He ran and ran and ran, as though by running he could escape the molten beams of moonlight which pierced his skin and etched canyons of pain into his flesh. Hide! urged the voice in his head. Shelter! Darkness! Peace! But there was no place to hide, no shelter to be found, no darkness deep enough to hide him from the eye of his enemy. There was no peace, only the neverending war for his soul.
And then ... a moment's respite. A darkness, a cave, a hidng place into which he stumbled, mad with the relief which washed over him when the burning stopped. He collapsed to the floor, panting with overexertion. The floor was cold and comforting, soothing like a balm of sweetest honey which filled his mouth. He felt the heat of his exhaustion lifting, borne away bya gentle breeze which wafted through the darkness like a trickling creek. He lay still, basking in the pleasure of not-feeling: muscles relaxing, hands and feet unclenching, jaws slackening, eyes closing. He slept within his dream, deeply, darkly, soundly.
He awoke from the sleep-within-a-dream, not knowing whether he was truly awake or merely dreaming-awake. Nothing was familiar. He lay on a bare concrete floor in a room which was neither familiar nor well-lite. He was naked. And there was blood. On his hands, on his chest, in his mouth. He could taste it, smell it, feel it.
His stomach churned. He threw up. Blood. Even more blood. And chunks of ... something. Meat? Raw, dripping, translucent flesh. He couldn't stop. More offal spewed from his mouth as he leaned over the floor and felt it surging up from his gut, up through his throat, into his mouth and out onto the ground. What was happening? Was this still a dream? Why couldn't he wake up?
And then the urge stopped, the gagging and coughing subsided. He wiped his eyes, thinking to himself: wake up wake up wake up wake up. But he did not wake up. And then his eyes fell upon an object lying in the middle of the pool of blood and flesh which froze his heart and head into solid stone:
A finger, complete with nail. A silver circle wound tightly around one knuckle. A ring. A silver ring.
And a great fear enveloped him like a funeral shroud. Oh, my ... What have I done?
Later, looking in the bathroom mirror at his uncovered torso, he peered at the reddened scar across his shoulder and remembered the night of the bonfire, when the beast had emerged from the woods behind the school without warning, eyes blazing with hunger, teeth bared and dripping, claws tearing up the ground as it raced toward the crowd of teenagers. He remembered the yelling, the pointing, the screaming. And he remembered running towards it without thinking, terrified that it might hurt the one he loved, yet terrified as well that he would not survive the encounter. It was just a big dog, one of those Dobermans or Rottweilers or Pit Bulls, the ones who were always appearing in the news after having mauled a child or attacked a postman. Running away from it never occurred to him. Coming between it and the one he loved - that was his only thought, his only motivation. He must stop it.
And stop it, he did. Although, were it not for the unregistered, unlicensed .45 pistol which was pulled from the pocket of his best friend, Mitch, it might have ended quite differently. They leaped at each other like long-lost lovers, meeting mid-air in a deadly embrace which knocked the wind out of him; and though he felt the dog's teeth ripping into his shoulder while he struggled to wrap his arms around its neck in a stranglehold, he did not let go. And then the sound of Mitch's gun filled his ears, shot after shot after shot emptying into the body of the beast until it stopped moving and lay still. And then the crying and wailing of his friends, the sirens of the ambulance, the curtain of shock which fell over him, the smell of rubbing alcohol, and then the oblivion of blessed unconsciousness.
It wasn't a dog after all, they had said. It was a wolf. A starving, pitiful wolf who had obviously tried to stake out a claim in suburbia after being edged out of its woodland habitat, and had fallen afoul of the laws of Nature. Only the strong survive. And it wasn't strong enough to defend against Man.
Kevin was a hero, the Boy who Saved His Friends. The attention was gratifying, the notoriety short-lived. His fame had come quickly and ended almost as quickly. There were plenty of other things to talk about on the nightly news. But he didn't care. His friends knew that he cared more for them than he cared for himself, and that was enough for him.
Now he was a werewolf.
Now they were in danger.
Why do we write?
Sometimes we write because there is an idea in our heads which has been floating around forever, and we feel that if we don't put it down on paper (real or virtual), we will burst. We write because we have created something in our minds that must be shared, explored, discussed, understood.
Sometimes we write because there is an idea which pops up suddenly - without forethought, without planning, without even knowing how it is all going to turn out in the end – and we find ourselves intrigued by the little scene or world or universe we have created, and want to play in it for awhile.
The short man in the gray flannel suit and bowler hat walked down the boulevard towards the tea shoppe holding the Cane of Power, laughing to himself in the knowledge that only he understood the secrets of the Magic Arts which soon would bring him fame, power, and wealth beyond his imagination.
So we start with a thought, an idea, an image; and we spend hours, days, weeks, months on end, trying to figure out whether that short little man in the gray flannel suit is going to win or lose or change or die; and we let the story unfold without logic, without form, without forethought because the joy is in the discovery of where our imaginations will take us.
And where it takes us, depends on the day.
On one day we may feel like the short man in the gray flannel suit will conquer the world; and on another day we believe that he will be destroyed by his own lust for power; and on yet another day, we find that love steps into his little world and transforms him into someone worthy of admiration and hope.
But in the beginning, it is just a paragraph about a short gray man in a flannel suit.
One can write for days and days and end up with a pile of paper (or a few kilobytes of computer memory) which amount to nothing. Or one can end up with the Great American Novel. How does it happen? How can it happen?
Anyone can create. Anyone can tell a story. The best storytellers are the ones who not only know where the story is going, they know how to make the trip interesting. They add details which flush out the pictures which form in our heads when we read stories; they give their characters the same faults and frailties that plague us all; they hide little hints throughout the pages so that our subconcious minds pick up on clues which help us find meaning in the tale.
There is a lot to be said for spelling and grammar and rhythm and meter and punctuation and all those other things that help the words become special and poetic and irresistable; but if there is no story, all those trappings are for naught.
The best writers come to the table with all their tools in place, all their elementary education firmly implanted in their minds, all their paintbrushes freshly cleaned, all their canvases stretched tight, all the colors in their palettes properly mixed and ready to apply.
And the best writers practice their craft every day, working to find that inner voice that will speak to their readers, working to sharpen and amplify and tune that inner voice so that it never mis-steps, never stutters, never puts the right phrase in the wrong place (or the wrong phrase in the wrong place).
Sometimes the practice leads to nothing more than exercise.
Sometimes the best exercise opens up a whole new area of exploration.
The short man in the gray flannel suit and bowler hat walked down the boulevard towards the tea shoppe holding the Cane of Power, laughing to himself in the knowledge that only he understood the secrets of the Magic Arts which soon would bring him fame, power, and wealth beyond his imagination. It was his habit to begin his day with a cup of tea at the shoppe, drinking deeply of the special herbal mixture and then, when it was down to the dregs, tapping the side of the cup three times in the manner described by the ancient Arts; he would peer down into the depths of the tiny porcelain container and watch as the granules of crushed herbs arranged themselves in peculiar patterns which had meaning only to himself. And then, armed with a new insight into the future, he would go out into the world and face it with a confidence which guaranteed success.
Except for today. Because on this day, the little girl in the ragged clothes stepped into his path from the alleyway beside the tea shoppe; and so focused was he on the thoughts in his head about the things he would do and the riches he would obtain that he did not see her until his shiny black patent-leather shoe intersected her own worn-out sneakers; and then he found himself falling through the air with the sidewalk rapidly approaching his face. By instinct, he threw out his hands to arrest his fall; but in so doing, he inadvertently lost his grip on the Cane of Power, which hit the little girl on the top of her head before bouncing off and falling into the gutter which lined the street. And the girl, sensing imminent catastrophe by the fact that she had collided with an adult of probable standing in the community, as evidenced by his clothing and the fact that he wasn't watching where he was going, fled the scene without looking back to see if the man had been injured.
She did not feel the impact of the Cane upon her head, nor the Power which surged from it, so frightened was she of the consequences of the accident; but she would never be the same again.
Nor would the man, who, after getting to his feet and collecting the Cane from the gutter with a few choice curses under his breath, entered the little tea shoppe and performed his daily ritual of ordering the hot, steaming cup of specially-prepared tea and drinking it deeply until only the dregs remained, and then tapping the side of the cup three times and peering over the rim to see what lay in his immediate future.
For there was no meaning in the random arrangement of wet, blackened particles which lay at the bottom. None.
It was as though … No, that couldn't be. He tapped again. And peered. And tapped. And peered. And felt a chill run through his bones.
And as he turned his head to look out through the window of the little tea shoppe toward the street beyond, he wondered: Where had she gone?
Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist who is presented with a locked-room mystery to solve, all the while seeking to restore his tarnished reputation. He is joined in the investigation by a hacker prodigy, Lisbeth Salander, who manages to get into everyone's computer with very little trouble. They run into Swedish Nazis, serial killers, and corrupt officials; they must deal with a completely dysfunctional family that, were it not for the fact that they form the core of a powerful corporation, inspire very little interest.
A locked-room mystery wrapped up inside a legal procedural tied up with a bow of journalistic intrigue. That's the premise that keeps the reader plowing through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo despite a multitude of pointless diversions into amoral lifestyle choices.
Even were I able to write with such detail, such interesting characters, such wonderful powers of description, I'd still leave out all the sex.
It begs the question: If Stieg Larsson had left out all the pointless promiscuity, would it have sold as well? Probably not. My cynical self believes that this world is too crippled by a fascination with lust and pornography and selfish sensuality to reward authors who don't descend to that level.
Naturally, I don't include any of the youth-oriented titles such as Harry Potter because they are, after all, targeted towards family audiences who would not respond favorably to such plot diversions. I speak only of the general adult fiction that fills the shelves these days. Wandering through the shelves at the local library, one observes that there are very few modern books in the standard fiction genres (thriller, mystery, sci-fi, classic) which avoid dragging the reader through the muck.
The book, while interesting, is depressingly focused on the carnal nature of the characters, their cavalier attitudes towards marital commitment. That is, these characters don't seem to attach much significance to the concept of marriage, regarding the holy concept of physical union as nothing more than physical exercise shared by two people for whom there is a certain level of attraction. Both main characters - for there are two of them - have numerous encounters with numerous "partners". One wonders, then, if this is the nature of all relationships in Northern Europe, of if the author is simply using it as a device to attract the modern reader.
For this reader, it creates an artificially amoral chasm between the reader and the characters which cannot be bridged. The characters are neither desirable nor sympathetic. Even Lisbeth Salander, the genius hacker girl who suffered some horrible assault early in her life and was permanently marked by it, becomes simply an enigma of inexplicable logic and calculated violence. The author goes to great lengths to describe Lisbeth's casual affairs, but fails to explain with any depth the self-justification for her behaviors, except in the most banal way. perhaps the author feels that the audience doesn't have the intellectual capacity to sustain the discussion. Perhaps the author, like most other contemporary authors, is merely wishing to short-cut the process.
Entirely too much time is spent explaining the bizarre relationship between Mikael and his numerous bed-partners, one of whom is married; and the numerous bed-partners of Lisbeth, most of whom are not even acquaintances. Taking out all the tedium of these warped ideas of relationship, we are left with a simple detective story which could have been told in far fewer words.
 An interesting fact about the author, in case you don't know: Stieg Larsson died in 2004, shortly after delivering the manuscripts for the trilogy of stories, known as the Millennium series, based on these characters. He wrote the stories after work, for fun. His real work was journalism. He was also a revolutionary socialist, and an activist for women's rights (leaning towards the feminism side of things).
It was translated from the original Swedish by Reg Keeland in 2008. The Swedish movies - all three - were made in 2009. The Hollywood version of the first book came out in 2011. No word yet on a data for the Hollywood versions of the remaining books. I haven't seen any of the movies yet.
 Method: pick out one book on each shelf, randomly flip through the 3rd quarter of the book, find the section where X seduces Y, note that it is quite graphic, sigh, put the book back on the shelf.
Suggested by a Flash Fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig.
Death is my mistress, but it is you she wants. That is why I have brought you here, to meet her face to face.
But I must confess that I am jealous. I try to comfort myself with the thought that I am not yet ready, that she has something much better in store for me, that delaying the moment of release will bring the greater pleasure; but the truth is that I long for her now, her gentle caresses, her soothing touch, her satisfying kiss. Yes, I am jealous of you. Because it is you she is calling today, though I am the one in love with her. Yet it would be a mortal sin to deny her, or to deny you the joy you will be experiencing in her embrace. I am her slave, her servant, her lover. She is my mistress; I must obey.
You've never seen her, so you don't know what a frighteningly lovely lady she is. I cannot describe her; it would kill you if I tried. And what would be the pleasure in dying from mere words? It is my hands that long for this blessed work, not my tongue. So I will not kill you with words or thoughts or dreams or nightmares. I will use these fingers, these hands, this strength that my love for her bestows.
You shrink from my touch. You are afraid. That is good. You should be afraid. You don't know her like I do. She is so lovely, so strong, but so very demanding. She does not ask for insignificant baubles, mere trinkets to satisfy a momentary attraction. No; she wants you, she wants all of you. And she will take you whether you are ready or not, taking you apart, cell by cell, until you have become the very dust you walk upon, the very air you breathe, the water you drink. You think that you can escape her with your imaginary gods and angels; you do not realize that she is the only god, the only angel. It is she who grants you life, and then for just a while. She is with you always. From your first breath, she was with you, standing beside your crib. Your first halting steps were taken with your hand in hers. She waited at the bottom of the stairs for you, beneath the swings in the playground, beneath the oak tree you once climbed so proudly, on the other side of the street you so bravely and foolishly crossed without looking. She has always been there for you, waiting patiently, longing for the day when she would take you in her arms and kiss your sweet lips and swallow your memories so that you become one with her. For she is nothing, and everything, all at the same time. She created you, and now she claims you for her own.
I? I am her humble agent, sent to minister to her needs, run her errands, fetch this and that from here and there, bringing her beloved children closer so that she might see them in the prime of their existence and then be joined forever with them. Oh! Is that why you are afraid? Do you fear losing your self in her? Yes, I can see where you might think it's a bit of a drawback to being with her; one tends to lose one's identity. But what does it matter? Once you have become part of her, you are happy forever, and everything else is forgotten. Remember, she will swallow your memories; the good and the bad, she will remember them all for you. You will never have to worry about them again.
You tremble; you are still afraid. Do you fear the pain? There is no need. She will come quickly. I will make sure of it. You see this knife? Sometimes I must use it. But it is not for you; it is for those who are not ready, not pure. They must be cleansed, and that takes time. But it is not for you. She has such great love for you, a great jealous desire. And because she has such love for you, she does not wish to wait; she wants to know you, to know you quickly, to know you intimately, to know you completely.
I see why it is that she loves you so much. You are so young, so beautiful, so strong. I have seen you smiling, playing, laughing, running. Yes, I have been watching you for quite a long time. You didn't see me, hidden in the shadows, behind the trees, inside the parked cars, down the darkened alleys. In your closet. Underneath your bed. Standing over you while you slept. Watching your chest rise. Listening to you breathe. Knowing that she wanted you, but waiting for just the right time, just the right circumstance. When everyone else has gone away, and you are all alone. Like now. Like tonight. You were scared when they left you all alone tonight, weren't you? Yes, it is frightening to be all alone - but you will never have to be frightened again. My mistress takes away fear, and in its place, she offers eternal peace, eternal joy, eternal comfort. She will be with you always.
See? I have put away the knife. I will not use it on you, on your lovely body. Your flesh is too pure, too holy to cut with the knife. Yours was meant to touch, to stroke, to press against with reverence and respect. Especially here on your neck, where your body is joined with your head. Here is where I touch, here is where I stroke. Here is where I press. I can feel the blood pulsing beneath my fingers. I push, ever so gently, and the blood stops. Like this. Do not struggle. Soon, you will be with her. I can see it in your eyes.
In which we re-imagine a famous story from a slightly different point of view...
Belina was startled by the flash up in the sky and shaded her eyes as she looked up to see what it was. The bright dome of Toine's atmosphere nearly washed out the streaks of light, but they persisted in her vision for quite a few seconds; she knew it wasn't her imagination. But she could only imagine what those streaks of light meant.
A meteor burning up in the atmosphere? A satellite explosion? Or perhaps even ... a starship battle?
She yearned for it to be the latter. A space-battle, here! At Toine! Which was, in her estimation, the furthest place from anything of value in the galaxy. As the saying went, "If there's a bright spot in the galaxy, you're at the place farthest from it."
It was true, too. This was the dullest planet in the galaxy, at least in her estimation. And she was stuck with the dullest family on the planet, with the most boring occupation of all: trying to suck the moisture out of the desert in a vain attempt to grow something which might actually be edible.
It was far easier to create illicit drugs for the entertainment market than food for the public market; but her uncle, Lars, was an honest, upright citizen who paid his taxes, voted in all the local elections, and saw fit to give her lots of chores during her off-hours so that she didn't get into trouble. And Aunt Behry was just as straight-laced and ultimately boring as her farmer husband.
It was a curse, Belina was convinced. She had been cursed by the gods for all those wicked thoughts in her head, thoughts of escaping this ridiculous planet and becoming a star-pilot, zipping through the galaxy with a cargo hold full of spices and exotic foodstuffs which demanded high prices. And a crew of subservient males who acquiesced to her every whim.
She sighed. Might as well imagine a plant that didn't require twelve hours a day of care and feeding to keep it alive in this hostile environment. All the native plants on Toine were poisonous. Growing anything of value on this planet was a fool's dream.
Another burst of light from above caught her glance. This one was definitely a meteor; it cut a smooth arc across the sky, moving to the west towards the horizon. She watched the smoking tail lengthen until the tip disappeared over the top of the distant Hopeless Mountains. For a moment, she felt a strong urge to follow that trail to where the rock had landed, to see with her own eyes something that had traversed the long, cold vacuum of space. But she knew that would be impossible. She could not abandon her Aunt and Uncle when harvest time was so close.
Their very lives depended on her.
The General stood nearly half a meter taller than any of his men. Dressed from head to toe in black, his body encased in armor, he gave off an aura of such threatening power that even his own troops' blood turned to ice water in their veins.
He held the rebel Captain in one hand, suspended above the deck of the ship. The Captain struggled for each breath.
"We have received information," the General said in a quiet but menacing rumble, "that you have obtained certain data files to which you are not authorized access."
"I - I don't know what - you - mean!" the Captain sputtered. "We have - many - data files!"
"Don't bandy semantics with me, Captain. You know what I seek."
"I'm - sorry - to - disappoint you ..."
"Not quite sorry enough. Yet." The General tossed the Captain to the floor. "Take him to Interrogation. We will discover the truth."
"Yes, General." Two of the troopers scurried to follow his orders. The General turned to his aide. "Have they found her yet?"
"No, General," the aide said, hesitating momentarily as he pressed a finger to the communications device embedded in his ear. "They have completed a sweep of sixty percent of the ship. They should be complete within ten minutes."
"Very good. When you find her, bring her to me in the Captain's quarters. I will establish a link there."
"We must be very careful here, General," said the man in the gray who stood slightly behind him.
"I agree, Commander Veers," said the General without turning. He started down the corridor towards the Captain's quarters. Commander Veers followed slightly behind him.
"If word gets out that we have arrested the Queen, there will be a backlash in the Senate," Commander Veers said. "It may provoke further sympathy for the rebellion."
"We must move quickly, then," the General replied. "Are you certain there were no transmissions from this ship?"
"None, sir. She was jammed the moment we came in range."
"Very well. The Queen will tell us what we want to know. Although she might not survive the experience."
Where to hide it? Where to hide it? The Queen raced through the lower cargo area, her mind struggling to maintain control over her emotions. She had known this was a possibility all along, but it was always different when the possible became the reality. She held the data chip in her hand, trying desparately to think of someplace to put it where it would be safe.
She assumed that the General would not destroy the ship. She assumed he would bring it back to The Core as a kind of prize to demonstrate his power and proficiency; if not him, then Commander Veers would likely keep it himself. So all she had to do, was to hide it somewhere on the ship where no one would think to look, and then get a signal to someone.
She thought of Ben again, and it was like a knife through her heart. How she longed to see him again! But he had made his choice, and she had made hers, and that was all long ago and far away. There was nothing to do for it now but keep moving on, she with her mission and he with his.
A maintenance robot appeared on the catwalk, evidently on some mission of its own, probably to clean up the mess from the battle. She hurried over to it.
"Stop!" she commanded. It beeped and became motionless.
"Open your storage hatch." A small compartment on the top of the robot slid open. She put the data chip inside. "Close the hatch." The compartment closed up again. She leaned in close to the robot.
"Secure hatch. Override code B4. Lock." The robot beeped. "Resume." The robot started moving down the catwalk again. She moved out of its way and stood and watched it until it had disappeared through a small access door behind her. Then she ran to the large doorway at the end of the catwalk and hit the button on the wall next to it.
The door slid open. Five troopers stood there with their guns pointed at her head.