Monday, October 8, 2018

Unmasking the Bogeyman

Come children. Sit down by the warm glow of the campfire. Listen to it crackle, as the destructive force of nature we call flames licks away the bark of these formerly living tree branches.

Odd, isn't it? Flames. The symbol of Hell itself. Although to be fair, the Bible never actually describes Hell, so our understanding of the eternal fiery pit is a creation of our own collective imagination. But the point is, here we find ourselves in the wilderness huddled around flames because the thought of venturing off into the wilds of darkness is the more frightening prospect.

Say, that reminds me. Have you heard of the Bogeyman? Yes, it's a stupid name but he's not a figure to be taken lightly. Well, I suppose at his core he is, because in truth he's nothing more than a manipulation tactic by adults to force children into going to sleep or eating broccoli or any number of other bullshit rules that they know they don't have to follow.

But ignore reality for the time being.

First thing to understand, the Bogeyman is not the devil. The devil, as all cartoons know, is that red figure who sits on your shoulder and whispers selfish intentions into your ear. He wants you to break the rules. Whereas breaking the rules, or often 'rule', is the core of the Bogeyman's wrath. Now this does not place him on the side of the angels as some might conclude, as the whole 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' axiom is irrelevant when dealing with an amoral being. As such, he views himself as neither good nor evil, but as a self-appointed protector of one element that he believes is 'correct'.

One of the oldest and most oft told tales is "Overcoming the Monster". To paraphrase Brad Dourif, the monster is a figure who does not negotiate (unlike the devil). He is a combination of the worst in both humanity (a cold calculating intellect) and nature (animalistic ruthlessness). He exists by one rule: do not break the rule.

What rule is that? I just told you. The rule is, do not break the rule. How do you know if you've broken the rule? Simple, he fatally punishes you for it. Did I hear somebody mutter something about that not being fair? Well of course it's not fair! To you. It's perfectly fair to him. He has no need to bother explaining his motivation to you.

This is why adults have the power to lord threats of the Bogeyman over children. They've obviously lived long enough to at least know plenty of behavior that doesn't break the rule, giving them the advantage of expertise. So if they tell you to do your homework or the Bogeyman will get you, you don't have the background to challenge them.

Did you notice something I said just now? I'll say it a different way. Take out the trash or the Bogeyman will get you. Keep the noise down or the Bogeyman will get you. Grab your toe, yell like Tarzan, and place a Kleenex in the refrigerator or the Bogeyman will get you. Do x or y will happen.
Now I realize I'm introducing algebra to a bunch of children, but this is too fascinating to let slide.

Notice how x varies from case to case while y is consistent, and yet y is still the more ambiguous variable? No matter how insanely preposterous x gets, it's very specific, y  never is.

What does it mean to be 'gotten' by the Bogeyman? He gets you and...what? He ties you up? Stomps on your feet? Forces you to become a dietician? No specific horror is as unsettling as the undefined outcome of him getting you. Uncertainty is the nightmare. And it's this same reason why the Bogeyman's appearance is shrouded in so much mystery, often portrayed with a burlap sack over his head.

So now that we understand him a bit more, which portrayal of the character was the greatest? And when I say greatest, I mean most true to terrifying form yet somehow engaging in a psychological unsettling but charismatic way. Naturally I have the answer, but let me explain how I got to it by working backwards from the ones who fell short of perfection.


5. Michael Myers

Late seventies through the mid-eighties had a whole slew of masked juggernauts competing for the spot. Michael Myers wasn't the first, but he was the first breakout star, and thus the template for any prospective Bogeyman. Even his debut film identified him as such when Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis deliver the final exchange of the script. "Was that the Bogeyman?" "As a matter of fact, it was."

It's a question of heated opinion whether or not Michael was the greatest of the slasher baddies. He certainly can't compete with Jason for any tangible statistic like box office draw, kill count, or number of film installments. And Jason all but rendered Michael obsolete by perfecting the slasher movie formula and ultimately making the audiences root for him instead of his victims.

In order to get at Michael's significance, you pretty much have to ignore anything past his first appearance; H20 was fine enough if not all that memorable, the Rob Zombie movies were just too mean spirited, and Halloween II never sat right with me seeing as how an entire hospital staff got slaughtered just for showing up to work. So screw all that. Let's treat Michael as a one shot character.

We don't know why Michael does what he does, and any attempt to explain it seems to cheapen the appeal. He's a kid who puts on a mask and believes he's the Bogeyman. And thus he is. That's what's fascinating about him. He's like the wrong side of the Disney mantra where he just believes hard enough and his dream comes true. Unfortunately his dream is to be a serial killer.

So where does he fall short then? After that great setup there's really nowhere for him to go. There's no possibility of a character arc, you just have to let the night play out. Sure, the Bogeyman is a concept, but he has to be a bit more than that to really shine, and Michael just doesn't.

Jason has the staying power, as he managed to crack the fun factor of horror movies, and in my opinion Leatherface was a sorely more engaging character. So while I don't think Michael makes the best Bogeyman even in this batch, his first story might be the most brilliantly concise campfire tale told around the monster, striking that perfect balance of less being more. You could never get away with a slasher movie with such a low body count today, which makes it all the more special.


4. Pyramid Head

Let's try a different medium. The modern era of videogames has graced us with a creative blend of back story and presence in the survival horror genre. The best thing is, courtesy of reloading from a recent checkpoint your character's death and survival is all part of the same story. Fiona Belli can die gruesome impalements over and over throughout the course of Haunting Ground and still canonically live at the end. It's a loophole that films rarely get to abuse (check out the delightful Happy Death Day for a charming exception).

There have been so many stalker characters in recent video games that it's nearly impossible for any of them to really stand out. Yeah, Slender Man is frightening but we kind of got it after his first appearance. Freddy Fazbear is the stuff of nightmares but again, more backstory doesn't really accentuate anything past jump scares. We're not looking for which creep can sneak up on you the best, we're looking for someone who can intrigue you while scaring the hell out of you. For that we turn to Silent Hill.

Take the concept of the executioner; hooded, muscle-bound shirtless guy with a heavy blade. His an interesting figure throughout history because he's not inherently thought of as evil but merely the final step in the medieval judicial system. It's his job. If he's horrifying it's because the system is horrifying. But if we turn him into a monster he would be Pyramid Head.

If you have only a passing familiarity with the Silent Hill series, you might think Pyramid Head is the primary antagonist of the series. He's not. He's not even in most of the games. His importance is ultimately limited to Silent Hill 2, and even then he's not your antagonist so much as he's your sheepdog; keeping you on the grueling path to enlightenment.

He's similar to Michael in that he's not about to go running after you; he'll get you when he damn well feels like it (although in his case he's dragging a massive sword that might be slowing him down). But the difference is a question of humanity. Pyramid Head abandons all humanity which may have been within himself because he's at work. There's no ethics for him, there's a task. Michael on the other hand...well, what is humanity? I like to equate it with benevolence, in which case Michael consciously renounced his humanity. But what about sadism? That seems to be a uniquely human concept which serves as more of Michael's motivator than Pyramid Head's.

So that leaves us with an interesting variation on the Bogeyman. Old Heady still can't be reasoned with, or even defeated, but unlike Michael he can be cooperated with. If you can figure out what Head wants you to do and do it, he's cool with letting you go. If the Bogeyman were purely robotic, we'd have our winner. But no, the real terror has to come within us, which means we have to place corrupt humanity back into the death bringer.


3. Dracula

If I were you (the reader) I'd probably be inclined to skip this section purely on the grounds that Dracula is yesterday's cliché. Don't get me wrong, the guy's earned his place in film history. But post Hammer Horror era, he's probably outlasted his own dignity. Even the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film left me feeling like the whole concept was a very well lit, made-up, costumed, technically precise, yet none-the-less DEAD horse of achievement in cinematography. But I bring him up here because of how well we can get to know the Bogeyman by understanding what he's clearly not, as represented in Dracula.

First off, did you ever notice the whole throwaway plot line in both Dracula and his template stealing contemporary Nosferatu? There's a sequence of the character's boat passage where the crew starts disappearing. If you were to chop that one scene out of the story and blow it up to a full length feature, you'd have a perfectly rendered Bogeyman formula.

Ah! But you still wouldn't have the Bogeyman, and here's why. The ship's crew is just a ship's crew that happens to be in the wrong place. There's no greed, or ignoring of Crazy Ralph's warnings, they're just hired hands who become food. The Bogeyman requires his prey to be doing something, however slight in measurement, wrong. The punishment of execution for being nosy is excessive, but there are no truly innocent victims. Hence the final girl.

Now I want to take a brief moment to explore the uncomfortable relationship between horror and beauty. Poe was the master of killing female characters to evoke emotions in his readers. The Phantom of the Opera is the classic tale of the ugly monster coveting his object of purity by murdering anything that threatens to knock her off her pedestal. This is undoubtedly a factor in why the figure in darkness is so often a male, and the only one capable of defeating him is a young attractive female who doesn't smoke, drink, swear, and gives generously to Unicef.

When you trace Drac's origins to history's most accomplished brute Vlad the Impaler, it's interesting how that thirst for blood has been revised. Vlad was a ruthless monster with a personality pretty close to the typical Bogeyman, while Dracula is a much more seductive devil. Drac may be King of Universal's monster lineup, but he has standards that Michael and Jason do not.

It may seem like I'm changing subjects, but just sit tight. Are you familiar with Vlad's female equivalent in history, Elizabeth Bathory? She's inspired her own vampire mythos, although strangely it hasn't caught on like the Bela Lugosi films did. Truthfully we don't really know if Bathory was the cruel presence she's made out to be, as her history was recorded by people who detested her. But the main thing that stands out about her legend is her M.O. of bathing in the blood of virgins to preserve her own beauty, an idea that you really can't imagine folk tellers assigning to a male character. Again, that opens up a whole other discussion, but for now let's set that to the side because we're going to need it in a minute.


2. Jack the Ripper

The grandfather of both the serial killer and the unsolved mystery. We all know what he did, even if we'll never know who he was or why. What's interesting about Jack, it's the perfect way to put a face on the Bogeyman without actually putting a face on him; both humanizing the monster and monsterizing the human.

The more we delve into the current climate of sexual assault survivors, an unfortunate truth is revealed. We never question why a man assaults a woman. Topics like what she was wearing, or to what degree she stressed her objection are often raised. But when it comes to the actions of the male, cases seem to either fall into the straight up denial that he did anything, or if he did then boys will be boys. We kind of skip a vital step in the process.

Is it because we've grown accustomed to the notion that all men have within them a floodgate separating their Mr. Hyde from their more amiable public Dr. Jekyll? We men certainly have our own gender based problems, but I've never had to worry about a strange woman following me to my car at night. Throughout my life I've never once thought that saying no to a female's advances would provoke a violent reaction. On the flip side, I have my own story or two involving a male coworker from a previous job who couldn't accept 'no' or the multiple variations thereof as reality. And that is a frightening spotlight to be in.

But my Halloween blogs are supposed to be about the joy of darkness, so let me try to steer us back on the main road. What we can regrettably accept is that probably the reason Jack the Ripper's identity was never discovered was because it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that any man could have been him. Could he have been a woman? Sure. But as we don't tend to think of women as having that same internal floodgate to darkness we can't explore the option without a prospective motivation for her.

Like Dracula, Jack has a historical female counterpart in Lizzie Borden. But her mystery isn't in who she was, it's in why. You'd think we would have explored her in more depth throughout film history. Did you know she was the subject of a major movie released last month? No? Not surprised, nobody went to see it. I don't think anyone even knew about it. Do you think we're just prone to romanticizing our male killers in a way that our female killers just don't intrigue us? Or maybe we just can't accept a woman going bad without a clear cut reason for it, and motives tend to detract away from the fear aura that the Bogeyman thrives on.

Well, what if I told you that the Bogeyman was actually a woman? I.E. the greatest portrayal of the frightening figure who's going to 'get' you is a female character? She meets all the criteria discussed in this blog, her identity is fully revealed, motives are clear cut, and she's still more of a nightmare than anybody else heretofore mentioned.

Okay, I warned you.


1. The Final Girl

Like dinosaur DNA in amber, you just have to know where to look (and no, it's not the T-rex). Think. Where is the one place you can go for a surplus of feminine cruelty that completely outclasses the masculine brutes? That's right, fairy tales. And who was the ultimate catalyst for placing fairy tale characters firmly in the mainstream's collective consciousness? Right again, Disney. You're two for two. Final round. Who then is Disney's mistress of nightmares?

No! It's not Maleficent! I mean, yeah, Mal is awesome and badass and a freaking dragon, but she's not the Bogeyman. I'm talking about the queen. You know, Grimhilde? Sort of? Well, I don't think Disney's confirmed her name, but from Snow White. Now we're on the same page.

Well think about it. Her evil comes from her own obsession with beauty. Like Elizabeth Bathory's reputation, she simply has to preserve her status or it's all out war to set things back to the way they always have been. She's a wasp who views Snow White as her potential replacement, and thus an obstacle to eliminate well before the threat becomes apparent. You can just see the fury in her eyes. Even Walt Disney's own animators said that after Snow White was released Walt would never let them draw a villain as innately scary as the queen.

So we have the identity, the motivation, and now we have the transformation where she sacrifices her (alleged) beauty to turn into the hag, where she can murder Snow White personally. And the fascinating thing is, once she sacrifices the one thing she held so dear, she gets really crazy. Delighted with the newfound freedom she has. And it is the single most frightening -what are you all looking at me like that for?

Oh...I get it. You think I'm talking about the movie. No wonder you're confused, you poor sad, stupid, naïve little...dears. No, I'm talking about the ride.

This isn't some sequence of images on a screen that you can just block out by covering your eyes or leaving the theater should it become too intense. Nothing as generous as that. Instead imagine your family has taken out a second mortgage to cover the cost of a four day ticket to the world's favorite resort, full of overpriced balloons, pastries, and the occasional plague of seagulls. You've shaken hand with Captain Hook who turned out to be much more pleasant of a fellow than you've been led to expect, maybe bought a hat with ears, took a spin on a magic carpet, got a replacement hat with ears. It's been a good, safe, unintimidating day so far.

So now you're at the front of the line for one of the Fantasyland attractions, and a minecart/bed hybrid pulls up next to you. Oh look! It's got Dopey's name on it! Your favorite! Well this should be fun, you say as the Stepford smiling attendant locks you into your vehicle and gently launches you into the serpentine adventure that's about to change your life forever.

Why, it's the castle doors. And who is that to greet you from the second story window? It's the queen. In a clearly sullen mood. Perhaps she wasn't expecting you. Well, surely you haven't broken any rule by allowing this pre-laid out track to guide you where the Imagineers have decided you should go, right? I mean, all you did was get on the damn ride like you thought you were supposed to.

You approach a mirror. Not THE mirror, but A mirror, which serves as a friendly reminder of how mirrors are meant to work as you turn the corner. And there, ahead and slightly to the right of you is the queen. With her back to you, staring into another mirror. Her reflection indicates that she has not magically cheered up since a moment ago, and it's a tad on the eerie side to be dragged uncontrollably up to her, as she's clearly not someone you'd want to surprise from behind. Fortunately startling her is not something you're going to have to worry about. She makes it evident that she knows you're there as she turns around to face you...

And holy shit! The face of the witch in all of her three dimensional Tony Baxter designed glory has been described as hawk-like, gaping, and drunk off her own dementedness. Something in your psyche shrivels up and dies as her image permanently burns its way into your mind. On reflex you try to hide your eyes, but it's too late. All you see is her.

You peek through your fingers at the sequence of skeletons reaching toward you, a warning that comes well beyond the point of usefulness, and she reappears on your left at her cauldron. Surely her manifestation is not as unsettling as the vestige she implanted in your young brain. You want to look at her again but find yourself physically incapable of making eye-contact with any part of her. A shelf crashes overhead from the sheer force of her presence.

You're outside the castle, and she appears so suddenly that she may have climbed into the vehicle. You spin wildly through the forest, and the trees and logs themselves are out for your blood. You arrive at the dwarf's cottage, but who cares anymore. Animals stare at you through the window. Disney animals. The kind that intern for Cinderella for no retribution other than the joy of involvement. They stare at you in fear. You've been marked, and there's nothing they can do about it. There's the dwarfs. Screw them, they're as helpful as the cops in a slasher film.

The witch. And the witch. And the witch. She's actively trying to kill you. With a minecart, a support beam, and at last a huge gem stone. And then she succeeds. Strobe lights flash as the doors to the outside world open. You're not dead. Much worse. You're alive. And the Bogeyman has gotten you. She's inside you. Every ride you go on from now on you'll be peeking around the corners for her. Every dark corner, sharp turn, or shadow is another potential appearance of that damned animatronic. For the rest of your freaking life you're going to feel her a few inches behind your shoulder. Maybe catch a glimpse of that banana-shaped snout of hers. In your own home when you turn off the lights as you exit a room. She will always be one false glance away.


And that, children, is the Bogeyman. He's in every adult. And he comes for every child. And why? Because you have something that we don't. And we detest you for it. You have the innocence that was stripped away from us when we were you.

Have pleasant dreams.


Monday, October 1, 2018

Block 238 on the Camino Real: The Door to Halloween

It's October! And you know what that means! It means it's no longer those other months that don't end on Halloween! That's what.

Welcome back to Annie's Acropolis, my virtual Halloween theme park which I guess is technically open year round since I don't ever delete the blogs. You're currently in the Camino Real, a café on the edge of desperation courtesy of Tennessee Williams. I've selected it as my central hub for you to wait in while the other attractions open.

A little back story: Camino Real was a Williams play that I got to act in in 1993. It's a combination nightmare/allegory/we-don't-really-know-since-Williams-is-dead production that kind of defies explanation. My character Lord Mulligan died halfway through the play, and then I got to play the corpse of the lead character towards the end. It's strange how my college friends who were also in it and I used to love hating on the play, but it somehow left a real impression on me. Evoking famous figures like Don Quixote, Casanova, Lord Byron, Esmeralda (of the Hunchback of Notre Dame fame), Kilroy (of...'was here' fame, perhaps?), and the occasional appearance of possibly zombies, kind of robots, and an offstage plane crash, it was all over the place. I can't help but wonder what it might look like if it were adapted into a video game.

But why should I try to help out Mr. Williams's writing career when I have my own work to promote? Here are links to all of my past blog posts that I can argue are Halloween related, with a few more to come throughout the month. Please enjoy these attractions!


Walk Through Spook Houses: The bread and butter of all Halloween tourist traps.
MTV's House of Horror: Journey through the nightmares of the golden age of music videos!
The Maul of America: Just a fun day through a shopping mall. It's not our fault that Universal's Halloween Horror Nights icons have taken up residence in it.
The Checkered Game of Death: A tour of the home of Mrs. Parker and her sons, who love classic board games as much as the next children. Maybe even more.


Breakout Rooms: Want something a little more interactive? Try not to get lost in these puzzle-based stories.
Thinking Without Portals: No Portal gun, just you, GLaDOS, and a virus that mustn't be unleashed. Mustn't it not? No, it mustn't.
The Zodiac's Labyrinth: Signs, signs, everywhere a sign! And it's not just your sign you have to worry about, it's the whole horoscope! Your fortune awaits.
The Twelfth Toll: Pursued by one stalker through the woods, you take refuge in an old house. Get in. Get out. But be warned, the inhabitants might be even worse than whatever is already chasing you.


Live-ish Music: Dungeons and corridors not your thing? Why not relax and let the pros (and amateurs) entertain you?
Welcome to My Nightmare 1&2: Nobody does horror like Alice Cooper! Sit back and hear the tale of Stephen spanning through both Welcome to My Nightmare albums.
Bat Out of Hell: Two albums not enough for you? How about three? Come hear the whole Wagnerian opera trilogy in the amphitheater. Three out of three ain't bad.
The Halloween Soundtrack: I did a deep search to bring you a few spooky anthems that don't usually show up on most Halloween soundtracks but are certainly as ghost worthy as the latest edition of The Monster Mash.


The Outdoor Theatre: Let's watch some movies together! And then tear them apart!
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The original! The music still rocks and the plot still befuddles.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show remake: The remake! A chance to fix the issues of the original, and they totally didn't do that.
The Saw franchise: A look back at the whole series minus the 2017 film. Gory? Yes. But it could have been worse. And then it got worse.
And a few film montages. The best horror theme songs, and the best death scenes on film.


The Children's Pavilion: Entertainment just for all the stupid little kids.
Top Ten Scooby-Doo stories: The title is pretty self-explanatory, I don't know why you're even reading this. But thank you for your thorough attention.
Scooby-Doo's Unsolved Mystery: Better known as my five chapter Scooby-Doo fan fiction. I'm proud of it. You should read it. Right now.
Maleficent (a tribute): She's awesome. She knows it. And deep down inside, so do you.
And lastly, a few trick or treating safety tips to at least keep you from getting punched in the face.


The Wooly Side's Museum: A personal collection of stories, real and mostly made up.
Decorating the Lawn: My favorite Halloween memory.
A Thousand Words: A gothic flash fiction piece that Edgar Allen Poe never wrote. I have to do everything around here.
Grand Exit: A comedy sketch with a mummy. What more do you need?
Stakes and Ratings: Even vampires have nightmares.
Review of The Ogre: A review of a silent film that I had the pleasure of acting in. Includes my famous "I am So Ugly" song.
The Treehouse of Horror Marathon: I got frustrated with the crap The Simpsons had been giving us for Halloween as of late, so I drew up my own version. My Exorcist parody predated theirs by two years. In your face!
Missed Direction: A Carousel story where a paranormal debunker goes up against a fake psychic who's a little smarter than he is.
Return to Nevermore: Pretty much this blog from last year, but with my Poe version of Janet Jackson's "Black Cat".
13 Hitchhiking Ghosts: Speaking of Disney, here is my experienced collection of the creepiest things from Disney's theme parks.
The Haunted Hayride: And finally, a laid back tour of my childhood nightmares, with a discussion on fear and a haunting children's rhyme for added measure.


Now then.

I don't imagine a whole lot of you are going to even be viewing this particular blog post, much less sticking with it all the way down to this point. But for those of you who have: first off, thank you. You rock. Secondly, when I first started my blog back in 2014, I had created a personal cutoff of 238 posts. 238 was the number of a bus I rode as a child and subsequently adopted as my lucky number. With that esoteric limit in mind, I thought "238 is a decent run for a blog site. I imagine I'll be out of things to say by then".

Well, it turns out that this particular blog happens to be my 238th post.

Am I out of things to say? Maybe not quite. I've been dealing with a lot more writer's block this year than ever before, but it still feels incomplete (that damn Disney fan fiction is only half written, for starters). I don't know how many more posts I have in me, or how much longer I'll be doing this, or if there's even an end in sight at all. So I won't say "Here's to another 238," or commit to a full 814 (another bus I rode on), but suffice to say this blog post represents a monument that really only means something to me.

I knew it was coming up, and I expected I would do something kind of self-indulgent for it as a celebration. As it just so happened to coincide with my annual Halloween kickoff I thought it appropriate to go full on nobody's-going-to-understand-this-but-me mode. Which brings me back to The Camino Real.

As I said earlier, I was in the play in 1993. Peter Gabriel's Us album had come out the previous year, which included my favorite of his songs "Steam". Being a college student, I would look for any reason to postpone actual schoolwork in favor of feeling like I was working on something. And one of those 'things' was a parody of "Steam" which summarized the 'plot' of Camino Real as best as Gabriel's rhyme scheme would allow.

Thus, I give you a link to the song, and the my lyrics with which you're more than welcome to replace the originals. The rest is all on you.

Camino Real

Turn back!
Ransack!

Just drop the tab let it run to Marguerite
They turned a Trique into a rug
That can hug
The street

Retreat

It’s a dream
With what appeal? Camino Real
Seal the fountain turning green
And it’s dry
Pass the Ovaltine

Survivor –didn’t. Now he’s dead.
Go call a student from Ahmed.
We’ll have to cut him in half.
I hope he won’t laugh
Or I will too

You know you’re trapped inside a cage.
Your knees at center scrape the stage.
We’re stranded in each other’s space
I wish I'd brought my mace
Disgrace is blue

It’s a dream
A sour meal –Camino Real
Steal the play behind the screen
Pour the wine
Dress for Halloween

Jam-packed
Abstract

Esmeralda wants a medal for shedding a tear
The lunar restoration of virgin-hood
Is a good
Career
Sincere

It’s a dream
An endless spiel –Camino Real
Deal the Queen of cuckoldry
Get her high
Off the potpourri

I think she’s going insane
I think they’ll both crash the plane
Let her go to Bide-a-While
No man is an aisle
And I’m here too

Don’t take the daughter for a spin
Don’t ask her Nursie where she’s been
The king has traded in his throne
So leave the guy a loan
An IOU

It’s a dream
A broken wheel –Camino Real
Reeling down a steep ravine
Here I lie
Let the cleaners clean

Everybody ninth block
Patsy down, what’s up Jacques
A. Ratt, vacant mat
See the Fugitivo dive and splat
White shipped, cash gypped
Cabaret is in-equipped
Kilroy’s killed, his heart is ripped
I can’t see my f**king script

More light!


I need sleep
I’m in deep trouble

Don’t you know I’ll leave the show
Once Camille has returned
But I’m moving through the snow
And I haven’t ever learned to ski

Don Qui!

It’s a dream
And how you feel Camino Real
Is real as making desperate scenes
Never write
On amphetamines

Show me out!
Where is the greyhound depot?
The violets have broken the rocks
Mr. Gutman!
Saint Mary have me pumping, thumping,
Clumping, slumping, bumping, jumping
Off the balcony
Hear me scream -landing
Give me a beam I'm trotting now
Into the light!
Exit stage right!

I'm living the dream...

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Short Story Week 2018: Day Five -I Hope You Like Her

It's day five now, or technically day six when you factor out yesterday's day of doing nothing (in my defense, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Bojack Horseman season five were both released, I've had priorities).

I'm back in reality today. Caris has returned to the Carousel where she doesn't have to contend with medium awareness, leaving me where I usually am. Staring at a screen with an intent to write a short story and absolutely no clue what it is to be about.

I miss the days when I could just do whatever felt right at the time. I remember what it was like. I was a child. I could sit down and draw Seth and Theo in a runaway mine cart and feel good about the accomplishment, no explanation as to why they were in it, how it the braking system became disabled, or what the outcome was. It was simply a snapshot of two characters in peril. That was the whole story, and it was all it needed to be.

Seth and Theo were the co-protagonists of a very poorly drawn comic strip that I took great pride in when I was in elementary school. I never settled on a title for the strip, and I think I changed my special signature twice. They lived in a suburban neighborhood populated by a small cast of monster/alien/Seussian characters in a manner similar to Peanuts and Sesame Street. Seth was the smaller of the two; armless, green and frog-like, with an innate sense of adventure. Theo was brown and furry, with pointed ears and elbows perpetually bent at right angles. He was the slightly more responsible of the pair. Theo-centric strips involved things like his inability to chop down a tree or his revolving door of sidewalk merchanting (binders, bananas, watermelon). Seth was more of a free spirit, his adventures connected to treasure hunts, run ins with criminals, and various attempts to master the skateboard (in situations that raised serious questions about the topography of their neighborhood).

The nature of their relationship was undefined. They may have been brothers, friends, or coworkers, it didn't really matter. Likewise, age was irrelevant. There were no parents or children, schools or workplaces in this locale; although their snake-like neighbor Hafley had an irritating little brother who was apparently 'sent' to live with him. Even Theo's vending didn't stem from a need for money so much as an alleviation of boredom. Seth and Theo owned (and possibly lived in) a spaceship which took both of them to pilot. I think they only took it into space once, the rest of the time using it for transportation around town.

I don't know why I'm bringing them up- well, I do now, I didn't three paragraphs ago when I started writing about them. Seth, Theo, and company were my first real foray into story creation. It was a complicated story without any kind of goal. There was no ending, and no clear beginning. It was just an exploration of a world. And I realize now that it's a part of me that has remained ultimately unchanged as I've grown up. I don't naturally imagine the ends of stories. And I've never had much interest in beginnings either. Maybe I'm just the kind of writer who always starts at chapter two and then wanders off before the third act. I don't know.

But I think I've got my last story for Short Story Week 2018 now. Not that it's crucial to the proceedings, but it involves a minor character who started as far back as the days of Seth and Theo. I redesigned her in the early nineties when I briefly considered picking up the comic strip again (deciding for whatever reason that she was a she). She made a random appearance in the Lotus campaign, arriving and vanishing with no explanation, and she showed up most recently in The Carousel as a video game character Brandon had programmed in his spare time. I never figured out what she was until just now.


I Hope You Like Her


A dream?
Perhaps. But almost immediately forgotten. Only a high-pitched hum remained in her head from wherever she’d been.
Desert sand. So long since dried out that its surface cracked under her weight. A new sun was rising. And there would be nothing she could do to prevent it from baking her.
Camilla’s life did not flash before her eyes like she should have expected. Instead, the place for which her memories were meant was left empty. Frozen. The way her skin felt. Freeze at night, scald at day, would the decision to rise and wander even matter? If not here then at most a few miles away, the end would be the same.
Then she felt it. On her cheek. Soft and rubbery, with a gentle suction, like the hose of a vacuum cleaner. Some kind of desert scavenger, deciding she was nothing more than scrap already? Camilla summoned what energy she had in her to scream at the intrusion, only managing a wheeze. But when she opened her eyes, her whole world was filled with the sight of a long, serpentine snout sniffing her.
She was too weak to move away from the creature and could only allow it to explore her with its nostrils. It was large, elephant sized, and the snout was unquestionably a trunk. But the beast was no elephant. For one, it was furry, like a yak. And its neck stretched entirely too long, similar to that of a camel. And its ears did not belong to any desert dweller she was aware of; they would be more at home on a domestic hound.
For several minutes the creature snuffled her, evidently to confirm that she still had a life force. Then it stared into her open eyes with its head cocked to the side. Waiting for her response.
Camilla mouthed the words “What are you?” to which the beast trumpeted-
REIHAHN!
It circled behind her, stamping heavy footprints in the sand and accidentally kicking dust in Camilla’s face. It burrowed its trunk in the sand beneath Camilla’s shoulders and pushed her into a sitting position. Fatigue tried to roll her back to the ground but the beast was having none of it. It tipped Camilla forward until she had rolled to her hands and knees. Satisfied that she was getting up now, it tromped in front of her and lay down as low to her level as it could get.
REIHAHN, it repeated. Camilla followed the instructions as best as she could interpret them, reaching for the creature’s fur to pull herself onto its back. She struggled, but a little assistance from a friendly trunk draped her in a reasonably secure spot. Whatever this thing was, someone had clearly trained it for rescue.
And with no command, it happily carried her away from that place.
Time, and desert, passed. The next thing Camilla knew, the creature had brought her to the edge of an oasis. No more than about a thousand meters in perimeter, this isolated resort contained a small lagoon surrounded by lush trees and bushes, and a large rock the size of a townhouse cast a protective shadow over the area.
The beast turned away from the oasis and sat down, causing Camilla to slide down its back and onto the cool soil. A moment later, its massive head joined her, nudging her towards the lagoon.
“Please don’t leave me,” she whispered, giving the beast’s trunk a grateful pet. The water’s edge was a mere foot away. Fresh. Camilla drank. And splashed it on her face. And with no warning, she felt her body shoved into the lagoon, whereupon she disappeared beneath the surface.
She had tears in her eyes when she came up, in part because the fear of her situation had finally swept over her, but also because her involuntary dip in the lagoon had revived her so fast that she couldn’t contain how good she felt. “You rat!” she laughed.
REIHAHN! The beast answered.
Camilla wrapped her arms around the creature’s trunk. “Thank you.” With one massive glomp it rolled over on its side, allowing Camilla the pleasure of rubbing its belly. “Well you are just one huge puppy, aren’t you?”
She spent the better part of the day playing with the beast, and splashing it with lagoon water. Curiously, it refused to set foot in the oasis, but it stayed close by, sitting diligently as she restored herself over and over, and at times she thought it might even be smiling.
Eventually the reality set in that whatever this oasis was, it wasn’t a place one could remain in permanently, and Camilla hoped the beast would help her move on to where she needed to go. She stroked its fur from as close to its shoulder as she could reach. “Are you ready to leave?”
But the beast’s attention was on the giant rock. It glanced at Camilla, and then at the mound, as if it wanted her to look over there.
“Is something there?” she asked. The beast showed no signs of response, it only waited for her to decide what to do.
Camilla walked around the lagoon toward the stone guardian, easily spotting a cave at its base that she hadn’t noticed was there. She looked back at her beast, which kept watching her proudly.
“Wait for me?” she said, and crept inside the cave.
At first there was nothing. Absolute silence. She yelled out, but not even an echo of her own voice reached her ears. The cave turned into a tunnel, and she felt her way through the darkness. It was cold. She kept going.
Then a peep. Some kind of a bird? It was some distance away, but she was positive she’d heard it. Camilla continued down the tunnel. Another peep, short and high pitched. “Hello?” she called. No response. She walked faster. The peep came again, followed by another one. “Can you hear me?” Another. It found a rhythm. And she ran to it. As the cave melted away.
Camilla awoke in a hospital bed with five members of the staff surrounding her. They were all talking but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. Seated against the wall was her daughter, sobbing into her husband’s chest.
One of the doctors leaned in to where she was lying. “Can you hear me?” she said. Camilla nodded. The doctor smiled. “We’ve got you.”
A second doctor nodded to one of the other staff members, who set a comforting hand on her husband’s shoulder. “We’ve got her.”
Before anyone else could react, Camilla’s daughter was pressed against her face. “Mommy!” she cried. Then her husband’s arms were around them both, holding tightly for fear of losing her again.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Short Story Week 2018: Day Four -For the Dental Plan

"What's this?"

"Open it."

Caris has place a small gift about the size of a shoebox in front of me, covered in polka dotted wrapping paper and a purple bow. I know I should be grateful, and I am, but I'm more stuck on the fact that she and I just had one of the most clichéd four word conversations in literary history -'what's this, open it'.

"What would you rather I have said?" she patiently endures my personality quirks. "How about, it's a present. Open it."

"I guess I'm just confused as to why that exchange ever takes place at all, much less why so frequently. When someone hands someone else a present, it's obviously a present. To be opened, contents thusly revealed-"

"Sweetie," she chides me, "Don't sit here and pretend that you have ever used the word 'thusly' in casual conversation."

"What is the point of those four words?" I ask.

"The same as 'knock knock, who's there'. It's ritual. Come on, open it."

"Can you tell me what it's for?"

"It's just a little something." She's beginning to squirm, she's so excited. It's clearly more than just a little thing to her. "It's day four and you woke up this morning with literally no idea what to write. So I got you an idea. Just open it or you're going to hurt my feelings."

Okay, I can't have that.


For the Dental Plan

This is the part of my job I don’t like.

“Come in Thompson,” I say, gesturing to the chair across from my desk. He sits.

I feign one more skim of my handwritten notes that I’m not looking forward to typing up. I know what they say, but I’m giving myself a moment to breath before this conversation. “Do you know why I called you in here?”

“Yes sir,” he says. “I want to apologize-“

I interrupt him. “Let’s just take one thing at a time. I’m supposed to remind you of our company’s policy regarding lunch breaks. You get thirty minutes, as I’m sure you know.”

Thompson nods quietly.

“Now according to your co-workers, you left at 10:15 this morning and were gone almost four hours. Is that right?”

“It is.”

“And it’s not the first time this month?”

“No sir.”

“Third, I believe.”

“Yes sir.”

I pretend to glance over my notes again before flipping to a blank page and clicking my pen. “I’m required to provide an explanation for the extra time spent away from your desk. Can you help me out?”

“Waffles.”

“Waffles?” I stare at him. He doesn’t blink. “That’s really what you’re going with”.

“Yes sir, frozen waffles.”

“Frozen waffles,” I repeat as I write it down. “And do they just take the extra time to thaw?”

“Oh, no sir, they’re not for me. They’re for my wife.”

“I don’t think corporate is all that interested in who they’re for, so much as why they’re preventing you from getting back to your desk in a reasonable manner.”

Thompson shifts uncomfortably. “My wife is very particular about waffles. This specific brand is very difficult to find.”

“So am I to understand that you’re spending your lunch break shopping for this very specific brand of waffles?”

He nods. “Frozen waffles, yes.”

“Right,” I sigh. “Now is there a reason why these frozen waffles have to be shopped for during work hours?”

“Yes sir. These waffles are incredibly popular. They essentially fly off the shelves as soon as they’re stocked.”

“Taste pretty good then?”

“I assume. I wouldn’t know.”

I lean back in my chair. “So to be clear: you’re at work, your wife contacts you via…text or whatever saying that the waffles are going up, you hop in the car, drive to the store, and make your best effort to acquire a couple of boxes?”

“Just one box,” says Thompson, “And I drive a mini-van, but yes. That’s the process.”

“Can these waffles not be ordered online?”

“No sir.”

“Because they’re frozen?”

“No sir. Because we won’t receive our ShopStop credits if we purchase online. I do apologize-”

“We’re still not there yet”. I take the time to jot down ‘ShopStop credits’ with a question mark before continuing. “All right Thompson, this is where it gets uncomfortable, for me anyway. The security cameras have confirmed that all three times this has happened you’ve returned to the office but haven’t gone straight to your desk. They show you’ve consistently visited Sheryl’s office in accounting. Is that correct?”

“Yes sir.” Thompson’s eyes turn downward. “Have you spoken with her?”

“I would just as soon not, if at all possible. But unfortunately I have to ask if you and Sheryl are involved in a romantic relationship.”

He doesn't flinch. “No sir, we’re not.”

“And if I were to approach her about this, you’re telling me she’d confirm this?”

“That’s correct.”

“Follow-up question, which I don’t have to ask but I’m going to. Does she also ask you to bring her waffles?”

“No sir. She’s not involved with the waffles in any way.”

“I’m sure I’ll remember to make a note of that later.” I know my displeasure is more than evident on my face, but I'm not keen on caring right now. “Why are you going to see Sheryl from accounting?”

“Concealer.”

“Concealer?”

“Yes.”

“As in makeup?”

“Yes.”

“Is this a common interest between the two of you?”

“No sir. She has a type of concealer that works very well on my skin issues.”

“Skin, Issues,” I repeat out loud as I write. “These skin issues that only happen to flare up when you go shopping for waffles?”

“Frozen waffles, yes sir.”

“Thompson, do you have a waffle allergy that you know of?”

“Um, no sir. I don’t believe so.”

“Any ideas why your skin might be having this coincidental reaction when you go frozen waffle shopping?”

“It may be a variable in the store.”

“Right.” I fish around in my desk drawer for the still image of Thompson I had printed out. “See, corporate is undoubtedly going to want something a bit more specific of an explanation for your skin than ‘variable’.”

“It’s probably some specific variable in this store that causes my skin to-“

I cut him off by setting the photograph in front of him. “look like you’ve had the turkey stuffing beaten out of you with a metal pipe?”

“Yes sir.”

“Coolant leak from the refrigeration unit perhaps?”

“That’s a possibility. Again I want to apol-“

“Still not there Thompson.” I rub my forehead. “I was hoping this one would answer itself without my having to ask, but what is that around your ankle?”

“My ankle sir?”

“Yes Thompson. The hinge that connects your foot to your lower shin.”

His eyes dart around the floor. “Sir? I don’t-“

“Other leg Thompson.”

“Oh.”

“That’s the one.”

“I didn’t even notice that was there.”

“Yes.” I’m not even going to bother writing this one down. “Now I’m no expert, but wouldn’t you say that looks a bit like a beaver trap?”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar-“

“Do you know what a bear trap is, Thompson? You’ve seen Road-Runner cartoons. Big metal thing with teeth that snaps shut? Doesn’t it look like a smaller version of that around your ankle?”

“Yes sir, I believe it does.”

“Great.” I force a smile. “Now is it possible you may have put your foot in one of those at this waffle store as well?”

“Yes sir. Do you know the game Free the Bunny?”

I hear my own voice crack, unclear if it’s a laugh or a sob. “No, Thompson. What is the relevance of the game Free the Bunny?”

“I have it on my phone. I might have wandered into the sporting goods section of the store while I was playing it.”

“And would this have been to or from your frantic scramble for these frozen waffles?”

“I can’t really say sir.”

“That’s fine. You’re actually doing me a favor.”

“May I apologize now?”

“I don’t really see the need, but I do regrettably have one more question. And I need to stress that you are not legally obligated to answer.” He nods, and I have a pleasant flashback to what my life was like a few decades ago when I was nothing more than a mail clerk. “By any chance have you recently been out of the country? Like, say, within the past few hours?”

“Sir, I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“Nor do I Thompson, but that ferry has disembarked. I only mention it because Mrs. Dresden called me from outside an airport in Greece this morning. She swears she saw you getting out of an unmarked shuttle with a blonde model and two men in trench coats.”

“Well sir, Mrs. Dresden is on vacation. She’s probably had more than a few.”

“That’s a valid argument, Thompson.” I reach for the blank form that I’m dreading having to fill out. “Well, I think we’re done here. Hypothetically speaking, if my department inadvertently hired an undercover spy, my bosses are inevitably going to want me to look into it.”

“I understand sir. That’s why they give you the big paycheck.”

“If you wouldn’t mind stopping by here before the end of the day to sign this?”

He rises to leave.

“Oh Thompson. Just for my own sense of morbid curiosity, were you able to acquire the waffles?”

“Frozen waffles sir. And no. They got away in Luxembourg.”

I shake my head. “A pity. Your wife is going to be so disappointed.”

“Yes sir. And I may need to take a few weeks off.”




"Thank you Caris," I say. "That was quite fun."

She smiles. "I think that's what you've been missing."

"You know that writing can't always be fun."

"Of course I know that. But if you stop liking it, is there really a point anymore?"

We sit quietly with each other for a while. Not thinking, not writing, not doing much of anything. I begin to wonder if maybe I like the idea of writing more than actually doing it. And I realize, by itself, that isn't a good enough reason to keep writing.

"Caris, what am I when I'm not writing?"

"Honestly?" she says. "The same thing you are when you are. You know something I found intriguing, and I can't remember if I had you type it into the blog a few days ago? You can't prove creativity. Look at somebody like M.C Escher. His work is fascinating, and people connect with it and get inspired by it and most of us believe it to be creative. But if someone were to demand that you deliver proof of its creativity, what argument could you make? Identifying creativity really is based on intuition."

"Do you think what I'm doing is worthwhile?"

She stands to leave. "'Worthwhile' is a word describing an ambiguity. Something can be worthwhile and not at the same time, as well as any number of points in between the two. It's certainly worthwhile to me; it's my whole life. How worthwhile is it to you?"

And then she's gone.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Short Story Week 2018: Day Three -The Semantics of Murder

Caris brings over two identical cups filled with soft drink, and I reach for the one she holds out to me, practically spitting it out the moment the taste of diet touches my tongue. "Oops," she giggles. "Forgot which was which."

I trade for the Dr. Pepper impostor. "Are you trying to kill me?"

"Nope. Just giving you a healthy dose of chaos." She sits next to me on the sofa and reads the newest blog entry over my shoulder. "So let me ask you something. As a writer, how do you know when a story or blog post or whatever is finished? Does it feel done?"

"I don't know if anything ever feels truly done. At best it feels done enough. I don't know that I'm particularly good at recognizing when something is working so much as I can tell when it isn't. Most of the time I'll let something sit as soon as it no longer feels like it isn't working."

She winks. "Afraid of smothering it?"

"Let's just say I'm a lot happier when I keep my natural tendency to be a control freak in check."

"So let's talk about today's story. You've already written this one before we're talking now. How do you feel about it?"

Honestly as she asks me that, I don't know how I feel about it. I'm a bit more proud of it than the past two because I know how much more intention went into it. It's meant to be less accessible, more esoteric, but I truly can't tell if it comes across as just dumb. "I guess I feel like it's done enough."


The Semantics of Murder

"Come in," I told her.

She scurried into the parlor and struck an attentive pose across from my writing desk, awaiting instructions.

"And you are..."

"Ai."

I smiled. "Easy to remember." I rose from my seat and came around to meet her face to face. She was noticeably shorter (and thinner) than myself, but it was to be expected. "My newest subject."

She nodded in agreement. Poor skittish Ai, with no way of knowing what to expect. "Nervous?"

"Yes."

"Not to worry. By this time tomorrow I'll be finishing your sentences."

Ai didn't respond out loud, but her attendance was understood.

"Come with me," I said.

We left the sanctuary of the parlor together, with me repeatedly ushering her to walk alongside me. She would have to get used to leading once we decided on a heading, and I need her to become accustomed to the proper pacing. In the long corridor to the worlds outside stood a line of massive bookshelves stretching so high it was impossible to determine just how many rows there were. Literature, tomes, scrolls, even ideas conveyed only through pictographs; a sacred hall if ever there was one.

"Beautiful, are they not?"

Ai gave me a puzzled expression. "They?"

I gestured to the vast library. "All of this.. This history. Philosophy. Poetry. All of which we're part of. Have you seen anything so inspiring?"

"No, Miss Pretty Catherine."

I laughed. "Is that what they told you to call me?"

Ai seemed uncomfortable, probably assuming she'd done something incorrectly.

"Call me Cate."

"Miss...Pretty Cate?"

"Miss Pretty Cate is acceptable if that makes you more comfortable," I assured her. "Although I should like to break you of the formal title at the earliest possibility. Has your role in all of this been fully explained to you?"

"No, Miss Pretty Cate."

"There are rules," I said. "Quite a lot of them in fact. It will be most overwhelming to impose all of them on you at once. But simply, I'm required to have an escort. Anywhere we go, I'm obligated to have you in front of me. That may seem intimidating, but I won't steer you where you're not ready to go. As long as we work together, there will be no need for...corrections. For now, that should be enough to keep us on the same page."

I hadn't realized just how scared she was, but her thin frame was visibly trembling. I set my hand gently on her back and guided her in front of me, resting my fingers on her shoulders.

"Let's try this again." I motioned to the shelves a second time. "Beautiful, are they not?"

Ai stammered a little. "They...are."

"They are...what?"

"They are...Miss Pretty Cate?" She glanced back at me for confirmation.

I casually leaned in and whispered. "What- exactly are they?"

Her eyes jumped between me and the shelves for several moments before nearly blurting out "They are beautiful!"

It warmed my heart seeing how pleased she was. "Good girl, Ai."


I steered her into the streets which were vacant at the moment, but the vast architecture stretching all around gave off the atmosphere of a world alive with purpose. "Rudiments," I said. "Our gift. It allows for exchange. Communication. The chance to grow. Become something more."

Ai tried to absorb as much of her surroundings as she could. "It's overwhelming."

"You are correct. But it's also inviting. The only way to acclimate is to dive in head first."

I couldn't blame her for finding the metaphor confusing. The sequence of byways, alleys, and overpasses was already taking its toll on her inexperienced being. I handed her a pocket notebook with a coiled pen attached to the spine. "You should practice."

"How?"

"One letter at a time." She swayed where she was, and I had to steady her. "I'm always behind you," I promised her.

If the streets were a visual noise for her, the lulling sounds of a melody from the horizon soothed her nerves somewhat. She glanced at me with curiosity. "Miss Pretty Cate?"

"It's music, Ai."

She seemed captivated by it. And why shouldn't she be? "It's lovely."

I nodded. "Someday we may venture out there. But you're not ready. You must learn the streets first. The hills are paradoxically complicated in their simplicity, whereas the streets are simply complicated. You must walk before you can dance."

She gave me a look that easily read as though she was trying to replay my words to comprehend them, but they just wouldn't cooperate with her mind.

"Nuance, Ai." I rubbed her head, giving her a wink of encouragement. "Your first beast to overcome."

Our conversation was cut short by the untimely arrival of Sasha, the shell vendor from the beach, who looked as though she had a cause for grave concern. I wasn't ready to inflict her peculiar mannerisms on Ai just yet, so I politely shushed her before she could speak. "First time subject heading into the compound," I explained. "Please direct her by implication."

Sasha pointed to the nearby structure with the branching diagram etched into the plaque on the front. As I expected, the Society of Design. "The cornerstone of our communication," I told Ai. "Take point. The passive round is over."

Ai walked. I followed. "The Society of Design is made up of eight members; Andy, Byron, Drew, Frankly, Humphrey, Mimi, Namine, and Scarlet. If any group of individuals is prone to an argument, it's them. We'll have to work together to sort them out."

As if on cue, a male scream pierced our ears from inside the door. We may have been too late.

"Knock," I told her. A brief rapping on the panel and the door opened inward. Ai and I came eye to eye with the first member of the society. "Drew," I whispered.

She looked to me for guidance. I only gave her a nod of encouragement.

"What happened here?" she asked Drew.

"Come," he told her, ushering her into a large sitting room where six of the other members stood in a scattered formation, watching us cautiously as we entered. In the middle of the room lay the lifeless body of one of their own.

Ai's voice cracked. "Is he dead?"

"Who are you asking?" I said.

She glanced around at the ensemble, asking for clarification from them, but only received blank stares.

"They function as a unit," I said. "You're going to have to be very specific as to what you ask to whom in order to obtain any pertinent information."

"Can I have them arrange so I'm clear who is who?"

"You can do whatever you see fit."

It was a delight to witness Ai's confidence go up on the spot. She demanded the seven surviving members circle her in a clockwise alphabetical order, starting with the spot in front of her. "Who goes here?" she asked.

"Andy," came a female voice, who Ai would soon learn was Namine's. It took some coaxing to get Andy to take his place, as he refused to move until Scarlet and Byron were in theirs. From there she went around the seven faces naming them in turn. "Andy. Byron. Drew. Frankly." I had to give her credit. Her memory was photographic.

She stopped when she came to the next face, that of a female. "Humphrey?"

The woman pointed to the corpse. "Him."

"Mimi then. Namine and Scarlet."

"Any thoughts on who could have done it?" I prodded.

"What about knowing why?"

"If that's the way you want to go."

She looked around at the assembly, momentarily lost for words. "What was Humphrey like?"

I clarified what she was getting at. "Are you asking for a description?"

"Yes. Who can describe Humphrey?"

"Superfluous," said Scarlet, no trace of remorse in her voice.

"That sounded a bit like a confession," I suggested to Ai. "Do you think Scarlet is the killer?"

"Hang on. If she were, why would she reveal it so easily?"

"It sounds like you're still being distracted by motive," I said. "The why of it is a bit trickier to negotiate."

The gears were turning in her head. She pointed at Frankly, but changed her mind and shifted to Byron. "Would you say Humphrey was killed violently?" Byron didn't seem to know how to respond, and it confirmed her suspicion that he was only useful in relation to the others. She pointed back to Frankly. "Same question."

"Violently," he said.

She'd gotten it. I couldn't be prouder. "So who is the only one here capable of such an act?"

"It has to be Drew," she smiled with pride.

At which point Humphrey hopped up from the floor muttering a half cynical "Hooray," before Drew walked us out of the building.

I congratulated her. "Very clever. And what would the sentence be for this crime?"

Ai scribbled in the notebook I gave her, placing a very fine point at the end. She showed me what she'd written, and I knew she and I were going to enjoy each other's company for a very long while.

'Alas, Pretty Cate and I walked out silently.'


Caris pats my knee compassionately. "I like the surrealism of it. But I can't help wonder if you're going to confuse most of your readership."

"Do you think I should spoil it then?"

"Well, I may not be the best person to ask. I can't keep a secret to save my life." She swigs down the remainder of her diet concoction. "I don't think it would hurt you to explain it. People might appreciate the effort you put into it more with the backstage pass."

"You're probably right. Why don't you do the honors?"

"Love to!" Caris waits for me to type <spoiler alert> before her delighted reveal. "Ai is the subject. Pretty Cate is the predicate. The members of the society are the eight parts of speech. Drew, being the verb, was thus the only one capable of committing the 'act' of murder. Did I get everything?"

"The last line of the story."

"Oh yeah. An eight word sentence containing all eight parts of speech. Regardless of how the story comes across in quality, I'm confident it reads as if you really enjoyed writing it- Oh! I forgot. Sasha! She sells seashells by the seashore; she was a tongue twister. That was my favorite bit."

"Caris, what would I do without you?"

"Well, not to overstate my importance, but probably create another Caris." She gives me one last smile before disappearing into the imaginary ether for the day. I'm sure I'll be calling on her again tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Short Story Week 2018: Day Two -The Bridge and the Troll

"You know, I was thinking about it during your insomnia last night," Caris says. "I don't believe you're really shy on ideas, so much as taking an idea and fully developing it is the struggle."

She doesn't deserve the sneer I give her, but she's always been forgiving enough to overlook moments of human selfishness. "You mean, when writing gets hard, I lose interest."

"Have you ever heard a writer say they enjoyed the process of writing? They enjoy having written." She watches me carefully. Continuing when I don't respond. "Or they don't. I think it was Nathaniel Hawthorne who tried to destroy ever copy of his first book."

"This hasn't been that much of a problem for me in the past," I say.

"And what's changed for you?"

I shrug. "It's possible I'm just out of things to say."

"I don't think so. I think your relationship with writing has shifted focus. You're not having fun with it anymore."

"Do you think it's time to hang it up?"

"Well, I'd never go so far as that. Maybe you just need a return to basics. I mean, you've made yourself a list of short stories to tackle this week, but you're not really giving yourself room to just play. That's why writing has become work to you, you're pressuring yourself to 'produce'."

I sigh. "I don't know how I feel about my character being wiser than me."

"I'm not wiser than you sweetie, I just have a perspective that factors out a lot of the noise of reality."

"Okay then. If you were me, what would you write?"

Caris's whole being perks up. "A fable. You like fables- actually we both do. They're concise, they have a beginning, middle, and end, and they can pretty much involve any characters in any setting. Try this: go to fairy tales. Find a character-type that represents the way you feel right now. Then find one that represents the way I feel. Then put them together and see what happens."

"Well, this should be rich."

"Forget about quality. Make it sincere and the quality will take care of itself."

She grins at me as I glare at her. "And where did you get that chestnut from?"

"I'm a fictional character. How the hell should I know?"


The Bridge and the Troll


The province of Meadley was known throughout the land as one of the most pleasant caravan stops between Willow Fringe and Castle Sirois. In addition to the hills and pastures that could relax even the most unsettled soul, Meadley was home to some of the nation’s finest wool.  For many years, the province had flourished in the clothing trade, and it was unheard of for any traveler of coin or status to bypass visiting the humble land.

But alas, prosperity has as much a cycle as the seasons. And a few harsh bouts of weather had flooded the river separating Meadley from the main country; leaving in the end a single bridge connecting the two. And this bridge had become the home of a troll, who took most unkindly to the sound of hoofs and wagons overhead.

The smaller wagons stood no chance against the fury of the beast. The larger ones that made it to and from did so with an armed and armored escort, a practice which quickly became more costly and inconvenient than it was worth. And it took very little time for the citizens of Meadley to feel the strain of being cut off from the trade routes.

So one day the troll was gathered at the river’s edge under the bridge, waiting for a sizable fish to swim by when an odd thumping came from the beams above him.

“Who’s that tramping on my bridge?” the troll bellowed.

A young female voice called down, “I’m not tramping, and it’s not your bridge!”

“If it’s not tramping, what would you call it?”

“Walking!” The pounding of heavy steps sent a cloud of dust down on the troll’s head. “This is tramping!”

“Stop that! Or I’ll come up there and eat you!”

“Oh I’m sorry. Is my province’s need to continue living getting in the way of whatever you’re doing down there?”

“Tell you what,” said the troll. “You tell me where you live and I’ll come clog dance across your roof a few times and see how you take to it.”

“Well you see, my family was wise enough to choose a location other than an access road to make their home-“

“Did I NOT make it clear that I’m willing to climb up there and eat you?”

The rhythmic thumping continued, indifferent to the troll’s threat. “Who announces that they’re going to eat somebody? You don’t warn them, you just do it!”

“Are you wearing stones for shoes little human?”

“No, it’s a wheelbarrow. I apologize if that’s too LOUD for you!”

“You could wake the dead with that thing.” The troll grumbled.

“Get over it!” the lady snapped back. “You’ve left us no alternative!”

“Have your kind build another bridge then!”

“Listen troll!” The silhouette of her head appeared over the bridge’s edge. “It costs money to build a bridge, and we don’t have it! So this wheelbarrow is how it’s going to have to be! If you want to come up here and try me on for size, you’re welcome to it! Otherwise, suck it up!”

The troll was a little taken aback, and didn’t know how to respond until she was well gone. He turned his attention back to the river, but the fish didn’t hold his interest. He’d realized he’d never had a conversation with a human before, and he didn’t know what to think about the exchange.

The troll was so engaged in thought throughout the day that he completely lost track of time until he heard the sound of the young woman’s wheelbarrow approaching from the opposite direction.

“How now?” he called. “Have you acquired this money you so need?”

She stopped several yards away from the river. “Seriously? I haven’t even set foot on the bridge.”

“Trolls have very keen hearing.”

“So I noticed,” she said. “No, I didn’t do as well as I hoped. But I brought you something.”

The troll stared suspiciously as she lowered a basket on a rope from the bridge down to his level. “What’s this?”

“Meat pies.”

He sniffed the basket, unclear as to what poison even smelled like. “Why?”

“I thought you might like them. And it’s a peace offering. I’m going to have to be using this bridge quite a bit before I’m able to raise the funds to rebuild any of the others.”

“And why does this burden fall to you?”

“Somebody has to. You’ve frightened everyone in Meadley.”

“Why aren’t you frightened?”

“Who says I’m not?” She pulled the empty basket back up to the bridge and carefully pushed the wheelbarrow across the river, forewarning the troll that she would return the following day with another delivery of wool.


The morning came, and the troll awakened to the sound of her footsteps. He waited in amusement as she tapped softly on the bridge’s railing to announce her presence. “Good day, troll,” she said. “I have several bushels to carry across our bridge. Do you mind?”

Did he mind? The troll couldn’t grasp what he was hearing. Nobody had asked him before. “I suppose that would be all right,” he said.

“Very good.”

And that same rhythmic thumping that irritated him so began traveling across the planks of his bridge. He tried to ‘suck it up’ as she had suggested the previous day, but his troll nature became too conscious for him. “Human!” he shouted. “It occurs to me that if I were to come up there and move the wheelbarrow for you that you would more quickly be across the bridge and well on your way!”

“I daresay I shall not dispute you, good troll.”

Moments later the young woman found herself face to face with the most horrifying nightmare of teeth and claws she’d ever seen. She smiled. “My name is Celia.”

It started with that walk across the bridge, which turned into a walk through the woods to Willow Fringe. Humans have an innate hatred of trolls, and for this reason trolls rarely showed themselves by daylight for fear of being hunted. But the sight of a troll pushing a wheelbarrow while walking with a young woman was enough to stay the hands of those skilled with the blade. Suffice to say, Celia’s wares fared significantly better that morning than they had the previous day.

Soon Meadley had more than enough money to repair as many bridges as they desired, but by then the troll was a valued member of the community, and had moved into one of the spare barns near Celia’s family. Meadley entered into a new era of prosperity compounded by the fact that they were the first town to ever include a troll among its citizens. Celia was eventually named governor of Meadley, and she remained close friends with the troll for the rest of his days.


Caris can't stop smiling at me. "That was a sweet story. Am I to assume that you're the troll and I'm Celia?"

"Not exactly. It started off differently in my head, but I think I'm a bit happier with this one."

"That makes sense. I never imagined myself as so confrontational. Why do you think you're happier with this story?"

"I don't know. I can't say it's any better or worse than the one yesterday, but somehow this one just feels more..."

"Alive?"

I look into the empty space where only I can see Caris. "Yeah. That's it."

"That's a good feeling to close the evening on."