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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Barbed Wire Fence (excerpt from a work in progress)

Below is the first bit of my work-in-progress, a post-apocalyptic novel tentatively titled Barbed Wire Fence.  I would love comments/feedback!

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Hannah Sundgren was only a mile from the encampment when she knew she’d never make it back.

She’d slipped away from the others early; the eastern horizon was just beginning to glow, birds to sing. She got up quietly, padding barefoot across the big main hall, and closed the front door gently, holding the handle to avoid the echoing click that would alert someone to her escape. Only once outside did she stop to pull on her shoes and lace them, and then she walked off quickly, quietly, more afraid of being seen from one of the many windows than she was of the diffuse, pervasive threat that all of them lived under.

She had been only thirteen years old when the epidemics came, taking both of her parents, her older brother and younger sister, and leaving behind only a handful of stunned survivors in the little upstate New York village where she’d lived all her life. The following winter claimed three of those survivors, from a combination of hunger, cold, and despair. When the spring thaw came, and she and two others ventured out of the house they’d chosen for their home because of the presence of a wood stove and a huge supply of firewood, they came across others. Within a year there was a group of nearly a hundred, who’d joined up in ones and twos from nearby villages and farms, many of whom had spent the winter wondering if they were the only people left alive in the world. Several had wept uncontrollably when they found the encampment. Their little group was still growing ten years later, albeit more slowly now; the most recent addition, a woman who had walked all the way from the shores of Lake Ontario in search of other survivors, had only arrived the previous week.

The walk down to the lake was quiet, the sweet June breeze brushing her hair, and most of all, she was alone. Blissfully, wonderfully, and completely alone. A small smile played about her lips as she walked, and she felt the tension drain from her body.

The old, broken-surfaced road turned and dipped, and ahead of her she saw Carlisle Lake, its surface smooth under the orange sun. She broke into a run, glorying in the feeling of the air in her face, the warm light on her skin – and no one there to watch her.

She zigzagged through the trees at the lake’s edge, and then stopped only long enough to strip off her clothes, and dove into the cold, clear water. Afterwards she let the air dry her on a large, flat rock, feeling the tickle as the water droplets diminished to nothing, her muscles warming through as the sun rose higher in the sky.

It was probably an hour later that she got up, dressed, and started the long, uphill walk back to the encampment. She knew she’d have some explaining to do – might even face public censure – but it was worth it, just to get away for a little, to have some privacy.

They’d been doing so well, considering; banding together after the epidemic roared through, a little intrepid group of survivors, held together despite differences in background and attitude by a common desire to survive. Hannah had spent the first year mired in grief over the loss of her family, friends, and way of life, but when spring came, and the first anniversary of the horrific month of the plague, she felt that far from reliving it, she was ready to move on, ready to try to rebuild a future in this strange new world.

But then, the disappearances began, and the landscape shifted again, into a new and darker geometry.

Hannah was about halfway back to the encampment when she felt the first flutter of fear up her back. Had it really been this silent on the way down? She remembered birds calling – the buzzing of insects in the grass – all of the natural noises that are so ubiquitous that they are barely acknowledged. Now, all she heard was the breeze, rustling the leaves on the trees.

Hannah sped up her walking a little, looking around her. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It looked like she remembered it from other trips to the lake, always taken in groups of three or more. It was the encampment’s strictest rule. And, perhaps because of it, they hadn’t lost anyone in six years. No one, for any reason, is ever to be out of sight of at least two others – never, not to go to the bathroom, not to make love, never.

And now here Hannah was, walking back toward the encampment all alone, her hair still damp from her morning’s swim, a stitch beginning in her side as she ignored the sense of panic rising in her belly.

It’ll be okay, she thought. It’s broad daylight. There’s nothing around that’s dangerous. Nothing…

And that was just it; there was nothing. The silence was becoming oppressive. A dead leaf, blown on the breeze, tumbled across the ruined road, and she jumped, her heart skittering unevenly for several minutes afterwards. An abandoned house – one of hundreds of thousands of empty houses in this lonely, depopulated world – seemed to glare at her, its broken-windowed gaze full of malign intent. She forced herself not to look.

The road gave a sweeping curve to the left and began to level out; only an easy mile to go. Over the top of the hill, past the rock outcropping, and through an open glade of maple trees, and she’d see the long, low buildings that had once been Guildford High School spreading out in front of her. Her home for the past ten years, her home for the foreseeable future.

She sped up a little, panting with the exertion, all of the coolness and sweetness of her swim lost in a sheen of sweat. She crested the hill; the rock outcropping was right in front of her. It was…

Hannah stopped, staring. Like an optical illusion suddenly resolving, the scene in front of her shifted, but made less sense than it had before. Because the rock outcropping hadn’t been there on the way down. Her conscious mind shouted at her, That’s impossible, it must have been there, you just didn’t notice it, but at the same time she knew. Where the low lump of gray stone stood had before been an expanse of grassy field.

And that was when she knew she would never get back to the encampment.

It was curious how little that realization affected her emotions. A spinning ribbon of thoughts slid through her mind; It was my turn to cook tonight, and now someone else will have to fill in. I should have taken Vince up on it when he asked me if I wanted to sleep with him last week; now I’ll never get to. I wonder what they’ll do with my things? I wonder…

She started to walk again, slowly, keeping her eyes on the rock the whole time. It looked like slate, angling its way up out of the ground, one edge encrusted with lichen and moss. Bits of it had crumbled away and lay in fragments among the tufts of grass at its base. It looked ordinary, solid, real.

But it wasn’t. She was certain of that.

“Whatever you are,” she said to the rock, “I know you’re not a rock. And I know you’re probably going to kill me. But what I want to know is, why? We’ve been through enough, we humans. Why are you doing this?”

It didn’t answer.

She was twenty feet from it, then fifteen, then ten. Tears were running down her face, but she was unaware of them.

“I won’t run. I know it won’t do any good. But before you kill me, just tell me why.”

Hannah was right before the rock outcropping. She reached out one hand, her fingertips brushed its cool, rough surface, and she had to stop a relieved laugh from bubbling up in her. It’s just a rock! It’s just a rock after all!

She turned away from it, her heart beating a little staccato rhythm as the adrenaline poured into her blood – and that was when the rock tilted upward, its shape changing with the suddenness of a trap springing.

Hannah did not have a chance to scream.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Cup of Tea

Flash fiction - about an unsettling visit to a mental institution.

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I spoke to Nannie Mae only once after she was sent to the institution.  It was in January, I remember, the weather was bitter cold.  I didn't want to go, but she was my aunt, my mother's oldest sister, and I felt I should.  Three years were enough to bring me to a place where I thought I should confront this broken piece of my family's past, however painful that confrontation might be.

I don't know what I expected -- people in straitjackets, drawing with crayons clenched in their teeth, making wild purple swoops on pieces of butcher paper. Inmates  laughing wildly, their eyes wide and white.  The sounds of screams bouncing off metal walls.

There were no straitjackets, no shrieking and moaning.  It was a quiet place; the dust hung motionless in the beams of light coming in through the windows, so that the light itself seemed not to be moving, to be something solid that you could pick up and move when you were done with it.  Oh, you knew that the quiet was an illusion; the security was there, and an outburst would have brought them running.  You could see it in the guarded expressions, in their careful, controlled movements.  It was the tense silence of the coiled mainspring of an overwound clock.  Hold your breath, let the silence continue.  Don't disturb the people.  Don't disturb the dust.

Nannie Mae looked up when I came to her, where she sat wearing a house dress with little blue flowers.  Her eyes fluttered over me, vague passes over my face like the brush of a light breeze, there and then gone, never resting in one spot for long.  She smiled a little.

"John?"

"Hi, Aunt Nan," I said.

Her hands made a restless, fluttering movement, like her eyes.  "It's sweet of you to visit."

"I wanted to see how you were doing."

"I'm well, well enough.  They treat me nicely here.  For the most part."

"Is there anything you need?" I asked, not knowing what to say, wanting to fill the silence.  I didn't know if I could bring her things, anyway, or if that was against the rules.  I suspected that this place had lots of rules.

"Tea," she said. "I'd like a cup of tea.  Two sugars, no lemon, like I like it."

"Oh, okay.  I was more thinking of things like books, or music, or something.  But I'll see if I can find someone who can get you a cup of tea."

She smiled, and some of the tenseness went out of her; I could see what she had been during my childhood, the eccentric maiden aunt who played the piano, who was just a little bit different -- not insane.  Not yet.  Not yet the person who would eventually, by order of the court, be committed to this place for the rest of her life.

"John, dear," she said. "How is Adelaide?  I do miss her.  Would she come see me some time, do you think?"

I looked at her, searching for some sign that she was kidding, that she knew that what she was saying wasn't possible, but her vague, watery blue eyes just kept up their ceaseless, restless movement, never giving me a window by which to see into her thoughts.

"Aunt Nan, mom's dead.  She died three years ago.  Don't you remember?"

There was no shock of sudden recollection; the truth and her version of it melted into each other seamlessly.  "Oh, of course, that's right.  And your father?  How is he?"

"He's managing.  Bonnie and I visit him a lot."

"A good man, your father.  I'm glad.  But, John, there's just..."  A frown wrinkled her forehead, and I thought that perhaps there might be more, that she could find something in her memories of the real world that she could catch a hook into, and let it pull her along, pull her out of this dusty half light into the full light of day.  The harsh, unyielding light that shows us everything, whether we want to see it or not.

Her frown deepened, and her mouth opened a little, her eyes focusing on some distant point for a moment, then came back to my face.

"I never got my tea, you know," she said, raising one hand and then letting it fall back into her lap.

I made an excuse to leave, saying I had an appointment, I couldn't stay long.  She said okay, that was all right.  Nothing seemed to register much with her, or at least not for very long.  So I made my lame excuses and left, eager to get back to the free air and the free light.  But as I left, I asked the attendant to bring her a cup of tea.

Two sugars, no lemon.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Five Words

A new piece of flash fiction, about a guy with a secret.

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I should have known better, I suppose.  All of those years of caution, and then in one moment I said one sentence, spoken out of the sheer exhaustion of always having to hide.  Afterwards I stood there, mouth hanging open a little, breathing hard, looking at their appalled faces.  And I imagined sounds -- the sound of a boulder crashing downhill, the noise of walls collapsing, of a stone edifice sliding into ruin.

It began in high school.  Everything about me was a practiced game.  I was a strong guy, on the wrestling team, and made my way through classes by flashing a handsome smile, being polite, and always asking for help.  I found out a profound truth; no one wants to fail a really nice guy.  I played that card every day, and in four years I was wearing the blue robes and the funny hat, shaking hands with the principal as he handed me the piece of paper that said that the high school had done the best they could with me.

I never really planned on college, but my wrestling coach pushed for it.  Pushed hard.  I just smiled and hoped he'd forget about it.  He didn't, and a scout he'd invited saw me at a match.  I had a wrestling scholarship before it really registered with me what had happened.

I was afraid, but I shouldn't have been.  The state college I attended wasn't so much different than my high school experience, and I found that a friendly smile went just as far there.  I got a succession of Cs and Ds -- passing, enough to keep me moving through the ranks just as I had in high school.  I declared a business major, graduated again, and within three weeks had gotten a job as a junior manager in a marketing firm.

You push a heavy weight up a hill, knowing that at some point it will get too steep, the weight will turn beneath your hands and begin to bounce back downward, very likely crushing you in the process.  But you keep pushing because it's what you've always done.  Or maybe that's not the right image; it's like walls, walls that have been built to fit whatever people believe you to be.  It may well be that the strongest force in the world is the force of other people's expectations.  It builds a structure around you, people add stones and joists and bricks, as they think they've figured out who you are, what you are, where you're going.  The longer you let it go on, the more difficult it is to alter it, and eventually the only way to alter it is to destroy it completely.

I rose through the ranks, still smiling, shaking hands, warm, friendly, the model of the honest, hard-working guy who always did what was needed.  But the secret -- it was still that boulder ahead of me, threatening to go out of control; still the flaw in the foundation that would bring the entire building down.

I made senior manager today.

At the celebration there was cake, punch, gifts.  The president of the company was there.  I was presented with a book of business wisdom -- that's what the president told me, as he handed it to me, saying with a grin that I hardly needed it.  But then he turned to the crowd, all holding their plates of cake and punch cups, and said, "I think no better description of your contribution to the company could be stated than the passage I've marked on page 79.  Would you do us the honor of reading it to us?"

And I stood there.  A moment passed, and stretched out to the breaking point.  I looked at the bright expectation in their faces, and the weight of it all became insupportable.  At that moment I knew that the boulder had slipped loose, the walls had begun to crumble.

And I turned to the crowd, and I said, "I can't.  I can't read."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

First draft done, "Poison the Well"

Well, I am done with another first draft, this time of a murder mystery called Poison the Well.  It's the first mystery I've attempted; it's a genre I've loved since I was twelve, when my mom gave me a copy of Agatha Christie's amazing And Then There Were None for my birthday.  I've been hooked on mysteries ever since, and have read probably 80% of Christie's humongous oeuvre, as well as most of Dorothy Sayers, Ellis Peters, and a handful of others.

It's an interesting genre to write in.  I found that the most difficult thing (and the jury's still not in with a verdict as to whether I succeeded) was giving enough clues regarding whodunit that the reader won't get to the end and say, "Wow.  That was cheap.  I never even had a chance to figure that out," while not making the clues so blatant that the reader figures it out on page 12.  Given that I knew whodunit from page 1, I felt like every clue screamed, "HEY!  READER!  NOTICE THIS!  IT'S IMPORTANT!"  The only person who, thus far, has read it from beginning to end didn't figure it out, and (interestingly) had devised a rather plausible alternate solution -- but she did say, when she got to the end, that she thought my solution was pretty good.  I currently have two other folks (one being my long-suffering cousin Carla, who has been beta reader on just about everything I've written; the other is my wife) taking a look at it, and we'll see what they think.

Despite the fact that my writing is fairly plot-driven, the most important thing to me is the characters, and here I had an assemblage of detectives who were just plain fun to write about.  The context is that a seemingly unsolvable murder has been taken on by a private detective agency, run by the elegant, silver-haired Parsifal Snowe.  The twist?  The detectives are all psychics, and use their various talents to obtain information about the suspects and the murder victim (whose identity is a mystery through most of the book).  We have efficient, brusque Bethany Hale, who has precognitive dreams; gentle, hesitant family man Troy Seligman, who can perform astral projection; the swaggering womanizer, Seth Augustine, who is a psychometer -- someone who can pick up emotional signatures from objects; the odd, mysterious telepath, Callista Lee; and the stammering introvert, Jeff Kolnikoff, who is telekinetic.  I can say without hesitation that they were some of the most entertaining characters that I've ever written about, and my friend who read the manuscript is already trying to nudge me into turning it into a series.

So, now I'm into edit mode, which I'm guessing will take me a couple of months to get through, and then there will be the edits from my beta readers -- Carla, my wife, and one or two other folks with sharp eyes that owe me a favor.  But I hope by May or so to have my next book out -- if you'd like to put your mind to solving a murder for which (1) no one seems to know who the victim is, (2) no one has an apparent motive, and (3) over two hundred people had opportunity.  How could such a thing happen?  You'll just need to wait... and read Poison the Well.