Anatomy of an (Incomplete) Story Idea (Or, The Adventures of Ferdinand)

Imagine this scene . . .

A man is driving along a lonely country road as midnight approaches.  I don’t know how old the man is–perhaps 40, maybe 45.  For the time being, it’s not important.  Nor do I know his name.  Jeff?  Fred?  Ferdinand?  Pick a name, any name.  Just as with his age, it is irrelevant right now.

 

The man (okay, we’ll settle on Ferdinand!) glances in his rearview mirror.  A dark stretch of asphalt merges into the background, swallowed by the night.  He can’t help but inhale deeply, taking in the warm summer air through the open window of his car.  Above, in an oily canvas of night sky, hundreds of stars sparkle like diamonds.  He used to study astronomy as a kid, and, momentarily, he looks up, through the windshield, seeing if maybe, just maybe, he can identify some of those stars.  No such luck.  Like eighth-grade algebra, the knowledge is gone, captured by the wide gulf of years, of time and distance.

 

He hasn’t driven through a town of significant size for miles.  He’s “smack-dab in the middle of Nothingville,” as his mom used to say about the house and town he grew up in.  Where is he headed?  I’m not sure, and neither is he.  Doesn’t matter.  What matters is the drive, the stars, the gentle night breeze wafting in through the window, the fields and trees that come and go, come and go, as he drives on.  There are few houses.  But occasionally, there is a porch light in the distance, a beacon in the dark.  It makes him reminisce.  He grew up on a farm.  He couldn’t wait to get away, escape to the city.  Now he wonders if perhaps that had been a mistake.  His life isn’t what he thought it would be.  Maybe that’s why he’s on this long drive.  Maybe he’s running away, fleeing something from a long-ago, irretrievable past.

 

Ferdinand sighs, turns on the car’s radio.  He scans through the stations–not getting much, this far away from populated areas.  He comes across a sports-talk station with a caller screaming in a heavy Brooklyn accent about why the New York Jets need to move in a new direction.  The host cautions restraint, the caller yells again.  Ferdinand presses a button, and the angry Jets fan is gone.  For a moment, Ferdinand imagines the owner of that voice, that frustrated fan.  He’s shut him out, erased him from the confines of the car, but surely the man is still raging from somewhere in Brooklyn.  An apartment, perhaps?  Maybe the guy lives above a bakery or a pizza parlor, or a pawnshop.  Maybe he owns a brownstone on a busy corner, with cars honking and people talking on the streets and sidewalks outside.  Miles away from Ferdinand.  Worlds away.

 

He continues to drive, cruising along at 55.  Not a single car passes him. The road is his, and his alone.  He imagines driving through a vortex, through an intersection of space and time, plunging into a parallel world, as if a character in an old Twilight Zone episode. And all the while, he continues to scan through the radio dial.

 

There’s one station playing ’80s pop.  He pauses on this one.  Some of the songs he remembers well from his youth.  This makes him feel at once nostalgic, and old.  Could that really have been thirty years ago?  He glances in the rearview again, not to look out for traffic–he knows there isn’t any–but to check his thinning hair and the worry lines on his forehead.  Where has the time gone?

 

Muttering, Ferdinand fiddles with the dial again.  The scanner skips over stations and plays back static with others, interspersed with a few more songs that he doesn’t care for–there’s a heavy metal piece, a country song.  A grunge number from the ’90s.  Just as he’s about to switch the radio off entirely, he hears something odd.  A voice, talking to him.  But not just any voice.

 

His voice.

“Don’t do it,” the voice on the radio–his voice–says.  “Think twice, champ.  Don’t.  It will be the biggest mistake of your life–and that’s saying something, considering your track record.  Don’t go there.”

Ferdinand shakes his head, hits his forehead with the palm of one hand.  Don’t do what?  Don’t go where? And how can he be hearing himself on the radio?

“I need some sleep,” he says.  The next sign of life, the next town–he’ll pull over, get a room for the night.  Maybe order some takeout, watch a movie.  Relax.

 

He reaches to turn off the radio.

“Not that easy, you don’t,” his voice says back to him, tinny and crackling, as if losing reception.  “You’re not going to shut me out . . . or up.  Listen, for a change.  Don’t do it.  Don’t you dare.”

He takes a long, deep breath, looks out the window at the stars, at the empty, open vastness of the night.

 

Is he losing his mind?

And if he’s not . . . what does it mean?  How can it be?

Maybe he has driven into the Twilight Zone, after all.

 

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This is an idea that hit me with the force of a hammer last week.  The scene unfolded in my mind as described above, formulated within seconds upon waking from an overnight sleep.  As I always do when an idea that energizes me comes, I immediately jotted down the gist of it, the essentials–so I wouldn’t forget anything important.  I did the same thing with the scene that came to me in a dream back when I was in high school–the dream that morphed into Mitchell Brant‘s dream in the opening chapter of The Eye-Dancers.  For two decades, I couldn’t seem to fit that episode into a story–until, at last, The Eye-Dancers was born.

 

Will this new idea, this new situation, also take weeks or months or years to grow and expand and flesh out into a story, or even a novel?  I hope not.  But I don’t have much control over it, either.  This is how ideas work for me, most of the time.  Every now and then, an idea arrives fully formed, beginning to end, a complete story that only needs to be written.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

 

The rule is both riveting and frustrating.  Exhilarating and tantalizing.  Because what normally happens is–I am given a piece, a small slice of the whole.  Just enough to hook me, pull me in, grasp onto to me like a feisty dog taking a firm hold and not letting go.  I am forced in, unable to discard, feeling the need to explore the path and see where it leads.  See what discoveries await on the other side.  Sometimes that process is sudden and immediate.  Other times it is slow and full of pitfalls, as I await the pleasure of a capricious and all too often stingy muse.

 

So, for right now, I reluctantly set Ferdinand aside.  Oh, I’ll think about him.  I’ll turn his predicament over in my mind a thousand times before Sunday.  But I know the full story cannot be forced.  Just as Ferdinand’s voice spoke to him from the radio, so it will to me–in its own way, at a time and place of its choosing.  I can coax and goad and ponder and cajole, but I cannot dictate.  The creative process must be allowed to work its magic in its own inscrutable way.

 

Then again, maybe tonight I will dream of this again, and, maybe, upon waking, the riddle will be solved, and the story will be written.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Gas ‘N Go, Seeds from a Stem, and Lumberjack’s Reward (Or, Of Mystery Dinners and Storytelling)

“So, Michael, what do you think?” my mother asked me.  “Do you want to be a waiter?”

I couldn’t say with any enthusiasm that I did–even if it was just for one day.

My mother had decided to host a mystery dinner.  She invited our neighbors, a few close friends, some friends of friends, not to mention a few relatives.  It was going to be a big affair, and she needed all the help she could get.

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But I had other ideas.  It was summer, the weather had been picture-perfect, with no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.  And, at twelve years old, there were many other things I would have rather been doing.  Some of the kids in the neighborhood (including my friends who ultimately inspired the main characters in The Eye-Dancers) were setting up a kickball game at a local playground.  I didn’t want to miss that.

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“I could really use your help,” Mom went on.  “And it’ll be fun.  When you serve the guests food, they might not have any silverware to eat it with.”

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Hmm.  Things suddenly sounded more interesting!  I asked her to tell me more.

Turns out, a mystery dinner was a good time.  Who knew?  I did decide to serve as a waiter that evening, back in the now-vintage 1980s.  My friends gave me guff the next day, informing me I had missed an incredible kickball game, but I told them I’d play in the next one.  Even back then, I knew I’d never forget that day, that dinner . . .

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The concept of a mystery dinner is simple.  Guests are provided a coded menu.  There are a set number of courses for the meal.  My mother’s mystery dinner had ten courses.  Her menu had thirty items on it–so, three items were served per course.  What really made it interesting, though, was that the dinner guests had no way of knowing what they were ordering.  The menu didn’t have words like “potatoes, peas, chicken, or water” on it.  Rather, it contained cryptic descriptions such as, “gas ‘n go,” “seeds from a stem,” and “lovers cuddle.”  Seeing that the guests didn’t start the dinner out with silverware (forks and spoons and napkins needed to be selected from the menu), it was inevitable that some of them would be served mashed potatoes without a fork or a spoon; or butter without anything to spread it on; or a fork, a stick of celery, and a straw.  Each course was an adventure.  I remember a lot of laughing that evening.

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I also remember the moment when I passed out the menus.  As the guests read through the nonsensical items, they questioned what it was they were looking at.

“Wait and see,” I told them.  “Just make sure you only circle three items at a time!”

Of course, the guests chatted among themselves, trying to figure out the mystery terms.  What was a lumberjack’s reward?  A devil’s advocate?  How about a degreaser or golden rods?  If their subsequent orders were any measuring stick, however, they didn’t decode the terms successfully!

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At the end of the dinner, many of the guests vowed they would need to throw their own mystery dinner.

“I can’t wait to fool my neighbors!” one of our friends said, smiling.  “Eating mashed potatoes with a toothpick . . . I’d like to be on the other side of the menu the next time!”

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I’m not sure if she ever went on to host a mystery dinner.

But I do know a thing or two about being fooled.

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We often think about being fooled as readers.  We become engrossed in the plot of a novel, following the course of events, and then–wham!  Something happens that we never saw coming, and we feel as though we’ve been felled by a two-by-four.  Sometimes the surprise is troubling, and we may even put the book down without finishing it.  How could she have done that?  How did he get away with that?  No way!  But just as often, and probably more so, the surprise is welcome.  Predictability, after all, is rarely the hallmark of compelling literature.

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But it isn’t only reading that oftentimes throws a mystery-dinner-like nugget our way.  Writing offers its own collection of surprising twists and developments.

When I begin a new writing project, I usually have a broad outline–not overly detailed, but nevertheless something I can use as a guideline of sorts, a plan designed on the macro-, as opposed to the micro-level.  Without such an outline (which is by no means formal; my outlines generally consist of a series of scratchy hand-scrawled notes organized in such a fashion that probably only I can decipher them!), I would feel lost, like a ship at sea without any navigational equipment.  On the other hand, if I crafted a super-detailed, point-by-point outline, I would feel stifled, and would run the risk of not allowing the natural creativity of the writing process to flourish midstream.

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And that writing-process creativity often strikes at the least-expected times.  The muse is nothing if not capricious.  For example, as I started writing The Eye-Dancers, it never occurred to me that two of the main characters–Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski–would turn out to be friends.  At the start of the book, they were acquaintances, classmates, who rarely spoke to each other.  And the fact that they would soon be thrust into a literally otherworldly adventure together didn’t mean they would suddenly become kindred spirits.  I envisioned them trying to join their heads together to solve their problem, work toward finding a way through the interdimensional void and back home–nothing more, and nothing less.  But a funny thing happened along the way.

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In chapter 14, on their first morning in the alternate town of Colbyville, Mitchell and Marc chat by the banks of a stream.  They discuss their opposing viewpoints on what happened to them and how they ended up in this world on the other side of creation.  They bicker, they argue, and . . . they bond.  I envisioned the bickering and arguing.  But the bonding?  Not so much.

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Confronted with this, I had a choice to make.  Revert back to my original broad outline, which did not include Marc and Mitchell bonding.  Or–allow the characters themselves, as they transformed right there on the page, to dictate the course of events.  It really wasn’t a hard decision.  Marc and Mitchell had spoken, outline or no outline!  There was a natural give-and-take between these two.  In a way I hadn’t foreseen, and despite being on the surface polar opposites, they were able to relate to each other.  It would not only be a mistake, it would be dishonest to deep-six this organic and spontaneous story development.

The creative process always has surprises in store for us.  And while sometimes it may seem chaotic to alter our original plans halfway through, for the most part such changes generally strengthen our works-in-progress, giving them a malleability and integrity they would otherwise lack.

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A menu of green beans and mashed potatoes and brown gravy is surely needed to organize thoughts and point the way for a successful literary endeavor.  But along the way, don’t forget to sprinkle in a dash of lumberjack’s rewards, a touch of rolling stones, and a mix of sailor’s crumbs.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Wormhole of Our Dreams

“Peering out his bedroom window, his eyes flattened into squinting slits, Mitchell Brant saw her.”

So begins The Eye-Dancers,  but is this episode merely a dream or is it real?  Or is it, in some strange, inexplicable way, straddling the sorcerer’s tightrope between the two worlds, with one foot in each?

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This of course begs the question:  What are dreams, anyway?  And should we even preface references to them with innocuous terms like “merely”?

Marc Kuslanski, for one, would certainly answer with a resounding yes.  Or, knowing Marc, he’d probably say, “affirmative,” but that is neither here nor there.  Logical to the core, unwilling to grapple with the mystical or the unexplained, Marc believes that dreams are nothing more than a biological function, a by-product of sleep.

“We’re beings of electrical current, pure energy,” he explains in chapter four.  “While we’re in our sleeping state, the brain needs something to do.  It gets bored.  So, it manufactures stories, adventures, even nightmares.  It’s like a prisoner in solitary confinement.  Nothing going on.  No outside stimuli.  So you need to create your own entertainment.  That’s all dreams are, you know.  Just the brain–your brain–killing time.”

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Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton, Marc’s target audience for his mini-dissertation, don’t agree.  They’ve each dreamed of the “ghost girl” three nights in a row (the reason they ask Marc’s opinion on the subject to begin with), and are convinced the dreams have significance.  More than once, over the course of The Eye-Dancers, the characters are struck by the fine line that separates our dreams from our actual lives–to the point that they start to question where the one begins and the other ends.  I suppose that’s a line we’ve all wondered about, at one time or another.

I’ve certainly had my share of dreams that have caused me to take a step back, examine, and delve into the heart of the matter.  And I remember the day–a snowy, frozen January afternoon with the wind slamming into the house, the eaves whining in protest, the world a white snow globe, the flakes swirling, blotting out the yard–when my older brother told me about dying in dreams . . .

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“You never see yourself die in your own dream,” he said.  “Am I right?  Or am I right?”

I looked at him, shook my head.  He was wrong. There were multiple dreams I’d had, nightmares, where I knew I would die . . .

“But you didn’t see yourself die, did you?” he persisted.  “You didn’t feel your heart stop.  Didn’t feel the fangs gash into your neck.  I bet you woke up right before it happened . . .”

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I didn’t answer.  It was as if he were inside my own head.  He had nailed it to a T.  Outside, a stiff gust of wind rattled the windows, invisible fingers seeking entry into the house, an escape from the cold.

“If you actually did see yourself die in your dream,” my brother went on, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.  When you see yourself die in your own dream–and I mean, really see yourself die, not wake up a second before you do–you really will die.  Your heart’ll just stop, right there in your bed.”

“That’s dumb,” I said.  “I mean, how could anyone know that for sure?”

“Ask around,” he said.  “You’ll see.”

I did ask around, and eventually I realized my brother’s theory wasn’t rock-solid unassailable truth.  But it stayed with me anyway, perhaps triggering a lifelong fascination with dreams–a fascination shared by many others.  Dreams have been studied, speculated about, hypothesized, diced, sliced, and spliced for millennia, and surely, a thousand years hence, the field of oneirology will still be going strong.  People want to know, have always wanted to know–what do our dreams mean?  What do they represent?

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Have you ever experienced such an unusual dream–not necessarily even a bad one–that, upon waking, you couldn’t help but ask yourself, “Why in the world would I ever dream that?  Why would I even imagine something so completely bizarre?”

The rapid scene changes.  The helter-skelter quality of the “stories” that unfold.  The themes and dangers and desires that define the world of our dreams.  What should we do with them?  Anything?  Or do we blissfully ignore them, relegating them to some neat, locked box, to be opened only when needed in passing–perhaps to amuse a dinner guest or scare a friend or impress a date–but never to be explored in depth, or grappled with in any meaningful way?

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Maybe we tend to push our dreams to the background because, well–how else should we respond?  We can’t let them cripple us or hinder us in our everyday lives.  Perhaps more than that . . . even after all these years, all the scientific advances and data and studies, dreams remain elusive.  No one can say, unequivocally, what they mean and why they occur.  The answers are likely broad and layered anyway, dependent on the individual person and the individual dream in question.

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Are dreams moving symbols, manifestations of our fears, needs, desires, memories, goals?  Are they gateways to previous lives or vehicles for predicting the future?  Could it be that they provide us with glimpses into the multiverse, our assorted lives sprinkled throughout alternate realities and dimensions?  That they are, in effect, another version of reality and not actually “dreams” at all?

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“You know what it felt like,” Mitchell Brant says shortly after he and the others have traversed the void and find themselves in the alternate-world town of Colbyville.  “When she was in our dreams, it felt real.”

Who knows–maybe we even have it all upside down.  Maybe, just maybe, there is another version of ourselves, somewhere, who, every night, “dreams” our lives here on earth, our days unfurling strand by delicate strand in the mind of our counterpart while they sleep. And maybe, while we are asleep, we, in turn, “dream” their lives for them–the two intersecting, interweaving, forever linked . . .

. . . in the wormhole of our dreams.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “The Gatherers”

Clearly one of the themes in The Eye-Dancers is learning to cope with mystery, with things beyond the scope of our understanding.  Marc Kuslanski, in particular, feels the need to explain every irregularity, every new experience that lies beyond the purview of his knowledge.  How he ultimately learns to deal with this is his great dilemma (and opportunity for growth) in the novel.

The protagonist in “The Gatherers,” a short story I wrote shortly before beginning The Eye-Dancers, is faced with just such a dilemma when he spots a small group of people linking hands, standing in a circle.  On the surface, this does not seem particularly odd or out of the ordinary.  But there is more to the story . . .

I hope you enjoy “The Gatherers.”

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“The Gatherers”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

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

Christopher Burriss was frustrated.

He’d wanted to take a right-hand turn, head to the drug store, and buy the strongest over-the-counter pain medicine he could find. But he hadn’t. Instead, he had driven straight through the light, cursing and slamming his fist into the dashboard.

It wasn’t that the intersection had caught him by surprise, or came up more quickly than he anticipated. He just could not seem to make the turn. It was as if a force, an invisible presence, had locked the steering wheel in place.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said to the dust bunnies floating inside the car. He just wanted something to take. To dull the pain.

Yes. The pain. The flaring, mounting pain that had overtaken him without warning. He’d been driving . . . where? He couldn’t remember. Had he been shopping? Running an errand? Going to work? When, suddenly, his head began to throb, then to pound, as if someone had lobbed a grenade inside his skull and pulled the pin. And his side. His entire left side ached. A knifing, jabbing pain, spreading from his rib cage, up to his armpit and down to his hip.

He thought of turning around—the intersection, and the drug store, were still close behind. A driveway came up on the left, and he slowed down, signaled. Trailing him, a white Subaru, too close for comfort, waited for him to complete his turn.

But he couldn’t do it. The steering wheel wouldn’t budge. Was it stuck? Making sure that his foot was planted securely on the break pedal, he exerted more force, but still the wheel would not move. The car behind him honked its horn.

“Shut up!” he yelled back. “I’m trying! You think I’m doing this for fun?”

He pulled as hard as he could. Nothing. The driver behind him continued to beep, and now others joined in. A line of traffic was forming in his rearview mirror.

“Great. Just beautiful.” He pressed hard on the gas pedal, and sped forward. The Subaru followed, still closer than he liked.

The pressure in his head was unrelenting, and his side was a lit fuse. He didn’t think he could drive much longer. It was difficult just to stay in control of the vehicle, to keep it within the lines. He felt himself swerving into the wrong lane, toward oncoming traffic. The car behind him honked again, perhaps thinking he was drunk or falling asleep. He wished he were drunk. Anything to numb the pain.

He drove for miles. He wasn’t sure how he managed to, but he did, even as his condition became more serious. Houses, buildings, trees flew by him like mirages. He had no concept of time, of how long he’d been traveling. All he knew was that something else seemed to be in control. He had tried several times to pull over, onto the shoulder of the road, to let the traffic pass him. But he couldn’t. Maybe the wheel was stuck. Maybe it couldn’t be turned. But that was impossible. He had rounded a few curves, it had swiveled effortlessly then. It—

“Mom, Mom, why? . . .”

“Sssshh, honey. Be quiet. We just have to hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

“But, Mom. Why? Why won’t . . . ?”

The voices weren’t clear. But he recognized them. How could he not? Sharon, and Mollie. Why was he hearing them? They weren’t here. Sharon was at work, wasn’t she? And Mollie. Mollie would be in school. She had just started the second grade. She was excited, eager to get back to her school friends, looking forward to new adventures, new vistas.

Another sheet of pain flared and exploded along his nerve endings. Had someone taken a razor blade and sliced open his left side? He actually looked down, checking for blood, sure that he would see the beige fabric of the seat stained with red. But there was nothing. No hint of a wound, no evidence of an attack.

He felt the car swerve again, and he righted his course just in the nick of time. An 18-wheeler whined past, in the other lane, honking an accusatory horn at him.

“What is this?” he said. “What’s happening to me?” He needed to get control of himself, right now. If he kept this up, he would be a candidate for a soft-cushioned room with calming pastorals hanging from the walls.

An intersection was coming up. He didn’t know which one, but it didn’t matter. He was determined to turn off of this road. He’d had enough of it.

But when he saw the street sign, he reconsidered. Blakely Avenue. Unless he had a good reason otherwise, he avoided Blakely. It was a nightmare—a congested mess, a snarl of traffic jams, of hot metal, bumper-to-bumper, broiling in the midday sun, matched by the hot tempers of the motorists. Every week, there was an accident. Better to wait until the next intersection, and turn off there.

For some reason, though, he merged into the left-hand turn lane, and flicked on his signaler.

“No!” he said. “I’m going straight.” He tried to turn the signaler off, but it was stuck. He fought with the wheel, trying to force it to the right. It wouldn’t budge. It didn’t matter anyway. The lane next to him had filled with cars. He was trapped. He had to take the left turn now.

“This is unreal.”

The left-hand turn arrow flashed green, and he turned onto Blakely, merging into the extreme outside lane, past a gas station with a sign by the road boasting of fresh sub sandwiches and soft drinks inside. He swore under his breath. This was unreal. Ahead of him, through the maze of cars, he could see a long line of fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, and chain stores. And, coming up on the right, the mall. The largest mall in the city. He hated it, and yet . . .

A hammer blow to his head sent him reeling. He desperately needed some painkillers. The mall would have a drug store inside.

He inched along, crawling with the traffic, before stopping at a red light. The mall’s entrance was just ahead now. He signaled for a right-hand turn, and, intuitively, knew that the steering wheel would oblige this time. A chill ran through him, as if someone had just poured five gallons of ice water into a gaping wound. Now the water rushed through him, mixing with his blood, freezing him to the core. There was something about this spot. Something familiar. Something . . .

“Something what?” he said. There were two cars ahead of him. As luck would have it, the car in front was going straight, blocking his chance for a right-on-red.

Anxious, fidgety, having a hard time just sitting there, not being able to make sense of anything, he glanced toward a strip of grass that lay just beyond the sidewalk, in front of the mall parking lot, and spotted a small gathering of people—about a dozen of them. (Where had they come from? Had they been there a minute ago?) They were all looking down, hands joined. Solemn. That was the word. They were solemn. And they were . . . He blinked. Again. And again. That confirmed it. They weren’t all there. It sounded crazy, but that was the only way he could describe it. He was sure he could see the sun rays hitting them, traveling through them, as if they were composed more of air than of flesh-and-blood organic matter.

He felt inexplicably drawn to them, almost as if they exerted a force, compelling him to join them. But he didn’t want to. The idea of it was intolerable. He wasn’t sure why, but he was determined to resist. He would just go into the mall, buy his pills, then get out.

The light finally turned, and he drove past the people who were there, yet not there, and pulled into the mall parking lot. His head was getting worse, if that were possible, and the pain in his side was unrelenting.

He struggled out of the car, the world losing its focus as he stood up. He grabbed his side, doubled over, coughed. He was in even worse shape than he’d thought. If he wasn’t careful, he’d pass out right here, on the asphalt. He had to pull himself together, buy those painkillers. He needed to focus only on that one goal.

But the people gathered near the lot entrance made that impossible. He glanced back in their direction, his view of them only slightly obstructed by a row of shrubs flanking the perimeter of the parking lot. He could see their bowed heads above the shrubbery, the specter-like quality of their skin. Again, he felt a powerful urge to go to them.

“No,” he said. “I can’t. I won’t.”

He closed his eyes, turned away from them, and then dared to open his eyes again.

“Don’t look back,” he said. “Just get those pills. You’re all right. You’re okay.”

But he wasn’t okay, and the mere act of walking was a struggle. He concentrated, willed his feet to move, one step, two, three. Left foot in front of the right, right in front of the left. He tried not to look too far ahead. He didn’t want to be discouraged by the distance he still had to cover. So he focused on the ground directly in front of him. A single step was an accomplishment, navigating a foot of pavement a victory.

Finally, he pushed his way through the doors of the mall. It was crowded in here, but at least the drug store was close—the second store on the left. He dodged a band of teenagers who seemed oblivious to anyone but themselves, and staggered into the drug store, heading straight to the nonprescription painkiller aisle. He wanted to find the most potent product on the shelf, but it was not possible to be discriminating. His head felt like it would blow up in a minute; his side was a minefield of live ammunition. He grabbed the first package he saw with the words “extra strength” written on it.

He leaned against the shelf, dizzy now, on top of everything else. The store was spinning, spinning. Another bomb burst exploded in his head, and a thousand nails poked and prodded his left side. He was aware of noises, sounds. Where were they coming from? Beeps. A soft, whirring hum, like a faint heartbeat. An antiseptic smell. And then voices . . .

“Christopher . . . can you hear me?” Sharon. Why was he hearing Sharon?

“Dad, Dad . . .”

“Mollie,” he said, closing his eyes. “Mollie, but you’re in school. Aren’t you?”

More voices, blurring, blending, like a musical score gone out of control.

“Faster! Hurry! Move!” A strange voice, this one. It sounded like a young man. “You gotta go faster! Hurry!”

“Good morning, Mr. Burriss.” A woman’s voice, one he had never heard before. Or maybe he had. He couldn’t tell. “Sunny today. About time, too. After all this rain.” And then he heard her footsteps, walking away, growing fainter, then coming closer, louder again. He felt her—how could he feel her? Fingers brushing against his forehead, slightly moist, the smell of soap . . .

“Dad!” Mollie again.

And then Sharon, “Christopher, honey . . .”

And the frantic screaming of the young guy. “Move it! Hurry, hurry!”

“Shut up!” he yelled. He rammed the palm of his hand against his head, once, twice, three times. “Just . . . shut . . . up.”

He tried to walk, the store still doing cartwheels in front of his eyes. He groped, like a blind man, using the shelves as support. Glancing at the checkout counter, he saw a ponytailed blonde in a blue smock ringing up a heavyset man. Two old women stood in line behind him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I can’t. I don’t have the strength.”

He wasn’t a crook, but there was no way he could wait for the cashier to check out those customers. He’d collapse right there in the line. He needed the pills now. He needed relief now. Pocketing the bottle of painkillers, he left, as quickly as he could.

Stumbling out into the mall, he found a nearby drinking fountain, and swallowed half a dozen of the pills. There. Hopefully that would take the edge off. But what could he do about his throat? Why was it getting so hard to breathe? And his eyesight. Why was everything spinning? Why were his surroundings growing hazier? The passersby were now two-dimensional, black-and-white. The color itself was being drained from the world.

“Need to get out of here,” he said. “I just need to get home.”

“Dad . . .” Mollie again, but her voice fainter now, farther away. “Dad . . .”

He wanted to follow that voice, go to it, but how could he do that? It was a hallucination. Wasn’t it?

It seemed to take hours to reach his car. He could barely see now. Shapes were merging together, blurring—so much so that the spinning had stopped, or perhaps it hadn’t. He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. Except that his side and head continued to torment him. The painkillers hadn’t helped at all. If anything, the pain was getting worse.

He looked straight ahead, through the mounting haze. Beyond the shrubs. the small gathering of people still stood there, heads bowed. And again, the force—he didn’t know what else to call it—urging him, prodding him to join them.

He shook his head, put his hands over his eyes. No. It was the only word he could think of. No. No. No. He wouldn’t succumb to their mesmerizing hold on him.

But then he was looking at them again. (How did that happen? He hadn’t remembered taking his hands away from his eyes.) Only, he wasn’t just looking. He was staring, riveted. Something was different about them now. They no longer looked like wraiths. They had fleshed out, like sketched characters who had received a finishing touch of paint. As the rest of the world dissolved, the gatherers became more solid.

“Dad . . . dad . . .dad . . .”

“Chris . . .Chris?”

The voices, fading . . .

As if tugged by a magnet, he walked toward the group. He could no longer resist their pull, had no strength left to fight it. There was a sense of inevitability now, of things coming to an end. Or perhaps a beginning. Somewhere overhead, he thought he heard a gull sqwauk, but maybe it had been a crow or a jay, or nothing at all.

As he neared the patch of grass where the gatherers stood, hands still joined, the pain in his head and side escalated to an intolerable crescendo. It no longer felt like knives cutting into him. Now it felt like metal, jagged teeth, rusty but sharp, gripping, biting, eviscerating. And his head. Was it even still there, attached to his shoulders? Or had it burst into pieces like shrapnel?

He fell to his knees, gasping—so hard to breathe. And finally the people let go of their hands, broke the circle, and approached him. He was aware, yet not aware, of the traffic noise in the road. It sounded like the hum from some other world, some gap in a dimensional barrier. But then another sound emerged, near, close, and horribly loud.

Tires screeching. Get out of the way! Too late, too late . . .

Impact. The feeling of being torn, broken, trapped in a heap of wrecked metal. Pain, flaring, shooting through his body. His head on fire. His side a shattered mess. And his last thought before the blackness came . . . Mollie. Sharon. What will they do?

The people were upon him, the only figures left that were real. And he understood now why this spot felt so familiar. Why he had experienced a chill of recognition when he’d reached the parking lot entrance . . .

“Hello, Chris,” a bald man with a gray mustache and a long, beak-like nose, said.

“How do you know my name?” he asked. And he realized, as he stood up, that the pain was gone now. Not lessened, not dulled. Gone. And his breathing had returned to normal, an easy, gentle rhythm. He had never felt better.

“We just do,” the man said. Apparently he was the group’s leader.

“What’s happened to me?” he wanted to know. The sound of the traffic was now completely muted. He could still see the cars, the road, the mall behind him in the distance, but they were outlines now, light pencil marks blending in with the empty white space of the blank page.

A middle-aged woman with short black hair and a pleasant smile said, “You know now, don’t you, Chris?”

He again remembered the screeching tires, the never-ending second before impact. He had been pulling out of the mall—he’d come here to meet an old friend who wanted to meet for lunch at the Food Court, a long-lost buddy, out of the blue. The other car never even attempted to stop, never slowed down. . . . He had been preoccupied, thinking about the visit with his friend, the way life sometimes threw curveballs at you, reintroduced you to people you knew once, and then almost forgot. He hadn’t looked left or right, he just went when the light had turned green.

“But the voices. The . . .” Then he stopped himself. It all came clear. Sharon. How he wished he could kiss her again, hold her, just one more time. And Mollie. Sweet, pretty Mollie . . .

“You fought hard, Chris,” the old man said. “Very hard. You almost made it, against the odds.”

“Who are you people?” he said.

“As you are all too well aware, Blakely Avenue is a busy road,” the old man said. “It’s taken its share.”

“You mean . . .?”

“I was killed in sixty-six, the year after they put the first shopping plaza in,” the old man said. “Hit right near where you were. Drunk driver got me.”

“I was blindsided about a quarter mile down the road,” a young guy, who looked no more than twenty, said. “Never even saw it coming.”

“I was hit by a truck,” the middle-aged woman with short black hair said. “My car was wrecked beyond recognition.”

On and on they went, a dozen accounts in all. And now, he would join them. When the next time came, perhaps next week, or next year, or three years hence, he would relate his story, along with theirs.

“We’ve got to stick together, you know,” the old man said. “Wouldn’t be right otherwise.”

“But Sharon. And Mollie. Will I . . .?”

The man nodded, smiled. “Yes. Of course. In due season.” He extended a hand. Chris, reassured, took it. Then the black-haired woman reached for his other hand.

They formed into a line, all thirteen of them, and, with hands clasped, walked away into the distance.

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Worlds without End

Have you ever been somewhere, just some random place on a normal, nondescript day, when, all of a sudden, it hits you?  You blink, once, twice, three times, trying to reorient your senses.  You look more closely at your surroundings, inspecting every detail, hoping to prove–or disprove–your suspicions.  But no matter what you do, or where you look, or how you try to rationalize, the conclusion is inescapable.

catsdejavu

You know you’ve lived this moment before.

Deja vu is a phenomenon that science has never been able to explain with certainty.  It has tried, of course.  Many theories exist.  Perhaps memory itself is the root of the feeling.  Maybe, in moments of deja vu, we are remembering something similar, something partial–unable to make the necessary links to complete the picture.  Maybe there is a rational, scientific, perfectly logical explanation to all cases of deja vu.

memory

Or maybe the answers are not so cut-and-dried.  Certainly, to anyone who has felt a strong sense of “having been there before” when they, in actuality, never have, an explanation of faulty memory or a perception that somehow has gone momentarily haywire might not satisfy.

I know it has never satisfied me.  I have experienced deja vu several times, but there was one episode in particular that stands out from the rest.

I was in a store I had never visited.  I knew this to be true because I had never even been to the town in which this store was located.  It was an old-fashioned country store, in the hills of southern Vermont, the kind of place you might expect to see in a Norman Rockwell painting, with hardwood floors, exposed ceiling beams, and an antique cash register, behind which stood a bespectacled woman with snow-white hair and a welcoming smile.

countrystore

Immediately, upon entering, the feeling hit me, an almost out-of-body sensation.  In my mind’s eye, I saw myself–months ago, years ago?–walking down the aisles, browsing the merchandise, the dull thud of my shoes echoing against the sturdy wooden planks on the floor.  And when the woman behind the register waved, said, “Nice day, thanks for comin’ in,” I knew, knew, she had said those exact words to me before.

hardwoodfloor

I took a deep breath, my head swirling.  I nearly walked out, then and there.  It was too strange, too uncanny.  I paused, thought . . . was I mistaken?  After all, I had been to several country stores throughout Vermont.  Maybe I’d forgotten.  Maybe I had visited this town, this store.  But no.  I was sure of it.  This was the first time.

vermontmap

I walked down one of the aisles, knowing what I would see before I saw it.  I turned into the next aisle, still feeling as if I were somehow hovering above, unseen, a film projector in hand, recording the past, yet playing it simultaneously, the very fabric of time wrapping in and around itself, with me stranded in its spinning, whirling center.  How could this be?  How could my memory of an event that had never transpired be so specific, so actual?

timewrapping

I purchased a small item, checked out.  When the clerk rang me up, I knew what she was going to say.  “Come back and see us again soon.”  I nodded, thanked her, and quickly left.  I have never been back.

Or, perhaps, without knowing it, I have. . . .

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

The Eye-Dancers, among other things, explores the concept of parallel worlds, of a layered reality, where universes lie, side by side, without any knowledge of each other.  And in these parallel worlds, we have other selves, other versions who go about their days and their lives, just as we do, running errands, picking up the mail, going to the dentist on rainy November mornings–most likely convinced that their universe is unique, the only one in all creation.

novemberrain

In The Eye-Dancers, after journeying through the void and while exploring the variant town of Colbyville, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are confronted with these issues head-on.  And while discussing their plight, Marc offers this explanation, from chapter 12 . . .

“Everything in existence fits together. . . . The smallest subatomic particle, the worst hurricane, the largest whale, the layers upon layers of reality.  All of it.  And what quantum mechanics tells us is–there are infinitely multiple versions of each of us.  Infinitely multiple versions of our earth.  You couldn’t even begin to count them all.”

whale

Such an idea is difficult for the other boys to grasp, and Marc does admit:  “Infinity will blow your mind if you let it.”  But, given their situation, it is something they think about often.

In chapter 13, in a quiet moment, Joe Marma ponders it all.  The text reads:

“He thought about what Kuslanski had said earlier–worlds upon worlds, onward through infinity.  Each of us scattered throughout the various realities like fallen leaves from the same tree.”

treeleaves

Indeed, might this be the real reason behind deja vu?  Could it be when we feel a strong sensation of having done something we haven’t done, seen something we haven’t seen . . . could it be that some small, hidden aspect of our subconscious mind is remembering an event one of our alternate selves experienced?

subconsciousmind

Marc Kuslanski considers just this in chapter 18 . . .

“It made him wonder.  What we call the subconscious–how much of it is derived from other worlds, other selves, spread out through time and space?  How much of who we are, what we know, is but a small piece, interlocking with an ever-expanding, layered puzzle of an infinity of existences?”

interlockingpuzzles

Far-fetched?  Outlandish?  Perhaps.  But impossible?  Nothing is impossible.  So, you see, maybe I had in fact visited that Rockwell-esque country store before, after all.  And maybe I have again since . . .

. . . in a world far, far away, beyond the sign posts of our reality.  And yet, so close, close enough to almost remember, to almost touch and see.

Close enough that, if we listen, really listen, we can occasionally hear its echoes speaking to us, like soft whispers in the dark.

wormhole

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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.

trivialpursuit

 

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.)

ingridbergman

 

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.)

antartica

 

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?

catthinking

 

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

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.

equations

 

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.”

scientificdiscovery

 

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.

technology

 

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.

smartphones

 

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.

starsinsky

 

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.

grainsofsand

 

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. . . .

lookinpast

 

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.

thesun

 

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.

pinhead

 

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.

logic

 

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.

mystery

 

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.”

starstuff

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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