The Man

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In the beginning of what most believed in their heart of hearts to be the End of Days, there was The Distant Signal. It came in the form of a definitive and verified multi-language message broadcast to all the countries of Earth simultaneously.

What should have been a moment of joyous acknowledgment that we were not alone in the universe, was tainted by a subliminal signal that triggered an automatic flight response in all the various and sundry life forms on the planet.

Dubbed The Great Terror by the media, it opened the door to speculation about the global impact alien contact might have on world governments, organized religions, stock markets, and most importantly human existence.

Then came news of the one person on the planet unaffected by the subliminal signal.

His business card was made of carbon-fiber-reinforced thermoplastic. Laser etched in red on the back was his phone number, four digits, no area or country code, because it wasn’t needed. The number could be dialed from anywhere in the world, toll-free. The front of the card delivered the most accurate message any business card ever had. It told the bearer exactly who he was in two simple words:

The Man

Normally slang that referred to either the government, an authority in a position of power, or a drug dealer — which he had no issue with, as he had allegedly been all those things in his youth — it currently served as a term of respect and praise.

The Man had no official credit rating, never owned a bank account, and his fingers never knew the texture of cash. His currency was the Boon License, a service performed, payable by a service at his behest.

The Man never advertised his services, and thanks to a universal binary code, he wasn’t searchable on the internet. His legend was viral, spread word of mouth from those who benefited from his services. The downside of this Chinese whispers campaign were all the old wives’ tales that attached themselves to his accomplishments like gossip remoras:

  • He was incapable of telling the truth and he gained supernatural powers by winning a bet with the Devil in a liar’s competition.
  • He thrived on the broken hearts of virgins after he stole the purest form of love from them.
  • He was born without a soul.
  • He was a genetic engineering experiment using stem cell materials that haven’t been able to be duplicated.
  • He was born with one hundred percent brain capacity and as a result, has all the information stored on every computer and the internet in his brain.
  • He averted World War Three by winning the jackpot in a poker game with the world’s superpowers.

For a person who bartered in boons, how could he resist collecting favors from the entire planet? But when The Man accepted the offer, he scoured governments, both domestic and foreign, for help, with absolutely no success.

Once The Man signed the contract, he was elected to make first contact, and the world leaders resigned from their posts and contingency plans were underway to build underground shelters. He could not find a government, nation, country, or individual to stand by his side.

The final extraterrestrial message contained a set of coordinates for the rendezvous point. Although no one would stand by him, he was able to call in several favors to arrange transport to one of the remote volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunha.

The alien armada arrived like a meteor storm, ships of shifting geometrics burned through Earth’s mesosphere and parked themselves in the stratosphere around the entire planet so that they blotted out the sun.

Plunged into darkness, The Man stood his ground as a lone, illuminated craft, smaller than the other ships, descended to the rendezvous point and touched down on the soil light as a feather.

The ship altered its form and peeled itself away from its passenger and repurposed itself into a ramp. The alien glided forward. It existed on the outer fringes of humanoid description but The Man found its features and its form somehow alluring.

The alien handed him a card with strange markings and upon contact with his skin, the card pricked his thumb and took a DNA sample. The markings changed, cycling through alphabets until it hit his native earthbound English. When all the letters were in place, it simply read:

The Woman

The alien smiled.

The Ennui of This Moment

He really did try his damnedest to live his life in a productive manner, the only bit of advice he retained from his absentee father before he faded like the memory of a dream upon waking, but despite his efforts, it seemed as though he hadn’t made one definitive move in the right direction. There had been baby steps, to be sure, all down the vaunted paths less traveled, but for every baby step forward, life managed to push him two adult paces back, which racked up a ton of negative miles on his life odometer pushing his right direction destination so far forward it blinked out of existence on the horizon.

He heard that knowledge was power and he was very knowledgeable in the fact that life was what happened to you when you made other plans but of what use was that now? What was the answer? To grin and bear it? To roll with the punches? To play the hand he was dealt? Not exactly proactive, was it? And when he discovered knowledge did not necessarily mean answers, he was left with another riddle to heap upon the compost mound of riddles he accumulated over the course of his misbegotten life: When did the real answers come? Answers that counted for something?

Did they come in the middle of the night, when the pillow whispered his dreams back to him or was the house creaking an Aramaic Morse code about his destiny as it settled each night? Or was everything realized the moment he awoke from a nightmare, in that flash second when he didn’t know where he was or what was real from what was an illusion and the fear gripped him like a tangled, sweat-soaked bed sheet?

Then he began to suspect the answer didn’t exist within us, not singularly, anyway. What if each and every human being contained some small piece of a larger puzzle and all it took was the connection of communication to fit the pieces together? There was a saying acquired from a passing acquaintance that went, “You were never more than five minutes driving distance from an absolute stranger that had the ability to care for you, perhaps they could not offer love unconditionally, but they honestly cared about what happened to you.”

But he destroyed that somewhere along the way. He made strangers out of relatives and friends and instead of concentrating on what made people alike, he focused on what made them different. And there really wasn’t a great love for people who were different from the vision he had of himself.

He wasn’t what anyone would call a spiritual being, nor did he reside anywhere in that neighborhood, but he knew that there was tremendous energy that existed at this moment. Right here. Right now. He just couldn’t seem to tap into it. He was far too busy shrugging off the past and contemplating the future to focus on how he was feeling in the moment, or alarmed at the lack of what he was feeling at present. And perhaps that was the real issue. Perhaps he overthought his existence instead of simply existing.

But who wanted to merely exist? To live life on cruise control? He wanted to be consumed in a fiery passion of–of…well, therein lay the problem. He didn’t know what he should have been passionate about anymore. It was like someone or something blew out the pilot light of his passion so that even the things that used to fascinate him barely held his interest anymore. It was like he outgrew his old life and emerged into a void. Waves of ennui assaulted him daily and though he realized that he must accept thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations as they came (accept, surrender, observe, and then, let go)…this didn’t change the fact that this existence, in this incarnation, had grown tiresome.

The ennui of this moment was overwhelming. He had the urge to deaden his senses with the mindless distraction of television, but instead, sat silently and surrendered. He submitted to what was. He allowed himself to feel himself; to truly experience the exactness of this infinite moment without judgment or ridicule. The difficulty of this task reminded him of a college professor’s eloquent analogy of The Tao:

“The current in a river carries you. If you try to swim upstream, you break the flow, you struggle. If you see a rock and you attempt to hold tightly onto it, the water will shove, thrust, push against you until your arms weaken and your body aches. Work with the current and the current works with you; work against the current and the current works against you. The only way to avoid the struggle is to simply flow; allow the river to carry you, surrender to all that is, and your course – even when rough – will be tranquil.”

He needed to learn to give up the struggle. Or rather, he knew to give up the struggle, now he needed to practice doing so. Upset by what was, angered by what wasn’t, worried about what would be, and anxious about what strife may come, he couldn’t even see the now, let alone feel it, taste it, touch it and live in it.

He couldn’t just flow. He couldn’t stop swimming upstream or clutching to all that was inconsequential.

No matter how hard he tried.

A Scrapbook of Daydreams

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That kind of relationship is doomed before it even begins,” her mother warned. “His type… they can’t be faithful, it isn’t in their genetic makeup.” But Alison paid no heed and fell headfirst in love with the living embodiment of a daydream.

She thought she’d made the right decision. What did her mother know? And in the beginning, Alison felt vindicated because he was always there for her, never once realizing that was the normal way daydreams functioned, recurring whenever the mind was idle.

The daydream held her in bed and distracted her with his essence so that she drifted off to sleep without the usual brain clutter that triggered her chronic insomnia, and made sure he was the first sight Alison saw when she woke up. He never slept. What use would a daydream have with sleep? He simply watched her and waited until she began her cute pattern of soft snoring, before taking a stroll through her mind.

He never spoke. He preferred instead to flash images in Alison’s mind. Naturally, he knew exactly what he was doing. Knew he owned the keys to her heart and soul and, as often was the case with the person in control in a relationship, he doled out his attention and affection in small doses. She tried, really tried her best not to be greedy and not to demand more, but that, like most things, was easier said than done.

Then one morning, after he laid her head on the pillow to rest the night before, as he had done numerous times, he was gone. No note that indicated where he was off to or when he would have returned.

Then began the dark times. Seconds, minutes, hours stretched into the forever period of withdrawal, where Alison was crushed beneath the pressure of constant craving when her heart sat within her chest like so much dead weight.

And after the craving stage had crept along at its snail’s pace, along came the self-examination stage to fill the void. What had she done wrong? Was she too needy? Smothering? And when she grew weary of guessing, of trying to rewrite the past as if that would have somehow altered the present so that he was still here with her, Alison tried to find a place for him in her past. A drawer or compartment where he could have remained tucked away until such time as she was stronger and more capable of dealing with the memory of him.

Forgetting him might have been much easier if not for the images he filled Alison’s head with, the stories weaved through pictures. They remained and were strongest when the dawn approached. That must have been when he left.

When her mother visited, she asked, “Why can’t you look me in the eye?

I don’t want to do the whole I told you so thing, Mom.” Alison replied.

When have I ever done that?

You don’t say the words, but I can see it in your eyes.

That’s a lie and we both know it,” her mother said. “The truth is you don’t respect me, maybe rightfully so.

Respect you? You’re a drunk, Mom. I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say it.” The words were out of Alison’s mouth before she could stop them.

I’m a recovering alcoholic…

Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. I mean, why would I take advice from a woman whose life is a shambles? Your drinking didn’t only wreck your marriage, it destroyed my family! So, how are you wiser than me when it comes to affairs of the heart?

Her mother exhaled slowly. “I understand more than you realize. You think you’re the only one who’s ever gone through what you’re going through, and that’s not necessarily your fault. When you’re young, you always feel that way.

But I’m here to tell you, kiddo, you’re not the first or only person to fall in love with a daydream. Not only did it happen to me, but I convinced him to marry me and we had you.

Dad?

Yeah. You think your father left because I drank, and that’s my fault because I should have explained it to you, but I didn’t know how. The truth is I started drinking when I felt him slipping away. I tried to hold on the best way I knew how but the inherent problem with a daydream, even a recurring one, is that they’re never meant to stay in one place for very long. They’re born to stray.

Oh. Mom… !” Alison hugged her mother as tightly as she could. She hoped somehow her mother could feel just how sorry she was about everything that happened between them over the years.

Realizing what a fool she had been, and instead of living in a past relationship and trying to hold her life together with spit and string, Alison chose to work on rebuilding the relationship with her mother, a woman who was stronger than she ever realized.

And every now and then, when there was that familiar twinge in Alison’s heart, a fast but powerful thought of her wild one, her mother helped her collect the stories in a scrapbook of daydreams. But Alison hadn’t done it for herself, she did it for the little one who would be arriving any day now.

Her daughter deserved to know about her father.

Vacancies, Vacancies Everywhere, Yet None of Them For Me

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My secret self—the bit of me that hides in plain sight just behind a corner of reality—has been wandering my memory palace of late, searching for an empty room in which to steal a bit of solitude for I sometimes need to swaddle my internal dialogue in silence when even the quietest place on earth can offer me no rest.

You might have surmised correctly that I’ve been met with very little success.

Oh, there are rooms aplenty in which I enjoy the occasional lounge-about, each filled with bric-à-brac I’ve accumulated along the way. Items or concepts or vagueries that may or may not find their way into a story, plot germs that piqued my interest for one reason or another, displayed neatly on shelves beside those things kept precious, but each of these pieces of me gives off unique vibrations that assault my mind’s ear like anamnestic tinnitus.

A few of my unused characters who can afford the steep rent have made the suggestions that I either choose my favorite among them to room with or take turns bunking with every one of them for short periods as not to overstay my welcome.

But that really isn’t my style. I like the idea of knowing where characters are so that I might visit them and engage in brief social interactions when I’m in the mood, and leave them to their own devices when I’ve had my fill. And although I am quite capable of being alone in a crowded room, I cannot find solitude with people around, not even the people in my mind, the ones that I have breathed life into.

My irritation at not being able to claim residence in a place that I have been constructing since childhood is beginning to infect other areas of my life. My current location annoys me. My inability to write annoys me. The presence of other people annoys me. The sameness of the day annoys me. Even my annoyance at everything annoys me.

And so Sunday comes ’round and I am attempting to build a new foundation for the memory palace extension on the lone and level sands of ground-down ideas, in a new territory where the old housing rules may not apply. Eventually, when my hoarder nature reveals itself and this section of the palace becomes filled with miscellanea most likely better left forgotten…

I’ll repeat the process. Search for my own patch of solitude. Light a candle and still curse the darkness. Build another room. And fill it with possessions that squeeze me to the point of eviction.

The Choosing Field

Umoja The Choosing Field

The Centria planted its feet atop the announcing mound and parted its lips slightly, a hairline fracture in a granite face that could not easily have been identified as either female or male, yet the sound it released rang out, dominating the mesonoxian air. The melodious octave, a tone lower than any being of flesh could detect unless at the precise moment of their birth or death, spread across the fields drowning out all other sounds. It was not merely a song though, it was an experience of music, one that incited a childlike fascination and curiosity within the listener but unlike a siren song that was an alluring appeal, The Centria’s aria was a command to be in attendance.

However, one tiny essentia who had named herself Umoja, declined to go to the ceremony. On outward appearances she was simply sitting in a field, plucking recall-me-not flowers and braiding them into a wreath. Internally, it took every iota of will to resist The Centria’s call. She strained her newly acquired imagination into picturing a giant hand of stone reaching from the ground and holding her as tight as it could, anchoring her to her favorite spot beside the ruminating pond. She did not appreciate being made to do things, especially things that brought her no pleasure. Truth be known, she did not much care for the gathering as she was not competitive like the others and with such a large crowd she was certain she would hardly be missed. So engrossed in her thoughts of rebellion, she hadn’t noticed the arrival of Custodian.

“Did you not hear The Centria calling for you, Umoja?” Custodian’s face, androgynous like The Centria, was pleasant and its tone gentle as always. No one had ever seen it be otherwise.

“I-I-I,” Umoja endeavored to hold onto her rebelliousness, but it evaporated in the presence of Custodian’s warmth. “I am not needed there.”

“Not needed? Why would you think that?”

“I am never chosen.”

“You are in pending status.”

“What?”

“It is another way of saying not yet. Never is an infinite word and is inaccurate in this case. You should have said I have not yet been chosen.”

“And I never will be.”

“That word again,” Custodian chuckled softly.

“I am not good enough or strong enough or loved enough.”

“Do you actually believe that?” Custodian took a knee, wrapped arms around Umoja and pulled her close. “Everyone here is equally good and equally loved. And as for being strong, you resisted The Centria’s call. I cannot remember anyone else in history ever doing that and my memory is long and infallible.”

“Really?”

Custodian nodded. “You should try being less hard on yourself. You are still forming and are not nearly what you will one day become.”

“And you know what that is?”

“How could I not? Your destiny is written all over your beautiful face.”

Umoja sprang to her feet, ran to the pond and studied her reflection. “I do not see anything.”

“Because you have not developed that sense yet and despite what you currently believe, I doubt you will remain here long enough to see what I see.”

The essentia spun back to Custodian, wide-eyed, “What does it say?”

“What does what say, dear?”

“My face! What is written on it? Please tell me! Please?”

“You have positioned me between the things I must say to you and the things I want to say. Sadly, I will not reveal your writings for one should never know their fate.”

“But what if I do not like my fate? How can I change it if I do not know what it is?”

“It would be foolish to attempt to outwit the plan you were destined for.”

“But…”

“If we are to continue this conversation,” Custodian interrupted. “It will have to be at a later time because I do not know about you, but I would rather not have The Centria vexed with me, so I am heading to the Choosing Field. Will you join me? I would appreciate the company.”

Umoja still did not want to go but Custodian had been so nice it would have been rude to refuse, so she nodded and placed the recall-me-not wreath on her head. Custodian scooped Umoja up and folded itself around her. They flew over the sea of emotions, past the knowledge trees and through the imagination mountains. She held on as tight as she could manage, occasionally nuzzling Custodian’s essence. She had never been this close to anyone before, felt this safe. She would not have traded this moment and wanted it to last forever, but the problem in a place where time has no meaning, where eternity is equal to an instant, is that treasured moments disappear within the blink of an eye. No sooner had Custodian lifted Umoja, they arrived at the Choosing Field.

Self-doubt played across Umoja’s face as she looked up at Custodian who was now surrounded by a light so bright one had to squint for risk of being blinded by its radiance. But within that light, there existed a warmth and comfort that Umoja wished she could take with her. Custodian leaned down to adjust Umoja’s recall-me-not headdress and smooth her rough patches. Her essence no longer fit her properly, it felt loose and saggy in places as if she had shrunken too small to fill it all the way. Every rejection seemed to take a bit from her and if things continued this way soon she would be little more than a husk.

The land was packed with preborns, essentias like herself yet uniquely different, as far as the eye could see in any direction. With a gentle nudge from Custodian, Umoja made her way down the aisle and squeezed in between a row of preborns, settling for a spot in the center of the crowd instead of taking a place in front which was her right. This gathering was her twenty thousand four hundred thirty-ninth which made her the oldest preborn in attendance, something that many of the essentias never failed to bring up. They questioned why Umoja had been overlooked so many times for so long. The inquiries weren’t born of malice, the new arrivals were merely curious but being the focus of unwanted scrutiny and speculation was never easy for her. Sometimes it was downright painful. But she bore it with all the grace she could muster, offering shrugs and smiles as answers.

The Centria’s song continued at a lower pitch, fading into the background when Custodian moved to a position before the crowd and began her speech.

“We are here to acknowledge and celebrate you magnificent preborns and the journey some, perhaps most, hopefully all of you are about to take. For the chosen, you are about to enter a new world filled with things beyond your imaginings. Some wondrous, others less so. Know that you come from a place of love, a place of hope and your arrival will be the cause of much joy. It is important that you keep within you, tucked away deep, the knowledge that you are not nor ever will be truly alone. You will not understand the importance of this yet, but I ask you to have faith, especially when faced with adversities you cannot even begin to fathom as of yet.”

The preborns nearest her watched in amazement as Umoja silently mouthed the words as Custodian spoke them. “You are life. You are the keepers of the secret knowledge of the universe. As such, it is expected that you will not speak of this place or this process. For most this will not be an issue since you will be unable to properly communicate upon arrival at your new homes. You must learn how to operate your new body which has an extensive learning curve as well as learn the language which is different from our form of communication. By the time you have fully acclimated, the knowledge of this place will reside in a place not reachable by your conscious mind. Since there are exceptions to this rule, we ask that should you remember, please respect our rules and keep the secret from those who might sabotage our way of life.”

Speech done, Custodian asked the first row of preborns to line up in front of The Centria, who began singing a different tune, more complex, covering a vast span of notes in rapid succession. That was Umoja’s problem, the reason she had been held back. She studied the notes and practiced them repeatedly whenever her schedule was not occupied with other important matters, but she found it impossible to change notes swiftly and seamlessly, unlike the first row of preborns who had not struggled even slightly as they sang along with The Centria matching notes until they were in perfect harmony. One by one they faded from this place, transported to their new homes. Row by row the preborns took their places before The Centria and blended their voice perfectly with the melody and departed.

Finally, it was her turn. Her place in line put her directly in front of The Centria which only made her already anxious heart beat faster. Just behind the vessel of the sacred song, Umoja saw Custodian, in violation of the rules during the ceremony, offer her a secret smile. Her anxiousness began shifting to excited hopefulness. She could do it. Custodian had faith in her and perhaps that would be the little push that helped her go all the way this time. The Centria began the song and Umoja’s first note was so off-key it drew stares from the preborns in line with her. If she returned their stares, she would have been done. This would have been her latest, her greatest disappointment and perhaps her final opportunity. How many more chances would they have allowed her before giving up completely?

Instead, she closed her eyes and thought of her deepest desires. The desire to have a home. The desire to belong to a family. The desire to be loved. The desire to build a life that demonstrated just how thankful she was to have been selected and given a chance to make a difference in the world beyond this world. Umoja opened her mouth and instead of forcing herself to hit the notes in unison with The Centria, she sang her own song which tasted sweet on her tongue yet made tears fall from her eyes. Suddenly it no longer mattered whether she could mimic the birthing song, all she wanted to do was sing her song forever, feel the happiness that was born of a sorrow that was now understandably necessary. She had finally accepted herself and her place in the workings of all things.

She opened her eyes and was prepared to stand off to the side to make way for the next row of preborns when she made eye contact with Custodian who also had tears rolling down its cheeks. Custodian mouthed the words, “Outwit your fate” as it beamed the brightest smile Umoja had ever seen and gave two thumbs up. Umoja was confused by this but returned the thumbs up only to notice her hands were turning translucent then transparent.

She had done it! Somehow she managed to sing the birthing song correctly. She wanted to run up to Custodian to give it a big hug and thank it and tell it that she loved it but it was too late. She had completely vanished.

The transition was a bizarre one. She could feel numerous types of sensations entering her presence. She was about to be born. She closed her eyes and prayed to be placed in the body of a girl. There had been stories of preborns that were birthed into bodies of genders in which they did not identify and the difficulties that resulted from this. Umoja had always identified as a girl and she wanted ever so badly to be placed within a girl’s body, so she made the biggest wish she ever made and closed it with the chant, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.” But soon into the process, she realized this was not the case. There was an oddness to her new body that she could not identify outright but she somehow knew that she had been placed into the body of a boy. And for a moment there was a twinge of disappointment but it was short-lived. She was successful in her endeavor to be born and she felt healthy and she would make the best of the situation with nary a complaint and live the best life possible for all involved.

But in the back of Umoja’s mind, a tiny voice chanted, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.”

Beached

At first, his world was consumed by the sounds of the sea. Rolling waves smashing against rocks. The shrill caw of seagulls from somewhere high above. Then a noise. A song? Four repetitious notes that began on the lowest frequency sound perceptible to the human ear that rose to an ear-splitting wail. Roland was pulled into consciousness sometime around dawn. His eyes fluttered open and he thought he was blind for a moment, his vision refusing to cooperate, but as sight gradually returned, for an instant he wished for darkness again. Emerging from the haze of blurry blobs and shapes were the aftereffects of a shipwreck, thrust upon the shore by the relentless crash of waves.

He pushed the wreckage of broken wood and fabrics off of himself and stood unsteadily in the scattered aftermath that was once a vessel. The morning mist began to burn off and Roland could see for miles in the sunlight reflecting off the sea. The beach was quiet and uninhabited, polluted with ownerless possessions, jagged spires of twisted metal and wood pointing at odd angles towards the sky.

Combing through the debris for other survivors, all he uncovered were bloated bodies clustered in puddles of black blood. It felt like a long, sharp blade slowly being driven into his heart. A great weight of hopelessness settled on him, getting heavier and heavier. Although he was the only living thing on this deserted strip of an uncharted island, he felt like he was dead. No, it felt like he was dying, over and over again. Unliving forever.

He was lost. Roland wasn’t a mariner, the furthest thing from it, stranded without a map, without the slightest idea where the waters had washed him, without a means of communicating to another living soul. He was surrounded by gritty sand that irritated his already raw skin, a few trees that bore no fruit, and a great body of water that uttered waves of mocking laughter at his uncertainty of it being safe to drink. At first, he collected containers of seawater and strained it through fabric, but he soon acknowledged he didn’t know what he was doing and truth be told it was too time-consuming and he had always been an impatient man, even with so much time on his hands. If it was salt water, so be it. Better than dying of thirst.

He was lonely. Over the course of several days, remnants of the ship washed ashore. He tried to occupy his mind by building a makeshift camp from flotsam and foliage. He also created signal fires from bits of wood he placed in the sun to dry and spelled out giant SOS messages in stones on the sand, but none of this was enough to dull the ache for companionship that swelled within him and nearly outweighed his ever-increasing hunger.

During the early mornings before the sun set itself at the hottest point in the sky, forcing him to find shade, Roland explored the shoreline and picked through the mostly useless debris. It was a futile effort and he wasn’t sure why he kept at it. Most of the litter had been committed to memory, but on the morning he swore to himself that he wouldn’t explore any longer—

Roland came upon an enormous whale beached on the surf.

Elated that his food worries were over, he scrounged around and found a bit of metal with a sharp enough edge to be used as a knife and wrapped a length of cloth around the other end, fashioning a handle that ensured he wouldn’t cut himself in the process. But before Roland drove his blade into the beast, the whale regarded him with its great eye, and something in that momentary exchange of glances struck a strange sort of empathy in the man’s heart. It turned out his need for a companion outweighed his need for sustenance.

Roland gathered up all the cloth he could lay his hands on, dipped the fabrics into the sea and draped them over the cetacean. He then dismantled his shelter and rebuilt it nearer to his new island mate. It was the hardest relationship he ever had to maintain, constantly gathering water in containers to keep his friend wet and spearing fish to feed it, most of which he was forced to eat when his friend declined. But it was worth the price of not being alone. Of having someone to talk to, even if the conversations were all one-sided.

The following day Roland heard a sound. A vocalization of four notes that registered on the borders of his perception. He wasn’t sure if it was whalesong, wasn’t sure that whales possessed the ability to speak out of the water, but whatever it was, it was a sound. And the whale made it.

Among the many things he knew nothing about, whalesong ranked high, but somehow he understood what the whale attempted to communicate. It had said to him:

let me die

Saddened by the prospect of being alone again, Roland argued with the whale, tried to reason with it, pleaded his case. The whale did not respond, apparently resolute in its decision. He had no choice but to abide by his friend’s wishes and formed a pact with the massive marine mammal not to leave its side, not to eat until the whale died.

For two days the man recounted the story of his life. He spoke of accomplishments and regrets in equal measure and tried to calculate the good he had done in the world and the legacy, if any, he would have left behind. And at the end of the second day, when all the stories worth telling had been told, the whale, skin dried and cracked rattled the notes for:

thank you

And died.

Roland mourned the passing of his friend and tried to no avail to commit the whale’s body back to the sea. His appetite never returned.

One morning, a week or so later, he spotted a ship on the horizon. He dragged his weakened frame across the sand over to the kindling of the signal fire and set about to light it but paused instead and looked over his shoulder at the decaying whale.

“Don’t think they’d be anxious to take you along, would they?” he sighed. “No. I guess they wouldn’t.” Roland turned his back on the ship and returned to his shelter.

He released his grip on life that very same evening.

***

A commercial fishing trawler, more rust than boat, bobbed across the heavy chops of the sea. The hard, beaten-faced crew hoisted up nets filled with their catch. A shadow suddenly fell over the deck and the fishermen looked to the vast spill of stars in the night sky and for the briefest of moments spotted the silhouette of a man riding on the back of a whale against the waning moon.

ReFilling Emptiness

He sat by the window, his gaze meandering across the verdant countryside. Despite the pleasantness of the day, his disposition was anything but sunny.

“We need to talk,” said a voice behind him.

“Not in the mood for another of your lectures,” he said, not even bothering to look at her.

“I’m ending our contract,” she said.

This forced his head to turn, and a concern that rose to fear crossed his face. “Why?”

“You’re not living up to your end of the bargain.”

“I told you I just need a little time to adjust.”

“It’s been three years, I think I’ve been more than patient.”

“It’s not my fault that I still remember my last body and the life that came with it.”

“And it shouldn’t be my problem that you agreed to be ReFilled before you were ready.”

“You told me you loved this body.”

“I do. That body fits perfectly with me. Luckily your brooding hasn’t put too much wear and tear on it which is why I’m not asking for a RePlacement, just a ReFill.”

“So, you aim to keep the body, just not the person currently occupying it,” he shook his head. “I’ll appeal.”

“Your appeal grace period has passed. You had a six-month window, it’s been three years, remember?”

“I can try—try to be the man you want me to be, need me to be.”

“It’s too late for that. I’ve already filled out the paperwork. You’re being ReStocked tonight and I’ll have a brand new ReFill by morning. I thought I’d give you some time to prepare yourself. And don’t even think about being petty and damaging that body, self-harm restraints have been activated to prevent any vindictiveness.”

“Even if the safeguards weren’t in place, I wouldn’t have done that. I’m not a vindictive man.”

“I know. It’s just a precaution. None of this would have been necessary, you realize, had you just opened up to me.”

He considered that a moment before asking, “Have you ever been ReStocked?”

“No. Original body and soul going on forty years now.”

“Then you don’t know what it’s like, being ripped from a warm body and placed in any icy limbo queue with other souls who moan incessantly about the lives they left behind, on and on for what feels like an eternity, until the memory purge takes place and all the souls become ReConditioned and ReTurned to factory settings.

“But sometimes the process doesn’t work, sometimes a soul remembers what it had, what it lost.

“In my case, I had a wife who I loved more than anything in the world and two precious little girls who were carbon copies of their mother. I would have died to keep them safe, and I did.

“There was a break-in in my home, in my previous home. An intruder made a noise that woke the girls and the girls came and woke my wife and I. I told them to go to the bathroom, it’s the most secure room in the house, in case you didn’t know, and I told them to lock the door and stay there until I came to get them.

“There were no weapons in the house, my wife and I wouldn’t have a gun in the same house as curious children, but I played golf, I bet you didn’t know that about me, so armed with a golf club, I crept downstairs but I must have made a noise because the burglar was waiting for me with a gun. He shot me at point blank range and the gunshot made my girls scream.

“The burglar climbed the stairs and kicked at the bathroom door until it gave in. My wife put the girls in the bathtub and stood in front of them shielding them with her body as the burglar raised his gun…

“I pounced on him trying to wrestle the gun away. Ignoring the pain of my wound, I struggled with all my might to pull the gun muzzle away from my family and I managed to get the gun between us when it went off.

“The bullet killed the burglar, but his first shot and the excessively bleeding that followed proved to be my undoing.

“That’s why I couldn’t be what you wanted me to be, because in my mind I’m still married to a woman who has probably moved on, and I couldn’t bear to cheat on her. I would have traveled to them, my family, but it seems the memory purge was successful in wiping out their names and location. The memory fades slightly each day and my hope was that it would have faded enough to give you what you needed from this body, but it seems I’ve run out of time.”

“Why couldn’t you tell me all this before?” she asked.

“For fear you would have ReStocked me sooner.”

She took him by the hand and led him to the bedroom. The plan was to make their remaining time together pleasant for both of them but he wasn’t ready for that level of connection, so they climbed into bed and fell asleep in each other’s arms until day turned to night.

He woke to her nakedness. She was sitting astride him and to his bewilderment, he was naked too. Pinned beneath her, he closed his eyes and gave into her control of the situation but in his mind, he was with his wife, a woman whose name he could no longer recall and whose face was clouded like a steam-misted bathroom mirror.

After she reached the pinnacle and collapsed into his arms, he said, “You don’t look forty in the least.”

She raised herself on her elbows and pressed her lips to his but by that time the body that fit so well with her own was in the process of being ReFilled.

Matters of the Heart

Sometimes it’s difficult to return, even if it’s to something you love, which for me is writing.

The reason? Well, while the rest of the world was focusing on the pandemic over the past two-plus years, I was dealing with the fact that my heart wouldn’t act right. I’m not going to go into too much detail but if you’re interested, you can read about it here: A Funny Thing Happened… and here: Widowmaker.

Almost a year to the day of my last stent implantation, my cardiologist sent me for a nuclear stress test (because after a few months of following the doctor’s orders and feeling fine, the chest pressure returned whenever I exerted myself) and I failed the test so miserably that I was rushed to the hospital for another catheterization, but the surgeon discovered the stents had failed and felt the best option was bypass surgery.

That was in the middle of June and recovery from open heart surgery is a creature that drags its feet at the slowest pace imaginable. Aside from the physical post-operation incision, chest muscle, rib cage, lungs, and heart pains, there are mental and emotional side effects as well, chief among them being the loss of interest in favorite activities, hence the reason why I haven’t been writing.

I intend to change that.

New story next week.

Maybe.

‘Til next now, be at peace, take care of your heart, be kind to others, and enjoy your life!

Duchess and the Anecdote

Duchess

They come from miles around, my characters do, traveling the great distance from the fringes of my mind’s eye, some even making the long and arduous haul from my childhood, just to sit and talk. They do this whenever I’m alone.

As they gather ’round, I cast an eye upon their many and various faces and can’t help but feel the slightest twinge of remorse. Being in my company, locked within the confines of my imagination, is not wholly unlike a purgatory for them. A holding pattern, a waiting room, where they converse amongst themselves in voices audible only to myself, trying to catch my attention in the slimmest hope of being set free. Birthed into a story.

Some are fresh meat, the rest lifers, each easily spotted by the differences in their appearance and the strength of their voices. Fresh meats are gossamers—newly formed characters, little more than a stack of traits—who shout in whispers. Lifers, on the other hand, are as fleshed out as you or I, perhaps even more so, who have acquired the proper pitch and turn of phrase to catch me unawares during the times when my mind idles.

Before the talks begin–serious conversation, not the normal natterings they engage in–a flying thing the size of a butterfly, jewel-toned blue stripes, greenish-gold spots, with flecks of silver on the wings, lands in the palm of my outstretched hand.

“What is that then?” a childlike voice asks from somewhere deep in the crowd, low to the ground. I recognize it instantly.

“It’s an anecdote, Duchess. Come see for yourself.” I reply as the creature’s wings beat softly on my palm.

The throng–my personal rogue’s gallery whose roster includes reputables and reprobates alike–part like the Red Sea, making way for the noblest of all serval cats, The Duchess.

“An antidote? Have you been poisoned?” The Duchess queries as she saunters into the open space, a dollop of concern gleaming in her vivid blue eyes.

I try to not laugh, partly out of respect, but mostly due to the fact that though she is the eldest of my unused characters, she is technically still but a kitten. “No, Duchess, it’s an anecdote, as in a short, amusing, or interesting story about a person or an incident.“

“I know full well what an anecdote is, thank you kindly. I was merely attempting to lighten the dreadfully somber mood with a bit of levity.” Not her best faux pas cover, but it was swift, which should count for something. As casually as she could manage, the kitten turned to see if anyone found amusement at her expense. No one did. They knew better. “May I hold it?”

I hesitate and stare at the leapling. Created on February 29th all those many years ago, it was my rationale–on paper–for keeping her a kitten, seeing as she had fewer birthdays, she would naturally age at a decelerated rate. The actuality is I have an affinity for kittens. For full-grown cats? Not so much. And now the dilemma is if her kittenish nature should come into play, and without meaning to, cause injury to the anecdote, then all this would be for naught.

Her eyes plead with all the promise of being good and I have no choice but to relent. “It’s fragile, so be gentle. Take care not to crush it.” I gently place the anecdote in her cupped paws.

“Why does one need an anecdote?” The Duchess of Albion asked, her nose twitching whenever the creature moves its wings.

“To tell a proper story,” I answer. “More than just a sequence of actions, anecdotes are the purest form of the story itself.“

“But I thought characters are at the heart of every great story?“

“They are and anecdotes connect the hearts and minds of those characters to a story.” I try to feign calm but I can see the kitten’s body tensing up. Her eyes, those glorious baby blues, are studying the creature closely. Was I wrong in my decision to trust that she rules her instincts and not the other way around?

“They also add suspense to your story, giving the audience a sense that something is about to happen. If you use them right, you can start raising questions right at the beginning of your story—something that urges your audience to stay with you. By raising a question, you imply that you will provide your audience with the answers. And you can keep doing this as long as you remember to answer all the questions you raise.“

The kitten’s breath becomes rapid and her paws close in around the anecdote and I want to cry out, urge her to stop, but it’s far beyond that point now. She is in control of her own fate. Canines bare themselves, paws pulling the creature closer to her mouth.

“No!” she shakes her head violently. Her ears relax and her mouth closes as her breathing returns to normal. Then, the oddest thing happens…

The Duchess begins to vanish. All the characters look on in dazed silence, uncertain how to react.

“What is happening to me?” she shoots me a panicked glance as cohesion abandons her form.

“Haven’t you sussed it out yet?“

“No… I’m scared!“

“Don’t be,” I smile. “Look around you. You’re at the heart of a story. You’re free.“

“Truly?” she is suddenly overwhelmed with delight, her expression priceless. “But — but what do I do with the anecdote now?”

“Open your paws, let it fly off.”

She unfolds her paws. Tiny wings beat their path to freedom. Then someone from the back of the crowd gives The Duchess a slow clap. Soon, others join in, building into a tidal wave of applause.

The now translucent Duchess waves a tearful thank you to the crowd, before turning back to me with a request, “Say my name.“

“Why?“

“Because you always simply address me as Duchess and I want to hear you call me by my full name one last time before I g– —“

And just like that, she was gone.

I bid you a fond farewell, Your Grace the Duchess of Albion Gwenore del Septima Calvina Hilaria Urbana Felicitus-Jayne Verina y de Fannia. Enjoy your journey. You will be missed.

 

Fending Off Them Pesky Writing Demons

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There will be days, despite all the brilliant advice you’ve collected up to this point and your very best intentions, when you will not be able to write a single word. I just need you to realize:

You. Are. Not. Alone. In. This.

Every writer falls victim to these pesky writing demons at some point, but what marks your ability as a serious writer is how you rise to the challenge and get your writing back on track, secure in the knowledge that you have the power to keep the negative mental beasties at bay. As always, I offer a few tips for you to stuff inside your writing rucksack for a rainy day:

  1. When you pluck an idea from the ether, jot it down immediately. Ideas arrive without warning and evaporate from your mind like a dream upon waking. When you’re hit with an idea, you’re always sure you’ll remember it. Foolish mortal. How many story ideas have you lost relying solely on your overtaxed memory? When an idea hits, take a moment to put it in writing—we tend to remember things we physically write down—or carry around a digital voice recorder or use that recording app on your smartphone that you forgot you have.
  2. Don’t start on a blank page. La página en blanco. La page vierge. Die leere seite. La malplenan paĝon. Den tomma sidan. Built entirely of writers’ blocks, the blank page is the fire in which writers burn. The abyss that stares back and makes us overthink committing words to the page. The way to combat it? Don’t start with a blank page. Put something at the top of the page. Anything. A random sentence, the story’s mission statement, or ask a question. Better yet, have a character ask a question and then set out to answer it. Whatever you put there isn’t set in stone and can be altered or eliminated entirely once you work out what you truly want to write.
  3. You don’t always have to begin at the beginning. Sometimes you’re hit with a juicy dialogue exchange, a powerful scene, or an intense interaction…but it belongs somewhere in the middle of a story that you haven’t quite sussed out yet. That’s all right. Take what you have and get it down on paper without worrying about the order in which scenes are written. Once you have that, you can begin fleshing out other connecting scenes and when your basic draft is done, you can go back, reshuffle the order and polish it.
  4. Stop waiting for the perfect word. When you sit down to write, write. Flipping through your mental thesaurus is not part of the creative process of capturing your ethereal ideas and solidifying them on the page. Keep writing. Don’t let anything take you away from the act of committing words to the page. Write first, and show your brilliance later.
  5. Cheat on your favorite writing spot. Yes, yes, cheating is a bad thing and I would never condone it anywhere else, for any other reason (honest), but sometimes you can become so comfortable writing in one particular place that it ends up being the only place you can get your writing done. By venturing out and writing in new locations—the park, public library, coffee shop, public atriums—you’re training yourself to put words on paper wherever you are. The ideal location doesn’t make you a writer, your ability to write no matter where you are situated does.
  6. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. There’s only so much revision, re-editing, and perfecting a story can take. There comes a time in each story’s life when you’re going to have to accept that your baby is all grown up now and it’s about as perfect as you can make it. Also, continuously reworking a story is a little mind game you play with yourself. It’s an excuse for not starting on the next story, the one that really needs your attention. Stop holding yourself back. On to the next one.
  7. Develop agitation towards procrastination. It’s not your friend, really, it’s not. Despite how clever you think you’re being by justifying your reasons for not writing, you’re only hurting yourself because writing doesn’t get easier the more you fob it off. It simply means you have less time to do it. Writing isn’t the enemy here, time is. Make time to be heard.

There are many other writing demons and sometime in the future I’ll address the more serious ones—insecurity, self-doubt, jealousy—but I will leave you with two parting thoughts: 1) Part of maturing as a writer is coming to the realization that your writing will never be the perfect little darling in the real world as it is in your mind, and 2) Writing something that’s acceptable (but not quite perfect) is a damn sight better than not writing anything at all.

Sally forth and be demon fend offingly writeful.