Children at Play

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The Universal Play)

When I was young my siblings and I loved playing pretend. Obviously we were far from the only children to do this, playing pretend is something that every child seems to come up with entirely on their own. In fact it is the most universal form of play I know of. Across all cultures and all periods of time, children just gravitate to it naturally and independently

I believe that part of the reason why pretend comes so naturally to children is because they still half-believe in it all. Half of the time they aren’t trying to invent anything new, they are just processing what they think might actually be.

I remember in one of our games I was shot by the bad-guys and I appropriately collapsed dead to the ground. I waited a few moments, then promptly rose back to my feet, explaining that I had been “good enough” that I couldn’t actually die. And I wasn’t trying to make something up…I genuinely believed that if one did enough good things then they became immortal in real life. I don’t know where I got that idea. Perhaps from the story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, perhaps from films where the hero is never as dead as he appears, but the point is that when I was younger life seemed more fantastic. Anything might actually exist out there if you went looking in the right place. In another of our escapades I wanted to play a character named Cordinial Fasmuch. That was a strange name, so I decided he was from Spain. Because, you know, Spain was so far away that who even knew what sort of names they might have over there?

It is a sad irony that our curiosity so often propels us to gain a volume of information, until eventually we stop believing that there are things we still don’t know. And once we stop wondering what is out there our imagination plummets.

Anything’s Possible)

Playing pretend also leads into some incredibly original material. I remember with my siblings how we mashed up genres and ideas in ways that I still haven’t seen anywhere elsewhere. I’m reminded of one piece we did in a medieval setting with a small robot that helped thwart an evil wizard until it vanished at the end. Everyone was sad, but the robot had to go away because it was time for him to be born as the princess’s new baby.

You know, as medieval robots are wont to do.

Like I said, the world was a strange and mysterious place where anything was conceivable. There were no boundaries on logic or genre and there weren’t any rules against reincarnating robots in a medieval setting. Similarly there weren’t any rules on plot structure. We didn’t waste any time worrying about whether our playtime constituted a “good story” or not, we just played.

I remember a western we did where an outlaw came to settle a score with the sheriff in town. Eventually the revelation was made that the outlaw was actually a former sheriff himself, and the sheriff was once a former outlaw. And that former-outlaw had killed the family of the former-sheriff, sending the grieving man into a quest for vengeance, resorting to any measures to exact his revenge, even breaking all the laws he had once worked to uphold. And the former-outlaw was made so afraid by this specter of retribution that he had hidden himself in the most unlikely of places imaginable: law-keeping. Thus the two had completely traded sides.

Today I would say that the plot was preposterous, with character shifts that were completely unbelievable. But at the time I never considered it. It was an interesting idea, so who cared how much suspension of disbelief was required to make it work? Back then plots were weightless, all you had to do was think of them and that was enough.

Our Landing)

Eventually our “plays” started to shift. They were still imaginative, but they starting to be inspired more and more by the imagination of others. We adhered more closely to the genre boundaries of our favorite books and movies. We still played as knights and robots, but not in the same story. We still wielded the power of magic and science, but not at the same time. Characters that died didn’t just pop back up if they had done enough good deeds in their life. Plots were expected to adhere to a three act structure, with believable character transitions throughout.

At this point we discovered a new reason for creating stories: to help process other ones that we already enjoyed. Whenever an intriguing new book or movie came along the experience wasn’t complete until we had invented our own narrative in that same world. Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were cool to watch and read about, but that wasn’t enough. We wanted to be inserted into those worlds. We wanted to experience them and make them our own. Thus our imagination was spent in crafting branches on other peoples’ trees more than in planting new trees of our own.

And this pattern generally continues for us as we grow older. We become more dependent upon the structures of others until we hardly know how to play pretend without them. A craving for that old playtime develops, though, and entire entertainment industries and cultures now cater to that desire. Video games, board games, and tabletop games. Fan conventions, cosplay, and live-action-role-play. Theme parks, and movie theaters, and historic recreations. All of these try in their own way to insert us into a different world, but they are merely crutches, still structured for us to experience someone else’s creativity and not to create our own. As adults we push buttons, roll dice, and change our speech patterns to imitate other characters, but when we were children we actually became the things we pretended.

Back to Pooh Corner)

It is a commonly asked question whether we can ever find our way back to that state of free-flowing creativity. Can adults ever relearn how to play as a child, or is their wealth of knowledge too great an obstacle to overcome? Kenny Loggins sung about this conundrum in his song Return to Pooh Corner and Robin Williams faced the same problem in the movie Hook.

In my experience it is possible to return to the land of pure pretend, but it isn’t always easy. You might be at a disadvantage, but that just means it takes extra effort. With regular exercise one really does get better and better at starting the flow of imagination. One of the best methods for easing back in is to join small children in their own games. With children you can blurt out the first idea that comes to mind, like a medieval robot being reincarnated as a baby, and they accept it without judgment. With children you can stop worrying about if you’re doing it right and just do it.

In any case, we should take comfort in the fact that creativity is a fundamental part of us. It may ebb and flow, but it never truly dies.

With my next piece I’m going to try and recapture the magic of children just playing pretend. I want to write a story that is as free and uninhibited as real children at play. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes!

My Fifty: #20 – #11

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I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I will bring us to the threshold of my most treasured work.

Something Special)

The following are the stories that I consider to almost be my favorite work. It’s hard for me to quantify what I feel they are missing…quite possibly nothing. I think it’s just down to a matter of personal preference at this point.

20. A Minute at a Time. A young father is trying to care for his chronically ill son, who is in perpetual discomfort.
I have written several sentimental stories that did not land as well as I had hoped, but this actually succeeded. And a lot of that has to do with the end. At its conclusion the father does not fix his son’s problems. He does not make the bad situation go away. But he does embrace his son’s struggle, and even admits to his own feelings of powerlessness. And so at the end there is a form of healing, but it is that of emotional closure. That sort of honest, bittersweet conclusion brought this story in where other efforts fell short.

19. Phisherman. A hacker who enjoys filtering through the lives of others decides to break into a stranger’s home.
If there is a common trend in my stories, it is that I tend to avoid ordinary, everyday life. With this story I broke that pattern. It is modern, it has no supernatural elements, and it is an examination of a person that could be totally real. And taking this radically different approach did not compromise the piece at all! I think the quality I enjoy most of this story is that its protagonist is unquestionably doing bad things, and needs to be held accountable for his behavior, yet I can’t help but feel a deep pity for him also.

18. The Last Duty. A hermit with a secret shame is visited by a wanderer, whose arrival might not be as random as assumed.
I wanted to write a story that begin with false pretenses. In this piece two characters have their own stories to share, the intersection of which is not made known until a surprise revelation at the end. In addition to the exercise, I also wanted to explore a theme of regretful parenthood and I wanted to explore it to the extreme. The two characters are not merely asking themselves “where did I go wrong,” they are wrestling with the responsibility of having sired the world’s greatest evils!

17. The Noble. A group of medieval slaves find an unlikely savior in the newest member of their chain gang.
I admit that this story ends too quickly. At the time I wrote it, I was still concerned with fitting my stories into a specific number of posts, and sometimes that meant cramming too much into the last chapter. I am including it here, though, because in spite of that I am still very proud of its characterizations, themes, and imagery. Most of all, though, I am proud of the unexpected turn of events at the very center, which in the moment seem a soul-crushing defeat, but actually sows the seed of a later redemption.

16. With the Beast. A family lands on an inherited island, excited to build a new future for themselves.
There isn’t much of an arc here, this piece is mostly about just setting a tone. And in that it definitely succeeded. There is a goodness and an excitement that emanates from the explorers, but it is set apart by a contrasting tone of regret from the reader. Which brings up another distinct element that I’m proud of. The reader is given a voice in this story, and the whole thing is written in a second-person present tense. I suspected that would be weird and off-putting…but it actually works quite well!

15. Does What He Must. A young man in the old west recalls the larger-than-life feats of his father.
I’ve sometimes come into trouble by starting a story without a clear idea of where I wanted to end it. But this piece was an example of how sometimes an expedition into the unknown can turn up gold. All I knew when I started was that I wanted to do a series of scenes that showed the development of a western legend. The fact that it did that, and also came together in an emotional and fitting finale was a wonderful, happy accident!

14. Washed Ashore. Two men wash onto a beach, the lone survivors of a shipwreck, burning with an eternal hatred for each other.
Another mood piece and another shoreline. Something I’ve learned about myself and my writing is that I am captivated by the image of a stormy beach. Here I used it as the flat, gray backdrop behind a dramatic escalation. Things begin with a tone that is longing and wistful, but by the end burns with the promise of destruction and never-ending strife.

13. Once Among the Clouds. A patrol of clouds come across a source of infinite growth, and are seduced by the power it represents.
Well this was certainly a different piece, and it was so for two different reasons. The first, of course, was the choice of clouds as the cast of characters. Coming up with mechanics that reflect those most whimsical of forms was a fun challenge. The other unique element was trying to write an epic drama in miniature. Which I realize sounds like an oxymoron, but was necessary to capture the extremely majestic, yet extremely transient nature of clouds.

12. To the Great Infinite. A man uses his homemade technology to try and map his way into another dimension.
Only my second piece on this blog, and still one of my favorites. I love the sheer creativity of it, particularly the idea of a concrete basement being transformed into a dimension-hopping shuttle. A definite challenge in this was to both invent creative problems for my character to encounter, and then come up with reasonable solutions to them. Perhaps my favorite element, though, was having it cap all that sci-fi extravagance off with a simple moment of leaping into the unknown by pure faith.

11. Slow and Easy, Then Sudden. A sleepy, rural town has a new visitor in town, come to carry out an evil deed.
Another thing that I’ve learned from writing these stories is how much I love the slow burn. This piece begins particularly lighthearted, with a cheerful diner and a warm slice of apple pie, then builds to a climax of cold-blooded murder. In between I was particularly focused on the idea of a man having to work up the hate within him, necessary to being able to carry out such an act of violence.

Come back on Thursday where I will conclude this review with my top ten stories!

The Little Details

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Same Ways to Say Different Things)

The same sentence can take on entirely different meanings, depending on its context.

“You’re a real work of art,” the painter said reverently as he etched her figure into the canvas.

“You’re a real work of art,” the officer said as he pulled the passed-out drunk to his feet.

Even under the same context, the same sentence can change, based on how the words are spoken.

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she affirmed softly.

 

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she rolled her eyes.

What is interesting about this example is that in the first instance I communicated her sincerity by describing the tone of her words directly, while in the second instance I said nothing about her intonation whatsoever, I only detailed her body language. That alone will be enough for the reader to recognize the dialogue as being sarcastic. In fact the reader is able to retroactively apply the sarcasm to the remark, and still maintain a coherent understanding as they go.

I could also try to communicate the sarcasm simply by how I italicize the words as well.

Of course you wouldn’t.”

It might work, but most likely some readers would not comprehend the sentence correctly. Though they might if the context of sarcasm had already been established.

“I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but it’s not true!” he pounded the table.

“Spoken with all the conviction of a liar.”

“I wouldn’t do something like that!”

Of course you wouldn’t.”

 

The Better Communication)

I believe most readers will agree that

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

is better than the more explicit

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically.

This matters a great deal, because a story is appreciated not only by what it says, but how it says it. Two drafts could feature the exact same plot points, the same clever twists and turns, the same characters and scenes, and even all the same words of dialogue, but if one takes the route of explicitly detailing each and every moment it will be appreciably inferior to the one which utilizes subtle implication.

But why? If the final interpretation is the same, why do we prefer one version over the other? Let’s see if we can figure it out from a different example, one that doesn’t involve any dialogue whatsoever.

The bad man pulled out his knife. He put it into the other man’s chest. The man who was stabbed bled and died.

There was a shriek of metal rubbing over metal as he flicked his wrist outwards, and a bolt of white steel reflected in the moonlight. It streaked through the shadows like a shot of lightning, and like lightning it buried itself into a larger body, burrowed deep until it found rich, red oil, and burst it out like a geyser. There was a surprised cry, and a life crumpled to the floor.

Though the first example communicates the events extremely clearly, which style would you rather read a story in? Perhaps the second one was too indirect for your tastes, but at least it doesn’t feel so juvenile as the first. And let’s pause to consider that word for a moment: juvenile.

 

Intelligent Descriptions)

When a story is over-communicated it tends to feel immature to us. It seems as though the author has no faith in their reader’s imagination, or else has no imagination of their own.

We find it immature when things are over-explained, because then there is no cognitive effort necessary on the part of the reader. Usually we like our entertainment to engage us, to suggest thoughts and ideas that extend beyond what is explicitly spelled out. If the way a story is written leaves nothing to the imagination, then we are put into an inactive state of mind.

This is why the line

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

works so well. It describes the eyes, but it suggests far more. It immediately kickstarts the reader’s imagination, for it is hard to picture her rolling eyes without also conjuring other images such as her arms crossed in front of her chest, a slight shake of her head, and of course that sarcastic lilt to her voice. The text isn’t ambiguous, we have explicitly spelled out that she is disbelieving, but the full portrayal of that disbelief is left to interpretation.

To instead write

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically

does not invite much imagination. It is possible for the reader to start thinking up little details that aren’t described, but they are not being pushed towards doing so in the same way as with the first sentence. Worst of all would be something that denied all imagination to the reader. Something like

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically. She further emphasized her feelings with a small shake of the head and her arms folded disapprovingly in front of her.

It simply paints too clear of a picture.

On Thursday I published an interrogation scene, and the suspect was extremely chagrined at the whole affair. I communicated as much with my short description of her: “She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.” From that point on I made only the occasional update on her posture and tone of voice, only to reinforce in the reader’s mind that her stance was uncooperative. Between those moments I literally let her words do the talking, absent any descriptions whatsoever. What I did do, though, was to make each of her statements extremely short and brusque. That abrasive staccato should be enough to push the reader into imagining the scene on their own.

In my next postIn my next post I will return to the story, and it is going to feature two scenes that are quite emotionally charged. My intention will be to provide the readers just what they need to infer the atmosphere of the room, but not so much that they cannot apply their own interpretations to it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

On Being Finite

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On Thursday I concluded a short story, though really that “story” was more like the first act of a much bigger piece. I’ve had a few posts on here that fit into that category: Power Suit Racing, Phisherman, Network Down, and Imposed Will. These examples are different from my other works that have featured open endings, but still felt narratively complete.

For each of these “first-acts,” I don’t actually know what the rest of their story would look like. There are obvious conflicts and themes that their beginnings suggest, but I never figured out what the final implementation of those would be. If it were possible, I would like to give full expression to all of these incomplete ideas. As you might imagine, I write the sorts of stories that I would like to read, and these beginnings leave me hungry to discover their end.

And maybe I will complete some of these one day, but I’m certain I never will finish them all. There simply isn’t enough time. This has been a difficult reality to accept, but eventually I managed to do so. Not only that, I’ve come to see a beauty in it.

The Imagination Exceeds)

What it all comes down to is that my imagination is greater than my ability to produce. I have made mention of this trend in a previous blog post. There I mentioned that authors commonly hold a very clear vision of what they want their stories to convey, but when they write it out the result is far from that mark. So they rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it again. Each time they might get closer and closer to that original vision, but never quite there. Our reach very easily exceeds our grasp.

One can live in denial of that limitation or they can accept it. Indeed, one of the surest signs of an amateur is the unrealistic expectations they still set for themselves. “There’s no way this story will take me more than a year to write…year-and-a-half, tops. And it’ll be a masterpiece!” The imagination is nothing if not ambitious!

Though the first doses of reality might taste bitter, they really are the cure. The sooner you make peace with your limitations and accept them, the sooner you can put together realistic plans that account for them.

 

Choosing Which Story Matters Most)

Once you come to terms with the fact that not all of your ideas can be brought to life, you will naturally come to the question of which ones should be. The most obvious answer is whichever one is the most exciting to you.

That might be the best option, but I recommend pausing to be sure. Because again, since we are being realistic now, crafting that tale is going to take a long time. So maybe this idea is really exciting to you right now, but is it going to remain so? Sometimes the most profound of ideas sound ridiculously immature a couple years later.

We have a severe disadvantage here, because any answers will be mere conjecture. We cannot read the future and we do not know what sort of life experiences are going to fundamentally shift our paradigms. We can only reliably measure the past.

For that reason, I would recommend using the past to try and gauge the future. When I decided which novel to focus on I chose With the Beast because I had been continually circling back to it for five years already. The fact that I was still finding its underlying concepts important suggested that it really did matter.

Even if you don’t have any story ideas that extend back that far, you probably have interests or beliefs that do. What ideas have consistently mattered the most to you over the years? Could you develop a story about them?

 

It’s Better This Way)

Now I mentioned already that I have not only made peace with my imagination exceeding my capacity to write, but that I have found a beauty in it as well. Indeed I truly see it as a blessing, because the alternative would be far, far worse.

To live in complete fulfillment of one’s fantasy would leave one nothing more to dream of. I would rather finish my life with songs unsung, than to have not had enough to fill my life. And the day I write a story and find nothing to improve is the day I stop growing as an author.

It may not seem like a great blessing at first, but truly this is the proper order of things. To forever chase after that elusive ideal, and by so doing traverse many miles. Perhaps in heaven we will attain the full expression of our imagination, but so long as we were on earth let us have an endless chase.

 

For now my novel writing is entirely focused on With the Beast. Whatever I write after that I will determine then, but I certainly have many options to choose from! On Thursday I would like to share a glimpse into just one of those options. It is a pairing to two mood pieces, one on the subject of darkness and the other on light. There are characters mentioned in them, but both pieces were originally written in isolation, with no greater narrative in mind. As I suggested above, though, ideas that matter to you might provide an excellent foundation for weaving a story around. That was my experience with these pieces. Their moods continued to haunt me, and soon I found myself wrapping an outline over them. On Thursday I won’t be disclosing that plot, but I will share the two scenes that seeded that narrative.

Hopefully one day I will have time to write out that story. And hopefully if I do, I will be able to decently evoke the scenes that I envision for it. Regardless, I am happy just to think of such things and grateful to share some of them with you.

Instructions Not Included: Part Two

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Part One

Gavin had a hard time paying attention in school the next day. He had wanted to check his fly trap first thing in the morning, but knew it would have been miserable to start his experiments and then leave them unfinished.

He only half listened to the teachers in class. In his notebook he kept scrawling different ideas of things to try with a fly, complete with a flowchart of what test should follow which results. At the very top he had “Put fly in tube, see if it just dies right away.” If it did that was the end of the flowchart, so he hoped to at least get further than that. Next was to observe if it tried to fly, and if so whether its wings were able to beat. If so, were they able to move it. Even a little bit? If he wedged a stick inside of the tube and the floating fly came near would it grab the stick and move along it? What if he blew a fan through the tube? Would it be able to push the things? Or what if–

“Gavin, are you paying attention?”

“Yes.” Very close attention…just to other things.

That afternoon Gavin dashed through his front door, the mason jar already clutched in his hand. He bounded up the steps to his room, turning sideways to avoid knocking over his mother. “Hi! Back from school. It was fine, nothing to say about it. I’ll be in my room, okay?”

He bolted into his room and took his seat at the desk. Taking a few calming breaths he carefully removed the saran wrap from the jar and placed one of the strange tubes over its opening. There were three flies buzzing above the sugar-water at the bottom of the jar, and Gavin watched breathlessly as one of them buzzed closer and closer to the tube. It decided to stop to rest right at the lip of the jar. Gavin frowned and tapped twice on the glass. The fly darted into the tube…and froze.

Gavin put the saran wrap back over the jar and picked up the tube, peering through its center. As soon as the fly had crossed the threshold into its domain it had gone completely lifeless, not so much as beating a wing as it floated through empty space. Curiously, though, it had not curled its legs to its body. It really was frozen as if in a singular moment of time, its legs still extended and wings still raised. Was it dead then? Or just frozen?

Gavin reached in, curled his fingers around the fly, then drew his hand back out. Immediately he felt the creature buzzing against his palm. He extended his hand back in, the buzzing still continued, but once he opened his fingers the fly snapped back to its frozen state and floated listlessly.

“Well that’s interesting,” he muttered, pulling over his notebook and jotting down the results of the test.

So the fly couldn’t move. Could it think? Was it aware that it was motionless and confused about that? Or was it unconscious while in the void? He couldn’t think of a good way to test that.

So instead Gavin went through a few more experiments. It turned out that wedging a stick between the walls of the tube did not give the fly a way to escape floating. In fact, it couldn’t because the fly never touched it. The path it floated along would always push away from the stick whenever it got too close, just like how it did when avoiding the walls. Apparently the stick, being in direct contact with the wall, was now an extension of the wall. Gavin hadn’t expected that, given it was comprised of an entirely different material.

That suggested another experiment to Gavin. He reached in, cupped his hand around the fly, drew it out and listened for its buzzing, then put his hand back in the tube and opened it. But this time, as he did so, he pressed the fly against the wall of the tube, rather than dropping it into open space. This time the fly did not freeze. It crawled across the surface, moving at a constant high speed, and making sudden direction changes as if drawing out a pattern. It looked nothing like how Gavin had ever seen a fly move. Also it never flew. It never did anything to risk losing constant contact with the surface, even when Gavin poked at it with the end of his pencil.

Gavin introduced the other flies one at a time to the tube, all with the same results. If released into the air they became immobile and floated, if pressed against the tube wall they danced out strange patterns on its surface.

Next came water. Gavin angled the tube downwards and slowly tipped the mason jar  until the water ran out of it. When only the first part of the water stream entered the tube it continued to fall as normal, but once the last drop was contained within the tube it lost its connection to the outside world and suddenly froze. It behaved like videos Gavin had seen of astronauts playing with liquids in a Zero-G environment. The water stream didn’t break apart, it just shimmered as one, long, snaking body in the middle of the tube. As with everything else, it began zigzagging from wall to wall, never touching them, never slowing in its ordered dance. As expected it never touched the stick or the flies as well. It did not act entirely as a single body, though. For example when it neared the stick it would sometimes split into two streams that would go around it. Sometimes those streams would rejoin, other times they would break off into their own entities. Once the two streams were completely separated they would never join again, they would each follow different patterns that seemed forever destined to to never intersect again.

“But how long could you really go without touching?” Gavin wondered aloud. He picked up the tube and walked with it to the bathroom. What if he tried to put more water into the tube than it could keep separated?

He turned the sink on and filled up a cup with water, then poured it into the tube. The stream floated around inside, continuing to split when it approached the stick head-on, continuing to avoid any contact other water streams. He filled up the cup and poured it in again. And again.

He couldn’t want to hold the tube directly under the faucet, because then it would be an unbroken stream of water that extended out of the tube’s confines. It was a very strange feeling, pouring cup after cup into the tube and not a single drop spilling out from the bottom. A faint inkling occurred to him that the physical properties of this tube went against everything he’d learned in school, and would therefore be of significance to other people…but at least for now he wanted to keep it only to himself.

As Gavin continued entering cupfuls of water the threads of water begin to divide and shrink to such a degree that they looked like tendrils of glass, each as thin as a spider’s thread. They criss-crossed and filled the space so completely that they almost appeared to be one volume. Yet still he could see the tiny glints that betrayed their separate edges, and knew that the threads still refused to touch.

Finally he reached the moment he’d waited for. As he poured in one more cup the water began to spill over and flow down the edges of the tube. The tube could not accept anymore volume without merging its streams of water, and so it rejected any further material.

Well, that was that then. Now Gavin wanted to get the water out and verify that not even a drop of it all had touched the flies or stick either. As he couldn’t pour the water out he would just have to scoop it the same way he had put it in. He grabbed the cup and began the long process. A vague thought occurred to him that the flies had probably died even if the water hadn’t touched them. He doubted the gaps between the water streams would have been able to hold enough oxygen to sustain them.

The thought then occurred to him that the flies had probably had just as little control on the edges of the tube as they had floating in the air. Their movement had been extremely similar to the floating movement, just projected onto the surface. It was the same pattern! He supposed that meant if he covered the walls with flies they would dance around and never touch? If he put a spider in with them would it just ignore all of the free food? He could–

Gavin had reduced the amount of water so that he had a clear view inside of the tube again. He had been waiting to see the flies, but now he realized they weren’t in there anymore! Neither was the stick. There were instead four black marks smeared across the inside of the tube in their place. Had they been crushed by all the water? But why?

Gavin turned the tube over in his hands, angling it so that the bathroom light shone more clearly on one of those dark smudges. No…it wasn’t just squashed fly guts there. It was something pure and shiny black, like tar. Although as he looked closer he saw it actually wasn’t a single goo, it was a thousand tiny strings, like millimeter-long strands of hair. And they were mobile, doing a sort of a waving gesture where they folded at their midpoint and then stood erect again.

Three flies, a stick, and a liter of water had gone in…these things were what came back out. The tube must have broken everything else down to create this. But what exactly were they? Tiny little strings of…organic sludge?

Gavin walked back to his bedroom and put the tube back on his desk. Then he strode back out with a purpose. The rest of the afternoon Gavin collected anything small and interesting he could find around the house and the alley outside, then he brought them back to his room. A few ice cubes, some small rocks, a piece of brick, ants and beetles, apple juice, a jug of water, rubbing alcohol, small pieces of glass, plastic, an old rag, a cigarette butt, a ping pong ball, bread, a strip of wood, some small weeds, a few metal screws, and a handful of dirt. He lined all the items up on his desk, right in front of his “islands.”

He pulled out his notebook and wrote down Tube #1. This was the one he had already been experimenting with. He wanted to continue to work with this one, following the same sort of structure it had already been on. Water and living tissue. He placed the beetles against the inner surface of the tube and released them to perform their erratic dances. The ants he dropped in the middle to float around. He added the weeds to this one as well, and finally filled it up with water. Done.

Tube #2. For this one he wanted to experiment with the natural materials. He put the ice in it, the small rocks, the strip of wood, and the dirt. Finally he added in the apple juice to fill up the rest of the space.

Tube #3. Here he would try the more synthetic things. The brick piece, the glass, a corner of the rag, the cigarette butt, the ping pong ball, the bread, and the metal screws. Then he poured in the alcohol. He had selected this particular tube because it was smaller, small enough that he didn’t need a whole liter of the alcohol to fill it up.

Of course some of the things had been too dense for the tubes to handle. The metal screws, the piece of brick, the rocks, and the glass. They had each just fallen to the bottom and stayed there. When he shook the tubes those pieces slid around and even fell out of the tube if tipped too far. Curiously, they were completely absent any residue of alcohol or water or anything else when they emerged. Still, the stick wedged into the tube yesterday had been similarly dense and it had decomposed, so perhaps that didn’t matter.

In any case, now there was nothing to do but call it a night and wait for tomorrow. It would be hard to be patient, but at least tomorrow was the weekend.

 

Monday I wrote about how I chose in this story to emulate some of the patterns in Shane Carruth’s stories. Most specifically I made use of a person applying scientific methodology to understanding something fantastic. Gavin is obviously an intelligent boy, but his lack of experience prevents him from fully realizing just how significant some of his simple discoveries are, such as the tube’s ability to completely untether its contents from gravity.

Sometimes when reading a story it can be aggravating for the audience to be stuck with a main character that understands less than the reader. Other times the main character will know more than the audience, and that can be frustrating as well. Other times, though, differences in understanding between characters and readers can be immensely satisfying. On Thursday I’d like to delve deeper into how an author disperses knowledge in unequal measures, and how it can be done either poorly or well. I’ll see you then!