Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part Three


Howie turned his car back towards the desert and soon a long-lingering plume of dust was the only evidence of him that remained in town. As the sun slowly lowered through the sky he reached the first set of rock formations, stones the size of hills, scattered about like some giant had dropped his pebble collection when walking by.

The first three of these monuments had sides that were too curved and too smooth to climb, but the fourth had started to break under the combined strain of erosion and its own weight. It had a large fracture right down the middle, and each half had fallen back in a state of half-collapse. Howie was able to pick out a path through the rubble clear to the top, and within ten minutes he sat on its crown, peering out at the lowering sunset. It would be dark when he climbed back down, but he had had the good sense to bring his flashlight with him.

As Howie sat still the rock face slowly began to unveil its life. Everything that had scuttled for safety at his approach, cautiously peeped back out now that he was still.

First it was the ants. Small, black troops marched onto the fringes of his jeans, investigated the new spectacle, then turned to look for more likely sources of food. Soon after the ants came the geckos. Three of them skittered over the rock face, carelessly lapping up the ants as they ambled by.

“How nice it must be to hunt prey that doesn’t even know to run away,” Howie mused to himself as the gecko nearest him slurped up one ant, and then a moment later the ant’s unconcerned neighbor. As Howie looked around his eyes fell on the tufted tail of a napping bobcat sticking out from behind a sage bush. “Though I guess you make up for it by being the prey when she’s awake.”

As the sun burned red, orange, and finally receded against the march of ink-blue sky, new life came out on the scene. Crickets were chirping from unseen corners and a horde of tiny fruit flies buzzed in a cloud just to the left of Howie. He watched their mass chaos, and was reminded of what he had been told about electrons trembling between random states in a molecule. It seemed to him that these flies never really existed in one place, either, but rather shuddered between multiple existences in rapid discontent.

The bobcat was out strolling now, and after a few geckos had been made into a meal the rest of the lizards made themselves scarce. The cat perched on a rock and silently revolved its head, watching for the telltale signs of small critters poking back out to see if the coast was clear. Howie watched, too, and was pleased to find that he was able to spot some of them the geckos extending their necks out even before the cat did.

It was well into the night now, and all was painted faint blue by the moonlight. It was enough that Howie could still perceive the gist of what went on about him. The geckos were entirely absent now, unable to keep active in the cool, night air, so the bobcat had settled on cleaning itself.

There was an owl hooting on one of the neighboring rock formations, and Howie could hear the occasional skittering of mouse paws in the cracks of the rock beneath him. He wondered what sort of animal world was churning beneath him that very moment, totally invisible but very real. It was a very big world they all shared. Surely too big, Howie thought, to notice the loss of an individual life.

Suddenly the bobcat perked up and leaned its head intently towards a nearby sage bush. Howie followed the predator’s stare, but at first couldn’t make out anything unusual about the shrub. But of course, he did not have the eyes and ears of a bobcat, and so it was another half-minute before he finally perceived the slight rustling at the base of the sage where some creature was burrowing.

Slowly, silently, the bobcat lowered from its perch and advanced on the spot, one single paw-step at a time.

Howie licked his lips and watched as the movement behind the sage suddenly stopped. Whatever was roosted back there had detected that something was amiss. The bush was backed by a rock face, so there could be no escape that way. The bobcat knew this, and did not want to dart around one side of the sage, and thus allow for the prey to slip out from the other. The bobcat wanted its meal to panic and bolt into its waiting paws.

Even the buzz of the insects and the scampering of the mice feet had ceased. All the fauna seemed to sense the precarious balance in the air, and waited either in reverent horror to see what would transpire. And wait they must, for whatever was hiding in the bush proved to be quite patient. Five full minutes passed and neither the hunter nor the prey moved an inch. Finally the bobcat fell to pacing back and forth, crossing in front of the bush in one direction, then turning back the other way, and never straying so far to one side or the other as to leave an avenue open for escape.

Howie had just started guessing how the bobcat might try to flush the creature out when the silence was broken. The creature in the bush had darted to the right, rustling the entire shrub in the process. Like lightning the bobcat pounced, but even as it entangled its paws in the thicket the animal, a large, brown hare, bounded out from the left. It had feinted! Kicked one side and then leaped to the other, and the bobcat had fallen for it!

Now the hare came streaking over the rock, bounding from ridge to ridge. The bobcat was in pursuit, but at much too much of a disadvantage. The hare was taking a straight line to the rocky chasm. It would escape into the underground tunnels and live another day. It would–

Thwock!

Seemingly out of nowhere Howie’s arm snapped out, and he crushed the bounding hare’s body beneath his heavy, metal flashlight. So immobile had Howie been, and so full of the thrill of escape had the hare been, that the bounding creature had entirely unseen Howie as it streaked right past his seat.

Now it twitched on the ground, its back legs still trying to run and escape, pumping futilely in the air as small whimpers came out of its broken chest. The bobcat did not try to claim its meal. It had been so startled by the sudden strike that it had instantly made itself scarce, as indeed had all other life on the rocky ridge.

Howie glanced at his watch, though he already knew that it must be time now. He picked himself up, flicked on the flashlight, and made his way down the rock and over to his car. As soon as the engine started he switched the headlights off. The streets were completely deserted back in the town of Davey’s Fall, and he let his car move at a silent crawl into its perch beneath the west staircase of Bay View Motel.

It was only midnight, and so he had a bit of wait, but that was as intended. Best to silently sit out the last two hours here, and let the world around him settle back to its regular rhythms. That was why he always he succeeded in his line of work. He didn’t try to force things, he didn’t try to push the world. He let it move around him, let it breathe naturally, and then just waited for the moment to be right.

And so he settled back in his idling car, reclined the seat, and popped a sucker into his mouth. It was blueberry, and for a long while he just closed his eyes and sucked on it hard. He liked feeling the juice slide in two streams down either side of his mouth and into his throat. Howie didn’t turn on the radio, but he did quietly hum an old favorite ballad and tapped his fingers in time to the tune. Every half hour he checked his watch to verify that it had, indeed, been a half hour. But each time he already knew. When one has counted out two hours by half-hour increments enough times, one knows.

And so Howie knew it was 2 AM even before glancing at his wrist to confirm the fact. He reached into the back seat and pulled his bag up next to him. Out came the work gloves carefully fitted over his fingers. Then came the gun, and the bullet magazine from a side pocket. He slid them together, made sure one bullet was loaded in the chamber, then placed the weapon on the dash. Next he pulled out his phone, dimmed its brightness, and opened the image he had of one “Reese McCay.”

Howie was ready.

He pocketed the gun on the right side of his jacket, pocketed the phone on the left. He stepped out of the vehicle, but left the door open and the engine running. Silently, but confidently, he stole up the steps of the staircase and moved four doors down. The doorknob spun freely and the door swung in. He stepped into the dark room, trusting his memory of its layout to guide his steps. Silently he shuffled until he was at the foot of the bed.

Howie pulled out the gun and leveled it towards the head of the bed, then he pulled out the phone and held it sideways, also pointing its back towards the head of the bed. A flick of his thumb and the phone’s flashlight switched on, bathing the room in unnatural, white light.

A man flinched against the pillows and squinted, trying to wake up enough to make sense of what was going on. Howie’s eyes darted from the person before him to the picture he had open on his phone. Tall, thin, black man, with a pencil moustache and a tousle of untidy hair. It was him.

“Hey what’s–” Reese started to say when Howie pulled the trigger and an explosion of violence erupted through the space. Reese gasped and Howie pulled the trigger again to make sure that the job was done.

Now he shoved weapon and phone back into his pockets and strode quickly, but deliberately, out of the room. He made down the pathway past one, two, three of the rooms. The light turned in the fourth, and Howie raised his left arm to shove back anyone who emerged…but no one did.

He clattered down the stairs and into his car, shifting it into Drive before he had even shut the door. He didn’t roar off into the night, but he did move with clear intent, peeling off onto the main street and taking the first right towards the highway. In less than two minutes he was nothing more than two pinpricks of taillight, fading out of Davey’s Fall forever.

***

And here we are at the end of our story. I shared on Monday about how some stories change a character over the course of their plot, and some instead change the audience’s perspective of the character.

This latter approach was the one I intended for the story of Howie Stuggs. The entire tale takes place over a matter of about eight hours, and it isn’t like he is going to have a total life-changing experience in that short window.

But even so, he does seem to change, at least at first. In the opening scenes he is nothing but warm and gregarious, but these moments are following by him lying to a motel clerk and taking out the lock on a private room, thus unveiling a new side of deceit and crime. Then he moves on to a conversation with a mechanic that also starts as pleasant, but gradually becomes uncomfortable and raises some dark questions. Immediately after he is hostile towards a vagrant, and some of the text suggests he even has violent desires towards him. Next he goes out into the middle of nowhere, and while there suddenly, and without being provoked, kills a hare.

Howie now seems like a very different man from how he began, and finally we reach the climax where he returns to the motel and murders a man in cold blood, then drives away to a new town that does not know his crimes. Suddenly his “change” is seen for what it really is: a cycle. Howie comes into a town, puts on a face of warmth and kindness, but then when the time approaches for his dirty deeds he works up the hate necessary to kill. Then he disappears and shows up at his next destination, all smiles and Southern-hospitality once more.

We are now coming to the end of our latest series, and there is only one more story that remains to tell in it. Before I get to that, though, I want to consider the theme that has remained consistent across every entry that we’ve seen.

In the Soldier’s Last Sleep, The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath, Washed Down the River, and Slow and Easy, Then Sudden, I have endeavored to cultivate an ending that transforms the story in its final moments. Each one sows the seeds of their climatic finish throughout, but then blossoms in a way that either feels unanticipated or sudden. I’d like to pause and take a closer look at how exactly a story can be written with an end that is both surprising and satisfying. Come back on Monday to read about that.

Black and White

On Thursday I wrote a story from the point of view of a plant, one that was being eaten by an animal. As one might expect, that animal was viewed in a very dim light. It was a destroyer, a killer, and therefore inherently evil. At the very end a part of that plant became autonomous and had a fantasy of growing bigger, more powerful, and then exacting vengeance on that animal.

But of course, had I written the story from the point of view of the animal, then it would have seen itself as doing no wrong. It ate some food, just as every creature does. It adhered to its basic nature. We people do just the same thing, so it would seem we shouldn’t be taking sides in nature.

Evil Things)

And yet we do. Certain animals and substance are considered inherently evil by us because they are known to do us harm. Snakes, bears, and poisons are bad. Bunnies, kittens, and vanilla are good. But from a more removed point of view, is there really anything more evil in a bear that eats people than in a kitten that eats mice?

It is our nature, and seemingly the nature of all creatures, to hate those that can cause it harm, and to love those that can benefit it. We can’t be blamed for having this instinct embedded in our DNA, it is essential to our basic survival. It is perfectly understandable for a person to say that they just don’t like large spiders.

But humans don’t stop at labeling animals and substances as evil, though. Some people are determined to be bad as well. As before, these tend to be people that by their very nature mean us harm. Whenever two nations are engaged in war, we always see both sides labeling one another as evil. This is understandable, even if misguided. The other nation is seen as a threat, capable of destroying you, so your self-preservation instincts kick in and you see them as subhuman.

But we don’t stop here either. Those that threaten us on an emotional or spiritual level are quickly labeled as well. If we hold something sacred or true, then it is genuinely painful for us to hear others disparage that thing. Why would that atheist say I’m wrong for believing in God? Or why would that Christian tell me that I’m a sinner? It can only be because they are evil.

Obviously somewhere along this spectrum we’ve crossed a line. Probably several lines, in fact. It is true that some things and people are bad for us and are worth avoiding, but that does not necessarily make them evil. The bear that wants to eat us is trying to preserve its own interests by doing something bad for us. Our boss that wants us to work through the weekend is trying to preserve her own interests by doing something bad for us. But these facts alone do not make them evil. And though we might be able to logically appreciate the invalidity of demonizing those we dislike, it is still a very difficult thing to stop doing.

Villains are Evil)

For this reason characters in a story are often portrayed as either “all-good” or “all-evil” as well. If a hero has flaws, they are minor and easily excused. If a villain has virtues, they are warped and twisted into something unnatural. It is unheard of for a story to finish by the hero convincing the villain of the error of his ways, and certainly not by coming to appreciate the villain’s point of view. The villain is fundamentally evil, after all, so rational reason would never be able to work on them.

Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.

Undertale was a game released in 2015 that on the surface might have appeared like any other RPG (role playing game). The world is quirky and humorous, but there are some definitely evil rogues that the player has to go and violently destroy. And if the player chooses to, they are allowed to play the game in exactly this way.

But there is also a “pacifist” version of the game where instead of destroying all those evil villains, you can instead befriend them, listen to their point of view, and finally help them to let go of their anger. They cease trying to destroy you, are no longer a threat, and thus are no longer perceived as evil.

When approached in this way the player wins by destroying the barriers between them and their enemies, rather than the persons themselves. One might assume that such a peaceful resolution might lack a necessary catharsis and make for a hollow ending, but actually the game was lauded by critics and consumers alike. But this isn’t to say that Undertale denies the existence of evil.

Is There Any Evil?)

While it is true that our society applies the label of evil too quickly, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist. Children see things in black-and-white, young adults start to see things as shades of gray, and then at full maturity one sees a dual nature: both black and white in the same being. Each of us have parts that are truly good and other parts that are truly evil.

In Undertale the villains are doing things that are truly evil, they knowingly hurt others for personal gain. But so do all of us, and still we know that there yet remains a goodness inside. The player is able to communicate to those parts of them that are good, and by so doing can bring an end to the evil behavior.

The reason that the classic story A Christmas Carol works is because Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a bad man, but one who also has a goodness inside. In the story’s opening pages we find it has been a long, long time since Scrooge has listened to that goodness, so long that he himself has forgotten that the part still exists. Over the course of the tale we travel back to witness the moments before he became a bitter old curmudgeon, a time where he was still divided between two natures. In that past Scrooge suffered a defeat to his worse nature, and then, like so many of us, assumed that the good part was dead and gone forever. This Christmas tale thankfully offers a more hopeful perspective in the end.

Evil Without, Evil Within)

Did you notice that we shifted from talking about evil in others to talking about evil within the self? As I said before, each of us have parts that are truly good and others that are truly evil. At different times, one or the other side will hold the reins of our behavior. So long as it is the more evil part that drives us, we will never be able to awaken the good in anyone else.

When the evil part of us that interacts with the evil parts of those around us, then we are in a state of war. When the evil part of one interacts with the good parts of others, then we are in a state of abuse. The only path to peace is for our good parts to find their way past the evil to touch the good in others.

In Les Miserables we meet a convict name Jean Valjean, and a prostitute named Fantine. Each of them is deeply ashamed of the things that they have done, each tends to view themselves as evil. However the two of them do not meet while both are at their lowest points. Indeed, if they did their interaction would most certainly have been destructive to each. Thankfully, Jean Valjean has the good part inside of him awakened and is redefined by it before he meets Fantine. In that moment he sidesteps the bitter-for-losing-her-employment part of her, he sees past the self-hatred-for-being-a-prostitute part of her, and instead he reaches the mother part at her core. In Fantine’s last moments she becomes good again by having had her goodness touched by the goodness of another. Jean Valjean is only able to do this because he once had his own goodness touched by another as well.

Hope in the End)

Undertale, A Christmas Carol, and Les Miserables all give a message of hope for humanity. Each of them allows that evil is real and that it is the enemy to our nature, but each of them also suggests that evil can be overcome. We must overcome the evil in ourselves, though, before we can help others to do the same.

With my next short story I would like to explore this idea of seeing the good in an individual that is initially despised. I will introduce a character whose behavior is good in his own eyes, but bad in another’s. At first each character will consider their own perspective as being the source of truth, but by the end we’ll see if we can get them seeing more broadly. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

Massive Forces

Characters are everything in a story. They represent our different ideals and beliefs, they give us an emotional anchor, and they serve as the bridge to immerse us into the world of the story. If a story was devoid of any characters then it really would not qualify as a narrative, it could more accurately be called a bland list of events.

Obviously the most common form of a character is that of a human character, or else an object or animal that has been anthropomorphized to behave like a human. The key qualities of this sort of character are as follows:

  1. They are a distinct entity
  2. They have a personality
  3. They have individual desires
  4. They have the ability to choose

When a character possesses each of these attributes then readers will consider it a person, and assume that it is similar to them. If any of these qualities are missing then it is no longer considered a person, instead it might be seen as an object, or a machine, or an illusion, or a piece of set dressing. Even if the subject in question is depicted as a human, if it never shows any personality or individuality then it will be considered a non-essential “extra.”

This phenomena of fiction is called out in a very meta way during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one entitled The Measure of a Man. Here we see the android member of the crew, Data, facing a trial to determine whether he has any “human” rights or not. There are several philosophical arguments presented as to what it means to be alive, but the fact is the audience themselves are already settled on the matter long before the case even begins.

This is because the audience has already seen that Data acts autonomously, driven by his own desires, and in possession of his own distinct personality. Even if Data weren’t humanoid in appearance, the audience would have already accepted him as a person, far more so than the show’s countless “human” extras who are introduced and killed off without ever uttering a single word.

But while every person in a story is a character, not every character is necessarily a person. Specifically I wish to examine the characters that have desire, and even personality, but which never manifest as distinct or embodied beings. These are characters that are never seen, but are felt everywhere throughout a story’s pages.

Often these sorts of characters take the form of some great force in the world, such as nature, karma, or God. Examples of these characters would include the operating-behind-the-scenes aliens in Midnight Special and Escape to Witch Mountain. It is the Force in Star Wars. It is the plague in Oedipus.

One of my favorite examples, though, is from a little-known Iranian film called the Color of Paradise. Here a man is trying to achieve status and comfort in the world, all while shirking his duties to his blind son. No matter how hard he works to improve his station everything falls apart, seemingly as though some intelligent being is actively resisting him. That being is never seen and never named, but the viewer understands it to be the natural karma for the unkindness he has shown to his son. He will never be able to succeed until he has first made things right in the home.

Thus we see that the karma in this story wants something. It has opinions, and it has the ability to interact as an equal with all other characters. It serves the necessary role of bringing balance to a world of unbalanced men.

During my current series of stories it was my intention to incorporate some of these hidden characters in each of my tales. Let’s take a look at how I did so.

The first short piece I posted was the intro to the novel I am currently working on, which is entitled With the Beast. In this intro the reader arrives at an isolated island, here to witness a tragic memory, a memory of deep personal regret. Associated with this memory is a family of four characters, each of which represent different virtues and ideals. By this we understand that this memory is allegorical, a memory that personifies concepts and feelings.

But as each of these concepts are now embodied as persons it is now the readers themselves that become the unseen force. The exact details of what it is they regret are shrouded by the nature of the allegory and instead become reduced to a vague force of will. One way this is represented is by the very island that the story takes place on. Our four adventurers have come to try and develop a promising future, wresting from the land riches and accomplishment. In that way this island is a character that resists and concedes to their efforts, and what exactly it is meant to symbolize is left open to interpretation by the reader.

After With the Beast I posted a story called The Heart of Something Wild. This story features a man who has just inherited rule over his tribe in Africa. He knows that certain members of that tribe will try to challenge his right to rule, and for the sake of preserving peace he intends to let them depose him.

Though he tries to do just that, the main character finds that some force subverts all of his actions and ultimately restores rule back to him. That force, as the title of the story suggests, is the Wild. The story is meant to suggest that above politics and man-made laws there are also measures and balances more eternal. When necessary, those more eternal forces will intervene in our lives to bring about what is right. My greatest fear with this story would be that readers saw the end as a deus ex machina moment where everything just coincidentally seems to turn right for the hero. It wasn’t a coincidence, it was the conscious influence of an immortal nature.

Finally, just this last Thursday I posted the second section of Glimmer. In this segment I introduced the threat to our main character and her mission. This opposition did not take the form of a living, breathing character, though, but rather of an infinite void. This void possess neither emotions nor desires, it simply expands in such a way that undoes all life and existence. This makes it fundamentally an enemy of all living beings, although this short story suggests we bring the void upon ourselves when we hide from bravery and mute our yearnings to live as heroes.

This is therefore a force both grand and universal, but also personal and intimate. It did not make sense to me for any conscious being to have this sort of range, it would have been impossible to keep track of all its infinite perspectives. Also I feel it makes the essence more terrifying if it merely flows onward as an unyielding force of nature, immune to any appeals of pathos.

It’s easy when designing a story to forget about these larger-than-life characters, but successfully incorporating them can add a fascinating dynamic to the whole. The presence of these characters speaks to a common intuition that there are things out there bigger than us. It suggests that for man to chart his course successfully through life, he needs to take into account forces both seen and unseen.

Obviously there are plenty of stories that these sorts of characters might not be a good fit for, but if you’ve been looking for an extra layer of depth in your work this might be just what you needed. Come back on Thursday when we’ll see the continued manifestations of our infinite and impersonal void in part three of Glimmer.