A Quality of Mercy

Ryan Swinton knows how it feels to be an outsider.  In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released later this summer, Ryan is in a major slump.  Now seventeen years old, on the cusp of his senior year in high school, he struggles to find his place in the world.  To his eyes, it seems that all of his classmates know what they want to do with their lives.  Even his kid brother, Tyler, has plans to become a marine biologist one day.  But what about Ryan?  What will he do?

 

From chapter 3 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He [Ryan] walked into the living room.  A fifty-gallon saltwater aquarium, with bright orange-and-white clown fish and yellow tangs and angel fish, lit up for the night with a florescent bulb, served as a reminder that Tyler was focused, determined, sure of what he wanted and how to get there.  Even the fish appeared to know just where to swim, as if they had each staked a claim to designated areas within the aquarium.  Everyone and everything always seemed to have a plan, a clue, a path to follow.  Why was it so different for him?”

 

In short, Ryan Swinton all too often feels like an outcast, a reject.  An other.

********************************

In the third-season Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy,” a young lieutenant fresh on the scene of battle understands well what it’s like to view someone else as “the other.”

 

Rod Serling introduces the episode this way in a voice-over:

“It’s August 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight, and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

 

The American platoon in question, a ragtag group of perhaps twenty men, have taken the high ground overlooking a cave.  Holed up in that cave, a small group of Japanese soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, resist surrender.  The American force shells the cave incessantly, hoping, thus far in vain, that the sheer bombardment will force the Japanese soldiers to quit.

 

This is the situation Lieutenant Katell inherits.  He arrives on the scene, a fresh-faced commanding officer, full of vim and vigor.  When he is briefed by Sergeant Causarano, a battle-hardened veteran, Lieutenant Katell exclaims that since the artillery didn’t smoke the Japanese soldiers from their cave, “It looks like we’ll have to do a little mopping up ourselves.  Move in frontally.  Go right in there and wipe ’em out.”

 

The sergeant and some of the soldiers push back.  What the lieutenant is proposing would guarantee casualties, on both sides.  There is little justification to assault the cave in a frontal attack.  Causarano asks the lieutenant how long he’s been out there, on the battlefield.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Katell responds, defensively.

“You talk like it’s a football game, Lieutenant,” Causarano says.  “And this is no football game. . . . You have to remember . . . you haven’t been shot at yet.  And you haven’t shot anybody, either.”

Lieutenant Katell acknowledges his relative inexperience, but promises, “When it comes to killing Japanese, I think you’ll find me a pretty efficient officer.”

 

Later, the men smear mud on their faces for camouflage.  They are grim.  There isn’t much talking. The decision has been made–they are gearing up to assault the cave.

As they prepare, Lieutenant Katell notices Sergeant Causarano giving him a look.

“I’m not your cup of tea, am I, Sergeant?” Katell asks.

“You got a little too much vinegar for me, Lieutenant,” Causarano says, and makes a plea to bypass the cave.  The men trapped in there are “sick and half-starved.”  Why go through with this?

“Because they’re Japs!” the lieutenant snarls, as if that explains everything.

“They’re men,” the sergeant counters.

 

Lieutenant Katell cannot hide his disdain.  “If I had to size you up,” he says, “I’d say you’ve either got battle fatigue or you’re chicken.”

Causarano admits he may be a little of both. The war has gone on too long.  Too much has been lost. Enough is enough.

Katell blasts him again, calling him a “lousy soldier,” and reminding him that “when you fight a war, you fight a war!  And you kill until you’re ordered to stop killing!”

 

The sergeant can only shake his head.  “What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?” he says.  “How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?”

To which Katell answers, “Offhand, I’d say all of ’em!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they get it!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!”

Here, flustered, the lieutenant drops his binoculars.  And everything changes . . .

 

A Japanese soldier picks up the binoculars, hands them to the lieutenant, addressing him as “Lieutenant Yamuri.”

 

The lieutenant, shaken and confused, runs off, only to be shot at by enemy gunfire.  But when he looks at the enemy soldiers, he sees they are American soldiers.

When he returns to where his men are, he asks, “Who are you?  Where are we?  When?”

To his astonishment, he is told it is May 1942–over three years earlier.  Even more perplexing, the lieutenant slowly understands he is now–somehow–a Japanese officer.  “What’s going on?  What’s happened to me?” he wants to know.

 

The captain arrives.  He is a serious, scowling-faced man, and he is not pleased with the lieutenant’s antics and confusion.  He tells him so.  Lieutenant Yamuri, nee Katell, tries to pull himself together, tells the captain he is okay now, that he was just “feverish for a moment.”

The captain then reports that the artillery fire has failed to do its job.  The Americans trapped in the cave before them have not been destroyed, and have not surrendered.  They will undertake a full frontal assault, and Lieutenant Yamuri will lead the charge.

But the lieutenant is shaken.  It has dawned on him that he is now living the same situation, except in reverse.  No longer is he an American officer commanding a platoon to ambush a cave full of beaten, injured Japanese soldiers.  Now he is a Japanese officer being commanded to lead an assault on a cave full of beaten, wounded American soldiers.

He objects to the mission.  The Americans holed up in that cave are wounded, sick.  Couldn’t they simply bypass the cave?  Why attack it?

 

The captain is not sympathetic.  “They are Americans!” he says.  “They are the enemy!  We have to destroy them.”  He goes on to explain the well-being of enemy soldiers should concern the lieutenant no more than an anthill he might step on during the attack.

“But they are men!” Lieutenant Yamuri says.

The captain slaps him, leaves him there.  They will attack without him.

 

“May I ask the captain,” Yamuri says, “how many must die before he is satisfied?”

The captain’s words are hauntingly familiar:  “I would say all of them!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they die!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they die!”

 

Stunned, the lieutenant glances at his binoculars, and in that instant, he is returned to 1945.  He is the American Lieutenant Katell again, in the moments just before he and his men are to ambush the Japanese cave.

But he is no longer the angry, gung-ho man of action.  His face is ashen.

Suddenly, there is cheering among the soldiers in the camp.  Army headquarters has called.  The war is over.  The platoon has been ordered to retreat.  The impending battle has been averted.

Sergeant Causarano, seeing the lieutenant standing there, shell-shocked, mistakes his reaction to be one of disappointment.

“I wouldn’t fret,” Causarano says.  “There’ll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off.”

To which Lieutenant Katell, changed, solemn, remarks, “I hope not.  God help us, I hope not.”

 

*******************************

The fracturing of society, the clear lines of demarcation many people draw between themselves and others is by no means a thing of the past, relegated to television shows in grainy black and white, originally aired six decades ago.  Our time has been witness to a disheartening and increasing extremism, a polarization of politics, where nationalism, xenophobia, and an “us-versus-them” worldview are on full display.

 

Ryan Swinton does not like being viewed as an “other.”  He doesn’t like being left out, abandoned, misunderstood.  Shamed.  None of us do.

As he so often did, Rod Serling offered a fitting takeaway.  In the closing voice-over to “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling says:

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’  Shakespeare.  The Merchant of Venice.  But applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth–or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Of Doubts, Questions . . . and Lost Weekends

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to showcase his talents as he never had before.  But there was one big problem.  He rarely drank, didn’t know the first thing about being addicted to the bottle.

bottlebeginning

 

So how was he going to play an alcoholic in anything resembling a convincing manner?

These were the questions swirling through the mind of Ray Milland as he studied a novel sent to him personally by the head of Paramount Pictures.  The powers-that-be wanted to adapt the novel, written by Charles R. Jackson, into a film and have Milland play the lead role of Don Birnam, a writer whose life and career are in shambles, swamped under the heavy, unrelenting pressures of alcoholism.

millandbeginning

 

Milland hesitated.  How would he be able to master the role of the haunted Birnam?  Aside from his complete lack of understanding and firsthand knowledge of alcoholism, Milland also questioned his own acting ability.  He had been a leading man in films for nearly a decade, but didn’t consider himself to be on par with the true icons of the Silver Screen, legends such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, James Stewart, and others.  He was a serviceable actor, a veteran, but could he pull something like this off?  No doubt the bad memories from his first Hollywood experience, fifteen years earlier, when the director berated him in front of the entire cast and crew for his amateurish and clumsy acting, were alive and playing over and over in his mind, like a movie reel gone out of control.  But despite the doubts, the nagging insecurity that wouldn’t let go, Milland took the role.

He would play the lead part in The Lost Weekend.

thelostweekend

 

**********************

Have you ever faced a similar circumstance?  Maybe it was the looming specter of a job interview, the second guessing prior to hitting the Publish button on a blog post or taking the final step to release your new book on Amazon.  Maybe it was the jitters before a first date or the unrelenting self-doubt before standing up in front of your supervisors and fellow coworkers to deliver a major company presentation.

weveallbeentheredoubtfear

 

It’s fair to say we’ve all been there.

I know I have.  I’ve felt Milland-like doubts and insecurities more times than I can count.  And, sad to admit, but there have certainly been instances when, dogged with what-ifs and self-recriminations, I backed down, failed to take the challenge, and let an opportunity pass.

One moment that immediately comes to mind took place in eighth-grade Algebra.  On the surface, it was a small thing, trivial, really, but it has stayed with me all these years.  The teacher, a blond guy with a big, beefy mustache named Mr. Edwards, presented the class with a complex mathematical problem.  “Don’t try to solve it here in class,” he warned.  “It’ll take way too long.”  He asked us to tackle the mind-bender at home that night–not for extra points, not for a grade.  Just for fun.  Old-fashioned algebraic fun.  I can’t remember the specifics of the problem.  All I can remember is that it was a rambling thing, meandering on like a twisting trail that snakes its way ever deeper into the woods.  And as I set out to solve the problem that night, that’s exactly where I felt I was heading–into some dark, uncharted territory, overrun with wild vegetation and exotic creatures never before encountered.  But I stuck with it, and, well over an hour later, came up with an answer.

algebraproblem

 

The thing was–the answer seemed ludicrous.  Again, memory fails, but it was something like: three-hundred-ten trillion, two-hundred-twenty-one billion, thirteen million, two-hundred thousand and eighty-three.  It was some ridiculous number that trailed on across half the width of my notebook page.  I didn’t understand.  I had worked so hard on it, and this was the nonsensical answer I came up with?  I reviewed my work, couldn’t find an error, but was convinced I must have made one.  No way was the answer anything close to that outrageous number.

verylargenumber

 

Fast-forward to the next day, and sure enough, old Mr. Edwards asked the class straightaway for the answer to his math problem.  No one raised their hand.  I wanted to, and I nearly did.  But all I could think of were the laughs and snickers that would result from the class, and the wide-eyed, glazed-over stare on Mr. Edwards’s face when I gave my mouthful of an answer.  So I just sat there, waiting.

Mr. Edwards smiled, as he often did, and wrote the correct answer on the blackboard.

No, I thought,  It can’t be.  But it was.

It was the precise answer I had come up with the night before.  I wanted to raise my hand then and say, “Wait!  I had that!  Really, I did!”  But it was too late.  The opportunity had come and gone.

regretiknewtheanswer

 

I wish I could say I learned my lesson so well that day that nothing of the sort ever happened again.  The truth is, nearly every time I publish a blog post, see a new review on Amazon for The Eye-Dancers, or share my work with anyone, anytime, any place, I feel the same old butterflies.  Maybe that’s a good thing, in its own way.  Maybe it keeps me on my toes.

butterflies

 

Certainly I have been beset by doubts galore concerning the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It is a project three years running now, with more stops and starts than a rain-hampered tennis match at Wimbledon and enough revisions and rewrites to make my head spin, and even as I close in on the stretch run, preparing to finish the first draft in the months ahead, I am nagged with questions.

wimbledonrain

 

Do the various plot points intersect and come together?  There are so many threads to the story–is it too complex, too convoluted?  Or will it read as one unified whole?  Are the characters’ motivations ringing true?  Are all the story arcs rising and falling in optimal fashion, or are things progressing without rhyme or reason?  In a nutshell, is this thing any good?

convoluted

 

The questions rarely, if ever, fall silent, the insecurities are always there.  All I can do–all any of us can do–is continue to move forward and choose to believe.

********************

When The Lost Weekend was released in the theater, the reception was positive, from audiences and critics alike.  It proved to be a groundbreaking motion picture, particularly in the manner in which it portrayed alcoholism in a frank, uncompromising, and serious light.  No film had tackled the issue in such a way before, and The Lost Weekend would inspire other movies to follow suit in the years to come.

At Oscar time, The Lost Weekend won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

And Ray Milland?  The gentleman who doubted his ability to play the lead role?

millandacademyaward

 

He won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Evidently, not all lost projects or assignments or challenges or weekends are really lost, after all.

nolostweekendsafterall

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

The Lack of a Writing Calculus

I stood there, waiting, agonizing, worrying.  But he would not be rushed.  He would not speed-read through the story to satisfy my doubts and give me the answer he knew I wanted.

I couldn’t stand in place, so I started to pace his office, going round and round in front of his desk.  He had to like the story.  He had to.  Dr. Sutherland was my academic advisor, had been my professor in three classes over the past two years, and knew how much I wanted to be a writer.  When I’d asked him if he’d read a five-page story I’d recently completed, he agreed.  I appreciated his willingness to read something that had nothing to do with the syllabus or the program.  He was doing me a big favor.  But now, with me wearing out the beige carpet in his small corner office, perhaps he regretted his decision.

Finally, he flipped over the last page of the story and placed it, face-up, on his desk, strewn with ungraded essays, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and a mug of cold black coffee.

foodondesk

I stopped pacing, waited for him to tell me what he thought.  Outside his door, all was quiet in the hall.  It was late afternoon on a chilly western New York November day, the trees beyond his window going bare for the coming winter.

novembertree

I could stand it no longer.  I coughed.  “Well?  Do you think it’s any good?”

He smiled, sat back in his swivel chair, put his hands behind his head.  He even glanced out the window for good measure.

“You know,” he said, “writing’s a funny thing, Mike.  A funny thing . . .”

I waited for him to continue.  He didn’t.  Was he trying to torture me?  Of course, I knew his idiosyncrasies and his mannerisms well.  I’d seen them on display in the classroom many times, and, generally, I liked them.  But not here.  Not now.  My heart rate increased, and I just looked at him.  I was a junior in college, but at that moment, I felt eight years old, a child seeking the approval of a respected and admired uncle.

idiosyncrasy

“I remember when I was your age,” he said.  There was a knowing look in his eyes.  “Long time ago . . . I wanted to be a writer.  Poet, really.  I’d write poems about nature, love, hate, war, peace–you name it.  I tried it all, experimented with form and language.  Sent some of my work off to journals.  Made my own chapbook.  And yeah, I’d share my poems with others, ask them what you asked me just now.  ‘Is it any good?’  ‘Do you like it?'”  He smiled again.  “Well.  In my case, I guess the answer was clear enough.  I’m here now, right?”  He spread his arms, looked around his office.  “I’m not out on Walden Pond writing prize-winning verse.  But then–maybe the answer wasn’t clear.  Not really.  I stopped submitting after just a few rejections, told myself I had no future in it.  I got my PhD, and here I am, teaching writing.  It’s the path I chose, that’s all.”

waldenpond

I nodded.  I appreciated the disclosure, but what was he saying?  Where was he going with this?  Was he trying to tell me, in a roundabout, oblique manner, that I wasn’t any good as a writer?

“Writing’s not like physics,” he said.  “There’s no writing calculus, Mike.  There are no formulas.  It’s not two plus two equals four.  It’s an art.  It’s not a science.  There is no piece of writing, in the history of the world, that is universally admired as perfect, or even great.  Shakespeare has his critics.  Hemingway.  Show me a perfect novel.  To Kill a Mockingbird?  Maybe.  I’d sign off on that one.  But I know colleagues–respected colleagues–who dismiss it as overrated.”

twoplustwo

He paused, as I reflected on his words.  Through the window, behind him, I saw a flock of geese, flying low, their honking audible even through the glass and the walls.  Flying south for the winter–if not today, then tomorrow or next week.  I felt a shiver, thinking of the long, unending stretch of cold that lay ahead, the gray months of snow and frost and winds whipping in off the lake.

flockofgeese

“Look,” Dr. Sutherland said, sitting upright in his chair now.  “My opinion of your story doesn’t mean very much.  Your opinion does.  Is this your best work?  Have you edited it two times over?  Three?  Four?  Have you chopped every extraneous word?  Did you write the story from a personal place?  Does it matter to you?  Those are the things that count.  Everything else is just an opinion.  Personal taste.  Some people like Faulker.  Others prefer Fitzgerald.  There’s not one right answer.”

soundandfuryfaulkner

He shook his head.  “That’s the beauty, and the torment, of creative writing.”

************************

I like to think I’ve matured as a writer since my junior year in college.  I like to believe I’m not as reliant on the approval of others, not as much of a worrier over the work I produce.  But, truth be told, I often still struggle with the same things.  Sometimes when I write a blog post, or finish a new short story or chapter in a novel, I ask myself, “Yeah, but is it any good?  Does it work?  Will anyone really get it, or have I failed to bring out the drama, the themes, the motivations, and the meaning?  Is it flat?  Does it just sit there, lifeless, on the page?”

isitanygood

It’s something Marc Kuslanski would rail against.  Marc always seeks the right answer, the factual solution to the problem.  Without a formula in place to “prove” that a piece of writing is first-rate, that a scene works, that a character resonates, Marc would quickly grow frustrated.

scientifcformulause

I think, at times, all writers have a little Marc Kuslanski in them.  I know I do.  When writing a particular scene is akin to having a dental hygienist scrape the plaque from my teeth, when the words seem stuck and unwilling to come out, when the characters perform their own version of the literary silent treatment, I find myself wishing for a true, definable, and irrefutable writing calculus.

silenttreatment

In moments like this, when I can’t seem to overcome the inevitable insecurities and doubts of the writing trade, I  take a step back, force myself to remember the conversation I had with my academic advisor on that late fall day in the 1990s, as the twentieth century took its last, dying gasps before giving way to a new millennium.  I remember his words, his advice, and I try my best to apply them.

*********************

As I turned to leave his office, Dr. Sutherland held up his hand.

“I wanted to thank you for sharing your story with me, Mike,” he said.  “I know–believe me, I do–that it’s not easy.”

I didn’t know if he was finished, so I stood there a moment longer.

“Keep at it,” he said.  “Don’t give up.  Keep writing.”

“Thanks,” I said.  I smiled.  There was nothing else he might have said that would have meant as much.

Walking out into the fading November afternoon, the sun already sinking low to the west, I felt as though I were walking on air.

novembersunset

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Writing What You Know (Or, Reading in Front of the Sixth-Graders)

“I think you’re ready, Michael,” she said.  “You’re reading very well, and I want the big kids to hear it.”

On the one hand, I was thrilled.  Of all the students in the class, I was the one Mrs. Northrup had chosen for the honor.  But on the other hand, I was scared silly.  I was six years old that fall, a first-grader who may have been reading well but who was also the shyest student in the class.  Looking back, I am sure Mrs. Northrup realized this, and she had decided the task assigned would do me good.

shy

 

Of course, being six, I didn’t share her professional and experienced perspective.  She’d been a teacher for decades.  I just knew that standing up in front of a classroom full of older kids and reading aloud to them seemed about as beneficial for my development as walking straight into the heart of an active volcano.

volcano

 

“Don’t worry,” she assured me.  “You’ll do just fine.”

When the time came, book in hand, I trudged through the old hallways of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, up the flight of stairs to the floor where the “big kids” had their classes, and, moving slower and slower with every step, arrived outside the assigned door.  I wished Mrs. Northrup had accompanied me.  She could have introduced me to the class, or done or said something to make it easier.  But she had sent me up by myself.

I considered turning around and leaving, but realized Mrs. Northrup would get word of such a tactic before day’s end.  No.  I was stuck.

I knocked on the half-opened door, my heart beating faster, faster.  There were sixth-graders in there!  They seemed light-years ahead of me, and more intimidating than a pride of lions.  The teacher–whose name I have long since forgotten–smiled at me and motioned for me to come in.

lions

 

“You must be Michael,” she said. “Mrs. Northrup told me to expect you, and I was just telling the class that one of the top first-grade students would be coming up to read.”  Great, I thought.  More pressure.  “Come along in!” she beamed.

I stood in place a moment longer, my mind still clinging, stubbornly, to potential escape routes.  But when the teacher motioned for me to come in again, her smile widening, I did the only thing I could think of.

I turned my back to the class, took a deep breath, and sidled through the door.  I heard someone in the class chuckle, but I didn’t turn around, wouldn’t turn around.  In front of me, the blackboard still contained the teacher’s notes, in crisp, perfect chalk-script, from whatever lesson the class had been learning earlier that day.

blackboard

 

No one said a word.  I looked at nothing but the chalkboard–I didn’t dare glance back at the class, nor did I look at the teacher.  I had a job to do, a task to complete, and I didn’t want to be in any way distracted.

I opened the book to the assigned spot, and began to read.  The passage ran one entire page.  I wasn’t sure the class could hear me with my back turned to them, but I didn’t stress over it.  I just told myself to read the next line, the next sentence, the next paragraph, get through it, and then exit the room.

openbookreading

 

As soon as I read the last word, I began to side-walk toward the door.  I moved as quickly as I could, and I didn’t turn around and walk face-forward again until I was in the hallway, heading toward the stairs, which would take me away from the sixth-graders and their classrooms and their lessons.

hallway

 

Not once, during the entire experience, did I turn to face the class.

*********************

It’s something every writer has heard, often drilled into them with the force and repetition of an iron-clad commandment:  “Write what you know.”

writewhatyouknow

 

We hear this so many times, in so many different places, and from so many reputable sources, it seems nearly impossible to argue.  After all, who can argue against the truth?  Besides, the advice seems to hold a lot of weight.  When we write about experiences, situations, jobs, relationships we have experienced, don’t our words contain more validity?  Don’t they resonate more, sing louder and more confidently?

Yes.

And no.

Let’s take a step back.  What, exactly, does “write what you know” refer to?  Is it to be taken rigidly, literally, basically saying that if I have never been fired from a job, to use a simple for-instance, that I cannot then write about a character in a story who is fired from their job?

fired

 

Or is it more broad?  Maybe, though I haven’t ever been fired, I still can imagine what such an experience might feel like.  Perhaps I have been dropped from a sports team, turned down at an interview, caught doing something wrong at home that resulted in less-than-ideal consequences.  The feelings I may have experienced during those situations may not be identical, one-for-one matches to getting fired, but do they really need to be?

Or take my first-grade experience related above.  It’s a silly old story on the surface. (And that evening, after getting word of what happened, Mrs. Northrup called my mother on the phone to tell her all about it.  They both had a good laugh over it, and eventually I did, too.)  But the experience also contains a lot of very real, raw emotions:  the fear of public speaking; feeling awkward and shy; the fear of performing badly under pressure; the possibility of being laughed at, ridiculed, or rejected; the burden of carrying the expectations of my teacher to represent her class well; the isolating journey up to an unknown, Brobdingnagian portion of the school, inhabited by “big kids”; and so on.

brobdignagian

 

In other words, it is rich with emotional experience, feelings, internal memories that can be “borrowed,” so to speak, when writing about situations that, at first glance, seem radically different and unrelated, but, in actuality, when you probe deeper and drill down to the feeling level, are really quite similar.  After all, what do we remember from our experiences, the good ones as well as the bad ones?  The circumstances, obviously, but even more so, the feelings, the emotions, the pain or joy, the sadness or elation that resulted.

Writing what you know can be interpreted as only writing about things that are a one-for-one match with your own personal experience.  That is a valid interpretation.  But I would argue it is an unnecessarily constricting one.  A fiction writer uses his or her imagination to create worlds, events, characters that, hopefully, allow readers to enter into the story, become engaged in far-off places, other time periods, or even just the next town over.  If we as authors are reluctant to write things beyond the purview of our own literal experience, then we probably should not write fiction at all.  With such strict parameters in place, creating a straitjacket on our literary endeavors, speculative fiction would never exist.  There could be no time machines or werewolves, vampires or interdimensional voids that carry four seventh-graders to a faraway and alien world.  There could be no Yellow Brick Roads or dreams and powers that lift us high up, “over the rainbow.”  There could be no Morlocks or Superman or preternatural do-overs in Frank Capra Christmas classics.

itsawonderfullife

 

Anytime I feel disqualified from writing a certain scene or character because I “haven’t ever done that before” or “been there before,” I just take a moment and think back to that scared, shy, and overwhelmed first-grader.  If I just close my eyes and listen, really listen, I discover he has so much to share.

writelikeend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Nothing in the Dark

It can be anything, really . . .

A sense of dread at the thought of standing up in front of a room full of strangers and delivering a speech.

blicspeaking

 

A heavy, sickly feeling that grabs on tight and doesn’t let go whenever you think of that annual performance review or that interview for a new job.

jobinterview

 

A sense of doubt so severe, it causes you to sweat and second-guess and procrastinate when confronted with a certain nausea-inducing task.

procrastinate

 

The list can go on and on, scrolling through the virtual pages of our minds, memories, and backstories.

For Mitchell Brant, it’s a sensation of coming up short, a belief that he doesn’t quite measure up as is, inspiring him to lie and tell tall tales about himself.  For Ryan Swinton, it’s the possibility that someone won’t laugh at one of his jokes, or that he might inconvenience or upset a friend.  For Joe Marma, it’s that he will be judged as lacking, second-rate, always finishing behind his older brother in everything he does.  And for Marc Kuslanski, it’s the frustration of uncertainty, the specter of problems and puzzles he cannot solve, of mysteries he cannot fathom.

Rejection.  Disappointment.  Failure.  Misunderstanding.  Heartache.  Loss.

We are all afraid of something.  We all must wrestle with our own personal ghosts and ghouls, worries and fears.

fearheadinsand

 

For Wanda Dunn, an old woman we meet in a third-season Twilight Zone episode titled “Nothing in the Dark,” the albatross that weighs her down is made clear from the start.

twilightzone

 

Wanda Dunn is terrified of death.

The story opens with Wanda holed up in her broken-down tenement, snow falling outside her windows.  She spies someone on the step just beyond her door–a young man in uniform.  She cowers in a corner, fearful of being seen.  And then a whistle blows, a gunshot rings out, and the man falls.

gladyscooper

 

Reluctantly, Wanda opens her door, just enough to peek outside.  The man (played by a twentysomething Robert Redford) is lying in the snow.

redford1

 

He pleads to her, says he’s a police officer and that he’s been shot and needs help.

redfordplayinghurt

 

“You’re lying,” the old woman says.  “Why can’t you leave me alone?  I know who you are.  I know what you are.”

It is here that Rod Serling provides the opening narration of the episode.  In the voice-over, he tells us that Wanda Dunn thinks the man outside is, in actuality, Mr. Death in disguise.

But the police officer continues his appeal.  “Unless you help me,” he says, “I’m going to die.  I don’t think I can move.”  He tells her his name is Harold Beldon and asks her to call a hospital.

She tells him she has no telephone, and cannot call anyone.

When he asks if he can come inside, out of the cold, she balks.  “I’d have to unlock the door,” she says.  “I can’t do that.  I don’t want to die.  I know who you are.”

gladyscooperscared

 

He grimaces, clearly in pain, and tells her as much.

Eventually, and grudgingly, she opens the door and lets Officer Harold Beldon into her home . . .

Later, we see her tending to him, as he lies in a bed.  She brews him some tea, not as afraid of him now, apparently comforted by the belief that he is who he says he is–just a police officer injured in the line of duty, and not the angel of death come to snatch her away.

As they talk, we learn that Wanda Dunn lives alone.  There are no neighbors.  They’ve all moved away.  And she can’t open the door, seek out a telephone to call a doctor, even if there still were a neighbor.

“I can’t let him in,” she says.

“Mr. Death . . .” Officer Harold Beldon replies, catching on.

“I know he’s out there,” Wanda says.  “He’s trying to get in.  He comes to the door and knocks.  He begs me to let him in.  Last week he said he came from the gas company.  Oh, he’s clever.  After that, he claimed to be a contractor hired by the city.”  He’d told her the building had been condemned and she had to leave.  But “I kept the door locked, and he went away.”

The officer objects, pointing out that people all over the world die every day.  How can one man, a single Mr. Death, be in all those places at once?

deathcomfortingsad

 

She says she doesn’t know, but she has seen him before.  Every time someone she knew died, he was there.  She admits, others don’t seem to see him, but she thinks she does because she’s old, and because her “time is coming.”

“I could see clearer than younger people could,” she says.  And yet–his face is always different.  She can never be sure it’s him at first glance, and that’s why she hides, shuts herself in, not allowing herself to venture outside.

“How can you live like this?” Officer Beldon asks.

To which she responds, “But if I don’t live like this, I won’t live at all.  If I let down, even for a moment, he’ll get in.”

Suddenly there’s a knock.  She doesn’t want to answer, but the officer urges her to.  She opens the door a crack.  A burly workman is there.

whosthere

 

“I’m sorry, lady,” he says, “but I’ve got my orders.  I can’t fool around any longer.”

The man forces his way in, and Wanda Dunn is certain it’s Mr. Death.

rgarmstrong

 

The man assures her he’s just a worker arriving to warn her that she needs to move out immediately.  His crew is set to begin demolishing the tenement in one hour’s time.

“I’m surprised anyone still lives here,” he says.  Hasn’t she read the notices, opened her mail?  It’s an old building, he explains, dangerous.  It’s got to come down.

“That’s life, lady,” he goes on.  “People get the idea I’m some sort of destroyer . . . I just clear the ground so other people can build . . . It’s just the way things are . . . Old animals die, and young ones take their places.  Even people step aside when it’s time.”

“I won’t,” she says, and implores Officer Beldon to help, explain to the man that she can’t leave.  But the man asks who she’s talking to.  There isn’t anyone else in the room but the two of them.

Pressed for time, ready to coordinate the demolition, the workman leaves, again issuing a warning that she needs to leave the building immediately.

But Wanda Dunn is no longer concerned about the workman or the tenement.

“He didn’t see you,” she says to the officer when they are once again alone.  Officer Beldon tells her to look in the mirror.  When she does, she can only see herself.  The police officer has no reflection.

Finally realizing what has happened, Wanda exclaims, “You tricked me!  It was you all the time!  But why?  You could’ve taken me anytime.  You were nice.  You made me trust you.”

redford2

 

He gets out of bed, asks, “Am I really so bad?”  And tells her she’s not afraid of him, of death, but of the unknown.  “Don’t be afraid,” he says.  “The running’s over.  It’s time to rest.”

redfordcharming

 

He offers her his hand.

“I don’t want to die,” she says.

But he encourages her, softly, gently, and they touch.

“You see?” Mr. Death says with a smile.  “No shock.  No engulfment.  No tearing asunder.  What you feared would come like an explosion . . . is like a whisper.  What you thought was the end . . . is the beginning.”

“When will it happen?” she wants to know.  “When will we go?”

But they already have.  He tells her to look at the bed.  She sees herself lying there, lifeless.

Understanding at last, fearing no longer, she smiles, and, arm in arm, they walk out the door.

redfordleadinghertodeath

 

In the closing narration, Rod Serling sums it up like this:

“There was an old woman who lived in a room and, like all of us, was frightened of the dark, but who discovered in a minute last fragment of her life, that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the lights were on.”

lightdarkend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Doll in the Basement

There was nothing unusual or out of the ordinary about that day–at least, not at first.

It was just another in a string of  lazy end-of-summer afternoons, the kind of day that lingered, unhurried, like a traveler sitting on the front porch of some country store in a small New England town, feet up, sipping lemonade and chatting with the guests.

betterporch

 

lemonade

And that was fine with me.  With the new school year set to begin the following week, the day could take as much time as it wanted as far as I was concerned.  I was about to enter the fifth grade, and the teacher, a veteran of three-plus decades, had a reputation for being a no-nonsense disciplinarian who expected his students to perform from the get-go.  I knew I had to be ready.

But that was next week.  No need to dwell on it, not while a last sliver of summer vacation stood, like a buffer, against the onset of roll call and homework.

The day was hot, clear but humid, the air like a moist blanket that needed to be wrung out, drip by drip.  I decided to head down to the basement–the coolest space in the house.

The basement was split into two distinct zones.  The front, or “Light section,” as I liked to think of it, was partially finished, with food shelves, a freezer, a pool table, and a ping pong set.

pingpong

 

Every time I went down there, I felt as if I were being greeted by an old friend.  I could relax, unwind, let my imagination wander, as I dreamed up new stories to write or new games I could play with my friends.

But the back . . . the back of the basement was unfinished, darker, with metal pipes straddling the ceiling; an old furnace, tucked away in a corner that hummed like a living thing on cold days; a mysterious window, which I had nicknamed “the window to nowhere,” that led to a narrow crawl space; a workbench built in against the far wall, cluttered with hand tools and scraps of wood and paintbrushes; and a snug, pitch-black little compartment under the stairs, where all manner of knickknacks and other assorted sundries were stashed.

clotheslinesandpipes

 

I enjoyed scaring my friends with ghost stories about these tucked-away corners of the basement, and they were genuinely in awe of “the window to nowhere.”

windowtonowhere

 

But while I acted cool and confident in front of them, the truth was . . . I was uncomfortable being in the back of the basement, alone.  I imagined furry things curled up in secret nests; slithery, poisonous things that lived under the workbench or behind the water heater, who would reach out with tentacled limbs and pull me in.  Sometimes, when I ran upstairs, I could swear I heard something stirring in the shadows behind me, and my pace would quicken, my feet rushing, rushing . . .

monster

 

But on that day, with the afternoon heat at its worst and the reality of fifth grade and the demanding teacher on the near horizon, I didn’t think of unseen monsters or dark creatures with fangs and feral, angry eyes.  I just wanted to escape to someplace cooler.

So I went down and played pool with myself, pretending to be a high-stakes player performing in front of thousands of riveted spectators.

pool

 

It was fun for a while, but after a few minutes, I wanted something else to do.  I peered in toward the back of the basement.  Sunlight filtered in through a small window, and I could see particles of dust dancing in the beams.

Why not?  I thought.  Maybe I could discover something new with which to frighten my friends.

The first thing I did when I went back there was yank the chain that lit the naked lightbulb fastened to the ceiling.  The sunlight through the window helped.  But it was not enough–I needed full-on, bright light if I were to venture into this section of the basement, alone.

lightbulb

 

I walked slowly, alert, ready to bolt in a heartbeat if anything should happen.  The sound of footsteps upstairs, muted by the floor above my head, descended upon me.  It was a comforting sound, secure.  It injected me with a fresh dose of courage.

I continued on, heading for my father’s worn, paint-speckled workbench.  Clotheslines crisscrossed in front of it–though no clothes were presently on the lines.  What did hang from one of the lines was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll.

doll

 

I jerked back, not expecting to see her.  Whose doll was she, anyway?  My sister, never a big collector of dolls to begin with, had recently started college.  It wasn’t hers.  One of my cousins, perhaps?  I didn’t know.  And I hesitated, considered turning around and going back to the relative safety of the front portion of the basement.  From upstairs, I heard the dull thud of more footsteps.

The doll was pretty, wearing a dress, with a bow in her hair.  But something about her disturbed me.  I had never liked dolls anyway–maybe that’s all it was.  They always seemed like living things, sentient, only pretending to be dead.

dollalive

 

But when the lights were turned off, and night fell over the house like a shroud, I imagined them walking, on whispery feet, down the hallway, rummaging through dressers and drawers, scheming their secret schemes.

I approached the clotheslines and the doll, slowly, quietly.  Finally, I stood there, face-to-face with her.  I shook my head.  Why had I been afraid?  How ridiculous!  She was made of porcelain, not flesh and blood.  Besides, what could she possibly do?  I scolded myself for being so jumpy over nothing.

I swallowed, reached for the doll.

The doll winked.

I stumbled back, nearly falling over, and was sure I could hear the murmur of some unseen piece of machinery grow louder, closer.

thingsinthedark

 

I turned away from the blonde doll with the blue eyes and the hair bow.  I raced for the stairs, forgetting to switch off the light on the way.  As I took the stairs, two at a time, my mind imagined the doll on the clothesline, smiling now, her eyes staring, empty, calculating, wanting me to return.

childdoll

 

I never did.  I did not venture alone into the back of the basement again until that doll was gone, nor did I tell anyone about what I’d seen.  I’d occasionally head down with my father if he needed to search for something on the workbench–though I always made sure to keep my distance.  I peeked in, sideways, checking to see if she was still there.

Finally, nearly a month later, the doll was gone.  Just as I never learned where she had come from, I never learned where she went.

*****************

To this day, I still ask myself:  Did that doll really wink at me?  I was nervous as I approached her, so it’s possible my mind created the illusion.  Marc Kuslanski would favor that theory.

But I have always believed that she did in fact wink.  I saw her eye close, slowly, and then open again–as clear as the sunlight that filtered in through the small window on the other end of the basement.  Perhaps, in her own way, she was the reason the blue-eyed “ghost girl” appeared in my nightmares years later, the same girl who haunts Mitchell Brant‘s dreams at the start of The Eye-Dancers.

ghostgirl

 

That version makes for the better story, anyway . . .

betterstory

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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.”

supermarket

 

washedaway

 

jump

 

stream

 

“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!

–Mike

Short Story — “Tailgater”

There are many occasions in The Eye-Dancers where one of the main characters feels bad after doing or saying something.  Joe is impetuous, and too often acts without first thinking things through.  Mitchell, with his penchant for lying and storytelling, sometimes feels a pang of guilt after one of his tall tales.  Ryan second-guesses himself with regularity, always wanting to please people, never wanting to anger or provoke them.  And Marc too often puts people down, without even intending to.  He is, in a nutshell, a know-it-all, and sometimes, as Mitchell himself reminds him at one point in the novel, his horse gets pretty high sometimes.

The main character in the short story “Tailgater,” which I wrote just as I was beginning the first draft of The Eye-Dancers, also experiences a crisis of conscience, an onslaught of guilt . . .

I hope you will read the story and see how he deals with his predicament.

tailgater

 

thruway

 

ring

 

headlights

 

restaurant

 

“Tailgater”

copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

********************

As Paul gripped the steering wheel, cruising down the Thruway at seventy miles per hour, he wondered if he should have gift-wrapped the stolen ring.  But in his haste, his eagerness, his second-guessing, he had simply pocketed it, hoping his co-workers and customers would not find guilt etched on his face like a brand.  Besides, who had the time?  His shift had ended at eight thirty, and he wanted to reach Tammie by eleven, at the latest.  That thought prompted him to push down harder on the gas pedal—and the car sped up to seventy-five.

It still didn’t feel fast enough.  He’d jack it up to a hundred if he thought he could get away with it.  It was tempting, too.  There weren’t many motorists out tonight, and he hadn’t spotted a trooper since getting on the Thruway a half hour ago.

 “Go for it,” he said over the radio.  Someone on NPR was talking about the effects of global warming.  Paul chuckled over that.  It had been well below freezing for two weeks now, since before Thanksgiving.

 He glanced in his rearview mirror, checking for a rogue state trooper.

 “Hey.  What the . . . ?”

 A pair of blue, halogen headlights were reflected there, and he had to look away.  Where had that car come from?  Just a moment ago, no one had been anywhere near him, and yet, suddenly, out of thin air, it seemed, he was being tailgated.  And the creep had his lights set on high beam, too.

 Paul gritted his teeth.  Few things annoyed him more than tailgaters.

 “What are you waiting for, you idiot?” he yelled to the driver behind him.  “Why don’t you just pass me?”

 As far as Paul could tell, no other cars were around.  Why on earth was he being tailgated, then?  All the guy had to do was move over into the other lane and speed ahead.  He seemed intent on deliberately giving Paul a hard time.

 “You asked for it,” Paul said, and gently braked.  He slowed down to seventy, sixty-five, sixty, fifty-five . . .  Still the vehicle behind him stuck, as if the driver wanted to touch license plates.  Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead, and his temples started to throb.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.  Not tonight.  Not after what he’d done.

 Suddenly, he gunned it, and he zoomed ahead, leaving the tailgater far behind.  He was going ninety now, but how could he be blamed for that?  The jerk behind him had forced his hand—or foot, as the case may be.

 Glancing in the rearview mirror, he spotted the blue headlights, at least a hundred yards back.  Still no other traffic in sight.

 Good riddance. 

 He took his right hand off the steering wheel and reached into his pocket, feeling for the ring, checking that it was still there.  It was—of course it was—and it felt hot to the touch, though the band was cold.

 Looking around, at the dead cornfields illuminated by the moon-glow, at the scattered farmhouses with their trusty porch lights on, at the grain silos that loomed in the darkness like sleeping monoliths, he felt small and alone.  The events at the restaurant seemed almost dreamlike, and he wondered if perhaps he might wake up in a moment, his bedsheets wrapped tightly around him, the drone of the clock ticking off the slow seconds of the night.

 But no.  This was no dream.  It was real.  All too real.

 He had never stolen anything before . . . at least not anything of value.  He had swiped a few stray pens and pencils—even a five dollar bill once—but nothing remotely like this.  It hadn’t been premeditated.  He didn’t even know the ring existed until just a few short hours ago, when he saw the woman at his table fiddling with it.  She was eating alone, which was peculiar in itself . . . she was young, attractive, and very clearly affluent.  Her outfit—black Piazza Sempione jacket, red silk blouse, black velvet trousers—probably cost more than his entire wardrobe put together.  And she had ordered the most expensive bottle of wine to go with her meal.

 At first, Paul was merely hoping for a generous tip.  She seemed like the kind of woman who might reward good service.  But as he repeatedly made the rounds to her table, asking her how she was enjoying her food (“It’s very good, thanks,” she said more than once), he couldn’t help but notice the way she absently played with her ring.

 It wasn’t an engagement ring, at least he didn’t think it was.  It had a white gold band, with a black pearl set on top, wrapped in a swirl of diamonds that glittered in the lighting of the restaurant.  He had no idea what the price of the ring might be, though it was clear it hadn’t come cheap.  A thousand dollars, perhaps?  Two thousand?  Three?  Way too much, in any event, to be fiddling around with it—taking it off and twirling it between thumb and forefinger—as this woman was doing.

 It made him think of Tammie—beautiful, kind, big-hearted Tammie who lived paycheck to paycheck, working overtime at the factory every other week just to make ends meet.  She was the best thing that had ever happened to him.  He’d met her six months ago.  She was visiting old friends in Rochester, and they had come into the restaurant.  He waited their table.

 He hadn’t openly flirted with Tammie that evening, nor she with him.  But there was something between them, something so charged he thought he’d be electrocuted if he could reach out and touch it.  He had never believed in love at first sight, but how else to explain it?  He could tell she wasn’t at home in the restaurant . . . where the food was pricey and the clientele white-collar, bordering on snobbish.  Later, she told him her friends insisted on taking her there, though she would have preferred a local diner or pizzeria.  Paul chuckled at the memory.  But only for a moment.  It made him sad, bitter even, that she didn’t own anything special, no diamond ring or gold necklace.  It wasn’t fair.  She deserved it.  She deserved so much more. . . .

 He went up to the woman’s table.  The remains of her meal were heaped on the dinner plate, her glass of wine nearly empty.

 “Are you all set, ma’am?” he asked.

 She smiled, nodded; he took her plate and left the bill with her.  He noticed she wasn’t wearing the pearl ring.  What had she done with it?  Put it in her mouth, just for kicks?

 A moment later, he had his answer.  Amid the uneaten morsels of food, he spotted it.  Just lying there.  He laughed, picked it out of the leftovers, and prepared to return it.

 Then he hesitated.  He again thought of Tammie.  Christmas was in two weeks, and he had only bought her a cheap book he’d found on sale, a scarf, and a pair of red mittens.  It made him ill that he couldn’t buy her something nice, but his landlord had raised the rent last month, and Paul was scrimping as much as possible.  He’d been planning to move to Syracuse sometime next year, anyway, to live closer to Tammie.  The increased rent served only as an incentive to get out sooner rather than later.

 His head was suddenly full of scenarios, justifications, rebukes, pros and cons.  Should he give the ring back to the woman?  Yes.  Of course.  What other path was there, really?

 Well . . .

 Maybe he could keep the ring.  Just sort of slip it into his pocket, while no one was looking.  Who would ever know?  And then he could give it to Tammie.  Surprise her with it tonight, after his shift.  Why wait until Christmas?  He wanted to see her face when she beheld the ring—the shine in her eyes, the exuberance of her smile.  All because of him, his gift that would make her feel special and adored.  He couldn’t wait two weeks.

 Besides, if he waited, he might chicken out and give the ring back to its owner.  And why should he do a thing like that?  She didn’t even care about it.  She probably had dozens just like it back at the mansion or townhouse or lakeside bungalow she called home.  What was it to her?

 He returned to her table, the ring in his pants pocket, his cheeks feeling hot.

 “Excuse me,” the woman said, “you didn’t happen to see my ring anyplace, did you?  A black pearl ring?  With a white band?  I seem to have misplaced it.”

 Before he answered, he wondered if she had stuck the ring in her leftovers on purpose, to see what he would do, to test him.  Would he try to steal it?  Or be a good, honest waiter and give it back to her?  Was this all a setup?

 Behind him, he felt a rush of air.  Nicole, a new waitress they had just hired yesterday, hurried past, balancing three plates and smiling as she approached her customers.  He overheard her telling them to flag her down if they needed anything.  Striving for the tip.  That’s what it was all about.  Just like Tammie, working those sixty-hour weeks at the plant.  Trying to stay afloat, hoping to get by.

 Thinking of Tammie gave him a fresh injection of courage.  He took a breath, and a chance.  “I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.  I’m afraid I haven’t seen it.  I’ll go back and tell all the staff you lost it, though.  It’s bound to turn up somewhere.”

 A shadow fell over the woman’s face, and he almost caved in then.  Maybe he had it all wrong.  Maybe she did care about the ring.  Maybe it had been a gift, from a boyfriend or a relative.  Maybe she was just upset tonight about something, her mind elsewhere, and that was why she had been so careless with it.

 Maybe.  Or maybe he was just conjuring up abstract potentialities that likely didn’t exist.

 “Well,” the woman said, “I don’t know what could’ve happened.  I just had it.  And how could anyone have taken it?  I was here the whole time.”  She looked on her seat, under the table, checked her pockets.  “I don’t understand!  Am I going crazy?  I just had it!”

 “I’m sure it’ll turn up, ma’am,” he said.  “Like I said, I’ll ask around.  And I’ll keep looking in this area, too.  It’s got to be here.”

 She sighed, swore under her breath, shook her head.  “Well, if you do see it, please give my cell a call, okay?”  She jotted down her number on a napkin, and handed it to him.

 “Sure thing,” he said, smiling.

 She gave him a long, hard look.  It felt like she was searching his conscience, attempting to decode his lies.  He wondered if his heartbeat, which sounded like a sledgehammer in his ears, was audible to her, right through his chest.

 “Well, I hope to hear from you later.”

 He didn’t like the way she said that, and he was certain that she suspected what he’d done.  Or was it merely his own guilt, in an effort to prod him into returning her ring?  Whatever it was, he stood his ground.

 When she finally left, he let out a deep breath.  Now he just wished the next couple of hours would fly by and his shift be over.  Then he could get out of here and drive the ninety miles to Tammie’s place, knock on her door, and surprise her.

 He picked up the folder on the tabletop and let out a snort.  He’d had it coming, he supposed.

 She hadn’t left him a tip.

 NPR was beginning to annoy him.  He needed something soothing, comforting.  Turning the dial, he settled on a station playing a piano rendition of “Away in a Manger.”  Perfect.  Just the sort of melody he was looking for.

 He hummed along with the mellow music, trying to forget about the nagging in his head, the doubts that wouldn’t go away.  He could still turn back, call the woman on her cell, tell her he had the ring . . .

 “Can it,” he said, and forced himself to concentrate on the song.

 An SUV passed him on the left, and by instinct, he checked his rearview mirror, to see if anyone else might be close behind.

 Blue, high-beam headlights glared at him, blinding him temporarily.  He turned away from the mirror, rubbed his eyes, and picked up speed.  How had that pest caught up with him again?  No one had been there a second ago.

 “Who cares?” he said.  He’d leave the jerk in the dust again, just like the last time.

 He sped up to eighty, but the car behind him did not fade back.  It stuck to him like a stubborn cold.  He slowed down, sped up again.  Still he couldn’t shake the tailgater.

 That’s when he wondered.  Was the person following him the woman from the restaurant?  Or a boyfriend of hers?  Could that be?

 Don’t be an idiot.  She doesn’t even know what car I drive.

 Yeah, but she might have waited outside and followed you when your shift ended.

 Shut up.  Why would she do that?

 To run you off the road, maybe?  Get her ring back?

 He violently shook his head, and snapped off the radio, as if that might also turn down the volume in his mind.  The Christmas music, calming at first, had turned grating, incongruous.

 “Why are you doing this to me?” he shouted in his mirror.  But his only answer was the flash of blue halogen lights.  “Who are you?”

 He floored it, reaching a hundred miles an hour.  Still, the lights remained just behind him.  The woman, or guy, or whoever it was, would not let him get away.

 Suddenly, he spotted a white Neon directly in his path.  He’d been so focused on losing his pursuer that he hadn’t been paying attention to what lay ahead.  Swerving, slamming on the break, he jerked the car into the passing lane.  The driver of the Neon beeped the horn at him and he could see her gesture angrily even in the dark.

 He passed the Neon, then glanced in his mirror again, hoping nothing would be there.  No such luck.

 The blue headlights still tailed him.

 “All right,” he said.  “If that’s how you want to play . . .”

 He swung back in to the slow lane, then, just as abruptly, changed lanes again, into the passing lane.  He continued to do this—back and forth, back and forth.  Finally, he checked his mirror again, hoping the nutcase behind him had had enough.

 “Well, whaddaya know,” he said, and a smile crossed his lips.  He checked his reflection, and an odd glint was in his eyes now.  The thrill of the chase, he guessed.  It had made him euphoric, half-crazed, even.  The headlights were gone.  Not simply further back.  But gone.

 Odd.  Why would that be?

 From inside his breast pocket, there was a piercing chirp.  His cell.  Someone was texting him.  Was it the woman?  Dropping the game and demanding her ring back?  Don’t be stupid.  She didn’t know his number.  He hadn’t given it to her.

 He took the phone out, his eyes on the road.  He had it mostly to himself.  He passed a pickup truck.  No one else was ahead of him, as far as he could see.  Checking the mirror, there was still no sign of the blue headlights anywhere.  In the distance, another hulking grain silo brooded over the frost-strewn earth.

 He glanced at his cell, read the message.

 Hey, where r u?  Tried calling ur place but no answer.  Thought u’d b home by now.  R u ok?

It was Tammie.  He didn’t want to tell her he was on his way to see her.  But he knew he needed to respond immediately, or else she might worry.  Ahead, he spotted a sign.  The next travel plaza was coming up in two miles.  Good.  He could pull in, text her, then be on his way again.

 With the cell in his hand, he again considered calling the woman from the restaurant.  He hadn’t yet crossed a point of no return.  And, he realized, with each mile he drove, the closer he came to Tammie’s exit, the more uneasy he felt.  He still had an out, a chance to set things right.  Once he saw Tammie, once he gave her the ring and kissed her, there was no way he could then take it back from her.  If he was going to reconsider, it would have to be soon.  Time was running out.

 He’d think about it more when he stopped at the travel plaza.

 No, there’s nothing to think about.  Tammie will love this ring.  That other lady lost it.  Too bad for her.  She shouldn’t have played with it like that.  She—

 In his rearview mirror, there was a sudden flash of blue light.

 “Hey!  No way, not again!  It can’t be.”

 But it was.  His pursuer was back.  He forced himself to look in the mirror again, trying to ignore the burst of light and get a good look at the driver.  But the beams were too bright—they made him think of that light the optometrist shone in his eyes during examinations, so strong that tears cascaded down his cheeks and little black dots floated in the field of his vision for minutes afterward—and the vehicle’s windshield was dark.  For all he knew, the car was driving itself.

 But at least he could pull into the travel plaza this time.  And if the tailgater followed him, he’d confront the jerk once and for all.

 He signaled, slowed down, turned onto the entrance ramp, and coasted into the plaza’s parking lot.  When he checked his mirror, he fully expected to see his nemesis right behind him.  But there was nothing.  For the second time, the car seemed to have vanished, as though it hadn’t been there to begin with.

 “How the . . . ? He was just here!  He was just here.  Wasn’t he?”

 He parked his car, turned off the engine.  Then he looked at his reflection again.

 “Hey, you’re okay, aren’t you, Paul?” he said.  “All the circuits are fully juiced, screws tight, nothing floating loose up in there.  Right?”  He took several deep, calming breaths, trying to rid his mind of tension.  But it was no good.  He was way too edgy, his nerve endings like live wires.

 He texted a quick reply to Tammie, telling her he was fine, just out Christmas shopping.  He figured he’d go out after his shift, late, and avoid the crowds.  He hated to lie, but how could he tell her the truth?.

 Call her.  Call that woman and tell her you have her ring.

 No.  He wouldn’t do that.

 “I need some air,” he said.

 He got out of the car, inhaled deeply, and scanned the lot for the tailgater.  A half-dozen other vehicles were scattered about—any one of them might belong to the guy who’d been tormenting him.  He didn’t even know what his car looked like—only that it had two exceptionally bright high-beam blue halogen headlights.

 “Just forget about it,” he muttered, and strode toward the travel plaza building.  He hadn’t eaten a thing since lunchtime, and the place had a McDonald’s inside.

 But as soon as he passed through the doorway, he realized that he couldn’t just forget about it.  He didn’t know for sure if his tailgater had followed him into the parking lot, but he highly suspected it.  What had seemed like a mystery, an improbability, seconds ago now made perfect sense.  The guy had switched off his headlights as soon as he turned on to the entrance ramp.  Why?  To give the illusion that he’d vanished.  And then, as quick as a subconscious thought, he must have driven to a remote corner of the lot—before Paul could see him.  Yes.  That was it.  He was sure of it.

 But couldn’t he have just continued on the Thruway, and not pulled in here with me?

 “No.”  Paul didn’t believe that.  Somehow he knew, intuitively, that he was still being followed.

 He placed his hand on his forehead.  He could feel the beginning of a nasty headache coming on.

 “Just get some food,” he said.  “Eat.  Calm down.”

 He walked passed an artificial Christmas tree, bedecked with tinsel and cheap-looking gold and silver bulbs.  Above the tree, a placard hung from the ceiling, with the words “Happy Holidays” written in a bold, bright red.

 He looked around.  Three of the plaza’s restaurants were closed for the evening.  Only the McDonald’s was open.  A couple of customers were sitting in booths, enjoying a late-night meal.  Other than that, the place was deserted, save for an old man who was occupied inspecting a scale just outside the men’s room.  This struck him as suspicious.  Wouldn’t that be just what his pursuer might do?  Pretend to be absorbed in some innocuous contraption but in reality, out of the corner of his eye, watching Paul?  Monitoring him?  Sizing him up?

 “Shut up.”

 He ordered a double cheeseburger and a large fries, and sat at one of the booths, by the window, looking through the glass and at himself.  His shadowy reflection glared back at him, frazzled, shaken up.

 He took a bite of the burger—but, though he was hungry, it didn’t go down easily.  His throat seemed to constrict.

 C’mon.  Relax.  What’s your problem?

 Other than stealing an expensive ring?  Being tailgated by a maniac?  Stalked by a person who could very well be dangerous?  Sure.  What could possibly be wrong?

 He took half-a-dozen fries and stuffed them in his mouth.  Good and salty, just the way he liked them, but, again, his throat did not want to cooperate.  “Get out of here,” it seemed to be saying to him.  “Don’t waste time.  He’s here.  He’ll jump you if you let him.”

 He glanced at the two other McDonald’s patrons.

 There was a middle-aged blonde woman seated three booths down.  She was sipping a medium-sized soft drink and picking at a chicken salad.  She looked tired, frumpy.  Her hair was stringy, and she wore a pair of wire-frame glasses that continually fell down her nose.  She would push them up, then they’d fall right back down again.  As she played with her food, pushing it around with her black plastic fork more than actually eating it, she muttered to herself.  Her eyes were droopy, as if she had been on the road all day.

 The other customer was a fiftyish guy in a long gray coat.  He sat on the other side of the restaurant, but he was in clear view and Paul was able to get a good look at him.  He was eating what appeared to be a filet-o-fish sandwich along with two large orders of fries, and he must have been hungry, because he was wolfing the food down.  He was burly, with salt-and-pepper hair and a long, hawklike nose.  As he ate, his shoulders would rise and fall, rise and fall—like a nervous twitch.  Was he the rich woman’s boyfriend, perhaps?  Paul doubted it  Too old.  And too ugly.  But how could he be sure?  You never could tell who a person might fall for.

 He took another bite of his cheeseburger, and this time he nearly spewed it back up.

 “This is impossible,” he said, getting up.  He tossed his food in the waste bin.  Money down the drain, but he couldn’t eat.  As far as he could tell, neither the blonde woman nor the guy with the nervous shoulders had even glanced his way.  And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

 He walked out of the McDonald’s, past the tacky artificial tree.  He noticed the old man, still standing by the entrance to the men’s room, studying the scale.

 “Care to weigh yourself, fella?” the man said.  “I weighed myself.  One hundred and fifty-three pounds.  Not a pound lighter, or heavier.  One fifty-three.  I’ve weighed that same amount since the Eisenhower administration, don’tcha know.  Wanna give ‘er a try?”

 He shook his head, picked up his pace, and bolted through the doors.  He needed to get out of this place, see Tammie.  Give her the ring.

 Walking to his car, he felt exposed.  The tailgater could pick him off so easily out here—maybe turn on those blue headlights, shine them in his eyes, and race toward him, slamming into him before he could dodge out of the way.

 He began to run.  If anyone saw him, they would think he’d lost his mind.  But he didn’t care.  He needed to reach the security of his car, before it was too late.

 When he got there, ducked in, slammed and locked the door, he let out a long, tortured breath.

 “What’s the matter with me?  Jumping at shadows.”

 He started the engine, looked around the lot—still nothing out of the ordinary—and drove off.  When he passed the front of the travel plaza, he saw one of the customers coming out.  The big guy, with the beak nose!  So he was the one!

 He pressed down hard on the gas.  If he got on the highway ahead of him, maybe he could pull far enough away and lose him.

 The exit ramp was straight ahead now, and he continued to accelerate, passing an island of self-serve gas pumps charging exorbitant fuel prices.  Still no one behind him.

 “You’re gonna make it, Paul,” he said.  “You’re gonna make it!”

 He took a quick, cursory glance in his rearview mirror, sure that nothing would be there except the glow of the travel plaza’s lights, the pumps, and the black emptiness of the December night.

 A blinding explosion of blue beams made him close his eyes and slam on the brake.  He pulled over to the side, hoping his pursuer would take the hint and zoom past, onto the interstate, out of his life forever.  But the vehicle just slipped in behind him, the blue halogen lights still shining in at him like an accusation.

 That’s when Paul understood.  There was no escape from this madman.  He was like a killer in a grade-B horror movie.  Always one step ahead of his prey.  Always right there behind you, no matter what you did.

 He was through running.  He couldn’t do it anymore.  The confrontation could not be avoided any longer.

 That guy is huge.  He’d probably break you in half.  Probably has a gun, too.

 He sighed.  He didn’t know for sure that the driver behind him was the guy in the gray coat, the ugly man who looked like he’d been an NFL linebacker, or a heavyweight boxer, in his prime.  But he hadn’t seen anyone pass him on the exit ramp, either.

 That doesn’t mean he’s the one behind you now.  Maybe he’s still in his car back in the parking lot.  Listening to the radio.  Making a call. 

 “Just give it up,” he said.  He was through speculating.  It was time to get out of the car, and see what the guy wanted.

 He wants the ring.  You know that.

 Yes, he did.  He was sure of it.

 Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out the napkin on which the woman at the restaurant had scrawled her cell number.  The guy behind him was likely dangerous, maniacal.  He had shown that already, tailgating and harassing Paul the way he had.  What if he killed him?  Simply shot him or strangled him, then deposited his body in the frigid waters of the lake?

 He had an urge to speed away then.  He didn’t want this, didn’t want to face this unknown danger on some exit ramp in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but old farmhouses and dead fields and cold, hard blacktop.  But where would that get him?  To the next travel plaza?  The exit booths, taking him off the Thruway?  What good would that do?  His adversary would be right there behind him, ready to strike.  It would merely serve to postpone the inevitable.

 He looked at the number on the napkin again.  His tailgater’s headlights, reflecting off the rearview mirror, bathed the napkin in a blue, alien-like glow.  The guy still hadn’t turned off his engine, or gotten out of the car.  He just idled there, waiting, waiting.

 “I don’t want to go out like this,” he said.  “I can’t go out like this.”

 Closing his eyes, he visualized Tammie.  He pictured the ring on her finger, how beautiful it would look, how right.  But thinking of that only made things worse.

 He picked up his cell phone.

 “It’s your lucky night, lady,” he said to the interior of his car, and then dialed her number.

 One ring.  Two.  Three.  Four.  He thought maybe she wouldn’t answer, that he’d get her recording.  It was late, after all.  Should he leave a message?  Or call back later?  Would there even be a later, after he’d dealt with his unrelenting pursuer?

 But on the fifth ring, she answered.  He wondered if she was still wearing her expensive jacket, or if she’d since returned home and had changed into something more casual.

 “Hello?” she said.

 He introduced himself, told her he’d found her ring.  Would she like to come by the restaurant to pick it up tomorrow morning, or should he drive to her place tonight and give it back to her?  Morbidly, he thought, Or maybe you could find the guy who’s behind me now after he kills me, and get it from him. 

 “Oh, thank goodness!” she said.  “You are a lifesaver!  I was sick all evening, thinking of how I’d lost it and wouldn’t ever see it again.  Thank you!  You are so awesome.”

 He swallowed.  Yeah.  Real awesome.  All I tried to do was rip you off tonight.

 “I’ll pick it up tomorrow morning,” she said.  “I suppose I can trust you with it for one night, right?”  She laughed.

 “Right,” he said, and laughed back.  Or tried to.  He doubted it sounded sincere.

 “Well, thanks again,” she said.  “This means so much to me.  See you tomorrow.”

 She said bye, and hung up.  He rubbed his eyes.  It felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from him.  The albatross was gone.

 But now the real trouble was at hand.

 He turned off the engine, and, without hesitation, got out of the car.  It was better to get this over with quickly.

 “Okay, mister, I—”

 There was nobody there.  No car idling with blue high-beam lights glaring at him.  No hulking man in a gray coat with a long, twisted nose and murder in his eyes.  Nothing.

 “But . . .”

 He walked to the rear of his car, and even peeked underneath, as if the vehicle that had been trailing him had somehow become miniaturized and was now attached to his undercarriage.  Was it possible that his tailgater had grown weary of the chase and had driven off while he was on the phone?  No.  He was sure no one had passed him.

 Then what?

 He didn’t know, and was too tired to think about it.  He just knew he felt like himself again.  That’s all that really mattered.

 He felt for the ring in his pocket.  It was there, safe and secure.  He smiled.

 Maybe the woman would give him a belated tip when she saw him in the morning.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Have you ever gone through something and wondered if you were losing your mind?  Have you ever witnessed something no one else saw?  Did you try to convince others that what you saw was in fact real, only to be met with skepticism, unbelief, and odd, quizzical glances?  And, after facing the doubts, did you then begin to question your own perceptions, doubt your own eyes and ears?

This is precisely what happens to Robert Wilson (played by William Shatner in a pre-Star Trek role) when he boards a plane in an unforgettable fifth-season Twilight Zone episode called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  Recently released from a sanitarium, where he’d been admitted for six months following a nervous breakdown on a flight much like this one, Wilson is noticeably nervous as he takes his seat–beside the emergency exit.

shatner

 

“I’m not acting much like a cured man, am I?” he says to his wife.

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His wife assures him all is well, they just need to get home.  “Everything is still intact,” she says.  To which Wilson replies, “Except me.”

Adding to his distress, the aircraft is flying through an electrical storm.  It is night, as the thunder rumbles and the lightning flashes across the black canvas of the sky.  His wife now asleep, Wilson glances out his window.   He does a double-take.  There is a man on the wing of the plane!

onthewing

 

Wilson buzzes for the flight attendant, but when she arrives, the man on the wing is gone.  He draws the curtain, as if trying to block out the vision of what he just witnessed.  The commotion wakes up his wife, but he tells her not to worry, he’s just having trouble falling asleep.  She gives him a sleeping pill, and dozes off again.

He tries to relax, but the pill isn’t working.  Glancing at the window, tempted, he pulls the curtain back again.  An inhuman face stares back at him.

monsterthruwindow

 

The man–the creature–is back.  But how?  How can there be a living thing out there, on the wing of an aircraft flying through a storm at 20,000 feet?  “It isn’t there,” he tell himself, closing his eyes.  “It isn’t there!”

questioningsanity

 

But when he opens his eyes, the creature is still looking in at him.

onlyhecansee

 

Wilson rings for the attendant again, but, just as it happened earlier, the creature vanishes when she looks through the window.   Sure enough, when the attendant leaves, the creature returns.  Only this time, he begins to tamper with the wing, as if he wants to crash the plane.

onthewing

 

Wilson wakes up his wife, tells her there’s a man on the wing.  “No, no, don’t look!” he says when she tries to see past him and out the window.  He explains the man out there disappears whenever anyone else tries to see him.  Then he clarifies.  The creature on the wing is not a man.  It’s “a gremlin,” he tells her.

She looks at him like he’s lost his mind.  He can’t deal with that look.

wifelook

 

“I’m not imagining it!” he says.  “He . . . he jumps away when anyone might see him.  Except me.”

He continues to explain himself:  “I know it sounds crazy.  But do I look insane?  I know I had a mental breakdown.  I know I had it in an airplane.  I know it looks to you like the same thing’s happening again, but it isn’t! . . . If I described him [the gremlin] to you, you’d really think I was gone.”

His wife tries to console him, telling him it’s all right, but he grows angry, tells her not to patronize him.  He could see in her eyes that she doesn’t believe a word of what he’s telling her.

“I am not insane!” he shouts, and says he’s only telling her about the gremlin because he’s starting to tamper with one of the engines under the wing.

arguingwithwife

 

He asks her to tell the pilot what he’s just said, and to keep an eye on the wings.  If they see nothing, he says he’ll re-commit himself to the sanitarium.  “But if they do . . .”

When his wife gets up and walks down the aisle, Wilson sees the gremlin return.  The creature pulls up a cowling plate.

wingplay

 

“Hurry!” Wilson shouts.  “He’s out there!”

But of course when his wife and the flight engineer rush to his seat, the gremlin is gone.  The engineer, however, pretends that he’s seen the creature before.  Wilson sees through the act.  They are merely trying to placate him.  “You can stop now,” he says.  “I won’t say another word.  I’ll see us crash first.”

otherslook

 

Later, his wife asleep again, Wilson sees the gremlin come back.  The creature continues his assault on the wing, and Wilson decides to take matters into his own hands.  He steals a gun from a sleeping policeman, then returns to his seat, careful not to wake his wife.  Before allowing himself to back down, he opens the auxiliary exit window, and, despite being nearly blown out of the plane, succeeds in shooting and killing the gremlin.  He screams as he fires the final shot.

After the plane lands, Wilson is carted off in a straitjacket.  Everyone on board is sure he has gone insane.  But then the camera pans to show us the damaged airplane wing–which no one has yet seen.  But when they do, they will realize Wilson had been right.  There had been a gremlin out there.  He wasn’t delusional, after all.

wingdamage

 

The beauty of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is that we the viewer, along with Wilson himself, are not sure what he sees is real.  Is there really a creature out there, on the wing of the jet?  Or is Wilson suffering another breakdown?  We do not find out the answer for sure until episode’s end.

*********************

A parallel exists in The Eye-Dancers.  The four main characters journey through the void, and when they emerge on the other side, they find themselves in a strange new world.  But are they still dreaming?  Is this nothing but an extension of their shared nightmare of the “ghost girl” and her hypnotic, swirling blue eyes?

In chapter 6, as Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton, walking in their sleep and caught up in the throes of their nightmare, begin to vanish before Marc Kuslanski‘s eyes, Marc wonders the same thing.

“He reached out with his own hand, placed it on top of theirs.  Instantly, he felt a force, like a vacuum, grab hold of him.  He tried to pull away, but couldn’t.  . . . Had he somehow entered into their dream?  But that was impossible.  He was wide awake.  Besides, since when did dreams exert a force, a literal, tangible force, that could hold you in place?

“He tried to think–all of his knowledge, the theories he had studied, the insights he had gained–searching for the answer.  Possibilities, potentialities spun around in his mind like clothes tumbling, layer upon layer, in a drier.  He hoped one of those possibilities would stick, make sense, unlock the trunk that contained the answer.  But nothing could adequately describe what he was experiencing.”

******************

What is real?  What is a dream?  How much does perception shape what each of us views as “reality”?

Maybe Einstein was right when he said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

Or, in the words of Thoreau:  “The question is not what you look at.  But what you see.”

reality

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Ghost at My Shoulder

Do you believe in ghosts?  I do.

Allow me to elaborate . . .

One aspect of the writing life, at some point or another, is insecurity.  If you keep at it, and write for any length of time at all, insecurity is inevitable, unavoidable.  You worry that the novel you’re working on isn’t any good, and if it is, then you worry you’ll get stuck halfway through, and won’t know how to end the story.  You worry that you peaked ten years ago, and anything you write from this moment forward will signal a steady and depressing descent.  You worry that the ideas will just dry up, evaporating like steam rising from a woodland pond on a crisp October morning.  You fret that, maybe, you’ll become burned out and lose the passion that has fueled your writing for years.

creativewriting

 

You worry, in short, that every lyrical sentence is fleeting, every well-written short story a momentary triumph soon to be replaced by a long line of duds.  You worry that writing itself, the birth of ideas, the sculpting of sentences and paragraphs, the creation of well-rounded characters, is transitory.  There seems to be an impermanence to the thing, as if, at any moment, the light will dim, the flow of creativity dammed up like a lost and forgotten river.

writerblock

 

And for me, that’s when I need to trust my ghost.  It’s not a ghost that creeps in the shadows of the night and haunts my dreams–though I believe in those, too.

ghost

 

This ghost, this lifetime companion, if you will, views me from afar and plays hard-to-get.  But just when I feel frustration building to red-line levels, when the urge to give up on a story is disturbingly close, the ghost returns.

Some people call the ghost a muse.  That’s a fine term, muse.

muse

 

But for me, he is my ghost.  He’s a ghost because I can never anticipate his arrival–I can only hope for it when needed.  I can’t force him to come.  He visits and leaves when he will, capricious, like the New England weather.  And when I’m stuck, when the dreaded writer’s block has me in its grip, my ghost is the only way out, the only pathway to creative freedom.  I can try to force ideas all day long, I can craft a meticulous, detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, but those methods have never worked for me.  I have always needed to keep the faith in my ghost.

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, there were portions of the novel that flowed smoothly and easily, like a cool and welcome summer breeze after a torrid hot spell.  These sections were a joy, when the words poured out of me and the story completely took on a life of its own.  I felt like a vessel, a conduit, tapping into a current of energy that poured through me and onto the page.

conduit

 

This is a beautiful and heady feeling,  the apogee of the creative process. Perhaps in these “in-the-zone” moments, my ghost is standing right there beside me, at my shoulder, though I am unaware of his presence.  I think the ghost works best that way–when I’m aware of his nearness, the subconscious loses its hold, and the conscious self threatens to short-circuit the process.  My ghost works best in the background.

But then there are moments when I distinctly feel his absence, when the words and thoughts seem to be spiked with barbed wire, slicing and cutting and going nowhere.  These are the times when I know I’m alone, when my ghostly ally is nowhere to be found.  Some chapters in The Eye-Dancers were like this–daunting Himalayan peaks that needed to be scaled.  I would write the chapter, but I knew it wasn’t close to what it needed to be.  I would rewrite it, reread it, still shaking my head.  I would start to doubt myself, doubt the story, and when no answers came, I felt an urge to fling the keyboard across the room.  I would struggle and wrestle, but nothing seemed right.  I needed my spectral friend in the worst way.

block2

 

And then, when I felt completely unraveled, after taking a dozen long walks trying to work out the tangles of the plot, the ghost would finally come, tiptoeing along as if daring me to miss his arrival.  “Sssh,” he seemed to whisper.  “Stop trying so hard.  It will come when it will come.”  And it did.

He comes with a feather-light step, my ghost does.  He comes when he’s needed, and he always has–a lifelong helper, a friend of the writer.  He is a constant reminder to allow the story to be the story, to let it unfold as it will, at its own pace and in its own time.  When I worry over the direction of the plot, when I doubt that I have a single worthwhile word left in me to write, he reassures, softly, and he leads me along the path I need to travel.

So, you see, when I am asked if I believe in ghosts, I answer, without hesitation, “Yes.”

Because if I doubted, if I didn’t believe, my creative well would have gone dry long, long ago . . .

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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