Here we are with just more section left in The Favored Son: Alternate! This Thursday I’ll post the conclusion, then be ready to move on to something new. A week ago I took a look at half of the lessons I learned during this long process, today we’ll be looking at the rest. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.
The story opened with a group of boys who, if not the best of friends, still felt the kinship of being in the same order. Obviously things did not remain that way, though. I always knew that betrayal and drawing lines in the sand was going to a major component of this tale, and I recently wrote about that very concept. With this story I specifically wanted to focus on Tharol’s reaction to being betrayed, and how pre-emptively strikes against the coming treason. On the one hand I wanted his actions to feel clever and resourceful, while on the other I wanted to question the morality of resorting to the same sort of underhanded tactics as his foes. Even if we feel Reis deserved what he got, I think it is still a pitiable moment when he realizes what his friend has done to him.
I also talked about the hero’s relationship to him- or herself. Many tales remove one support from the protagonist after another, until at last they stand alone. By the end of the story Tharol has discovered that half of the boys in the order are traitors, and the other half have mistaken him for being a traitor himself! Not only this, but as we learned last week, even his mentor was trying to cast him off from the order for his own good. Tharol needed to be made alone so that he wouldn’t be dragged down with the ship. I think that is a very compelling notion, and if I ever expand on this narrative that would be an ongoing theme in the plot that followed.
I also spoke about a story’s relationship to the audience, and how it strives to be relatable to us in our everyday lives, or else in our private fantasies. Tharol is experiencing a situation that not many readers will be able to directly identify with, but my hope is that he reacts to the events in the same way that the reader would if in that same situation. If I managed to pull it off, then he becomes a vehicle for the audience to feel like they went through the experiences with Tharol.
Forms of Communication)
Storytelling is a form of communication. And having had many years to explore the possibilities of story-communication, humanity has developed some very nuanced techniques. I dedicated one of my posts to consider protagonists that say one thing but imply another, who have jumbled feelings on the same matter, and who have to deal with multiple relationships intersecting with each other.
I tried to include elements of this in my story as well. I think one of my best implementations of this was after Master Palthio had been poisoned and Tharol was left alone in the room with Beesk, Inol, and Reis. Each of the other boys turns and makes meaningful eye contact with him, all without seeing that the others are doing the same thing. At this moment the audience is aware that each of them is believing a different reality. Beesk and Inol think Tharol is afraid that a boy accidentally brought poisoned wine to the dinner, and Reis thinks that Tharol suspects Beesk and Inol of trying to pull a fast one on him. But in reality Tharol knows that Reis is the guilty party, and now he must carefully play all the different sides so that no ones becomes suspicious of how much he really knows.
I spent another of my blog posts discussing communication through forms other than dialogue. Specifically I called out how a story can use scenes of action to drive plot and character development. Laced through The Favored Son were a number of competitions and fights, and I tried to lace each of these with special meaning. The scuffle between Tharol and the pickpocket in the marketplace showed the expertise Master Palthio was weaving into his boys, the standoff between Lord Amathur and the rebels showed how little Tharol understands about the politics around him, and the several practice duels reinforced the growing rifts between the boys. And at the end of the story we are seeing all of the separate lines become lethal as competing ideologies are proved by the sword.
And the Others)
Finally there were two other one-off lessons that I explored while writing this story. The first had to do with the flow of character development, and how it can be a steady arc, or it can be a fluctuating river, or it can be a firm stillness. Tharol’s development has the most natural progression of all the characters. Sometimes his growth accelerates and sometimes it plateaus, but overall it is consistent from start to finish. For Reis there is a certain ambiguity during half of the story, as we really aren’t sure what he is all about. Then, as we reveal him to be a traitor, his development suddenly spikes rapidly. And Master Palthio is a constant throughout the whole story, never really changing, yet suddenly seen in a far clearer light at the end.
Finally I spoke about the use of suspense in a story. It is used when the audience is waiting for some unknown fallout, whether negative or positive. If negative it generates anxiety, if positive it generates anticipation.
There is a lot of waiting in my story. We know things are going to go down, but we don’t know what. A grave, yet nebulous, threat hangs over the entire story, giving us anxiety. At the same time, we see Tharol setting wheels in motion with the poisoned wine in an attempt to counter whatever is coming, and this gives us a sense of anticipation. I tried to build up both halves of suspense in equal measure, then let both of them crash out in the climatic finale. This is meant to provide an ending that is both positive and negative, and hopefully extremely satisfying in each.
Having done all this, all that remains is to wrap up all the loose ends of the story. Come back this Thursday when I post the final chapter of The Favored Son: Alternate, and let’s see if I can put a bow on everything that I’ve learned along the way!
Last summer was the first time my son appreciated holiday fireworks. Before then the suddenness and the loudness of them were just too overwhelming. During those earlier years I noticed that there was a particular part of setting off a firework that filled him with the most dread, and it was not the explosion at the end. It was the fuse fizzling before the boom.
Once the actual eruption occurred he was usually fine. Then he could see that it was only a small shower of sparks coming out, and he knew there wouldn’t be anything too overwhelming. But before that moment of realization, to his young mind anything might come out of that small cardboard tube. No matter how many assurances we gave him that we had only bought “small ones,” he remained unconvinced until he could see it for himself. Thus at the lighting of the fuse he wasn’t yet sure that he was safe and now it was too late to halt the process!
The master of suspense in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, hit on this very same point. He once said “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” There is an excellent example of this in his movie Rear Window. In this film’s nearly two-hour runtime there is almost no action from beginning to end. But there is plenty of burning fuse.
Our main character, Jeff, is stuck at home with a broken leg, snooping on the neighbors in the apartment across the courtyard. A certain one of those neighbors starts showing a series of suspicious behaviors, leading Jeff to believe that the man has killed his wife. At one point he sees an opportunity to uncover incriminating evidence, but as he is stuck at home with a broken leg his girlfriend (Lisa) decides to carry out the mission for him. The fuse is lit.
Jeff makes an anonymous call to the neighbor, telling him he knows what he did and organizes a blackmail meeting. Jeff has no intention of actually meeting the man, but it gets him out of the house while Lisa breaks into his apartment and finds a damning piece of evidence. But of course she discovers it just as the man returns back home!
The fuse is very hot now. We’re all anxious for the explosion that is about to follow. At this moment that fallout might hold anything, including a second murder. We watch helplessly as Lisa hides, the man finds her handbag, searches for, and finds her! He starts drilling her with questions and she tries to make a break for it, but he grabs her and turns off the lights! All the way to this moment nothing decisive has happened, but we are withering at the burning of the fuse! As before, so long as it continues to burn, any gruesome outburst is still on the table.
But then the explosion doesn’t happen. Jeff called the police at the first sign of the man returning home and they arrive just before Lisa can meet a violent end. At this point violence didn’t really have anything more to add to the film. The terror had already been maximized by the long suspense.
I have tried to implement this same idea of the burning fuse with the most recent post of my story. In it we already know that Reis is planning to betray the order, but we are left wondering as to how. Any outcome is possible right now, and we have to wait to see it.
How To Wait)
Alfred Hitchcock also said that “suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.” And this is true of that same scene in Rear Window, for we see the man coming up the stairs to his apartment before Lisa knows that he has returned home. That, in fact, is the moment where the suspense burns the brightest, even more so than when he is actually having his altercation with her. She is ignorantly wasting her last possible seconds for escape because she doesn’t know what’s about to come through that door and we don’t have any way to warn her.
But how to include this ingredient of suspense in The Favored Som? The most obvious choice would be to reveal Reis’s plot to the audience before Tharol uncovers it. Then Tharol could ignorantly walk into the snare, all while the audience squirms in anticipation. But I didn’t want to go that route. Thus far Tharol and the audience have uncovered each piece of the truth together, and I didn’t want to break that balance.
What I realized I could do, though, was invert the element of suspense in this story. Instead of the audience knowing about Reis’s trap, and Tharol being oblivious, I could make the audience aware of Tharol’s trap, and Reis would be oblivious. And thus I wrote the scene of Tharol increasing the dose of poison in the wine.
At this point Reis doesn’t believe that there is any poisoned wine remaining. He has no reason not to drink the cup that Beesk and Inol will bring to him. And as he toys with that cup I think the audience will enjoy a sense of anticipation for what it about to follow.
Because anticipation is the positive counterpart to suspense. Where my son used to see the fuse burn and was filled with dread of the unknown, now he bounces excitedly, anticipating that same unknown. It’s the same basic idea, it’s just inverted from fear to excitement.
Suspense is a powerful tool in how it keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. It works best by suggesting to the audience that something dramatic will happen, something that the characters involved are unaware of, but while still leaving an air of mystery as to what exactly the coming fallout will look like.
With my next post I won’t get to payoff for all this suspense, though. First I’m going to ratchet up the tension with a twist that will be as surprising to the audience as it is to Tharol. My hope is that this will make the anticipation of the poisoned cup raise even higher in the chapter after that. Come back on Thursday to see what you think.
Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably. “But–he’s not doing anything to us.”
Inol’s eyes narrowed. “Why are we here, Tharol?”
“We’re getting the weapons.”
“To do what? What are we here for ultimately?”
“Attack the elders?”
Inol nodded. “So why are you dragging your feet right now? Maybe Reis was right about you.”
Tharol cast around in his mind. It was true that he didn’t want to be a part of this, didn’t want to have this war with the elders. Everything he had just seen further convinced him that these people were not in their right minds, and so he didn’t want to be their executioner. He pitied them.
But…Tharol knew saying things like that weren’t going to go over very well. Everyone else was convinced that this war was the right way forward, and they were closed off to any criticism of it. So Tharol shook his head and went a different route. “Our first priority is to get these weapons to the others, so that they have a fighting chance when the main assault happens; not to go off on a whim, get ourselves killed, and leave our comrades helpless.”
“He has a point,” Bovik nodded.
“No he doesn’t,” Inol spat. “There’s three of us and one of Master Y’Mish. These are the best odds we’ll see all night!”
Bovik sighed. “That’s a good point, too.”
Tharol looked to Bovik. “What will it be then?”
“I vote we find the others, Inol wants to fight this elder. What do you choose?”
“That’s not for me to decide!”
“What else is there?” Tharol shrugged. “We have no leader, and no explicit commands to guide us, so we all get a voice. What side do you take?”
Bovik squirmed uncomfortably, darting his eyes back-and-forth from Tharol to Inol.
“Well…I guess we try and take him, then. We take Master Y’Mish down, and then we find our comrades without further delay.”
“So be it,” Tharol sighed, then swung his leg out to the stone statue.
As silently as possible, the three youth stole to down the legs of the statue and off its base. Inol and Tharol left the other Shraying Staffs in a nearby bush, and then they rushed towards the orchard path. Master Y’Mish had not returned from there yet, so they lined up on either side of the walkway, Inol on the left-hand side, Bovik and Tharol on the right.
“Alright, we have him trapped now,” Inol observed. “We wait here until he comes out. When he does, we move quickly and decisively. We don’t try to talk to him, we don’t try to restrain him. We kill him.”
Tharol and Bovik nodded.
“Are you two going to use your Shraying Staffs?” Bovik asked eagerly. “How do they work?”
Tharol looked down to his arm and regarded the flexing metal shafts that covered his flesh. His arm ended in a large, menacing claw, and for a moment he envisioned five fingers instead. Even before the metal shafts began to realign themselves he knew that they would. All he had to do was think the form, and the Shraying Staff began spinning and contorting to create it. He could even flex each individual finger at will, as if it had been a real hand.
“Oh skies!” Bovik breathed in awe. “Let me have one.”
“I don’t have them anymore. We left them back there, remember?”
“Hsssh!” Inol spat out, and once the other boys quieted they could make out the sound of footsteps approaching down the orchard path.
Bovik silently drew out his standard sword and all three youth waited anxiously in the shadows. The steps grew nearer and nearer, without the slightest variance in rhythm. It was like the cadence of a machine.
Inol and Tharol had their eyes locked on one another from each side of the path. Suddenly their view of the other was broken as Master Y’Mish stepped between, and each sprang forward instantly.
Without even looking to either side, Master Y’Mish thrust his hands outward, expertly dodging their weapons and striking each youth squarely in the chest. He hit them with an impossibly powerful force, and both of the boys spun head over heels backwards.
Bovik managed to leap over Tharol as he went rolling by, kept his footing, and swung his sword forward with a cry. Master Y’Mish whisked his own sword out and the two of them crossed blades.
“Don’t worry about defeating him, Bovik,” Tharol cried as his roll finally came to a halt. “Just hold your ground.” He scrambled up to his feet and looked down to his arm, changing his sectioned fingers into a long, piercing blade. But then he paused, gripped by the memory of when he had fought Master Dovi and the voice told him to claim the elder’s weapon with his own blood.
Tharol looked up in shock. Master Y’Mish had just deflected another of Bovik’s thrusts, then used his free hand to punch the boy in the throat, sending him sprawling backwards with his hands around his neck. Behind them Inol was charging forward again, his Shraying Staff-arm also formed in the shape of a long blade.
“Inol, no!” Tharol cried. “Don’t cut him!”
It was too late, though. Master Y’Mish turned to face Inol, saw the raised blade, and casually lowered his weapon. With a shout Inol plunged his weaponized arm clean through Master Y’Mish’s heart. The elder slumped to the ground without a cry.
“Well that wasn’t so hard,” Inol crowed, while Tharol went to check on Bovik, who was still gagging and holding his throat.
“I’m fine,” Bovik croaked. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.”
“You shouldn’t have cut him,” Tharol shot at Inol.
“It’s something I learned earlier. When someone gets their blood on a blade, they’re able to claim it for their own.”
“Are you so sure?” Tharol pointed to the ground, where the body of Master Y’Mish was rapidly changing. It seemed to be melting into a long, silver strand, and it reached through the air like a cord, wending its way out of the gardens and back towards the rest of the elders. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Tharol believed he heard a chorus of steps from far away, all marching towards them in perfect unison.
“We should get out of here,” Bovik said.
The other two readily agreed. They retrieved the other Shraying Staffs and ran as quickly as they could through the halls of the abbey. All the youth had agreed that they would regroup at the Wester Hall after accomplishing their various tasks. As Bovik, Inol, and Tharol approached the tall doors of that great room they finally slowed to a walk, panting for breath and holding their sides.
Inol reached up and knocked on one of the doors. “White rose,” he whispered through the crack, and someone inside undid the latch.
“What took you so long?” Reis demanded as the three boys walked into the hall.
“Ran into the elders,” Inol explained. “They’re in the passageway between the gardens and the dining hall. They’re in a sort of–trance.” Inol looked sideways at Tharol and then leaned close to Reis. “Hey, come over here, though. There’s something we need to talk about in private.”
Tharol rolled his eyes and tried to not dwell on the two of them as they peeled off to the side and had a hushed conversation together. He was sure Inol was reporting about Tharol’s hesitation to attack Master Y’Mish, and whether that was evidence of treason.
“Let them have their conspiracies,” Tharol thought bitterly, then looked around to see how many youth had already made it back from their missions. All of them were present, apparently Bovik, Inol, and he had taken longer than they realized with all their side diversions.
Each of the youth were pacing restlessly, some of them muttering together in twos or threes. Each of them seemed on edge, jumping at any sound that was louder than a whisper. No doubt they were all expecting the elders to come crashing in on them at any moment. Scared to stay in one place for too long, terrified to go out for the battle.
Why were they doing this? Tharol wondered. They all craved a strong leader like Reis, needed it in a time of crisis like this, but he was leading them far beyond what they were ready for.
Before Tharol could think any more on the matter, Reis had concluded his private conversation with Inol, and now he was coming to address the rest of the crowd.
“Well done everyone,” he praised, “that’s every mission fulfilled flawlessly. It would seem the elders have retreated to a single position, one that is ill-guarded. This is very fortunate, and we can stage our attack to our own advantage. On the other hand, it does mean an all-out fight, where I would have rather preferred to single them out one-at-a-time. Still…” Reis paused and surveyed the gathered youth, unsure and wavering. He nodded approvingly. “I like our chances. If this is our moment, let it be now. I feel no greater privilege than to–“
A soft clatter echoed from the halls. On a normal night, it was the sort of sound one wouldn’t even give a second thought. But to the youth now it sounded like the approach of death itself. Each of them locked their eyes on the double-door, half expecting it to be blasted in at any moment.
The explosion never happened, however they became aware of a subtle, pulsating rhythm coming from far away. It sounded very low and dark, like the rushing of wind at the bottom of a deep well. One-by-one the youth looked back to Reis.
“We go now. Tharol and Inol, hand out those weapons. We’ll advance on the garden-dining hall passageway in two groups–“
“I’m not so sure that they’re still there,” Tharol interrupted. “I thought I heard them moving as we left”
“Stick as one group then, but fan out. If we see them at a distance, and they haven’t detected us yet, we’ll pause to set up the razor cord trap. At each juncture, the people furthest to the right and furthest to the left check each path before we proceed.”
Everyone scrambled to take a weapon, or get in position, activated more by fear than duty. In only a matter of second they all stood at ready before the door.
“Alright,” Reis breathed deeply. “Go.”
Bovik and Golu opened the doors, and everyone moved out as one. They spread out to fill the full width of the hallway. Well, not quite everyone. Tharol noticed the space immediately behind him being filled out of the corner of his eye, and he turned to find Inol there.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“You and I work together. As a unit.”
“But I thought–“
“Hush!” Reis called back over his shoulder.
Tharol bit back the rest of his comment and kept moving forward. He didn’t care for the feeling of Inol lurking immediately behind him, though. Didn’t care for it at all.
Together the group of youth reached the first intersection. Marvi and Jolu peered down the two sides, then looked back to Reis and shook their heads. There was no one there.
Reis cocked his head upwards, listening for which way the deep strumming sound was coming from. He pointed dead ahead. Again they moved forward as one, taking one hallway after another, winding their way closer and closer to the source of the sound.
Now they came to a hall with ceiling-high archways opening to their right every few feet, overlooking the gardens. As they approached each opening the youth snapped their heads to the right, anxious to detect any threat that might be lurking out there.
Tharol could feel it in the air–was sure everyone else could feel it as well–they were close. The elders were very near. Any second now and there would be–
“OHHH!” Golu suddenly cried, which startled half of the other youth into shouting as well. Golu’s hand was extended towards the nearest archway. At first Tharol saw nothing, but following Golu’s hand he picked up the figure of a ghoulish creature hunched by the bushes, eyes staring out at them unblinkingly.
“It’s just a statue!” Reis hissed, and Tharol realized it was true. A stone gargoyle, skewed by the sideways moonlight and their own imaginations until it was nearly unrecognizable.
But the shout of the youth had already broken the spell. The deep, distant thrumming picked up in speed and volume, moving rapidly towards them. Seeming to echo through the walls and shake the stones at their feet.
“Oh no, they’re coming!” Jolu wailed. “We have to retreat!”
“No, stand firm!” Reis commanded. “Everyone ready your–“
“No!” Jolu panicked. “No we have to–have to–” the fear overtook him and he lifted his trembling hands to his eyes.
“Get him out of here!” Reis snapped. “He’s losing his nerve!”
“No,” Tharol said in dread. “It’s not that.”
Jolu’s whole body now trembled with his hands, his flesh rippled as an invisible wave passed through. His eyes rolled back into his head and the backs of them shone with a ghostly light. Then, suddenly, his hands stilled and his body went limp. How he remained standing was impossible to tell, it seemed as if he was being suspended only by an invisible puppeteer’s string.
“He’s being invaded.”
Jolu’s arms snapped upwards and he lurched forward towards the rest of the youth. A strange cry came from his mouth, like a miniature echo of the strumming sound they had been following.
And his wasn’t the only cry. It was being echoed behind them as well, though it was higher in intensity, like a shriek! Tharol already knew what he would see when he looked that way. The faceless entity had arrived, from it all of the elders were emerging, and they were also lurching to the attack!
On Monday I spoke about how stories are not only plot, character, and theme, they are also windows into new and exciting experiences. One of the reasons we pick up a novel or watch a movie is just to be given an image or idea that we’ve never experienced before.
With last week’s entry, and this one as well, my intention was to stuff one new idea after another into every scene. But the idea was not actually to amuse my readers, but rather to overwhelm them. I want them to feel uncomfortable, to not be able to grasp the rules of this new world, and to be uncertain of what might happen next. In this way I mean for them to have the same experience of our characters, who are all experiencing the rug being pulled out from under them.
I would say my greatest danger is overdoing it, and making it impossible for the readers to feel grounded in the story at all. In a world where literally anything can happen, it stops being surprising when yet another oddity follows after another.
This is an idea I’d like to explore with my next post. There have been some extremely weird stories over the years, full of all manner of crazy ideas, yet audience’s have been able to connect to and find personal meaning in them even so. Come back on Monday where we’ll look at a few examples, and consider how a story can walk the line of being unpredictable, yet relatable.
Some of the mortars fell directly on the trench, and some of them landed a bit before it, right in the midst of the enemy forces. All was chaotic disarray!
The enemy line scattered in a thousand different directions all at once. Some of them ran for their lives into the trenches, trying to surrender before they were butchered. Some of them ran back towards their own camp, ducking and weaving like mad, as if the dropping shells were less likely to hit them for having moved randomly. Some of them stood frozen in place, too shocked to commit to any action at all.
Meanwhile Private Bradley and his comrades swam through the dirt, beating a hasty retreat away from the explosions. Some of the commanding officers screamed at them to hold position, but to no avail. Up and down the line, where the bombardment was not striking, the allied soldiers just stared dumbly at the hole broken in their line.
In all, the shelling lasted for a one-minute-and-forty-seven-second eternity. Evidently those in charge of sending the enemy infantry out had gotten in touch with those in charge of firing the artillery, and made them aware of their scheduling error.
Of course by this point the field was long clear of any living enemy soldiers. They had all either surrendered, retreated, or died as suited them best. And so the trench-men began reforming their line where it had been broken up. It was very nerve-wracking work, for each man wondered ‘how long can it be before the shelling reoccurs?’ So each man furiously dug with his shovel, and when any sudden sounds came they would flinch, clap their hands over their heads, and make as if they would run from the spot.
Even during all that stress, though, the men spoke among one another, and hashed out what must have just happened. Clearly the enemy line had been replenished. They received fresh troops, probably an entirely new regiment, and along with it some new artillery. And not just any artillery, either. At long last they had found a way to bring the big guns through the mud, ones that actually had enough range to reach their line.
The only saving grace had been that with the fresh resources had also come fresh command units, ones that were not coordinated properly with one another. This had resulted in the blunder of the enemy shelling their own men. But right this moment they would be straightening out their agendas, and then the shelling would recommence, blast the trenches to smithereens, and the fresh troops would be sent marching over the ruin, down the hill, and into the camp below.
They would have to be pulled back now, it was the only possible outcome. And yet the orders to do so had not come yet. Every man on the line knew it had to come, so why hadn’t it come already? Why were they instead trying to repair the trench? It was pointless!
The answer to that came less than a quarter hour later. To the South they could hear the dull hum of propellers churning through the air. Every man turned and watched six bombers lumbering towards their position. They passed overhead, low enough for the infantry to make out the bomb bay doors opening as the aircraft proceeded across the field and towards the enemy lines. A chorus of gunfire and explosion resounded through the air.
“Well that’s that for the new artillery,” Private Holt observed.
“Why just the artillery?” Private Dunny said hopefully. “Surely they’re going to smash the entire camp as well!”
But they were not. As soon as the big guns were reduced to smoking, twisted metal, the planes turned on the spot and lumbered back away as uneventfully as they had come. Balance had been restored, and now it would be left to the two infantries to continue their murderous tug-of-war for the hill.
The sun was nearly set, and with it came fresh waves of exhaustion. Even if one did not look at the orange and pink streaks extending across the sky, one could feel them in his bones. The body knew that the day was retiring, and for years it had been trained to anticipate its own retiring in these hours. It was ingrained in all of the men that they should sleep now, and facts like there not being any reinforcements until the next day made no sway on the pull of nature.
“Stay alert men!” Sergeant shouted, then yawned deeply, and momentarily lost his balance where he stood.
Even worse than the fatigue was the knowledge that the enemy lines had been refreshed. If it hadn’t been for the shells breaking their charge, these new foes would have been cooling their heels over the corpses of Private Bradley and his squad right this very moment!
Fate had intervened once, but it was too much to ask her to do so again. This next charge they would have to figure things out on their own.
“Listen to me, men,” Sergeant wheezed through a dry and raspy throat. “The sun’s already on its way down, so it’s a sure thing that the enemy is going to wait until the dark of night for their next assault. One more charge in the middle of the night and then it’s morning. I’ve just received the latest word, and it says our reinforcements for sure arrive first thing in the morning. We just have to hold on until then. Just one more charge. We can make that, I know we can.”
Sergeant clasped his hands together, as if he was praying to his men.
“We’re not fighting for army, nation, or family this time, boys. This time it’s for us. Every charge before this earned you badges and medals and who-cares-what-else. But ride out this last charge…and you earn your very lives! No one earns themselves except by weathering the last charge. If you can survive this time, this one, lasttime, then you’re free men. You’re self-purchased through and through. Not even your own mother who birthed you will have any claim on you. No one will. This is the last night you’ll ever have to stand through, but you do have to stand through it. This is your whole life here and now, so what do you say men? It’s just one more charge!”
Not a one of them cheered. They were moved, though, and wept openly, fresh streaks burning down their dirty cheeks. It rang too true to them, and they wanted to believe every word. But at the same time, even if the promises were true, it would seem all too fitting that after the close calls and narrow escapes, that they would now trip at the finish. Such an irony as that would be the perfectly summation of their military career. They had been so tired and beaten, yet they had somehow come through time and time again. But this time? Here where it mattered most? Was there anything even left to give anymore?
Why couldn’t the soul just let go easily? Why did it have to cling to life when it would be so much easier to lay down and die? Yet it did. And in spite of all cynicism, each of the men pledged that at the very least they would try. As with before, they resolved to stand and fight and make the enemy remove them from this place by force. If what the Sergeant said was true, then let this be the final measuring. They would not be overrun while leaving any drops of blood unspent. They would give all that they had. And if it was enough it would be enough, and if it was not it would not, but in either case nothing would be held back.
And so they looked hard into one another’s eyes, then took their places in the trench. They had repaired it pretty well after the shelling. It did not extend quite as high as before, and the earth was a bit fresher and looser, but it would have to do.
Each man held his gun, locked his knees, and stared down the line for the coming reckoning. None of them expected the charge for a few hours yet, but trying to rest was unfathomable. If once their eyes were allowed to close, it was doubtful whether Armageddon itself would be able to rouse them. The body yearned for it, but the body could be denied. It already had been so many times before.
“Counting off one,” Sergeant said.
“Counting off two,” Private Dunny said.
“Counting off three,” Private Bradley said.
“Counting off four,” Private Holt said.
“Counting off six,” Private Yates said.
“No, Private Yates, five comes after four,” Private O’Malley corrected.
“Thank you, O’Malley, counting off five.”
It was a ritual Sergeant had invented to keep them awake on exhausting nights such as this. They had to count, and once every so often, one of them would intentionally say the wrong number. So you had to be listening and paying attention to call them out in it, or else you were falling asleep and every man in the squad would kick you.
Minute after minute slipped by. Time was the first enemy that they had to best. Each man’s voice was already croaky when they began, and within an hour they rasped like a metal rake over a tin roof. They took swigs from their canteens, but it wasn’t water that their throats were thirsty for.
About halfway through the night they were given a boon. At long last the fog fully dissipated. It had been teasing a retreat since evening, but at long last the final tendrils of it were flowing away.
“There you go men,” Sergeant grinned. “You stood out nature itself!”
Time was bested, nature too. Now one more enemy force to go.
“They must be kicking themselves for having missed one more charge with the fog,” Private Dunny said excitedly. “And now it’s a clear night with a full moon….maybe they won’t–”
“No, Private Dunny,” Bradley spoke over him. “You know that they’re still coming, just as sure as the rest of us. It’s how it works.”
Indeed it was. Bradley had learned long ago to stop trying to bargain with the fates, nor to look for reason in what the military might do or might not do. Fates and the military didn’t work like that, not on their side and not on the other. They just did what they did, and anyone that tried to suggest a reason behind it was a fool. The enemy wave would come because they would come, that was it.
And they would come soon.
The squad stopped counting off, and a breathless hush fell over the entire line at the same moment. There was a cool weightiness in the air, one that carried sound for miles. And while there was no sound on it now, somehow all of them knew: this hour. It was like hearing future-echoes, the pulsations of rhythms soon to be played.
Now came the click! click! as every man made sure he still had a bullet ready in the chamber. Now the shuffling of feet as each man shifted from a watching stance to a fighting one.
A small cloud passed across the naked moon, and it sent rippling shadows coursing across the ground, moving from the enemy’s side of the hill towards their own. Each dark patch that shimmered over them felt put a tremor in the chest.
The cloud cleared away…but the shadows still streaked across the ground.
“FIRE!” Sergeant yelled, and the line exploded in a burst of noise and flame.
Private Bradley squeezed the handles of his machine gun and pulled the trigger tight. His hands did not protest anymore, they did not feel a thing. Molten lead burst out the barrel, round after round, tracing out lines that for the briefest of moments–moments no longer than a crack of lightning–connected him to the lives he reaped.
The men on Bradley’s line fired true, and it seemed that they dropped a score of their assailants every second. Yet there was more of the enemy tide than they had ever seen before. The horde was first visible as they crested a sudden rise in the land about a half-mile distant, and this night the ranks seemed to flow continuously over that lip like a river. Like one pack of night wolves after another, over and over.
“SWEEP! SWEEP!” Sergeant clutched Private Bradley’s shoulder. Bradley already was, of course. Rhythmically twisting the machine from left-to-right-to-left. He had his perfect cadence now. Just by looking at how distant the enemy line was, he knew exactly how quickly to turn the gun so that each round fired no more than two feet apart from the last. It formed the ideal spread for catching the most chests possible.
And then, of course, the belt ran dry. But Private Bradley had learned the timing of that as well. He would count off in his head, and as soon as he got to “thirty-seven” he would snap at Private Holt that he’d better shoulder his rifle and get the next run of bullets ready.
“Okay, this is the last one.”
“WHAT?!” Private Bradley shrieked. Sergeant shrieked something a bit stronger. Of course new ammunition, just like reinforcements, were not due until the morning.
“Save that last belt,” Sergeant ordered. “I’ll tell you when to let ’em have it.”
Bradley let go of the handles and awkwardly fumbled his rifle to his shoulder. How had he become so unacquainted with it so quickly? It felt like hugging a stranger, bony and awkward. His blistered hands were too large to hold it correctly, and his calloused fingers gripped it too tightly.
“They’re nearly on us!” Private Dunny announced unnecessarily.
“There’s no more coming over the rise!” Private Yates announced, far more helpfully.
So this was it. Both sides were entirely fielded in less than a half-mile’s space. This was the wall they had to sledge their way to the other side of. Private Bradley pulled the stock flush to his cheek and fired.
Well I didn’t plan this episode to resolve one battle, only to then leave right in the middle of another. It feels like I’m writing an old black-and-white serial that ends each week’s chapter on a cliffhanger. Maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing, though, it means the story is pacing through natural rises and falls. After all, even without careful pacing a story can be well-intentioned…but it can’t be interesting. Or put another way, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say if you aren’t saying it in a very good way. This is an idea I’d like to examine more on Monday, and how one can achieve a well-paced story.
Before that, though, let’s touch briefly on what I wrote last Monday about listing out the individual pieces of your story, to ensure that they hold a natural tension and escalation. Today was the moment where all of the tension of The Soldier’s Last Sleep escalated to its maximum, and now all that build-up is releasing in the story’s rousing climax!
There are several threads that I have woven together to achieve this effect. Obviously the first of these is the enemy assaults, which have incrementally pushed closer and closer to overwhelming Bradley and his compatriots. Then there is the thread of physical and mental deterioration, where I have listed out the deepening states of chafing hands and racked minds. There has been a thread about administration becoming more and more chaotic, where each new day denies them the relief that they so desperately need, while the other side inadvertently shells its own men! All of these threads has escalated in their own right, let alone when twisted all together.
There we have it, a list of lists that make up a story! And not only do they escalate, but each one creates tension by being at odds with the others. Bradley wants to live, his body wants to give up, the enemy horde wants to kill him, and the administration seems to want the struggle to continue endlessly. Not all sides can win this fight, and so the conflict heightens as each pushes its own agenda. Next week we’ll finally see which thread emerges as the victor!
Doctor Barlow nodded to the attendant standing by the control panel for the “green” room. He stepped up to the metal door’s reinforced glass window and peered in at his patient: poor Lucian Thorpe. The small, nervous man was sitting on the edge of his cot in a daze, his eyes staring absently into thoughts only he could know. There came the loud click of the door’s mechanical lock releasing and Lucian snapped out of his reverie and locked eyes with Doctor Barlow.
“Doctor Barlow!” Lucian exclaimed with nervous relief as the man crossed the threshold into the small room. “I had been hoping to—” his voice trailed off at the sight of the armed guard entering in behind Doctor Barlow and standing at attention against the back wall.
Doctor Barlow followed Lucian’s gaze and gave an understanding laugh. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” he said with a carefree wave of the hand. “You must remember that this is a unique facility, and so it comes with all manner of unique protocols. He’s just here because he has to be, it’s nothing to do with you.”
Lucian nodded, though his eyes lingered a moment longer on the assault rifle that the guard held in his stiff hands.
“Now Lucian, can you tell me if you have been experiencing any other symptoms?”
The shock on Lucian’s face bordered on incredulity.
“I mean aside from the obvious.” For there were obvious symptoms. The yellow coloring of the eyes, the long gray wisps of hair sprouting all along the body, the jumbling of the teeth. Indeed, the extreme nature of these changes were eclipsed only by the rapidity in which they had occurred. When Lucian had been admitted to the facility two weeks ago he had been a full three inches taller and hadn’t even begun to form his tail.
“You mean how I feel?” Lucian sneered, the timidity suddenly melting from his face.
“Like I’m being eaten from the inside out! Does that count as a symptom?!”
Doctor Barlow made a check on the clipboard he clasped before him. The minuteness of it only aggravated Lucian further and he simultaneously snapped his shoulders back and his maw forward in a sudden snarl. Doctor Barlow immediately recoiled and the guard swung his gun up level to Lucian’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lucian whimpered, his apprehension rushing back as he covered his face and curled back onto the bed. “I’m just so mixed up,” he moaned. “Doctor, please, what’s going on?”
Doctor Barlow sighed and lifted thick glasses from his eyes, then massaged his face with his palm. “This is a complicated business, Lucian. To move things too quickly would only risk further injury. We don’t want to give you temporary relief, Lucian. You understand? We’re here to cure you.”
“Can you?” Fear mingled with skepticism.
Doctor Barlow smiled. “Of course we will. Why do you think you were brought here, Lucian? It was because we never fail at this facility. Already we’ve isolated your strain, duplicated it, and are hitting them with the full barrage of tests and treatments. One of them is going to stick.” Doctor Barlow reached out and firmly shook Lucian’s knee. “Doubt yourself if you must, son, but believe in me.”
Lucian’s eyes did not shine with hope. But he did believe that this was his only chance, and no matter how slim a chance that might be he wasn’t about to jeopardize it. So he simply nodded.
Doctor Barlow accepted the gesture and smiled as he rose to his feet. “I’m on my way to see the team now. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they’re already preparing the cure.”
Lucian started to raise his arms, clearly wanting to him to stay and give more details, but Doctor Barlow pretended not to notice and strode out of the room. The guard backed out after the doctor, then the door shut and the mechanical lock clicked back into place.
“Anything?” Doctor Barlow asked the other two specialists as he rubbed his tired eyes again.
“Of course not,” Doctor Hoeg scoffed. Over the past two weeks they had overseen dozens of tests and then reconvened dozens of times to discuss the complete nothingness that had been turned up by all of that work.
“Well that’s not quite true,” Doctor Gretzel scolded as she thumbed through her folder. “We have a new theory as to why we aren’t able to isolate the strain,” she offered, handing Doctor Barlow a sheet of distribution graphs. “Each of these was taken from the same blood sample at equal intervals of two hours. The extreme changes in the composition suggest that the thing is mutating rapidly. So much so that we can never track the same iteration from one test to the next.”
Hoeg actually laughed aloud at this. “Well that certainly seems like a promising path of inquiry then!”
“That is enough,” Barlow ordered calmly but firmly. “Act like the professional you’re supposed to be.”
“Fine.” Hoeg said shortly. “In my professional opinion we need to stop avoiding the obvious realities. We can’t identify anything about this strain, we can’t even identify if it is bacterial or viral. But what is clear is that what is happening to that boy is going to reach its culmination in a matter of weeks and we’ll be no closer to any answers than we are right now. Can we please have the discussion now of what we do when things take their course?”
Barlow inhaled long and audibly. Then exhaled still more forcefully. “Not yet,” he said evenly. “Not until we know where that course even goes.”
Hoeg shook his head in frustration, clearly wrestling with the thoughts he wanted to voice. The same ideas that all of them had thought but never dared say. “Have you been to see the canine today?” he finally asked. The fact that all of them consciously avoided calling the ‘canine’ by its common name was evidence enough that they were skirting around its myths.
Barlow shook his head. “I’m on my way there next.”
In another wing exactly like the one where Lucian was being held, Doctor Barlow peered through the window of another door into the “pink” room. He made no movement to enter this room, though, he only watched its occupant at a distance. When the canine had first been brought it was a creature of fits and spasms, constantly snapping at unseen afflictions and lunging viciously at anything that came too near. Now, though, the changes to its body had crippled it, subjecting it to a wakeful paralysis of twitches and shivers. The creature was obviously suffering, and even its breathing seemed to be a terrible labor.
Barlow watched it lying there on the floor, its chest rising and falling to unnatural extremes. Each exhale came out in long, guttural sighs, and was then followed by a rush of rasping inhales in quick succession. If things continued as they were, the creature would not be surviving much longer.
ONE WEEK LATER
Doctor Barlow paused a few feet back from the “green” room. Far enough back that he wouldn’t be within view of the window in the door. He glanced nervously to the guard at his side, but he just stared stoically ahead. Doctor Barlow took a deep breath, nodded to the attendant, and then took purposeful strides into Lucian’s quarters. Well, at least the quarters of the thing that had been Lucian anyway. The being that occupied these walls now barely resembled a human at all. Its back was deeply hunched and its limbs were unnaturally long and thin, with hands hanging so low they were nearly scraping along the floor. The lower face had extruded itself forward and the mouth and nose in particular were pulled out to a peak in front. What had at first seemed like an excess of hair was now clearly thick gray fur, and it covered nearly every inch of the body.
Doctor Barlow couldn’t repress a grimace and slight shake of the head. “Lucian?” he asked tentatively. “Can you hear me?”
The creature did not appear to understand, it just kept revolving awkwardly on the same spot in the corner of the room. It refused to meet eyes with Doctor Barlow, but there came a growl from its throat that finally formed into recognizable—though strained—words.
“I hear you,” Lucian croaked.
“Lucian, do you know who I am?”
A series of sniffs and pantings, then finally “Doctor.”
“Very good, Lucian,” Doctor Barlow praised. It wasn’t very good, though. Yesterday Lucian had still remembered his actual name. “You’re doing very well.”
“No more games!” Lucian snarled, his fur starting to bristle as he slowed his pacing to face Doctor Barlow directly..
“Lucian I am taking your case very seriously.”
“Then be serious!” Lucian started to raise himself as tall as possible, coming within a few inches of a regular man’s height.
Barlow sighed. “Obviously you are worried, Lucian, I understand that. But no matter what depths this reaches you must believe me that there is still hope. If you can be changed you one way you can be changed back the other.”
“Stop. Playing. Me!” Lucian took a step forward and the guard raised his rifle an inch.
Barlow removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. “What is it you want to hear, Lucian? That I don’t know what’s going to happen. That I don’t know anything anymore? Very well. I don’t.”
Lucian sneered. Then fell back to his pacing. “Did you find it?”
“Oh. Yes, we found it.”
“How has it changed?”
“Changed? I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just a simple canine. It’s had some blood work done, of course, but nothing else of note.”
Lucian bared his teeth in a long, sinister inhale that puffed him up larger. “Don’t lie to me!” he struggled to voice each word. “Every memory I lose I gain another. But not my memories. Hunting rabbits and drinking from streams and biting flesh… Biting Lucian.”
“Well I don’t think you should dwell on those thoughts, Lucian, that’s clearly just some fever dream, totally understandable.”
With a snap Lucian flung himself at Doctor Barlow, digging at him with his claw-like hands and snapping at his arm with sharp teeth. The guard swung his gun up to fire but the two men were too entwined for a clean shot, so he instead rushed forward and thrust the barrel of the gun into Lucian’s chest, hurling him back to the ground. Lucian landed on all fours, circled round, then leaped up again only to be caught by the butt of the rifle slamming between his eyes and crumpling him to the floor.
“Open the door!” the guard roared, seizing Barlow under the arms and half-supporting-half-dragging him out of the room. Once they cleared the door and it slammed shut Barlow struggled back to his feet and pushed the guard away.
“Sir, I—” the guard began.
“NO!” Doctor Barlow shrieked, his eyes manic. “No!” he threw his clipboard to the floor and continued to stare hatefully at the guard until he shifted his eyes to the ground. Barlow swung his penetrating gaze over to the attendant who also shifted her eyes down. Doctor Barlow gave them each a final scowl, then turned and strode out of the room.
An hour later a somewhat more composed Barlow stood outside of the “pink” room, staring at his other patient within. The canine had not died, in fact it had improved quite remarkably. Once the internal organs had shifted to support the new form it had started to thrive, growing more energetic each day. Enthusiastic even. It still moved about on four paws, but when it reached the walls it placed its hands against them and raised to a standing position. It even spoke with the attendants through the protective screen. English words, about the vocabulary of a three-year-old, but improving each day.
Hoeg and Gretzel stood on either side of Doctor Barlow.
“There’s no denying the eventualities now,” Gretzel mused as they watched the creature give a toddler-like smile as a cookie was deployed through a chute to its tray.
“No,” Barlow agreed. “And there’s no need debating the proper course of action to follow.”
“Of course there’s need!” Hoeg spat. “But evidently you two would rather not face your own consciences.” He shook his head. “Thinking you deserve to play god!”
Before this morning Barlow would likely have ignored the disrespect, but now he turned and puffed out his chest as he stared straight down Hoeg’s bitter eyes. “Do you not understand you little fool? Any action here is to play god. There is no right answer!” He sneered, then turned back to face the creature. “All that remains is the reputation of this facility…and you’re outranked.”
“And outvoted,” Gretzel added.
TWO WEEKS LATER
Lucian was finishing getting dressed in the “pink” room, smiling at Doctors Barlow and Gretzel as they went through his final questionnaire.
“Yes, that’s right,” Lucian answered. “I remember the bite, but nothing after that until I came to a week ago.”
They nodded satisfactorily and made simultaneous checks on their clipboards.
“We know it wasn’t easy for you to stay an extra week with us, but I’m sure you understand it was necessary for us to be thorough?” Barlow asked, pausing a moment to scratch at his arm.
“Oh, of course.”
Barlow grinned. “Well I think I’m satisfied.” He looked sideways to Doctor Gretzel. “How about you?”
“Me too,” she grinned back. “What about you, Lucian? Ready to get out of here?”
He laughed as he rose to his feet. “Definitely!”
“Let’s get you to that family of yours,” Doctor Barlow nodded as the three of them left the room and made their way towards the waiting room. As they went, Doctor Gretzel explained the package they’d be sending him home with and the instructions for self-monitoring his conditions for the next two months. She also assured him that all of his questions would be addressed in the medical brief that was included as well. Doctor Barlow alternated between nodding in agreement and persisting at that itch under his long shirtsleeve.
Meanwhile, over in the “green” room the guard waited behind the half-closed door while the tranquilizer took effect. The large wolf’s bared teeth relaxed their growl, its lids slowly drooped, and finally its head rolled back onto the floor unconscious. The guard entered the room and quickly attached a muzzle to the sleeping dog, then slid it into a metal carrier which he padlocked shut.
It was the one concession they had allowed Doctor Hoeg, something to help ease his conscience. The specimen wasn’t to be dissected for future research, rather it would be flown to the wilds of Canada, somewhere a thousand miles from the nearest human civilization. Somewhere it could be forgotten back to the myths and legends where it properly belonged.
On Monday I spent some time advocating for a kinder and more productive form of critical analysis on an author’s work. My main points in this pattern of feedback was that the reviewer should first identify the accomplishments of what has been written, suggest improvements that could lift the story still higher, and close with a vision of what the story could then become in its most ideal form.
So to start off, in this week’s story I do think I’ve developed a unique and interesting interpretation on a classic myth, that of the werewolf. I also like how this story reaches natural conclusion, but one that ends with questions that could be picked up on later. Is Doctor Barlow being changed now? Is the new Lucian truly the same as before?
Areas that I feel could be enhanced are both general and specific. Generally I feel the work could use a little more breathing room. Taking some more time and space to allow for a richer atmosphere would do a lot for improving the sense of intrigue. Also the characters could use a little more time in the oven as right now they are flatter than I wanted them to be.
To get more specific, one scene that I felt breezed by particularly quickly was the first conversation between Lucian and Doctor Barlow. This is our introduction to the strange situation, and I don’t feel the moment has allowed dread and understanding to slowly creep through the reader like it should. Later when Lucian attacks Doctor Barlow it would also carry more punch if there was more buildup leading to that moment. All of the communication between the doctors could be refactored, too. Quite frankly I knew I wanted conversations and conflict there, so I put in some placeholder text and then there wasn’t time to find something else that had a better fit.
In conclusion, I would say that the foundation is there, but that the story needs iteration, experimentation, and growth. With that sort of time and care then I think this short could become the prologue to a rich and suspenseful novel. This could be the introduction of how the legend of the werewolf was introduced into modern suburbia through an eccentric doctor that got a little too close to his subjects.
Taking that time to analyze my story and focus on its potential has increased both my appreciation for what it is now and my desire to work it into something better. I didn’t feel that I had to hold back in expressing my honest criticisms, but I also didn’t feel insulted by them.
Obviously there is another type of critique which I have not had time to illustrate here: the in-process editing where an author reads over their draft and corrects small errors as they go. Grammatical flubs, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing are inevitable in a rough draft, and every work is greatly improved by many read-throughs and quick-fixes. That’s a process that deserves a closer examination and I hope to see you on Monday when we’ll do just that. Have a wonderful weekend!