Thursday, December 27, 2012

Violet Dreams


                George is going to jail, and there's nothing I can do about it.  I know he doesn't deserve it; he never did anything to hurt anyone, so far as I know.  And if there's anyone in the world who would know about George, it's me.  I'd have given the world for him.

                They say he's a thief and an embezzler, but I don't believe it.  He couldn't steal a rattle from a baby, not even if the kid was fast asleep .  It's just not his way.  He's a decent kind of guy, the kind of guy any girl would give anything to be with.  Well, any girl that's grown up enough to understand that the good guys aren't the ones with the fancy cars and the diamond watches and wallets stuffed with cash.  The good guys are the ones who come home every night and talk to their wives like they're real people, and kiss their children good-night as they tuck them in, and ask if there's anything at all they can do to make life easier for their family.  The good guys are the ones who'd rather spend an evening playing cards with their wives than being out in the bars with their friends.

                There aren't many good guys left.  I know.  I've looked.  Oh, there are plenty of guys out there, hanging out in gin joints and billiard parlors, drinking too much and talking too much and fighting too much; and if he happens to be married, he'll lie to your face and tell you he isn't, or he doesn't want to be any more.  Because he's gotten sick of seeing her cold, shrew-like little face with its thin white lips screeching at him every night like a banshee about how miserable her life is, how much money he doesn't make, how she should've listened to her mother and married somebody else.   It's no wonder he shrinks away from her touch like she's got the plague.  You'd think he'd be happy to leave her.

                But he's not.  None of 'em are.  They're cowards, all of 'em.  Too scared to stand up to it at home, and too scared to tell the truth in public.  They're just looking for a good time, something to soothe the pain for a while so they can make it through another day. Taking the easy way out.

                That's me.  I'm easy.  Easy on the eyes, easy on the ears, easy on the - well, maybe not so easy on the pocketbook.  After all, a woman's got to make a living somehow, doesn't she?  And they don't seem to mind.  After all, we're all friends.  Or so they tell me.  Yeah, we're all great friends; and we smile and dance and laugh and have a wonderful time together, because they are strong, handsome, virile men and I'm a beautiful young girl in a pretty dress; and they're spending time with me, not with that little woman back at home, the one who cooks their meals and cleans their clothes and irons their shirts and wiipes their little kids' noses; I'm not the one who wears the frumpy clothes around the house and doesn't have time for makeup and complains that he doesn't make enough money or doesn't spend enough time with me and the kids; I'm not the one who's too tired at the end of the day when he wants a little action.

                But sometimes I wish I was.  Especially if it was George who was doing the asking.

                That's how I keep from going crazy these days, just imagining what it would've been like.  What it should've been like.  Me and George, I mean.  Together.  Everything would've been different then. Because I could've convinced him to move out of this little death-trap of a town, to turn his back on all the dead weight that was dragging him down and get over to the big city where he could've done great things, really become somebody, shown the world what he was made of.  And he would've been somebody, too.  I know, because I know all the things he did when he was young, before all the gray deadness of this town dropped over him like a shroud and killed whatever spirit there was that lived inside him.  He was a real adventurer in those days.  He was going to conquer the world.  And I was going to follow him to the ends of the earth.  It was going to be fantastic.

                Of course, being the kind of guy he is, he didn't have a clue how much I loved him.  Even though I was dropping hints since I was ten years old.

                That's the thing about guys.  Sometimes you just have to wait til they grow up before they figure it out.  I don't mean "old". They say George was "born old", but that wasn't the same thing.  Being the one in the family who takes responsibility seriously isn't the same as knowing when a girl has a crush on you.   That takes a different kind of smart, and a little bit of egotism.  George didn't have any of that.   He has always been the humblest guy I'd ever known.  Which meant that he never wanted to talk about himself; he always wanted to talk about you.

                Maybe that's what attracted me to him.  He actually listened to me.  Not like the others, who only pretended.  He actually listened, actually cared.

                With the kind of grades he was getting, we all thought he would go to college right out of high school, but he decided he'd rather stay home and work in the family business instead, get some valuable experience - and some serious dough - before heading off to the ivory tower.  They weren't offering a lot of scholarships for guys that didn't play sports, anyway.  Mostly, he didn't want to leave his daddy in a lurch.  Lord knows that Building and Loan was always one step ahead of bankruptcy; they needed all the hands they could get to keep it afloat.

                So George was still around when I was finishing up High School, and I saw him quite a bit, since his brother, Harry, was in my class.  But he never paid me any special attention.  After all, I was just one of the kids in his brother's class.

                Until the night of the graduation dance.

                I don't know what prompted him to come to the graduation party.  I certainly wasn't expecting him.  But there he was, standing by the food tables with his brother, chatting with some of the teachers he hadn't seen in a while, laughing and carrying on like it was his own graduation.

                Naturally, I walked right up to him the moment I saw him, swinging my dance card jauntily with my hand.  "What am I bid for the first dance?" I teased.  The look on his face told me that I'd picked the right dress.

                "Well, hey, Violet!" he said.

                "Well, hey, Georgie!" I responded, holding out my card.  "How'd you like to be the first one on my dance card?"

                His smile got very big.  "That sounds very tempting, very tempting indeed," he said.  And he grabbed me by the hand and we went out onto the dance floor and started spinning around to the music of Hoagy Carmichael and Louis Armstrong and whatever else the boys in the band could come up with.  He was a great dancer, George was.  And he didn't even bother looking around for another partner in-between dances.  We were like paper and glue that night, cheek to cheek and ear to ear.

                And when Ralphie Edwards pushed the switch in the middle of the Charleston contest and the dance floor split open right underneath us to reveal the pool beneath, he and I were one of the first ones to dive in.  Naturally, my dress was ruined, but he gallantly offered to pay for it.

                Or he would have, if that's what had really happened.  What actually happened was that, just before he was about to say, "Well, hey, Violet!", Marty Hatch, one of his old school chums, busted in and ruined the whole evening.

                "George!"

                "Marty!"

                "Hey, George, you remember my little sister, Mary," he said.  "Dance with her, will ya?  It'll give her the biggest thrill of her life."

                I hadn't even noticed that Mary was there.  But we all looked over at her when Marty pointed her out, and there she was in a cute little blue dress, all prim and proper.  She was definitely going for the "girl-next-door" look.  Suddenly my own outfit seemed like too much.  Too much for George Bailey, anyway.  From the look that came over his face, it was obvious that the rest of the world had all but disappeared.

                Fine.  I could deal with that.  I could find someone else to dance with.   And I did, too.  Out of spite, I grabbed Marty.  He wasn't the best dancer, and his trousers were a little too short for his gangly legs, but we were doing fine, right up til the moment that idiot Ralphie pushed the button that opened up the floor, revealing the pool underneath.  And then someone pushed me in.

                And my dress was ruined.

                I was furious.  It had cost me practically all the money I had in the world to get that dress.  I didn't know how I was going to explain that to my mother.  She was going to kill me!

                But it could've been worse, I suppose.  At least my mother didn't die of a stroke that night, like George's father. 

                Everything changed for him after that. For one thing, he didn't go to college like he'd planned.   After all, someone had to run the Building and Loan.  Someone other than Uncle Billy.  And that meant George.   So George gave all his college money to his brother, Harry.

                For another, he all but disappeared from society.  I'm not sure if it was out of embarrassment, shame, or that the business took up all his free time.  But I didn't get another chance to see George Bailey for about a year or so.   By then, I was back from college and working like a dog.

                It turned out that college just wasn't in the cards for me.  I just didn't have the patience for it.  The lectures were boring, the coursework was way over my head, and the only time it was ever any fun, was during the weekend parties.  Because there were boys and booze and dancing and laughing.  How could all those boring books compete with that?

                For my mother's sake, though, I kept at it for a year, but that was enough.  I'd spent enough of her money and it wasn't doing either of us any good, so it was back home for me, back with my mother, the both of us trying to keep our heads above water with whatever employment we could find.  She was taking in laundry and ironing, and I was serving tables over at one of the restaurants downtown.

                George came in one day at lunchtime with his uncle, both of 'em looking browbeat and tired.   Another typical day at the office.  And the day was only half over.

                "Hey," he said when I came up to his table, "I didn't know you worked here!"

                I smiled real big and acted happy to see him - which I was.  "Hey, yourself, George.  I've been here a couple weeks now."

                "Oh, is college out already?"

                "I - I had to quit college."

                "I'm sorry to hear that, Violet. What happened?"

                Trying not to sound embarrassed - which I was - I said, "Well, you know how it is.  Money's pretty tight at home, and Mom was needing help with bills and things."  He would certainly understand that point of view.  "So I'll work for awhile, then maybe go back."

                He looked up at me, kind of dreamy-like and kind of curious, all at the same time.  "But you were there, weren't you?  What was it like?"

                It wasn't something I really wanted to talk about, but, at that moment, I'd recite the Declaration of Independence to keep talking with George.

                "It was loads of fun, George.  Staying up late, hanging out with friends, talking til the cows come home.  It was ... exciting."

                "I wish I could've gone with you."

                "I know, George.  You would've really enjoyed it."

                "Say," he said, his face turning with that sly kind of look, the kind of look I hadn't seen for a long time, the look that said he'd gotten a fantastic idea but didn't want to blurt it out all at once for fear of scaring people away. "I've got an idea.  Are you interested in a little adventure?"

                Now he was talking my language!  "Sure, George.  What do you have in mind?"

                "Well, you and I haven't had a chance to talk much lately, and I'm feeling kind of talkative today, and - say, what time do you get off work, anyway?"

                "About seven, right after the dinner rush."

                "Would you perhaps be interested in going out for a little coffee and dessert after work tonight?  I could pick you up about eight o'clock, if that wouldn't be too late."

                I swear, my heart almost stopped beating.

                "On, no, that wouldn't be too late!  That would be wonderful, George!"

                He smiled that crooked smile of his, the one that always made me feel light-headed.   "OK, it's a date, then."

                And then he and his uncle finished up their lunch and walked back to the office, and I spent the rest of the day in a haze, wondering what to wear and what to say and where we'd go.  And then I got off work and went home and put on my prettiest dress, and did my hair up just right; and he picked me up in that old rattle-trap car of his at eight o'clock on the dot, and we went to Spinoza's for coffee and pastries, and then we took a long drive out to Lookout Point near the Falls, and as we sat there in the moonlight, he told me all his hopes and dreams.  And I leaned over on his shoulder, and he put his arms around me, and sometime just before midnight, he kissed me, and it was like fireworks going off inside.

                Well, that's the way it should've gone, anyway.

                In actual truth, it was bit different.

                "Hey, Violet," he said when I came up to the table.  "I didn't know you worked here!"

                I smiled real big and acted happy to see him - but meanwhile I was thinking that neither one of them was going to leave much of a tip because they were both notorious penny-pinchers.   "Hey, yourself, George.  I've been here a couple weeks now."

                "Oh, is college out already?"

                "I - I had to quit college."

                "I'm sorry to hear that, Violet. What happened?"

                Trying not to sound embarrassed - which I was - I said, "Well, you know how it is.  Money's pretty tight at home, and Mom was needing help with bills and things."  He would certainly understand that point of view.  "So I'll work for awhile, then maybe go back."

                "That sounds sensible, Violet.  Good luck with that.  I think I'll have the grilled cheese sandwhich with the tomato soup.   What about you, Uncle Billy?"

                And that was it.  The end of our happy little reunion conversation.  Oh, he wished me luck again after they were done eating and they'd paid the bill - leaving me a bigger tip than I had expected.  But that was about it for a very long time.

                In fact, I didn't see him again for another three years.

                My life changed substantially over the course of that three years.  Mother died and left me with nothing but debts, and the only way I could pay them off was to get a better job.  And the only job I could get that paid any better than the waitressing job was working escort for Don Caruthers, a local lowlife.  Not a bad job for someone who had given up on all hope of a decent life.  Especially when virtue had come to mean next to nothing.  But I didn't care anymore.  I knew where this life was leading me.  And there were benefits.  The road to hell was paved, not with good intentions, like they  said, but with money and jewelry and fancy dresses and fur coats and all kinds of nice things.  You just had to understand that none of it would ever really belong to you.  And if you didn't keep up your end of the bargain, it was all going to disappear, along with your life.

                I was hanging out with Butch and Jim, two of Don's boys, killing time before we were supposed to head over to the new gin joint in town to check it out for Don, when I spotted George walking down the street.  He looked kind of sad, and I was suddenly in a mood to try and cheer him up.

                "Hang on, boys," I told them.  "I think I got a date!"

                I should've known better, but, as they say, "Hope springs eternal", and I had been hoping for a chance like this for a long time.  I came bouncing up to George, all sunshine and happiness, with a smile that would've lit a cave, and was rewarded by a look of absolute desire that broke over his face like a wave.  He's ready, I said to myself.  He's finally ready.  If I play my cards right, it's just possible that I might realize that long-ago dream tonight.

                "Hey, Georgie!" I said, putting my arm in his.  "Where're you going?"

                "Nowhere, Violet," he said.

                "Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful night, doesn't it?"

                "Yes, yes it does," he said, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was thinking hard, and calculating, and trying to decide if this was the night for him, too.

                "Well, what're you going to do about it, then?" I asked, kind of impertinent but playful.  I was really good at that.

                "Are you game, Vi?  You want to make a night of it?"

                "Well, sure, Georgie!  What do you want to do?"

                "Let's - " he paused for a long moment, like he was still trying to decide which direction to go. "Let's go crazy!" he said.  "We'll take a long drive up to Mount Bedford, and sit and watch the moon rise, then take our shoes and socks off and - and run through the meadow!"

                That wasn't exactly what I was hoping to hear, but maybe it'd get better.  "And then?"

                "And then - and then we'll go for a swim in the lake!  And people will talk, and there'll be scandal, and it'll be in the newspapers, and you and I will be so famous that we'll have to move away to New York City!"

                "Oh, yes, let's!" I said.  "That would be so much fun!  There's nothing more I'd rather do in the whole world than to go up into the mountains all alone with you, and dance in the meadow, and go skinny-dipping in the lake, and then spend the rest of our lives together as far away from Bedford Falls as we can!"

                And so we drove up to the mountain meadow and danced til our feet were sore, then went skinny-dipping in the lake, and slept out under the stars all night long; and because he was a gentleman, he married me the very next day in Judge Harleson's chambers, and we drove to New York and had such a wonderful honeymoon that we decided to stay there the rest of our lives.  And he became a famous architect, and I had my picture taken several times on the cover of Good Housekeeping.

                In my dreams.

                It actually went a bit differently.

                "Hey, Georgie!" I said, putting my arm in his.  "Where're you going?"

                "Nowhere, Violet," he said.

                "Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful night, doesn't it?"

                "Yes, yes it does," he said, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was thinking hard, and calculating, and trying to decide if this was the night for him, too.

                "Well, what're you going to do about it, then?" I asked, kind of impertinent but playful.  I was really good at that.

                "Are you game, Vi?  You really want to make a night of it?"

                "Well, sure, Georgie!  What do you want to do?"

                "Let's - " he paused for a long moment, like he was still trying to decide which direction to go. "Let's go crazy!" he said.  "We'll take a long drive up to Mount Bedford, and then take our shoes and socks off and - and run through the meadow!"

                That wasn't at all what I was hoping to hear, and I thought maybe I'd heard wrong. "Huh?"

                "And then - and then we'll go for a swim in the lake!  And people will talk, and there'll be scandal, and it'll be in the newspapers, and you and I will be so famous that we'll have to move away to New York City!"

                Now he was really going off the deep end.  "What are you talking about, George?  I can't go running around Mount Bedford, not in this dress!  I'd catch my death!  And swimming?  At this time of night?  Are you crazy?"

                "Oh, all right, forget it, just forget it!"  And then he ran off.

                And the next thing I knew, he was married.  To the prissiest, most simple-minded girl I'd ever known - Mary Hatch.  Whose only dream, so far as anyone ever knew, was to settle down in Bedford Falls with George Bailey and live out the rest of her days in simple-minded domesticity like her mother.

                Not that she ever got that chance.  Everything went to hell in a hand-basket in short order.  I heard that George's business almost went bust on the very day of their wedding, when all the banks closed up.  Somehow they managed to keep things going, though.  And George and Mary worked their tailfeathers off doing just that for the next thirteen years.

                Until tonight.

                Because tonight, George is going to jail.  And I'm not sure how I feel about that.  Because he never did anything in his life to hurt anyone, and he never did anything in his life out of selfishness or greed, and those kind of people just don't make it in this world.  It's not right, and it's not fair, but that's the way the world is.  And I'd like to take that George Bailey and grab him by the throat and shake him til he understands how much I have always loved him, and how I wish things had turned out all different, and then I want to cry because I know that he wouldn't be the man he is today if they had.

                And maybe the reason things didn't work out for me is because of who I am.  And if I ever want to be the kind of woman who is right for that kind of man, maybe I'm going to need to start making some changes.

                Starting with this money I borrowed from him, to go away and start a new life.  I don't really want a new life.  I want a different life.  And I can start that right here, right now.

                And I want George Bailey to know about it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Furry Story

It was the strangest dream Kevin had ever experienced. The moon, blood-faced and shrieking, rose above the tree line, and he was filled with an instant urge to scream. He screamed, but it was not a scream of fear or triumph; it was a primal howl of agony. Long and piercing, it matched the pain he felt as every muscle, every tendon, every bone was stretched to the breaking point, twisting and contorting his body into impossible angles. He saw weird, unearthly shapes and leaped at them, slashed at them, bit them, tore them to pieces; he ran blindly through the moonlit night, striking out at everything in his path, his unbearable torture tempered only by the releasing of the destructive power he wielded against his vaporous, inconsequential foes. His mind was filled with pure, unadulterated hatred. His nostrils stank of blood and offal. On his tongue was a glorious mixture of sweetness and spice, tingling and tantalizingly delicious, but completely unknown to him; a taste sensation unlike any he had ever experienced, but one to which he was wholly addicted, body and soul.

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.

Until now.

Now he was a werewolf.

Now they were in danger.

From him.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Moment of Introspection

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?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Summary
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[1] 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[2], 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Mistress


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.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Stalwarts


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."

"Yes, sir."

"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.

But who?

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.