A Big Something or Other

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Repeatedly asking the question “why” very quickly leads to things that cannot be explained. We can begin with the most grounded of subjects and the most basic of functions, but if we repeatedly ask why things are the way they are, things quickly venture into one of two domains:

  1. The metaphysical
  2. The unknown

Either the question doesn’t have an answer, or any answer exceeds our mortal comprehension. In either case, we have found the limits of our cognition.

 

Order and Chaos)

Now I have already discussed the ways in which stories have handled the metaphysical elements. I described how things like karma, fate, or God are often living characters within a story. They remain unseen, but they do have a very real influence on the characters in center stage. Thus they are not perceived, therefore, so much as felt, such as the karmic justice that drives the journey of Oedipus. And in some ways this makes a story feel more true. Many of us see patterns in the world around us, and by this believe that there are supreme forces maintaining a balance in our lives.

But what about that other domain? The pure unknown? Because while we see metaphysical order in life, we also perceive chaos and randomness. We don’t want to embody these forces, we want them to remain indescribable and formless, and yet they also need to have some sort of tangential effect on the narrative. As a result there are many stories where things “just happen.” Not really to move the narrative forward, not to center some cosmic balance, not for any discernible purpose whatsoever.

Consider the coin-tossing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the two characters begin a game of flipping coins, and find that only Heads comes up. Over and over and over and over again, more than a hundred times. Guildenstern does begin to wonder about external cosmic forces: some form of karma, a trickster god, time itself having ceased, etc. But he finds no answers, and neither does the audience. It just happens…and then it does not.

In Cael: Darkness and Light, we have a massive void that is visually perceptible, insofar as it impinges upon the world that it is swallowing up. Why it is here, where it came from, and what it will become after swallowing the entire world are never answered. Because in that story there are no answers about that void. It just is.

In this way I am trying to use Cael to portray both the metaphysical and the unknowable in one. That void seems like an all-powerful and malevolent force of nature, one with a specific purpose to fulfill: to destroy. However the origin, reasons, and methods of it feel like random chaos. And it is this strange synergy of both order and chaos that I feel rings most true. Because as I said, in life we seem to perceive both forces of order and random chaos.

 

Unnecessary Origins)

Sometimes the unknown isn’t kept a secret for any philosophical reason, though. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. Such as when we don’t fully explore a side-character’s backstory. We don’t need to know where the waiter was born and why he was so distracted as to spill coffee on our detective, all that matters is that it happened. Are these things knowable? Sure, we just don’t care.

Of course there are some things that the audience might think they want to know, but if they did the story would lose some of its magic. I had that experience when I tried to read The Silmarillion, an epic which gives the origin story of Middle Earth. Partway through I realized that really I didn’t want to know where elves came from, or how and why they built Rivendell. I preferred the magic of that city existing “just because.” I have never gone back to try to finish the book.

In some ways I feel that this selective exclusion also rings more true to life. The first time you visit a new city you always come to it in media res. It just exists, entirely outside of your understanding why. And while you could read up on its history and learn all about its origins, the actual experience of being in that city still only begins with the day you walked into it. For you, that will always be the origin.

I incorporated this sort of selective exclusion with Instructions Not Included. Here we have a box of strange objects with properties unlike anything else on earth. And while we eventually learn about the organization that planted the box, we do not ever learn how and why the objects came into being. Presumably it must have some point of origin, but knowing it would dispel the whole mystery at the center of the story. So I leave it unknown.

 

Beyond Register)

And sometimes we know what the thing is, but we lack the words to describe it. Not because we need a larger vocabulary, but because things that go “off-the-scale” will, by definition, defy any description. Sometimes you don’t just want to say that your character is angry, you want to say that he is so angry it cannot be fathomed. But if it cannot be fathomed, then the words cannot be written to properly detail it. Raging, fuming, frenzied…all these words fall short of describing an indescribable rage.

I have mentioned in a previous post how 2001: A Space Odyssey dealt with this exact problem. Here we had a constant escalation that needed to climax in a sequence that defied comprehension. David Bowman is supposed to be witnessing things that are beyond all understanding. The film handled this by showing strange, meaningless patterns and colors to the viewer, ones intended to be baffling. In the book it merely describes him seeing many diverse races and cultures, which makes for considerably less impact.

There is undoubtedly a paradox here. Visual and aural mediums are quite capable of creating experiences that cannot be  captured by words. But a written story, by definition, must be captured with words.

In Once Among the Clouds I decided to take a stab at this problem by way of metaphor. Throughout the tale I describe an escalating conflict and an abundance of violence and destruction. Then, at the very end, all is overwhelmed by a towering, dark rain cloud that washes everything away.

While I was able to describe the rain cloud in detail, I did not explicitly spell out that it was meant as an embodiment of all the hate and strife. I could have, but I expect that the reader’s subconscious will make that interpretation already, and that which is perceived subconsciously often feels more legendary to us. My hope is that this round-about form of expression will therefore make the magnitude of hate and violence seem inexpressibly deep to the reader. Whether or not I succeeded is a matter of opinion, but I found it interesting to try.

 

I would like to conclude this series with a short story that attempts to weave in all three of these types of monolithic entities. I will start with a creation of unknown origins, one that becomes a being of chaos, and by that chaos establishes a skewed sense of order, which contrast will hopefully imprint an idea on the reader that feels larger-than-life. It’s a tall order, and I’m very anxious to see how it goes. Come back on Thursday to see.

Instructions Not Included: Part Four

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Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.

“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”

“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”

“No…does it matter though?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”

“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”

“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.

“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.

“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”

“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.

“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”

“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”

“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”

“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.

“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”

“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”

“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”

The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.

Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.

It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built.He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.

Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.

Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.

Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.

In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.

High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.

Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.

There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.

Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.

Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.

Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.

Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”

But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.

The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.

Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.

“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”

“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”

Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.

What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.

“It’s the same material,” he frowned.

“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.

“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.

“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.

Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.

“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.

“But it’s all of our work!”

“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”

They?”

Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.

From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.

“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.

“You think they’d be here for anything else?”

“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.

“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.

“Then…we gotta run!”

“They seem to have accounted for that.”

Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.

Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.

“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.

*

Well, I said that I would finish the story today, but I’m going to need just a little bit more to cap it off. The good news is, I found out how I want to end this story! I mentioned on Monday that I would try to incorporate a couple themes here at the end. The first was going to be a theme of never-ending discoveries. The story is progressing to a cliffhanger, one where the brothers will move into a new stage of development and invention. I have that whole sequence all worked out, and I feel that it satisfies this story’s desire to forever explore the unknown.

Another theme I had toyed around with was how one needs to be responsible with their creativity and employ that power for good. Ultimately I don’t think that’s an idea I’m going to be able to deliver on with this piece. It’s a good theme, and I even sowed the seeds for it when describing the brothers different approaches to their inventions. If this were a full-sized novel, there would definitely be a pay-off on that idea later on, but I just don’t have enough time in this short-story format to give that theme its due.

This brings up a question of what scope fits a story. It is a very important consideration for an author. We often say in writing that one is limited only by their creativity, but that isn’t entirely true. There are other constraints, such as the number of words before a story becomes unwieldy. On Monday I’d like to talk some more about those limitations, and about the balance of depth and breadth that an author should consider in their work. After that I really will post the end of Instructions Not Included. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

 

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!

Free Cleaning Service: Part Two

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It was the next afternoon and Jim fumbled with the lock on his old apartment door. The deadbolt finally slid back and he took hold of the knob, pulling upwards as he also swung the door inwards. He and his family had learned that this was the only way to prevent the bottom of the door from scraping across the floor, and there were little arcs carved on the tile from before they had this solution. Jim had promised that one day he would fix both the door and the tiles, but that day still had not arrived four years later.

His wife switched off the vacuum she was pushing across the old living room carpet and looked up to him in surprise. “You’re home early, I thought you said something about staying late today.”

“Unfortunately not,” he sighed, placing his hat and coat on the rack.

Unfortunately,” she repeated accusingly, her dark brows furrowing together. “You mean you’d rather not be home with your family?”

He opened his mouth to give an explanation, thought better of it, and instead shook his head and murmured “That’s not how I meant it.” What exactly was he supposed to say? ‘Unfortunate’ because a warrant didn’t come through and a homicidal maniac is roaming our streets for another day?

Sarah didn’t press the matter. Her eyes had just settled on the two casefiles in his hand and a grim look of understanding shadowed her face. She had learned during the first years of her husband’s career the significance of two files. One file meant a murderer, two meant a killer. The difference was subtle but significant. A murderer existed only in a brief, singular moment. A murderer’s work happened and then stopped. Most people became a murderer without even meaning to. A killer, on the other hand, was deliberate. It was a profession. A way of being.

Jim followed Sarah’s eyes and he winced. She hated whenever he brought the nasty trappings of his work home, but he had honestly forgotten the files were in hand when he left the office. They both stood there in heavy silence, and after a moment he broke eye contact and shuffled off towards the kitchen for a drink. Jim dropped the casefiles on the counter next to the mail, then filled a tall glass of water and took it down in large gulps. It was too cold and it stung his parched throat, but after a hot and muggy day he rather enjoyed the pain of coldness. He heard the vacuum start up again in the living room again and shook his head. It seemed Sarah vacuumed every day, no matter how many times he told her it wasn’t going to help. The fabric was too shallow and the stains were too deep. Her vacuum would never clean it, and his salary would never pay to replace it. It simply was what it was and had to be accepted. The last drops of water trickled out of the glass and he set it down as he scooped up the casefiles, a single paper falling out of one of them and resting on the pile of mail. Jim didn’t notice though, and he went to the bedroom and shut the files in his nightstand drawer, hiding them from view.

“Dad?” he heard his son’s voice call from the bedroom down the hall. “Is that you?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Hey, could you come read through this essay with me? It just doesn’t feel right but I can’t tell how come.”

“Uh, well see, I was going to catch the–” he paused as his eyes fell on the nightstand clock. 4:15 pm. He had forgotten, coming home early meant there weren’t going to be any games on the television yet. “I’m coming” he sighed in defeat, rubbing his weary face, and then lumbering down the hall to help his son.

As the two of them mulled over the essay Sarah finished the vacuuming and took a moment to stare back at the floor in complete dissatisfaction. She placed the appliance back in its corner, then made her way to the kitchen to start something stewing for dinner. She put a pot on the stovetop and started it heating, then pulled various leftovers out of the fridge and placed them down on the counter. She mechanically reached for the mail and her face brightened as she read the first item, a flier promoting a new carpet cleaning business. Free Cleaning Service. A slight smile crossed her lips and for a moment dinner was forgotten while she reached for the phone.

*

It was the middle of the night, yet sleep only came to Jim in small waves, each throwing him back onto the shores of wakefulness. He couldn’t recall the last time he had had a full night’s rest. Though he craved the slumber, he dreaded the idea of relinquishing all vigilances for hours on end. He couldn’t help thinking of how helpless it left him, paralyzed and exposed to the mercy of an unmerciful world. Jim turned his nightstand clock to check the time, but its face was blank. The power was out. He kneaded his brow with his palms, then swung his legs out of bed and exited the room.

It was remarkable how the darkness in the house seemed thicker than on other nights. As he groped about like a stranger he realized how much he depended on little things like the microwave’s clock face and the television’s indicator lights to serve as anchors, waypoints that helped him to map out his orientation in the home. Now, though, it felt like a thick sheet was smothering all of his senses, and he softly cursed as he walked full-on into a wall.

Finally staggering his way into the front room he found the sofa and dropped onto it. He almost reached for the television remote before he reminded himself that there was no power. So instead he paused and just listened. There was nothing. Not even the chirping of crickets or rumble of cars out on the street. The more he sat in the emptiness the more it unnerved him. Somehow the world just didn’t seem right in this moment. He kneaded his forehead again, pressing the palms firmly against his eyes until little fireworks appeared against the closed lids. He was so tired, so weighed down, so tainted by association. He opened his eyes and still all they saw was darkness. Shouldn’t they be adjusted to this already?

Rising to his feet he stumbled over to the deck’s sliding glass door and pulled back the curtain. Nothing. All the other apartment porchlights were out, so were the streetlights. The sky was cloudy again and the moon and stars were too weak to break through them. It was not a cool night, rather the air was warm, stagnant and clammy. It added to the sense that he had been plunged into a suffocating ink and there was nothing in his power that he could do about it.

Jim leaned forward and rested his head on the cool glass. That, at least, felt nice. He swayed slowly on the spot, closing his eyes, letting his mind rest. He lost track of time. One minute. Two, three. Though standing, Jim’s mind was beginning to stray into the subconscious. As his mind sunk from the present moment he had the sensation that he was slowly falling down and backwards. Down towards something that was reaching up for him. Something malevolent stretching up higher… folding around him… closing… and…

Jim snapped his head up and turned to face the opposite direction, his eyes fixated on the front door. Every hair on his body stood on end. He hadn’t heard anything, he hadn’t even imagined anything, but somehow it was as though he had sensed a rift. Even as he stared at the dark door the sensation was continuing to mount within him, finally breaking in a shiver that traveled the length of his spine. Without knowing why, Jim held his breath and moved as silently as possible across the room. He could feel his heart thudding in dread and beads of sweat were forming along his brow. He reached the entrance to his home and pressed an unblinking eye up against the peephole.

A man stood immediately on the other side of the door, staring back at him. The form was tall and broad, entirely shrouded in darkness save for the two glistening eyes and a row of white teeth popping into view along a widening grin. Jim had the distinct impression that somehow the man knew Jim was looking at him, was watching him watch him. Jim’s heart didn’t race anymore, it entirely skipped its beats. His mouth opened to call but only a vague rattling of air escaped his throat. His initial horror was broken with another as he realized that the doorknob was turning beneath him. Instinctively he gripped it with both hands and tried to hold it secure. Even so, the force at the other end was not to be denied and the metal rubbed slowly but surely under Jim’s sweaty palms. A weight was brought to bear on the wood and the door began to push inwards. Jim threw himself against the barrier, kicking his feet against the ground for extra force, yet the door continued, slowly but steadily inwards, the low bottom scraping along the floor now, wood and tile vibrating together in a long shuddering scream.

***

The power, and horror, of dreams comes from their ability to portray a world that is convincing and real to us, but then seamlessly interweave manifestations of the intangible: emotions, ideas, fears. You may well have a conversation with greed or literally chase after happiness. By this method they help us give voice to that which we could not speak and understanding to that which we could not think. My purpose with this story was to write a story that felt like a nightmare from the heart.

As I said in my most recent post, it was not my intention to shoehorn this story to fit a particular genre or trope, I really wanted to let it just be its own thing. As I’m sure became evident, this isn’t actually some hard-boiled detective mystery, it is a tale of being haunted by oneself, a fear of conjuring up an evil that will sooner or later come into your most inner places. The use of its main character and setting were selected not to follow some tired cliché, but rather for the way they naturally lent themselves to the central themes of danger and invasiveness.

Of course, writing a quality haunting tale is difficult to do, and at the end of the day I’m still not sure if I succeeded or not. There was an image I had in my mind of what I wanted this story to be, and there is a chasm between that and what actually has made it into the final draft. I remain convinced that what was in my head was terrifying, but how much of that was lost in translation? This is a quandary every writer will face, and I imagine one that never wholly dissipates, no matter how much experience you have. On Monday we’ll dig into this topic a bit more. Until then, if you missed out on the first half of Free Cleaning Service you can go to this page to view the story in its full form, and you can also go here to see every story that I’ve posted on this blog. Have a wonderful weekend!

 

Free Cleaning Service: Part One

silhouette of a man in window
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Jim Morgan ducked under the police tape and pulled his coat tighter against the wind. He moved with hurried steps, little splashes of muddy rainwater billowing around his ankles. He gave a final glance upwards to the dark, cloudy sky, then pushed through the creaky wooden door to the cozy diner within. The layout of the place was extremely basic. A dozen circular tables crowded around the floor, with a cashier’s counter fronting a kitchen along the left wall. Across the back wall was the occasional window offering a view of the neighboring Main Street, or at least they would have been under fairer weather. On a stormy night such as this, the interior lights overpowered the external darkness and the windows became large black mirrors. Jim was drawn to the image of his duplicate in the glass, watching him come in from the cold, cup his hands to his mouth, and blow into them for warmth.

“Sir?” a police deputy stood up from his chair and approached him. The officer couldn’t have been older than twenty-two, and the way he nervously loitered around made it clear he had no idea what one was supposed to do at a crime scene.

“Detective Morgan,” Jim gestured to himself, but didn’t trouble to pull out his badge to prove it. “Let Barry know I’m here, if you will.”

“Barry?” the young man repeated, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“Detective Barton,” Jim clarified and comprehension dawned on the deputy’s face. “He phoned that he wanted to see me here.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” the officer said, yet he remained on the spot, shifting his weight around uncomfortably. “It’s just that—well, he’s occupied with the crime scene presently.” The young man started to turn his face in the direction of the kitchen doors, but he halted halfway through the motion and instead jerked his thumb over the shoulder instead. Now it was Jim’s face that broke in comprehension.

“You haven’t been in there yet, have you son?” he asked bluntly. The deputy dropped his gaze to the floor and shook his head. For the first time Jim paused to look at the man’s badge and read his name. “There’s no shame in not wanting to see, Ellis,” he said compassionately. “And I’ll tell you right now there’s no special trick to stomaching that sort of stuff, it’s just hard. Always is.” Ellis looked back up and Jim held eye contact for a few moments, trying to remember a time when his own face had been that innocent. Still, if the man was expecting to be let off the hook, he was about to be disappointed. “But that’s the job,” Jim said flatly. “Go tell Detective Barton that I’m here.”

There was a firm finality in Jim’s tone and Ellis didn’t try to argue the point, instead exhaling slowly and dejectedly shuffling off towards the kitchen door. Meanwhile, Jim turned and walked deeper into the diner, making his way to the dark mirror of a window where he could peered closely at his own reflection. To be sure, there wasn’t any of that old innocence left in him now, and not even the miles of tracks under his eyes did justice to the distances he had traveled for this job. He was tired. Tired in ways he couldn’t begin to explain. His blinked, then so did his reflection.

“Jim?” A voice called him out of his reverie and he spun around to see Barry emerging out of the kitchen. Barry had barely cleared the door before Ellis followed behind him, much paler in the face now and moving with nervous, rapid footfalls. Barry strode the rest of the way to Jim with a few giant paces, and the two shook hands with a well-practiced familiarity.

“Hello, Barry,” Jim said, thus concluding the formalities of their greeting. Now they could get to the heart of the matter. “You said you wanted to see me?”

“Right. And you brought the file I asked for?”

Jim nodded, pulling the manila folder out from the dryer confines of his overcoat and handing it to Barry who began thumbing through its contents. The folder was aged, but the case was not. In fact it was so recent that Jim’s thumb still bore a black mark where he had smudged it against the freshly-typed details of the case, details that were similarly smudged across his mind.

Harold and Ava Harrison, both in their late sixties.
Both retired.
Found dead in their apartment, by the landlord who had responded to a neighbor’s report of loud shouting.
No sign of forced entry.
Little sign of struggle.
All in broad daylight, yet with no one having seen the perpetrator.

Those last details were a bit uncommon, but not enough to make the case particularly stand out. Thus far Jim had made little progress on the investigation, but that was how many of these went.

Barry had gone directly to the section for evidence. Jim knew there wasn’t much there. A couple statements, the phone records, and some stray pieces of mail taken from the home. Barry selected one of these and held it up in its plastic bag. Jim squinted at the paper. Free Cleaning Service.

“The new carpet cleaning business?Jim asked, remembering the advertisement.

Barry nodded.

“Yeah…come to think of it, that was one of the bits you helped me follow up on, wasn’t it?”

Barry nodded again. “That’s why I remember it.”

“Sure…what was it they said to you?”

“Not much. Was just a one-man operation, said he didn’t keep track of names or addresses, just went to people when they called. Asked if he had been to the Harrisons, he said no, said sometimes he had to turn people down because of conflicting schedules.”

Jim nodded, memories of Barry’s report trickling back. At the time it had been buried like one drop of data within a stream but now, when it stood on its own, it did seem a bit odd. “Strange for a one-man operation to be sending out free services. Seems like he’d never be able to keep up with all the calls.”

“That’s true. Of course, you didn’t know that when you sent me there. Was there something else that made this flier stand out to you.”

Jim closed his eyes and called back the remembrance of that day. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I was trying to piece together why it would’ve happened in the middle of the day and with no forced entry. A service-man just made sense for it.”

“Good thinking,” Barry agreed. “It would also explain an owner found dead in his diner, again with no forced entry but this time in the evening… after closing hours.”

At last Jim was seeing the connection, and the reason why Barry had called him down here. “You found another flier.” It wasn’t a question.

Now it was Barry’s turn to reach a hand into his overcoat, pulling out a plastic bag with an identical Free Cleaning Service flier in it. “The owner was holding it.”

Jim closed his eyelids and exhaled slowly. As if things hadn’t been bad enough already… A part of him wanted to resist agreeing with Barry, simply because he didn’t want to face the conclusion that stood at the end of this this line of reasoning. But that was the job. He opened his eyes and blinked them back into focus. “Alright, we’ll work it together from here on. I can go back to the office and fill out for a warrant on the cleaner’s place. If we get it before end-of-day tomorrow then maybe we can wrap it up in a hurry.”

“Works for me. Tell you what, though, I’ll go back to the office for the warrant. You can head home, or else have a look around here if you want to see.”

Jim scoffed derisively. “No one wants to see, Barry,” his eyes glanced briefly back to Ellis who had sunk back into his chair from before. “But yeah, I’d better go check it out. See you tomorrow.”

Barry nodded, handed Jim the casefile he’d been putting together, then left out the front door. Ellis looked up as he left, then back to Jim, evidently uncertain of which detective he was supposed to remain with.

“Go call the morgue to come for the body, I won’t be long,” Jim told him. “Then go ahead and get home, I’ll wait here for them.” As the young man enthusiastically left his perch for the phone, Jim swallowed something back that had been rising in his throat and strode towards the diner’s kitchen.

*

Jim held the kitchen door open for the morgue workers as they shuffled out, each carrying an end of the black bag. When they were through he hurried ahead to do the same for them at the diner’s main entrance. They thanked him as they progressed to their hearse and he grunted in response. He stepped back into the empty diner and gave it one last sweeping glance, then strode to each of the room’s chandeliers to turn them off. The thought occurred that it was a strange thing to do, seeing as there was no living owner to thank him for the gesture. Still, courtesy even to the dead, wasn’t that right? Courtesy especially to the dead.

He approached the last table, the one set underneath dark window he had used for a mirror before. He peered back at his reflection and asked himself what he saw there. Was he imagining things, or had a new line appeared under his eyes that very night? His reflection blinked, then so did he.

Jim turned back to the last chandelier, reached up, and turned it off. With the last light doused, darkness swept through the room and the light within the diner no longer overpowered the blackness without. Now visible for the first time was a man outside, staring in through the same window. The man was tall and thin, his hair a motley mess of dark strands, framing a shockingly pale face. His eyes were open in a wide stare, glistening as though they bore unshed tears. His lips were curling back and opening, exposing his teeth in a broad grin. Jim’s back was already turned though, and he remained oblivious to the watcher as he walked to the opposite wall, out the front door, and into the night.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, a good horror story should take residence in the core, fundamental fears inherent to the human condition. My purpose in this story was to focus on a few, such as the fear of innocence lost, the fear of being watched, the fear of being our safe places being made unsafe, and the fear of being powerless. The first two of these you can see in the first half already, and the other two will crop up in the conclusion next week.

One thing that I debated when writing this story was the portrayal of Jim Morgan as the gruff and jaded police detective. I felt that that was such a tired trope, and I didn’t want to be going that route just to follow some trend. As I thought about it, though, I felt that within the context of this story it was essential for his character be this way. At his core, Jim fears that he has been tainted, that he has walked through a dark mist and now wherever he goes a part of it might be following him. It is a fear we all have experienced in our moments of guilt, and I could think of no better way to establish it than to write him gruff and tired.

This question of whether your story decisions are being motivated by its needs versus just shoehorning it to match a certain trope or genre deserves further examination, though, and next Monday I will discuss the point further. I’ll see you then.