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A whole bunch ‘o numbers for September

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

After a lackluster August as far as word count went [1], I was a little worried that I might be weakening as we enter autumn. Fortunately, there were no missed days or aborted stories, so hurray right there. One thing that has helped is that I’ve started entering the writing contests over at Worth1000.com, a site where creative people of all types can challenge themselves and each other. So far, I’m doing well – two golds and two silvers, which is nice for a debut month. Or so I’d like to think.

Anyway, here’s how September worked out, numbers-wise: 43,448 words, for an average of 1,448 words per story – coming ever-closer to that 50,000 mark! Still not as close as I came in July, though, so it’s still something to work on. The grand total so far is 167,631 words, which sounds ridiculous when I think about it….

This wasn’t an easy month, for a variety of reasons. We’re getting to the end of the semester at work, and that’s always a little frantic, not to mention that after 132 days, I’m starting to get those flashes of “I have nothing more to say!”

The Gap, in other words.

And the only thing to do is to keep going. The way I see it, this project serves many goals:

  • It teaches persistence. That there will be writing every day and that’s just the way it is. It’s the process of training one’s muse, as Stephen King referred to it. His view is that a muse is a picky and fickle thing, one which doesn’t come just because you call it. You must convince it that you’re worthy of its attentions, and that means doing a lot of hard work.
  • As long we we’re gleaning wisdom from our betters, I heard Louis CK talk about the most important lesson he learned from George Carlin. Now it’s about comedy, of course, but I think it can apply to any creative endeavor: Do your thing, make whatever it is you’re making, and then clear the slate and start over again. Once you’re done, you’re done. Do something new. What I’m doing now is kind of a very short version of that, but it’s very good advice. Don’t let yourself get stuck in something, even if you think it’s really good.
  • It helps clear out crappy ideas. Hopefully I’ll be able to look at a lot of these and just say, “No, that’s not going to work.”
  • On the other hand, it helps reveal some really interesting ideas. When the year is up, I’m going to have some good worlds and characters that I can play with and explore in more depth and with more seriousness. Not to get ahead of myself or anything (perish the thought), but I think some of them could be very nearly publishable. If I get them right, that is.
  • I’m finding new sources of inspiration – the Worth1000 contests, stories from words, character interviews, that kind of thing. And sometimes just taking a normal situation and asking, “How can this be made un-normal?”
  • I need to work more on getting into characters’ heads and giving the readers something to latch onto. Still not quite there yet, but I suspect that’s a side-effect of not spending so much time with them.

So there we go – another month down. I try not to think of how much more is left, because that’d scare the crap outta me.

—————————

[1] Although as far as actual stories went, I wrote a lot that I put into the “My Favorites” category. Go figure.

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Categories: Reportage

Day One Hundred and Thirty-two: A New World [REDUX]

September 30, 2011 1 comment

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. This time I’m taking another look at A New World from Day 76, wherein a man comes back from some time in a mental hospital in order to deal with delusions of a fantasy world – only to realize that it was real. I didn’t make any radical changes to it, but just put in a few sentences here and there to fill in some cracks. It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while, so I want to figure out how to do it well.

———————————————

Adam let the door swing open and stood on the front step, looking into his house. His sister had kept it in good shape for him while he was… away. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been gone, though. A few months in the hospital, but the time before that was indistinct. Cloudy. He touched that space in his memory like it was a sprained ankle, a bone-deep bruise, and then left it alone.

He stepped inside and took a deep breath. The air smelled dry and flat, unused. He dropped his suitcase by the door, which he then shut and locked. The lights seemed too bright, but they were still working, so his sister must have been paying for the electricity. He felt bad, what she had been through. She didn’t have a lot of reason to be so kind to him, and they both knew it. There were too many years apart, too long between just a simple phone call and a chat. But when he asked why, she said, “Because you’re my brother. What else could I do?”

The water in the kitchen sink sputtered a little when he turned it on, but it came out cold and clear. He held his hands under it, letting it fill his palms and then wash away. For a moment, he felt something else. A stream. Snowmelt from high, impassable mountains. A woman, over his shoulder who made him smile.

He spun around, and there was no one there. The memory, too, clouded back over and he couldn’t quite remember what it was he had remembered. But it made him feel sad, whatever it was.

There was no food in the fridge, of course. It had been switched off and was disconcertingly warm when he stuck his hand inside to turn the dial and get the cold going again. There were probably menus somewhere, someplace he could order from. Even being away as long as he had, there would always be delivery menus. He went through a drawer under the phone until he found a bunch of menus from a Chinese place, Jade Hall. The menus, classic red-on-white printing, had a great sinuous dragon flowing across the top, and he found himself staring at it, unable to move, unable to look away. A voice came to him from the depths of his battered and broken memory, and it was terrifying. It resonated like a funeral bell the size of the world and held nothing but contempt for him and everyone else in creation.

“Very well, then,” he remembered it saying. “We are agreed.” There was a smell in the voice, like burning metal.

Adam felt a sudden pain in his arm, like someone had set a burning iron against it. He howled and grabbed at his sleeve, nearly tearing it off as he ran back to the sink to hold his arm under water. A sob broke through his teeth as he held his burned and mangled arm – and when he looked at it, the skin was clean and undamaged. The burning feeling was gone, along with the voice.

The fear settled into his stomach like a lump of iron. “No,” he said. “No, no.” He started walking around the kitchen, gripping at the sides of his head. “This is just what the doctors said would happen.” He was aware that he was talking to no one, but the silence of the house seemed worse. It seemed to be watching him, waiting to see what he would do next. “Oh, hell, damn, damn,” he said, slumping down on the kitchen floor with his hands over his eyes.

Doctor Greer had recommended against Adam leaving the hospital when he did. He called Adam into his clean, wood-paneled office and sat him down, and then looked at him with that weird, avuncular smile he had. “Adam,” he said. His beard gave his voice a gentle, muffled tone that probably went a long way towards calming his patients. “Adam, we want to help you, you know that?”

“Yes, Doctor Greer,” Adam said. He sat up straight and tried to push out a bright and cheerful voice from the back of his throat where it usually wanted to sit like a frog. “I know that. But I really feel like I’m better now.” Smile. This would be a good place for a smile. “I think I’m going to be okay.”

“And that is wonderful to hear, Adam.” Doctor Greer took up Adam’s file and looked it over, as if he hadn’t been treating the man for months. “No more intrusive fantasies? No more of those voices?”
Adam shook his head. “No, doctor,” he said, and it was true. He had gone a long time without flashing back to that strange reality he’d built for himself. Without thinking he had to get back. Greer said it was just an escape fantasy, that it was all brought on by stress. Work, with the cutbacks. His mother’s death. His marriage. Nothing was staying the way it was supposed to stay – stable, reliable, true. The bargain that he thought he had made with the world was breaking down, and the things that he had counted on were slipping through his fingers.

And so he had retreated, the doctors said. He had gone into his mind, into another world where things made sense. Where he could be the hero and impose order on the world and make it make sense. It was a fully-realized place in his mind, far better than the world he just happened to be born into.

He’d gone crazy, in other words. Nuts. Wacko. Or, in psychological parlance, “experienced a near-total disassociative state of mental dissonance.”

And, after a lot of therapy and a regular regimen of medication, Adam knew that they were right. They had to be. He’d gone off the deep end, lost his marbles, and when they found him in that field, laughing and crying at the same time, well, how else could you explain it? What other explanation could there possibly be? That he had gone to another world? That he had become some kind of fantasy hero, battling dragons and saving princesses?

It made no sense. It never had, and when he walked out of the hospital that morning, Adam was ready to face the real world, the true world. The only world that was really real.

“We are agreed,” that burning, horrible voice said again, and it made Adam cover his head and scream. It opened up cracks and fissures and gaps in his mind, and it let other things flow up out from between them. A great mansion gilded and perched atop a high mountain. A woman with eyes as blue as the sky on a late autumn day and skin that was deep, almost impossible violet, and her breath smelled of honey when they kissed. Red skies and rains that burned, and great insects that flew and carried people off only to let them fall from the sky again. A blade in his hand that sang to him and called down the lightning when he needed it.

“It was all a dream,” Adam said. “It wasn’t real,” and he said it again and again and again, but he knew… In his heart he knew.

There was a stone, and that stone was a key.

There was a door, but it wasn’t a door.

There was a path, and it was a path he could not see but he walked anyway and it led him to her. To the keep.

To the dragon and the battle and the promise. And the field.

The truth and the loss hit Adam like thunder and he wept. He cried for a long time, curled up on the kitchen floor.

Day One Hundred and Thirty-one: Among the Low People (REVISED)

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

This is another story that I submitted to Worth100.com for their “Jewelry” writing contest. I think it’s an improvement over the original, so I thought I’d let everyone take a look.

———————

Othioto made sure to lock the door after he let Sestl in. The room was a cluttered mess, with papers, notebooks, broadsides and drawings set up everywhere. Sestl smiled when he looked around. Or at least he seemed to smile, but with the Low People, Othioto could never be sure. He still wasn’t very good at reading their expressions. “Wow, Cantur. Writing a book?”

The use of his assumed name sent a twinge of anxiety through Othioto’s chest. It mixed with the hope that today would be the last day he had to answer to it.

“Let me straighten up,” Othioto said. “It’ll only be a minute.”

While he picked up papers and tried to put them into some kind of order, Sestl moved over to the window and looked down at the street below. “Huh,” he said. “Would you look at that. A bunch of Blues in this part of the city.”

For a moment, Othioto wanted to panic. He glanced in the mirror just to reassure himself that his disguise held, and it did ”“ a flat, grey-skinned, mottled face looked back at him. He was covered in sores and warts, cracks in the skin that opened and bled. His teeth were broken and stained, his eyes were dull and flat. He twisted the opal ring on his index finger and sighed with relief.

Like the Low People he was pretending to be, he was hideous, yet he was adorned with jewels and gold and clothes of the finest fabric and cut. He wore dozens of gold hoops in his ears, pulling the lobes down nearly to his shoulders. He had a ring on every finger, and they were set with gems that sparkled in even the dimmest light. Silver thread ran through his woolen cloak and fine linen shirt, and he wore a choker of rare shells and stones. The Low People prized their finery, and for good reason.

Othioto joined Sestl at the window and watched the small group of Necoli pass by.

Strictly speaking, no Low Person was supposed to lay eyes on the Necoli. Centuries of tradition demanded that they avert their gaze, but it was hard not to look. They were tall and slender, with skin the blue of a radiant autumn sky. Bright and iridescent scales were scattered about their bodies and caught the sun, throwing off glimmering colors, and their hair shone like polished silver. Necoli wore no garments to cover their beauty, and they possessed no jewelry ”“ they never saw a need for either. They called themselves the Children of the Sky and claimed descent from the gods that oversaw their world.

“Damned Blues,” Sestl growled, and Othioto started at the disgust in his voice. “Think they’re so damned perfect.” He turned away from the window. “You ever actually meet one of ”˜em, Cantur?”

“I… Actually…”

“I did,” Sestl said. “Once. One of ”˜em came down here ”“ in person, no less – to buy some cookware, of all things.” He chuckled. “Some woman with a whole troupe of bodyguards around her. Poor thing looked terrified. Like she was going to turn ugly just by being outside the Walls.”

Othioto put down a bundle of papers. “Maybe she just… didn’t know better,” he said.

“What does she have to know?” Sestl asked. “Believe me, if she could’ve gotten her pots and pans any other way, she would have. All those Blues would be happier if we just went away, you ask me.” He shrugged. “But then where would they get their pots and pans?”

“I don’t know,” Othioto said. He pulled a chair around and Sestl settled into it with a sigh. “Maybe… Maybe if the Necoli knew more about… us, they wouldn’t be so afraid to come out here.”

Sestl’s eyebrows shot up. “You kidding, Cantur?”

“No,” Othioto said quietly. “I really think so.”

The unavoidable moment was twisting Othioto’s guts. He licked his lips. “Sestl… We’ve known each other for a while, haven’t we?”

“Sure,” Sestl said. “Since I saved you from getting the soul beat out of you at the summer festival.” He laughed. “I still can’t believe you wandered out there without any pants on.”

Othioto cleared his throat. “Yes, well -”

“You know, I still tell that story, too. I think you get drunker every time I tell it.”

“Sestl, please.”

“And I have to confess something, Cantur.” He was able to hold a serious look on his face for a few seconds before he cracked up. “I nearly didn’t even step in. I was just laughing too hard.” He started cackling, rocking back in the chair.

“Sestl!”

The other man slowly regained his composure. “I’m sorry, Cantur. It’s just…” He reached out and poked Othioto in the shoulder. “It really was funny.”

“Yes,” Othioto said. “I guess it was.” He started twisting the opal ring on his finger. Sestl’s eyes flickered down to it and back up. “Sestl, there’s a reason why I did that. And it wasn’t because I was drunk.”

He took a deep breath and looked Sestl in the eyes. “I can trust you, Sestl, can’t I?” he asked.

Sestl seemed surprised by the question. Surprised enough that he took a moment to think, and answered without a hint of sarcasm. “Yeah, Cantur,” he said. “Of course. You know you can.”

“Okay.” Othioto stood up and straightened his shirt. “Sestl,” he said, a little louder than he meant to, “I am not who you think I am.” Sestl was looking at him with a carefully blank expression. “My name is not Cantur,” he said. “It’s Othioto.”

Sestl’s eyes went wide at the name and how it had been said. Low People didn’t have names like that.

“Sestl,” Othioto said. “This is who I am.” With a swift motion, he pulled the opal ring off his finger. In a few heartbeats, his body shifted and changed, revealing his true Necoli form. It felt strange to be wearing clothes, looking like this. He tried not to scratch.

Sestl shot out of his seat and tried to open the door. He pulled at the handle, whimpering under his breath.

“No! No, Sestl, please! Don’t do that!” Othioto reached out and took Sestl by the arm. “Look at me, Sestl,” he said. He grabbed the man’s chin and turned his face towards him. “Look at me!”

It took a moment before Sestl cracked his eyes open, and then he clenched them shut again. A moment later, and he was looking again. This time, he kept his eyes on Othioto’s face. The Necoli smiled, and Sestl flinched. “My name is Othioto,” he said again. “I’m from the university in the Inner City, and I’ve been living among the Low People for the last year, learning your ways.” He held up the ring. “This allows me to disguise myself.”

Sestl looked from the ring to Othioto and back again.

“I’ve been putting together a book,” Othioto said, smiling. “All about the Low People and how you live. It’s really fascinating, and it’ll be the first book of its kind ever published.”

Sestl just stared at him.

“You… you might say something,” Othioto said after a moment. He slid the ring back onto his finger and felt the familiar shift as he changed. “There,” he said. “That might be easier.”

“Take it off,” Sestl growled. He wasn’t looking at Othioto anymore.

“What?” He started to reach out when Sestl wheeled around and punched him. Othioto dropped to the floor, whimpering in pain. His jaw throbbed and tears came to his eyes. When he looked up, Sestl was standing above him, his fists clenched and his face red.

“You come here,” Sestl said. “You come here with your fancy ring, and you think you can be one of us?” He delivered a swift kick, and Othioto doubled over. “You think this is fun, Blue?” He kicked again. “Are you having fun writing your book about us?” He moved to kick again, but Othioto held up a hand.

“Please, Sestl!” he croaked. “Please, stop. Stop, Sestl, please…”

Sestl put his foot down and watched the disguised Necoli writhe on the floor. He crouched, his knees popping. “You have until sunset,” he whispered. “Then I tell everyone.” His hand flashed out and he grabbed Othioto’s hand. He twisted the ring from his finger and watched as Othioto changed back. Sestl stood up and put the ring in his pocket. Then he turned around to the door.

“Wait, Sestl!” He stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Sestl,” Othioto said. “I don’t… I don’t understand.” He got his hands under him and tried to get up. He dropped back to the floor.

“No,” Sestl said, not looking back. “No. You don’t.”

He left Othioto there, on the floor amidst his notes and papers. Sunset was a few hours away, but for now, Othioto didn’t feel like moving.

Day One Hundred and Thirty: Chosen

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment

“God always has another custard pie up His sleeve”
– Lynn Redgrave

If the only thing that had happened to Eva that day was that she lost her job, she would have counted herself lucky. Well, not at that moment, certainly, but if she were told all the other things that the world was about to throw at her, she would have taken sudden unemployment as the godsend that it was.

Hell, if it had just been the job, her car being towed, her fiancee calling off the wedding and her cat running away – all within six hours of each other – she still would have counted her blessings and gone on to face the future with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.

It was the fairies.

They were something her grandmother had told her about when she was a child. “Eva,” she would say, usually in an accent that no one outside the family could understand. “When I was a little girl, we used to leave out milk for the fairies every night.” Grandma’s eyes would become misty, her accent would thicken, and Eva would start to wish her mother would let her go play Nintendo or something. “And we would leave a lump of bread by the front door so that they would watch over the house, and every little girl – and even your Nana was a little girl, little Eva – every little girl had to carry a lump of cheese in her pocket on her way home from school, or else the King of the Fairies might take her away to fairyland.”

As a child of the nineties, Eva wanted nothing to do with her grandmother’s fairies. She wasn’t even sure the kids back in whatever country her grandmother had come from even believed in them. For all she knew, the fairies were something her grandmother had pulled out of her dusty, decrepit brain.

Except that, as it turned out, they weren’t.

She got home close to midnight, very nearly too drunk to get the key in the door on the first try. She muttered to herself as she fumbled around in the dark, a stream of consciousness of invective that swayed from anger to self-pity to sorrow and back again as she dropped first her purse, then her coat, then her shoes on the floor. By the time she thought it might be a good idea to turn on the light, she bumped into the sofa, tripped, and was asleep by the time she landed on the cushions.

She was awakened by brain-stabbing rays of morning sunlight and the ugliest creature she’d ever seen, sitting on her chest.

For a moment, she peered at it through blurry, narrowed eyes. The thing grinned, which only made it uglier, and gave a brief wave.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Eva muttered, and went back to sleep.

When she woke up again, her head cracking in two and threatening to spill her brains out onto the floor, there were more of those things around her. They were perched on the sofa, on the bookcases, sitting on the dining table. One of them was playing with the pepper shaker. It cracked the top off, took a deep breath, and sneezed hard enough to knock it into the next room.

The things looked terrible, like her hangover come to life. They had leathery skin that was a dark blue, almost black, and uneven tufts of green hair on skulls that looked like they had been beaten into random shapes. They had noses that were either flat or bulbous or needly, and big eyes that popped out of their head so far that Eva was afraid she’d end up having to retrieve them from under the refrigerator at some point. They were mostly covered in greenish-brown fur, though some of them seemed to be wearing adornments made out of toothpicks and bottlecaps and whatever other garbage they could pick up. They had long, slender fingers, large, flat feet, and smelled like a basement.

One of the creatures, probably the one that had been sitting on her, waved again. It said, “Hi.”

Eva closed her eyes again and tried to settle back into the cushions. “Not here,” she said. “Not playing along.”

A moment later, there was a tapping on her skull, like a tiny fist was knocking very impatiently. “Ow,” she groaned.

“Hi,” the thing said again, and it resumed knocking. Each knock made Eva flinch and groan. Finally she turned over, and the little creature scampered to avoid falling on the floor. She levered herself up on her elbows and squinted around the room at the creatures that were diligently investigating everything about her living room. Another one of them looked at her, waved, and said, “Hi.”

Eva robbed her face. “If that’s all you things know how to say, I’ll just have to kill myself right now.”

The one that had been sitting on her shook its head. “No!” it said. “We can say lots of things.” It turned to its companions. “One, two, three, four!”

As if they had been ready for this, the things sitting on the back of the sofa jumped to their oversized and misshapen feet and started singing.

Hello, my baby

Hello, my darling

Hello my ragtime paaaaaal!

Send me a kiss by –

They scattered as Eva swept her arm across the back of the sofa, sending them all to the floor. “No!” she said, wrestling herself off of the sofa. “No, uh-uh, no. No.” She spun and pointed at one of them. “No.”

“No?”

“NO!”

The thing looked around at its comrades. “She said No.”

One of them stuck its head out from behind the stuffed bear she had bought at the airport in London a few years ago. “No?”

“Yeah!”

It screwed up its face. “But she can’t say no!”

“She said no.”

“But.. but she can’t!”

Eva hoped that going into the kitchen would make them go away, but they just followed in a tumbling, catastrophic mob. She reached for a mug, and a pair of little blue hands handed one to her. Another came over, struggling under the weight of a can of instant coffee, and a muffled yelling from inside the refrigerator revealed one of the things standing in the doorway with its cheeks bulging. A moment later, it spat out a stream of milk. “Black?” it asked.

She slammed the door shut.

The ones that had been arguing hopped up on the counter, still not sure if she had said no, or even if it was possible that she had. Eva ground her teeth while she waited for the water to boil, which didn’t help her hangover any. Finally, she gripped the edge of the counter and leaned on it, her eyes closed. “What,” she said quietly, “can’t I say no about?”

The little creatures silenced immediately, and all of them looked at her. The one who had done most of the talking so far – the one who woke her up – seemed at a loss for words. It looked around, and the other one – the one who had been arguing from behind the London bear – elbowed it in the ribs. It glared and rubbed its side, but then looked up at Eva. “You’re going to take care of us,” it said. “You have to.”

Eva stared at it long enough for the water to boil. Then she turned away, poured the water into her cup, and turned off the stove. She stirred her coffee, tapped the spoon off on the side of the mug and tossed it into the sink. She took a careful sip and closed her eyes in psychosomatic relief as the taste and smell of coffee told her that there, in that moment, everything would be okay.

Then she opened her eyes again and looked at the things in her kitchen, smiled brightly, and said, “No.” She reached into a cupboard and snatched a breakfast bar from a fuzzy pair of hands, and walked back into the living room.

The little creature watched her leave, then turned to the others. “But she can’t say no!” it wailed.

Day One Hundred and Twenty-nine: Among the Low People

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Othioto never could get used to bowing to his own kind. He lowered his head like everyone else around him as the tall, graceful Necoli strode through the street. Strictly speaking, the Low People weren’t supposed to even look at the Necoli when they passed. To do so would be enough of an offense that a summary execution on the spot would be perfectly permissible.

It really wasn’t necessary for him to look, though. He knew what the Necoli looked like – he was one, after all. Tall and slender, with skin the blue of a radiant autumn sky. Bright and iridescent scales were scattered about their bodies and caught the sun, throwing off glimmering colors, and their hair shone like polished silver. Necoli wore no garments to cover their beauty, and they possessed no jewelry – they never saw a need for either. They called themselves the Children of the Sky and claimed descent from the gods that oversaw their world.

No one was supposed to look at them, but everyone did. At least once.

Othioto looked down at his own hand – the hand not truly his own. It was the dirty gray of the Low People, the people of no name. The skin was rough and seeped blood where the joints cracked the skin. His nails dug into the dirt in the street and they broke and splintered and stank. The only thing that mitigated their hideousness was the rings.

All Low People wore them. They bedecked themselves with jewelry – rings, earrings, necklaces, whatever could be made or bought or stolen. The rings on Othioto’s gnarled hands had been gifts from the friends he had made while living among the Low People. All but one.

He wore a simple silver band on his first left finger. The band was set with a shining blue opal that shimmered in the sunlight. With that ring, his form changed. With that ring, he became one of the Low People, the dispossessed and the despised. He had spent hours locked in his rooms at the university, taking it off and putting it on again, shuddering at the feeling of metal on his finger.

When he looked in the mirror, his first thought was of disgust. His second thought was of discovery.

Soon, he began walking among the Low People as one of them. Dressing in clothes was a perverse thrill at first, one which quickly wore off the more he realized how important they were. The Low People judged him harshly and quickly, and it took many visits before he managed to understand how to judge them back. Once he did, he found friends in places he never knew existed.

“Oy. Cantur.” Othioto glanced up, hearing the name he’d taken for himself. The Necoli had passed while he was in thought, and everyone was about their business again. The man behind him was every bit as ugly as he appeared to be – broken teeth, an eye that was scabbing over from an infection he’d fought off months ago, great open sores on his arms and hands. But he wore dozens of thin gold hoops in his ears, pulling the lobes down nearly to his shoulders. He had a ring on every finger, and every ring was set with a gem that sparkled in even the dimmest light. He had silver thread running through his woolen cloak and fine linen shirt, and a choker of rare shells and stones.

“Ah. Hello, Sestl,” Othioto said. He couldn’t help flinching as he took the man’s hand. “Glad you didn’t get too held up.”

Sestl shrugged. “You know how it is when the Blues come by. You nod, you bow, you move on. I see you got your knees dirty.” He grinned and Othioto blushed. His own clothes were nowhere near as nice as Sestl’s, but it was still embarrassing to have that pointed out. “Hey.” Sestl dug into his pocket and fished out a wide brass ring. “Lookit this, Cantur. Got it from that shop down by the tannery.” He held out the ring and Othioto took it. “I reckon I can get it engraved, maybe an inlay? What do you think?”

Othioto turned it over in his hand. “I think it looks fine as it is,” he said. “Simple is good.”

“You sound like a Blue, Cantur,” Sestl said, clapping him on the shoulder. Othioto’s stomach clenched. “You want I should just prance around in my simple skin too, like one‘a them?”

The thought was horrifying. “Gods, no, Sestl,” Othioto said with a laugh. “None of us need to see that.” The other man laughed with him and took him by the arm. They started to work their way through the shopping-hour crowd.

“So, Cantur,” Sestl said. “Why’d you want to see me? Going off on another one of your trading junkets?” That was the excuse Othioto used to explain his trips home. He needed to consolidate his notes, write down his thoughts, and make sure his research was sound. Being a wide traveler also helped paper over any unusual behavior, too.

“No,” Othioto said. “Something a little different than that.” He led Sestl to the room he’d been renting, refusing to say anything more.

The room was small but comfortable, lined with books and notes. He had drawings stuck to the walls, pages and pages of handwritten text on every surface. Sestl whistled when he saw it all. “Wow,” he said. “Looks like someone’s been busy.” He turned to Othioto. “Writing a book, Cantur?”

Othioto felt the blood rush from his face. He hadn’t expected Sestl to catch on this quickly, even without having read anything. He swallowed, hard. “Sestl, please. Sit down.” He pulled a chair over, and Sestl sat, keeping a wary eye on him.

“What’s going on, Cantur?” he asked. “You in trouble or something?”

“I don’t know,” Othioto said. “Maybe.” He took the other chair and sat across from Sestl. “We’ve known each other for a while, haven’t we?”

“Sure,” Sestl said. “Since I saved you from getting the soul beat out of you at the summer festival.” He laughed. “I still can’t believe you wandered out there without any pants on.”

Othioto cleared his throat. “Yes, well -”

“You know, I still tell that story, too. I think you get drunker every time I tell it.”

“Sestl, please.”

“And I have to confess something, Cantur.” He was able to hold a serious look on his face for a few seconds before he cracked up. “I nearly didn’t even step in. I was just laughing too hard.” He started cackling, rocking back in the chair.

“Sestl!”

The other man slowly regained his composure. “I’m sorry, Cantur. It’s just…” He reached out and poked Othioto in the shoulder. “It really was funny.”

“Yes,” Othioto said. “I guess it was.” He started twisting the opal ring on his finger. Sestl’s eyes flickered down to it and back up. “Sestl, there’s a reason why I did that. And it wasn’t because I was drunk.” He took a deep breath and looked Sestl in the eyes. “Can I trust you?” he asked.

Sestl seemed surprised by the question. Surprised  enough that he took a moment to think, and answered without a hint of sarcasm. “Yeah, Cantur,” he said. “Of course. You know you can.”

“Okay.” Othioto stood up and straightened his shirt. “Sestl,” he said, a little louder than he meant to, “I am not who you think I am.” Sestl was looking at him with a carefully blank expression. “My name is not Cantur,” he said. “It’s Othioto.”

Sestl’s eyes went wide at the name and how it had been said. Low People didn’t have names like that.

“Sestl,” Othioto said. “This is who I am.” With a swift motion, he pulled the opal ring off his finger. In a few heartbeats, his body shifted and changed, revealing his true Necoli form.

Sestl dropped to the floor and put his face into the rug.

“No! No, Sestl, don’t do that!” Othioto reached down and picked Sestl up by the arm. “Look at me, Sestl,” he said. He grabbed the man’s chin and turned his face towards him. “Look at me!”

It took a moment before Sestl cracked his eyes open, and then he clenched them shut again. A moment later, and he was looking again. This time, he kept his eyes on Othioto’s face. The Necoli smiled, and Sestl flinched. “My name is Othioto,” he said. “I’m from the university in the Inner City, and I’ve been living among the Low People for the last year.” He held up the ring. “This allows me to disguise myself.”

Sestl looked from the ring to Othioto and back again.

“I’ve been putting together a book,” Othioto said. “All about the Low People and how you live. It’ll be the first book of its kind ever published.” Sestl just stared at him.

“You… you might say something,” Othioto said after a moment. He slid the ring back onto his finger and felt the familiar shift as he changed. “There,” he said. “That might be easier.”

“Take it off,” Sestl growled. He wasn’t looking at Othioto anymore.

“What?” He started to reach for his friend when Sestl wheeled around and punched him. Othioto dropped to the floor, whimpering in pain. His jaw throbbed and tears came to his eyes. When he looked up, Sestl was standing above him, his fists clenched and his face red.

“You come here,” Sestl said. “You come here with your fancy ring, and you think you can be one of us?” He delivered a swift kick, and Othioto doubled over. “You think this is fun, Blue?” He kicked again. “Are you having fun writing your book about us?” He moved to kick again, but Othioto held up a hand.

“Please, Sestl!” he croaked. “Please, stop. Stop, Sestl, please…”

Sestl put his foot down and watched the disguised Necoli writhe on the floor. He crouched, his knees popping. “You have until sunset,” he whispered. “Then I tell everyone.” His hand flashed out and he grabbed Othioto’s hand. He twisted the ring from his finger and watched as Othioto changed back. Sestl stood up and put the ring in his pocket. Then he turned around to the door.

“Wait, Sestl!” The man stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Sestl,” Othioto said. “I don’t… I don’t understand.” He got his hands under him and tried to get up.

“No,” Sestl said, not looking back. “You don’t.”

He left Othioto there, on the floor amidst his notes and papers. Sunset was a few hours away, but for now, Othioto didn’t feel like moving.

Day One Hundred and Twenty-eight: Secrets and Lies

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Tasha Brookhaven strained against the ropes that held her to the chair. She knew there was no way she could get free – the ropes were too thick, the knots too tight. And even if she did escape, there was no way her sister would let her leave the mountain cabin. Not even in the middle of a howling blizzard. The gun that Evangeline was holding would make sure of that.

“You didn’t even think to check if I was alive, did you?” Evangeline strode back and forth in front of the fireplace. “You didn’t take one moment to run back for your dear sister?” She whirled around, pointing the gun at Tasha’s head.

“Eva, how could I have known?” Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “The explosion! Nobody could have survived that!”

Evangeline laughed. “Nobody but I, you mean!” She knelt down in front of her sister, her green eyes blazing in the firelight. “I dragged myself, Tasha. I dragged myself out of that fiery death-trap by my fingernails. And then it was three days – three – before I was found by a local hunter, who was out just trying to feed his family.” Her expression softened, but her gun hand didn’t waver. “He took care of me, Tasha. He wrapped my wounds and nursed me back to health. Luther took me in, treated me as one of his family.” She stood up. “He and his wife were far better to me than you ever were, Tasha. Had it not been for them…” Evangeline chuckled darkly and pulled back the slide on the gun. “You would have gotten your wish.”

“I don’t understand, Eva!” Tasha was weeping now, slumped over as far as the ropes would let her go. “I never wanted you dead! Never, I swear it!”

Evangeline paused. “Not even for the insurance money?”

“Eva, what insurance?”

For a moment, Evangeline hesitated. “You’re trying to trick me, aren’t you?”

Tasha shook her head and tears flew. “No, Eva, I swear. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“The insurance policy that my husband took out on me before we went on our anniversary trip?” She walked around behind Tasha. “The one worth a hundred million dollars in the event of my death?” She poked the back of Tasha’s head with the gun barrel and her sister cried out. “You were going to split it, weren’t you? You and he – you were always planning to destroy me.”

Tasha shook her head again. “Evangeline, you’re – you’re not well. Okay? I don’t know what all this is about. I never knew about any insurance. I never had anything with your husband, you know that!”

“No, no, no, dear sister.” Evangeline stood in front of her, the gun once again pointed at Tasha’s head. In the flickering firelight, Evangeline was beautiful. “How unfortunate for you that Parker had his little… skiing accident before you and he could blow me to pieces.” Her face spread into a mad grin. “Now that I’m back, I have everything that he had and more. And by the time anyone thinks to look for you?” She ground her teeth. “It’ll be far too late.”

Evangeline took a step forward. “Goodbye. Sister.”

The door to the cabin flew open and hit the wall. “No, Evangeline!”

The two women looked over. Through her tears, Tasha could just about make out who it was. A tall, well-built man, dressed in leather and fur. He had a graying beard that covered a strong chin, and his ice-blue eyes blazed in a suntanned face. Evangeline stood, stunned, and the gun fell from her grip. “Parker!” she whispered. “Impossible!”

“Impossible, Evangeline?” His voice boomed, filling the room. He strode in, closing the door behind him and started removing his home-made jacket and gloves. “You of all people should know better than to tell me what’s impossible.”

“But… But I saw you!” Her fingers twitched, as though she was only just noticing that she no longer had the gun. Tasha stared at it, close to her chair. It might as well have been on the moon. “I saw you fall into that ravine, Parker!” Evangeline said.

“You saw me fall, Evey? Are you sure?” He dropped the coat on the floor and pulled off his shirt. In the light of the fire, his well-muscled torso seemed to shine. Tasha couldn’t remember very well, but she had been pretty sure Evangeline’s husband had never been that well-built. He glanced over at her and smiled. “Months of living in the wild. It does wonders.”

He turned back to Evangeline. “If you had taken the time to look at the body, you would have noticed something missing, Evey.” He turned around, revealing the great eagle tattoo on his back. The one he had gotten before they married.

“No!” Evangeline crumpled to the floor. “No, it’s impossible!”

Parker grabbed her wrist and hauled her to her feet. “Oh, it’s possible, Evey. So very possible.” He pulled her close. “It wasn’t me that you killed, dear wife. It was my identical twin brother!”

The wind blew, pounding against the cabin and rattling the windows, nearly drowning out Evangeline’s howl. When silence returned, they stood in a tableau against the firelight – Taylor holding his wife to his bare chest, where she sobbed tears of bitter regret.

“Wait,” Tasha said. They glanced over at her. “Since when did you have a twin brother?”

Evangeline shook her head and rested it against his chest. “He and his brother were separated at birth,” she said. “Parker never liked to talk about it. It was too painful.”

“Oh,” Tasha said. “Still, that’s an awfully big coincidence. His estranged twin? Showing up just in time for you to kill him.” Her eyes went wide. “Oh my god, you killed him, Evangeline!”

Parker stroked his wife’s hair and whispered to her. “That’s okay, Evey. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay, Parker!” Tasha struggled against the ropes again. “She wanted to kill you, she really did kill your brother, and she nearly killed me! She’s nuts!”

“Tasha -”

“I mean, I know she’s my sister and everything, but this? Bringing me up here to a mountain cabin in the middle of a snowstorm? Blaming me for her nearly getting killed?” She laughed, and a sob escaped with it. “I’m sorry, but that’s just insane!”

“Tasha. No.” Parker held up a hand to stop her, and she stopped. Then, with careful deliberation, he grabbed the sides of Evangeline’s head and gave it a sharp twist. There was a loud popping sound, and Tasha screamed.

Parker twisted Evangeline’s head again in the opposite direction and it came off her neck. Her body dropped to the ground, and Tasha couldn’t look away as she screamed. The horror of the night overwhelmed her, and she started to cry, doubling over with great sobs. Despite everything, despite everything she’d said and everything that had happened, she couldn’t bear to see Evangeline on the floor like that. She wanted to get out of that chair, to cradle her sister’s body in her arms, to…

She brought her breath under control and blinked a few times to clear her vision. Her sister’s headless body was lying on the floor, but there was no blood. Instead, there was the sharp smell of ozone and… Were those wires?

“That’s right,” Parker rumbled. “Evangeline didn’t survive that explosion.” He held up her unblinking head and stared at it. “Not entirely, anyway. I was able to save her brain.” He nestled the head in the crook of his arm and pulled a chair over to talk to Tasha. “Thanks to my skill as a surgeon and cyberneticist, I was able to save it in this robot body.” He stroked the hair again, and his face sagged into a mask of despair. “But perhaps it was all too much for her.”

“This…” Tasha’s voice came out as a hoarse whisper. “This isn’t happening.” She refused to look at the thing that had been her sister. “This cannot be happening.”

“I promise you, it is,” Parker said. He placed the head gently on the floor by the body and stood up again. “And as incredible as all this is, Tasha, I hope you understand what I have to do next.”

She looked up at him and craned her neck as she tried to follow him. “What?” she asked. “Parker, please, don’t!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I truly am.” She couldn’t see him anymore, but he was close behind her. “I can’t have you remembering this, Tasha. None of it.” He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “I truly am sorry.”

A moment later, there was a sharp pain on the side of her head – and then blackness.

* * * * *

When the rescue team got to the cabin, they found the woman lying in the only bed. She had clearly suffered some kind of head trauma, but they had to move her – the helicopter couldn’t get through the dense woods to bring her to the hospital. Carefully, they braced her neck and transferred her to a carry-board, which they used to take her down the mountain. Later, in the hospital, she would be in a coma for six months, her stay paid for by an anonymous benefactor.

When she woke up, the doctors were amazed. Someone with brain damage like that should have either stayed in a coma for the rest of her life, or come back a vegetable. This woman was neither, but she didn’t remember anything about her life. When asked, she could not remember her name, where she was from, or why she had been in the cabin.

“All I remember,” she said later to a staff psychologist, “is an eagle.”

“An eagle?”

The woman nodded. “An eagle.” She looked up at him, and the doctor recoiled from the anger in her eyes. “An eagle,” she said again.

“And I hate it.”

Day One Hundred and Twenty-seven: Last-ditch

September 25, 2011 3 comments

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 time around we have an interesting pairing – Peter Wach from Day 46, The Big Day, and Taylor Patraglia from Day 43, Investigations. Just for fun, let’s add a third: the unseen Speyeder from Day 80, One More Door. Plus a special surprise guest who kinda walked into the story on his own.

And here… we… go.

———————————-

“Mister Wach, why don’t you just calm down.” Taylor Patraglia quietly locked the door to his office and turned back to the man pacing back and forth in front of the desk. The man was thin and looked like he hadn’t slept in days. His hollow eyes were shining and darting around the room, from the door to the window to Taylor and back again. He hadn’t stopped moving since he came, and he’d barely stopped talking either. His fingers twitched like he was flicking a cigarette.

“I can’t calm down, mister Patraglia, I just can’t. I’m telling you what happened, I’m telling you the truth, and if you won’t help me then I’ll try to find someone who will!”

“Hold on, mister Wach.” Taylor held up his hands and glanced at his watch. It was three-fifteen. All he had to do was wait another seven minutes and this problem might be out of his hands. “You do understand why I find all this a little difficult to believe.”

Wach laughed, and it was harsh and loud. “You find it difficult to believe, huh? Imagine how I must feel about it.”

Taylor circled back around to his desk and picked up the file folder he’d put there. “I can try,” he said. He flipped open the file and scanned his scratchy handwriting. The notes he had taken on the phone the day before were disorganized, but disorganized in a very specific way. “You were drugged and… tortured? By none other than Ulysses Grodin himself.” He glanced up. “You do realize what you’re alleging here, right? That one of the most powerful men in this city – hell, the country – held you in some secret prison and shoved bamboo under your fingernails?”

“Not bamboo,” Wach muttered. “They used tasers. Not bamboo.”

“My mistake.” Taylor took a pen from his pocket and pretended to write something. “Tasers. And then after that they let you go, but not before… ‘Pulling your life out by the roots.’ In your words.” He snapped the file closed and looked up again.

For a moment, he was worried that Wach would do something violent. The man had finally stopped moving and was gripping the back of the chair with his knuckles white. “They took my home,” he said. “My bank account is locked. My driver’s license.” He barked out a laugh again. “Hell, they sent my wife doctored-up pictures of me and some teenager.” He wiped his eyes. “A boy, even.” He took a deep breath and stood up straight, not letting his eyes meet Taylor’s. “I have nothing left to me now. I’m staying with a friend. All I have is some cash I’d socked away.” He shook his head. “No one will hire me or even give me an interview.” He walked around and slumped down into the chair. “All because of that damned chip.” He dropped his head into his hands and took deep breaths.

Taylor glanced back at the file. “Yeah, the chip. Tell me about it again?”

“It’s memory.” Wach’s voice was muffled by his hands. “It can store a ridiculous amount of data.” He looked up, his eyes shining. “When it gets into production, it’ll be a bigger advance in computing than the integrated circuit.” He sat back, and his body seemed to have deflated. All the nervous energy was gone, replaced with resignation. “I designed it, figured out how to make it work, and then they said I stole it. After that… That’s when they took my life from me.”

“Okay,” Taylor said. He sat on the edge of his desk and tried to look casually friendly, something he’d never been very good at. The man sitting in front of him was either embroiled in a massive conspiracy or completely insane. Either way, Taylor figured that the chances of getting paid were slim. “I’ve got your side of the story. My question to you is this: what do you think I can do for you?”

Peter Wach looked genuinely puzzled by the question. “Do?” he asked. “Isn’t this what you do?” He gestured around the office, and Taylor followed his glance. He had been told, over and over again, about the need to make the office more comfortable, both for himself and his customers, but that took money. Like so many other private investigators, money wasn’t something he had in abundance. But for now it was good enough. It had a desk, it had chairs and a view of a part of the city that was just a good twenty minute subway ride away from downtown. He’d even bought a plastic plant to put in the corner.

Taylor shrugged and checked his watch again. “Yeah, but most of my work is tracking down husbands and runaways, mister Wach. Not digging into the internal workings of one of the biggest companies on the planet.”

There was a moment of leaden silence. “Then I guess I’ve wasted my time,” Wach said. He stood up, and at that moment the telephone rang.

“Just a moment,” Taylor said. He picked up the handset. “Yeah?” he said.

The voice on the other end sounded distorted and strange. It would be hard to say whether it was male or female. Taylor wouldn’t have been comfortable betting that it was actually human. “I’ve found it,” the voice said.

“Good,” Taylor said.

“You’re not going to like where it is, though,” the voice said, and even through all the electronic distortion Taylor thought he could hear amusement.

“Speyeder, I really don’t have a lot of time here.” He glanced up. Wach was watching him closely. “So why don’t you play nice and share.”

“Fine,” Speyeder said. “Be that way. The prototype is stored in a secure locker at Munin Scientific headquarters, and if that thing is even half as amazing as the files look, then it’s worth its weight in gold that’s been dipped in diamonds and wrapped in the skin of baby dinosaurs.” The voice chuckled. “The emails I picked up suggest it’s in the basement vaults, which are protected by the best security Cerbecorp could provide.” It paused, and Taylor could hear the hissing of static in the background. “Unless you have a commando team in your back pocket, you’re not getting in there.”

Taylor nodded. “Thought so.” He sighed. “Well, thanks. I owe you one.”

“You owe me more than one, Patraglia,” Speyeder said. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” The static cut off and Taylor hung up the phone. He stared at it for a moment and then looked back at Wach. “You want the good news or the bad news first?”

The man’s eyes narrowed, but a wave of hope crossed his expression. “Good news.”

“All right.” Taylor nodded. “The prototype you were talking about? It seems that it’s real, and it’s still at Munin.”

Wach stood up. “See? I told you! I told you I was telling the truth!” He took a few steps, running his hands through thinning hair. “Oh, thank god,” he said. “Thank god I’m not crazy…”

“There is still bad news, mister Wach,” Taylor said. Wach stopped and turned around. Taylor looked at the notes he’d written. “Do you know of a vault in the basement level of the building?” Wach sagged where he stood and nodded. “Then you know how hard it’ll be to get at it.”

Wach pulled the chair to him and sat down with a thud. “Then there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “God himself couldn’t get into those vaults.”

Taylor walked over and patted the man on the shoulder. “There now,” he said. “That’s what they said about sinking the Titanic.” He took his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. “It may not be easy,” he said. “But I think I know who can do it.”

He selected a phone number and listened to it ring. When a tone sounded, he entered ten digits, waited, and then entered five more. A voice – definitely electronic this time – told him to enter his passphrase. Slowly and carefully, he recited, “Imagine an imaginary menagerie manager imagining managing an imaginary menagerie.” He looked over at Wach, whose eyebrows went up. Taylor shrugged and returned his concentration to the phone. There was a series of beeps. Then a voice, real and human.

“Drake McBane. Talk to me.”

Taylor smiled and gave a thumbs-up to Peter Wach. “Hello, mister McBane,” he said. “This is Taylor Patraglia. I have an adventure for you.”