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Day One Hundred and Fifty-seven: Killing Time

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

The explosion that took out City Hall was precise and, as far as these things go, perfect. The charges had been set the way a demolition team would do it, making sure to take out that and only that building, which was exactly what Javier Varas had wanted. He did promise, after all, that if the state didn’t release his criminal compatriots from prison, he’d start blowing things up. Our tough-on-crime governor said he wasn’t going to negotiate with terrorists, and so Javier followed through on his promise. Scratch one historic city hall.

Of course, he hadn’t planned on being stuck in a basement storeroom when it happened.

Neither had I, come to think of it. But someone had to bring the guy in, and it turned out to be me. The chase took us all over the building, and we ended up there when the charges went off. It may have been the panic talking, but for a moment, he looked just as scared and surprised as I did. Then a great cloud of dust overtook us and everything went dark and cold.

I woke up coughing. No idea how long it had been since the explosion, but not too long, I hoped. I staggered to my feet, being careful to feel above me in the darkness with my hands. How much would that have sucked, to survive bombs only to knock my brains out standing up? I seemed to have lots of room, though. Not that I could see a damned thing. I hoped that was just because I was trapped under rubble and not because… Well, you know.

“Varas!” I coughed. I could still hear pieces of masonry crumbling around me, and I said a silent prayer that the next one to fall wasn’t the one that was holding half a building up above my head. “Varas!” I said again. “You here?”

There was a weak groan off somewhere to my left. I called him again and got another groan as an answer. Slowly, ever-so-carefully, I crawled over the rubble to where he probably was.

“Varas?” I said. “You all right?”

There was a moment of silence before a thick voice answered from somewhere below me and to my right. “Officer Zurowski,” he said. “Didn’t know you cared.”

I let out a breath that I didn’t know I’d been holding, a fact that probably would have troubled me if I’d been more inclined to think about it. I sat down on the rubble pile and tried not to move anything. “Naw,” I said. “It’s more paperwork if you die.”

There was a harsh, raspy laugh from wherever he was, and it ended in a cough. “Trapped down there?” I asked.

“I knew…” He paused to take a breath. “I knew you’d make detective someday.”

I grinned. Sure, the man was a criminal and a bomber and a murderer. But he had a sense of humor, and that’s hard to hold onto when you’re in that kind of position. “Well, just hang in there,” I said. “We’ll have you out in no time.”

“Ah,” he whispered. “Glorious freedom.”

We stayed like that for a while. There was no sound down there but our breathing – mine had calmed down a little, but his was still raspy. I strained my ears in the darkness for anything that sounded like a rescue crew. Heavy machinery, scraping, drilling… My fellow officers yelling down to me how I gotta hang in there, help is on the way.

There was none of that. Either we were a lot further down than I thought, or there was something keeping rescue away.

“Officer Zurowski,” he said. I turned towards the voice.

“Yeah?”

There was a moment of silence and then a raspy breath. “Why did you come after me?”

I thought about it for a moment and then shrugged. “You’re threatening to blow the place up. I’m a cop. I made a decision.” And it was not a good one, as it turned out, but I figured that went without saying. “If nothing had happened, I’d probably have my ass in a sling with the Chief right about now.”

“That might… be preferable.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it might.” I sat for a while, chewing on my lip. “Hey Varas.”

A pause. “Yes?”

“Why blow up city hall?”

There was a longer pause. “Seemed like a good idea… at the time,” he said. I laughed a little at that.

“So much for that.”

“Agreed.”

The quiet slammed into us again, and his raspy breathing got quieter. Part of me was starting to panic, thinking that someone had to come and come quickly. There’s a guy hurt down here, after all, and we gotta take care of him! But then I remembered that he was Javier Varas, and that the world might be a better place, on average, without him in it. But then I remembered he was a human being.

Here’s a tip for you: cops don’t like moral quandaries. We like our reality like we like our cars – in black and white. But for all the mental hand-wringing, there was one inescapable fact that kept popping up in front of everything else.

Several tons of concrete and debris were above us. And there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.

“Hey. Varas.”

He was quiet a long time, and when he spoke it was a thin whisper in the darkness. “Yes?”

“It was a good plan, you know.” I stretched a leg that was starting to fall asleep. “Sorry I screwed it up for you.”

Another long pause. “No more sorry… than I am,” he said.

He didn’t say anything after that. I let him go to wherever it is people like him go to while I waited for rescue.

We sat there for a long time.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-six: Character Work

October 24, 2011 1 comment

Sean slammed the door and started piling furniture in front of it. The pumping station was quiet, except for his breathing and the scraping of  steel desks against the concrete floor. He had blocked the main entrance, but the zombies would get through that pretty quickly. All he had to do was keep them out, and he’d stay alive.

But for how long? With the door blocked, he lit a flare and propped it in the corner, filling the station with red, flickering light. The great machines cast terrible shadows against the high ceiling, and those shadows made him nervous. Too many places to hide. He wanted to check his watch, but there was no point to that anymore. He’d locked them out, yes, but unless they decided to go off and hunt someone else, he’d also locked himself in. 

He took a deep breath and reviewed what he had. A handgun, with no ammunition. A shotgun. Also, with nothing to fire. No more grenades, only a couple more flares. He still had his knife, though. The one he’d gotten when he finished SEAL training. It had never left his side, and he hoped that he’d be brave enough to use it on himself if the zombies did manage to break through. No food. No water. Soon, he’d be able to hear the ungodly gurgle and howl of the zombies outside the door.

Sean gripped his knife and took a few deep breaths. One way or another, he was dying in this room tonight.

Wes practically slammed the enter key when he finished that line and fell back in his chair. He took a deep breath and let it out, and then rubbed his eyes for a few moments before saving the document. He had been writing that sequence for days, and when he finally got his teeth in it, he blasted the whole thing out in a couple of hours. He did a quick check of the word count – a hair under seven thousand, which wasn’t bad at all. Great, actually, considering the story had been coming in drips and drabs for the last few weeks, barely shuffling along any faster than the zombies that were supposed to be the driving force.

“Why did I choose zombies?” he asked himself as he saved the file again and set it to print. This book had been sitting on his hard drive for ages, taunting him. He’d have an inspiration, spend a weekend pounding out the pages, and then it would all go away again, and he had no idea why. He liked his characters – even the ones he’d killed in gruesome ways. And Sean Danfield was a good character. You can’t go wrong with a Navy SEAL in this kind of story, and what with the abandonment by his father when he was a kid, Wes figured he could have the poor guy searching for some kind of psychological closure all the way up to the end of act three.

It was just getting him to act three that was the problem. “How the hell am I going to get you out of there?” he muttered.

“Wait just one goddamn minute,” a voice said. A man stepped out of his hallway, bloody and exhausted. He probably would have been handsome in a normal setting, if he wasn’t covered in gore and looking like he was about to snap and kill someone. And holding a giant knife. He had glossy black hair and deep brown eyes that Wes knew drove the women nuts. Or at least, they had done in the first chapter, before the zombies showed up. He strode towards the desk, the knife clutched in his hand. “What the hell do you mean you don’t know how to get me out of there?”

“Now isn’t a good time, Sean,” Wes said.

“The hell it isn’t!” He slammed the knife, point-first, into Wes’ desk and the wood nearly split.

Wes looked up at him. “Please, Sean. This is IKEA. It can barely withstand the tremendous pressure of just being a desk.” He put on what he thought was a kindly smile. “Don’t worry, Sean. I’ll find a way out of there for you.”

The big man was trembling as he stood there, and then he walked to Wes’ big overstuffed chair and slumped into it, his head in his hands. He didn’t cry – Wes was absolutely sure that Sean Danfield didn’t cry – but he was as close as he’d get to it. His voice was thick and quiet. “When?” he asked. “When are you getting me out of there?”

Wes levered himself up. “I don’t know, Sean. Eventually.”

“Eventually?” Sean looked up and his eyes were rimmed with red. “No no no no.” He stood up and rand his fingers through his short-cropped hair. “I can’t do eventually. Not like the time you left me in that police station for – what was it, six months?”

“A year,” Wes said. He almost felt ashamed.

“A year,” Sean whispered. “Jesus.”

Wes watched him for a moment, and then went into the kitchen to make coffee. It usually did a good job of calming Sean down. The first time Sean had shown up in his living room, Wes was terrified. That would, of course, be the only rational reaction to having a complete stranger, armed to the teeth and scared out of his wits, show up out of nowhere in your apartment in the middle of the afternoon. But once it became apparent what was going on, the relationship between the two men turned… different. Sean was well aware of the fact that Wes technically controlled his destiny, but Wes was equally aware of the fact that he needed Sean if he was going to finish the book. And so an uneasy detente was formed. Sean agreed to spend as much time as possible in the story, or wherever it was that he spent his time, and Wes agreed to write the story to the best of his ability.

Would that it were that easy. Wes’ poor habits made it hard to keep Sean’s story moving, or even necessarily making sense. More than once he’d had to backtrack and start a section again, just so he could get Sean out of a bind that had no exit. And it looked like he might have to do that again now. The problem was that they further he got in the book, the harder it would be to unmake the plot without starting over.

He carried two cups of coffee out to the living room and set the black in front of Sean. The man had his head back, and was staring at the ceiling. Wes sat across from him and sipped in the silence.

“Did you know that Leah was going to die?” Sean asked. He bent forward and cradled the mug in his hands.

The silence lingered for a minute. “No,” Wes replied quietly. “Not until it happened.”

Sean put the mug down. “How could you not know?” He put his head in his hands. “How could you not know something like that?”

All Wes could do was shrug. “Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes the story surprises you. The characters surprise you.” He picked up his own cup. “I mean, it was something she would do, of course. Saving your life like that.”

“I didn’t want her to save my life,” Sean said. “Not if it meant losing her.”

There was really nothing to say to that, so Wes didn’t say anything. He just let his coffee cool on the table for a while. Sean sat, immobile, staring at the floor.

Finally, Wes stood up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get to work.” He held out a hand and waited for Sean to take it.

The other man didn’t move. Wes offered it again, but still Sean sat still. Finally the man said, “What if I don’t want to?”

Wes’ hand fell. “What?”

Sean took a deep breath. “What if I don’t want to go on like this?” He looked up, and his eyes were full of despair. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes,” he said. “Losing my friends? Running just a half-step ahead of certain death all the time? Watching the world I knew just…” He spread his fingers and stared at his empty hands. “Just fall apart?”

He shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes. Let them in.” He stood up and walked slowly over to the computer, caressing the screen. “Let them break down the door. The blockade I made isn’t that great, after all. They’ll get in eventually.” He tugged the knife from the desk. “Give me a moment to use this, and it’ll all be over. For both of us.”

He stared at the knife, turning it to catch the light, and Wes felt for the first time like he was in some real trouble. “Sean,” he said, carefully putting an arm around the man’s shoulders. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Sean whispered.

That was a tough question. Wes had an answer for it, of course, and any good writer would have had the same answer. He just didn’t think that Sean would believe him. He took a deep breath and let Sean go. “Because that’s not the kind of character you are, Sean Danfield. And you know it.”

Sean crumpled to his knees and – to Wes’ shock – started to weep quietly. The moment was terrible, but there was a part of his writer’s mind that was absorbing the whole thing, thrilled by the revelation that there was a place Sean could go that he hadn’t forced him to yet. That there was still another layer that could be stripped away. Wes could use that, and he felt like a monster even to acknowledge it. He got down beside his character and helped him stand up. “Come on,” Wes said. “Let’s get you out of there.”

He pulled over another chair, sat Sean down in it, and then settled down in front of the computer. He jiggled the mouse to turn off the screen saver and went back to where he had left off. “Okay,” he said. “You’re in the pumping station, the zombies are right outside. What do you do?” He looked over at Sean, who was still staring at the floor. “Come on,” he said. “Is this what they taught you in SEAL training? To give up?”

That got his attention. Sean looked up, and his face finally had some life in it. “No,” he said.

“Okay then!” Wes cracked his knuckles and waggled his fingers over the keyboard. “So. What do you do?”

Sean stood up and retrieved his coffee before answering. “It’s a pumping station, right?” He nodded. “Okay. So there’s probably, what… Maintenance tunnels or something?”

Wes grinned. “There are now,” he said, and started typing furiously. Sean sat down next to him and watched the words pour onto the page and offered ideas where he could. They worked that way long into the night.

When the chapter was finished, and Sean was safe – for the moment – Wes sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, the chair next to him was empty. The other coffee cup was cold. He stretched, saved the chapter and then shut down the computer. Four in the morning, another five thousand words.

“Nice work,” he said. “Thanks for your help.” His jaw cracked in a yawn and he plodded off to bed for a long sleep.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-five: Role Model

October 23, 2011 Leave a 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.

Our players this week both come from science fiction stories. Neil Tapscott was taken away by a mysterious robot on day 126 in Summoned, and young super-genius Kevin Truman from day 71, Genius. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with these two, but an idea blossomed in my head and I ran with it. Let’s hope it takes me somewhere good.

———————————–

A young Indian girl raised her hand and Neil pointed to her from the stage. She stood up, looking remarkably calm for someone who was going to have to ask a question while surrounded by her fellow middle schoolers, and asked, “Is working for a technology company a way to make the future better for everyone?”

Neil blinked. He’d agreed to do this career day thing for his sister, who was teaching at the school, and thought it would just be a matter of telling them to study hard and not do drugs. He came as an “Information Control Specialist” at Acton Informatics, which was a fancy way to say that he was a data entry clerk. He got reams of numbers from the tech and R&D guys every morning and spent his day making sure they got put into the right databases. He supposed that technically his job was essential to the proper operation of the company, but that was only because no one had bothered to teach the tech and R&D guys how to do it themselves.

He cleared his throat, which seemed to echo around the gymnasium. “Well,” he said, “there are many ways that you can make the future better, and not all of them can be done at a company like Acton.” He put his hands in his pockets and tried to think. You could probably make the future better by working at Acton, but not for everyone. Stockholders, maybe.

“Working with technology means working with tools,” he said. “And a tool can be used to do good or bad things, right? I mean, I can take a hammer and use it to build a house, or I can use that hammer to crack someone’s skull.” The kids laughed, and he glimpsed his sister in the wings doing a tiny, frantic wave to get his attention. The look on her face was horrified, probably because she was standing next to the principal, who clearly didn’t find joking about murder to be very funny.

“My point is,” Neil went on, focusing on the girl who asked the question, “you’re not going to make a better world with technology. You can only do that with people. You find good people, you get a good future. The technology just makes it a little easier to do.”

His sister walked in from the wings, applauding frantically. “Wasn’t that great?” she asked the kids, who applauded with at least some measure of enthusiasm. “I want to thank Neil for coming to our school, and I hope you all got something you can take away from what you heard.” She clapped again, and a few scattered kids followed suit. She gestured offstage, and Neil walked away, giving a wave to the crowd that no one really noticed. His sister followed him a few moments later and whispered furiously, “What the hell was that hammer joke?”

“Relax, Marie. It was funny. The kids liked it.”

Her eyes went wide. “Jesus, Neil, you’re in a school! Last April a kid was suspended for drawing a picture of a gun.” She slapped his shoulder. “A picture! These are not rational people, Neil.”

He held his hands up in submission. “All right, all right, I’m sorry. If anyone gives you grief, tell them to talk to me and I’ll make sure they know how completely appalled you were.” He held out a hand. “Deal?”

Marie glared at it for a moment before shaking it. “Deal. Fine. But if I get fired,” she said, “I’m crashing on your couch.”

“Feel free,” he said. “Maybe it’ll get the cat out of my bed for a night.”

She let out a short laugh, and the tension of the moment was gone. “Ah, Nickel. You really have to stand up to your cat one of these days.”

Neil shrugged. “What can I do? I stopped being the boss ages ago.” He reached out and gave his sister a hug. “Good to see you again, Marie,” he said.

“You too,” she said. “Thanks for coming out here on short notice.”

“And get my baby sister out of a jam? Not a problem.”

“Good.”

“So now you owe me.”

Marie grimaced. “Bank it,” she said.

“With interest? Gladly!” He laugh and hugged her again. “I’ll catch you later. I have to get back to work and tell my masters that I put a good face on for the company.” Neil gave a quick wave as he pushed open the backstage doors and tried to remember how he was supposed to get back to his car. There was probably a reason why they built schools like mazes, but damned if he knew why. As he walked, some of the students waved and said “Thanks, Mister Talcott!” Which, he figured, was close enough.

He took a few wrong turns, nearly ended up in the art room, and was just about ready to stop and ask for directions when one of the students called out to him from behind. “Mister Tapscott!” Surprised at hearing his name pronounced correctly, he turned around. A boy was running towards him with a folder full of papers in his hands and he had that look of frantic desperation that all kids get when they think they might miss a big chance. Neil had no idea what the kid might have thought he was missing, but he stopped anyway.

“Mister Tapscott,” the kid said, breathing heavily as he skidded to a stop.

“Slow down, kid,” Neil said. “Take a breath. Or two.”

The kid did, and looked up at Neil. “Mister Tapscott.” He handed out the folder full of papers. “Can you look at these for me?”

Neil took them without thinking, and instantly regretted it when the boy’s eyes lit up. “What are they?” he asked.

“Designs,” the boy said. “I have these ideas for some new machines, and I thought that you might know what to do with them. Since you work for Acton.”

Neil opened the folder and started leafing through the pages. They were packed with dense writing and precisely-drawn diagrams of devices that Neil had never seen before. They had been done with the kind of care that he usually didn’t even see at Acton, and never expected from a thirteen year-old boy.

He turned another page. “What is all this stuff?” Neil checked the name in the corner of each page: Kevin Truman. Not a name he was familiar with, but he made a note to email his sister about him.

“My designs,” the boy said. “I want to be an inventor someday and make the world a better place.”

“Uh-huh,” Neil said, turning one of the diagrams around to see if he could figure out what it was. He couldn’t

Kevin reached out and turned the diagram again. “That one is an artificial arm I thought of. It hooks up to the nervous system and allows the user to control it like it was his own.” He pulled the folder out of Neil’s hands and flipped through the pages. “This one is a design for a bridge that converts vibrations into electrical energy, and…” He found another. “This is for growing crops vertically, so we don’t have to use as much land.” He handed the folder back and looked up at Neil expectantly. “What do you think?” he asked.

Neil wasn’t sure what to tell him. The boy had that hope in his eyes that Neil remembered from when he was that age. It was the hope that he had done something not just right, but uniquely right. It was the belief that he had finally found someone willing to listen to him. And not just anyone, but an adult. An adult who could get things done!

Except that Neil wasn’t the kind of adult who could get things done. He closed the folder and handed it back to Kevin. “Listen, Kevin,” he said. “I’m not the guy you want to be bringing these to.” Kevin’s expression grew puzzled. “I can’t help you, Kevin,” he said. A moment of honesty overtook him. “In fact, if I were you, I’d keep all those ideas as far as I could from a place like Acton Informatics.”

Kevin looked like he didn’t understand, which seemed to be a rare enough feeling that it was uncomfortable on him. “Why?” he asked. “They’re good ideas, right?”

“Sure,” Neil said, even though he had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth. “But I’m just a data entry guy, Kev. I put numbers into a computer every day, then I wake up the next day and do it again.” He shrugged. “Even if I knew how to make these ideas real, I wouldn’t be able to make it happen.” He bent down a bit so he could be more on the boy’s level, and lowered his voice. “And honestly, the ones who could? They’d probably do it, take all the credit, and leave you with nothing.” He patted Kevin on the shoulder. “I’ve seen it happen, and believe me, it’s not pretty.”

Kevin eyed him with a careful gaze. “So what do I do?” he asked when Neil stood up. “Just forget about them?”

Neil shook his head. “No, no. God, no. Keep working on them. Keep making them better, maybe doing what you can on your own. Just make sure to keep looking for the right person to make them real.” He smiled, more at himself than the situation. He didn’t think he’d be able to bring this conversation around full circle. “It’s all about the people, remember?”

The boy nodded and clutched the designs to his chest. “Thanks,” he said, the ghost of a smile playing across his face. “Thanks a lot, Mister Tapscott.”

“No problem, kid.” He watched Kevin run off again with the same burst of energy he’d used when he arrived, and only a moment later realized that he’d forgotten to ask him how to get to the parking lot. Ah well, he thought. At least I made somebody’s day a little better. Maybe the rest of the day will go as well.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-four: Fitting

October 22, 2011 Leave a comment

“Stand up straight.”

“I am standing up stra – OW!”

“Sorry. These pins get feisty sometimes.”

The tailor’s fitting room was brightly-lit by warm lamps that stood on tall brass stands, five of which were placed around a raised platform. Gilbert Mongomery was working on a pair of pants for his brother’s teenage son, Forrest. Every time the boy came in, he was a pain in the ass to fit. He’d fidget or he’d slouch, and he’d complain a blue streak. But he was his nephew, and without his brother’s help, Gilbert probably wouldn’t have even been able to keep the shop open as long as he’d had. So he put up with it.

“So what are you wearing these to?” he asked around the pins in his mouth. “Should be something nice.”

Forrest shrugged. “Some stupid dinner my dad’s having. He says we all have to be there and be a family.” He snorted. “At least for the cameras, anyway.”

Gilbert nodded. He knew all about Roland’s marital problems. At least one affair on both sides, some serious debts that needed to be paid to serious people, and arguments that had started on the day they met and had smoldered ever since then. They’d had three kids, hoping that each one would be the one that magically made their problems go away. What the kids did, however, was give them someone else to be angry about. As the youngest, Forrest was the recipient of their regret and disdain more often than not. At least until one of them thought they could buy their way into being a good parent. Thus, the party. There would be rich and famous guests of honor, a lavish dinner and entertainment and an open bar, and there would be press everywhere if Roland Montgomery had to pay each and every one of them.

It would be tempting to overcharge his brother for the suit, but he could never live with himself if he did. He figeted with the pants a bit and found himself asking, “What did my brother do this time?”

The boy looked down at him in surprise. “What?”

Gilbert shrugged to cover his own surprise. He had known his brother a long time, and known who he was and what he was. He didn’t like it, but there was no changing Roland. You could either live with him or ignore him, and as much as possible Gilbert had done the latter. If he had any problem with his brother, he’d take it right to him. Using the children had always felt unfair, but here he was, the words coming out of his mouth before he could take them back.

“What, you want me to pretend my brother is a paragon of virtue?” He stuck another pin into the waistband, making sure not to stick the boy this time, and tried to figure out what his own intentions were. “Okay,” he said. “How about this: you must be feeling so fortunate to be able to spend a lovely dinner with the man who makes your life possible.” He stood up and took the pins out of his mouth. “You miserable, disrespectful child.” He gestured to the pants. “Trousers off.”

Forrest gaped for a moment, and then started to unto the clasp. “Um, no,” he said. “You’re right.” He slid his trousers off and handed them to Gilbert. “He, um… He took a week-long trip to Thailand with one of his banker friends. Didn’t tell anyone he was going.” He looked decidedly uncomfortable as he talked. Whether is was being pantsless or trying to imagine what his father had been doing in Thailand, Gilbert didn’t want to imagine. “He came back and tried to act like nothing happened. The party is his way of making it up to mom.”

“That’s a shame,” Gilbert said. He inspected the trousers to see if he’d missed anything. “But not really surprising.”

The trousers looked fine. He folded them up and clipped them to a hanger. Then he took the boy’s jeans from where he’d dropped them. “Look, Forrest,” he said, turning to face him. “Normally I wouldn’t get involved.” He shook the jeans out and folded them as carefully as he had the trousers, and tried not to notice how Forrest was staring at them. “Your father has spent his life surrounded by people who think he’s the hottest thing ever, and for me to try and prove that he’s a selfish idiot would be a lot of work just to get me torn apart by his hangers-on.”

He handed the jeans to Forrest, who put them on quickly. Gilbert watched him get dressed. “How old are you now, Forrest?” he asked.

“Seventeen.”

Gilbert nodded. “Good.” He took a couple of steps up onto the fitting platform and pulled the measuring tape from around his shoulders. “Here’s a little advice from your uncle: there are a lot better role models out there than your father.” He started to roll up the tape. “He’s got money, yeah. He’s got a nice house and can afford to jaunt off to Thailand for… whatever it is he does there. But trust me, Forrest.” He reached out and tipped up the boy’s chin so that he could look him in the eyes. “I’ve known your dad for a long time. He’s not the man you want to be.”

Forrest took a big step back and nearly fell down the steps. “What the hell,” he yelled. His face had gone from confusion to anger in mere moments. “What the hell, uncle Gil?” He regained his footing and squared his shoulders. “You can’t say that kind of stuff about my dad!”

“Forrest, I just thought -”

“Yeah, you thought.” Forrest grabbed his jacket off the hook where he’d hung it. “I happen to know that my dad put up the money for this shop, so you owe him.” He sneered and tugged a knit cap out of the jacket. “Not surprised you don’t like him. You don’t like owing him, that’s all.”

“No, Forrest, that’s not it.”

“Really?” He yanked the cap down over his head and stormed out of the fitting room into the shop proper. Gilbert followed him out. “I don’t have to take advice from you,” Forrest yelled. “Not from some faggot tailor who couldn’t even get his own shit together to open a stupid shop.” Without looking back, Forrest stormed out the door, slamming it as he went. The little bells seemed to go on too long.

Gilbert stood in the doorway to the back room and felt deflated. He was right. No matter what the kid thought, he was right. And sooner or later, Forrest would realize it. Gilbert just hoped it would be sooner rather than later. He sighed and sat down behind his counter and put his head in his hands.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-three: The Factory Floor

October 21, 2011 4 comments

Another small crystal sphere was lifted up by an air current and deposited gently onto Belesse’s workstation. She took it and, with swift and practiced motions, began to assemble a dream within it.

She had the rhythm down, made into a ritual she’d performed six days a week for nearly three years. Twist the sphere to iris open the top and reach up for one of the dozens of nozzles hanging overhead. Check the work order, and then start mixing. A touch of self-doubt and existential terror, an old love and memories of childhood infused with a delicate mixture of old television commercials and abandonment issues. Twist the sphere to close it, give it a good shake, and send it on down the line for packing and distribution. Another arrives, and do the same again. And again.

There had been a time, she was told, when dreams were individually crafted for people. When each and every dream bore the fine attention of a master dreamcrafter – or at least a skilled apprentice or two. But the world got bigger, the dreams got more complicated, and sooner or later everything falls to mass production. The little old men who knew how to put together intricately built nightmares and illusions were now forced out. Put in management positions if they were lucky. In their place were the ones like Belesse, who needed the money and didn’t mind the monotonous work. The pay was good enough, and it wasn’t like she had anything else she could do.

She passed a dream off onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a fresh sphere with her left. She looked at the work order and grimaced. It called for Wet Dream 33-G, a delicate mixture that she rarely saw on her workflow and was never sure if she got right. She reached under her workstation and pulled out the manual, a dusty three-ring binder that she almost never consulted these days. The pages were brittle and yellow, and still covered with notes that she’d made back when she was new on the job. Some tips that she’d gotten from other girls, a few notes on substitutions and her early experiments, which had nearly gotten her fired. The floor chief had dragged her off to the manager’s office, and she was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to deviate from the prescribed formulae.

Page eighty-two had it. She ran her finger down the list and nodded. Pretty conventional ingredients, actually, with just a few twists to it. Adolescent gender uncertainty, patriarchal culture paradigms, a composite of popular teen boy bands, and all topped off with run-of-the-mill lustiness. She grabbed hoses and started filling the sphere, smiling grimly at the symbolism of the whole thing as she did it.

She squeezed the handle for the objectification of teen male sexuality and nothing came out. She squeezed it again, and once more, and let the hose go. “Figures,” she muttered. She opened the manual and started looking for substitutions, which is when she smelled the floor boss behind her.

The workers suspected that Rachok knew how despised he was, and that somewhere in what passed for his heart he had a subconscious desire to give them a chance to avoid drawing his attention. It may have been true, or it may not have, but there was no other reason they could think of for the thick cloud of foul-smelling cologne that seemed to precede and follow him as he went on his rounds. His mission was simple: to look for workers who weren’t working fast enough and to goad them with the threat of yelling, verbal abuse and eventual firing. This time, Belesse had been too absorbed in the recipe to notice until it was too late.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” he grumbled, and she stood up straight as she spun to face him. He was an ugly, ugly man – broad and oily with a permanent scowl and eyes that never seemed to rest on anything. The cologne was really the best part of him. “Do you think we pay you to stand around and read, woman?” She opened her mouth, but he didn’t let the words get out. “Oh, or did you think that the job wasn’t important enough for your full godsdamned attention? Did you think you could just slack off whenever you got bored with doing the job we pay you for?”

“No – no sir,” she stammered. “I was just -”

“I don’t give two farts in a high wind what you were just,” he roared. He picked up the sphere she’d been working on and shook it under her nose. “You see this, you empty-headed girl? It’s wasted now!” He threw it to the ground. The sphere shattered and the dream sublimated into a fine mist. Belesse felt a warmth in her belly and she blushed hard. Rachok reached past her and grabbed another. “Here,” he said, forcing it into her hands. “Do it again, and for once do it right. No more delays.”

“But I -”

“No buts!” He leaned in, and she was vividly aware that he’d had curry for lunch. Or perhaps dinner the day before. “I have had it up to here with you people and your excuses and your gripes and your complaints! Nothing’s ever good enough for you, is it?” He smiled, and it was like an uneven army of yellow bricks had been shoved into his mouth. “Well, there are a hundred girls out there who would be happy to work for less than we’re paying you right now, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any reason why I shouldn’t go and haul one of those half-wits over right now to take your place.” He poked her in the shoulder with a thick-nailed finger. “Get working,” he growled, “or get walking!”

He stood there, his flat, pock-marked nose nearly touching hers, until she gave a short, meek nod. The show of submission that he was waiting for. Rachok grunted and went back on his rounds, but he glanced back at her several times before he turned the corner.

Belesse wiped her eyes before they could actually start welling up, and told herself it was just the fumes. She sniffed as she re-made the recipe and thought about all the things she wished she could have said. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had, though. In Rachok’s universe, people like her didn’t stand up to people like him. The cognitive dissonance probably would have gotten them both killed. More’s the pity.

When she got to the missing ingredient she paused again, staring up at the tangle of hoses. They reminded her suddenly of the trees she used to play under when she was a child. The trees were always heavy with vines, and she and her sisters would race to see who could climb the highest.

“Hell with it,” she said to herself, and she grabbed a hose at random to fill the sphere. When it was done, she released the hose in shock and covered her mouth to stifle the giggle. The sphere glimmered under the ugly fluorescent lights, and she wondered what poor boy was going to have an erotic dream about trans-Euclidean geometry tonight. She rolled the sphere onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a new one with her left. She still wanted to laugh out loud, but nothing would have gotten Rachok thundering over there faster than the sound of someone actually enjoying her job. Still, it seemed that there was still some fun to be had.

The work orders came in one after the other, and she filled them diligently. All with one added ingredient, of course, and even she didn’t know what it was going to be until she did it. Someone would be dreaming about murderous clowns who debated tax policy as they chased them in slow motion; another would have a dream about his mother, but it’s not his mother, but actually it is and she’s really a small nation of ants masquerading as Hillary Clinton; and some little girl would find herself dreaming that she was a Disney princess, forced to defend her marzipan castle against the onslaught of zombies that would have her brains for breakfast.

Would it get her fired? Probably. She squirted a bit of overt racism into a dream about kittens and rolled the sphere along. But as ways to go went, this was a pretty good one.

She picked up another sphere, closed her eyes and reached up with a small, forbidden smile on her face. Tonight was going to be fun for everyone.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-two: My Summer Vacation

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

The elves were singing so loud that Treva had to turn up her iPod and pick something metal to listen to. She sat in the shade of a great tree that was thousands of years old, whose branches blocked a sky that was the blue of old sapphires, and she tapped out a text message on her phone. She wouldn’t be able to send it, of course – there was never any reception in this place, but it was the only thing that made her feel even close to normal. She was lucky the thing even worked. The year before she’d just brought a bunch of books and sat under the tree by the stream and read until the pixies left her alone.

That reminded her – she reached back into the hood of her sweatshirt and fished around until she found the one that had decided to huddle in there. She assumed it was yelling something at her – the thing was waving its little arms and its wings were buzzing, but she couldn’t hear a damn thing. Which was the whole point, really. She flung the pixie off into the bushes and went back to her phone. The tree sighed behind her – she could feel its trunk expand slowly, and she was pretty sure it was trying to say something to her in its low, wooden voice. Probably something about respecting all living things, the importance of kindness and compassion and blah blah blah. If there was any kindness and compassion in the world, she wouldn’t have to spend her summers being packed up and dragged to Fairie just so she could meet her mother’s relatives.

When she was a kid it was great. What kid wouldn’t love fairyland? There were hills to climb and strange little creatures everywhere that could do magic just to entertain her. Hell, she even got to ride a unicorn for a few years, although it had led to a really interesting conversation with her father when she turned fifteen last year and all of a sudden that damn unicorn didn’t want a thing to do with her anymore. She wanted to blame Tony Dinkens for that, but it had been just as much her as him. And when it came right down to it, a unicorn was fine when you were a kid, but sex was for a lifetime.

After a while, it all got old. You could only go to the Magic Grove so many times before you’ve heard all the songs those trees are ever going to sing. You can only play so many riddle games before they start repeating themselves, and you can only go so far into the deep, dark woods before your mother’s henchmen decide that you really shouldn’t be out on your own and drag you back.

Her iPod sputtered, skipped and died, and the intricately woven, multi-part harmonies of the elves flooded into her ears again. “Crap,” Treva said. She snapped her phone shut. It would probably be the next to go, and she really didn’t think she could handle that right now. She stood up and brushed blades of perfectly green grass off her jeans, put up her hood and walked back out into the brilliant sunshine.

The estate was gorgeous, and by now Treva was completely bored with every inch of it. The stables, the fractal hedge maze, the pond where frogs jumped out and granted minor wishes if you kissed them. She felt like she’d done it all, and if her parents announced that they were leaving today and never coming back, she couldn’t be happier.

Speak of the devil. Her father was walking towards her across the sheep field, his hands in his pockets and his eyeglasses glinting in the sun. She couldn’t stand the way he looked. He couldn’t just look like a normal dad – overweight, tired from working a job that he hated, wanting nothing more than to sit down, drink a beer and watch TV. He had to be “interesting.” He wrote for literary journals, sometimes spending days holed up in that giant library of his to research whatever dead white person he had decided was important that week. He had graying temples and steel-rimmed eyeglasses and always looked like he had a secret that he was just dying to tell you. Treva sighed and looked down at the grass while she walked. He wouldn’t pass her by, but at least maybe she could convince him that she wasn’t up for another one of his “Isn’t-it-great-to-be-here” chats.

“Treva!” he called. She took a few steps and then looked up like she was surprised to see him. He seemed unsettled, though she wasn’t sure how she could tell, and he was holding something in his arms. It looked like a big blue egg, covered in sparkling gems. It glimmered faintly in the sunshine, and she could smell hot metal wafting from it on the wind.

She stopped, and, with great visible effort, popped the earbuds from her ears. “Dad,” she said, managing to pack an entire vacation’s worth of boredom into one word. “Another dragon’s egg?” She rolled her eyes. “Not like we can actually raise them at home or anything. They just sit there on the coffee table taking up space.” She rolled her eyes. “Lame.” She started walking again, but he stepped in front of her.

“You’re right, Treva.” He held out the egg, but she wouldn’t take it. “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose, and she was slightly unnerved by the expression on his face. “Treva, I’m afraid…” He took a deep breath. “Treva, we can’t go home.”

She stood and stared at him from under her hood. The elves’ song was repeating, and it was really starting to get on her nerves. Her father kept shifting the egg from hand to hand and blinking a lot, and it seemed like forever before she managed to say, “What?”

He chewed his lip and tried to put an arm around her, but she shrugged it off. “What the hell do you mean we can’t go home?” she yelled. The singing stopped abruptly. “We have to go home! Dad, all my friends are at home!” He flung her arms out, encompassing all of fairyland. “Dad, I hate this place, we can’t stay!”

He stood up to her yelling with his usual stoicism. She had become very good at getting her points across at high volume, and while it used to completely disarm him at first, he had become skilled at waiting until she was done and then continuing on as if nothing had happened. When the echoes died away, he reached out for her again, but again, she shrunk back. “Treva,” he finally said, “please understand that this is a very… complicated situation.”

“The hell it is,” she yelled. “How complicated can it be? We do it every summer! Pack our things, get in the minivan and go home!” She mimed the actions as she spoke. “It’s perfectly easy!”

He sighed, and then gently placed the dragon’s egg on the ground. “Treva,” he said, “I can’t think of a good way to say this, so I’m just going to spit it out.”

“Oh, this should be good,” she said. She crossed her arms and turned away from him.

“At sunset tomorrow,” her father said, “you are going to be married to Sundadar, Lord of the Dusk Hour, as the fulfillment of the bargain that was made when your mother and I married.” He stood back, hands on his hips, and waited for the explosion.

It didn’t come. Treva didn’t look at him. She didn’t say anything. Gently, carefully, she put the earbuds back in her ears one at a time and thumbed her iPod on. It didn’t work, but it didn’t matter. She shoved her hands in the front pocket of her hoodie and walked at a steady pace back towards the main manor house.

Her father watched her go and sighed. He picked up the egg and patted it gently. “It’s going to be harder than we thought,” he murmured, and started off to follow his daughter.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-one: Masks Off

October 19, 2011 5 comments

The idea for tonight’s writing comes from one of the writing prompts offered up by John Scalzi in his most recent column over at Filmcritic.com – go on over and try your hand at it!

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“Bruce!”

Bruce Wayne turned around and scanned the crowd for a voice he was afraid he knew. The main banquet hall of the Gotham Imperial Hotel was full of the richest men and women in the country, all there for a charity auction of antiquities that had been out of the public eye for decades, if not centuries. The fact that they had been, until a few months ago, almost entirely in the possession of the Penguin was known to only a few people in the room. With Cobblepot’s timely arrest and conviction, it was decided that the objects he coveted should be put to good use, something that enraged Cobblepot to no end.

The charity had hoped to raise several hundred thousand dollars, but Wayne had done his best to see to it that they broke well over several million. Rich people were not naturally sentimental, but Bruce Wayne had a gift for getting people to do what he wanted.

He looked through the sea of tuxedos and silks, and for a moment he nearly let his pleasant socialite mask slip into the habitual grimace he was so comfortable with. He turned to the lovely young lady on his arm and said, “Would you excuse me for a minute, Adriana?”

She smiled, and said, “Of course. You captains of industry must have important things to talk about.” Her accent was beautiful – his ear-link to the cave computer had allowed him to place her from a small village just south of the Polish border. She traced his jawline with an impeccably manicured fingernail. “I will see you later, yes?”

Bruce took her hand and kissed it. “Absolutely,” he said. She blushed and turned before he could say anything about it.

“You know, I thought I was good with the ladies, Bruce, but you certainly put up quite the fight yourself.” Bruce turned and found himself looking directly into the eyes of Tony Stark. Stark had that annoying perpetual half-smile under his thin goatee that just made Bruce’s fists itch. It had nothing to do with the attempted takeover of Wayne Robotics last year, of course. Or the way he’d managed to undercut Wayne Industries in a government-sponsored hydroelectric project. No, nothing like that at all.

“Stark,” Bruce said

“Oh, come on, Bruce!” Tony clapped him on the shoulder. “Lighten up!” He deftly took a glass of champagne from one of the waiters that was working the room. He drained half of it in one swallow, and Bruce hated him just that much more. “Sure you lost, Bruce, but think about it this way – I’m out half a million, and I won’t get that back for -” He checked his watch. “Another twenty minutes, at the very least.” He grinned insolently and finished the champagne. He dropped it off with another traveling waiter and then adjusted his cufflinks. “And now I have a new conversation piece.”

“What I wonder, Tony, is what exactly you needed with a fifteenth-century Chinese sword?”

“What did you need with it?”

Bruce’s glare should have burned right through him. Stark just shrugged. “Open mail. Slice ham.” He struck a pose. “Pretend I’m a ninja.” Bruce rolled his eyes and Tony stood up straight. “I know, I know – Japan, not China. But that’s not the point.” He shrugged. “I liked it. I wanted it. I got it.”

Bruce glanced at his watch to make sure the data feed from his earpiece was working. The hour hand had turned red, meaning that the wireless signal was blocked. Bruce grimaced.

Tony laughed, his hands in his pockets. “Wow, you really don’t like to lose, do you?”

“No,” Bruce said, glancing up. “I really don’t.”

They started at each other for a moment, and Tony Stark’s grin just seemed to grow more insolent by the moment. The first thing Bruce had done when the new billionaire on the block moved in was to find out everything he could about him, and very little of what he found made him like the man. Stark Industries had grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, mainly on the strength of Stark’s designs. Despite what looked like a serious problem with alcohol, the man was a genius, there was no denying that. But Bruce Wayne had seen genius many times before, and it rarely turned out well for anyone.

“Listen, Tony.” Bruce checked his watch again. Still red. “I’d love to stay and banter with you. I really would. But I have to go.” He forced a smile. “I have a lady waiting.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Tony said. “I wouldn’t dream of keeping you from a lady like that. However,” he said, taking a step closer. “If you want a closer look at that sword, it can certainly be arranged.” Bruce started to object, but Tony held up a hand. “You know there are quite a few people in Gotham besides us who would love to have it. And who would be far less willing to pay a fair price for it.” He raised an eyebrow.

Bruce wasn’t sure if he was hearing what he thought he was hearing. If anything, Stark looked excited by the idea that someone in the Gotham underworld would try to steal the sword, which raised all kinds of alarm bells in Bruce’s mind. Perhaps he was planning an insurance scam? But then why even hint about it? The man was about as far from stupid as it was possible to be, but this was pretty dumb. “Stark,” he said. “I don’t want anything -”

“Listen carefully, Bruce,” Stark said. The joking tone was gone from his voice, which sent Bruce’s mind off in all kinds of different directions. “I’ll be putting this on display in my Gotham headquarters, and I’ll get the word out that security is pretty lax.” He glanced around. “I reckon someone will come after it pretty quickly.”

Bruce snorted. “For a sword?” He shook his head in disbelief. Maybe Stark wasn’t as smart as he thought. “If you want petty criminals digging through your lobby, have fun with that. I don’t see how I need to be involved.” He nodded politely and turned to go.

“How about the Joker?” Stark said quietly. Bruce stopped and looked over his shoulder. Stark made a small gesture to come back over, and then went on in a low voice. “The Penguin murdered one of the Joker’s men to get the sword. The clown had wanted it for himself, and was very unhappy when it got swiped from him.” He glanced around again. “I put that out on display, and it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll come. Him, or someone who can be traced to him.” He looked Bruce in the eyes. The flippancy was gone, replaced with deadly earnestness.

“And what,” Bruce said slowly, “do you think this has to do with me?” He kept his face relaxed, concentrating on the muscles around his eyes and his nose to not give anything away. If Stark was suggesting what he thought he was suggesting…

Stark burst out in a laugh that startled everyone around them. “Oh, you’re good, Bruce. You really are.” He clapped him on the shoulder again. “You enjoy the rest of the party, okay?” He put out his hand and Bruce took it. “But give some thought to my idea, okay?” Tony squeezed Bruce’s hand, just hard enough. “I’ll keep the skylight open for you.”

Bruce just watched as Tony Stark walked away, wrapping his arm around the waist of a beautiful auburn-haired beauty that he probably hadn’t met until that moment. Bruce glanced at his watch. The hands were green again. He tapped the earpiece. “Alfred,” he said. “Looks like we have a problem.”

“I would be surprised if we didn’t, sir,” Alfred said in his ear. “I’ll put on some extra tea.”

Bruce didn’t bother to put his social face back on, and left the hotel without goodbyes. There was something about Tony Stark that he had overlooked, and he would be damned if he didn’t figure it out by morning.

Bruce Wayne is owned by DC Comics.
Tony Stark is owned by Marvel Comics.