Lessons I learned writing my first novel
(I have yet to finish editing it, and I don't plan on letting anyone read it, but I can tell you the writing of it was an excellent learning experience :] )
BEFORE I share with you my questionable pearls of wisdom:
Neil Gaiman talks about having a "compost pile". Have a notebook where you keep all your new story ideas, or write lil short stories with new characters. Like you're allowed to do other projects while you write your main book. If it's just fatigue from sticking to one thing, deem Sunday's your "fun write" day or something where you just write a lil short story in like 1-2 hours to get it out of your system, and then through the week work on your main book.
Include character ideas for new stories as background characters, or introduce them halfway through your novel as a new point of conflict or something.
Now, what I learned from my own writing:
I have found that setting too many rules for myself sucks the fun out of the process. Let yourself "free-write". Be ridiculous. Make yourself laugh. Have fun. Know who your character is, and then just invent madness and pretend its you reacting to those situations.
After some time, you'll develop a style. You may not spot it right away, but going back and reading through 200 pages you wrote, you'll notice where you break your style, at least.
Once you feel like you have direction - whether that's after writing one page, ten, or thirty, take a minute and outline your plot. It's more important to know your characters. How would they react to X, and why? Based on what past experience, and what future dreams/goals? This directs their (re)actions in situations, no matter what you think up!
So, once you've got that, you can make an outline (if you want). This provides motivation for that "middle slump". Make today's goal writing page 102-115. Tomorrow's goal is 116-125. The weekend when you wanna spend more time? SPEED ROUND! pgs 126-140. You can worry about cleaning it up later. So instead of staring down a 250pg manuscript goal you set for yourself back at page 5 when you felt young and ambitious, you only have to write 5-10 pages a day.
Make it a habit, like your morning coffee or your evening tea.
If you're serious about churning out a book, make a rule to only watch TV on weekends or something. Dedicate that 1-2 hours in the evening to your goal. It feels pretty good, I promise. 5 pages a day doesn't seem like a lot, but in a month you've made some real progress.
Make a bullet point roadmap for yourself, in not-too-much detail; you'll fill in the blanks with the finer points as you come to them.
Throw a wrench in your character's plans. Those hopes and dreams they had? Crush them, and then have them recover. Or challenge them in some way. They shouldn't be a broken shell of a person, but they shouldn't be perfect/unstoppable either. Conflict = interest.
Feel free to re-read scenes to refresh yourself, but fight the urge to edit if you're writing your first draft of your novel. Why spend thirty minutes meticulously editing a page, only to decide it doesn't really belong in your story once you're done writing the next five chapters?
So...yeah. Have a blast. Let yourself feel like an absolute bonkers person - no one has to see those pages but you. Once you know you've got some solid material, polish it so it is a diamond and no longer a turd (though I'm sure it was suprememly delightful in its original state). :) [[kind of my take on Hemingway's "write drunk, edit sober" lol]]
“You can’t leave the fort until you say it, Emma” Adam said bossily. We had been friends for our entire childhood, and got on pretty well, and I had never known Adam to be a bully.
“What’s the point in saying it if it’s a lie,” I argued. The truth was, he was scaring me a little. At eleven years old I was old enough to know there were dark and mysterious forces in this world, but too young to tell how they worked, or to know the difference between harmless fun and Scary Stuff. And, when I was eleven, most stuff was Scary Stuff.
“C’mon, we’ll both be late for dinner if you don’t just say it.”
My knees were beginning to ache from kneeling on the boards of his treehouse. He and I were kneeling, facing each other, holding a weird shiny rock he had found that he insisted was a moonrock. When I had questioned the authenticity of such a rock, he’d told me last night when he let his puppy out back to do it’s business, there was a moonbeam, like a spotlight, shining in the middle of their lawn, and he saw this rock fall from the sky.
I’d wasted no time telling him I thought he was mental.
So here I was, holding a corner of a rock with my best friend, being told I’d be locked in the treehouse if I didn’t chant with him that aliens were real and we wished to be “taken to their leader”.
“What’s the chant again?” I asked him dully. Might as well get this over with, right? My mom was making baked Mac n’ Cheese, and I did not wanna be late for that.
“I wish, I wish, upon a star, for you to take me where you are. I believe that you are real, aliens, hear our appeal.” He looked at me with the utmost pride in his eyes.
“That is without a doubt the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Fine, if you like the treehouse that much,” he said grumpily, as he made to stand up.
“UGH. Fine. Get back down.” He obeyed with a smug little grin.
“You know it then?” He asked, and I nodded. “Okay, on three.”
“One,” I said.
“Two,” he said, eyes wide with excitement. I felt so incredibly foolish. As if anything was going to happen. We were gonna say this, stare at each other for a second, and then move on with our weird little lives.
“Three,” I said flatly, and then we both spoke in unison.
”I wish, I wish, upon a star, for you to take me where you are. I believe that you are real, aliens, hear our appeal.”
“Are you happy?” I asked him, smirking despite my annoyance.
“What’s that sound?” He asked. We were both still clutching the rock, and his eyes had grown wide as saucers.
“Lawn mower?” I said, a little nonplussed.
But he needn’t have told me. The rumbling and rattling had grown past the usual neighbourhood commotion. It was as though a transport truck was doing donuts around the treehouse. It grew from grumble, to rumble, to roar in a matter of seconds.
The boards under our knees began to rattle and shake. We were still holding onto the rock.
“What is that?” Adam yelled over the noise.
I finally let go of the rock, and went to the door of the treehouse to look out.
“Adam!” He came up beside me, peeking through the cutout in the wood door that we called a window.
I had no words for what we saw. It wasn’t what you’d expect a UFO to look like. It wasn’t a silver flying saucer with a little bubble type thing coming out of the top, like you might see in a space-themed comic book.
The shape of this was essentially a giant can of soup. A cylinder, black like onyx, with a slight sheen to it. Directly in front of the treehouse door, a small slit appeared. Whether it evaporated, or part of the wall retracted into itself, I’ve never known.
The roar died for a moment long enough for us to hear the hissed word that followed.
“At least the aliens speak English!” Adam said cheerfully.
The next few moments passed in a blur of motion that I was far too stunned to fight against. Before I knew what was happening to me, Adam had grabbed my hand, opened the treehouse door, and ignoring our step ladder literally just leapt into midair, trusting that there would be some sort of magical alien magnetic beam that would draw us onto the ship.
Apparently he knew what he was doing, because that’s exactly what happened.
The gap in the wall closed behind us, and the roar picked up again. For a painful two minutes or so, I felt like my eyeballs were being sucked into the back of my skull, and like someone was pushing down on the top of my head and my stomach all at once.
“We must be leaving the planet,” Adam said to me in an anguished voice. I guess that made sense, the air pressure would be pretty intense.
“There was a ride at Disney World like this, where you can see what it’s like for astronauts, and this is how it felt,” he explained. Fair enough, then.
After several minutes my brain returned to a functioning capacity, and I opened my eyes again. I realized I was still clutching Adam’s hand, and I quickly let go.
“I wonder if they came to take it back,” Adam mumbled. I looked at him inquisitively, and he held out his other hand to show me that he was still holding that stupid rock.
“Oh, my god. If it was that important, why would their stupid ship have crapped it out in the first place?”
“Maybe theirs didn’t,” he said with a shrug. With that, he stood up, looked around and decided on a direction, and started walking down a random hallway.
The inside of the ship was pretty nondescript. The walls were a beigy-grey colour, and were flat. No nooks, crannies, seams, screws, just flat wall. Here and there it was interrupted by a door, the kind of door you might expect to see in Star Wars. Sort of like a techy looking sliding panel, I guess. I didn’t watch the movies, but Adam loved them. I mean, he loved them. I kept cutting glances over at them, and he never stopped beaming.
“Stop,” said a hissing voice from behind us. We froze, but unable to face the idea of a creature slinking up behind us, I whipped around. Then I swallowed my laugh.
Slouching toward us was a creature that couldn’t have been higher than my waist (and I was eleven, after all). It looked like a cross between a mushroom and a monkey, with a big umbrella-like top to its head, complete with spots and freckles, but a relatively humanoid face. For it’s body the torso was like the stock of a mushroom, in that it was sort of pale and mushy looking despite also resembling a tree-trunk, but for arms and legs we were back to monkey.
As aliens go, it wasn’t too scary, and let me remind you that most stuff to eleven year old me was Scary Stuff.
“You have it?” The creature rasped out.
“Sorry, we didn’t mean to steal it,” Adam said earnestly, holding out the rock.
“How did you come to acquire it?” The being asked, turning to walk away. Adam immediately fell into step behind it, and I followed a little ways behind, listening. I wanted to go home. I didn’t want to be floating through space talking about a pebble while my mom and dad wondered why I hadn’t come home for macaroni night.
“It fell into my yard, where you brought us on board. It had light all around it, so I picked it up.”
“Why would it have chosen you?”
“I don’t know. What is it?” Adam was trotting to keep up with the creature now, and I reluctantly struggled to keep pace with them. We had backtracked to where Adam and I had first been brought on board, and were now heading down a separate hallway. This one had black walls and red floor, and I couldn’t help but think that in movies, those colours meant they were the bad guys. This hallway had many more doors off it, and I really hoped one of them didn’t lead to prison cells or something. I hadn’t seen as many space movies as Adam had. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was beginning to feel genuinely scared. My breath was feeling more ragged, and my eyes felt bugged out (though that could have been from them almost exploding or whatever a few minutes before).
“It is one of the ancient crystals. Each solar system has but a few, forged in the hearts of stars. The lore informs us that whomever the crystal is bestowed upon must play their part in our history, on the intergalactic scale.” The creature was still speaking at barely above a whisper, and I almost missed what he was saying over the sound of my panting to keep up. Luckily, we seemed to have arrived at our destination, and my gosh it was a strange thing to behold.
We were standing in what can only be described as the bridge of the ship. Soup can. Ship. Whatever.
We were surrounded by about twenty of these mushroom-monkey-men, all milling about their various duties. As you’d hope, there was a giant window or screen (who’s to say, with these things?) which seemed to be plotting our course and providing various information. While the mushroom-man who’d accompanied us so far had been speaking English, the text on the screen was illegible to me.
“Sorry, did you say intergalactic scale?” I said, addressing the creature for the first time.
“Indeed, child,” it said to me in a grave voice. “We will be taking you to the council.”
“No, we can’t go. We have to get home,” I said shrilly. The creature had said Adam had to play out his fate here or whatever. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in a soup can. We were both so young, that was a long time to spend away from home. Would our parents never hear from us again? Would they organize search parties, doomed to live with grief and panic instead of their children?
“You have no choice, child. If they have a short task for you, you may perhaps return home some day. It is for the Masters and the Oracle to decide.”
“I’ve heard about Oracles,” said Adam enthusiastically.
“I don’t think reading Percy Jackson counts this time,” I said to him quietly. He ignored me.
“All this because he picked up a rock?!” Listen, I hadn’t meant to yell at the mushroom-monkey-men. But fear, anger, and hysteria sometimes decide to plunk you in the passenger seat in life, and you find yourself in the midst of losing your crap. It was of course a mistake to give way, for the mushroom-monkey-men did not take kindly to hostility.
“Rock? You have an honour bestowed upon you that many hope for, train for, live for for their entire lives, and this is the gratitude you can muster? No. No, child. You will be grateful. You will fulfil your quest, or whatever the oracle and council see fit to shoulder you with.” The hissing was awful - not quite a full whisper, or a rasp, but not really a voice either. It was like nails on a chalkboard, and made me want to punch the creature in his stupid head. His eyes were boring into mine now, beady, milky purple eyes that looked like they contained galaxies of their own but also cataracts.
“For now, we shall keep you away from here, so we can work.” And with that the being led us back off the bridge down the hall a little ways, seeming to be deciding which door to open.
“Can we at least get a room with a window?” Adam said, with the hope of a child asking to open just one present on Christmas Eve. “I’ve never seen space before, not like this.”
“Indeed, you should become acquainted with it,” said the being, seeming to weigh Adam’s comment quite heavily.
He finally selected a door, and we were told to wait in a little chamber with a window instead of a wall. I barely took note of the fact that despite being on a soup-can-space-ship the table and chairs and solitary lamp looked like they were from ikea.
Instead, I went immediately and wordlessly to the window, with Adam right beside me. We were floating through a sea of stars. That was the only way I knew how to describe it. They were above us, below us, behind us, in front of us, to the side...engulfing the very matter in which we existed. They shone, while seeming to give off very little actual light. They twinkled, various specks of silver and yellow and blue and purple, and despite my lack of interest in science fiction movies that Adam loved, I finally understood why he loved the night sky. It seemed to suggest infinity, possibility, both hope and despair, everything and nothing. And it was beautiful.
There was a knocking at the door, but I couldn’t turn around to see who was coming in. The knocking continued, but my vision was blurring at the edges. The stars faded from view, and so did the window.
It was all black and blurred, and still the knocking continued.
“Emma, come on, come out of there. It’s unlocked.”
I didn’t remember the alien knowing my name. The blackness was everywhere. I couldn’t see. I felt my head lightly rolling against something, some kind of hard surface.
“Emma, are you still in there? Open the door.”
I lifted my head, and opened my eyes. I was laying on the floor of Adam’s treehouse, where he had locked me in the night before. I was clutching the white moonrock he’d found – i remembered now. My stubbornness had won out, and I’d stayed the night in the fort. His stubbornness had won out in that he’d left me there, but at least he’d slept in a comfortable bed.
Next to me on the ground was an empty can, one from what we called our “rations” or emergency store of food that wouldn’t really go bad if left in a treehouse.
Apparently I’d treated myself to cold, canned mushroom soup for dinner.
One Level Down
(writing prompt: you board an elevator of strangers and someone says “thank you all for coming”— I just kind of ran with this one lol I didn't take it too seriously)
“So I bet you are wondering why I’ve asked you here,” said the woman in the red overcoat.
I had been planning this specific trip to my university’s library for about two weeks now. I had placed a hold on a rare copy of a book you could only read in-house, and I had been notified of the date of my viewing. It was in a temperature-controlled basement room, and to be honest, I had been feeling pretty great about the whole experience. Like this made me a Real Scholar, or something.
It was a book on the archeological findings at a famous site in China. I was writing a paper on how a report provided by women versus men often offered different focal points of the ideas of the ancient society, or different perspectives on that society all together. For example, you might get a bigger focus in a report on home life rather than warfare. That was the department’s hope, anyway. This was of course a research question posed by the department, and I had been wondering what on earth could be so different in two reports filed on the finding of a hairbrush, but anyway. The temperature-controlled room sounded cool, and I was all about that academic aesthetic. I kind of felt like it was part of some Indiana Jones movie, doing research of relics and ancient peoples, being involved in the ongoing discourse around history, the relationship between a person digging up some ancient artifact in a remote land, and then tourists paying pocket change to stare at it for five seconds.
So, you can imagine my surprise when, crammed on an old elevator with several other people in various states of exhaustion, digging for gum in my overflowing backpack to eradicate the taste of crappy cafeteria coffee on my breath, the woman spoke.
No one said anything for a couple seconds.
“Really, no one is curious?” She pressed.
“We got your memo, ma’am,” said one of the young men in a baggy sweatshirt.
“Didn’t think to question it,” said another.
“Headquarters told me yesterday, I flew out immediately,” said a girl in a voice simply dripping with a thirst to prove herself. It’s worth mentioning that we were six Americans standing in an elevator in London, England.
“Good,” said the woman in the red coat.
“Why a library,” whined the first boy. “I thought joining up meant a life of excitement, not…books.”
I had to hide my grin, not wanting to be caught. I don’t know if they knew I didn’t know what was happening, but I’ll tell you: I didn’t. I was intrigued though, and figured it wouldn’t hurt to pretend I was one of them for a little while.
“Well, I assume you all brought your paperwork with you, so we won’t waste any time getting started. I’ve booked the main room down here for one hour, so let’s be sharp, got it?” The woman in red spoke with an authority that was positively presidential. We fell in line like soldiers as the elevator doors creaked open, and she marched down a carpeted hall to what looked like a conference room.
I was beginning to question my new plan, realizing I’d miss my viewing of the book if I stayed too long with these strangers, when someone spoke in my ear. “I haven’t seen you before, but it’s nice to have another girl on the team. Wanna sit next to me?”
“Okay,” I whispered back.
“I’m Anna,” she said with a smile.
“Ivy,” I whispered back.
“Sit,” said the woman in the red coat, as we entered the conference room. She stood at the front and fired up her laptop, and had it projecting onto the screen in a couple of seconds. Images of old manuscripts and letters filled the screen, all too faint to read properly.
“So, I want you to go around the room really quickly, tell me your names, and your departments,” she commanded, turning quickly to the young man sitting to her left.
“Brandon, fact checking,” he said.
“Adam, restoration,” said the one who had whined that it was a library job.
“Jake, archeology.” This one shocked me, since he was dressed like a stoner that thought pop music would be the death of culture but was secretly in love with Taylor Swift. Maybe they were all disguised look like students, to blend on campus or something…
I gulped. I was sweating now, the skin behind my knees prickling inside my tights. Clearly this was some official thing – the power suit the boss lady had been hiding under her red coat was proof of that enough. The skater skirt I had on was okay, and my baggy green knit sweater hid the Captain America t-shirt underneath, and my combat boots hid my Dr. Who socks…but I still felt massively out of place. The space buns hairstyle really was the cherry on top. The epitome of e-girl wannabe, nerdy art student, who’d invited herself to this meeting. I gulped again. “Ivy, sociology,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t shake.
“Anna, state department,” the other girl said directly after I’d spoken. She looked polished too, like an intern at a high end tech company or something. Wait. Did she say state department?
“Great, and I’m Dr. Grayson, here on behalf of, well, a few people. Important people. Okay. Let’s get started. The short version is that the manuscripts you see on this screen are actually fakes, and we have to prove it. The long version is that they were pulled from a recent dig at a site said to house artifacts from the Byzantine empire, and they are to be displayed at the British Museum next month. It’s a political scheme. In essence, the scientists pushing these documents want to present them to the public as proof that an archaic and brutal form of biochemical warfare was commonly used before, in order to try to naturalize it into the minds of civilians, in hopes that if it’s used later they won’t deem it a warcrime that came out of nowhere.” With that, Dr. Grayson began handing out papers around the table, giving us a moment to digest.
What the hell had I walked into. I needed to go. I had to get out of there. But how was I supposed to leave without them knowing I didn’t belong? On the other hand, how was I supposed to sit here and listen to the rest of this and then try to walk away, having heard all their plans? Either way I felt like I was done for. I could feel the sweat prickling my armpits and the backs of my knees, and my toes felt slick inside my shoes. My stomach felt acidic, and I could feel it churning and roiling. I was sure Jake and Anna on either side of me could hear my heart palpitating and my breath coming in short, uneven rasps.
“Your handouts outline the task ahead of us. Of course the lawyers are already trying to handle the scientists putting this research forward as legitimate, so we’re not really going to focus on the publicity angle ourselves. Our focus is to prove that this document is a fake. We’re going to analyze it, and we’ll have to dig up some research on warfare of the time, but we’ll also be dispatching our own team to the dig site. We want to see what other artifacts or things they supposedly dug up there. Anything we can do to discredit this.”
“Right, so Brandon and I can team up, if you want,” Adam said.
“I’d hoped so. You two can work on trying to disprove the authenticity of these artifacts. They’re here actually, in the other room. Being cared for. The staff here put them in the maps room.”
Holy crap…what had I walked into. I had known choosing to go to university in London would be exiting, but I had never dreamed that I’d be in a meeting with American government officials disputing the authenticity of a relic relating to ancient warcrimes. I thought I’d be reading Shakespeare and arguing essays from Ophelia’s perspective…stuff like that. Saying that Lady Macbeth could be construed as a hero, given women’s issues of the times. Not…this.
“So, that leaves Jake, Anna, and Ivy,” Dr. Grayson was saying, “Perfect. We’ll get on the jet, and we should be at the dig in about three hours. You’ll be fitted with the proper tools, of course.”
Oh my god. Oh my god. Why had I followed them off that elevator?
An hour later I was seated between Jake and Anna on a very small airplane, taking off from Heathrow.
“So, state department, huh? Couldn’t stand to let actual scientists get some work done without a babysitter?” Jake tossed this scornfully at Anna, ignoring me who was awkwardly slumped in my seat and wishing I didn’t exist.
“Unsupervised scientists are exactly what created this mess, dumbo.”
“Wow, I can’t believe you called me that. Dumbo. Ouch. How am I going to be able to focus on my work, with a wound so deep?”
“Ugh,” Anna rolled her eyes, and turned to look out her window. And by god, I wish she hadn’t, because Jake turned to me instead.
“Cute hair, by the way. You blended in really well. Sociology, you said? What’s your area?” I gulped, my throat feeling like it was made of carpet. I was an introvert to begin with, so honest conversation with strangers posed enough of a challenge. But this was another beast entirely.
“Im interested in women’s suffrage,” I squeaked.
“Of course you are. No, I didn’t mean your disguise,” he said with a laugh. He must have mistaken my anxiety for anger, because he followed with “I mean, we’re all into women’s rights. Don’t get me wrong. I just meant…like…what’s your speciality, like why’d you get put on this specific case?”
I wracked my brains so hard I wondered if it was possible to inflict a concussion that way.
“I was in the middle of conducting research on how different teams of anthropologists or archeologists can influence the public image of ancient societies, based on publication and subsequent publicity.”
“Oh, so you’re from the office of public affairs, basically,” he said in a bored voice.
“Have you ever been to a dig before?” Anna asked, sounding politely interested. I simply shook my head.
“Okay, no worries, Jake and I can handle the grunt work, and you can focus on your write-up. I’m sure you’ve got a tight deadline for this.” I smiled appreciatively, blown away that my answer had satisfied them and terrified of making things worse.
“Wait, I thought Grayson said we weren’t covering the publicity, that they had lawyers on it,” Jake said.
“It’s more academics,” I said vaguely, and they nodded as though this meant something significant.
Thank the lord we spent the rest of the flight in relative silence, reading through the documents Grayson had handed out. They really just outlined procedures for the dig site, and our capacity there, but Anna had assured me I could just linger to a side with a laptop if I wanted.
We touched down in Genoa around three in the afternoon.
At least if it was my last day as a free citizen on this earth, I could say I’d gone to Italy with a frankly quite attractive scientist boy. Not a bad last day, as these things go. With mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it was absolutely breathtaking. If I hadn’t been in the middle of an hours-long panic attack, I think it would have been the best day of my life.
Off the plane, we got into an SUV right there on the tarmac, and as I watched the scenery slip from urban to rural I wondered what had inspired these fake scientists or whatever to even want to do this. What kind of biochemical warfare were they suggesting? Dr. Grayson hadn’t said, and none of the paperwork had said it either. I suppose the others back in London would decode it from the manuscripts, if that’s what they were doing, but…
“So you’re here to report on us, Anna tells me. I was wondering who you were," Grayson spoke in a quiet voice from the front seat. I said nothing, feeling like my throat was going to swell shut in panic. Was I busted? Would they tie rocks to my feet and toss me out to sea?
“I don’t blame you for not wanting to speak up until we were on our way. The bureaucrats never want the researchers involved, but then they get mad when the researchers say something they don’t like, so what’s the point? You may as well be here and get the proper intel.” She swivelled in the front seat to face me. “Don’t make me regret it, got it?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said in what I hoped was a winning voice. I saw a smirk tugging at the corners of Jake’s mouth, and tried to soothe the raging panic in my head and stomach.
The dig site was honestly kind of disappointing. I had built it up in my head to look like a whole government facility built on a crater in the ground, with tents, scaffolding, desks, the works. But nope. This was just a crater in the ground, with a couple of ropes spanning the width of it here and there, I guess to mark the split between sections or something. That, and a couple of stools and ladders, and it was your run-of-the-mill pit.
“You’ll want this. Don’t forget the back of the neck,” Jake said, handing me a tube of sunscreen.
“Oh, thanks,” I said, smirking as I took a bit and passed it on to Anna, who began vigorously rubbing some into her face and arms.
“Tools are in the trunk, I’ll be in the car as I have to update the Upstairs. Private phone call, you get it. Get to work,” Grayson said. Anna sprung into action. It was like she was racing Jake to get the tools and pick a spot first, wanting to beat him at every turn.
“You’re not even a real archeologist,” he grumbled, leaving my side to gather his equipment.
“Tell that to the state department,” she called, and he looked pissed that she’d heard.
“Which state, even?” He asked.
I said nothing, letting them bicker. I went to the trunk and peered in, seeing a stack of coveralls. I picked on up to inspect it, thinking it might be nice to cover up my outfit that was feeling less and less professional by the second.
“Good thinking,” Anna said, grabbing a pair herself. All suited up, she pulled a laptop out of a bag and passed it to me.
“Here ya go, I guess you didn’t get a chance to bring yours.”
“Is there internet here?” I asked.
“Yep, car acts as a router. High tech,” she said with a wink. I took the computer from her silently.
The three of us trudged back to the pit, where the other two lost no time hopping in and surveying their turf.
“So,” I said awkwardly, “we’re supposed to see if we can find any other manuscripts? Or anything suggesting biochemical warfare?”
“Partly, yeah. I’m also going to be inspecting the dig site itself to try to disprove that they found any paper substances. Particles left behind, impressions in the ground, you know.” Jake was nodding his head, hands on his hip, looking like my dad about to mow the lawn on Sunday morning.
“You can do that?” I asked. He laughed, seeming to think I was being facetious. I wasn’t, I was just clueless, but I guess I’m glad he didn’t see it.
“I’ll just watch you both work for a while, and then I’ll start my write up. I need to observe to figure out my angle.” I tried to muster as much authority in my voice as possible, as though I’d done this kind of thing before.
“Yeah, okay,” Anna said absently. A couple of minutes later and some awkward waiting with my hands in my pockets, laptop waiting on a stool, the others had picked work spots and gotten to it.
The silence was broken only by the sound of shifting dirt, and the occasional ruffle or grunt from one of them. Subtle glances back to the car suggested that Grayson may not be joining us in the pit at all, which was a relief. I watched as Jake poked and prodded at the ground, a look of deep concentration on his face, compared to Anna’s digging with all the fervour of a child told to find treasure in a sandbox.
There was nothing for it. I went over to the stool, opened the laptop, and started typing. I wrote of the bureaucratic nature of science, as Grayson had put it in the car, and how publication could really be a business. How people had to fight to get their ideas heard. How certain things were deemed more or less important to the government for example, versus the public sphere.
Basically, I sat in coveralls, on a stool in a pit in Genoa, Italy, and wrote my term paper.
I tried to spin it so that the finding of a hairbrush, or a kitchen tool, would be treated very differently than the finding of a weapon, and whether or not it was a man or woman who discovered it really made no difference. Both men and women work in bureaucratic systems and in academics in today’s world, and both have access to controlling information. I wrote something like that, hoping if Grayson checked what I’d been working on, she’d see it as a government report on academia, since that was my only thread of legitimacy to work with where these strangers were concerned. After I finished I quickly emailed it to myself, hoping no-one would notice, and then I could just email my professor saying I couldn’t see the book I was supposed to but I’d written a paper for the deadline anyway.
By the time I’d finished my write up it was nearing six o’clock. Jake pulled up a stool next to me, and braced his forearms on his knees.
“I can’t see any evidence of a real dig here. I don’t get it,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said slowly, closing the laptop, having quadruple checked that I’d sent the work to my school email and saved it.
“I mean there wasn’t a dig here. This isn’t a real archeological site.”
“So where did the fake manuscripts come from then?” I asked, wondering how on earth he could tell.
“I don’t know. I also don’t know why Grayson wouldn’t have known that before we got out here.”
“Well, someone had to be the first to check,” I offered, blushing a little for fear this was a stupid comment. He looked at me, real suspicion entering his eyes for the first time.
“There are scientists in Italy, we didn’t need to fly out here to check it. Something’s up." In the setting sun, the green flecks in his brown eyes caught the light, and I realized he was younger than I had originally thought. He couldn’t have been out of school that long.
“Maybe Grayson is in on it?” But before Jake could reply to this, Anna joined us in our little corner of the pit.
“Anyone have any water?” Jake passed her some, and she gulped it down before saying, “I’ve been digging for almost three hours and haven’t found a single thing.”
I felt the familiar surges of panic making their way through my veins, making my ears ring and my head feel stuffy.
“Maybe the site has already been cleared out?” I offered, my voice squeaky. Anna passed me the water bottle, mistaking my rasp for thirst.
“How’s it going down here?” The three of us froze, staring at each other. Grayson had gotten out of the car, and hopped into the pit, the heels of her shoes sinking an inch or two in the loose dirt. She shuffled over to us, maintaining her look of authority.
“Yeah, good,” Jake said, “I think I’ve seen all I need to for a first look.”
“You’re only getting one look,” she drawled.
“I haven’t found any other artifacts,” Anna said, “I think whoever was here before cleared everything out.”
“And where would they have put it?” Grayson demanded. Anna fell silent, taken aback.
“I don’t think anyone really was here before. I think this is a fabricated dig site.” While I didn’t know Jake very well, there was no mistaking the challenge in his voice. Grayson’s eyes narrowed a little, and she took a couple steps closer to where Jake was seated beside me, so she could tower over him.
“And what are you suggesting, exactly, Jake?”
“When I’m working I go by Dr. Miller. I’m suggesting that they gave you a fake location to send you on a goose chase, or that perhaps those manuscripts don’t exist at all.”
“Then what would you suggest is in the maps room back in London?” She said dangerously.
“I couldn’t tell you, seeing as I never saw them in person.” A grin flickered on Grayson’s face. I caught Anna’s eye from where she was standing behind Grayson, and read the worry as a pretty bad sign.
“Who would want to send me on a wild goose chase?”
“You’re the government official, not me. Who exactly do you work for, Dr. Grayson? And what are you a doctor of, exactly?”
“I have a doctoral degree in political science, but it’s just a title. I work for the secretary of defence.” At this, Jake laughed in her face.
“The U.S. government is worried about some old scroll they dug up in the mountains that suggests some ancient civilization knew how to…what? Poison each other? This is a joke, right?” He stood up and strolled away from the group, shaking his head.
“Not poison,” she said quietly.
“Then what?” I asked, immediately realizing I’d broken my vow to myself to keep my stupid gob shut.
“Classified,” she said with an arched brow.
“So again, why fake the site?” Anna asked.
“The scientists who produced the documents could have said it was here to buy time until the exhibition,” I offered, since Grayson was still staring at me. She flicked an eyebrow up again, and finally broke her stare to turn her eyes on Jake.
“Are any of you wearing microphones?” She asked.
“No,” we all said unanimously. She exhaled wearily, rubbing a hand over her tired eyes.
“Alright. What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this pit. The scrolls outline a way of spreading a virus that was apparently employed all the way back then. Population control during ancient wartimes. Given the recent pandemic all over the world, that’s not the kind of thing the public needs to be seeing. But these scientists are convinced it needs to go public. You can see how that would strike fear into the hearts of everyone. They’d all be convinced they were the recent victims of a large-scale government attack.”
“Who are these scientists...archeologists, whoever?” Anna said, disgust colouring her words.
“We’re wasting time here, we can talk about this on the jet back to London. I want to see those manuscripts,” Jake said, and he strode to the edge of the pit and hauled himself out. I was shocked that Grayson didn’t counter his authority, and instead followed him.
I slept most of the plane ride back to London. I’d listened to them bicker and swap theories while we ate our way through a couple of pizzas that were waiting for us on the tarmac, but they’d mostly talked in circles. The more they talked, the less Grayson really seemed to know, and Jake kept saying he needed to see these artifacts.
With the time change back, it was about nine when we landed, and ten pm when we reached the university. I felt better, having slept a bit, but my head was still pounding with exhaustion from the events of the day.
We loaded ourselves back into the same elevator in the university library, and headed one level down. Instead of going to the conference room we headed down another hallway, where the map room was tucked away.
“They said they were still here,” Grayson said, leading us. She opened the door, and I would have been impressed by the collection of old maps had I not flown to the northern coast of Italy and back that afternoon.
“Where are they?” Jake asked harshly.
“I don’t know,” Grayson admitted.
“Dr. Grayson, have you worked with either Brandon or Adam previously?” Anna asked.
“No, I haven’t. I haven’t worked with any of you before.”
“Do you know who they work for?” Anna pressed.
“They just said fact checking and restoration. That could be government, a university,” Anna was trailing off.
“A museum, even,” Jake offered.
“I mean now that I think of it, you didn’t check any of our credentials,” Anna said, glaring at Grayson.
“Hang on a minute, I knew five people were supposed to be joining me in the map room. I don’t appreciate your suggestion that I’m incompetent. They’re probably out grabbing coffee.”
“But how do we know they weren’t just two random guys on the elevator?” Anna said, wringing her hands. I was beginning to think she was scared that her own butt was on the line here, but mine was too so…relatable.
“Oh, you’re back, perfect,” said a voice as the door opened, and Brandon and Adam filed in. The room was cramped with all of us standing in there.
“From what we can tell, they’re the real,” Adam said, indicating the manuscripts on a table at the other end of the room.
“They can’t be, the dig site was fake,” Jake said. “Let me see it.”
“I mean, obviously more rigorous testing has to be done than what we can do in a day, but it seems pretty authentic to me,” Brandon was saying as he led Jake over to where they’d been examining a very old, gross looking scroll of paper.
“Who do you two work for?” Grayson asked them, and they looked at her in shock.
“I work for the British Museum, in the restoration department,” Adam said a little uncertainly.
“I work for the university here, but I was hired as a consultant by the government,” Brandon said a little pompously.
“And who do you work for?” Grayson said, turning on me.
My throat burned. My eyes stung. I felt my head swimming, my palms prickling and my knees shaking. They were all staring at me now, and I knew there was nothing for it.
“It’s like Anna said…I was just a stranger on the elevator. I followed you guys to the conference room earlier half as a joke, and then I got too scared to leave cause I thought I’d get in trouble,” it was all just tumbling out of me, and I didn’t care that tears were tracking down my face. “I should never have gotten on the plane, I should have never even followed you down the hall off of the elevator. I was on my way to look at an old book for a sociology paper I’m supposed to submit this weekend. I'm nobody.”
To my absolute shock, Jake started to laugh. Not just a chuckle, he really laughed. Despite myself, I giggled a little.
“I really was supposed to write a paper on different perspectives on the publications in the archeology and anthropology world, but this took it to a whole new level. I did a write up at the dig site and emailed it to myself to submit for class, but I can delete it if you want.” I looked at Grayson, fear spiking in my gut again.
“I’ll read it first, but you clearly know nothing so I’m sure it’s harmless,” she said with an eye roll.
“Are you gonna lock me up?” I squeaked, fresh hot tears running into my mouth and off my chin.
“What for? So you came to Italy, big deal. We’ll draft up a non-disclosure agreement, track your phone for a few days, keep an eye on you…to be honest with something like this, it doesn’t really matter that one little girl knows.” I was a bit offended at being called a little girl, but I took her point. Even if I posted about today all over my social medias, I would be discounted pretty quickly by the public – especially given I didn't even have photos. Kinda like that history channel guy convinced aliens were responsible for historical landmarks.
“So…” I started, unsure what I was attempting to say.
Adam pulled a wad of cafeteria napkins out of his pocket, passing them to me to mop my tears. “It’s okay, no one thinks you meant anything by it. You got swept up in it. No big deal.”
“It still doesn’t answer my question though,” Jake insisted. “Where did these come from? If they are real, why do they surface now? Who found them? And if they’re fake, still who?”
“All I know is my boss gave me the assignment,” Grayson shrugged.
“What does that mean? You’re blaming the American government for this?” Anna said acidly.
I sat down in a chair tucked in the corner, glad I didn’t have to pretend I knew what was going on, or that I had any roll in this. “Can I go?” I asked.
“Yeah. We know where to find you,” Grayson said, exhaustion dripping from her own voice.
I left the room. I walked back down the hallway, boarded the elevator and left the university library. I walked back to my dorm, in a complete daze, completely unable to process the day I’d just experienced. I’d snuck into some top secret government meeting and flown to Italy to attempt to disprove evidence of an ancient virus spreading technique.
At least I’d still managed to write my paper. And I’d tried pizza in Italy, so that was pretty cool.
A week later, with an A on my paper that I’d turned in, headlines broke that people suspected foul play with the pandemic we’d just survived the year prior. People began to suspect that it was brought on by some government or other, but then other outlets said that was just paranoia. Others still said it was old news, and what were we supposed to do about it anyway?
I visited the British Museum, and saw the manuscript on display for everyone to see. A little blurb was posted beside it, saying how its authenticity was severely questioned, but it was no doubt real.
No one seemed to care. No one did ever seem to find out where those manuscripts really came from.
’Round the Mountain
She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes…
We’ll go out to meet her when she comes…
“Have you ever seen it before?” Little Emma asked her grandmother.
“When I was about your age,” her grandmother said with a soft smile.
“I can’t imagine a world without the moon,” said Ben, a few years older than Emma, forgetting to try to be cool about the upcoming event.
It had been ten long years of night. The world was lit by the glowing moon that never waxed or waned, turning the landscape of the small town nestled between the feet of three mountains into world of blues and purples and greys.
“When I was your age I said the same thing about the coming of the moon,” Ben and Emma’s mother said. They were seated around a scrubbed wooden table in their family home, Father and Mother at each end, and the children facing the large picture window with eyes wide.
“I’m going to be at work a lot more,” their father said.
“Why?” Ben asked.
“We have to make sure the solar factories are working perfectly. We need to be able to store as much sunlight as possible before the next lunar season. It’s what powers the city.”
“Not having to constantly have the lights on is going to be a nice change,” Mother said.
“I can’t wait to plant my roses,” grandmother said, a wide smile splitting her face.
In the kitchen off to the side of the dining room, a thin screeching started. Mother got up to take the kettle off the range and pour the hot chocolates, Emma racing into the kitchen behind her and grabbing the whipped cream out of the fridge.
“I’ll go downtown to buy sunscreen tomorrow,” Mother said.
“If there’s any left,” Father said with a dry chuckle, coming into the kitchen to help carry the full mugs.
“I know, I should have gone last week. But it’s coming sooner than any of us thought.”
“We all thought we had more time,” grandmother agreed.
“What’s sunscreen?” Ben asked, taking gulp of the cocoa and licking the whipped cream moustache from his face.
Emma clambered back into her chair, and stared with wide eyes as her father described how your skin can burn and sting and even peel off if you don’t protect yourself from the sun.
“So the sun is bad?” Emma was too young to picture any world other than the one she knew. She wrung her tiny hands, pulling her nightgown over her knees that were curled up to her chest, as though hiding under the covers.
“No, no. It isn’t evil or dangerous. You’ll love it. The sky will be bright, and the evenings golden, but it will never be perfectly dark. Not for a long time. You’ll be able to feel the warmth of it on you, just sitting outside.”
“One thing I haven’t missed, the heat,” grandmother grumbled.
“I can’t wait to not have to pile sweaters on,” Ben said excitedly.
“Well, it shouldn’t be long now, we might as well hit the road once we’re done our drinks,” Mother said.
Father looked at the clock that hung on the wall behind his head, and was surprised to see that it was nearing six in the morning already.
They finished their drinks, dressed, turned all the lights off in their cozy home for the first time in the children’s memory, flicked on some flashlights, and made their way to the streets.
Despite the early hour, the streets were packed with the residents of Canyon Springs. Everyone was wearing light jackets, and children were talking excitedly of what they imagined a golden world would look like.
Grandmother was looking around her, committing everything to memory. The way the pavement was a dark and sombre grey, the deep indigo of the sky, the smattering of stars that twinkled merrily. The owls that could always be heard hooting, the silver light of the moon through thin, veiny leaves. The way houses themselves seemed to sleep. She would miss it, indeed.
“I think a golden world would be magical,” Emma was saying. “If everything was gold, you could cut it up and buy things.”
“It won’t be real gold, idiot,” Ben said, exasperated.
“Benjamin,” Father said, though he was smiling.
“Everything will be bright and colourful, like your picture books,” Mother said warmly.
As they walked, passing the houses and entering the downtown where small shops and restaurants sat, windows unlit, their neighbours joined them, and they paraded in the dark down to city hall, in the centre of town in the heart of the mountains.
“Here, live at the scene, we will broadcast the rising sun, for all you sleepyheads who couldn’t make it down here yourself!” A camera man was saying, clearly thrilled that he’d been chosen for the prestigious job of introducing the sun to the world of morning news television.
“Ready to work like slaves, Paul?” A man said to Emma’s father, slapping him on the back.
“The overtime will be killer, but the money will be nice,” Father said bracingly.
“I heard they want to try a new storage method, gonna have a bunch of engineers come in to build it,” the man said.
“Course. Their motto is ‘if it ain't broke, fix it anyway.’” The two men laughed.
“How will we know where to look?” Emma asked, looking up at her mother.
“You’ll know. The sky will get lighter, on one side of the mountains.”
“That’s weird,” said Ben.
“It’ll get all yellow and light blue,” grandmother said. “I should have brought a chair,” she added with a sigh, folding her thin arms across her chest.
Ben and Emma wandered over to the large, round fountain at the centre of town square. It had been empty their whole lives, and so really just looked like a large cement basin, with a statue of some important man sticking out of the middle. The local children were running around the ledge and playing.
“My dad said since it hasn’t rained in a a while, the sky might look scarlet,” one of Emma’s classmates was telling her. He was an obnoxious little boy, with a turned-up nose, and seemingly permanent jam stains on his cheeks.
“That’s silly, how could a sky be red.”
“He said red skies at morning are a sailor’s warning,” the boy said defensively, as though this were an obvious truth.
“We haven’t got any sailors,” Emma said, glaring at him.
But as they bickered, an anxious murmur broke out, rippling across the crowd.
“Why is it doing that?” Hushed voices were saying.
“Have we angered it?” A woman said, fear making her voice high and constricted.
“It isn’t a person. It’s a ball of gas,” said a tired, bored sounding man.
“Here at the scene of the Rise, locals wonder what the odd colour could mean,” the news-reporter was saying in harsh, quick tones, as though he was reporting a robbery.
“Here with me now is Brenda, who thinks it’s angry. Tell us about this, Brenda.”
“Well, Tom, I’ve read that if the sky burns red it means that we’ve angered the gods. It means that we’ve been evil, we’ve sinned, and punishment shall reign down upon our heads.”
“That was Brenda, with a religious outlook,” said Tom, the camera following him away from her to find someone else in the crowd, a smirk tugging at his the corners of his mouth.
“Hello, Sir, how are you? Do you have a theory?” Tom the newsman thrust the microphone into a man’s face.
“Well, my dad, he was a sailor, see…”
“That’s my dad,” said the jam-faced boy to Emma.
“…and he always told me that if the sky was red, ’specially at dawn, there’d be rain.”
“Rain isn’t red,” someone from the crowd shouted, and people tittered and jeered.
“Could be, could be,” Tom said, trying to comfort the man who now looked embarrassed.
“Angry gods, rain, anyone else think they know why the sky is red?”
As this commotion had been going on, Emma hurried back to her family. She stood with her back pressed against her mother’s legs, her brother close on her right. They exchanged nervous glances. This was not the golden surprise they had been promised.
Above the peaks of the mountain the sky was blanketed with clouds that rippled and swayed, and were turned the colour of burning embers and ash. In contrast, the face of the mountain was deep, angry black. The world the children had known their whole lives as blue and purple and silver, as friendly and sleepy, had morphed in a matter of minutes. It was as though someone had lit the mountains ablaze, and the flames were licking over the town.
“Daddy said it could burn,” Emma squeaked to Ben, as hot tears made her eyes itch. She scrubbed her knuckles across her face.
“What’s that, little girl?” She hadn’t noticed that Tom was standing behind them, and he’d heard Emma’s shy comment. He squatted, and she looked at the crusty makeup caked on his face for the camera, smelled the old coffee and cheap cologne, and did not like Tom the newsman. She pushed back against her mother’s knees, ducking her chin to avoid looking at him.
“Don’t be shy, do you know about the sky?” She peered over his shoulder and saw the camera trained on her. She swallowed nervously, and leaned forward.
“My dad told me the sun could burn you if you’re not careful. It looks like the sky is on fire. I’m scared we’ll burn.”
“Goes well with the angry gods theory, I guess,” Tom said as he stood, apparently having heard enough out of little Emma. She was relieved not to have to say more.
“Look!” Came a shout from someone on the other side of the fountain. Again, whispers and mutterings ricocheted through the rapt audience as they all watched the sky, for at the very peak of the mountain, what appeared to be the bottom of the sky, the angry red was giving way to a bright orange peppered by warm pinks.
“The fire’s goin’ out, little girl,” said Emma’s father’s friend from work, smiling down at her. She said nothing, continuing to stare.
The strip of orange and pink seemed to be getting higher and higher, and the red clouds morphed to purples and yellows, as though a foggy rainbow was engulfing the whole scene.
The orange got less foggy. It grew sharp, and bright, and yellow, and Emma thought of a searing yellow blade cutting through the clouds. Tears burned her eyes, and she squinted, determined not to miss a second.
“Here we go, folks, are you getting this?” Tom said, his hand shielding his eyes.
“She’ll be coming ’round the mountain, any second now,” said the man who’s father was a sailor.
With bated breath the people of Canyon Springs watched as the sun pulled itself into the sky, up through the clouds from behind the mountain. The black face of the rock slowly turned from ebony, to graphite, to light grey, and for the first time ever Emma realized that there was snow at the tops, which immediately glistened from the heat of the great golden orb. The sky was still transforming, purples and oranges giving way to bright, happy blues. The moody, dark clouds became fluffy white, making Emma think of the whipped cream on her hot chocolate that morning. She looked at Ben, and was shocked to see that he didn’t look happy.
“What’s wrong, isn’t it great?” Emma asked.
“Where did the stars go?” She blinked, and looked back up at the sky, and realized he was right. They were gone. They’d always been there, and while everyone had told them the moon would be missing, no one had warned them about the stars.
“They’re still there, next to the moon,” grandmother said, smiling a little sadly at them.
“They’ve earned their rest.”
“I’ll miss finding pictures in them,” Ben said, though he looked reassured.
“You can do that with the clouds,” his father said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
Everyone stayed in the square for about a half an hour, making sure the sun was good and steady, before slowly dispersing to go back to their lives, flashlights hanging uselessly by their sides, some of them taking their jackets off and slinging them over their shoulders. The years of night had come to a close, and as they bathed in the new warmth radiating down on them, none could help the smiles spreading on their faces.
Darkness and the Man in the Window
“It’s raining, it’s pouring,
the old man is snoring;
he bumped his head,
and went to bed,
and couldn’t get up in the morning.”
Andrew Bennett was tired of killing people.
In his twenty years working as a gardener, he had been hired by three separate estates to trim both their hedges and their family trees, and while he’d appreciated the extra cash and the opportunity to utilize his highly underestimated artistic flare, his partnership with the grim reaper had taken its toll.
It was due to this fatigue, this growing hollow place inside his chest, that he was absolutely dreading his eight-o’clock-in-the-morning meeting with Morticia. But if Andrew was anything, he was a man of his word, and so at seven-fifty-seven on August 29th, his knobbly, weathered fist rapped sharply three times on her heavy black wooden door.
“Punctual as always,” she said tartly. Her smile sent a troupe of ants parading up his spine, but he simply smiled back at her. They did not speak as she led him through the cavernous front entry of her manor house, down a hallway, and into her drawing room. Andrew personally found it strange that the drawing room was at the back of the house, but the view onto the lawn he groomed so meticulous was quite nice.
“Coffee, if you’ve got it.”
“Of course.” And she poured a steaming cup of coffee, its aroma warming Andrew to his very core, giving him the courage he had been grasping for since entering this vapid house.
“I don’t want to do it, you know.” His words came out a great deal sharper than he’d meant them to. As she slunk toward him, cup of coffee extended, he braced himself. She simply continued to smile.
“I don’t see that you have a choice,” she said quietly, once she was directly in front of him. He gulped.
“Is that so?”
“I know what you’ve done. What you are. I could turn you in.”
Andrew stared into her cold eyes, his heart nothing but a heap of ash. His eyes burned, bile stinging his throat, his stomach in the soles of his feet. He had a family that loved him, and a granddaughter that thought he was the most precious thing in the world. He couldn’t bear to make them deal with his mistakes. He sat down on the uncomfortable sofa, and accepted the coffee from Morticia.
“There, now. Let’s discuss the specifics.”
She took her time arranging herself amidst some lavish cushions on a sofa across from him, and took her time again studying his anguished features with devilish intent written all over her angular face.
“As you know my husband and I own the morgue here in town, so first of all I’d like to extend our sincere thanks to you for all the business you’ve brought us.”
Andrew tried to swallow his coffee, but his throat had turned to a roll of sandpaper, coiling tighter and tighter, and as he spluttered and choked she gave a tinkling laugh that made him want to hurl the delicate porcelain cup right at her face. He didn’t though. He steadied himself, taking off his cap and resting it on his corduroyed knee.
She continued to speak. “As it happens, Mr. Bennet, my husband and I are well connected people. We know who comes into our morgue just as well as we know who put them there. And now that we’re in a spot of trouble, we can only be bothered to hire the best help in town.”
“I’ll garden for free for you,” Andrew ground out.
“Actually you’ll have to be fired as my gardener, you’ll understand that I can’t be connected to you once you’ve done the job. It’s a great pity too because we’ve been nothing short of thrilled with the work you do.” She cast an appreciative gaze over her shoulder to the back lawn of the house, with the pretty garden beds and well groomed hedges.
“No, I need you to kill someone for me. And make it look like an accident.”
“Would you get to the point, madam?” Andrew said. He was nauseous and wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and never face the sun again, and she was clearly toying with him.
“I need you to kill a surgeon.”
Andrew blinked. He leaned back. He let out a booming laugh that took both himself and Morticia by surprise. It wasn’t that he thought it was particularly funny, but stress plays strange tricks on the mind. It was an impulse. He took the last gulp of his coffee and set the cup roughly on the polished table between them.
“And why would I do that?”
“It’s actually quite strange. A little funny, really.”
“My name is Morticia and I own a morgue. Does that not point you toward any ideas?”
“You have a dark sense of humour,” Andrew ventured weakly.
“My darling, I am Death, incarnate.”
There was a stark silence in which Andrew considered the very real possibility that the woman before him was raving mad.
“Is that so?” was all he said.
“This surgeon is after my husbands career, so I need to fix that. And, I need to have it look like one in a string of many unfortunate events.”
“A few things there,” Andrew said, and he stood up and began pacing, trying to burn off the nervous energy. “First of all, does your husband know what he’s married to? and second, why can’t you just kill him yourself?”
She didn’t miss a beat. “No, he doesn’t know. He thinks I’m an ordinary woman. And I can’t kill the surgeon myself because it’s against the rules. They wouldn’t let me.”
Andrew returned to his seat, not taking the bait to ask who “they” were. As his knee began bouncing convulsively and he rubbed his palms together to stop them prickling, he asked, “how could a surgeon be after a morticians job? Aren’t those direct opposites?”
For the first time, Morticia’s smile wavered. She rose and refilled their cups, taking a few steadying breaths. The twisting in Andrew’s gut intensified. That hollow place in his chest was swallowing up what was left of him, and if he carried this act out, he knew that would be the final straw.
Morticia handed him the full cup and he gripped it, savouring the warmth it provided. It grounded him, made him feel real, and human. She sat, and finally met his eyes.
“Whenever anyone pictures Death as a person, they picture the devil, or a creature in black cloak. Someone with horrible intentions and a penchant for evil. That isn’t who I am though. I have a schedule to follow, lists to maintain, it’s actually quite stressful. I don’t go around with a pitchfork killing people — big fan of your pitchfork murder, by the way, I thought that was really clever. Anyway, I simply facilitate death.”
Andrew wasn’t sure he understood how you could facilitate death without causing it, and he didn’t appreciate being called out for one of his killings either. He said nothing, and she continued.
“I normally visit the local hospitals, under the guise of asking for follow-ups on our paper work. Those nurses are always getting it wrong. But I also visit the wards. I go to the ICU, and I speak to people. I see who is ready. I check it against my books.”
Morticia stood, and crossed to the end of the room where vast bookshelves lined the walls. Andrew thought it was a shelf full of prop books, and wondered privately if she was just trying to seem impressive. But she ran an expert finger along the spines, selecting one once she was sure, and brought it to show Andrew. She sat next to him on his sofa, and he would have sworn before God the air got colder.
She opened the book, and he was stunned to see a ledger.
“This is last year,” she said, with the air of an accountant in a business meeting telling him he really ought to trim his expenses. Looking closer at the pages, Andrew saw that beside each name was a date, and in a third column there seemed to be one of four letters. N, M, A, or S.
“What are these for?” He asked, pointing to an N.
“N is for natural. A is accident, M is murder, and S – ”
“I see,” Andrew cut across her. “You still haven’t told me what mistake you made. Stop stalling.”
Morticia sighed and went back to her sofa. Andrew was grateful to feel warmth return to the air around him. His head was getting fuzzy. It was as though he could hear a faint static, and see faint blurs in the edges of his vision. His pulse had quickened, and all together he felt quite ill. His eyes flicked to the lawn, and he imagined could smell the freshly mown grass and damp earth. Andrew swallowed, and the acid in his throat burned a little.
“I was at the hospital, and I overheard the surgeon talking to a technician. This surgeon happens to be my husband’s twin brother, and they also went through school together. One became a surgeon, the other a mortician, and everyone found it darkly funny. Anyway, I heard that he wants to take over my husband’s business. He wants to commodify his patients even further. It’s sickening. I was angry. I acted rashly. I wanted to make a note so I’d remember to talk to my husband about it and I just wrote the name of the surgeon down.”
“In your ledger?” Andrew asked. This was the most ridiculous story he’d ever heard, and vowed to himself that once he was out of this mess he was going to retire once and for all and never leave his house if he could help it.
“It’s not something that can be undone.”
“So I have to kill a man for you because you wrote down his name, have I got that right?”
“I’m so glad you understand.”
“I don’t,” he said, nonplussed.
“If he’s successful he will basically become a serial killer. He will make sure his patients die, so he can send them to his morgue, and double the bill for their loved ones. His name is in the ledger. So it’s final. I haven’t written a date yet. When can you get the job done?”
Andrew blinked at her. “You can’t be serious,” he spluttered, beginning to stand, but she lifted and imperious finger and he halted. He thought of his family, his granddaughter, and the dark hole in his heart.
“I will do it on one condition. Don’t pay me. Write down my name too.”
“What?” Morticia whispered. Her eyes were wide, and the flare she normally spoke with was replaced by an almost childlike awe.
“I am old. I hate myself. I’ve become a monster. Either kill me here and now, or if you insist I do it, kill me afterward. I can’t have my family knowing what I’ve done, so I’ll do what you say if it will protect them from knowing. But I don’t want to be around after.”
“That’s no way to talk, Andrew. What’s one more?” She said it soothingly, like a mother speaking to a child being theatrical over a mild case of the sniffles.
“What’s one more?” He croaked. “What’s…? It’s everything. I’m being swallowed up, and not much of me is left as it is. You’re pushing me over the edge. You’re driving me to it.” He was spitting the words at her, but she did not flinch.
She spoke in a dark, low voice. “Making a deal with Death is no laughing matter, Andrew Bennet.”
“You’re the one striking the deal here. You’re welcome to walk away, and neither of us gets what we want.”
She did not answer. She picked up a pen that had been on the table between them, and slowly opened her ledger on her lap.
“Simon Travers is the name of the surgeon,” she said, pointing her pen at the spot on the page that marked Simon’s fate. With a flourish, she began slowly etching a name underneath it, in the next vacancy.
“Andrew Bennet. Call me when you’ve finished the job, and I will add the date for your entry.”
It was about noon when Andrew Bennet finally left Morticia’s house. She’d told him what hospital Simon worked at, and he’d said he’d call her.
The hollow spot in his chest was writhing and expanding, pushing on his lungs so that he was panting for breath. He walked through downtown, and as he passed a shop window he saw a hunched, careworn man slouching down the street with no trace of life left in his eyes. It was his reflection, of course. His cellphone rang, and he watched the man in the shop window reach into the pocket of his jacket and answer the call.
“Hi, Grandpa!” Came the happy little voice. He looked away from the man in the window, unable to watch.
“Hello, dear,” he said happily. She mustn’t know anything was wrong.
“Mom said next weekend we’re gonna come visit you,” she said happily. They talked for a minute, and he promised they’d make cookies and watch her favourite movie, and go out for lunch somewhere special, and then he hung up. He couldn’t handle this. Not again.
As he continued past shops, the man in the window fell into step beside him. He allowed a small smile to cross both their features, appreciating that the lighting was just right that day so that he didn’t feel like he was walking to the hospital alone. Feeling alone is so much worse than simply being alone, Andrew thought. Today, the world seemed to have understood that he couldn’t feel alone. Not now.
It was an odd twist in the tapestry of life that caused Andrew Bennet to become a gardener in the first place. He had been a factory worker, close to retirement because his lungs couldn’t handle it much longer. His wife had suggested that he take up gardening on the weekends, to force him to get outside and clear his lungs. He’d fixed up their front lawn so beautifully, that when his wife threw his retirement party and invited the neighbours, he got quite a few requests. It was the combination of his exacting eye for careful detail, and his vision for what things could be, that gave him his edge.
As he thought of this edge of his, the man in the shop windows looked at him and seemed to say do you remember how proud you were of your plan? He’d set up an elaborate mouse trap of gardening tools that resulted in his wife’s killer being run through in his own backyard. Technically an accident, and while many of that man’s neighbours had seen Andrew milling about the place tending to the flower beds, they’d also seen him carefully arranging his tool box every day. They knew him to be a measured, thoughtful man. Never absent-minded. He’d gotten off scot free.
What about the second time, we weren’t so careful then, were we? The man in the window mocked. But Andrew was approaching the intersection in front of the hospital, and he decided it was too exhausting to go through his own ledger, so he said goodbye to the man in the windows. He crossed, and headed up the steep steps to the front doors.
The lobby of the hospital was lit by large green-blue glass walls, giving the impression that it was a gloomy, rainy day outside despite the sun. It was sombre and sterile, and Andrew heaved a sigh as he approached the reception desk.
“I have an appointment with Simon Travers, could you tell me where his office is please?”
“Of course, and may I get a name?” Said the receptionist without glancing up from her screen.
“I’m a good friend of his brother, Scott, actually. My name is Andrew.”
“I don’t see you here.”
“His brother sent me. We spoke on the phone. Where’s his office?”
“Whatever. Fourth floor, room two-fifty-one.”
He walked away without thanking her.
On the fourth floor, he got off the elevator and was greeted by a wide hallway, across which was a large cafe and seating space. Andrew felt the hollow spot inside him settle into a calm, background type of feeling, as a mixture of resolve, focus, and resignation took over his mind. He glanced at the signs on a post which told him that the room he was looking for was to his left. He crossed the hall and bought two coffees, then took them to a table in the corner where he could look out over the balcony at the floors below.
He wasn’t really looking though. The main thing was that his back was to the hallway.
He unzipped his jacket a little bit, and pulled out an envelop. Inside were some dried plants he’d brought with him. While he hadn’t known who Morticia had wanted him to take care of, he’d known what the meeting was about, and he’d come prepared. Being a gardener had given him certain advantages.
To the untrained eye, he was an old man sitting alone with two cups of coffee, looking at a dried Queen Ann’s Lace flower, possibly mourning the death of a loved one, or else praying for their swift and safe recovery. To an expert however, he was carefully avoiding touching the Hemlock roots with his bare skin, as he rolled the dried stems between the paper of the envelop, dropping the fine powder and liquid from inside the roots into one of the coffees. Highly toxic, all he had to do now was get Simon Travers to take a few sips. He replaced the envelop carefully in his jacket pocket, and rose.
Room two-fifty-one was a prestigious office at the very end of the long hallway. The door was open, and hands laden with coffee, Andrew knocked gently with the toe of his shoe.
“Simon Travers, yes? I’ve been so keen to meet with you.”
Simon Travers looked up from the papers he’d been reading, and his furrowed brow deepened as he said, “sorry, do I know you?”
“No, we haven’t met, young man. I’m here for a chat about your practice,” Andrew said boldly, using the same foot to now ease the door shut. He crossed the room with a confidence and ease of gait that only comes with age and experience.
“There you go, son,” he mumbled, setting the coffee down in front of Simon. He took a seat directly across from him, took a laboured sip of his own coffee, and set it on the edge of the desk with a satisfied “aahhh, there we are.”
“Who are you?” Simon pressed, trying not to be too rude while speaking loudly and slowly.
“Andrew Bennet is the name,” Andrew said in the same tone. Simon’s brows shot up, and he pursed his lips, an invitation for Andrew to continue.
Looking at the young man before him, the hollow darkness in Andrew’s chest reared up, pushing on his lungs so hard he felt he might faint, pushing up his throat so that he could barely speak, and reaching his brain to form a dark cloud over his thoughts. He couldn’t very well snatch the coffee back, could he. His palms prickled with sweat, and he suddenly became aware of his own body odour. It was too late. His head was swimming. He was here. It was about to happen. Again. He didn’t want to watch. He shut his eyes, pressing his lids so tightly together he thought he might be able to force blindness upon himself.
“Are you okay?” Simon’s voice sounded a long way off. Andrew hadn’t prepared anything to say to this young man. His plan had simply been to give him the coffee.
“Listen, sir, I’ve got a surgery I have to perform in an hour. If you have something to say, spit it out.”
And just like that, eyes screwed shut, a blinding clarity came over him. Maybe he wasn’t a bad person. He had been exacting justice this whole time. Avenging his wife was noble, and preventing the murder of several patients at the hands of a surgeon with a tendency for malpractice, well, that wasn’t so bad either. Andrew opened his eyes. Over Simon’s shoulder was a stunning view of the city. He let his gaze wander, curious if he could spot home from where he was sitting.
“Sir, I’m going to have to insist that you make this quick.”
Andrew’s eyes stayed on the glass but his gaze shifted, so he could see the man in the window again. He supposed he’d followed him from the shops on the street. Andrew watched the man in the window speak to the back of Simon’s head.
“I haven’t got a lot of money and that coffee was a gesture you know,” he snapped. Simon pulled a face, picked up the cup and tilted it toward Andrew as though to say “cheers”, and took a swig.
“Now, I’m here because Morticia said you’re her husband’s twin.”
“Oh, here we go,” Simon said, rubbing a hand over his face. “What did she tell you, that I’m driving her business into the ground because I’m so good at saving people?”
“What? No, she said you’re killing people to support your brother’s business, the business that you plan to steal from him.”
Simon leaned back and let out a laugh without mirth. His chair turned a bit, and he stared out at the city before turning back to Andrew.
“I save people for a living, do you understand that? I could never do something that monstrous.”
“Why should I believe you?” Andrew said, feeling the roiling monster inside him start to gnaw on his ribs.
“Go ask any of the staff on this floor. I’ve been working at this hospital for nearly two decades and I’ve only ever lost two patients on the table, both during my fellowship at the beginning of my career. I’m a miracle worker, Mr. Bennet.”
The smooth arrogance on Simon Travers face was not enough to condemn the man to death. If what he had said was true, Morticia had told a boldfaced lie, though why that should surprise Andrew he did not know. He no longer felt present. The darkness inside him had made its way through his brain, his bones, his heart…he watched Simon raise the coffee for another drink, the whole time staring with a triumphant glint at Andrew.
When he set the cup down again, Andrew could see it was half empty. More than enough had been drunk.
“My mistake then lad, sorry to bother you.”
“Tell Morticia she can rot,” he said darkly. Andrew merely nodded and left the office, careful to close the door behind him.
He made his way out of the hospital, and realized it wasn’t the glass that made the sky look rainy. It was now pouring. He didn’t care. He pulled out his phone, and called Morticia. She answered, and he said, “It’s Andrew. It’s done,” and hung up.
He pulled his hat down more snugly on his head, and let the rain soak him as he stepped outside. He let it work through the thick denim of his jacket, let it make the corduroy of his pants turn to lead from the weight of the water. His feet squelched in his shoes, his socks sliding down and balling up under his toes. He let the water get into his eyes, welcoming the stinging, blurred vision. He let his nose run. He let all these things happen because they grounded him, made him feel present and real and human, even though the dark hollow thing in his chest was doing everything it could to prove otherwise.
He had been right, when he was sitting in Morticia’s drawing room that morning. This murder had been the last straw.
As he walked up the final block into the suburbs where his house sat, he wondered who had been the liar: Morticia, or Simon. He wondered if it mattered. He wondered whether he would have acted differently if it had been Morticia. He wouldn’t have, because she’d blackmailed him. He thought of his sweet granddaughter. He wondered if Simon had a family of his own. He hadn’t bothered to ask.
While he was wondering all this, Andrew hadn’t been paying attention to his footing. His toe caught on a raised lip in the sidewalk that he trod every day - he had memorized this little raised lip and normally carefully stepped over it, but today was different. He crashed to the ground, smacking his head off of the concrete.
He rolled onto his back.
He let the rain thunder onto his face for a moment, allowing it to soothe the stinging on his forehead where his skin had broken. He swiped at his face. There didn’t seem to be too much blood. No one had been around to see Andrew Bennet fall, and as the old man hoisted himself back to standing he felt a small relief that his dignity wasn’t hurt. He shuffled the remaining few steps, not bothering to take his usual glance at his immaculate front lawn as he entered the house.
Though it was only about five in the afternoon, Andrew shuffled upstairs and changed into dry clothes, and climbed into bed. He embraced the weight and warmth of the blankets after the long walk in the rain. He hadn’t turned on any lights, and as the dim early evening light lulled him into that blissful middle state between sleeping and wakefulness, he wondered if Morticia would keep her promise to him.
As the rain kept pouring down, the darkness inside him pounded in his chest and in his head - though he couldn’t be sure if his head didn’t just hurt from its introduction to the sidewalk.
Evening turned to twilight, which turned to night, and the darkness inside him ate up the entire room, easing him into slumber.
When morning came, Andrew Bennet did not wake.
[[[originally posted on my account, spilledinkstories.tumblr.com :) ]]]
When I was a little girl, and I was playing with my brother and his friends, and things got a little rough and I fell, they asked me if I was okay; I wanted to be tough, so I said "I'm fine".
When I started high school and I met one of my best friends, I also realized how hard people find it to connect with others. You know how it is; everybody desperately wants to connect with people but everyone is so fake at that age that sometimes it feels like you're not connecting at all, ever. I spent four years watching one of my closest friends struggling to feel connected; struggling to feel happy; struggling to feel loved. On her bad days, I would gently ask her how she was feeling. She'd say to me, "I'm fine".
When my brother got bullied growing up, and then when we were in highschool and he kept getting bullied, I worried about him. He would get himself into trouble as young boys often do, but I've always seen him as a kid with a good heart. He loves people, and wants to be accepted (don't we all?). On his bad days, I'd ask him if he was okay. He'd say "I'm fine".
When my grandmother was sick, she came to live with us. It was really hard on my mom, who was looking after me, my brother, her mom, and running a business. She never let it break her though. I know she was stressed, and of course it hurts watching your parent crumble in front of you. On her bad days, I'd ask her how she was doing. She'd say, "I'm fine".
When I was in my second year of university, I was a full time student working 20 hours a week - basically pulling 15 hour days all week and trying to stay on top of homework. As so often happens, the stress got to me and I developed anxiety. For two weeks I could barely get any work done because starting anything made me shake. I would do my shifts while holding back tears I didn't understand the source of. On my bad days, my friends would ask if I was doing okay. I'd say, "I'm fine".
In this world the biggest lie we tell is that we're fine. We are desparate to be loved, anxious about money, tired from our jobs that work us too hard for too long without giving us room to live happily, wishing we could escape reality; we binge eat while we binge watch, we don't have the energy to exercise, we use tinder to meet people for one night stands because real emotional intimacy is daunting to a millenial generation of trust-issue-ridden children.
In a galaxy far, far away...
“So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause.” - Padmé Amidala
“I feel it again — the pull to the light” - Kylo Ren
“You can’t stop the change, any more than you can stop the suns from setting” -Shmi Skywalker
“The garbage’ll do!” - Rey
“Chewie...we’re home.” - Han Solo
“If you live long enough, you see the same eyes in different people.” - Maz Kanata
Anxious minds are sedated by distraction. Swinging from a lifestyle of chaotic hurry To a plateau of spare time and relative isolation, One must turn conversation largely inward.
At first, an abundance of spare time seems a true reprieve, A cranial window allowing a gentle sea breeze to waft through and clear the stuffy room. Left ajar too long however, the draft can stir a tempest, Disturbing all thoughts and, with the most violent gusts, unseating all sense of ease. One must slap the window shut and bolt down one's mental belongings, pretending the wind isn't still in the room.
The storm of course is easiest faced when one is not alone. Often, the wind doesn't feel as strong. Is it distraction then, that eases the window shut again, Or does company draw the mind out of that room entirely? Are the drafty crevices of one's mind spaces reserved for solitary confinement? If so, let us all become weathered sailors capable of facing every storm, with our crew of deckhands always nearby should we need saving.
A chink, a chasm, we all fell through;
We founded a city, and then it grew.
Northward, Southward, East and West,
Foreign expansion the name of our quest.
Settling, farming, exploiting the land,
Using all resources near at hand;
Empty, barren, sucked until dry,
The land left without any tears to cry.
Onward, forward, settled anew,
Using knowledge from the last town that we grew;
Discovered it was that a cycle we'd made:
Against environment, we were renegade.
Abused, exploited, unraveled, dead;
Desolation of life upon our head.
Sickly, decrepit, unfruitful, unsteady,
Not been here long, poisoned already.