A Sense of Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loved, and not taken apart and analyzed.

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

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

“We are made of star stuff.”

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Where Fantasy Reigns . . .

Maybe for you it’s a particular song, perhaps some hard-rock favorite from yesteryear or a classical masterpiece that never fails to bring you to tears.

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Maybe it’s poetry, an old, dog-eared book of favorites, verses that inspire you to see the beauty of the world when you need a lift.

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Maybe it’s cooking a traditional family recipe on a cold winter night, the aroma of the food taking you back, back, to simpler days and more innocent times.

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It can be anything, really, as long as it contains your own personal magic, that special blend of nostalgia and joy that has the power to transport you to a different place, a temporary refuge, an escape from the everyday routines and stresses that are so often present.

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For me, the magic has always been found in comic books.  But not just any comic books–no.  Old comics, dusty and weathered with age, read and handled by children from a bygone era, with advertisements for sea monkeys and baseball gloves and old transistor radios.  And, perhaps most of all, with the musty smell of decades-old paper and ink.  I have always thought of this as the “magic smell,” one that stirs the senses and fires up the imagination, a scent that, if I allow myself to get lost in it, truly, makes me believe that all things are possible, and that the greatest stories in the world are still out there to be told.

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In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant shares this love of collectible comics.  And in chapter one, the narrative describes what the old comic book smell means to him . . .

“He loved the smell of old comic books.  It was musty, but in a special way, like the smell of his grandfather’s attic littered with knickknacks and family mementoes.  A treasure-house smell.”

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

When I was growing up, in Rochester, New York, one of my favorite activities was browsing through some of the city’s comic book shops.  One shop in particular had a slogan I will never forget.

Boldly emblazoned on the front door were the words: “Where Fantasy Reigns But You Never Get Wet.”  It worked for me!  I still remember the first time I read those words.  I chuckled, shook my head, but also anticipated the wonder that waited within.  When I opened the door, a silver bell chimed, announcing my entrance.

The shop owner, Dan, lived in an old apartment behind the store.  His living space and his shop were separated by a door with chipped paint and a knob rusted with age.  At that time, in the late 1980s, Dan was probably in his midforties, a self-proclaimed hippie with a beard, a mane of thick blond hair that fell halfway behind his back, and a handful of silver chains around his neck, which jangled every time he moved.  He reminded me of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, and, from that day forward, I thought of him as The Lion Man.

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And whenever I left his store, sometimes with a bag of newly purchased comics, sometimes with just a memory, I would always look forward to the next visit.  The Lion Man was like a stage performer, his comic book shop a house of magic full of gems from a different age, stories just waiting to be devoured.  Sometimes I would think of The Lion Man standing guard in front of some imaginary rainbow-colored bridge, which led to a vibrant world inhabited by green elves and talking forest animals, a world where dreams and wishes, the most daring wishes you ever hoped for, merged together into perfect actualities.

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Certainly his comic shop seemed like just such a world.  I’d glance through the inventory, pausing at the high-end issues I knew I’d never be able to afford, pointing at other issues I wanted Dan to open up and show me before deciding whether or not to make the purchase.

One quirk of his shop was that he never priced his inventory.  “I’ll look up the issue in the Price Guide, and we’ll decide on the cost that way,” he said when I asked him where the price tags were.  It was a unique method–I’ve never run across it in any other comics shop, before or since.  Certainly, this wasn’t the place to shop if you were in a rush.  But that didn’t bother me.  I was never in a hurry to leave.

The Lion Man would flip through the issue I wanted to buy, noting its condition, and then he’d look it up in his trusty Overstreet Price Guide, still the industry standard when determining a comic’s value.  Sometimes I would debate the condition with him–a collectible comic’s condition tremendously impacts its sale price.  But eventually we’d hash out our differences and come to a price we both felt good about.  And when we did, The Lion Man would wink at me, place the just-purchased issue back in its protective Mylar sleeve, and we’d go on to the next one.

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

Several years later, the day came when there would be no next sale at Dan’s store.  When the Internet came along, with its myriad options of online buying and selling, Dan decided to close his shop. “I’m not gonna sell comics on a computer,” he said.  “Too impersonal.”  My knee-jerk reaction was to argue with him.  He could adjust!  He could put his inventory online, and do just fine.  But then I thought about it.

The Lion Man preferred to talk with his customers, bicker over the issue’s condition, haggle back and forth over the price.  While he may have been able to simulate some of that online, it wouldn’t be the same.  A customer wouldn’t be there with him, face-to-face, smelling that old comic book smell in his shop of magic and memories.  They wouldn’t hear the jingle of his silver chains as he shifted his position while flipping through the Price Guide.  They wouldn’t see him wink when a deal was reached.  No.  For Dan, for The Lion Man, it was the start of a new and alien age, and the end of a familiar one.

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Sometimes, even today, I wonder how The Lion Man is doing.  It’s been years since his shop closed.  I haven’t spoken with him or had any contact with him this century.  But when I am feeling nostalgic, when a particular week is too hectic or a day too long, I sometimes think of that old comics shop, and I smile.

You may not have a Lion Man in your past, but I am betting that you do have something similar.

Something that, if you remember it, imagine it, go back to it, has the magic to take you away, on a gust of wind, flying high over the land and spreading your wings.

To a place where “fantasy reigns but you never get wet.”

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

No Story too Small

Have you ever wanted to write something–be it an essay, a short story, a novel, a blog entry, a poem, a song–anything . . . but then never did?  The idea perhaps seemed too small, too trivial, too run-of-the-mill.  “Who’d want to read about that?” you might have said.  I know I have.  There is an expectation sometimes that the things we write need to be big–life-altering masterpieces that ignite universes and give birth to new and exciting ideas.  We want to “wow” our audience.

This is something that John-Boy Walton once struggled with, too.  I have long been a fan of The Waltons–the 1970s dramatic television series about the struggles of a family living through the Great Depression in rural Virginia.

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I suppose as a writer myself, I’ve always gravitated toward John-Boy, the main character on the show.  When the series begins, John-Boy is seventeen, still in high school, and an aspiring writer.

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In a season-one episode titled “The Literary Man,” John-Boy crosses paths with a well-traveled and well-read fellow who is passing through the area.  John-Boy invites the man, A.J. Covington, to his family’s home, where Covington stays on for a few days, helping out with the Waltons’ sawmill operation.

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As John-Boy quickly discovers, Covington is a writer–or at least he claims to be.  Older, more experienced, Covington impresses John-Boy with stories of Jack London, Carl Sandberg, Theodore Dreiser, and other master wordsmiths.  He quotes passages from Moby Dick.  “Melville was my model and inspiration when I was learning the craft,” he explains.  He sees in John-Boy the makings of a writer, but he gives him this advice:

“If you want to make it [as a writer], your writing has to come first–before comfort, security, happiness . . . Very few stick it out.”  As Covington explains to the young and impressionable teenager, he travels a lot.  When John-Boy asks him where home is, the older man replies, “The world’s my home.”  He is always on the lookout for new experiences–grist for the writer’s mill.

Covington says that when he was younger, he grew up on a small farm in Indiana–rural roots similar to John-Boy’s.  But when he was seventeen, Covington left home, venturing out into the world without money, without prospects, but with determination.  He says he knew then, as he knows now, that a writer needs to leave everyone and everything behind in order to find the big story he or she is meant to write.  That story is out there–somewhere.  You just have to find it.

Hearing this, thinking about it, John-Boy becomes discouraged.  He tells Covington that he’ll never make it as a writer because his writing can never come first.  He can’t turn his back on the people who depend on him, can’t cut the ties with family and friends to go searching for the big story he was meant to write.  He doesn’t have the courage, he explains.  He’s just not cut out to be a writer.  And he plans to give up his writing and concentrate on his chores and his family.

Covington feels bad.  He never intended for his advice to have this effect.  Near the end of the episode, he has a long talk with John-Boy.  He tells him he’s not much of a writer, not really.  He’s talked out all his stories in saloons and on street corners.  But he has written very little.  And then he attempts to undo the damage he had earlier and unwittingly heaped upon his new young friend  . . .

“Don’t waste your life searching for the one big story you were born to write,” he says.  “Write the little stories.  Who knows?  The sum total of them might be the big story.  Write about . . . your feelings about your family and this place–just the way you’ve been doing.  Write about how it is to be young and confused and poor–groping, but surrounded by a strong father and loving mother, and surrounded by brothers and sisters that pester you and irritate you . . . but who care about you.  Try to capture that in words, John-Boy.  That’s as big a challenge as the Klondike or the white whale or flying the Atlantic Ocean alone.  It was too big for me.  But I think you might just be up to it.”

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

If there is a character in The Eye-Dancers who needs to hear the same message, it is undoubtedly Mitchell Brant.  A dreamer, someone who thinks big but is not satisfied with his day-to-day self, Mitchell continually invents extravagant stories about himself, hoping to impress his friends and classmates.  He doesn’t think plain old Mitchell Brant is good enough, or likeable enough, or popular enough . . .  It takes the kind words of a new friend in the variant town of Colbyville to get him to realize, or at least begin to realize, that he doesn’t need to lie and invent and exaggerate.  He just needs to be himself.

At some point or another, we all feel like Mitchell Brant.  We feel, as John-Boy Walton did throughout much of “The Literary Man,” that our stories are not exciting enough or grand enough, or big enough.  But the flip side is also true.  A person like A.J. Covington spends his entire life searching, searching . . . for the epic story he was born to write.  But all along the story he was truly meant to write was inside him.  It wasn’t something to search for.  It was something to let out.

We all have stories to tell.  Sometimes they’re nail-biting–a death-defying chase across a busy highway; a sports triumph with much of the world watching; a journey to the stars and beyond.  Other times they’re small, quiet, tiptoeing along without making a sound–baking cookies with a since-departed grandmother on a cold winter day; tossing the ball around with a big brother who could’ve been out with his girl or his friends but instead took the time to play with you; lying in bed at night, looking up at the ceiling, wondering why it hurts so much to be rejected by someone you don’t even care about, don’t even like.  The simple joys and hurts and challenges and loves and memories of living . . .

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One of my very favorite short stories is Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

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The opening paragraph reads as follows:

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

A late-November morning.  A country kitchen in a small town.  A black stove, a table, a fireplace, and two rocking chairs.  It is hard to paint a more “ordinary” picture.  It would be a challenge to begin a story in a more soft-spoken and simple manner. And yet–it is riveting.  Evocative.  Magical.

Do you have a story to tell?  Do you feel it is “trivial”?  That it won’t captivate and interest people?  Tell it anyway.  Tell it honestly, openly.  Share a little piece of your heart.

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Your readers will be glad you did.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

At the Crossroads of Infinity . . .

Pick a point, any point.  It can, literally, be anything, anywhere, anytime.  From this point, look out in all directions.  Imagine an invisible line, tiny, microscopically thin, shooting through time and space.  If you were to imagine this line replicated again and again and again–would there be any end to it?  A million lines, a billion, a billion-billion . . . they would shoot out, imperceptibly, everywhere, never ending, always seeking and probing and searching for something more.

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This is the kind of feeling I always get when I sit down to write a new story.  A story can begin anywhere.  For instance, take the following situation . . .

Sharon is a thirty-year-old woman who works for a computer software company as a technical writer.  She is the only liberal-arts sort of person amid a sea of logically thinking programmers.  She enjoys her job, mostly enjoys her coworkers, but sometimes feels out of place.  On one particular afternoon, she neglects to save a document she has been working on for several hours.  Her mind is elsewhere–on her parents’ divorce, her daughter Lauren’s struggles adjusting to the first grade, her creepy new neighbor who too often studies her with something in his eyes she doesn’t like.  And when the prompt pops up to save her changes, she doesn’t do it.   Only after closing out of the document does she realize what she’s done.  Hours of work gone to waste.  She will need to start all over, work late–it’s a time-sensitive document, and needs to be finished by tomorrow.  How could she have been so stupid?  She calls her sister, asks if she can babysit Lauren until she gets home.  “I’m so sorry,” she says.  Her sister tells her it’s no problem.

Hours later, nearing evening now, she arrives home, exhausted, frustrated.  Alarm bells immediately ring in her head when she pulls into the drive.  Her sister’s car is nowhere to be found.  “It’s okay,” she tells herself.  She must have picked Lauren up and taken her to her own house.  She pulls out her cell, calls her sister.  While the phone on the other end rings, she notices her neighbor sitting out in a lawn chair.  He salutes her with a beer bottle and smiles.  Something inside her crawls.  Of all people, why did he have to buy the house next door?

She gets her sister’s voice mail, leaves a message.  She tries to convince herself that everything is all right, but a bad feeling nags her, takes hold of something deep within, and locks on tight.

***********

Where should this story begin?  What would the first scene look like?  The first paragraph?  The first sentence?  You could start it anywhere.  Maybe at the office, just when Sharon fails to save her changes and realizes she needs to start over.  Maybe earlier that day, in the lunch room, when she has an upsetting conversation with a coworker.  Maybe when she calls her sister, asking her to babysit.  Maybe when she arrives home, sees her ogling neighbor, and gets a bad feeling.  Any one of these starting points would work, along with so many others.  The options beckon, tantalize, mock, jockey for position.  And it doesn’t end when an opening sequence is selected.  Whichever way you begin a story has reverberations that filter through the rest of it, like ripples in a pond.  One sentence leads to the next, one scene shapes and influences the next.  At every stage, there are decisions, choices, and consequences.

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When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, I had a premise–three boys each sharing the same dream, three nights in a row.  Each one thinks he is the only one having the dream, not realizing–yet–that it’s a shared experience.  Given this, I could have started the novel anywhere.  I decided to begin with Mitchell Brant in the midst of this recurring nightmare–dreaming of the “ghost girl”–again.  How would the novel read, though, if I had opened with Joe Marma or Ryan Swinton instead?  Or even Marc Kuslanski, the one protagonist who does not experience this dream?  The idea, the overall concept of the plot, might have remained the same, but the end result, with each scene leading in to the next, would have looked quite different.

And of course with writing, with art–there are no airtight equations, no 1 + 2 = 3 comfort zones.

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Whatever choice you make on page 7 will influence what happens on page 8, and page 88 and page 308.  It is natural to ask, throughout the process, “Did I make the right choice?”  But the thing is, in a story, in a movie, in a painting, in a song–there is no “right” and “wrong.”  There is only art.  Hopefully, a story will interest and captivate the reader, a movie enthrall the viewer, a painting mesmerize the onlooker, and a song move and engage the listener.  Even then, every reader is different, every viewer unique.  In the end, all we can do is tell our story the best way we know how, tell it with feeling and passion, with heart–tell it because, if we don’t let it out, it will scratch and kick and punch, demanding to be let loose onto the page.

At one juncture in The Eye-Dancers, the intuitive, imaginative Mitchell Brant tells the logical, rational Marc Kuslanski, “Haven’t you ever just felt something to be true?”  When it comes to art–that may well be our best guide as we travel through the myriad choices at our disposal.  You can write the greatest scene in the world (it would pass the technical 1 +2 = 3 test with flying colors)–but if it seems out of place, if it doesn’t feel right to you, then it doesn’t belong in your story.  The detail-oriented work of revisions and line editing await–but the creative first-draft stage is all about endless possibilities and wide, expansive vistas that spread out before us like green, lush valleys full of promise and potential.

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All those choices can be daunting.  You can take your story anywhere.  But isn’t life like that, too?  Each moment presents its own limitless set of possibilities, and whichever course you take directly influences the next moment, and the next, and the next . . .

Daunting?  Yes.  But liberating, too.

Because every day, every minute, every second, we stand . . .

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. . . at the crossroads of infinity.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Relics”

We learn early on in The Eye-Dancers that Mitchell Brant is a comic book collector.  The old, vintage issues transport him to a different place, one filled with magic, wonder, and gold-glittered avenues that lead to a world of endless possibilities.  As it turns out, these qualities will become essential to his survival.  As the novel progresses and things seem more and more hopeless, Mitchell must tap into that sense of magic and wonder.  He must believe in those possibilities, and keep the faith that everything will work out in the end.

I wrote the short story “Relics” while I was still writing the first draft of The Eye-Dancers.  The main character in “Relics” must, like Mitchell, believe in the unbelievable, and hold on to faith when all reason, all logic dictates that hope is lost.  And, surely, Mitchell would appreciate the role that vintage comic books play in this story.

I hope you enjoy “Relics” . . .

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“Relics”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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

Looking at his wife from across the room, it was easy for John to pretend that things were normal, the way they should be, the way they used to be.  She was sitting on the couch, her light blonde hair in a ponytail.  Everything seemed in place, as if their life, her life, hadn’t taken a sudden, irreversible turn four months ago.

But then his eyes shifted, just a little, to the right, and he saw the wheelchair.  He swallowed hard at the sight of it, took a deep breath, and crossed the room.

She smiled at him when he sat beside her on the couch, and he reached for her hand.

At least she can move her arms, can breathe unaided, he thought.  At least the damage was only from the waist down.  The doctor had told him, hours after Lori had been rushed into the ICU, when his world felt like it was spinning and reeling, out of control, that his wife was fortunate.  The collision had been head-on.  It could have been much worse.  She was lucky to be alive.  And, after assessing her injuries, the doctor assured him that she would live, recover enough to lead a productive life.  There was only one catch.

She’d never walk again.

“Never?” John had asked.  Nothing seemed real.  Lori was fortunate?  Fortunate?  Is that what this guy had just told him?

The doctor looked away for a moment.  “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t say never.  But, in all honesty, it would take a miracle.”

A miracle.  He had read very little on paralysis—he’d never had reason to.  It hadn’t touched his life or that of anyone he knew.  But now, now, it loomed before him, a towering monolith, tottering, toppling, about to land on him and crush him to dust.

He scoured the Web for hours, days, gleaning information, searching for guidance, stories of recovery, of hope.  He read about the latest research, the new and exciting discoveries that were being made every day.  Of course there were differences of opinion among the experts, but nearly all of them agreed on one thing:  a cure was still a long way off—years, decades, even.  Someday, catastrophic injuries to the spinal cord would be healed.  There was little doubt about that.  But that day was but a speck on a distant horizon, ten thousand tomorrows hence.  What good would it do Lori?

“I think I have a little more feeling in my right leg,” she said.  Sitting next to her on the couch, as he had so many times before the accident, the questions came in a torrent.  Why couldn’t he turn back the clock?  Why did she have to be driving on that road, at that moment?  Why did the other driver, intoxicated beyond all reason, have to pick that night to lose control, why did he have to swerve into the wrong lane just as Lori was approaching . . .?

He rubbed his temples, his forehead.  A raging headache was coming on.  Ever since the accident, he’d been getting headaches regularly.  Thinking too much.  Brooding too hard, too often.

She loved to run.  She had been training for a marathon.  He tried to join her a couple of times when she went out for a run, but he couldn’t keep up.  Lori was like that with everything—a dynamo, always in motion, full of energy and life.  Now what was she?

A cripple.

“I just have to believe, that’s what I tell myself,” she said.  He saw her veins bulge out on the side of her neck, felt her hand squeeze his, hard.  She was trying to move her legs.  Pearls of perspiration beaded on her forehead.

He felt like telling her not to strain herself.  It wasn’t worth it.  It wasn’t worth the frustration, the effort, the heartache.  And yet, every day, multiple times per day, she kept trying. . . .

“Unnnh,” she said, and finally relaxed again.  She let her head fall back, against the couch cushion.  Immediately he noticed moisture forming in her eyes.

“Damnit!” she said, lifting her head, looking at him.  “Why won’t they move?  Why can’t I make them move?”  She cried then, and he reached out to hold her.

“Ssh,” he said, stroking her hair.  He wanted to follow this up by saying everything would be all right, things would get better.  But he didn’t.  He had no right to say such a thing.  He wasn’t the one who could no longer walk.  He wasn’t the one who now owned a broken and battered body, full of pain and unending, unrelenting frustration.

He again thought of what the doctor had said.  It would take a miracle for her to walk again.  The therapists at the rehabilitation center—where Lori had learned how to compensate for a crippled lower body, where she learned the skills she would need to lead a reasonably independent life, where she learned how to cope—all of them had said the same thing.  It was better, more productive, to work hard at rehab, focus on today, on realities, on tangible goals and graspable plans.  For the most part, Lori was adjusting remarkably well—better than he would have, he was sure.  She even intended to go back to work at some point.  But she had not been willing to believe that her paralysis was permanent.  Not when she first heard the news, and not now.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling.  “I didn’t mean to cry like that.”  He could tell by the determined expression on her face that she was readying herself for another try.

He didn’t want to watch her strain and strain, to no avail.  Not again.  He got up, feeling guilty, as he often did these days, at the easy functionality of his legs.

“I’ll go back to making supper,” he said.  The fact was, he hadn’t even started supper yet.

She looked at him.  There was a hurt in her eyes, and it had nothing to do with her now useless legs.  She had asked him before to believe with her, pray with her, dare to hope.

“Miracles are like flowers,” she had said just yesterday.  “They need watering.  They need care.”  Perhaps.  But he couldn’t raise up his hopes, only to have them dashed every time he saw her struggle to move her legs.  Maybe she was simply stronger than him.  Or more naïve.  Then again, it was her legs, not his, that were paralyzed.  He wondered, had their situations been reversed, how he would be coping.  He guessed that he, too, would be hoping, working, for a miracle, just as she was.  The difference was—if she were in his place, she would, undoubtedly, be believing, too, right alongside him.

“I’m making spaghetti and meatballs,” he said, feeling like a jerk, as he walked away, “with lots of garlic in the sauce, the way you like it.”

He hoped she’d smile at this, but she didn’t.  She just stared, straight ahead, concentrating, getting ready for another round of exertion.

He cleared his throat, wishing he could find the words she needed to hear, the words he needed to say, whatever they were.  But all he did was walk out of the room, into the kitchen.  He made supper, burning the sauce and boiling way too much spaghetti.  He didn’t have much of an appetite.

That night, after she had maneuvered out of the wheelchair into the bed without assistance, she was thumbing through a photo album.  In the pictures, Lori was usually smiling, moving, the camera catching her in full stride, or with a tennis racquet, about to strike the ball, or playing Frisbee, reaching out to make a one-handed grab of an errant toss.  There was one picture of the two of them, taken with a self-timer, on the summit of a mountain they climbed five years ago, a lifetime ago, on a trip they had taken to the Pacific Northwest.

Beside her in bed, his gaze, inevitably, continued to fix itself on her legs—how healthy they looked in the photographs, how ready to scale and run and conquer the land.  Why did she look at these relics?  These reminders of a life that used to be, but could never be again?  What good did it do?

He turned away.

Beside him, he heard the photo album snap shut.

“You know, it would really be nice to have you support me, John,” she said.  “It’s hard enough trying to deal with all of this.  I didn’t think I’d need to do it by myself.”

That stung.  It made him feel like a failure, a pathetic excuse of a man.  On the other hand, what was he supposed to do?  What was he supposed to say?  They didn’t exactly write instruction manuals on how to adjust to life after your wife becomes paralyzed.

“I need you to believe in me,” she said then.  “In what I’m trying to do.”

“Why?  So I can watch you cry and be disappointed day after day after day, when you can’t move your legs?”  The words shot out of him, too quickly, before he’d had a chance to think them over.  But now that they were out, he needed to go on, needed to explain the way he felt.  “Why do you look at those pictures, Lori?  Do you like torturing yourself?  Is that it?  I don’t understand it!”

“No,” she said.  “You don’t.”

“Why can’t you accept the truth?” he went on.  “We both need to accept it.  I have.  But you . . .”

“You must really think I’m stupid,” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice.  I put that there, he thought.  I hurt her, again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  The anger was gone, replaced by a heavy, massive blanket of regret.  Why had he lost his composure?  Didn’t she have enough to overcome, without his outbursts?  “I didn’t mean that.”

He thought she would turn away from him, stonewall him for the rest of the night.  Instead, she took hold of his hand.  “I know this is hell for you, too,” she said.  “And I’m sorry for saying you haven’t supported me.  You have.  You’ve been by my side throughout all of this.  Don’t think I’m not aware of that, John.  And grateful for it.  It’s just . . . Look, I know you don’t want me to get hurt, to believe I’ll be able to walk again, and then . . .”

He started to say something, but she stopped him.  “I have accepted this,” she said.  “I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but I have.  Well . . . I’m working on it, anyway.  I know I might not walk again.  I know what the doctors said.  But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to lie down and tell myself it’s impossible.  I won’t stop trying, John, and I won’t stop believing.  And what I really need, more than anything, is for you to believe, too.  I need you on my side for this.  Can you do that for me?”

The logic-oriented part of his brain wanted to argue with her.  If she had accepted her situation, why would she still be trying to accomplish the impossible, or, at the least, the highly improbable?  Why put herself through that?  But he didn’t argue with her.  He just nodded, and said, in a whisper, “I’ll try.”

“Hi, John, glad you could make it,” Seth said, smiling, the creases in his face multiplying like randomly expanding spider webs.

John smiled back.  He liked Seth.  He’d worked for him at his previous job, and the two became friends.  When John quit, moving to a higher-paying position at a company across town, they remained in touch; though, since Lori’s accident, he rarely got out to see anyone.  He hadn’t seen Seth since the older man had visited him in the ICU, when the nightmare was still fresh and new.  He’d barely heard what Seth had said that day.

“Been wanting to stop in for a visit,” Seth said.  “But I figured it was still too soon, you know.”

John nodded, and an awkward silence hung in the air.  It was Seth who broke it.

“Come on inside,” he said.  Another smile, more multiplying spider webs.

Seth’s house was a spacious ranch, overlooking a two-acre backyard, complete with a trout pond, lilac bushes, a well-kept flower garden, and a vegetable garden that was his pride and joy.  He had boasted about his garden dozens of times at work, before the start of a meeting, as employees shuffled in to the conference room.  But the boasts were true, and now, at the height of its midsummer lushness, the garden looked to John like an oasis, a rich, green world just waiting to lure him in with its charms.

Seth led him to the back den, with its wall of windows and glass-sliding door that opened out onto the green expanse of the yard.  There was a birdfeeder just beyond the windows.  Blue jays and grackles scuffled for control, while a cardinal and two grosbeaks looked down from a nearby perch, waiting for a chance.

But what really caught his eye were the comic books.  There were two stacks of them, side by side.  One stack piled at least three feet high, the other much less substantial—only a dozen or so comics.  Beside this smaller stack, a pair of scissors, a collection of envelopes and stamps, and several clipped-out old advertisements lie scattered on the floor.

Seth sat down in a cream-colored, comfortable-looking oval chair.

“Plant yourself,” he said, motioning to the sofa across from him.  “Make yourself at home, John.”

He did as instructed, sat down, let out a breath that felt as though it had been building for months.  It actually felt good to be here, away from the house, for a little while.  He wasn’t sure if he should leave Lori alone, but she had all but pushed him out the door, assuring him that she’d be fine.  Besides, his extended leave of absence from work was coming to an end; he would be going back next week.  So this would be good practice for both of them.  She wouldn’t be a burden to him, she said.  They needed to get on with their lives.

“What you must think of me,” Seth said.  “I didn’t even offer you a drink.  Maybe that’s what being a department manager does to a fella after a while—gives him a big head.”  He jumped up, spry as a man decades younger, and walked swiftly into the kitchen.  He returned a moment later, with two glasses of lemonade.

“Thanks,” John said, reaching for one of the glasses, taking a drink.  Very tart, just the way he liked it.  But he felt shy being here.  Usually, when he saw Seth, they met for lunch or coffee in one of the cafes downtown.  Sometimes they golfed together.  Rarely did he come here, to his ex-boss’s house.

He eyed the stack of comic books, looking for a diversion.

“Yeah, I just found those the other night,” Seth said, sitting back down in his oval chair, the glass of lemonade already beginning to sweat, in his hands.  “Ever since I returned from my trip back home, I’ve been puttering around the attic lately.”

“You went back home?” John asked.  He’d been so out of touch with Seth, with everyone.  This was the first he’d heard of it.

Seth nodded.  “My nephew got married a couple weeks ago.  I went back for the wedding.  It was nice.”  He paused, brought his finger to his lips.  It was what John had always thought of as his thinking pose.  He sometimes used to do that at meetings, too, before saying something.  “Going back was odd, though,” he went on.  “Hadn’t been there in years.  I saw some old friends, talked about the old days.”  He shook his head.  “When I got back, I started looking for any junk I might find, lying around.  Stuff I’d maybe forgotten about.  I found my high school yearbook, flipped through that.  Looked at some old pictures.  And I came across those comics I bought way back when.  Most of them are more than fifty years old, you know.  Fifty years!”  He let out a whistle.  “Where’s the time go?”

John couldn’t relate.  Time, to him, had nearly stood still these past few months.  The vigil in the ICU, the long, tedious, torturous days at the rehab center, and now the days spent at home, with Lori, as she struggled to readjust her life, to master what had once been the simplest of tasks but now, thanks to the recklessness of one drunk driver, had become grueling tests of grit and patience.

“Why do you have them in two piles?” he asked.  He didn’t want to talk about time.  And he sure didn’t want to talk about Lori.  He needed to steer things in a direction of his choosing.  “What are the scissors for?”

Seth glanced at the scissors, then at him.  John could almost hear the cogs and circuits spinning in the older man’s head, could almost hear his thoughts.  Didn’t he come here to talk about his wife, about what happened?  Isn’t that what he needs?  To talk about it?  But, to his relief, Seth didn’t push or prod.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Seth said.  His mouth hinted at a smile, but didn’t consummate it.  “Going back home, seeing how so much has changed . . . I guess it made me feel kind of old.  I guess it . . .”  He waved his hand dismissively, set his lemonade aside.  “Ah, never mind.  I’m just rambling.”

But the clipped advertisements, the stacks of old comic books—these weren’t merely ramblings. . . .

Outside a blue jay hollered at a bold grackle, and there was a flutter of wings as they both flew away.  Eager to pounce, the grosbeaks descended on the feeder.

“Besides,” Seth went on, “you’re still young, John.  I don’t expect that you’d really want to hear any of this, or that you’d even understand if you did.”

Young?  Lori was young, too—in her midthirties, a lifetime ahead of her.  But what did it matter?  What kind of life would she be able to lead?  Yes, she would reenter society, return to work, read, think, dream, imagine.  But would she be able to run again, to train for marathons, to hike up hills and mountains?  Young.  What was youth to her now?  What was it to him?

He took a sip of the lemonade, hopped off the sofa, knelt on the floor, beside the comic books.  The top one on the taller stack was a Superman, with a cover story titled “The Man with the Zero Eyes.”  He examined the cover, admiring the artwork, then looked at the ads, scattered on the floor.  There was one for sea monkeys, another for a Daisy Air Rifle, another for free passes at an amusement park—valued at twenty-five cents, the ad boasted.  The advertisements themselves were brittle, the paper yellowing.  Relics.

“Did you just cut these out?” he asked then, as he picked up the Daisy Air Rifle ad, examining it.  Grinning boys, guns in hand, smiled back at him from across the chasm of fifty years.

Seth smiled, but there was no joy in it.  “Yeah, I did.  Stupid, I guess.”

John didn’t know very much about comic books, but he did know that old collectable comics were worth a great deal of money—sometimes astronomical sums.  He also knew that if you clipped out the ads, said value would plummet like a failing stock.  What was Seth up to?

“I used to cut out the ads that interested me back when I was a kid,” Seth said.  “Then I’d mail ‘em off, and wait.  And believe me, the waiting wasn’t easy.  I’d run home from school and ask my mom right off if anything for me had come in the mail.  Probably drove her crazy sometimes.”  He paused, looked away.  “It’s funny.  Back then, I remember wanting to grow up, you know?  Finish up with school, move away, make a lot of money.  Guess I did all those things.  But now, it’s just the opposite.  Now, I wish I could go back to those days, maybe try out for the high school baseball team, maybe appreciate my folks more, while they were still here, you know?  Maybe ask Gloria Cooper out on that date, like I always wanted to but never did.  I wonder whatever became of her. . . .”

John knew that Seth had never been married.  He rarely talked about his past, but he had mentioned once how lucky John was to have found Lori, to have found love.  And John knew he was right.  He hadn’t met Lori until he was twenty-eight, and he often wished he had gone to school with her, had a chance to meet her sooner in life.  But then he’d stop himself.  He was fortunate to have met her at all.  They’d planned on having children, but hadn’t yet.  They thought maybe next year would be the right time to start a family.  But that had been before the accident . . .

“Why’d you just cut these out now, though?” he asked.  His train of thought was moving too much toward his own life, his own loss.  He didn’t want to deal with that, not now.  Hadn’t he come over Seth’s to get away from himself, even if only temporarily?

The older man just sat there.  John thought about repeating his question, but he didn’t.  Surely Seth had heard him.

Seth glanced at the stack of comic books, the scattered pile of snipped-out ads.  “You know, most people would say I’ve had a good life, and I guess they’d be right.  I can’t complain.  I’m still healthy, successful.  I mean, look at all this.”  He swept his hands in a wide arc.  “This is what I always wanted, what I strived for.  But maybe, all this time, I was striving for the wrong things.  Because now, I . . .”  He smiled.  “It’s kind of hard to explain, I’m afraid.  Guess I’m just having my midlife crisis a little late.  Because looking at these comic books now . . . there are lots of ads in them that look good, you know?  They remind me of a time, a place, I had almost forgotten.  But now I wish I could go back to that time, to that place, and do things over.  Some of them anyway.”

John just looked at the older man.  None of this was making sense.

“Guess you’re still wondering why I cut out the ads,” Seth said.  “Well . . . I suppose you could say I’m looking for a miracle.”

“A miracle?”

“Yeah.  I used to believe in miracles, once.  I think we all did.”

John swallowed.  “What do you mean?”

“Guess it’s like I said.”  Seth reached for his lemonade, took another sip.  Outside the jays and grackles had returned to the feeder, squawking and pecking at each other.  “I wish I could go back—someway, somehow, at least for a little while.  So I’m clipping out those old ads.  And you know what?  I’m gonna send for them, just like I used to.  Oh I know they’ll probably just get returned, I know the addresses can’t possibly be good anymore.  But then, who knows?  Maybe one of them will get a response.  Maybe I’ll even get the product I sent for, at a price half a century old.  It doesn’t hurt to believe, does it?  To hope.  Sometimes, I think, believing is what we need the most.  Sometimes, that’s what carries us through.”

“But . . .”  All of a sudden, it seemed like there was so much to say, and yet nothing to say.

“Why don’t you take a comic or two, John?  I don’t mind.  As you can see, I got plenty to spare.”

He was ready to tell Seth that this was all crazy, a childish scheme, ridiculous.  A waste of time.  But he found his fingers rifling through the stack of comic books.  He felt them pull out an issue of Journey Into Unknown Worlds, number 36.  The cover featured a species of giants, preparing to menace the ill-prepared human race.

What am I doing? he thought.  Why am I taking this?

As if reading his mind, Seth said, “Maybe you can clip an old ad out of that, too.  Send it off.  And hope.”

He was in the living room, flipping through the comic book, actually enjoying the stories.  It was published in 1955, but the material held up surprisingly well.  Whenever he saw an ad, he examined the merchandise, considering whether or not to clip it.  He had a pair of scissors at the ready, on the seat beside him. . . .

“C’mon,” he said.  “Don’t be stupid.”

But one ad in particular caught his eye.

“Mystery!  Science!  Fun!  Magic!” it read.  “Magic wand to amuse and amaze your friends!”  It was fourteen inches long, with a black center and white tips.  It enabled the amateur magician to perform dozens of tricks.  It—

“Unnnh!”  It was Lori.  She was in the bedroom, supposedly taking a nap.  Apparently, she hadn’t felt like sleeping.  “Unnh!”  Every few seconds, he would hear her grunting.  He didn’t need to go to the bedroom to know what she was up to.  He formed a mental picture of her—sitting on the edge of the bed, arms pressed firmly down on the mattress, supporting her weight, as she struggled to move her legs.  He could easily visualize the sweat forming on her forehead, her face scrunching up, her eyes tightly shut as she pushed, focused, threw everything she had into the effort.

“Unnh!” she said again.

He looked at the ad of the magic wand, and suddenly he felt a firm conviction.  With his wife straining in the other room to move her legs, her feet, just a little, just a twitch, a spasm, anything—he picked up the scissors, lined them up just so. . . .

“I love you, Lori,” he said, and began to cut.

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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