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Day One Hundred and Two: The Devil Went Down to Friday’s [REDUX]

August 31, 2011 3 comments

On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. I pretty much fell in love with The Devil Went Down to Friday’s (day 44) as soon as I finished it. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Devil as a character, and I’ve signed on with the view that he was something like God’s beta tester. His job was to test things to see if they were well-made, but with humans he took a little too much liberty. Anyway, I went through this, did a little clean-up and added some dialog here and there. Enjoy.

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Lou was well into his third beer when The Devil sat down on the barstool next to him and ordered a gin and tonic.

He was The Devil. Had to be. His skin was pale red. He had a long nose and full, fleshy lips, all set off by a pointy black goatee. He was dressed way too nice for a bar like this, where guys got off their desk jobs for the day, had a few drinks to become people again before trudging home to face the wife and kids.

And then there were the horns.

The bartender brought him a drink as though there was nothing weird at all going on. The Devil thanked him and left a nice tip. When he noticed Lou staring, he nodded, that kind of silent “Hey” that marked the most basic level of Guy Cordiality.

Lou tried to go back to his beer, but kept sliding his gaze over to get a look at the man. The Devil wasn’t doing anything, really. Not offering deals or trying to corrupt the souls of everyone in here – as if that were still possible. He was just sipping at his drink and watching ESPN on the TV hanging above the bar.

Lou ordered another drink, trying to get drunk enough to make a move and say something. Not often you get a celebrity in here, he thought, and that made him giggle a little. The Devil glanced over, and then ordered another drink of his own.

When the bartender brought it over, and The Devil reached for his wallet, Lou found himself saying, “I got this one,” not fully in control of what his mouth was doing. He handed over a ten and told the bartender to keep the change. A horrible feeling curled up in the pit of his stomach as The Devil took the drink and finally turned around to face him.

“Thanks for the drink,” he said. His voice was pleasant. Smooth, Midwestern – the voice of a late-night talk radio host. He took a sip off the gin and tonic and smacked his lips. “Good stuff,” he said. “Not great, mind you. But good.” He took another sip and let out a long, relaxing sigh. “So. Louis P. Hoban. Cerbecorp engineer, husband, father of two and burgeoning alcoholic.” He tipped an invisible hat. “What can I do for you?”

Lou blinked. “You know my name?”

The Devil raised an eyebrow. “You know who I am, Lou.”

The feeling of dread grew in Lou’s stomach. The Devil, he thought, knows my name. He felt the blood run out of his face and a cold sweat pop out on his upper lip. The Devil’s eyes were a dull orange, the orange of a coal that didn’t seem so hot until you picked it up. The orange of an iron left in the fire. They glowed and shimmered as The Devil stared at him, his eyes seeming to grow and pulse and burn, and Lou started to stammer words that had no meaning.

The Devil erupted in laughter that filled the room, and slapped Lou on the shoulder. “Oh, Lou, you poor, sad man. Oh, that was great.” His laughter started to trail off and he wiped a tear from his eye. “Oh, that was nice. I haven’t done that in way too long…” He giggled a little and then tapped Lou’s glass with his own. “Thanks, Lou. I appreciate that.” He took a drink, put it down again and said, “Seriously, Lou. What’s up?”

For a moment, Lou couldn’t think of anything to say. What do you say when The Devil is sitting next to you, sipping a gin and tonic and making jokes at your expense?

“I know what you’re thinking,” The Devil said. “You’re wondering why I’m here. You’re wondering what I’m planning to do to you.” He raised an eyebrow. “Barter your soul? Send you straight to Hell? Tempt you with all kinds of forbidden pleasures?” He chuckled. “Would you like that, Lou?” he asked.

Lou shook his head.

“I could do that. Easy.” He took a sip of his drink. “Look behind you.” He gestured over Lou’s shoulder. “Go on, look.”

Lou turned, slowly, carefully, to look behind him. There was a boy there, maybe fourteen years old, tanned and dripping wet and wearing only a pair of electric blue swim trunks. He was shockingly blonde, and had a brilliant smile that glowed against his sun-dark skin. He stood on the balls of his feet, ready to run off and do something amazing, and his bright blue eyes were calling for Lou to come with him. He smelled of chlorine and suntan oil. He was gorgeous, he was wonderful, and memories that Lou had buried for thirty years slammed back into his head all at once. His skin, his nose, his tongue all remembered as if it had been only a moment. He cried out once, and turned back to The Devil, tears already spilling out of his eyes.

The Devil was smiling. “Evan MacPherson.” He shook his head. “Those two weeks of summer camp were probably the only time in your life you were ever truly happy, Lou.” He shook his head. “Amazing, the things teenagers will do when they don’t know any better. You and Evan were perfect for each other, you know that?” He chuckled and closed those burning eyes. “Yes. Of course you did.”

He snapped. Lou spun around and cried out again. The boy was gone. Just a small puddle of water on the floor by the bar and the faintest smell of a musty cabin in the woods. “Pity it didn’t work out,” the Devil said. “I’m sure your wife and kids are grateful, though.”

Lou took a few deep breaths and asked, “How?”

The Devil reached up and flicked one of his horns. It made a dull thumping noise. Lou nodded, and settled back into his barstool. He took his beer, finished it in one gulp, and gestured for the bartender for one more. They sat in silence until the next drink came, and this time The Devil paid for it.

“You know, Lou,” he said, “I want to thank you for that. It’s so seldom I find someone who has a hurt that big that they haven’t admitted to anyone. Or put up on YouTube. Or publicly crowed about on a TV talk show.” He sighed. “It used to be all like that, you know? Personalized service – one poor, miserable bastard at a time.” The Devil shook his head. “Now…” He shrugged.

Lou licked his lips. “Now… what?” he asked.

“Honestly, Lou, I don’t really have all that much to do anymore. I’ve pretty much put myself out of a job. Occasionally I run into someone like you, and I treasure that, I really do.”

“Why?” It came out as a whisper.

The Devil sat in silence for a moment. “You gave me a secret, Lou,” he said. “I’ll let you in on one in return. Okay?” Lou nodded, and there was another long silence.

“The fact that you can be hurt so deeply, Lou, means that you’re still alive in there. Somewhere.” He poked Lou’s belly, bigger, softer than that summer when he was fourteen. “There’s an innocent part of you that the world hasn’t been able to destroy yet. Not that it hasn’t tried, of course.” He spread his hands in mock helplessness. “You people are so much better at hurting each other than I am. And so much more open to being hurt. Honestly, I find it a little bit shocking.”

The Devil reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one. There was a law against it, but the bartender didn’t say anything. It smelled like a campfire at night in the middle of August. “When I found you people, you were animals. Barely able to bang rocks together. And against Someone’s better judgment,” he said, glancing upwards, “I gave you… let’s call it a ‘boost.’ Intelligence. Empathy. Morality. The whole package.”

He exhaled, and the smoke drifted across the bar in a lazy spiral. “The knowledge of Good and Evil.” He tapped the ash out into a cut-glass ashtray that couldn’t have been there before.

“Problem is, you were still monkeys underneath. Still are, really. Knowing the difference between good and evil doesn’t mean you’ll actually do good and avoid evil.” He looked up at the TV and blinked. The picture changed to a news feed. A murder had been done. Protests against a military funeral. Scenes from a war. Trial of a child molester. A man being executed. He blinked, and the horrors of mankind flickered across the screen. Lou stared into the TV and saw them all – the bullies, the liars and the cheaters. The powerful who stepped on the necks of the powerless, who turned around and stood on the necks of those lower than they.

“I gave you the knowledge of good and evil, the intelligence with which to use it, and put it on top of a screaming, hateful primate brain.” He shrugged, and stubbed out the cigarette.

“Why?” Lou asked again.

The Devil seemed to think about that for a long moment. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. “Besides, I was bored, and you were something to keep me occupied. Entertaining, sure. But in the long term, not the best idea.”

They sat for a long moment, the Devil watching atrocities play on TV and Lou trying to figure out what to say next. What could you say to something like that? He opened his mouth, and the Devil glanced over at him, one eyebrow raised. “We’re…” Lou swallowed hard. “We’re not all that bad,” he said, and even he didn’t believe himself.

The Devil dropped the raised eyebrow. “Really,” he said, his voice flat with disbelief.

He waved, and the TVs went black. The lights went out all through the bar. The Devil lit another cigarette, and the flame was all Lou could see. Around him, people were yelling – afraid at first, then angry. Then crazy. The sound of breaking glass and breaking furniture was all around him in the darkness, but he couldn’t see any of it. In the light of The Devil’s cigarette, there was just the two of them.

“You people know how to hurt each other so much better than I do,” he said. “You know your weaknesses inside and out. You know what you’re willing to do and where you’ll draw the line, and then one of you crazy bastards goes on and oversteps that line.” He smiled, and Lou felt sick. There was a scream and a wet snap from somewhere behind him. “It’s admirable, in its own way.”

Lou could hear something breathing behind him, feel the breath on his neck. The Devil’s eyes never moved, didn’t flicker up to see who it was. They stayed on Lou, and he didn’t look around. There was something wet dripping on his skin, something warm and slick running down the back of his shirt that smelled of rotting fish at low tide. The breathing was beginning to sound like words that he could almost understand.

“You people live in a world of perpetual terror, danger, and pain,” The Devil said. Something rough and cold touched Lou’s neck, and dragged itself up towards his ear. “You live in a world that’s already trying to kill you in a million different ways and you spend so much of your time making it just that much worse.” Something heavy rested itself on Lou’s shoulders and his head, and it started bending his head back. He kept his eyes on The Devil’s, but it was becoming harder and harder to do, and sooner or later he’d see the thing behind him, and it would surely drive him mad.

“You people have put me out of a job, Lou,” The Devil said. “You’re your own keepers now.” He stubbed out the cigarette and the world went black. There were fingers on Lou’s face – rough-skinned and sharp, and he could feel the nails come to rest right under his eyes. They smelled like autumn leaves and dogshit and Lou tried to scream.

“Good luck with that.”

The lights came on. The bartender put down another beer in front of Lou. “On the house,” he said, and smiled.

Lou’s heart was racing. His neck hurt and he could still feel something running down his neck. He spun around to look at the bar – everything was normal. There was an office party going on, some couples enjoying their dinner, a few guys in suits at the bar. The TVs were showing football, but no one was watching.

The Devil was gone.

Where he had been sitting there was a folded piece of paper with Lou’s name on it.

His hand shaking, Lou picked it up and unfolded it once. It read, “You’re a good listener, Lou. Thanks.” There was a symbol drawn underneath – a happy face with horns and a goatee. Lou exhaled sharply, something between a laugh and a cry.

He unfolded the paper the rest of the way. In the middle of the page, in simple block letters, was written Evan MacPherson. And a phone number. Local.

Lou crumpled the paper in his hands, and this time he did cry. Quietly, manfully, but he cried.

The bartender came over, carrying a tray of empty glasses. “You okay, sir?” he asked. “Need to call someone to pick you up?”

Lou took a few deep breaths and wiped his eyes. He flattened out the piece of paper on his leg. “No,” he said. “Yeah.” He nodded slowly. “Give me the phone.”

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Day One Hundred and One: A Simple Room

August 30, 2011 Leave a comment

This was taken from the writing prompt for the podcast Writing Excuses, episode 6.11 – Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing, which specifies: Go someplace, use all five of your senses, and for thirty minutes write about the place you’re in. Not the people though. Just the place. Thirty minutes begins… now.

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It was a smallish apartment, good enough for two but great for one. The first thing you’d notice when you walked in would be the smell of the people living here. A lot of dog, a little cat, and whatever had been cooked for dinner that night. Sometimes beef, sometimes chicken, often with an undertone of garlic or cumin. The light in the entrance is bright, on a timer that tends to turn the light off a little too soon. You must take off your shoes before you go in – that’s the way things are done here. The pale, marble-esque flooring reflects back up at you. On the shelf is a key-bowl and the various implements of dog-walking.

The apartment, with one exception, was colored and decorated in such a way as to give away very little about the people who lived there. The colors were carefully neutral – ivory fake wood flooring and off-white walls, covered in the same fabriclike wallpaper that was in common use everywhere in Japan. It feels bumpy and rough under your fingertips, and it implores you not to hang anything on the walls it covers. “Punch holes in me,” it seems to say, “and you’ll have a hell of a time getting rid of them. Are you sure you want to hang something up? Really? Are you really sure?” Under the pressure of those walls, it’s usually easier to leave them blank, to let the rough, fabriclike wallpaper speak for itself so that the blankness becomes every bit a thing of curiosity that a painting or a hanging tchotchke would.

Behind the first door that you pass, a small door to your right, is a supply closet. It’s dark, with no good way of getting any light to find what you’re looking for. The owners keep a flashlight inside for when they have to find new rolls of paper towels, toilet pads for the pets, vacuum parts, duct tape, or any one of a hundred things that might be needed around the house at any given time, but which are really best left somewhere else. There are shapes in the dimness, things you’re not sure about, but for now it’s a place better left closed.

The door right next to it slides to reveal the bathroom. Push through the damp laundry hanging from above, with its faint smell of fabric softener, and you find a well-lit white sink, wide and shallow. Above it hangs a wide, clear mirror with three doors – one large in the middle, two small off to the sides. If you choose to peek behind them – and you do, of course, everyone does – you’ll find the usual clutter that people keep to stay healthy and beautiful. Vitamins and painkillers, toothpaste standing on its head and toothbrushes standing up in a clear plastic cup. Hair gel, deodorant, cleansing pads, lens solution… Nothing surprising, nothing terrifying. When you close the door, there is no monster standing behind you suddenly. Just you.

Reach out your left hand and open the door to the shower. It’s wide and luxurious, with a bath in which all but the tallest can recline. There’s a stool for sitting as you bathe, and shelves to the side of the mirror that carry yet more implements of beautification. A small, wire-meshed and frosted window lets in a tiny bit of light from the hallway outside, but when the lights are off in here, the darkness is powerful. The floor is wet and rough, a floor that is designed to channel water to a drain, as well as to keep people from slipping. There is no sign of mildew, or mold, soap scum or beard trimmings.

Leave the bathroom and walk across the hall. Go into the bedroom, which is mostly filled with a large bed, big enough for two. The sheets are rumpled, but clean. The right side of the bed has two big, firm pillows. The right side has only one, and smaller. A digital clock sits on an antique-looking bedside table that still smells of varnish and wood stain. There’s a doghouse under the window, a crate of pale wood that, at the moment, houses only a hairy, stinking blanket. On top of the doghouse is a cat bed, but it’s clean and unused. Clothes hang from hooks on the walls – shirts, jeans, a laundry bag. Open the double doors and there’s a closet filled with shirts and pants, most suitable for work and all in simple, basic colors – no patterns, nothing too bright or too pale.

Leave the bedroom and make a quick right turn into the kitchen. Like nearly everywhere else in the apartment, it is clean and white. A glass-topped stove sparkles in the fluorescent light, and fauz-marble counters are free of spatters and stains and spills. The sink looks like it has been well-kept and scrubbed, and above it are a variety of bowls and plates that are drying in a careful arrangement. Across from the sink is a cabinet, atop which sit a large microwave and a small toaster oven. Between them are an empty pet water bottle and a small electronic scale.

Go out into the living room, most of which is just as blank and secretive as the rest of the house. That animals live here is obvious, if you had somehow missed it before. A toilet is set up for the dog, a space in the corner where it is obvious at a glance the dog knows where to go. The walls there are scratched and damaged, despite a plastic film that was apparently put there to prevent such a thing. Another dog bed, identical to the one in the bedroom, sits next to the toilet. Atop that is another cat bed, equally unused.

There’s a small section of the room that can be closed off with sliding doors, and here is the second bed. The guest room, the snoring room, the sick room. Other than a freestanding closet, a small table and a vacuum cleaner, it is unadorned.

It is only when you come to the furthest corner of the apartment that you start to get a feeling for who lives here. The walls are lined with tall, glass-fronted bookcases, shelves packed with books. Paperbacks and hardcovers, graphic novels and texts of all kinds, sizes and colors. At first, it’s a wild mosaic of reading, but closer inspection shows careful consideration in how the books have been arranged. Sharing space with the books are… things. Mementos Souvenirs. A set of rainbow-colored rings on a chain. A DSLR camera. A small plastic container with a metal inside that will melt if it gets too warm. A large pair of stereo headphones. A statuette of Ganesh. A homemade display case full of novelty superhero rings. A small wooden box filled with tiny steel balls. These are shelves made for exploring.

There is an L-shaped desk, and a chair on a small swatch of Persian-ish carpet. The desk, like the bookcases, is a thing of organized clutter, with a cup full of pens, a few small books, cat brushes and a coin case, among other things. The desk is dominated by two large compute monitors, hovering side-by-side on a metal brace that is clamped to the back of the desk. It rests behind a sofa, which returns us to the world of the nondescript – beige leatheresque, irreparably damaged by the inconsiderate claws of pets. When you sit on the sofa, you have nothing to look at but a clean table of dark wood, a chair, and a television well past its obsolescence. Only the space behind you reveals any secrets of the people who live here. All else is kept from you behind the innocuous inoffensiveness of eggshell and ivory.

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Okay, this took slightly longer than 30 minutes, and could probably do with a lot of improvement if I ever mean to make it an actual setting for a story. But it was interesting to think about the place in that kind of detail.

Day One Hundred: Ghost Stories

August 29, 2011 Leave a comment

The train ran smoothly through the wide-open spaces, sliding by trees and a river, then farmland, then trees again. Raindrops ran back against the window and let through a gray half-light which made the economy car quiet and subdued. Ronnie wanted to doze off and watch the world go by, to think about the new year at school and wonder what he and Erich would do when they finally got together. And he would have, too, if the blonde woman next to him hadn’t said something he couldn’t ignore.

“You know, Barassa dorm is very haunted,” she’d said. “When I went to Yellowchester, I always got the feeling that I was being watched.”

Yellowchester, of course, was Yellowchester College, the small liberal arts college that Ronnie was returning to, which just so happened to be the one that this woman had graduated from. As soon as she saw him in his branded hoodie, she introduced herself as “Alena Barassa, class of 98!” She asked the man sitting next to Ronnie if he wouldn’t mind changing seats with her, which he didn’t, and she spend the next hour or so telling Ronnie all about the wonderful times she had at “Old Yellow” without managing to ask a single question about himself.

All this time, Ronnie smiled and nodded and gave polite but curt answers in the hopes that she would pick up on the hint and let him take a short nap before the train stopped again. She was all too eager to share, however, and so he let her nattering wash over him while his mind wandered.

And then she mentioned ghosts.

“Sorry?” he asked. “Did you say haunted?”

Alena blinked, slightly surprised that Ronnie had asked a question, but she fell back into her rhythm fairly quickly. “Oh yes,” she said. “I’m absolutely certain of it.”

He twisted slightly in his heat so he could face her better. “How are you so certain?” he asked.

She smiled under the attention. “Well,” she said, trying to speak just loudly enough so that people in other seats would be able to hear her. “I’ve always been… sensitive to such things.”

“Sensitive.”

She nodded. “Oh yes. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had experiences that have convinced me that the spirit world is all around us.” She waved her hands in what she probably thought was a mystical gesture. She was dressed conservatively- some pastels, nothing eye-catching or flashy – but Ronnie could easily imagine her in a fake Gypsy outfit, complete with a turban, a shimmering shawl, and lots of ugly rings.

Ronnie rubbed his eyes for a moment and then blinked them clear. “How are you so sure?” he asked. “That you are… sensitive?”

A smile spread across her face. “Well,” she said. “When I was ten, my grandmother was very ill. She was in her nineties, you see, and we all knew it would be any day. Then, one night, I saw her standing at the foot of my bed, clear as I see you right here. And I couldn’t move, not a muscle.” Her face became more expressive as she talked, and she was waving her hands around again. “But my grandmother told me not to be afraid, that she loved me very much and she would see me again someday.” Alena’s voice dropped to a near-whisper. “Then she was gone.” She sat back. “The next morning, I came down for breakfast, and do you know what I found out?”

“Your grandmother was dead?” he asked.

“My grandmother was dead,” Alena said. “She had died during the night, and she visited me one last time before departing this world completely” She sat back, a look of satisfaction on her face. She was waiting for the “Gosh-wow” reaction, Ronnie was sure. The awe of the listener to beg her to reveal more of her stories, her encounters.

“Yeah, but…” Ronnie started. The smile on Alena’s face shrank, just a hair.

Ronnie cleared his throat and made sure to look her in the eyes. “How do you know that was a ghost? Maybe it was a dream? A coincidence?”

She laughed, and it was loud enough to startle the other passengers. “A dream?” she said. “I think I know the difference between being awake and dreaming.” She shook her head, disappointed by Ronnie’s obvious lack of understanding. “I was awake, no question about it.”

He nodded. “Okay, maybe you were. Maybe you were.” He paused, as if he had just thought of something. “Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?”

Her smile battled with confusion, and neither of them truly claimed victory over her expression.

“Sleep paralysis,” he went on, “is when the usual sleep systems of the body get out of sync. Usually, the conscious mind goes to sleep, and then the brain shuts down the body’s ability to move. Otherwise we’d all act out every single dream we had, and I think that would get a little messy.” He forced out a laugh, but got none in return. He cleared his throat. “So, there have been studies about this, where the body’s ability to move gets shut down before the conscious mind is asleep. It’s not that uncommon, and -” He held up a finger. “It is often accompanied by hallucinations. Waking dreams, kind of.” He sat back. “So that was probably it. You were thinking of your grandmother, so your brain gave you a pleasant image of her. You weren’t able to move because of a momentary glitch in the system.” He held up a hand this time, as if to forestall an objection. “And, you said she was very ill, so the fact that this happened the night she died isn’t all that surprising. In fact, it might have happened on other nights too, but you didn’t remember them because she hadn’t died.” Ronnie sat back against the window.

Alena’s eyes were dead flat, though her right eyebrow had been slowly rising as he talked. Her lips tightened until they practically disappeared. When he finished, she said, “Well. Don’t you just have all the answers?” she said. She turned sharply away from him, took a battered paperback from her purse, and started reading. She turned the pages with some force, and the scowl on her face deepened as she read.

Ronnie started to feel terrible. He felt like the bottom of his stomach dropped out as he watched this woman fume and seethe next to him. He had only wanted to help, really. She had clearly had a very important experience, but she’d interpreted it wrongly. “Oh,” he said. She glanced over at him, but said nothing.

“Look,” Ronnie said. “I’m sorry if I made you angry. It’s just that… well, I thought you might want to know what really happened to you.”

“I know what happened,” she said, still not looking at him. “My grandmom came to see me. End of story.”

He wanted to come closer to her, but her posture screamed that it might be a bad idea. “See, that’s the thing. I know that’s what it seemed like, but science has shown -”

She slammed the book down in her lap and barked out a laugh. “Science!” she said. “It’s always science with you people.” She turned to him and poked him in the arm. “Maybe science doesn’t know everything, huh? You ever think of that?”

He resisted the urge to rub the spot where she had poked. “Of course science doesn’t know everything,” he said. “But it’s pretty sure there are no such things as ghosts.”

Alena laughed again. “Science doesn’t know that. They can’t prove that ghosts exist.”

“No, you’re right,” he said. She looked instantly smug. “I mean, you can’t prove a negative. But since you’re the one who claim ghosts exist, it’s your job to prove them. With evidence, with logic.”

She shook her head. “Logic,” she said. “There are some things that are beyond logic, you ever think of that?” She poked him again. “That’s the problem with your science,” she said. “It’s too logical.”

Ronnie wanted to laugh, but held back. “But… being logical is the whole point of science.” He thought for a moment. “It’s like complaining that a racecar is too fast. Being fast is the whole reason it exists.”

No matter how proud he was of that line, the argument was already long over. He would be more likely to marry her before the next station than to convince her she hadn’t seen her grandmother’s ghost that night. Or that she’d never seen any ghosts at all. Alena turned back to her book, angling her body away from him. There would be no more talking for this trip, and part of him was relieved.

Ronnie leaned against the window again and thought about ghosts and logic and his grandmother. Alena changed seats the next time the train stopped, and by the time he was back at school, he had very nearly forgotten her.

Day Eighty-two: The Value of Information [MAKE-UP]

August 28, 2011 1 comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This story features Elli Acton, the lead in one of the early stories on day 4, Daddy’s Little Firecracker, and Michael Collington, the off-screen character in day 28’s Fiat Scientia whose suicide got the whole story rolling. Considering that they’re from two different eras in (probably) different universes – and one of them is dead – this should be interesting. Let’s see what happens….

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The first thing Michael Collington said to Elli Acton was, “I’m a great admirer of your father.”

This was immediately followed by Elli knocking him at least three places down the bar with a right hook to the jaw. She emptied her drink over his head and said, “Go to hell, fucker.” Then she picked up her purse and strode out of the bar.

He didn’t see her again for six months.

He ran into her again in a small Los Angeles coffee shop, reading a book. He had to pass by her a few times to make sure it was her, but as soon as he was certain, he introduced himself. “Hi,” he said. “Can I buy you another cup of whatever it is you’re drinking?”

Elli turned a page in her book and held out the cup. “Caramel latte,” she said, not looking at him. “Make it quick.”

Mercifully, the line was short and he was back with her drink in under five minutes. She took it from him while she read and muttered “Thanks.” Michael lowered himself into the seat next to hers and sipped his own drink, a black coffee. He waited, watching people move past, coming in, ordering drinks and going out, and occasionally glancing over to see if Elli was doing anything other than reading her book.

She wasn’t.

After about ten minutes, he took a chance. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said. He’d found during his time in the United States that his native British accent was considered charming, so he tried to play it up a little whenever he could. “I’ve noticed you’re reading the new Nicholas Calviani book. Is it any good?”

She continued to read. After a few seconds, she turned a page, coming to the end of the chapter. Then she said, “Yes,” and continued to the next.

“Ah,” he said. “I see.” He took a drink from his cup, emptying it. “It’s just that I find his theories on the causes of inner-city poverty to be rather simplistic and he never really offers a solution to any of the problems he brings up in the book. I mean, if all it took to ‘fix’ poverty was a rousing sing-along and an outpouring of community feelings, we would have solved it by now, don’t you-”

Ellie snapped the book closed and put it into her bag. She drained the last of her latte, stood up and walked out of the coffee shop without a word.

Michael sat at the table and watched her leave. “Damn,” he said.

They way he had come to know her – or at least know of her – was through a magazine interview he’d read with her father, Wilford Acton. He was the founder of Acton Informatics, which began as a maker and supplier of customer listings back in the late 70s. As technology improved, Acton and his company became the premier designers of databases in the nation, and were now supplying programs and programmers to nearly every major government and corporation on the planet. Acton’s systems were elegant and simple, and the moment Michael read about them, he knew he wanted to be a part of the bigger picture.

He had ideas. He’d always had ideas, ever since he was a kid, but they never seemed to work out. Either someone else would get there first, or he would realize that the brilliant plan he’d put together would be impossible to actually work out. He might lose interest in one in order to pursue another, which he would usually drop when another, grander idea came into his head. The result of this was that he had a general working knowledge of many topics, from science and technology to art and music to sociology, psychology and astrophysics. But he was an expert in none, and didn’t have the connections to the people who were experts, so he feared he would be forever lost to progress.

The interview he’d read, however, seemed to be the chance he was looking for. He had thought of ways that companies could use interconnected databases to analyze their customers’ buying habits and then extrapolate their needs. So by looking at their credit card purchases, for example, a company might know when to target them for certain products. If someone suddenly started buying more health foods, for example, instead of their usual purchases, it might be time to make sure they see an ad for a local gym or an at-home exercise machine. Someone whose statements showed more social activities – restaurants and bars, for example – might be dating again. The perfect time to send coupons to local eateries. By keeping a constant watch on people’s purchases, companies could better tailor advertising and product research.

Michael had mentioned this to a few friends, most of whom thought it was a massive ethical violation, akin to spying on people, and he conceded that they had a point. But he knew it would work, and that it would change the world forever. So he studied up on Acton Informatics and learned about Acton’s daughter, Elli. She was young, smart and once again single, so Michael did a bit of research online and managed to find out a bit more about where she liked to spend her time.

What he’d somehow managed to miss, it seemed, was how she felt about her father.

He was determined to try again, though. He’d found her on Facebook and Twitter and followed her on both. He kept notes on where she went and who she seemed to talk to a lot, and produced what he believed to be a good dossier of her likes and dislikes, the latter list being topped, in large red letters with “HER FATHER.” He studied his notes constantly, taking time to make predictions about her behavior and see how well they bore out.

Part of Michael was aware, to some degree, that what he was doing might be considered stalking. That if she ever found out about it, he could be arrested, or at the very least forced to keep as far away from her as the law would allow. And that he would lose his only possibly means of getting to Wilford Acton.

But he didn’t care. The ends justify the means, he told himself, and knew that one day, if necessary, she would forgive him.

He stood in front of a small Italian restaurant where Elli’s birthday party was being held. He’d managed to get on the invitation list through a friend of hers, and he’d brought a bottle of her favorite scotch. He’d wisely left his dossier at home, but he didn’t need it. He knew her likes and dislikes and what would probably get her talking. The first time, he’d gone in blind. The second, he’d been a complete amateur.

This time, he would win over Elli Acton.

After that, the world.

Day Ninety-nine: A Meeting

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Chester woke up when the robot started cleaning, and he cursed at it in a low, slurry voice. If it was on, then it was four o’clock, and if it was four o’clock, then he had already slept through the better part of the day. He slid his feet out from under the cat, stretched, and tried to remember what it was he was neglecting to do that afternoon.

Something. He blinked against the light in the bathroom. Whatever it was, it sat in his head like a cold lump as he prodded it. Something.

He looked over his own shoulder in the mirror and saw his suit hanging from the hook on the door, and that cold, unpleasant something stirred in his mind, re-asserting itself in his memory.

Chester sighed and took a moment to gaze into his own reflection before he started stripping off his clothes to take a shower.

The car ride to the lawyer’s office was a long one, moreso for the rush-hour traffic. It gave him time to think, which he neither needed nor wanted. He’d done all the thinking he needed to do already, made the decisions that had to be made. Today was a formality and nothing more. He turned on the radio to give him a distraction as he sat at a red light. It was a modern pop station, some band of kids singing about being together forever, as if they had any idea what that meant. He punched a button and the radio went looking for something else. Classic rock. No. Adult contemporary. No. Classical. No. Public radio. No. He ran through the cycle twice more before just turning the radio off again and concentrating on driving.

Nichole’s voice dropped into his head, asking why he couldn’t just pick something and stick with it, and he shook his head. There she was, right on cue.

“Not like you were any better at it, were you?” he asked the empty car.

At least I tried.

“Sure you did. For how long, a month? A year, maybe?”

You never wanted to stay in this marriage anyway. You were too busy trying to write your little book. Too interested in dead people to see the person who was just dying right in front of you!

Chester tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “Very nicely exaggerated, Nikki. At least I was doing something with my life, more than managing some little clothing store and spending nights getting drunk with my girlfriends.”

What do you want from me, Chester? An apology? Fine. I’m sorry I didn’t wait on you hand and foot and praise your genius. Okay? I’m sorry I didn’t devote my days to making sure you had the peace and quiet to look up French kings or whatever the hell it was.

“The French Revolution,” he said through clenched teeth.

Oh, yeah. Brilliant. Like no one has ever written a book about that before. Good pick, Chet.

He flet a new round of invective boiling up inside, and he cut it short with a hiss of breath. I’m arguing with my own brain again, he thought. It was an old habit, a bad one he tried to break, but couldn’t manage to get away from. His therapist told him that it was really more about him than about the person he was imagining, and he should learn lessons from it, but what actually happened was that it made him more tense and wound up than he’d been before. He’d planned to go into this meeting with a kind of detached resignation, but now he was ready for a fight. A fight that was already over.

Morgan Ellstrom’s office was in an unremarkable building off of a strip mall. Chester pulled in next to a very familiar sky-blue car and took a few moments to himself in the parking space. He took deep breaths and repeatedly squelched Nichole’s voice in his head. He waited until the dashboard clock read 5:25, gave his head a shake to clear it, and then got out of the car.

The inside was tastefully if minimally decorated, and the receptionist smiled at him and told him to go on into the conference room. He noticed a look of sympathy in her eyes, and wondered if it was really there or if he was just projecting again. He went to the conference room and stood in the doorway.

Nichole and the lawyer were already there. Morgan stood up. “Hi, Chester,” he said. “Right on time. Have a seat.”

Chester sat across from Nichole, and gave her a brief, tight smile. She looked good. He took a brief sniff, but she wasn’t wearing perfume today. She always wore it for special days, and he knew that, for the rest of his life, any time he smelled that perfume he would remember her. She looked at him briefly and then looked away. When Morgan started handing out the paperwork, she took a deep breath and sat up a little straighter.

The process was pretty simple. They had no children, no real assets that they owned together. Their five years of marriage had been emotionally intense, but not very productive in terms of building a life together. It was the first thing he’d noticed when she moved out – there was nothing left of hers for him to stumble over. She managed to disentangle herself from him without a lot of real effort. He woke up the day after and saw only holes, the places where she had been, and recognized that they could be very easily smoothed over.

Chester applied his signature to a document, then passed it to Nichole, who signed it and passed it back to Morgan. They did this several times, no one speaking or looking at each other, except for the inner dialogue that Chester had to keep down.

You never even cared, did you?

I hope your life is empty, meaningless, shambles.

You’ll never really know what you had.

He passed the last form to Nichole, a little more forcefully than he had the others. She glanced up at him, then signed it and handed it to Morgan. He put them all into a manila file folder and stood up with his hands folded in front of him. “That’s it,” he said. He looked from Chester to Nichole and back again. “Thank you for coming in. Do you need anything? A glass of water or something?” Chester didn’t say anything. Nichole shook her head, picked up her purse and went to shake Morgan’s hand. “Thank you,” she said. Morgan shook it in a very professional manner and let her go. He turned to Chester.

“Thanks,” Chester said, and took the offered hand.

“Good luck,” Morgan said, and he patted Chester on the shoulder. A friendly gesture, but Chester flinched.

Outside, the sun was still hiding above scattered clouds but Nichole had her sunglasses on. She had opened her car door, but was waiting for Chester to come out. He stopped at the entrance to the office and counted to ten in his head. Nichole’s face turned to follow him as he fished for his keys and went to his car.

“Chet,” she said.

He unlocked the door and glanced up at her. He waited for a moment while she chewed her lip, trying to build up to whatever it was she was going to say.

“Chet,” she said again.

Chester opened the door and got in. She started to say something, but he closed the door in mid-sentence. He tried not to look at her as he pulled out of the parking lot, but she was clear in his rear-view mirror – standing by her car in that suit, watching him leave. He didn’t try to listen to the radio this time as he drove home. He tried to think about what to have for dinner. Maybe pizza. Maybe he’d swing by a fast-food joint.

You’re an asshole, you know that?”

Chester nodded, and blinked away tears. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know.”

In which we find out what is to be done….

August 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Clearly, I am behind in my writing, but I’m going to make sure I make up those days that I missed. So I’m continuing the day-count at where I should be by now, and I’ll make up days 82 through 97 as I can and put them into a new category – Make-up work.

Every day that I do this, I learn something new about myself as a writer, and what I have to do to make this project work. Clearly a big part of it is regularity and stability; if I don’t have a regular life, I find it hard to slot this particular part into it. Perhaps trying to keep writing while I was on an unpredictable, action-packed vacation was a little more varsity-level than I was ready for, who knows. But now, as life settles back into a normal rhythm and a predictable scheme of things, I can make sure that I have the time set aside to work on this project.

Also, I’d like to stare with you a little bit of inspiration that I’ve come across while gearing up to get back in the saddle, as it were, and I would like to thank Wil Wheaton for stealing it from Ira Glass and telling everyone about it:

Damn right. Also, The Cult of Done:

All right. Enough of that, I have writing to do. Thanks for coming by and sticking around through this lull in the Great Work. I’ll put what I have learned into practice, and we’ll see what new lessons lay ahead.

Categories: Reportage

Day Ninety-eight: Back in the Saddle

August 27, 2011 2 comments

Loren held the phone to her ear with her shoulder as she worked. “I just don’t know if I can get back into it for good, Anna,” she said. The hotel room was dark and stifling, but had an excellent view overlooking the street. She sat by the window with a little folding table, working as she talked.

“You’ve already made a great first step,” Anna said. “You’re back at work, back out there. You’ll probably pick up right where you left off.”

“Yeah, right,” Loren said. “Just like falling off a bicycle.”

“Exactly,” Anna said. “It’s – Wait, what?”

“Nothing. Just something my ex-boyfriend used to say.” She switched the phone to the other ear. “I don’t know, Anna, I just don’t feel it anymore, y’know? All that enthusiasm has just gone… Bleh.”

She could hear something on the other end. It sounded like Anna was in the kitchen. “You know, Lo, when I took that time off after Alton was born, I thought I’d never get back to work. I was away from teaching for six years. Six!” It sounded like she was chopping. “A whole graduating class had come and gone by the time I managed to get back to work. I thought I was going to be eaten alive by those kids, and you know what?”

Loren held the phone up while she fished around on the floor for the pin she’d dropped. “What?”

“I just walked in there like I owned the place, Lo. I shut down all those little nagging voices in my head and held my head up high and took charge.”

“That’s great, Anna, but I think my scene is a little different.” She peeked through the curtains at the office tower across the street. There was a long black town car parked in front and a bored-looking man in an ill-fitting suit leaning against the door. Loren checked her watch. Probably another fifteen minutes, which was just enough time.

“Well sure,” Anna said. “But the principle is the same, right? You’re a professional, aren’t you?”

“You know I am, Anna.”

“Exactly. Hold on.” There was the loud whine of a blender for about thirty seconds that gave Loren a little window of focus to start reassembly. “You still there?” Anna asked.

“Yup, still here.”

“Good. So like I was saying – you’ve done this a million times, Lo.”

“Eighty-one, Anna.” She snapped the bolt action into the barrel and tested it out. It came back smoothly and snapped forward. Perfect. She glanced down at her watch. Ten more minutes to finish and get set up.

“Fine, eighty-one. You should be an old hand at this by now.”

“I know,” Loren said. “I guess it’s just the jitters, right?” She started feeding rounds into the magazine, quietly counting as she did so. “I have a reputation – four, five – right?”

“You do, and it’s a good one.” Loren could hear the tick-tick-WHOOMPH of a gas stove being lit. “Can you tell me who it is?”

“You know I can’t, Anna,” Loren said. She held the rifle up to her shoulder and sighted along the barrel. “Rules are rules.”

“Fine, be a spoilsport,” she said.

“Well, that is in my job description.” Loren took the scope out of its case and cupped a hand over the end as she peered down onto the street. The guy leaning against the car jumped closer in her view, and she was pretty sure he had a gun holstered under his jacket. She adjusted the focus a bit, but it didn’t really need it. She snapped it in place, put the gun on her bed and started repacking her go-bag. “Look, Anna, I really appreciate this, but I have to go. Time’s a-wasting.”

“No problem, sis,” Anna said. “Happy shooting.”

“Thanks, Anna. Save some for me, okay?” She snapped the phone closed before either of them had to say “good-bye” and started preparing in earnest. The gun was ready and waiting, all she had to do was prepare for a quick exit. There were enough other tall buildings on this side of the street that her position wouldn’t be immediately obvious, but still – a good sniper never lingers. Rule number one.

The battered backpack was laid out and ready. All she had to do was break down the gun, throw the parts inside, and she’d be ready to go. She was dressed in her suburban mom clothes and hadn’t showered yet. If everything worked out, she’d be gone before Brant Laidler’s brains were finished sliding down the wall behind him.

She turned the seat around, steadied her arm on the folding table and let the curtains peek open just enough to get a good view of the door across the street. Laidler would be coming out any minute, on his way to merger talks with Munin Scientific that her employer didn’t want him to make. Loren took a deep breath and started counting doubles in her head along with her heartbeat, which she could just barely feel. She got to 16,384 before she lost count and had to start again. The second time, she made it up to 65,536. Her third run was interrupted when Brant Laidler walked out the door of his office building, chatting jovially with an assistant. He had a thin white combover and a paunch, but he looked like a nice enough guy. Someone’s uncle, maybe. Probably liked to tell jokes to children.

Loren stopped counting, centered the scope on his face, and took a deep breath.

She let it out slowly, feeling all the nervous energy, tension, doubt and fear rise away from her like a vapor. It left her still, quiet and sure. She put the crosshairs right between his eyebrows, and squeezed the trigger.

Loren didn’t need to see his head explode into a red mist to know she’d made the shot. In an instant, she was up, her hands twisting and unmaking the rifle and throwing the parts into the bag. She took off the extra shirts she was wearing and stuffed them in as well, then zipped up the bag, ran her hands through her hair and left the room. There was no one in the hallway to watch her leave, but she kept her face a sleepy, harried mask. By the time she got to the front entrance, her steps had slowed down and she was flipping intently through a local guidebook. No one said anything to her as she left, and she didn’t even lift her head to look at the police cars and the ambulance that raced by in the opposite direction.

Later, as she was melting the hotel keycard with a cigarette lighter, she would finally allow herself a moment of glee. She giggled quietly to herself and resolved to call Anna back once she reached the safehouse. “Yup,” she whispered as she tossed the small, blackened lump of plastic down a sewer drain. “I still got it.”