicious.”

“What’s ‘spicious?”

She smiled at him. “Well, I guess his eyes are a little bit. See how they’re all crossways?”

“Yes, I had been about to point that out… Does he have a name?”

“Well of course he does… He’s Barty.”

At that Barty’s glassy eyes flashed with life and he looked the two of them over curiously. “Hello there,” he said smoothly.

“Hello Barty,” Kara said. She glanced around trying to think of a game for them to play. “Did you want to help us find the secret book?”

“Sure, that sounds like fun!” Barty nodded enthusiastically.

“What is the secret book?” Tico asked.

“Well, obviously a book full of secrets” Barty answered before Kara could, which Tico found a bit presumptuous, or at least he would have if he knew that word. “And it tells us all the things hidden in the world.”

Kara stood up quickly. “Well first we have to go to the dark cave where the book is kept.”

“What about him?” Tico cautioned, pointing to Barty. “He looks ‘spicious, remember?”

“Hmm, good point. How do we know you’re on our side Barty?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? And I’m not actually bad, you know, just a little mischievous,” he grinned broadly. “But I can always just be mischievous for you, and that could be quite useful.”

Tico looked to Kara and she grinned approvingly. Kara knew more than him, so that was enough to put his fears to rest.

With that settled, Kara scooped Tico and Barty up in her arms and strode out of the room. “Now off to the cave. Be sure to pack your flashlights because it is very dark in there.”

“Is the cave where we were stuck and got in trouble?”

“No, Tico, that was the car trunk.”

“Oh, let’s not go there again.”

“No, we won’t.”

“Excuse me, you two,” Barty chimed in, “but I haven’t got any flashlight.”

“I have one!” Tico said proudly. “I keep it here in my pocket.”

“Well if ever I get a flashlight and pocket I’ll be sure to keep them together.”

“Tico, when did you get a flashlight?” Kara asked skeptically.

“I…well maybe I didn’t. Oh no, it was just a string.”

“Oh well, I guess we’ll do it without flashlights then.”

“Perhaps our next adventure could be to find some flashlights,” Barty suggested.

“Good idea,” Kara nodded as she pulled a sliding door open and entered a closet. “Well we’re here now, but the book is hidden on that ledge up high.”

“The things we want are always up high,” Tico observed glumly.

“Maybe Barty can get it for us this time? I’m sure he could hop all the way up!”

Barty looked sheepishly back at them. “Well, you would think so, being a rabbit and all, but you see they didn’t actually make me with any knees.”

“Do I have knees?” Tico wondered aloud.

“Sort of.”

“Oh dear,” he muttered, realizing this meant he would be the one doing the climbing.

“It’s okay, if you fall I can catch you on my belly,” Barty offered. “They did at least give me a big, poofy one of those.”

While Tico would never admit it to Kara, Barty’s belly did appear to be a safer catcher than her hands, so he nodded and began his ascent to the ledge. It didn’t take long for him to reach the top, he had had lots of practice in this sort of thing from before. The next bit of finding things, though, was the part he wasn’t so good at. He found it required knowing what things were.

“Is this the book?” he held an item aloft.

“No. That’s a flashlight.”

“Oh, I’ll put it back then.”

“No! We may need that later,” Barty interjected.

“Oh right. Here you go.”

“…Oof! Perhaps my tummy isn’t as soft as I thought.”

“What?!”

“Never mind, Tico,” Kara hissed. “Find the book.”

“Well what does it look like?”

“Kind of like a journal.”

“What does that look like?”

“Oh that’s it right there! Your hand is on it… No, your left one… That’s not your left… Yes, there! Throw it down.”

Tico tried to throw the book, but he forgot to let go and so he came tumbling down with it and landed on Barty’s belly in a not-so-poofy way.

“Well done!” Kara exclaimed, picking the book-journal up and looking it over. Barty and Tico shook hands and were about to congratulate each other when Kara suddenly cocked her head and peered around the corner. “Wait!” she hissed. “I see something coming.”

Tico swallowed cotton. Of late it seemed that each of their quests was becoming more and more dangerous than the last, somehow always ending in a terrible chase. It amazed him that Kara could always laugh at the reckless peril that would ensue, and Tico admired that she could be so brave. He certainly was not. Indeed, if it weren’t for his great love for her, he didn’t think he would have had the courage to face these terrors again.

“Is it the Gleer?” Tico quavered. The Gleer had ever remained the most ominous foe they had faced, even now much of it was shrouded in complete mystery.

“It’s his dogs,” Kara called. “Which means he won’t be far behind!”

Tico had already started running the opposite direction, but he was slow and therefore grateful when she snatched him up alongside of Barty and the book, sprinting them away from the room. From his perch against Kara’s shoulder Tico allowed himself a peek behind them and saw a wave of pitch-black dogs contracting and then ferociously leaping after them.

“Ohhh, they’re getting closer…” he moaned.

“Do we have anything to throw at them?” Barty asked from the other shoulder, trying to be helpful.

“We have the book, but we can’t give that up,” Kara said resolutely, rounding a corner and bolting down the hall.

“And the flashlight,” Tico added, watching as the dogs swung around the corner on long arms like monkeys, then shifted back to their terrible bounding.

“We need that for later!” Barty protested. “Besides, it’s much too small to do any good.”

“Not if you turn it on!” Kara shouted. “They’re dark-dogs, the light will block them. Do it!”

Once Kara gave an order there was never any more arguing, so Barty turned the flashlight on and threw it behind Kara’s heels. His aim was true and the beam cut across the entire length of the hall. The dogs in front tried screeching to a halt, but the ones behind collided with them and pushed them forwards into the beam. Whatever dogs touched the light instantly turned into a dog-shaped cloud of dust that hung in the air for a moment and then tumbled to the ground. As the dust began to fall, dense and thick, the beam of light was blocked and broken in places, allowing a few of the next wave of dogs to slip by.

“They’re still coming!” Tico announced.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost to our room,” Kara replied with grim determination. She threw out her hand, reaching for her doorknob as the frontmost dogs began nipping at her ankles. The tension was too much for Tico and he covered his eyes as he heard snarls, champing teeth, then the swinging of a door, and finally a great slam of it shutting. He realized he had been holding his breath and he allowed himself a gasp of relief. Nothing evil could enter their bedroom, that was the rule.

Kara panted, catching her breath too, and Barty slid down to the floor where he plopped down in exhaustion. Tico felt a need for something peaceful, so he leapt up onto the bed and from there to the window sill, staring out at the world on the other side.

*

“Did you want to play a game together?” Barty asked as he approached Tico by the window.

“It’s more fun with Kara.”

“Well Kara’s been gone a long while.”

“Will she be back soon then?”

“I don’t know. Tico why do you always assume I know these things?” Barty sighed, placing a paw on his old friend’s shoulder.

“You know a lot of things.”

“I know more things than you, but I don’t really understand more. Does that make sense? No, of course not. Never mind, Tico, it doesn’t matter.”

They both turned at the sound of the doorknob turning. From the very start the two of them knew something was wrong. Where Kara usually would bound into the room and whisk them into her loving arms she instead entered slowly, as if in a daze. Without even acknowledging the stuffed toys she hovered over to her bed and lowered herself onto it, eyes shining and out-of-focus. Then she crumpled into a small ball and began sobbing uncontrollably.

Tico looked to Barty, but it was clear he had no answers to give. Never had they seen Kara this way and it seemed wrong to break the silence of her grief. Kara turned onto her side and they saw tears running down her cheeks, her mouth agape but no sound emerging as her whole body shook. By instinct Tico slid down from the window sill and hurried over to the bed. He squeezed himself between her arm and body and gave her a close embrace. Barty followed after and leaned his head against her arm.

Kara gave a shuddering breath and pulled Tico tight. He had been held and hugged by her many times, but he had never felt her like this. There was a fear and a desperate need in her embrace that frightened him. Her squeeze was becoming unbearably tight now and her nails were starting to dig in him painfully.

Tico gasped and felt a tension mounting so strongly it seemed tangible, like a crescendoing bass or a smothering vapor. He half thought he saw the eyes of the Gleer illuminating in the dark corner of the room as a mouth of needles began opening wide.

“Kara?”

The Gleer emerged with a look of hatred washed over its face and its claw-like hands vised on their sides as it drew them towards its maw.

“Kara!”

Tico’s eyes snapped open and he was staring Kara in the face. There were still marks scorched down her cheeks, but for now the tears had ceased falling. Where before her face had been in agony it now held a simple sadness, sadness at the very sight of her friends. Tico thought he must say something, but as he opened his mouth she sat upright and raised herself to her feet, gently picking her two stuffed toys up by their arms. They dangled loosely from her grip as she shuffled out of the room, and the two of them twisted to look at one another. As Tico saw his own fright reflected in his friend he realized that Barty truly didn’t understand any better than he did.

They had reached their destination and here Kara raised them to look them in the eyes one last time, with that same pained expression. Was it regret? “Kara, I am…” Tico began, but was interrupted as she abruptly dropped the two of them into the garbage and closed the lid firmly. “…scared” he finished.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, there is a common tendency to love a story when you first conceive of it, later become embarrassed by how poor it is, and later again realize that you still are in love with its initial ideas, you just need to find a better way to express them. This story about a girl and her toy jester was one I first came up with eight years ago, though it looked quite different then. In that version the girl lives in London during World War Two, and is playing with her jester doll for a little bit when an air raid siren goes off. Her parents come rushing in to take her to a bunker, and in their haste she loses her grip on the doll. He tries to chase after them but can’t keep up. The bomb hits and knocks the jester to his feet, after which he finds himself in a world transformed, one full of the rubble and decimation that had once been their home town. Through it all he has no understanding of the death and destruction on display, he is so innocent and ignorant that bodies and broken homes are mere vague abstractions to him. When at last he finds his girl lying and never waking the reality of the situation begins to slowly set in. He curls up in her arms and just lays there to await forever.

Certainly it was a very dreary story, I find it interesting that I thought of it in the same year as another, far more lighthearted story of a young girl: Caterpillars. As I’ve looked at this original version I’ve found that it just seems a bit over-the-top. Sometimes when things are too tragic they seem less so simply because they go beyond comprehension. And yet I found myself still fascinated with the idea of a toy that not only behaved like a child, but that literally represented that child’s innocence, and then experienced the loss of such things.

As I asked myself what was a better way to depict those ideas, I realized that the doll should never gain any sort of understanding. The doll is ignorance, and while people themselves may change ignorance does not. And that unchanging nature of the doll but changing nature of the girl led to the notion that there needed to be a parting of the ways between the two of them, a sort of “where I’m going you can’t follow. Literally can’t by your very nature.” I did feel that the imagery of death was still important for the story, for I view the childhood loss of innocence as a form of death in that something is lost which will never be regained in this life. With that idea I realized the obvious parallel of the death of innocence in a girl coinciding with her learning the concept of death through the loss of a parent. At last I knew how to write this story.

And so now you have the story of the story. I do like this version a great deal more than the previous one, I feel that a lot more thoughtful introspection went into it this time around instead of just trying to cram sad things in for the sake of being sad. I don’t know if in the long run I’ll end up being totally satisfied with the story as it is now, or if I’ll feel there is still something left uncaptured. As I read over it now I have to admit that the work was rushed to meet today’s deadline and I think that shows.

At this point it is nearly time to conclude the series of dream/imagination-themed stories we’ve been exploring for the last month, but before doing so I want to talk a little bit about how I’ve tried to use each of these more ethereal titles to put a different kind of subject in focus. These stories have, in turn, prioritized the reader, the character, the community, and the abstract. I’ll discuss these in greater detail in my post on Monday, and then finish with one last meditative story that prioritizes the world. I’ll see you then.