Phiserman: Part Three

photo of house during daytime
Photo by Sarah Eaton on Pexels.com

Part 1

Part 2

The trick is going to be maintaining an attitude of complete nonchalance. It will be the middle of the day and that means any neighbor or passerby might see me at any moment. If they see me sneaking glances to each side and wearing a dark hoodie over my head they’ll be tipped off immediately that something is wrong. If, on the other hand, I am seen striding up to the door like I owned the place they will just think I am some out-of-town uncle that has come for a visit. Hopefully they will think that anyway. There’s no denying that there is a very real danger in all of this. But then again, if there wasn’t real danger it wouldn’t be so appealing in the first place, now would it?

And so here I am, driving up to 17462 Oak Lane right at noon. It’s such a quiet, ideal sunny day and I park smack in the middle of their driveway like I don’t have a care in the world. I allow myself one more glance down either side of the street and take a steeling breath. It’s now or never.

I don’t remember deciding to pull the trigger, but suddenly I’m hearing the sound of my door opening and the feel of my feet strolling down the cement. I fish in my pocket for my make-shift key, scraping my finger along its teeth to vent my anxiety. Though I’ve forced a mask of calmness over my face my heart is racing as though I’ve just run ten miles. My hand is trembling as I lift the key out and slowly insert it into the lock.

Please work.

Please don’t.

Click! The lock opens with perfect ease. I exhale a deep sigh as I push my way through the front door and bolt the door behind me. I close my eyes and strain my ears, listening for any sound of movement within, though I already know that I’m alone. I remind myself that I’ve been far too thorough in my research to be caught by surprise by anything, and so the key goes back into my pocket and the latex gloves come out. I suit up each hand and scan the house again, taking in the scene.

It’s a small, one-story affair. Several decades old, and you can see it in the dated wallpaper and siding. Even so, it’s been well-cleaned and well-cared for. There’s pictures along the wall, faces I’m already well-familiar with. I stroll casually past the entrance area and into the living room. There’s a light on the blu-ray player beneath the tv and I walk over and press the eject button, curious to see what the last movie they watched last night was.

Way of the Dragon.

An involuntary memory forces its way into my mind.

“But why would Chuck Norris choose a role where he gets beat?” I’m asking.

“Well, you gotta remember this was before Walker, Texas Ranger,” Dad is explaining. “He wasn’t such a big star yet, so he was gonna do whatever role he could.”

I shake my head. “It’s weird.”

“I do like how he looks in this one,” Dad grinned. “Without his beard on he’s pretty similar to me, don’t you think?”

“But he’s the badguy here!”

“So?”

“Naw, Dad, you’re Bruce Lee!”

Dad laughs. It isn’t particularly mirthful. “And how can you tell me who I am, kid, when you can’t even tell me who you are or what you want to do?”

He’s jabbing his thumb at the summer camp brochures on the table. He brought them home for me to choose where I want to head out to this weekend.

“I just–none of them sound like the sort of things I want to do,” I say slowly, not wanting to retread this argument.

“Oh yeah? And what does sound like the sort of thing you want to do?”

“I’d rather just be with you this summer!” I suggest brightly. “We could just watch movies like this all day.”

“I told you, I have to go on a trip of my own this summer.”

“I could come with you,” I say quietly.

His face turns cold. He doesn’t try to explain, he just speaks with a grim finality in his voice. “No. You couldn’t.”

My throat is tight and the blood is pumping in my ears. I’m spinning on the spot, looking for something. I don’t know what, but I know it when I see it. One of those family pictures is on the mantle, a small piece of them smiling out on a grassy hill in a dark wooden frame. I don’t look at it so much as through it. I grip it with my hands and hold it a little lower than my chest, staring dead ahead as my arms twist. Long, slow, but powerful. The wood creaks, the glass cracks, and at last the whole thing gives way and bursts apart with a snap. I let go and the various pieces clatter to the floor.

Believe it or not, never in all my planning did I ask myself what I was going to be doing once I got in here. I don’t need their money or valuables, I don’t particularly care to trash the place any more than the one picture I’ve broken. Whenever I hack people I don’t ever drain their bank accounts or sell their information. I just enjoy the sense of knowing them.

I guess that was my general intention here, too, but now I want to do a little bit more. I want to take a memento, and also I want to scare these people. I want them to know I was here and have them fear what I might have done, though I won’t have done anything at all. I’ve already broken their picture, but I scour the surroundings for something else. Something big, something prominent, something personal. Something that has been placed very deliberately, something that couldn’t have just fallen down and rolled under the sofa. Something that the absence of will immediately stand out like a sore thumb.

And then I see it. There’s a nanny cam staring directly at me from the mantle.

How did I miss it when I came in here? How did I not prepare for this? I really didn’t think that they would have one.

Why not?

I don’t know…I guess I just wanted them not to. So much so that I felt they couldn’t possibly. Stupid as it sounds, I’m completely frozen in space for a moment. The only movement is my hand slowly raising to touch my open, exposed face. I didn’t want anyone to suspect me as I entered the place, but why not keep a mask in my pocket to wear once I had closed the front door?!

My instinct is to seize the camera and smash it to pieces, as well as any computer or tablet in this home it might be streaming data to. But with it’s sleek, angular, gray-and-white design I can tell this is a modern device, one that no doubt supports motion-tracking and automated alerts pushed to a user’s phone.

They already know that I’m here.

I manage to break the spell I’m under and scramble for the front door. As I wrench the doorknob and swing the door open I see the policeman stepping out of his car. He hadn’t had his sirens on, evidently intending to catch me unawares. The man is startled by my sudden appearance, and I instinctively slam the door back shut.

I pelt to the back of the house, roving my eyes in search of a door out the back. There, in the kitchen. I lunge for it, twisting the knob before realizing that the bolt is still holding it fast.

Stupid!

I fumble with the lock, hearing myself crying as my chest heaves with fear. I finally jerk the door open just as I hear the front door being flung open with a smash.

“Stop. Now!”

Needless to say I ignore the commanding voice calling from behind as I sprint out of the house and across the small yard to the six-foot chainlink fence separating their property from the neighbors’ place. I don’t try to fit my toes in the narrow gaps, instead just kicking forwards and upwards as I half-pull half-roll myself over the fence, getting a few scrapes in the process.

They’ve already seen your face! And you’ve left your car back there!

None of that matters. I’ll figure it out later. Somehow.

I hear the heavy footsteps behind me but refuse to look over my shoulder. The more I see the officer more real he’ll be. I hear the clatter of him scrambling over the fence as I sprint around the neighbor’s house to their front-yard, exiting onto the next street and peeling off to the right.

It’s still an ideal, sunny day in modern suburbia and I feel myself cowering like a wild animal at being so exposed out in the open. My legs are shaking, threatening to turn into molten jelly at any moment.

“Please!” I wheeze out between sobs. “Pleeeease!”

I just have to get past this. I just have to get clear. If it takes everything I’ve got, I just have to escape. I’ll be able to work it all out after that, I’ll tackle each problem systematically and one-at-a-time. But I just have to lose this cop.

The click of a clasp being unbuttoned.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!”

It honestly never even occurs to me whether he might be lying. I just feel a pure and violent terror seize my chest, gripping my heart like I’ve never experienced before. I throw my hands up in the air and spin on the spot, my voice breaking and warbling as I splutter out my pleas.

“I’ll stop, I’ll stop! Just please don’t–”

He doesn’t slow one bit in his run. Officer Daley’s name badge fills my vision as he goes horizontal and t-bone’s me right in the chest. The top of his head catches my jaw and I see a stream of blood curving through the air in slow motion as I become weightless in space. He’s knocked more wind out of my lungs than I ever knew could fit in there, and so there is no noise to the crying my throat is trying to make. I spin backwards, hurtling towards the pavement, anticipating the impact that cannot be denied.

“Alright then, Dad” I say slowly, trying to keep the trembling out of my voice. “You tell me. Where should I go this summer?”

“Naw kid, that’s not for me to choose.”

“Sure it is. You want me to go, so you can decide where.”

“You gotta decide what you want for yourself.”

“But only from what you decide I can choose from?”

Both our voices have been getting louder and faster. Half in anger, half in exasperation. The tension of unspoken truths mounting. Finally Dad stops to knead his brow heavily.

“This summer is going to be hard on all of us, Terry. I’m sorry. Really I am. But I’ve got to figure stuff out, and I need to do that alone. I need to…well…find out who I am.”

I’m quiet, staring blankly through the floor. “You know Dad, you were right earlier. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be either.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that–“

“No, it’s alright. It’s true…. Dad, can you do me one thing before you go?”

“Sure kid.”

“Who am I?”

“C’mon, that’s not fair. I just said, I’m still trying to figure out who I am, I’m not the person to tell you about yourself.”

“But you’re my dad. Just tell me what you think even if you don’t know. You don’t have to be right. I just need to know what you think.”

The tears were streaming from my eyes then, too. Dad was frowning, shaking his head at the responsibility.

“I will. Okay? Let me get myself sorted out and then when I come back I’ll tell you. It’ll be something you can look forward to when I return.”

“You promise?”

“Yeah.”

I rub the tears away with my grubby hand. “Daddy… I love you, y’know?”

“Sure, kid. I know you do.”

You may crush me as hard as you wish, Officer Daley.

***

 

As I suggested on Monday, unreliable narrators have the power to divulge as much from what they aren’t saying as what they are. I tried to craft Phisherman so that observant readers would be able to realize that not everything was adding up with our narrator. My hope then was that they would start reading between the lines to extract the missing pieces, and picking up on little clues.

There were things like his obsession with consuming other peoples’ identities, his unwillingness to define his own, and his negative perspective of men. All of these were supposed to tease that he bore some wound related to a father figure and his own role in life. Although the full details of that wounding would have been impossible to predict exactly, hopefully when finally witnessed it felt consistent with what had been suggested before. The ways his father left him will hopefully match up with the personality we see in him now.

Also, a week before Monday, I posted about how characters can be portrayed as one-dimensional villains at the outset, and then given a sympathetic backstory to evolve them later on. Obviously Jake (or should we call him Terry?) is doing something horrible when fate finally catches up to him, and he is deserving of all the legal action that is sure to follow.

And yet I do hope he also comes across as pitiable. I hope that the readers feel that the way he has become makes sense, even if it cannot be justified. This is actually an essential groundwork for any time a villain in a story is meant to become a hero. Once a character is understood, they are also redeemable.

It was in reaching this point of inflection that I ultimately decided the story was ready to close. I knew that Terry was stuck in an unhealthy rut at the outset of this story, and I wanted to get him to where he finally had a choice again. In this story we see him hitting rock bottom and what will follow could be either a spiraling demise or the beginnings of turning over a new leaf. Either way, that would be another story in and of itself, the story of the hacker “Jake” has reached its end.

Even so, I’m sure there are those that would rather have had the story go further into what happens next for Terry. This brings up a common question in writing a story: when exactly should it end? I’ll explore this question in my post on Monday. Come back then to chime in with your own takes on the matter, I’ll see you there.

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.