Short Story — “Jump”

The Eye-Dancers is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story for the main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton.  Journeying through a strange and distant world, each boy must confront, and overcome, the self-doubts that have always held him back.

In the short story “Jump,” which I wrote approximately one year before beginning The Eye-Dancers, the protagonist must face a similar nagging self-doubt.  A strange, unforeseen warning in a supermarket threatens to trip up the plans he’s made after wrestling with his fears and insecurities.  Can he learn from the failures of his past and slay the demons that, far too often, have held him back from pursuing his dreams?

I hope you enjoy “Jump.”










Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison


The young man with the long black hair stared at Joe.

“You know,” he said, his head tilting to the side, as if he were pondering the mystery of the universe, “you better stay home tomorrow.”

Joe blinked, tried to reorient himself.  What was going on?  He’d been browsing the boxed desserts in the baking aisle, thinking of a sweet treat he’d enjoy making that evening.  A few customers walked by, nothing out of the ordinary.  But then this kid—he couldn’t have been more than twenty—had strolled up to him.  He didn’t have a shopping cart, and apparently wasn’t here to buy anything.

Joe stood behind his grocery cart, instinctively using it as a buffer.  He eyed the products he’d placed in the cart already—too many carbs and sweets, as always—and he felt a mark of shame rise to his cheeks.  The kid before him was fit and trim.  He probably thought Joe, who was thirty-five pounds overweight and gaining, was a heart attack waiting to happen.  Still, that didn’t explain why he’d approached him.

“What are you talking about?” Joe asked.  He pushed his cart further down the aisle, hoping the kid might take the hint and leave him alone.

No such luck.

“Look,” the young man said, brushing greasy bangs from his eyes, “just stay home tomorrow, all right?  It’s weird.  I mean, I get these feelings, man, you know?  And when I just spotted you now, I got a feeling.  Real strong and clear.”

Oh boy.  He was dealing with a nutcase here.  Either that or someone with a perverse sense of humor who had too much time on his hands.  He wheeled his cart into the next aisle.  Chips and soda.  Great.  As if he needed more junk food in his cupboards.  A middle-aged blonde woman sped by, smelling of Chanel no. 5.

“A feeling?” he said.  Dumb.  Real dumb.  Why engage in conversation with this kid?

“Yeah,” the kid said.  “Like, I mean . . . I don’t know, you know?  Sometimes my feelings aren’t so specific.  But this one was powerful, man.  Like a punch to the gut.  It’s like this.  If you leave your house tomorrow, I mean, like, if you even just like step outside, something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

He stopped, his hands tightly gripping onto the cart handle.  Was this more than just a coincidence?  Did this kid know Janine?  Had he caught word of what Joe intended to do?  But that was impossible.  He hadn’t told a soul about his plans.

Still, this was too weird.  He didn’t need this.  He was nervous enough about tomorrow already.

He got moving again, ignoring the kid.

“Hey!  Don’t you get it?  I’m trying to help you.  I’m not getting anything out of telling you this, you know.  It’s just, like, I’m trying to warn you, y’know?  Just being a good Samaritan, that’s all.”

A young couple stopped their cart a couple of feet away.  The man reached for a bag of pretzels, while the woman wrinkled her nose but said nothing.

“If you want to be a good Samaritan, why don’t you just go on your way?” Joe said.  He didn’t want to come off as rude, but enough was enough.

The kid shrugged.  “Okay.  Just remember what I said.  About tomorrow.  By Sunday, you should be good to go.  But tomorrow, man, lock your doors and stay inside.”

With that, he walked away.

The woman who had wrinkled her nose at the pretzels eyed his retreating figure, then looked at Joe.

He almost blurted out, “I don’t know him, don’t look at me!”  But he just glanced away and pushed his cart down the aisle.

Joe sat on his couch, looking out the window as darkness fell over the neighborhood.  He’d just finished supper, and he had gone all out, just as he’d planned.  Lasagna with a zesty marinara sauce and fresh-baked Italian bread, followed by a lemon pound cake for dessert.  He felt like he’d gained five pounds since morning.  The food did nothing to still his nerves, though.

He wished Janine were here.  He could always talk to her, tell her feelings he could never share with anyone else.  But she was visiting a sick girlfriend tonight, on the other side of town.  Besides . . . she wouldn’t be the one to confide in about this, anyway.  He was planning to surprise her, after all.  Tomorrow.  He sighed, and slunk back into the couch.

The TV was on—a meaningless late-season baseball game, with half the players from both sides having recently been called up from Triple-A.  He was hoping for a diversion, he supposed.  Something to take his mind off tomorrow, off the troublemaker at the grocery store.  But nothing worked.

“You’re such an idiot,” he said aloud, just as the twenty-two-year-old first baseman on the television grounded into an inning-ending double play.  “Get over it.  That punk doesn’t know you, doesn’t know Janine.  It was just a fluke, that’s all.  A coincidence.”

Maybe it was, but it nagged him.  Why did this have to happen now?  Of all the tomorrows in his life, why was he cautioned about this one?  The one where he planned on making the boldest, most challenging decision of his life.  Was the young man, with his uncanny warning, trying to tell him not to go through with it?  Not to take the chance?

“That’s stupid,” he said, just as the last commercial ended and the ballgame started up again.  He had wrestled with this decision for months, painstakingly going through the pros and cons, trying to overcome his fears.  He had finally built up the courage.  How could he let a stranger’s sick sense of humor or pathological need to create a stir get to him like this?

“I guess maybe they were right,” he said.  “Those kids.  Maybe I’m just chicken.  Always hesitating.  Always reluctant to take the . . . ”


“ . . . jump!  Let’s jump it!”

They were standing at the edge of a gash in the dirt road.  It was about three-and-a-half-feet wide.  The only way to cross was to jump.  To the left, a steep, wooded hillside blocked the way.  It would have been nearly impossible to navigate.  To the right, the remains of the road abruptly fell away to a rushing stream, which thrashed its way through boulders, pieces of twisted metal, and fallen tree limbs.

“Wow,” Joe said, more to himself than the others.  “Look at this.”

The two boys with him shrugged.

“You should’ve seen it last year, just after it happened,” the taller boy, Bobby Hartstock, said.  “They cleaned it up since then.  This is nothing anymore.”

Joe swallowed, listening to the stream speed along on its course.  It was water, the destructive power of water, that had turned this section of road into the impassable mess he saw now.  He hadn’t been here when it happened, last fall.  His parents had just moved to the area a few weeks ago.  But he’d heard the stories.  About the storm, the flood, and the road that got washed away.  Still, hearing about it and seeing it were two different things.

What they were standing on, in fact, could hardly be classified as a road.  The entire right side was gone.  This stretch of the road was now a narrow footpath.  Bobby and the other kid, Peter Collins, stood next to each other, in front, and Joe stood close behind them.  There wasn’t enough room for the three boys to stand together, side by side.  If one of them took just a couple of steps to the right, he would fall off the edge.  Where the road had been, only a ragged, steeply sloping ravine remained.  Rusty outflow pipes jutted out like sawed-off knives.  The guardrail, which had once hugged the right side of the road, protecting motorists from the thirty-foot plunge to the fast-flowing, rock-filled stream below, was suspended in midair, hanging there like a dying snake.  It was hard for Joe to believe that a real road had been here, just a year ago.  It hardly seemed imaginable.  The only saving grace was that no homes had been hit.  This stretch of road wound through uninhabited forests and meadows.  Joe’s new neighbors had told his mom that it had been used as a shortcut before the storm.  Residents doubted that the road would ever be repaired.  Too much money involved, and not enough justification to fix it.

“So, you wanna see more?” Bobby asked.  He had turned around to look at Joe.  He and Peter Collins lived a few houses down from him.  They had seen him walking alone one evening, and joined him.  School had just started, too.  And they were his first friends since moving here.  He was thankful for that.  He didn’t make friends easily, and starting ninth grade in a new town was challenging enough, without the additional pressure of finding people to hang around with.

“I don’t know,” Joe said.  “How can we?”

Peter rolled his eyes.  “You just gotta jump, that’s all!”  He motioned to the gash in the road, the one that blocked their forward progress.  It lay there like an open wound.  The drop was fifteen, maybe twenty feet.  There were small stones mixed with broad-shouldered boulders at the bottom, before they fell away to the right, toward the slope that led to the stream.

“What’s up ahead?” Joe wanted to know.

Bobby smiled.  “It’s even better up ahead!  The road goes up higher, and the drop to the stream is awesome up there!  C’mon.  Let’s go.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Bobby leaped across the gash.  Joe closed his eyes, afraid that he might trip or stumble on a small rock, and then fall, headfirst into the hole.  But when he dared to look again, all he saw was Bobby standing on the other side, waving for Peter and Joe to follow.  Peter did.  He made it seem easy, just like jumping over a kid’s dirt hole in the backyard or playing a game of hopscotch in the neighborhood.

Joe walked to the lip of the hole.  He knew it was his turn.

Bobby cleared his throat.  “Well?”

He looked up, as if trying to garner the courage.  A crow flew overhead, cawing loudly, its voice echoing down like an accusation.  Joe wished he could sprout wings and follow that crow, over the hillside, clear across to the other side of the valley.

He noticed all the loose rocks, the strewn pebbles and fallen leaves.  So many things that might cause him to trip and fall, just as he readied himself to jump.  He didn’t want to fall down that hole.  If he landed on those boulders, they would—

“C’mon, are you coming or not?” Peter said.  “We don’t got all day, Joe.”

“Um.”  He knew he couldn’t jump.  And he hated himself for it.

“Whatsamatter?  You chicken?”  It was Bobby.  “A little girl could jump that hole, Joe.  Don’t be a wuss.”

He started to sweat, then.  He could feel his shirt sticking to his skin, despite the late September chill.  He was stuck.  Found out.  There was no place to run.

“Geez, I thought you were different,” Peter said.

Bobby shook his head, and the boys turned to walk away, further up the road.  They turned a corner, and were gone.  They hadn’t even looked back at him.

“Wait,” he croaked, to the air, to the hardy insects of early fall, the ceaselessly rushing stream below.  “Wait.”

But all he did was stand there, stranded, unable to follow, unable to . . .

“ . . . jump.  Sometimes, you just have to step out in faith and take a chance, you know, Joe?”

He knew, and he knew she was right.  Janine usually was.  But how could he make such a commitment?  How could he know it would all work out?

They were sitting on her sofa, in the apartment she had rented uptown.  It was February, and snow was falling like fluffy popcorn from chalkboard-gray clouds.  He had known Janine for over two years now.  They met at work.  He had been new to the city, didn’t know anyone.  She bumped into him, literally, in the narrow hallway that spanned the front of the building.  He blushed, stuttered, but, miraculously, she had invited him to join her for lunch.  He did.  Then he fell in love with her.

But what she was asking of him now . . .

“Look, I know your mom and dad split up.”  They had.  His first year of college, his mom had called him in his dorm room, crying.  Dad had walked out on her.  After twenty-five years, he just walked away without an explanation.  Joe always thought they were happy together.  If his parents couldn’t make it, who could?  “But you’re not you’re father, Joe.  We’re not them.  Or any other couple who’s broken it off.  We’re us.  Can’t you see that?”

“Yes.”  The sofa cushions felt soft on his back, too soft, as though they were trying to suck him in, trap him.  He leaned forward.

“Joe, you know I love you.”

He looked at her.  The beautiful blue eyes, close to tears.  The long brown hair.  It amazed him all the time that she could love him.  But she did.  He never doubted that.

“And you love me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.  But I . . . I need a little more time.  I’m just not sure if I can . . .”

She got up then, looked out the window into the white heart of the snow.  She stayed like that for minutes.  It felt to Joe like hours.  Finally, she turned around.

“I don’t want to be with anyone else, Joe, you know that.  But I can’t be expected to wait forever.  I’m not trying to rush you.  I’ll give you more time, if you think you need it.  But . . . I won’t wait forever.  You know I want to have a family.  You know. . . .”

He nodded.  He wanted to say something, to comfort her, encourage her with his words.  But he didn’t.  He couldn’t.

All he could do was get up, walk to her, and take her into his arms.  Neither of them said another word, while, outside, silently, ceaselessly, the snow continued to fall.

That had been eight months ago.  Janine hadn’t brought the topic up again, but he knew she was thinking about it.  There was an expectation about her, a hope, an unspoken pressure she was exerting.

He flicked off the baseball game—it wasn’t helping him to get his mind off himself.  It was just background noise, making it hard to think.

This wasn’t just about Janine, or that old wrecked road twenty years ago.  All his life he had taken the path of least resistance.  Even with his profession.  He was an accountant.  That’s how he lived his life, too.  Always calculating, weighing the debits and credits, wanting things to be sure and safe before daring to step forward.

There was the baseball team in high school.  He wanted to try out for the squad.  He’d practiced his pitching with his dad every day that spring.  But when the time came to sign up, he skulked away.  He didn’t want to fail.  Didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of the other players.  Besides, maybe he wasn’t even any good.

In college, his English professor had encouraged him to enter his essay on the poetry of John Donne into the Mills Award Contest, which awarded a prize of one hundred dollars to the student who turned in the best written document of the academic year.  But Joe never submitted his essay.

There were the girls he liked in school, but never asked out.  The friends he would have liked to make, but whom he never approached.  The words he had always left unspoken for the people who mattered to him.  The opportunities, the chances that had always been there for him, but which he had never taken.

He was tired of it all.  Last night, as he lay there in bed, staring up at the ceiling, he had made up his mind.

He would go to the jewelry shop, buy an engagement ring.  And then he would go to Janine, look her in the eyes, drop down to one knee, and ask her to marry him.  He loved her.  And he wasn’t going to throw it all away because he was afraid.  He was going to take the jump.  Tomorrow.

But then the kid at the grocery store had to come and throw a wrench into things.  Was there something to his warning?  What did he know?  Was Joe making a mistake?  Should he reconsider?

“Oh, just shut up!” he yelled.  But the thoughts would not stop.  They came at warp speed.  Don’t leave the house tomorrow!  Don’t buy the ring.  What if she says no?  What if she marries you, but then leaves you for another guy?  You’re so boring, she probably will.  What if she jilts you at the altar?  It’s happened before.  Lots of times.

In self-defense, he turned on the baseball game again, just in time to see a pop fly to right field end the inning.  Restless, he strolled into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee, took a sip.  He knew that sleep was far off.  Might as well give himself a jolt of caffeine.

He didn’t even attempt to go to bed.  He just half-sat, half-laid down on the couch.  At some point, deep in the bowels of the night, he nodded off.  When his eyes reopened a short while later, he saw that dawn had arrived.  Tomorrow had come.  His moment of decision was at hand.

He opened the front door.  Sunlight smote him in the face, and he closed his eyes.  In his mind he could hear the kid from the store:  “If you leave your house tomorrow . . . something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

Since waking up, he had wrestled further with his decision, hemmed and hawed.  In the end, though, he knew he had to go through with it.  He wasn’t sure if the kid’s warning was Fate’s way of attempting to hold him back, scare him off.  But it didn’t matter.  Not anymore.  He was through running away.

The threshold was right in front of him.  He knew that as soon as he stepped over it, there would be no return.  This was a one-way trip.

He was surprised at the unease he felt.  He thought, once he had made his mind up, the doubts would pass away.  But they hadn’t.

He looked past the threshold, and there, right in front of him, was the old destroyed road, with the three-and-a-half-foot-wide gash.  The gash came right up to the threshold.  The only way outside would be to jump over it.

He blinked several times, trying to rid himself of the illusion.  But it wouldn’t go away.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Each time he looked, the details of the road became clearer, clearer.  The fallen leaves, the pebbles and stones waiting to trip him up, the guardrail off to the side, floating in midair like some broken metallic arm.  He could even hear the rushing stream below.

Resigned, he understood.  There could be no avoiding it.  It had to be this way.

He took a deep breath.  Stepped on to the threshold.  Looked into the hole, at the boulders and sharp, jagged rocks waiting to cripple him if he should stumble and fall.

For a brief moment, he thought of turning away, retreating into the safe refuge of his home, and closing the door.  But he didn’t.

“Here goes nothing,” he said.

He jumped.


Thanks so much for reading!


A Sense of Wonder

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite pastimes was playing Trivial Pursuit.  One Saturday night each month, my parents invited our neighbors to come over and play.  We would usually play two games, eat impossible amounts of food, laugh a lot, and compete.  Though the games were fun, each team wanted to win.



Some of the questions were easy, others remarkably obscure.  I tried to remember as much of the trivia as I could from game to game–I have always had a knack for holding on to useless information!

Many of the questions were run-of-the-mill.  Who won the Cy Young Award for the National League in 1984? (Rick Sutcliffe.)  Who was the 23rd president of the United States? (Benjamin Harrison.)  Who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1956? (Ingrid Bergman.)



But others were mind-bending.  I recall one such question that asked what object weighed approximately 6.5 sextillion tons.  (The earth.)  What was the heaviest known substance in the universe, so heavy, in fact, that a teaspoon-full would weigh more than every person on the globe put together? ( A neutron star.)  Where did the lowest-ever recorded temperature on earth, -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit, occur in 1983?  (Vostok Station, Antarctica.)



Somewhere along the line, though, something struck me.  Here we were, playing a game, testing our knowledge on everything from baseball to cooking, from television history to astronomy and the mysteries of the universe.  And I realized–I was much more concerned with getting the questions answered correctly than I was absorbing the information and thinking about it.  Some of the facts I learned playing Trivial Pursuit were astonishing.  Didn’t they merit at least some pondering and reflection?




In The Eye-Dancers, when we first meet Marc Kuslanski, he is a know-it-all, the class science wiz, the one Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma turn to when they are haunted by the “ghost girl” in their dreams.  Marc likes to figure things out.  He reduces complex puzzles to their simplest form, and logically and meticulously solves them.  His view of the universe has no room in it for the unexplained.



In chapter 6 of the novel, the narrative describes Marc’s views . . .

“Few things irritated him more than mindless adherence to false beliefs, or unsubstantiated assertions of ‘magic’ or ‘miracles.’  Or ghosts.  There was no magic.  There were no miracles, and there were certainly no spirits who stalked you in dreams.  There was only truth, and fact.  Everything had a valid, natural explanation, a reason grounded within the existing laws of the universe.  Today’s mysteries were nothing more than tomorrow’s ongoing catalog of scientific advancement and discovery.”



Over the course of The Eye-Dancers, Marc’s perspective will be tested, challenged, and, ultimately, ambushed.

Maybe we are not as rigid with our views as Marc Kuslanski is with his, but certainly we live in an age of scientific marvels, technology that, a generation ago, would have been relegated to the world of science fiction.  No matter how hard we try to guard against it, sometimes the sense of wonder escapes us.



A century ago, very few people would have conceived of commercial jet aircraft that can transport you around the world in the span of hours.  If they had observed such a machine, they would have gaped, wonder-struck, perhaps terrified.  Today, we are so accustomed to jets, we may yawn as they fly overhead.

We are saturated with technological marvels, advancements that have shaped and altered society.  Just twenty years ago, the idea of a smartphone, and all the accoutrements that go along with it, would have seemed a fiction, something to be found in the pages of a novel or in the mind of a movie producer or screenwriter.



Even in this age of computer chips and digital communication and information overload, however, there are still many phenomena that boggle the senses and stretch the limits of the mind.

For instance . . . nearly everyone has stepped outside on a crisp, clear night and looked up at the stars.  They dot the sky, one by one; there are so many it becomes dizzying to count them all.  And yet . . . what we see is only the slightest fraction of the whole, a microscopic drop, a solitary snowflake in a winter storm.



There are more estimated stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all of the earth’s beaches put together.  And when you look up at those stars, when you make an errant wish, a resolution, a promise to the vastness that surrounds you, you are observing, in effect, the equivalent of a mere handful of sand.



At times, the stars appear so close, close enough to reach up and touch.  But their distance is nearly impossible to fathom.  They are so far away, in fact, that the light you are seeing, striking your eye from the depths of space, may have taken millions of years to reach you.  You are, in effect, looking into the distant past. . . .



Or consider the sun.  We see it every day (well, not quite in Vermont in winter!).  It is constant, our own personal star, the one thing we can count on through all the changes and winding pathways of life.  It is so there, so present–it’s easy to forget the power and energy it emits.



Imagine for a moment that a pinhead-sized piece of the sun were to be brought down to the surface of the earth.  A speck, a mote of sun-dust.  Yet powerful enough to kill you if you were to approach to within even ninety miles.



I fear that, at the beginning of The Eye-Dancers, Marc Kuslanski would have simply shrugged at these facts.  He is so concerned with the inner workings of the wonders of the universe, the reasons behind them, the ratios and equations that prove or disprove them, he cannot appreciate the wonders themselves.



I would like to think that, by novel’s end, he would be more ready to pause and look and ponder.  And more ready to admit that not everything can be explained by a mathematical formula or a cold, logical theory.  Some things, by their very nature, must remain a mystery, beyond the purview of a textbook definition.



Some things must be experienced, not explained.  Marveled at, not dissected.

Loved, and not taken apart and analyzed.

Several decades ago, astronomer Carl Sagan may have said it best . . .

“Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star.  All of the rocky or metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star.

“We are made of star stuff.”



Thanks so much for reading!


An Effluvium of Hysteria

I love words.  I always have.  I caught the bug at a very early age.  I remember when I was eight years old, reading comic books, I would sometimes come across words I’d never heard of.  When I did, I would immediately put the comic down and open the dictionary I had, easily accessible, on a book shelf in my room.



One of the first words I recall discovering this way was “sanctimonious.”  It occurred in Fantastic Four # 111, and it was Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) who uttered it.  Back then, reading issue after issue of my favorite comic book, I could always count on old Reed to introduce me to new and exciting words.





In school essays, I would occasionally show off, and use some of the intimidating words I’d learned.  When I was nine or ten, teachers would comment favorably.  They were just happy I was reading and learning vocabulary.  But when I reached junior high, and especially high school, the response was different.

I remember on one essay, the teacher had circled the word “clandestine,” and wrote in the margin:  “Better to say ‘secret.'”  I took the paper to him after class and asked him why.

“If you want people to know what you’re writing about,” he said, “you have to speak to them with the language they know.  If you use words they’re not sure about, you’re going to lose them on the first page.”



I thought about it that night, and though I understood what he meant, I didn’t fully agree.  Of course, I realized, if you pepper your manuscript with hundred-dollar words, you’ll come across as snobbish or out of touch, interested first and foremost with your own perceived brilliance.



But on the other hand, if you oversimplify everything, and strip your prose down to a fourth-grade level, aren’t you losing something precious, too?

I turned to books on writing and style.  What did the experts have to say?  For the most part, they agreed with my teacher.

“Be concise.”  “Do not use needless words.”  “Avoid adverbs.”  “Too many adjectives will derail your prose.”  “If you need to look a word up in a thesaurus, don’t use it.  It’s not the right word.”  And so on.



And again, I didn’t disagree.  This struck me as good, sensible advice–most of the time.  But sometimes . . .

I have always been a fan of Ray Bradbury.  His enthusiasm, imagination, and rich, layered style have always served as an inspiration for me.  And while handbooks on the nuts and bolts of writing are useful tools every writer should own, I find the best teachers are not the grammarians and professors.  The best teachers are the authors.

When I was in high school, searching for my voice, learning to create fiction worth reading, I was much more likely to listen to Ray Bradbury than William Strunk.

And there is one Bradbury story in particular that I read for the first time when I was a senior in high school that clarified this entire issue for me more than any style book or teaching guide ever could.  In fact, just the first two paragraphs of the story did the trick.



“The Small Assassin,” first and foremost, is a terrifying short story.  Bradbury’s writing ability transcends genre.  He is often labeled a sci-fi author, but he has created tales in nearly ever genre, including horror.  “The Small Assassin” definitely falls within that category.  It gave me nightmares for a week.   It remains to this day perhaps the most frightening story I have ever read.

Much of the story is written in clear, concise fashion, not always the case with Bradbury.  Stories such as “The Sound of Summer Running,” for example, are really prose poems dressed up as short stories.



Not so with “The Small Assassin.”  Here, while he maintains his writing flair, the prose, in general, is more streamlined, razor-sharp, honed to a cutting edge.  Nevertheless, he does not entirely avoid difficult words . . .

The first paragraph of “The Small Assassin” reads:

“Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.  There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as sea tides in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed, sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable.”

This paragraph has the customary Bradbury magic of syntax and style, imagery and metaphor, but, apart from the possible exception of “malignant,” there isn’t a fancy word to be found.

It’s the first sentence of the second paragraph that shifts the flow.  The second paragraph reads:

“A room floated around her in an effluvium of hysteria.  Sharp instruments hovered and there were voices, and people in sterile white masks.”



When I first read “The Small Assassin,” in my eighteenth year, I had never before come across the word “effluvium.”  I had no idea what it meant!  And yet . . . it held me rapt, mesmerized.  I didn’t look it up until after I finished the story.  I couldn’t put it down.  Because even though I didn’t know the dictionary definition of “effluvium,” the word elicited a feeling, a rushing current of hidden meaning and subtext.



Webster defines “effluvium” as “an invisible emanation; an offensive exhalation or smell.  A by-product, especially in the form of waste.”

So . . . what, then, is an effluvium of hysteria?  Perhaps Bradbury could have simply written, “A room floated around her.  She felt nervous and afraid.”  Or, perhaps.  “There was the offensive odor of hysteria.”  Either of these would have been concise, simple, matter-of-fact.  But it would not have been memorable.  It would not have stayed with me, years after I read it.  It would not have implanted itself in a crevice deep within the folds of my brain.  It would have been ordinary.

In the context of “The Small Assassin,” an “effluvium of hysteria” sounds like a car spinning out of control, careening downhill; a person falling from a great height; or, someone on the brink of madness, panic-stricken, gripped with a terror too powerful for words.  “Nervous,” “odor,” or “hysterical” just can’t compete with that.



This is not to say that the general accepted advice is “wrong.”  Ninety-nine percent of the time, clear and concise and simple trumps wordy and difficult.  But to eliminate that special 1% altogether?

Of course, much depends on context.  An instruction manual surely would not want to incorporate the word “effluvium”!  (Though it would make for an interesting manual.)  And in dialogue, certain characters, Marc Kuslanski included, will have a penchant for fancy words.  But in general, as is the case with so many writing “rules” and guidelines, the key is finding a happy medium.



So the next time you’re writing and one of those “too-difficult” words pops into your head, go ahead and use it.

Because sometimes, every now and then, nothing but an “effluvium of hysteria” will do.



Thanks so much for reading!


Swimming with the Sea Monsters of My Mind

When I was six years old, I had a nightmare that would stay with me for the rest of my life.  Even now, all these years later, I can still recall the dream, and the way I felt when I woke up.  I can’t remember what I did that long-ago day, or what I was thinking when I went to bed.  But the dream, yes.  I remember the dream . . .




Somewhere in that universe we call dreams, that alternate reality that seeps into our own, the edges where the two overlap often blurry and indistinct, I looked into the water of an indoor swimming pool.  My two older brothers had just dived in, and challenged me to jump in after them.  But I had hesitated.  I was just six, after all, and the water looked deep, impossibly deep . . . I couldn’t see the bottom.  And I couldn’t see my brothers.  Why weren’t they surfacing?



A sense of dread descended on me.  I knew, on an instinctual level, somewhere beneath the rational refuge of conscious reasoning, that something was wrong.  I called out their names.  Nothing.  Another few seconds, and they might drown!  How long would they be able to last without air?

I tried to tell myself that maybe they were just playing a joke on me.  After all, how could they vanish in a swimming pool?  But the reassurance rang hollow.  This was no joke.  And the body of water that lay before me was far more than an ordinary indoor pool.

I looked around.  The room was empty.  When I called out my brothers’ names, the echo reverberated against the tiled floor and bare walls, a mocking, taunting jeer.  Steeling myself, I jumped in to the pool.



When I opened my eyes, I expected the harsh sting of chlorine.  There was no sting–and there were no boundaries, no poolside walls, no solid floor beneath my feet.  And no brothers.

There were only fish, and coral, and strange, undulating shapes that floated past me like the severed remains of a mysterious sea creature.  I felt a wave of panic.  How would I ever find my brothers down here?  And how could they even still be alive, if I did manage to find them?  Already I felt a pressure building in my lungs.  I had a minute, maybe two, at the most, before I would have to surface.



Suddenly a tentacle reached for me, and I yanked myself away just in time.  A giant eye, unblinking, stared at me, and more tentacles reached.  I gasped, nearly swallowing water.  But then the monster swam away, as if bored.



Before I could process what I had seen, a Great White Shark emerged from the shadows behind an underwater cave.  It raced toward me like a bullet.  I closed my eyes, waiting for the pain, the blood, the evisceration, praying for a miracle.  A moment passed.  Than another.  And another.  I dared to open my eyes.  The shark was gone.



But not for long.  It returned, and so did another shark, and an octopus, and a stingray.  Other fish appeared, too, as if out of nowhere, strange, exotic-looking monstrosities that science had yet to discover.  I wanted to scream, but couldn’t.  I needed to escape.  I needed air.  I needed to breathe.



I swam toward the surface, the collection of man-eating sharks and squid and octopi following, just behind–predators circling their victim, waiting for the moment to kill.  I didn’t look at them anymore.  I was sure that if I did, my eye contact would be the impetus they needed to attack.  I focused my gaze toward the surface, imagined that I was inside a long tunnel, protected from the sea monsters that flanked me on all sides.

The trouble was, no matter how far I swam, I couldn’t make out the surface.  The sunlight that filtered through the water never grew brighter.  It remained a pinprick, a tantalizing slice, a pathway to nowhere.  I tried to swim faster, faster, as I felt a tentacle brush up against my knee.  The scales of it scraped away at the skin and stung.  I didn’t look down, but was sure the tentacle had drawn blood.



It felt as though my lungs would burst, explode into bits of shrapnel that would float through the water in a million different directions.  The monsters closed in.  I could feel their eyes on me, their mouths opening . . . why couldn’t I reach the surface?  Why had my brothers done this?

I couldn’t stand it another moment, couldn’t hold my breath a second longer.  I opened my mouth and . . .

. . . screamed–in my bed.  The blankets were bunched up at my feet.  I was panting, gasping for air.  I blinked once. Twice.  Three times.  Taking in my surroundings.  I was not at the bottom of the sea, about to be ripped to shreds by a school of monsters.  No.  I was in my bedroom, the silence of the house at night surrounding me like a winter glove.

I got out of bed, my legs weak, nearly buckling.  I peeked into the room my brothers shared, just to make sure.  They were there, snoring away.  Finally, I allowed myself to take a deep, calming breath.




The next night, I fully expected to experience the dream again.  I worried that it might haunt me for weeks on end, as I swam, kicking and flailing but going nowhere, the monsters following, always there, ready to bite and rip and sting.

But I never dreamed of the bottomless pool or the missing brothers or the flesh-eating sea creatures again.


I have always been fascinated by dreams, and The Eye-Dancers explores the world of dreams at some length.  The “ghost girl,” for instance, first appears in the nightmares of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton.  But as the boys soon learn, her visitations are much more than mere figments of their imagination, and she cannot be extinguished by the simple act of opening their eyes.  The line between the waking world and the dream world is not clear–not in The Eye-Dancers, and often not in our own lives.



When I was six, when I dreamed of Great White Sharks and giant squid and multicolored surgeonfish whose sting would instantly prove lethal, I was trying to flee from them, put as much distance between myself and my pursuers.  With good reason, of course.  Who wants to be served up as a nighttime snack in their dreams?  But as the years came and went, as Time pushed on, turning the pages of life with its whisper-quiet fingers, I began to realize that the monsters in my mind were not things to run away from, but to confront.



And write about.

The monsters we write about are not necessarily killer sharks or giant creatures of the deep.  More likely they are feelings of regret and loneliness, rejection and guilt, anger and loss.  If we write poetry, these monsters are let loose in verse form.  If we paint, they take shape on the canvas.  If we write nonfiction, they manifest as memoirs and soul-baring truths.  And if we create fiction, they inhabit our characters, our plots, the very fabric that weaves together, a literary embroidery, in the stories we tell.

So now, today, I can look back on that childhood dream, and see it in a very different light.

I can jump in and swim with the sea monsters of my mind.



Thanks so much for reading!


Looking Out the Window . . . Or, the Cure for Writer’s Block?

It was difficult to feel motivated, and I don’t think I was the only person in the class who felt that way.  Fellow students yawned, fidgeted.  A couple of times, the professor, a tall, bespectacled brunette in her late forties, had to remind the class to focus on the discussion at hand.



The malaise was understandable, perhaps even unavoidable.  It was the first week of the spring semester, which in itself seemed a cruel joke.  Spring?  It was the end of January, and outside, a soft snow was falling from clouds the color of ash.  The temperature had been stuck several degrees below freezing for days, and the sun, a shy, long-lost acquaintance, seemed perpetually hidden.

Western New York State in midwinter . . .



“So,” the professor said, her voice high, energetic.  No doubt she sensed that she needed to inject some much-needed enthusiasm into the classroom.  “Today I want to talk about writer’s block.  We’ve all been there before, am I right?”  Nods, faint murmerings from the class.  “Well . . . when you want to write something, and you just can’t seem to, what do you do?”



One girl raised her hand and said she just waits it out.  Ideas come when they will come, she said.  I nodded.  I had tried to force-feed ideas in the past, but it never worked.  The creative process was a mystery.  It wasn’t something you could order around.  It was the one in charge.  Not me.



The professor didn’t agree.

“Look outside,” she said.  “Everyone.  Look out the window.”  Heads turned, slowly, and I overheard one student behind me whisper to herself that she needed another cup of coffee.  It was an early morning class on top of everything else.



“Now,” the professor continued.  “I want you all to describe what you see.”

Blank looks and an audible grunt from one guy who looked as if he’d literally stumbled out of bed two minutes before the start of class greeted her direction.

“In your notebooks, write what you see through the window,” she went on.  “Just a single paragraph.  But in that paragraph, I want you to paint a picture.  Create a mood.  Get those writer’s muscles working!  I’ll write something up, too.”

One girl asked if we’d all have to share our literary creations with the rest of the class.  The professor rolled her eyes behind the lenses of her glasses, and shook her head.  “Only if you want to.”  The girl breathed a sigh of relief.

I peered out the window, taking in the scene.  The classroom overlooked a snow-covered expanse interspersed with walkways and dotted with maple trees, stripped bare for the winter.  This section of campus was presently empty, the early hour and cold, snowy weather keeping students and faculty inside.



One tree in particular caught my eye.  It stood perhaps twenty feet beyond the window, its limbs reaching up into the white, wintry haze.  The trunk was large, solid–I estimated it must have been there a hundred years, if not more, an ancient guardian, a sentry of the walkways and classrooms within its watch.  A crow, cawing as it flew (or so I imagined through the closed window), landed on a branch, its black feathers bold against the whites and grays of a Rochester January.



I stared at the crow, thinking, imagining, and began to write . . .

“In the maple that has been here so long, no one alive can remember its absence, a crow perches.  Midnight black on slate gray.  What secrets does the tree know?  What hushed conversations has it overheard?  What conspiracies has it been privy to?  It stands and watches.  And listens, listens . . .  Not eternal, perhaps.  But enduring.  The bird flies away.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it had sensed something in the tree.  A knowledge, maybe.  A probing . . . as if its innermost being, its secrets tucked away in a quiet corner of its black heart were being exposed, one by wintry one . . .”

I never did share that paragraph with my classmates.  And, truth be told, I’m not sure it should see the light of day now!  But it illustrates the point the professor was trying to make that day.  If you observe the simplest thing and decide to write a paragraph, or a page, about it, you can escape the creative logjam you might be in and ride with the river’s current.  Sometimes the current is slow, winding, hesitant.  Sometimes it rushes headlong toward some unknown destination, full of promise and optimism.  Either way, however, you are moving, not stuck in the mire and muck of writer’s block.



While the scene you describe may not find its way into a short story or chapter (though it might!), it very well may kindle the flame of an idea, kick-start a story line, or help you to navigate the maze of the novel you’re working on.



There were times while writing The Eye-Dancers that I did indeed feel stuck.  What should happen next?  Sometimes your characters act in the most unpredictable ways!  That’s generally a good thing, except for when they act so unpredictably they cause you, the author, to question the next scene, or peer ahead, bleary-eyed and overwhelmed, not sure where the story should journey next, or if it should even be completed at all.



And for me, these creative crisis points are the moments when I need to remind myself to step back, take a breath–and write.  Create something fresh and new, completely unrelated to the work-in-progress that has me bogged down and frustrated.

Because whether you live in upstate New York as I once did, or northern New England as I do now, where the January landscape is a black-and-white photograph, the snowdrifts deep, the wind a serrated knife, the growth and renewal of spring seemingly a lifetime away; whether you live by the sea in a sunny, mild climate, the sound of the waves an echo from some long-ago century; or whether you live on a farm or in a bustling downtown, or on the outskirts of a Norman Rockwell-esque village, there is always something to watch, to hear, to contemplate.



All you have to do is look out the window . . .



Thanks so much for reading!


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