The Favored Son: Part One

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“There’s no elders around to see,” Bovik rotated his head on a swivel. “Show us, Reis.”

“You think it’s a matter of being caught by the elders?” Reis frowned disapprovingly. “You don’t think anything of the principle of the matter?”

Bovik sighed. “Explain to him that it’s not like that,” he said to Marvi.

“Reis…no one wants you to do anything you shouldn’t,” Marvi purred softly. “We just–we just thought there was something that you could show us. Something without breaking any rules or anything like that.”

“There might be,” Reis mused, but then he turned and continued leading the group deeper through the stone-hedge. As he went the columns twisted and contorted, re-arranging their layout, opening a path before the gang of youth as they walked, then closing it behind them. Thus they could progress deeper into the maze, but could not be followed, and any of their number who hesitated, or failed to keep up, would also be shut out as unworthy.

Reis took a glance over his shoulder then began to charge forward aggressively. He made one quick turn after another, his gang of followers struggling to keep pace. After a particularly tight hairpin turn he raced up a steep incline and leaped out into the air, a leap of faith, trusting that the stone columns would bend to catch his feet from one step to the next. They did so, spiraling up from the ground to meet his feet with each bound, fifteen feet up in the air.

Marvi, who was directly behind him, followed in perfect sync. Reis could feel her presence without even looking. He unexpectedly paused on his current pedestal, one second longer than his prior steps, then leaped forward again. It was just enough of a change to his cadence to throw her off. She had anticipated his movement, already committed herself to the air, and now the stone pedestal would not leave his control and reform itself where she wanted it in time for her to land on it. She fell all the way to the mossy ground below.

Reis let himself descend back to the surface level and took another glance back at the few of his compatriots still in pursuit. He turned all the way around and locked eyes with Bovik and Talo, the two front-runners. Reis began spinning left and right erratically, side-stepping as he did. The stone walls on either side began fluctuating in response to his movements, rapidly thrusting out barricades and then receding them.

The two boys grit their teeth and tried to follow the dance. They watched Reis’s movements, anticipated the changing walls, and dashed forward or held back as appropriate. Or at least they did until an unexpected riser came sliding across the ground and took Bovik’s feet out from under him.

“Oof! That one was from you!” he snapped at Talo.

“Sorry,” Talo shrugged. It couldn’t be helped that the two boys’ movements were adding an extra complexity to the churning Reis had already started. “We’ve got to go one-at-a-time.”

And so he left his comrade and pressed on ahead, disappearing behind a particularly tricky spiral-turn. Bovik leaped to his feet and followed after, trying to stay far enough back to not be caught in Talo’s wake, but not so far back as to lose Reis entirely.

Fifteen seconds later he found Talo laying on his back, massaging his side.

“He hit me!” Talo told him indignantly. “And not with a wall, mind you! I had just finished dodging a sweeper and he actually, literally reached out and punched me!”

“He wanted to see if you were distracted,” Bovik shrugged, reaching down to pull his friend back up to his feet, “and I guess you were.”

“Well it was still a cheap move.”

“Ahh, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the real test anyway. Keep up with him isn’t what this is all about, now is it?”

Talo thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up as understanding set in. “Oh! Of course. We’re supposed to know where he’s headed and just meet him there.”

“The centrifuge!” they concluded together.

Farther ahead, Reis continued charging forward at a blistering pace. He could not see any of his compatriots over his shoulder any more, but he wanted to be absolutely sure that there weren’t any hangers-on before he made his way to the center of the maze.

Of course it wasn’t just about reaching the physical center of the maze. This was a living, morphing place after all. To truly find the center, you had to approach it in the right way. And that right way was different every time you tried to find it, and different depending on which direction you came at it from.

So at last Reis slowed his run, stopped churning the stone walls around him, and instead starting paying attention to the maze itself. How was it unfolding itself to him this day? What was the pattern–the rule–that naturally dictated its openings and closings?

He came to a full stop, breathed deeply, and took in all his surroundings. Then he took a single step forward and watched how the stone shuddered as a result. A step to the right. A step to the left. A quarter turn. Then ten paces forward in a straight line.

“Alright,” he said to himself as he walked. “Openings naturally on the right side, obstacles naturally on the left.” He continued walking down his current aisle until it came to a 90-degree turn then continued along the next chamber. “Openings still naturally on the right. So I’m circling round. Go a layer deeper.”

He stepped into one of those openings in the right-hand wall and came into a neighboring path. He continued his walk down it now.

“Openings on the left…obstacles on the right,” he frowned. It had flipped. The maze was trying to suggest that its center was in the opposite direction of where it had been just a moment ago. He stepped through a hole to the left…back to where he had been before…and again the openings were on the right, not the left. “So what? Back and forth between the two? A test of persistence?”

That didn’t feel right. Every time he stepped right the maze wanted him to go left, every time he stepped left the maze wanted him to go right. There was a puzzle here, and he was supposed to somehow use this mechanic to progress in only one direction. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?

Reis’s body was wandering as much as his mind now. He carelessly strode down the pathways, stepped through the openings, back and forth, just trying to let something  click. If he stepped through an opening to the left, then back to the right, did the path he came back into appear different from before? No. If he went through one opening, went around a right-hand turn, and then stepped through the opening back to the previous path had things changed…hmm, no, that didn’t seem to help anything.

Perhaps it had something to do with how one went through the opening? He tried stepping through very slowly, no change. Headfirst, no change. Backwards…wait! He had gone backwards through an opening to the right and the rule had flipped. Now the openings in the next pathway were still on the right-hand side!

“It’s not right or left!” he crowed. “It’s that the openings appear behind you as you step through.”

Grinning, Reis continued his retreat. He didn’t dare turn his head to see where he was going, for fear of breaking the effect. He just trusted the maze to guide him. Path by path he moved deeper and deeper, until at last he passed the carved stone pillars which he knew so well. He turned around and saw the centrifuge before him: a massive stone column fragmented into many pieces, each spinning at its own rate and in different directions.

And Tharol was standing before it.

“You’re here already?” Reis cocked an eyebrow.

“Didn’t waste time trying to keep up with you.”

“You understood right away?”

“Of course…you’re obsessed with this place.”

Reis grinned and paced leisurely around the central column. “And why not? It is an obsessive place.”

“Have you seen this?” Tharol, all business, gestured to a small, spindly something perched on the ground. It was as if a thousand tiny, black sticks had been fused to one another until they were roughly in the form of a four-legged, lanky creature.

“It’s still growing?”

“Well it’s never showed any signs of slowing, has it? Definitely some sort of creature.”

“But still no head on it.”

“The elders still don’t know what to make of it.”

Reis shrugged. “This is a place of mysteries. Be all the more unusual if there weren’t unusual things growing here.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“Doesn’t it strike you as–I don’t know–like something from the old legends? Creatures springing out of the rocks sounds straight out of the Cryptics!”

“And nothing good ever game out of the Cryptics,” Reis repeated the well-known saying. “I don’t know. It’s not a creature springing out of rock, it’s the statue of a creature. It’s not as though this thing shows any sign of life.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“So I’ve heard.”

There was the sound of crumbling rock behind them and they spun around to see Inol dashing through a tear in the wall. Then came the sound of rapid footsteps to the right, and they turned to see Bovik and Talo come bounding over the top of the wall there. Marvi entered next from the left, fixing Reis with a scowl, evidently none too pleased for having been dropped during the chase.

“Sorry,” he said. “I did make sure we were over the moss at least.”

One-by-one more of the youth arrived, until there were thirteen of them in all. Reis waited quietly as they came, seated on a crumbled pillar, until there was a period of five minutes without any new arrivals. Then he stood up and clicked his tongue.

“I guess everyone that is going to be here is here.”

“You’re going to show us the amulet now?” Bovik asked eagerly.

Reis frowned at him, not pleased at all with being interrupted.

“I will show you what I will show you. And what I show you will be what I already chose to show you…not because you asked to see it.”

Bovik looked down to his feet and took a step back.

“Now then…” Reis glanced around, as if to dare anyone to interrupt him again. “Master Palthio’s instructions were that I keep Raystahn private, but I interpret that as private between myself and close friends. I feel that I may share it as I see fit, so long as I do so with prudence and care. Each of you,” he nodded to the gathered congregation, “I consider worthy of seeing.”

Without any further explanation he reached into the folds of his tunic and drew out a golden amulet. All the youth leaned in closer. Even Tharol, who usually maintained a more aloof air about such artifacts, squinted at it curiously. It was golden disc, with many layers and sections and foil strands twisting from one edge to another.

“There’s some sort of markings between the arms,” Marvi observed. “But they look more like patterns than writing.”

“Patterns can convey knowledge as well,” Reis stated. “And they aren’t static, watch this.” He took a step towards Marvi, and as he did so the etchings rearranged themselves slightly. “They change based on their context.”

“A compass!” Talo exclaimed.

“A compass only tells you which way you’re headed,” Reis tutted. “But these, I believe, tell one where they are.”

“A map, then.”

“Something like that. Only I still need to figure out how to read the symbols properly.”

“Have you asked Master Palthio what he knows about it?” Bovik queried.

“No, of course not. An amulet is a very personal thing, not some everyday tool with a manual. You’re supposed to figure this out for yourself. In fact, from now on I’d better not lead you on with what I’ve already puzzled out. You may observe, but keep your thoughts and discoveries to yourself.”

Everyone was silent for a few minutes, craning their necks from side-to-side, taking in all the complexities and hidden compartments on the device.

Reis grinned at their fascination. “There is something else I could show you about it. I won’t say anything about what I think it means, but you would still find it fascinating.”

All the youth locked eyes with him eagerly. All except for Tharol.

“But…like I said. This is very personal. Really I’m the only one who should know all this stuff about Raystahn. If I’m going to share more with you…I need you to be a part of me,” his eyes flicked meaningfully from one youth to the next. “I’m going to need…an oath.”

Part Two
Part Three

 

On Monday I wrote about how we cast characters in certain ways, making them likable or unlikable to the reader, so that the reader will accept or reject them accordingly. But of course, the reader is not only accepting or rejecting the character, they are also accepting or rejecting all the character’s ideas and everything that they stand for. The character is the Trojan Horse, hiding the writer’s agenda within.

With today’s post I introduced characters only, and did not yet reveal their ideologies or beliefs. In this way I have the reader already drawing opinions on them, even before they really know them.

My belief, and my intention, is that readers will find Reis a pompous and insincere character, one who they dislike, and are prepared to reject the agenda of. Almost all the other youth I intend to be seen as simpering and weak-willed. Tharol is intended to come across as likable, but cautious, someone that the readers wish to be closer to. And as we will see in the story, all these feelings that the readers hold towards the characters will be perfectly aligned with the messages that the overall story communicates.

As I suggested on Monday, there is an undeniable element of manipulative design in all this. The onus is on me to remain honest and sincere in the messages that I put forth this way, which is part of the reason that I am writing these paragraphs down here in the first place. My intent is not truly to manipulate, if it were, I would not be pointing out how the manipulation is being done. My intent is to help us all be more discerning readers and more sensitive writers.

For now, though, I’d like to move on to examining another piece of this story. This opening segment, with the youth traversing the maze, is ultimately not a critical element of the story. It is to give a little flavor of the world, but as soon as it ends we’ll get going on the main thrust of the story.

This is not an uncommon approach to story-telling, where a sort of prologue piece gets the audience warmed up before the main tale goes forward in earnest. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on a few examples of this, and why we use it in our stories. Then, on Thursday, we’ll really get going on The Favored Son.

I Hated You, Jimmy

man sitting on door of school bus
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It was years before I forgave my parents for dragging me to Jimmy’s funeral. It’s not like they had fond feelings for the boy, but they just kept saying something about “community” and “civic duty” and stuff like that.

You’ll notice, by the way, that I spelled his name out properly? Even at fifteen I knew that that “Jimi” moniker he wanted us to use was just stupid. You’re not important enough to rebrand yourself like some Rock and Roll Hall of Greats inductee.

In Loving Memory of James “Jimi” Watson…

I rolled my eyes when I read that obituary title, sitting in my pew, waiting for the services to start. I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands started shaking at the injustice of a revisionist history.

Friends remember James as a brave, yet tender boy. He was always so concerned about the smaller children at school, standing up for the underdog every day.

Perhaps you meant “standing them up” in their locker?

Jimmy spent his time slamming people’s faces, spitting in their mouths, and cornering the girls. He was starting to get old enough to be really scary, carrying a knife in his pocket and allegedly cutting someone on more than one occasion.

So as I read that obituary I started to wonder, were we really just going to sit here and pretend that we didn’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?

I guess so. I sure wasn’t going to stand up and rock the boat.

I remember I felt guilty for feeling relieved. Relieved that my life’s biggest burden had just been removed. To be clear, I never wanted the school’s biggest bully to die in a car crash, I never wished any such thing on him. I had wished that his family would move, or that he would get thrown into juvie, but never that he’d get killed.

So no, this was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I still was. And as I sat there I couldn’t help thinking how all the rest of High School was going to be so much smoother.

And you know what? It really was.

I had always told my parents that Jimmy had some personal vendetta against me and they always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they were wrong. Because sure, there were still other bullies, and they still sucked, but life was noticeably better ever after his drunk step-dad got the both of them killed.

Sorry, that was cold.

I’m not so used to expressing all my frustrations…. And really, now that I think about it, I lied earlier when I said I never wanted Jimmy to die. Sort of, anyway. You see I had thought the words “I wish Jimmy would just die” from time-to-time, but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not an actual person. And ever since that accident I’ve been piece-by-piece appreciating that Jimmy really was a person.

Strangely enough I first started picking up on that fact one day when I was feeling particularly grateful to not have Jimmy around anymore. It was a couple years later in the back of the theater with Grace. I was still trying to work up the nerve to put my arm around her when she leaned her head down onto my shoulder. In that moment I was really, truly happy, and the thought occurred to me that the happiness was only complete because I wasn’t afraid of Jimmy being around to ruin it.

And then, out of the blue, the thought occurred to me that Jimmy wasn’t around to experience it either. I mean sure, he’d had his “honeys” as he called them, but he didn’t know what it meant to really want to care for someone else. For the first time in my life I actually felt older than Jimmy.

The next time I found myself thinking about Jimmy was a year later at graduation, while we stood in line for our diploma ceremony. With his last name being Watson, and mine being Watts, he would have been right in front of me in line, instead I now stared at the back of Berkley Warren’s head instead.

Would he have had plans for going to college? Would he have even made it to the end of High School? Quite possibly not. Jimmy certainly wasn’t the most gifted of students, he was already struggling even in the Freshman year. A fact that probably made him quite bitter.

Or maybe not. With all the other problems he had going on at home, his school performance probably didn’t even compare.

Those problems were ones we kids understood only on the surface at the time. We knew his dad had been abusive, had been taken away to jail, and that his new step-dad was abusive, too. But we didn’t have any clue what that term “abusive” really amounted to. It was just a word back then.

I had always been told that I was supposed to be nice, no matter what, every kid gets told that. So I had always felt that Jimmy didn’t have any excuse for not being nice, no matter what went on in his home. None of us knew what abuse meant, except the kids who were actually facing that stuff. Not even all of them knew.

I guess I still don’t really know what it means, do I? And I certainly don’t know what it meant to Jimmy personally. But I do know enough to respect the fact that Jimmy’s behavior towards me was driven by that weight he carried.

After High School I moved away from my childhood home and went to college. Life started coming fast and I didn’t spend much much time thinking about the people I had once known. I was shocked at how much time had already passed when I got the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion. By that point I had a job, a wife, a child, and a home.

It didn’t take too much encouraging from my wife to decide that I would go, ever since the birth of our son I had been thinking nostalgically about my old childhood home. The time was right for a pilgrimage.

For the most part I was amazed at how much everyone felt just the same to me. A little more weight, a little more facial hair, some bags under the eyes, but still the same people I had always known.

At least so it seemed until I started talking with Blake Johnson.

At first I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, he had been another of the bullies, after all, and I didn’t want to fake a smile and pretend that bygones were bygones. He came directly up to me, though, shook me firmly by the hand, and gave a very sincere apology. That was why he had come here, he explained, to try and make amends for being such a burden to others in school.

It caught me entirely off guard, and all my preconceptions began to melt. We stood there for another fifteen minutes, going over all the usual talking points of one another’s work and families. As we did, I found that he was indistinguishable from all the other people here. He had grown up, he had changed, he had become a healthy member of society.

We didn’t talk about Jimmy in that conversation, but still my thoughts turned to him as I sat in my car later that night. Rather than start my drive home I was wrestling with something inside, trying to understand something that I hadn’t before.

At last it came through and I realized that over the years I had allowed myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t considered that today he could have been someone different. And maybe he wouldn’t have changed, maybe today he would be a hardened criminal stewing in some jail cell. But that wasn’t the point. The point is he never got his chance to decide. Blake got his chance, but Jimmy never would.

All I would ever know of Jimmy was a fifteen-year-old kid who really didn’t know a thing in the world.

I thought about my own son waiting for me back home. He’s a pretty good kid, but not perfect. I would hate for anyone to write him off before he’s had a chance to come into his own.

I had thought several times about Jimmy over the years, but the first time ever I cried about him. I cried for a soul interrupted.

 

I mentioned that one of my problems in Harold and Caroline was that the criticism only flowed one way. Caroline was too passive of a character, and so their relationship lacked a back-and-forth to its give-and-take. The thing was, sometimes your character should be passive. In today’s example, the narrator was definitely the victim of Jimmy’s bullying, and that meant he had to hold a more submissive role.

My solution, though, was to write this from the narrator’s perspective, where the reader could hear the sharp barbs in his thoughts, without having to hear them coming out of his mouth. From this view we can tell that he is fighting back against Jimmy, just from a more passive-aggressive stance. Also the fact that this is written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past gives him a maturity that Jimmy never holds. Overall I feel a lot better about how I maintained an equal tension between the two while still allowing one to dominate over the other.

 

My other concern with Harold and Caroline was how it didn’t use sideplots effectively. It would introduce new characters and motivations, keep them around just long enough to push the main plot forward slightly, and then drop them without any sort of meaningful resolution.

In today’s piece I wanted to cover more than a decade in a very short span of time, so I knew that meant utilizing the same vignette-style separate scenes. This time, though, I toned them down to the point that they were just backdrops that the main narrative marched continuously in front of. My main technique in accomplishing this was in not having any of the other characters speak. We learn a couple names, Grace and Blake, but because we only hear of them second-hand we never mistake them for central characters and then have our expectations in that disappointed.

As a whole I liked this piece a good deal more than Harold and Caroline. There are still criticisms I could make of it, but for now I’d rather move on to something else.

This story and Harold and Caroline were some of my more grounded pieces, stories where nothing supernatural occurred whatsoever. Perhaps the way things work out for the characters might seem a little convenient or contrived, but that’s as strange as things get.

Softer, slice-of-life tales and rollicking power fantasies have more in common than you might think, though. More often then not, they both deal with the same basic themes, just they paint them with different colors. Come back on Monday where I will explore this concept even further.