Donor (1988)

low red blood cell count

There was a knock at Tim’s front door. Impossibly, there was a knock on a day there shouldn’t have been one. Not that it was a big disturbance, it had only interrupted his woolgathering. He began reading a book hours ago and somewhere along the way his mind drifted off to the point where he wouldn’t have been able, even with a gun pressed to his temple, to tell which page he was on or what part of the story he last read.

The knock again. Tim placed the book open face down on the side table. Next to it was the handheld trigger for the silent alarm which he picked up and let his thumb hover over the panic button. Should he press it or simply answer the door? Smart money was on activating the alarm but he had always been a slave to curiosity so he pocketed the remote, rose from his comfy chair, exited the living room and padded across the hardwood foyer floor on the balls of his feet.

The closer he got to the door he heard some sort of commotion going on outside and as his hand landed on the doorknob he drew in a deep breath and held it for a long moment to quell the anxious feeling hatching in the pit of his belly. Tim hadn’t realized just how unaccustomed he was to answering his own door, it had been so long.

As he turned the knob a thought crossed his mind, perhaps the person on the other side of the door, the lawbreaker, was a deranged lunatic or religious fanatic who saw it as their duty, their purpose, their God-given right to put an end to what they viewed as an abomination. He knew that wasn’t the case, though. The knock was far too polite. They were all so damned polite, the knockers. Lightly rapping on his door all day, all night, in any weather, even on holidays. Especially on holidays. The only time they didn’t knock was on Sunday, his sanctioned day of rest.

He opened the door to shouts and protests. A crowd of people clustered on his front porch began forming a semi-circle behind the woman who stood in the doorway directly in his face. They accused her of jumping the queue, shouted that what she was doing was illegal, and warned/threatened her with the prosecution penalties of her actions. And the discontent was spreading along people of all ages, ethnicities, male and female alike who gathered in a line that ran the length of his front walk to the pavement, down the block, and most likely around the corner, who were waiting their turn for an audience. But all the chatter came to an abrupt halt the moment they caught sight of Tim.

The woman in front of him, the illegal knocker, had a familiar face but her features were too average, too face-in-the-crowd, to recall outright, Tim had to flip through his mental rolodex and play the association game. He twigged her face was connected to some sort of event that would have revealed a location that eventually would have produced a name. Taking a deep breath, he relaxed his mind and softened his focus and let his gears spin a bit until he came up with:

Fundraiser ~~> community center ~~> Dick Cole

This woman was a friend of Dick Cole. Linda something-or-other. Rhymed with seed. Greed? Mead? Plead?

“Linda Reid,” Tim smiled, more at the swiftness of the connection than the pleasure of seeing the woman. “It’s been a while. A couple of years, I think.”

“Settle down, everyone,” Tim addressed the throng beyond the woman. “You know I’m not allowed to accept appointments today so she’s not cutting in line ahead of any of you. She happens to be a friend.”

Tim gestured for Linda to step inside which prompted the grousing to recommence but he merely closed the door to let them vent amongst themselves.

“Sorry for causing a commotion,” Linda said, smiling a bit too much. “And for not keeping in touch. Things have been so hectic down at the center with budget cuts and understaffing…and other things, that I don’t socialize much anymore. And you’ve got a lot on your hands at the moment—”

Tim waved off the rest of the sentence. “No worries,” he said, leading her past the empty administrative desks and into the sitting room.

“Awful lot of furniture crowding your foyer,” Linda said.

“That’s for the staff, doormen, greeters, admin assistants, all government appointed. They see to visitors. There are also bodyguards posted at each of the house’s ingress and egress points but they all have the day off because it’s my day off.”

“I suppose that’s another thing I’m sorry for.”

“I don’t get many non-work related visitors so this is a welcomed change,” Tim said, gesturing for Linda to take a seat. “Can I get you anything? Water? Juice? Or I could put the kettle on?”

“Do you have anything stronger?” Linda asked sheepishly as she sat down.

“I don’t imbibe, I’m afraid. Rules of my employment and all.”

“Yes, of course, how foolish of me. Water’s fine, then.”

Tim popped into the kitchen and returned with two glasses and ice water in a silver pitcher dotted with dew-like condensation.

“Not to fret,” he said, sitting opposite Linda and filling her glass. “Most people never consider it when they drop by.”

She took the water glass and swallowed two gulps. “I–um–I have think I have a slight confession to make.”

“This isn’t a social visit, is it?”

“I can explain.”

“Explain what exactly? That you’re a lawbreaker and you seek to make me complicit in you crime? Is this a trap? Did the organization send you? Are you here to test me? Well, I’m not having it so why don’t you can go back and tell your bosses that I don’t cut side deals to pocket a little extra cash. We made an arrangement and I’m honoring it to the best of my ability!”

“So, how does this go? Do I have to fill out an application? Sign a legal document? Do you need proof? I didn’t think to bring any with me but I can get whatever it is you need.”

“If your request is granted, you’ll need to sign a few documents, including one that absolves me of any blame should the outcome fail to have the desired effect,” he said automatically.

“Naturally, without a doubt,” Linda answered, a bit too eagerly.

They’re always so eager at this stage, before the harshness of reality sets in, Tim thought. “But for right now, all you have to do is tell me what brings you here.”

“Um, okay,” she adjusted herself in the seat and wondered how her breath could so suddenly get caught in her throat. “It isn’t for me, you understand, I’d never come to ask for myself.

It’s my fiancé, Dick, you’ve met him, in fact, he introduced us at a fundraiser two years ago.”

“Yes, I know Dick. What’s wrong with him?”

“He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” Linda said in a quiet voice.

“Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Tim’s stomach turned over. He didn’t need her to elucidate further.

She nodded, her eyes fading down to the throw rug, absently tracing patterns. “It’s in the late stages now. I would have come sooner, but it’s taken me some time to talk Dick into this. He doesn’t think it seems right. Not what you do, that’s fine and he thinks you’re a saint for doing it. He doesn’t think it’s right asking you for help, especially this kind of help. Dick doesn’t want you or anyone else taking pity on him. He’s never taken a handout in his life and he can’t help but see this as charity.”

“Yes,” Tim said, not bothering to hear the rest of the pitch. That’s what they were, pitches. Not simple requests or imploration, these were stories designed to pull at his heartstrings. But who ever bothered to listen to his story? Not one of them. Not a single person among the many that crossed his threshold ever bothered asking him a personal question. As if he wasn’t human, as if he wasn’t allowed his own tragedy.

“What? I don’t understand.” She set the glass down on the nearby table, missing the coaster by half an inch. Tim either hadn’t noticed or decided not to comment.

“I’m saying, yes.”

“Yes, you’ll help?” Linda blinked and met the man’s gaze as a hopeful smile began to split her face.

“Yes.”

“I — I don’t know what to say,” she was on her feet before she knew what was happening, moving in for a hug. “I — thank you, Tim!”

Tim put his hand up, stopping the woman in her tracks. “Don’t thank me yet. There are still a few things you need to realize before you accept my offer.”

“It doesn’t matter. Anything! And I mean anything!” Interest colored her face.

“Please calm down for a moment and listen to me. This thing you’re asking of me, this gift of blood, it may not solve your problems and could possibly worsen matters for you.” Tim traced his finger around the rim of his glass.

“I’ll take that chance… we’ll take that chance!”

“Listen to me!” Tim brought the glass down on the table, just hard enough to startle and capture her full attention. At the cost of a wet sleeve and the water stains that would surely mark the cherry wood. “Ever since scientists discovered the curative properties of my blood, tests have been run. Mostly successful, I’m a match for all blood types, and my white blood cells haven’t encountered a disease it can’t cure—”

“Which is why I came to you. I did my research and you cured other ALS patients before—”

“The problem isn’t my blood,” he interrupted. “It’s Dick’s immune system reaction that’s the danger. If his body rejects my blood and tries to attack parts of it, there won’t be a second chance. He instantly becomes a non-match. On the other hand, if his body takes the transfusion, in a few month’s time, his white blood cells will resemble mine and he’ll automatically be enlisted in the same line of work as I am.”

The weight of Tim’s words slowly settled on Linda. “You mean, he’ll—?”

“He’ll never know another moment’s peace for the rest of his life. People will hound him, pleading for themselves or family or friends, day and night, night and day. Nonstop. Some gentle, others less so.”

“But why is that necessary?” Linda asked.

“My white blood cells can’t be synthesized. Top minds have tried and failed time and again. And although my blood can be stored, the white blood cells lose their miraculous properties over a period of thirty-six hours outside my body.

“I would have been strapped to a table in a laboratory for the rest of my natural life if I wasn’t for my brother. Hell of a lawyer. Fought his ass off to petition the quality of life rights that allow me the tiny bit of freedom I have. The stipulation is I must share my gift, triage the world, help the sickest among you. There are restrictions, legal hours when people have the right to approach me, but no one listens. How can they be expected to follow the rules when they or their loved ones are dying?

“I used to fight it. Turn people away when the established workday was through. Dealt with the angry mobs and the death threats. Then I asked myself, “Why?” Why fight my fate? If I’m meant to help people, why shouldn’t I do it when it needs to be done and not only when I want to do it? And there’s a selfish reason if I’m honest. You see, if I help enough people, if enough of the populace possesses my blood, I won’t be special anymore or alone in all this. Maybe then, when there’s enough blood to go around and my bit for the world is done, the price of my gift paid, maybe then I can be left alone to die in peace.”

Linda hesitated. She shook her head and turned to leave. “This… this is… “ She stumbled over the words, not knowing how to express her thoughts.

Tim realized too late that he said too much, chose the wrong person to unburden himself on. He regretted his action instantly. “It’s a lot to process, I know. Why don’t you go home and discuss it with Dick? You can contact me if you decide to go through with it.”

From his shirt pocket, he fished out a solid white business card, imprinted only with a faint phone number that had to be viewed at the proper angle in order to be seen. “A direct line, please don’t share it with anyone.”

“I won’t,” Linda muttered as she shambled to the doorway. “I — look, I know you can’t talk about the other people you’ve seen, but can you just tell me if anyone has ever turned down your help after you’ve explained everything to them?”

For a moment, Tim didn’t respond, he just watched as the hope drained from her face. “More people than you might imagine.” He noted she found no reassurance in his answer. He turned away, unable to look upon her sorrow any longer. He had his own to contend with.

Over his shoulder, he said, “On your way out, can you send the next person in, please?”

©1988 & 2016 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

The Gedankenexperiment of Speculative Fiction

“Funny, they made this new genre called Speculative Fiction, I thought all fiction had always been speculative.” ― Teri Louise Kelly

Once upon a time, science fiction fell into disrepute. The genre once considered the literature of ideas that explored the consequences of scientific innovations and discussed the philosophical ideas of identity, morality, and social structure became little more than a dumping ground for poorly written stories bereft of creativity. When readers began griping about content and authors sought a means to escape the mainstream critics’ prejudices associated with the genre, an older, forgotten term was plucked from obscurity, dusted off, and put into play:

Speculative fiction.

Largely thought to have been coined by Robert A. Heinlein in a 1947 issue of The Saturday Evening Post as a synonym for science fiction, the term can actually be cited as far back as 1889. But in the 1960s, it helped classify the New Wave movement stories that were characterized by a focus on soft science and a high degree of experimentation. Sadly, the term fell into disuse around the mid-1970s.

When it reemerged in the 2000s, it became a convenient collective term for a set of genres including, but not limited to science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, superhero fiction, supernatural fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.

And with that bit of history in our rear-view mirror, let’s get on with the crunchy bits, shall we? Understanding that what works for me may not work for some, submitted for your approval, here is my short and uncomplicated list of suggestions to help you wrap your writerly noggin around the rules for creating a solid spec-fic piece:

1. Your story foundation is comprised of two ingredients. First up: Plot aka Worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is a term popularized at science fiction writers’ workshops in the 1970s, and it does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s the process of constructing an imaginary world and/or entire fictional universe from the planet up, or the universe down, or a combination of both. Consider it the ultimate backstory for your piece as you develop history, create geographical maps, and define ecology.

Building from the planet up is the devil in the details approach, where most of your attention will be focused on local geography, culture, social structure, government, politics, commerce, and history.

When you’re building from the universe down, you paint your creation with broad strokes such as the overview of a world, its inhabitants (civilizations, and nations), technology level (key for determining cities, and towns), major geographic features (such as continents), climate, and history, adding the appropriate level of detail as you go along.

2. The second plot foundation ingredient: Characterization.

The protagonist, in a spec-fic setting, generally tends to either be a phenomenal person in banal circumstances or a normal person in bizarre circumstances, and the reason should be obvious as their very presence causes a disruption in their respective environments.

Should you decide to go the phenomenal person route, realize that perfect characters are boring. You should always feel the need to infuse your characters with the juices that makes them tasty to your audience. Yes, we’re talking about giving them flaws–or weaknesses–that come in either one of two shades:

  • A Psychological Weakness: A character trait (pride, cowardice, vengeance, distrust, etc.) within the protagonist which is destroying their life.
  • A Moral Weakness: A character flaw that harms the protagonist and those around him/her.

Characters can have more than one flaw and may even possess psychological and moral weaknesses at the same time, but you should try not to overdo it. Although your audience loves seeing broken characters struggling with their flaws, they may walk away if you push the envelope too far.

3. Be mindful of your speculative element.

Whenever you create a world from scratch, even if you’re basing it on the one in which you live, it will feature an element of unreality, or something that wouldn’t be possible in the real world as we know it. Whatever this element is, make sure it’s the context for your story, that it provides a foundation for the plot.

This speculative element is your gedankenexperiment, your hypothesis, theory, or principle that must be thought through to explore its consequence. When you’ve done that, you’ll have created the theme of your piece.

This should be done before you finalize your protagonist and plotline.

4. Keep an eye on the believability gauge.

In truth, this shouldn’t even be on the list because you should know better. How many times have you read a story when something absolutely ridiculous happened that yanked you right out of the moment? Yes, you entered into the story with the knowledge that it was a work of fiction, but every story has a set of rules that should be established upfront and when those rules are broken, your suspension of disbelief shatters along with it.

This especially applies to the laws of physics. Even if your piece contains magic or the technological equivalents of it, you should attempt to explain it as scientifically as you can manage with modified real-world physics. The closer it is to reality, the more believable it becomes.

5. Experiment and test the boundaries and limitations of genres.

I despise the term think outside the box, really I do, so what you should try to do instead is believe there is no box. No box. No limitations. No boundaries. Cherry-pick elements and tropes from other genres. Tell the story from an unusual point of view. Paint yourself into corners and use that brainbox of yours to finagle a way out.

The key here is to get out of the mindset of giving people what you think they want. Not only is that a dangerous game to play, but in all honesty, people who claim to want something new don’t actually know what they’re looking for because they can only judge new by what they’ve had before. Focus instead on giving your audience something unique to chew on, but not hard to swallow.

Number Six is unofficial, but important nonetheless: Have fun.

It’s extremely important that you enjoy the process of writing, as it’s a time-consuming endeavor and let’s face it, that time could be better spent doing something you truly love. And never mind if your writing isn’t great yet, all that matters is that you’re having fun. So just keep pushing that pen and writing your heart out until you put your story on paper.

Sally forth and be gedankenexperimentally writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Related articles:

The Three Characteristics of Successful Fiction

The Short and Short of Flash Fiction

I Question Your Character (and so should you)

Your Writing Says More About Your Character Than You Realize

Suggested speculative fiction reading list:

Strange Wine by Harlan Ellison

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Slightly behind and to the left : four stories & three drabbles by Claire Light
The Stone Raft by José Saramago
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

Do Your Legwork… the Proper Way

Lately I seem to be coming across more and more authors who thumb their noses up at the thought of doing research, which makes me scratch my puzzler. Not only is it a fundamental part of the process, regardless of the type of fiction you write, it is also a chance to learn and grow as a person as well as a writer. The simple fact is, if research truly is the bane of your existence, then you’re not doing it right.

Yes, you are most likely creating an entire world from scratch, in your own image and the laws of reality obey whatever rules strike your fancy, but even the most fantastical setting must have a sturdy foundation. And that foundation must be built with bricks of solid facts in order for your story to have any sort of credence.

I personally enjoy the research stage almost as much as the construction stage, but I understand how daunting a task fact-finding can be, so I’ve jotted down a few of the steps I tend to use when I’m in that researching frame of mind:

1. Pinpoint the right questions. The assumption is that you either have a strong interest in or possess a rudimentary knowledge of the story you’re attempting to pen. And that’s all you need in the beginning when you’re plucking the idea from the ether and committing it to the page in the form of an outline. But as you rearrange the story sequentially and create scenes to flesh the idea out into proper story form, you should be asking yourself how you’re going to make the story mechanics work. If your story is a period piece, you should be knowledgeable of that era, if your main characters hold down specific jobs, you should be familiar with the basics of their occupations, if the story takes place in a different part of the world… you get the point. Your research begins when you write your outline because that’s where you’ll find the questions that need answering.

2. Locate your resources. You’re probably thinking this part’s a cinch as long as you’ve got internet access, and I can’t really argue the point. As I’ve stated in a previous post, the internet is the wise sage of our virtual village (see: Applying Life Lessons To Your Writing) but, as is true with a great deal of online content, the reliability of the source material found therein can be erroneous, so verify, verify, verify as best you can in order to avoid unnecessary embarrassment at a later date. Myself, I tend to be a bit old-fashioned in my approach to research and armed with my trusty dusty library card I visit ye olde public bibliotheca in search of books pertaining to the various subjects in my story. I only rely on the internet as a back-up resource if I come up empty at the library.

3. Make a treasure map for your gold. What good is that golden nugget bit of research that you’ve discovered if you can’t lay your hands on it when you need it? If you own the book, sure you can bookmark or dog-ear pages, underline or highlight passages–but only if you own the book, please, marking up someone else’s tome is utter book sacrilege. If the book isn’t yours to mar, you can create your own index system by jotting down the book title, page and paragraph numbers, and a few keywords on the passage’s content. Then when you’re done info-gathering, you can transfer the text to your computer (arranged by subject headings) or to a notepad if you prefer to write longhand.

4. Create a vision board. Sounds hokey, I know, but pictures have that magical ability to transport your fertile imagination to all the unfamiliar aspects within your story and adding a visual component to your research and writing can help to serve as inspiration for time periods, locales, era clothing, vehicles, weaponry, etc.

5. Walk around in your story like you own the place. Nothing worse than a writer who lacks the confidence to strut their stuff within the world they’ve created. Even if that world is rife with utter nonsense, your job is to sell that nonsense as truth. There’s a saying that used to be popular when I wore a younger man’s clothes, but I haven’t come across it in a dog’s age, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Now, this doesn’t mean you should out-and-out lie to your audience, but if the moment arrives when research fails and you need to invent something in order to make your story work, you should endeavor to portray it with as much authenticity as possible.

All the rest of the time? You live up to the trust that your audience places in your hands by checking and double-checking your sources and making sure your facts are as accurate as they can be. Also, you need to keep in mind that despite your best efforts, you aren’t ever going to get the facts correct all the time, but that doesn’t give you a reason not to do your due diligence. And should you ever deliberately decide to ignore the facts, you should alert your audience either in the author’s notes or afterword.

One of a writer’s biggest attractions to the written art form can be best summed up as, ex nihilo omnia fiunt–from nothing, everything is created–but we owe a duty to our audience to make the lie of fiction as truthful as possible.

Sally forth and be researchful.