Going Forward . . . by Going Back

When I was growing up, there were a few nights each summer when I would host a sleepover–not all that different from the sleepover that occurs in chapter six of The Eye-Dancers.  Of course in my case, my friends and I were not haunted by a swirling-eyed “ghost girl” who whisked us off to a faraway and alien dimension.  But the adventures we shared, the things we talked about, the “what-ifs” we brought up were the inspiration behind the novel.

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As were my friends themselves.  Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski, along with several supporting characters in The Eye-Dancers, were inspired by the friends I knew growing up, indeed the same friends who would sleep over on those warm July and August nights, when thoughts of school and homework, of college majors and impending adulthood, seemed galaxies away.

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When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, it often felt as if I were returning back to those days.  And that, I suppose, is one of the many joys and wonders of creative writing.  You can be sitting at a desk in an office, in a studio apartment, anywhere, decades removed from the childhood you’re writing about, and yet, with a flourish of keystrokes and finger taps you can be transported back through the years, as if by some whimsical magician waving a white-tipped and wonder-filled wand.

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It’s a cliche, I suppose, but in my case it’s the truth.  I write because I love to write, need to write.  And now I am in the midst of writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  At first I was reluctant.  Did I really want to write a sequel?  But the idea, which arrived unasked for–not at all a preplanned project–demanded attention.  So I began writing, not convinced it would go anywhere, but scratching the itch, as it were, allowing the process to take me where it will.

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I wrote the prologue, and chapter one, which grew into chapter two and three and four . . . and by that time, the scope of the novel began to take shape in my mind.  I don’t outline my novels, but I do formulate a general plan–or, perhaps more accurate–the plan forms on its own, a result of the characters’ decisions.  And now, nine chapters and 40,000 words into this still-untitled WIP, I have an overwhelming urge to continue, to keep the story going . . . to find out where Mitchell and Joe and Ryan and Marc and the “ghost girl” will take me.  I am along for the ride, and I can’t wait to round the next bend.

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At this point, I would like to devote more time to the sequel than I have so far.  In fact, Joe Marma himself told me just the other day, “C’mon, bud, get with the program.  You gotta start working on this novel more, or else . . .”  And as readers of The Eye-Dancers know, you don’t want to frustrate Joe! As a result, I will be posting on The Eye-Dancers site every two weeks for the foreseeable future, down from the once-weekly schedule I have maintained for over a year now.  This is definitely not a blogging break or blogging sabbatical–just a slight scaling back.  I enjoy the WordPress community far too much to take any extended leaves.

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On those summer sleepovers from yesteryear, sometimes I would read aloud stories I had written.  Back then, they were pencil-written plays, starring myself and my friends–no fictional names used!  Looking back, they were very poorly done–highly imaginative but sloppy and far too often over the top.  But one thing they were for sure was fun.  I used to laugh out loud when I read them, and my friends would join in.  Even today, if I need a pick-me-up, or a creative boost, I will pull out one of the old stories and remember . . .

It is with that spirit of adventure, fun, and love that I will turn to the sequel of The Eye-Dancers this summer.  And, with hope, that same spirit will manifest itself on every page.

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So even though I’ll be posting less, I hope you’ll all continue to read and follow this blog.  You are the reason blogging is so much fun for me.

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Thank you so much for reading!

–Mike

The Time Machine

Tomorrow I will be traveling in a time machine.  No, not the kind you might find in an episode of The Twilight Zone or in the pages of Ray Bradbury or H.G. Wells–but a time machine, nonetheless . . .

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For many years now, I have taken the drive from Vermont, where I currently live, “back home” to Rochester, New York, for Labor Day weekend.  It’s always nice to visit family and old friends.  My parents still live in the same house where I grew up.  Sometimes, at night, when they’re asleep, I will walk through the old house, head down into the basement, where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid, keeping cool on hot summer afternoons.  Mostly, though, I’ll pause, listen, listen–until I hear them.  The echoes of the past.  Memories upon memories built within those walls, living things, so near it often feels I could reach out and grab a whisper of 1985, inhale it, and be a boy again.

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After I arrive and get settled in tomorrow, some old, old friends will stop by, and we’ll re-create various elements of our childhood.  You probably don’t know these friends of mine “for real,” but you may know them in another way.  You see, the main characters of The Eye-Dancers were modeled after several of the friends I’ll be visiting with.  The characters in the book, of course, took on a life of their own–it’s not a one-for-one match.  But the friends I grew up with definitely were the primary inspirations for the protagonists in the novel.   “Joe” will be there tomorrow, “Mitchell” and “Ryan,” too–even supporting characters like “Tyler” (“Ryan’s” brother in the novel) and “Grronk.”  Our friendship goes way back, to the days before the Internet and email and cell phones.

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The Eye-Dancers is, in many ways, a tribute to our childhood, the adventures we shared, the conversations we would have, the things we would wonder about.  Some of our old “in” jokes made their way into the novel.  Some pet phrases and favorite expressions did, as well.  More than anything, I hope, the spirit and curiosity of childhood, the quest to know and learn and discover, made their way into the book, too.

There will be a special quality to our get-together on Friday.  There always is, every year we meet like this.  We reenact some of the old childhood games.  We talk about the past.  We act like kids, even if for only one night out of the year.  For a moment, on an end-of-summer evening, as the days grow shorter and the first subtle hints of autumn manifest themselves in ways so quiet, so soft-spoken, you will miss them if you’re not looking, we are twelve years old again, running, and playing, and laughing like we used to.  The kind of experience that inspires novels, indeed . . .

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It strikes me as fitting that this nostalgic weekend falls at the end of August.  Summer’s end in the Northeastern United States has always been one of my favorite times of the year.  The oppressive heat and humidity that sometimes weighs down June and July days is, for the most part, gone now, blown to lands far to the south.  The angle of the sun is noticeably lower, as darkness falls an hour earlier than it did during the height of summer.  Long shadows filter through the trees, lingering, not in any hurry to leave.

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There is an easy comfort in the air, the sunshine languorous, the breeze a soft kiss upon your cheeks.  It feels as though Time itself, tired of being perpetually on the go, has decided to take a moment to relax on the back porch, sipping a glass of cold lemonade, and just rest for a while.

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Sunflowers dance and bob in the wind.

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Fields of goldenrod carpet the land.

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Farewell-summers and marigolds and rows upon rows of corn stalks, six feet tall, whisper a fond good-bye to the heat and a subdued hello to the chill of the coming fall.  It is a quiet time, a time for memories and stories and old friends reliving the days of their youth.  For me, it is an especially creative season.  When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, it was evening on a late-summer day, with the light fading, the shadows slowly spreading across the lawn.  A plump woodchuck waddled through the yard.  A hummingbird filled up on sugar-water at our feeder, preparing for the long migration south in just a week or two.

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Looking at it all, I felt ready.  I knew I had a story to tell.  I knew I needed to share it.

So, to my friends, my lifelong friends, who I grew up with and  will see tomorrow–thanks, guys.  If it weren’t for you, The Eye-Dancers wouldn’t exist.  And for one weekend each year, you remind me why I wrote the novel . . .

  • The universe is full of questions we often do not even ask, let alone answer.
  • Friendship, especially a friendship forged in childhood, is a special and life-affirming gift.
  • An open mind is a mind able to learn and discover and ask the question, “Why?” and then be receptive to the answer.
  • And if we want it to, if we cultivate it, nurture it, and never stop believing, the magic we knew and wished upon when we were kids still exists, even into adulthood.

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And to all of you in the wonderful WordPress community, I thank you so much for reading!

–Mike

An Anniversary, An Award, a Reminder, and a Thank-You!

One year ago yesterday, I published my first post on The Eye-Dancers site.

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At the time, I really had no clue what I was doing or if anyone would even read the post.

I had visions of it floating in a dark, forgotten corner of cyberspace, existing but not existing.  My mind concocted variations on the old tree-falling-in-the-forest riddle:  “If a post is published on the Web but no one ever sees it, is it really published?”  I was so new to blogging, I didn’t even think to use keywords or categories (I have since added them to my initial post!).  I just wrote a brief synopsis of The Eye-Dancers, held my breath, and hit the “Publish” button.

I didn’t have much of a plan at the time.

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I wanted to introduce the four main characters of The Eye-Dancers, too–each in their own post.  Within a span of a few weeks, character profiles for Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski were created.  After publishing Mitchell’s post, I received an email.  A blogger, somewhere, Liked the post!  (Yes, even now, I still remember that first Like!)  A couple of weeks later, I discovered that, indeed, it might be a good idea to tag posts with keywords and organize posts into categories.  I was, literally, learning as I went.

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For the first few months of The Eye-Dancers site, up until the book was released in mid-November 2012, I was utilizing the blog strictly as a promotional tool for The Eye-Dancers.  A character profile here, an update on the release there–that sort of thing.  But then I got to thinking.  This website could be so much more fun than that.  Why not write about the things I’m interested in, create posts that can talk about the book, yes, but that also explore other topics–writing, quantum physics, comic books, movies, Twilight Zone episodes . . .  The possibilities seemed endless.  My main concern was–would anyone want to read my musings?  I thought it over, then decided to take the plunge into full-scale blogging.  The results have been, to put it mildly, much more rewarding than I ever dared to imagine–and that is because of all of you.  I know I’ve said it before on previous posts, but it merits repeating.  You are the reason why I blog, and you are the reason it’s fun and enjoyable.  You made a blogging neophyte feel welcome and at home here in the blogosphere, and I can’t thank you all enough.

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I have been fortunate enough over the past several months to be nominated for several blogging awards.  And even though I’ve neglected to do an awards post lately, please know that all nominations are very much appreciated.  It’s really a great feeling knowing one of your blogger friends chooses to nominate you for an award.  And I wanted to take this moment to thank those who have nominated The Eye-Dancers in recent weeks . . .

Thanks to Briana from When I Became An Author for nominating me for the Liebster Award!  Briana is a fellow author, and she maintains an exceptional blog.  Please check out her site!

Thanks to the Ambitious Poet and to Sherri at A View from My Summerhouse for nominating The Eye-Dancers for the WordPress Family Award.  I truly appreciate it, and highly recommend that everyone check out their fantastic websites!

Thank you to  Violet Wave and Mary at Author Mary J. McCoy-Dressel for a Supersweet Blogging Award nomination!  Two very talented and creative individuals who author wonderful blogs!  I hope you’ll visit their sites.

Many thanks to Josey from Joseyphina’s World for her nomination of the Dragon’s Loyalty Award!  I can’t recommend Josey’s site highly enough.  Please take a look!  I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

Thank you very much to Lucia at Luminous Blue for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award.  Lucia has a captivating blog!  You will be glad you stopped by.

And thanks so much to Mary at Oil Pastels by Mary for nominating The Eye-Dancers for the Sunshine Award.  Mary’s site is a treasure trove of creative energy and talent.  It’s a privilege receiving this nomination from her.

I was lucky enough to have already been nominated for each of these awards previously, but I wanted to thank all of the great bloggers above for their nominations!  I really appreciate it.

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The Eye-Dancers has also been nominated for The Inner Peace Award!  I want to thank Jane at Jane Dougherty Writes, Joanna Fay, Samina at Samina’s Forum for Police Support, and Sherri at A View from My Summerhouse for their nominations!  If you’re not already acquainted with these wonderful bloggers’ websites, please take some time to do so.  I am happy to wait . . . !

The Inner Peace Award is an award that comes with no rules, no questions . . . no conditions.  As such, I will do what I’ve done a few other times in Awards posts, and pass the award on to all followers of The Eye-Dancers site.  (Even when there are Awards rules, in other words, I tend to break them!)  I hope you will accept this award and, even if you do not post on it, I hope you’ll put the image onto your blog . . .

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I would also like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that The Eye-Dancers gift card promotion is still running–the last day is August 22, so there is still time to take part, if you haven’t already!

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But mostly, I would like to say one big, hearty thank-you to all of you.  Thanks for reading these off-the-wall posts of mine, for continuing to stop by The Eye-Dancers site, for your great and thoughtful comments, for your ongoing support.  I created The Eye-Dancers site one year ago, on a late-summer day not unlike this one, with the intention of marketing my book of the same name.  And I did.  (And as the previous paragraph attests, I still am!)  But I’ve discovered along the way that the blogging experience is richly rewarding in and of itself.  I genuinely enjoy coming up with posts that I hope will contain some small kernel of truth, interest, or intrigue.  And I enjoy the WordPress community more than this post is able to express.

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It’s been a great first year for The Eye-Dancers.   Here’s hoping the second year will be even better.

Thank you as always so much for reading.  You are the best.

–Mike

Short Story — “Cover-Up”

Each of the characters in The Eye-Dancers carries with them some emotional pain–a fear of rejection, a lack of self-confidence, family concerns, the loneliness of not fitting in at school.  They also have a tendency to hide their issues–or at least try to.  Marc Kuslanski, for example, underneath his know-it-all exterior, is a boy in desperate need of a friend.  He doesn’t like to admit this, to himself or others, but his bouts of denial do not negate the truth.  Thankfully for him, the events in the story unite him with Mitchell Brant, and a friendship is indeed formed.

In the short story “Cover-Up,” which I wrote a few years ago, the protagonist is also carrying with him the baggage of emotional pain, the burden of regret and self-blame.  And, just like Marc, he tries his best to conceal it.  But on a long, cross-country train trip, his seatmate sees right through his mask.  Will he open up to this stranger, or throw up his customary wall?

I hope you enjoy “Cover-Up” . . .

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“Cover-Up”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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“So, do you wanna talk about it?” the young woman with the terrible scar asked.

He was sure he didn’t.  What Patrick really wanted to do was sleep the ride away.  But that didn’t seem likely.  It was still light outside, and the train was bumpy, lurching often and sometimes feeling precariously close to derailing.  Not for the first time, he asked himself why he hadn’t just flown.  “Talk about what?”

The woman looked at him.  Her eyes were a light, pastel shade of green.  “You know . . . whatever’s bugging you.  I can tell something’s really got you down.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said.  “I’m fine.  Just tired, I guess.”

“It’s not good to hold things in, y’know,” the woman said.  “You need to let it out.  And I have a good ear.  Really.  All my friends say so.”

He silently wondered if she actually had any friends, she was so nosey.  But she had seen right through his lie.  Something was bothering him.  He was annoyed that he wasn’t able to hide it, especially considering all the practice he’d had.

“Hey, really, I’m fine, so just drop it, okay?” he said.  The train lurched, and he was thrust forward, grabbing the seatback in front of him.  “Man, real smooth ride, huh?”

The woman smiled.  “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Patrick,” he said.  Taking advantage of his window seat, he looked through the glass.  They were traveling through the flat country of western Illinois now, past dead cornfields and crisp, white farmhouses with covered porches and weathervanes and dirty plastic sheets draped over the windows, flapping in the wind.

“Hi, Patrick,” she said.  “I’m ‘Becca.  Well, Rebecca.  Everyone calls me ‘Becca, though.  So, are you a Patrick?  Or a Pat?”

“Patrick.”  His dad used to call him Pat.  He didn’t even want to think of that name.

“So, Patrick . . . have you ever taken the train before?  I love it.  It’s like a real trip.  You get a chance to really talk to people, y’know?”

No, he didn’t know, and he didn’t reply, hoping she would take the hint.  He just wanted to be left alone.  But she was hard to ignore.  That scar was hard to ignore.  It was the deepest, longest scar he had ever seen on a person’s face.  He’d noticed it right away, as soon as she had boarded the train and decided to sit next to him.  It started to the right of her eye, just below the brow, and twisted its way down her cheek, not stopping until it reached the point of her chin.  Every time he glanced at her, his gaze fell upon it.  What had caused such a gash in the first place?  He had no idea, and preferred to keep it that way.  Just another reason to stare out the window.

“Where are you headed, anyway?” she asked.

“Denver,” he said.

“Really?  So am I!”  Great.  Just great.  “You must’ve gone back home for the holidays.  I did, too.  But now it’s time to return to real life and work and paying the bills.”

“Yeah,” he said.  Real life.  Work.  That was fine with him.  He never should have gone home in the first place.  The faster he forgot about it, the better.  Mom and Jayne crying.  Jayne laying into him for leaving a few days early.

“That’s just what you did before!” she’d said.  “You ran away.  Can’t you stay a measly couple days more?  For Mom?  And for me?”

But he couldn’t.  What did his presence help anyway?  They were all miserable together.  He just wanted to leave, so he had.

The door at the far end of the car opened and then snapped shut.  A couple, likely returning from a meal in the Dining Car, walked down the aisle.  Three young children, two girls and a boy, trailed right behind them like a small school of pilot fish.

He looked out the window again.  The winter sun, sinking to the horizon, gave off its last weak rays of the day.  The porch light of a distant farmhouse flicked on and shone like a beacon across the frozen fields and dead, windswept grasses.

“So, what do you do, Patrick?” Becca asked him.  “Where do you work?”

He wished she’d shut up.  He wasn’t up for this.  Still, he told her he was a technical writer who worked for a computer software company.  He wrote the how-to manuals no one liked to read.  But he enjoyed it.  Wrestling with the minutia of the programs, figuring out the meaning behind the engineers’ logic, crafting documents that somehow translated the highly complex material into understandable language for the end users.  It allowed him to get lost in the safe world of code and technology, sweeping unwanted emotions, unwanted memories, aside.

Another couple entered the car.  The next call for the Dining Car would be due shortly.  But he was thinking about going to the Lounge Car.  A few stiff drinks sounded good.  He was feeling warm, claustrophobic.

“You hot?” he asked her.  “They got the heat turned up way too high.”  He took off his jacket, placed it under his seat.

“I’m not hot,” she said.  “But if I was hot, I wouldn’t know, so . . .”

What did she mean by that?  He looked at her, but saw only the scar, which seemed almost to pulsate with a life, a vitality of its own.  Whatever had happened to her must have caused unspeakable pain and anguish.  But that thought just made him hotter, more in need of a drink.

He sidled past her, into the aisle.  The train lurched again, and he almost fell.  He would have, too, if he hadn’t grabbed onto the seat in time.  She didn’t ask him where he was going, and he didn’t say.  The last thing he wanted was for her to tag along.

“See you later,” she said.

He nodded, and headed for the Lounge Car.

It was almost deserted.  Just a young couple sitting next to each eating pretzels and popcorn, and a bald, thin man sitting by himself looking out the window into the darkening twilight, his left hand wrapped around a glass of wine.  Perhaps he, too, was attempting to drink away his troubles.

Patrick bought a beer, inwardly groaning that the kid behind the bar didn’t want to see ID.  He had just turned thirty.  Getting asked for ID used to be a hassle, five years ago.  Now he felt slighted when someone failed to do it.

He sat down, as far away from the couple and the bald man as he could get.  He needed to be left alone for a while, to enjoy the taste and buzz of the beer.  He wanted peace and quiet, light, airy thoughts.  But his mind had other ideas.  He closed his eyes, and saw his mother crying.  Not yesterday or the day before, but two years ago, after the accident.  He saw his sister crumpled on the sofa, her face buried in a pillow.  And he saw himself, standing there, hands in pockets, not knowing what to say or do.

It had all been his fault.  It never should have happened—not to Dad.  Patrick had recently moved into a new apartment across town, and didn’t visit his parents very often.  That evening, he was coming over for supper.  His car had a transmission leak and on the way over he had intended to buy some fluid.  But his thoughts had drifted, he’d forgotten, and now the car was shifting with difficulty—the transmission was dry.  When he said he needed to run to the automotive store, his father said not to think of it.  He would go.  Patrick should stay with his mom and his sister.  Patrick protested—he was the one who forgot to buy the fluid, after all—but Dad was adamant.

“Be back in fifteen minutes,” Dad had said.

They never saw him again.

Patrick took a long drink of the beer, trying to submerge the memories in alcohol, washing them down some fast-moving stream that would carry them away to a distant ocean, forever adrift, forever removed from his consciousness.  Several seats in front of him, the bald man slammed his wine glass down, causing some of the wine to spill onto the table.  He muttered under his breath, drank more wine, then banged the glass back down again.  To Patrick’s left, the young couple were whispering to each other, as if gossiping about the two lushes sharing the car with them.

He wished he were drunk.  But he was all too sober.  Suddenly, and with ferocious clarity, he heard the knock on his parents’ door.  Dad had been gone over an hour, they were getting worried.  But still, what could have happened?  The car-parts store was less than three miles away.

Images, sounds, smells raced into his head, like snapshots from a nightmare.  The door opening, revealing two police officers.  They appeared solemn, yet mechanical.  Just doing their job.  Mom shrieking when she heard them say Dad had been blindsided by a teenager running a red light.  The table had been set, the glasses full of water, the salad ready to eat, tossed in the flower-patterned bowl Mom had owned since before Patrick was born.  Dad’s plate and silverware and napkin laid out in his spot, at the head of the table.  The smell of pot roast in the oven, mashed potatoes with butter on the stovetop.  And seeing the calendar on the kitchen wall, the picture showing a snowy field in some distant mountain valley, sparkling under a blue sky the color of his dad’s eyes.  And on the date he had come over—February 17—Mom’s curly, pretty script:  “Patrick coming for supper!”

But more than anything, he remembered the cries of his mother.  She yelled at the officers, “No, no, it can’t be!  This can’t be happening!”  Later that night, Mom was in her bedroom, in the bed she had shared with her husband for thirty-two years, crying and saying, softly now, over and over, “No.”

And through it all, Patrick could only feel one thing, one repeating thought, bent on driving him mad:  It should’ve been me.  Not Dad.  It should’ve been me.  If only he hadn’t forgotten to buy the transmission fluid.  If only he had insisted that he, not Dad, go to the store!  It should’ve been me.

The train lurched again, causing some of his beer to spill.  That apparently struck the young couple as funny, because they giggled harder.  Patrick wished he could share even one-sixtieth of their good humor.  This wasn’t working.  Coming to the Lounge Car had only made things worse.  He cursed himself for having gone back home for Christmas.  All it accomplished was to cause these memories to bubble back up to the surface—after he had spent the last two years forcing them down.  That’s why he’d moved away.  He couldn’t take it anymore.  Every time he visited his mom or saw Jayne, he saw the sadness in their eyes.  And when he saw that, he felt condemned.  He knew they didn’t do it on purpose, but he didn’t need to see it, either.  Going home for the holidays, nothing had changed.  So Patrick decided to leave ahead of schedule.  He needed to go back to Denver, far away from his mom’s sad eyes, no matter what Jayne accused him of.  Running away?  Yes, he was running away.  He needed to rebury those memories again.  Shove them deep inside an impregnable vault where they couldn’t touch him, couldn’t harm him, couldn’t haunt him.

It should have been me.

“Shut up!” he yelled, and the bald man turned to glare at him.  Even the couple stopped giggling.

He downed the remainder of his beer, then got up to leave.  He realized he was better off chatting with Becca, as long as she didn’t pester him to “talk about it.”

“That was quick,” she said when he brushed past her and took his window seat again.  Outside, it was full dark now.

He rested his elbow on the base of the window, cupped his chin in his hand, gazing out into the pitch nothingness of the night.

“Guess you didn’t have such a riveting time, huh?”  she said.

He looked at her, and she smiled.  Despite her awful scar, he actually thought she was pretty.  But the scar distracted him.  He tried not to fixate on it, but he couldn’t help it.

She traced the outline of the scar with her fingertips.  “Mmm-hmm, I know,” she said.  “Hard to miss, isn’t it?”

Immediately, he looked away, at the seatback in front of him.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to—”

She smiled again.  “Hey, it’s okay.  At least you weren’t staring with your mouth hanging open.  People do, you know.”  He swallowed, still feeling like he’d done something wrong.  “I don’t mind talking about it,” she went on.  “I mean, it’s a part of me, you know?  It’s the first thing everyone sees.”

There was a call over the PA system, they were taking more reservations for the next meal to be served in the Dining Car.  A short, fat man, middle-aged, immediately rose from his seat and waddled down the aisle.  He nearly tripped and fell when the train lurched, and a blond-haired kid snickered.  The fat man blushed and cursed, then walked through the doors into the adjoining car.

Becca eyed the blond kid with amusement.  “You know, I wasn’t much older than him when I got this,” she said, still touching her injury.  “I was only a little girl, five at the time.”

“Look, you don’t have to tell me about it,” Patrick said.  They were passing through a small town now, past a darkened post office, a brick town hall, and a row of stores that appeared to be closed for the evening.  “I’m sure it’s not something you like to talk about.”

She glanced past him, out the window.  “I was left by myself—only for a couple of minutes, but that was all it took.  I found this pair of scissors, and it was like I was in a trance or something.  I wanted to see if I could make myself feel something, I had to feel something, even if it hurt.  Just to see what all the fuss was about, you know?  Everyone was always telling me to be careful, but I just couldn’t understand.”

That makes two of us, Patrick thought.

“Remember how I told you before you left that I wouldn’t know if it was too hot in here?” she asked.  He nodded.  He remembered, all right.  She was a strange one.  “Well, if you want to know the truth . . . you’re sitting next to a true marvel of the medical community.  I’m a real find, y’know.  I’m one of only sixty people in the United States with CIPA.  And only a fraction of us ever get through childhood.  And here I am, twenty-six and still kicking.  I should get a medal or something.”

He just looked at her.  Every time she opened her mouth, she lost him a little more.

“CIPA . . .” she continued, apparently sensing his confusion . . . “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis.  It’s a condition you’re born with.  Basically, I can’t feel any pain.  I can’t feel the cold or the heat.  You can kick me in the face ten times and I won’t feel a thing!  Or throw me in a bucket of ice water, and I wouldn’t feel cold.  Pretty crazy, huh?  You should Google it sometime.”

He gave no reply, and she paused to allow him to digest it all.  His first thought was that she was making it up.  But then he figured she was probably telling the truth.  Why would someone lie about such an odd, unheard-of condition?  How would that benefit her?

“And, see, that’s what really made me want to do something to cause a sensation, to even cause pain,” she said.  The train had left the small town behind, as it continued its journey over the prairie-like countryside.  Soon they would cross the Mississippi River, into Iowa.  A long way to go before reaching Denver.  “I mean, everyone was always telling me that knives were dangerous, fire was dangerous, scissors were dangerous.  But it was just words to me, you know?  It didn’t mean anything.  So I had to see.  What can I say?  I was five.

“So I went to the dresser where I knew the scissors were, and I . . . well, let’s just say I was a very curious little girl.  I jabbed the sharp end into my face, right here. . .”  She gently massaged a point on the scar directly beside her eye.  “Good thing I didn’t go a little to the left, huh?  Or else I’d be blind.  But I still didn’t feel anything, and I was like, ‘What is this?  What’s the big deal about scissors?’  So I pushed them in a little deeper and then I dragged them all the way down to here.”  She touched the bottom of her scar, just an inch away from her chin.  “And you know, I still didn’t feel anything, and I started to see all this blood.  But I didn’t know what to make of it.  I mean, I felt fine!  So I was about to try the other side of my face, and that’s when my mom came into the room.  I guess you can figure out the rest, huh?”  She smiled.  “They took me to the hospital, and I had to have surgery.  They did the best they could, but . . . .  Anyway, I try to look on the bright side.  I mean, when I get a filling, they don’t need to shoot me up with Novacaine.  And you know what?  I can’t even sweat!  How many women would love to be able to say that?”

She laughed, and he laughed with her, though he felt awkward laughing on the heels of such a grisly story.  More than that, he felt dazed, as if he’d had five beers instead of only one.  It was so hard to wrap his head around this, to make sense of it.  But it was true.  She didn’t feel pain.  She was like a rock.  The more he thought of it, the more he liked it.

“Man, imagine that,” he said.  “No matter what happens, not to be able to feel a thing.”

She tilted her head, looked at him closely.  “It’s really not such a great deal,” she said.  “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Why not?  It sounds pretty good to me.”

“But don’t you understand?  I can’t feel any pain!  Don’t you see what that means?  I would have killed myself with those scissors if my mom hadn’t come back when she did.  I would’ve killed myself without even knowing it.  And even now, it’s like, I know not to do things that are dangerous, but it’s still kind of like secondhand knowledge, you know?  It’s like if you read about a volcano in the Indian Ocean or something.  It’s just news, information.  It’s not personal.  I know a knife will make me bleed, but I won’t feel the wound.  You see what I’m trying to say?  And what’s to stop me from burning myself on an electric stovetop?  I can touch the burner, and I wouldn’t even know it’s on!  Then when I look at my hand later and see all the skin is gone, I’d be like, ‘Uh oh.’  Or what if I stuck my hand in a sink full of soapy dishwater and jabbed at a piece of broken glass without even knowing it?  I could slice my wrist open.  Every day is like a minefield, Patrick.”

A handful of passengers walked by, most likely heading to the Dining Car.  They were serving three-cheese lasagna this evening, among other possibilities, all of which sounded good.  Maybe he’d go a bit later, but not now.  Not now.

Becca took a deep breath.  “It’s all just like a mask, a gimmick,” she explained.  “I mean, I can’t feel pain, but I can still get injured.  I still bleed and bruise, and my bones can still break.  The feeling no pain . . . it’s just a cover-up.  It doesn’t really protect me from anything.  It’s like pretend.  Like an act.  I mean, no matter what you’re born with, or what you try to make yourself believe, the things that can hurt you will hurt you.  You know what I mean?”

He just sat there, staring at his lap.

“I think you do,” she said.  “I think you know exactly what I mean.  Don’t you, Patrick?”

He was disconcerted, again, by the way she saw right through him.  He wanted to deny it, to deny her, but he couldn’t.  He dared to look at her, and she had concern in her eyes.  Understanding.  Compassion.  But none of those things set him off.  It was the scar.  That deep, old scar that slithered its way down her cheek like the imprint of a snake fossil.  He visualized Becca at five, wanting desperately to feel, even as she gouged her face and spilled her own blood.  And somehow, he just couldn’t deal with that.

The tears came, suddenly and with great force.  He coughed on his own phlegm, burying his face on Becca’s shoulder.  His body rocked and jerked.  He was sure he caused Becca to rock and jerk right along with him, but he couldn’t stop.

“That’s right,” Becca said, putting an arm around him as he kept on crying.  “You just let it out.”

He was aware, vaguely, that people were staring at him.  He sensed the blond kid’s eyes boring a hole through Becca’s back and right into his head.  But he didn’t care.  He was aware, too, that this was the first he had cried since . . . he couldn’t even remember the last time.  He just knew he hadn’t cried since Dad’s death.  Not at hearing the news.  Not at the funeral.  Not even when he moved away from home, halfway across the continent.  And certainly not yesterday, with his mom and sister.  When he saw them crying, he never thought it did them any good.  What was the point?  People needed to move past their losses, push them away.  If you gave into them, they would paralyze you.  That’s why he’d never allowed himself to cry.  He always feared that once he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop.  He thought he’d only get bogged down in the morass of guilt and regrets and lost dreams that floated high above, always out of reach.

But when the tears finally slowed, and then stopped, he found that he felt better than he had in a long time, as though a monstrous weight had been lifted from him.  He sat upright again, not looking at Becca, and peered out the window at the blackness, at nothing.

“Better?” she asked.

He shrugged, nodded, still not looking at her.

She reached over, gently turned his face to hers.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “It’s all right.”

He felt a lump in his throat, and worried he might cry again.  But he didn’t.

“So,” she said, “you ready to talk about it now?”

He looked into the green eyes of this stranger, this scarred woman he had chanced to meet on his long way back to the studio apartment where he laid his head down to sleep each night.  Where he was running back to as a desperate man in search of a refuge.  But it wasn’t a refuge.  He knew that now.  It never had been.  He looked at this stranger who was no longer a stranger, this friend who had seen him more clearly than anyone ever had.  Even himself.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I think I am.”

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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