The Dark Beneath – Part One

© © Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Lori huddled, arms clasped around her knees, in the furthest, darkest corner of the closet, her eyes fixated on the open door. A clump of blouses and dresses swayed, rocking back and forth on their hangers like silk pendulums, partially eclipsing her view as they reached the zenith of their movement. Her breath slowed into deep but rhythmic exhalations, even as her grasp on her knees tightened, and the clothes gently eased to rest, the wake of her hurried flight into the closet now little more than a splintered memory.

          She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing until it too at last softened, evening out. No longer feeling as though she would hyperventilate at any moment, Lori struggled to envision the thing in her kitchen. She had never caught more than a vague impression of it, each glimpse either a dim, peripheral rorschach or a kaleidoscopic flurry too disjointed to take form.


***


          She had just emptied her pockets into the wall organizer in the foyer, her keys clattering softly against the other discarded keys in the storage cube. She had been making her way around the threshold into the kitchen to grab a snack when she first spotted the flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye.

          Lori lived alone, and the only other person with a key was her boyfriend, Dean. They had plans for the evening, but he wasn’t supposed to be off work for another hour yet, and even if he had cut out early, he wouldn’t have sulked around her kitchen in the dark.

          Lori knew it wasn’t him in her apartment. She knew it deep down, and yet that nagging doubt, that inescapable voice of reason, assured her it must be him in her home. She couldn’t help herself. Instinctually she called out. Lori spoke her mind. Always had.

          “Who’s there? Dean, if that’s you, I’m going to kick your –”

          She never finished speaking. She didn’t see it, but she heard the clatter of dishes shattering and silverware falling as that thing leapt to life. What had at first appeared as an amorphous shadow, a darker discoloration within an already darkened room, burst forward with a rapidity that bordered on the absurd. Instantly the thing darted out of the kitchen nook and blasted into the foyer smashing into her. Lori shot back against the door and slumped to the floor, a spasm shooting up her back. She gasped in pain and it was once again upon her. Legs and arms pumping in fevered fragments – broken images piercing the dark but never coalescing. Before she could even focus on it, the thing ripped her from the floor and hurtled her down the hall and deeper into the apartment.

          She had landed with a sharp impact against the hall bench, her head drumming from the blow. Her vision swam, bursts of light salting the dark, and she dropped motionless, unable to get her bearings. Before she could even cry out, the world had gone black.


***


          When she came to, silence reigned. Silence and darkness.

          That had been the first thing Lori noticed. Then came the pain, her head throbbing. Her teeth clenched, gritting against the pulsing and a sudden wave of nausea. Finally, it clicked.

          Nausea and pain. She was still breathing – sore and spinning and struggling with an urge to retch, but breathing. Whatever it was in her apartment, it could have easily ripped her apart while she lay unconscious on the floor. Instead it had left her there.

          It.

          At that moment she had realized that she was convinced that it was just that: an it. Lori was not a believer in the paranormal; she wasn’t some New Age adherent fond of crystals and the healing power of positivity, nor religious by any means, traditional or otherwise. She believed in science, in hard evidence. Still she knew what she had seen was not definable by pre-existing means. And where did that leave her? Her worldview tilted askew and collapsed. She could almost hear it shatter.

          Another breath and the image of that shadow form flooded over her. As she had turned the bend from the foyer asking Dean to reveal himself and just before the flurry of movement, she had seen a tall shadow climbing the wall, cast by the dim twilight easing through the window. The shadow had shifted with her entrance, contorted and reversed, and on its edge, as it twisted back, lept a glimmer of the thing, the substance casting that shadow. It stood tall yet also hunched over and primal, a deep pocket of darker black within black.

          Still, she could have believed it no more than a simple intruder (was there such a thing as a simple intruder?) had it not been for its skin. She had caught just a momentary look upon its face as it propelled itself forward and those last words stuck in her throat. It’s skin had rippled and bubbled, almost as if burnt and liquified, melted back to reveal muscle and bone. Yet rather than dripping, the river of skin clung to its shape, shifting and sculpting into a living form.

          That’s when she had noticed the smell as well, as if food had been left in the drain to mold and rot. The stench latched on and she found herself once more fighting back a deep urge to vomit.


***


          Even there in the closet Lori could smell it, although not so much it, as the memory of it, as if just thinking about the thing summoned forth that putrid rot. She pulled up her blouse, covering her nose to block out the smell, but it had little impact – the stench called out by memory more than actuality. Yet as she shifted the blouse up, she noticed the gentle spray of blood on her hands.


***


          As she came to, the memory of that thing disrupting the delicate balance of Lori’s perception of the universe, her first instinct had been to dash back the way she had come and out the front door, yelling for help. Instead, she had held back.

          It had left her alone. Quiet and still, unconscious on the floor, the thing had lost its interest in her. Lori didn’t know if was the lack of movement or the lack of sound, but she felt confident whatever it was in her apartment, it wasn’t tracking her by simple sight or smell. As best she could tell, it either hunted by movement or noise. Of course that left a dilemma. There was no safe way to determine how it hunted and come up with a plan. She could make a sound and see if it came back, or she could walk quietly and hope it didn’t see movement.

          Actually, come to think of it, while she couldn’t test her theory without risk, there was only one good course of action – besides laying still on the floor and hoping help comes. No way Lori was waiting. Lori acted. That’s who she was, and this thing wouldn’t rob that from her. It had already silenced her. That was more than enough.

          She’d have to try to slip out silently and hope it tracked by sound, not movement. The only other option was to make a sound and see what happened, which only had one of two endings: one, it didn’t hear her and Lori would continue laying motionless on the floor; or two it did hear her and it came back to finish the job. Not satisfied with either possibility, Lori mentally prepared to make a slow, silent break for the door.

          Before she could, however, she heard a quiet whimper from beneath the couch: Beverly, her Pomeranian. Lori had no idea how long Beverly had been hiding there, but she saw her master now, and those eyes looked up at her with a mix of excitement and anxiety, begging for her help.

          Lori fought back the protective impulse to charge for her precious dog, to scoop her up and run her to safety. Instead she merely glanced at her to see that she was okay, then glanced away. If she looked at Beverly too much, the dog would bound right over and Lori couldn’t risk that. She lay motionless struggling to form a new plan. Beverly watched from under the couch. The twilight creeping through the window grew dimmer and vanished. Still nothing seized upon Lori. No demon of the dark tore her from her prone position. Lori just lay there, holding her breath, awaiting the inevitable, stuck trying to find any way to reach Beverly and not get killed.

          At that moment, a footstep sounded from behind her, sloshing against the wood paneling. Then another, and another. Each footfall came slow and steady, each wet and slick. At last she caught sight of a bare foot halfway between her and the couch or what should have been a foot. Here too the skin pulsed, blackened and veined in red, like cracks in a parched landscape, only a layer of water and puss gelled over the burnt surface of the skin.

          Lori didn’t dare move or make a sound. She lay motionless as the thing inched further into the living room. From her position on the floor she could make out no more than its feet in the growing dark, approaching ever closer to Beverly. The Pomeranian had shrunk further back beneath the couch, a trail of urine streaking back towards it. Lori desperately wanted to help her, and in that instant, Beverly locked eyes with her master and yelped.

          The thing leapt forth and flung the couch aside as if tossing a ball. The sofa crashed back with brute force cracking open the drywall and smashing to the ground. As it did, Beverly yelped once more and skittered across the wood floor searching for cover. Lori could see those blackened feet dashing after her baby, and without thinking she rose and screamed.

          Immediately the thing pivoted, and she felt the impact of its wet fist slamming her across her midsection. She doubled over and shot through the air slamming into a large, potted ficus, and fell to the floor in a tangle of branches, leaves, and potting mix.

          Sound. It definitely tracked by sound.

          Lori lay still, motionless and more importantly quiet as possible. Her body ached all over, bruises forming over bruises, and with each breath she could feel a stabbing sensation. Lori was not accustomed to injury, but she felt certain she had fractured a rib.
Laying there as motionless as possible she felt that rib, what she assumed was her rib, pressing in, pain rippling up from the break, and from the movement of bone against bone. If she could just shift, maybe the pain would ease.

          Then beneath all the pain she felt a broken branch lodged beneath her, the splinters of wood digging into her shirt and scratching at the skin of her back. She tried to focus on anything but the pain, but that left her instead focusing on that deep itch and the increasingly irresistible urge to scratch it. A shift just an inch to the right and maybe, just maybe, she could relieve the pain, but if not, she could at least shift off that damned branch.

          She tensed her abs and locked her elbows. Time to move. On three, she thought. One. It would feel so good to just not have that branch under her. Two. Of course, chances were her rib would hurt like hell. Would she scream? Three. She didn’t move. How could she? That thing was still here somewhere.

          What a coward. She rolled her eyes at herself. Or rational-thinking adult not interested in being mauled to death. Yeah, that too. Of course, in that moment she was back at square one – prone on the floor waiting without a plan.

          In a moment bordering on deja-vu Beverly yapped again, this time from down the hall towards the bedroom. Again Lori heard the rapid charge of It, of the thing in her apartment. Beneath its heavy footfalls she could just make out the scampering pitter-patter of Beverly’s paws on the wood.

          Lori braved a look. At the end of the hallway, she saw once again that hunched, primal shadow, that flickering discoloration in the black. She couldn’t see Beverly clearly, but she could sense movement along the floor line, and assumed that was her, cornered and skittering in circles. In the opposite direction, she saw the front door, nothing between her and escape. All she had to do was get on her feet and make a mad dash. Maybe fifteen feet or so, and she could be out of this nightmare.

          She looked back to the dark, where Beverly barked at the thing that had invaded her apartment. How did it even get here? What was it? She needed answers, but more than anything she needed to act. Lori acted. That’s what she did. For too long that night she had felt herself benched.

          She shifted her hand ever so slightly, tightening it around the broken branch beneath her back. Her fingers traced a slow path along its contours until finding its tip. She felt a needle of pain as she pressed down. The branch was plenty sharp.
Lori stood, careful to make as little noise as possible, and shuffled forward inch by inch. Ten feet between her and Beverly. Nine feet. Eight feet. Seven feet.
The shadow at the end of the hall stopped, and so did she. Lori held her breath, lest the slightest noise tip that thing off. A smaller shadow continued darting across the floor, but before it could escape, the larger hunched back down and swiped at it. Wood paneling cracked and ripped from the floor, but the dog remained unscathed.

          Six feet. Five feet.

          Spotting Lori, Beverly made a dash for her owner, but the intruder pivoted into the dog’s path. Desperate and cornered, the Pomerania bit into the thing’s ankle. A guttural, gurgling howl broke through the night and that thing reared back. Lori took her moment.

          Four feet. Three feet. Two.

          She stabbed down with the splintered branch as hard as she could thrusting deep into the base of the creature’s neck. It jerked away, flailing frantically, a thin spray of arterial blood misting out. Instinctually, Lori raised her hands to shield her face.


***


          Lori let out another deep and silent breath, then lowered her hands. As the beast squirmed and pulled at the branch sticking from its neck, Lori had been caught with her retreat blocked. With no choice she had opened the bedroom and fled inside. She shut the door gently, hoping the distracted beast would not notice nor hear, then propped a desk chair beneath the handle. She considered pushing her dresser over and barricading herself in, but was fairly sure the thing would have heard her and rushed in.

          Moments later, afraid to test her temporary security, Lori had fled into the closet, while Beverly hid far back under the bed. It was best that way. If her dog could see her, if they were hiding together, Lori doubted she would have stayed silent.

          Of course, once more Lori found herself motionless and hiding. Her heart pounded in her chest, sweat drenched her clothes, and her side ached more than ever. Another stabbing pain coursed over her and Lori wondered how long she could go without seeing a doctor. How long could she last without treatment?

          She didn’t even notice she had risen to her feet until she came to staring out her window. Her apartment was nine floors up, looking out onto downtown Los Angeles. She didn’t have a balcony off her bedroom but a ledge about six inches wide ran the perimeter of the building, just a foot below the windows. One bend around the building corner, and another ten feet and she’d be at the living room balcony. It would be a short dash from the living room to the front door, but if that thing was still waiting outside her bedroom, then it just might be possible. Fifteen feet total stood between her and escape.

          Of course, she had to be certain. She scanned a nearby nightstand, grabbed an empty tic-tac container, and threw it at the door. A great clawing lashed at the door and it shook upon its hinges, but the chair beneath the handle did not budge. Yes, It was still out there.

July 2017 Status Update

Continuing the new format on this one. Short and sweet. Not much has changed from June to July, but here’s where I am.

 

  • Two New Horror Stories Underway: The first story is another true short story for once, per requests from my first poll. It will post in 2 parts. The second story is looking to be 5 parts (~10,000 words) and has been delayed to meet the poll requests. I will continue to work on it and post when you’re ready for a longer story.
  • New Sci-Fi Story Underway: I don’t know how long this one will be, but I have a more action-packed sci-fi short story in mind for once. Progress on part one is underway and I will determine posting based on results of engagement with you, my readers.
  • Joined Wattpad: I am now also submitting stories to Wattpad, where you can engage directly with them paragraph by paragraph.
  • Arcas nearing completion: Art is nearly done and I’m working on a few revisions, polishing the script.
  • Novelette by late 2017: I have a horror novelette, Calling Mr. Nelson Pugh, with final edits underway. My hope is to have it published by late 2017 and available as an e-book.
  • Short Story Horror Anthology: I am cementing plans for publishing an anthology of horror shorts. This would include material from this site (but having been vetted through additional edits), and previously unpublished material, with close to a 50/50 new to reprinted ratio. I am about 5,000 words shy of a 70,000 word minimum goal, which I foresee crossing soon. Edits will likely take six months to a year depending on availability of editors, and some additional connective tissue is being drafted. With that being the case, I expect a late 2018 publication.
  • Horror Novel underway: I am about 35,000 words into my first full length horror novel. It is too early to predict a completion date, but I am considering posting chapters to this site as I get further along. I would love to know if there is interest in reading it chapter by chapter as I push through the first draft. Feel free to sound off in the comments.
  • Co-written Sci-fi Comic: Finally I am also collaborating as a co-writer and creator for an additional science-fiction comic. My writing partner and I are in the early stages of this project, but I hope to have more updates soon.

There is probably a little I missed, but that’s enough for now. If anything in there strikes your interest, chime in. I’d be happy to discuss. Bye for now.

Happy Writing, All!

The Plodding, Perilous Quest For Readers: Part One

© Andreiuc88 | ID 64280096

By Chris Hutton


          The quest to be read is a path littered with disappointment. If you are a writer and you are reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you that. If, however, you are just beginning your trek into the world of professional writing, then perhaps this may be of some use to you. Take it as a cautionary tale if you will, not to dissuade you from venturing forth to conquer the written word, but rather to aid you in stepping out that door prepared for the path ahead. As Bilbo once told his nephew, “It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”


Hello, Is Anyone There?

          Back in the nineties when I was scouring the Internet teaching myself HTML (because how better to spend a Friday night in the prime of your high school years?) there was a common exercise used in teaching. The web tutorial would cover a few basic tags, then instruct the learner to type in the phrase ‘Hello, World!’ Sometimes if the Tutorial was really fancy it would teach you to make the text different colors and blink.

           For me this is a fun little anecdote, a nice stroll down the proverbial Memory Lane, but it is also very relevant. If you write, and you put yourself and your writing out there, you are daily going to feel as if you are shouting this phrase, this blinking ‘Hello, World’ out into the void of an Internet that does not know you exist.

          Sometimes you may get lucky, you may receive a reply, a voice in the darkness letting you know that you have been heard, but more often than not your efforts will meet, at least initially, with nothing more than crickets. Try not to despair. Most writers become acquainted with the deafening silence of the non-response. If you are going to succeed you have to keep moving forward, often not even knowing if anyone is reading at all.


So What Are The Numbers?

          Okay, you’re pretty sure that you are being read, but how many people are reading you? No problem. You’ve got a 1,000 Twitter followers, 100 fans on Facebook, 150 Instagram followers and ten subscribers. So what’s that, 1,260 readers, right?

           Yeah, I didn’t think so. Believe it or not I’ve been in many professional situations where organizations try to calculate their reach this way, but a simple addition just doesn’t account for overlapping followers.

          Oh you’ve already accounted for that and you have 1,174 unique followers so that’s your readership, right. Well, no, not really. How many of those followers are clicking through to your site? Well first off a large chunk isn’t even active that day. You have to sort through a lot of noise to find average stats regarding twitter followers, activity, impressions and engagement. I’ll save you the burden of sailing that sea. We’ll use the following blog as our base for metrics:
https://meetedgar.com/blog/201407this-is-why-nobody-sees-your-tweets-2/

          Assuming the post to be accurate only 46% of your twitter followers are active on a given day, so let’s drop your 1,000 followers to 460. Only 34% check multiple times a day and let’s face it, your tweet isn’t reaching all 340 followers that check multiple times a day. I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say your tweet received 200 impressions, or 20% of your audience. That’s a huge benefit of the doubt as I’ve read some analyses that estimate only a 6% average impression or 60 of your 1,000 followers on Twitter. Still, we will go with 200. Great, at least you have 200 readers.

          Wrong. Many of those twitter users saw your post and did nothing about it. Setting overall engagement aside, what is the click-through-rate (CTR) on that tweet? We’ll use the average 1.64% CTR on your full 1,000 followers. That would suggest 16 clicks per tweet. I’m dubious of that average. If we apply that percentage to your impression audience I would imagine that might be more realistic, giving you about three clicks per tweet. Your results may vary of course as the average CTR is actually higher for accounts with fewer followers, decreasing as follower count increases (https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/twitter-increase-clickthrough-rate).

          Blah, blah, blah. Who cares about Twitter click-through-rates and how does that reflect my readership at all? Great point. A click is one factor (of many) that indicates audience engagement. We could go into stats on that as well, but I think we’ll save that for another day (unless you just can’t wait – https://www.google.com/amp/s/sproutsocial.com/insights/twitter-engagement/amp/; warning: this link is from a org with a Twitter analytics service. Great info, but keep in mind they have a product to sell). The point is clicks indicate some engagement and reflect how many persons click through to your site where I am going to guess you have writing available to read. Still even these clicks might bounce right off your site. Let’s assume you have a bounce right of 50%, which is actually not bad. So you have 1.5-8 one time readers from that click on your tweet. I am assuming it is the 1.5 as the numbers are more realistic. Now you just need that one time reader to become a returning visitor and you have earned yourself a reader!

          Depressed yet? This whole conversion can drive a writer to the dumps pretty quickly. Hell, many of us writers are the cliche, anti-social hermits. We barely socialize let alone like to market and this is the return on our invested time. It can be enough to make you walk away and call it quits for your blog.

          What about site analytics you say? Assuming they are functioning correctly you can get some measure of readership. I suggest looking at your monthly returning visitors. Still there is some measure of uncertainty. And that is the whole point even if you are being read, it can be extremely difficult to know if more than a few friends are reading your work. So, brace yourself for that.


Get Them Engaged!

          Yes, engaging your followers, building up a community can get you reads, but that is so much easier said than done. Moreover, everyone seems to have different ways to engage their audience, so what it means to engage can be somewhat unclear.

          Again, I’ll focus on twitter for now, but some of this will be relevant elsewhere. So first off, what does it mean to be engaged? What exactly is engagement? I like to use as many sources as possible, so let’s jump over to SEO Chat and Sprout Social on this one (http://www.seochat.com/c/a/social/twitter-engagement-measure/ & https://sproutsocial.com/insights/twitter-engagement/).

          Engagements on twitter include:

  • Retweets
  • @Mentions
  • Favorites / Likes
  • Follows
  • Replies
  • Profile Clicks
  • Permalink Clicks
  • Tweet Expansion Clicks
  • Link Clicks


          As a writer I’m thinking of the Follows (build an audience), Retweets (expand my reach), LIkes (pique interest), and link clicks (potential conversion to readers).

          Still to get those engagement metrics, I need to first engage the audience. There it gets trickier. There are a few tactics here: http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/twitter-tactics-to-increase-engagement/ and here: https://adespresso.com/academy/blog/23-strategies-increase-twitter-engagement/. I can’t vouch for all of them, but I’ll pull out a few that I’m currently exploring or actively using.

  • Tweet during daytime hours
  • Tweet on Saturday and Sunday
  • Use images in your tweets
  • Ask for retweets
  • Use hashtags
  • Include links
  • Calls to action
  • Engage with your followers and other users
  • Retweet others
  • Respond if someone tweets at you
  • Find out your peak hours
  • Twitter ads
  • Offer quality content
  • Space out your tweets
  • Ask questions


          Some additional ideas include:

  • Poll your audience
  • Know your audience / Target your content
  • Research your hashtags
  • Seek out the right audience


          We’re going to need more time to speak to that last point, because no matter how much you engage, if you aren’t targeting the right audience, you’re not going to convert a meaningful amount of readers. And that is the whole point of this, right? Finding readers. If you haven’t picked up on it, building a following isn’t enough. You have to create engaged followers that will read your writing, and that, that takes a lot more work than it would seem at first glance. Bear with me, because I’m still pushing through on this one.

          And now that I have completely dragged you down, I’ve gotta go. We’ll pick this up again in a couple weeks, after next week’s monthly status update, and I’ll see if I can’t pick you back up. More coming soon…

          Happy Writing, All!

Hunger – Part 2

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          ‘…always hungry.’ John could still hear his son’s words and he could see that look, those hopeful eyes, like Nicholas thought his father could do something, anything, to make him better. That he thought that somehow, his dad could take the pain and the hunger away.

          He pitied his son that blind faith in one’s father. There was a time that he had mourned for the loss of faith in his own father, but after Nicholas was born, he understood that no man could live up to the adoration placed upon them by their children. Now, when his own son needed him most, John knew that there was little he could do to help. Discipline wouldn’t cut it.

          He swept into the kitchen, popped open a beer, and chugged it back. John didn’t cope well with failure. When you had a job to complete, success was the only option. Yet no matter how he looked at the problem, he couldn’t see a way to help his son – not any method that he would have previously considered. The boy was scared. He was eating non-stop, talking to imaginary friends, and at the same time, Nicholas was just as mortified by his own decline as his parents were worried about it.

          John cast himself back into his armchair, and took another swallow of beer. A commercial for a local car dealership interrupted the preseason match as it went into the second quarter. John shut his eyes and tried to escape from the stress that tore at him. He might have to listen to Emily; he might have to let her take the boy to Brynn Marr. He hated to admit that – he’d have to think of some excuse, some way of making sure it came across as his idea, not an acquiescence to her. Giving ground would be a mistake. He wouldn’t let her have that.

          “John?”

          He sighed. “Yes, Em?”

          “How’d it go?”

          Like shit, he thought. The boy’s screwed. Something’s loose upstairs and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Of course the truth hurt. Emily didn’t need that.

          “It went great, hon,” he said. “We’ll get this worked out. I promise.” No need for any more detail until he could figure out how to get his son seen without Emily gloating. Plus he’d have to find some way to do it quietly. If Nicholas saw a shrink, no one needed to know. It needed to stay a private concern – family only.

          “So he’s going to what, diet? Do extra chores? Exercise?”

          “I told you he’s going to be fine. I’ve got it covered.”

          John swigged from his beer again. Em needed to leave him alone already.

          “Yeah, but how?”

          “Christ, Em! Just let me be.”

          “Don’t raise your voice. He’ll hear.”

          “Em, enough. Can you stop pestering for five seconds? I just want to watch the game.”

          “Okay.” Emily raised her hands in surrender, then turned and fled. John could hear her footfalls, slow and heavy as she retreated down the hall. Finally their bedroom door slammed behind her and the house returned to silence – all save for the gentle buzz of the TV.

          John smirked. I’m going to pay for that tonight. He glanced about spotting an afghan flung over the back of the couch. He leaned over, grabbed it and a small pillow and yanked them both back into his chair. He and the armchair had a long night ahead of themselves. Mentally exhausted, he closed his eyes and drifted off.


***


          He woke to the national anthem winding down as the American flag waved in a gentle breeze on the television screen. John blinked trying to gather his bearings. The song ended and the screen cut to static, the crinkle of the white noise echoing in the silence of the night. John winced at the sound and flicked off the set.

          Hell, he thought. I missed the entire game. He grabbed the warm beer from the end table beside him and swigged down the dregs of the bottle. That done, he reclined the chair and rolled back onto his pillow, squirming as he fought to get comfortable.

          As he settled in, ready to return to sleep, he marveled at the silence that ruled the house. A quiet coupled with the dark, blanketing every room. Outside he could hear crickets, and the mating call of a lone frog. The refrigerator hummed in the kitchen, and a grandfather clock counted off the seconds with a slow, rhythmic ticking.

          John smiled, taking comfort in the quiet. The soft night sounds of a slumbering house had always put John at ease. He had spent many similar nights in his youth slumbering on the couch at his grandparents, that same grandfather clock ticking from their foyer. The familiarity soothed him.

          Then came the noise that he couldn’t place. It bubbled up, barely audible, a mix of hard and soft, fast and slow. It held an asymmetric quality, lacking any discernible rhythm – something organic and chaotic.

          John cast all thought of sleep aside and popped his ears trying to hone in on the sound. No matter how hard he tried, he just could not place it.

          “Em, is that you?” he asked. No answer came.

          Slowly he rose, noticing a faint light emanating from the kitchen. “Em?” he repeated. His question met with only more silence – more silence and that sickening, unplaceable sound scraping in the undercurrent.

          John peered around the doorway to the kitchen. The open refrigerator door hung ajar, its light cast out across the kitchen, shining on empty tupperware containers and discarded wrappers.

          John swore under his breath, then bent and collected the containers, depositing them in the sink. He glanced back at the wrappers, but decided that they could wait. Kicking the refrigerator door shut, he turned to leave, only before he could he noticed the open pantry. One glance inside revealed empty boxes and emptier shelves, along with a trash can overflowing with other cast aside food containers.

          That boy is going to eat our bank account down to zero, he thought. He needed to have a word with Emily. He’d be taking Nicholas to Brynn Marr in the morning. She could gloat all she wanted, they couldn’t take much more of this.

          John crept down the hall to the master bedroom, and gently eased open the door. Emily would still be mad about earlier, and he braced for that, knowing an argument was coming. Now, however, it was time to face that storm.

          “Hey, Em?”

          Again, nothing. The room was empty, the bedspread crumpled and tossed at an angle away from Emily’s side of bed. She was up and about after all.

          The master bathroom door hung half open, the room dark as the rest of the house. She wasn’t in the bathroom and she wasn’t in bed.

          “Emily, where are you?” This time he asked louder. If he woke Nicholas, so be it. He needed to talk to the boy again, anyway. Nick had gone too far with his midnight snack, and on top of that, John needed to have a talk with him about what the morning would bring – about Brynn Marr.

          “Emily, can you answer me?”

          John jumped as a loud ring pierced the silence, the grandfather clock chiming the hour. It stopped at three chimes. No answer followed; yet something else sounded in the wake of the clock. That same unplaceable sound: wet and yet almost a crunch. It sounded fast, then slowed, then sped up again, no rhythm to its tempo, no symmetry to form a pattern. Straining, John listened closer, then caught it: the unmistakeable rending of meat.

          After everything that they had discussed and the boy was eating in bed. John could feel his anger rising. He steeled himself. He had caved earlier, and now Nicholas was worse than ever. This time he had to be firm. He had to lay down the law.

          He opened the door and stepped into Nicholas’s room, then stopped, gagging as his breath caught in his throat.

          At the far end of the room, amid a nest of wrappers and half-devoured plates, lay Emily. She stared back at John, her neck twisted at impossible angle, her head hanging limp upside down, her jaw broken, and rivulets of blood leaking from her mouth and down into her hair. The rest of her body had contorted into a ball, bent and broken.

          There could be no doubt she was dead, and yet her corpse shifted in a small jerking pattern as that sound continued beneath. John could place it now, the sound of something eating, its teeth clacking against bone and tearing at meat, pausing as it consumed its kill, then resuming with another bite – a fresh rending.

          “Nick?” He didn’t want to even think it, but he couldn’t help himself. He pictured his son beneath that mass, eating and eating, sating the insatiable hunger that had plagued for months now. “Nicholas!”

          “Dad.”

          The door shut behind John revealing his son, clutching his knees and rocking, his back to the wall. John felt a moment of relief, then flinched as the low to which he had let himself fall sunk in. How could he even have thought for a second that his son was capable of an act so grotesque. That thought would plague John for the rest of his life, and yet, no time remained for such indulgences now.

          He grabbed a baseball bat from the floor and approached the broken remains of his wife. “You’re dead, mother fucker!”

          John heard himself scream those first words as he approached his wife’s body, then the pulsing anger drowned out all sound and all rational thought. He could feel the string of obscenities unleash, the spit and rage exploding forth, but time and space, sight and sound, all became meaningless, nothing more than background to the main event.

          He leapt behind Emily, ready for a man or even some wild animal, his bat swinging. It struck, the metal reverberating as it hit across something hard with a crack that John more sensed than heard, and simultaneously a soft give. That’s when the world exploded in a shrill creak-scream, an otherworldly mix of raspy violin chords tinged with a guttural bubble.

          John fell to his knees, his hands covering his ears, and his bat rolling away into the blood nest of discarded wrapper and meat scraps. Emily scraps?

          A pale form, almost translucent, jerked back, seizing as puss erupted from a crack along what John could only conceive of as a shell. It writhed, large, lobster-like claws clacking as they ripped away from Emily, and mandibles snapping, yet all too quick for John to catch a concrete glimpse before it burrowed beneath its macabre nest.

          “What the hell?” John skittered backwards across the floor, in an unsettlingly appropriate crab-walk.

          “Ade, dad,” Nicholas said from behind him. “Dad, Ade.”

          John glanced back. His son still set back to the wall by the door, but he had let go of his knees, his body slumping, legs now splayed out and his arms slack at his sides, as if a balloon deflating. And there was something more to that thought… John could still see the baby-like fat in his face, and multiple chins still consumed Nicholas’s neck, and yet, he seemed smaller somehow.

          “I don’t understand.”

          “She gave him to me.”

          “She who?” John rose, his gaze returning to the remains of his wife, even as he spoke to his son behind him. That thing was still in there somewhere.

          “I don’t know.” Nicholas said. “She was there when I found Matt, hiding in the mirrors. I only saw her for a moment.”

          “Nick, you’re not making sense.”

          Emily’s body shifted, her head tilting and the bulk of her mass shifting to one side. Somewhere below her that thing was moving. More, John had the distinct impression that it was burrowing.

          “She gave him to me. She reached through the window and she touched me and told me that everything would be okay.”

          His son wasn’t making any sense, but that was fine. He was alive. Right now life had just gone FUBAR. Sense could come later.

          “Nick,” John said, breaking through the crazy talk, “get the door. We have to go.”

          John kept his eyes on Emily’s body as it shifted, nothing left but a heap of pulverized bone and meat. As long as he kept his eyes on it, as long as he could see that thing coming, he and his son had a chance. Behind him, he heard Nicholas lift himself to his feet.

          “Good, son. Good. Now get the door.”

          “She gave him to me. ‘A friend for a friend,’ she said.”

          “Just get the door.” Emily’s body collapsed inward, then lay still. The wrappers and plates at the edge of the nest began to stir. “Now, Nicholas!”

          “I still don’t know if she meant a friend to replace Matt, or if she meant I was her friend and she was gifting me with a new friend. She didn’t stick around to explain, you know?”

          “Nicholas, get the damn door!”

          John turned, that pulsing anger resuming, not at his son, but at the whole situation. They had to leave immediately. As he shifted his gaze, his kneecap shattered and his world burst into a red flare of pain.

          John fell landing on the shattered knee and his world ruptured once more. He screamed and toppled to the floor, clutching at the broken mess of bone and flesh. As the red subsided, he caught sight of his son lifting a heavy meat tenderizer, then bringing it down with all his weight.

          John shifted, trying to roll away from blow. With the sudden movement Nicholas missed his other knee but the tenderizer still hammered home into John’s upper tibia. He screamed again as the bone fractured, then bit down on his lip. He could taste the blood trickling into his mouth and down his throat, yet he was thankful for it, as that new pain provided a momentary distraction from the absolute agony of his shattered legs.

          “What are you doing?” he said, struggling to get the words out.

          Nicholas stood above him, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, and dropped the tenderizer to the floor.

          “I guess it doesn’t matter what she meant by it, really. She reached out from that glass, from within that window, and she touched me here, and Ade was born.” Nicholas patted at his stomach as he spoke, and with a growing sense of horror John realized what was so different about his son. His shirt hung loose, as if he had lost nearly twenty pounds in the span of a few hours.

          “Right here,” Nicholas repeated, lifting up his shirt to reveal folds of loose skin. In the center of those folds, John could just make out a large open wound. No blood poured from it, but a sticky mass coated its edges, like a glue sealing it shut.

          John scrambled back towards the door, dragging his legs behind him. He reached up to the handle, his fingers glancing against the knob, then slipping.

          “Don’t leave dad. It’s just me and you, now. Just me, you, and Ade.” Nicholas bent over, grabbing the tenderizer off the floor.

          “Why?” John asked, one hand reaching once more for the door, while the other grasped for anything that he could use to defend himself.

          “I don’t have a choice, dad.” Nicholas stopped, glancing back to his mother’s corpse, as if searching for his “friend” amidst its nest. “He depends on me.”

          “Then let him die.” John’s fingers caught on the handle once more. He twisted it and yanked the door open, falling back into the hallway.

          “You think it’s that easy? You think I haven’t thought of that?” Nicholas paused, cocking his head as if listening. As he did his brows furrowed, and he glanced back, his own rage bubbling to the surface.

          “Shut up,” he yelled. “I already let you have her.” He turned back to his father. “You hear this shit, dad? You hear what I have to put up with? It’s just never enough.”

          “It’s well beyond enough, son,” John dragged himself into the hall, his legs dangling behind him.

          “No, no, no, no!” Nicholas gripped at his head, ripping at his hair. “Fine!”

          He reached the door and slammed it as hard as he could, catching his dad’s mangled legs.

          John banged his fists against the floor, his eyes winced shut, and gritted his teeth against the wave of pain. How is this happening, he thought. This wasn’t reality; this wasn’t the world as he understood it. More, this wasn’t his son, not his sweet Nicholas, the soft momma’s boy.

          The door eased open and Nicholas, winded, slid down the door jamb, sitting himself upon his dad’s legs. “Don’t you get it, dad? I need him, too.”

          Nicholas struggled for his breath. As at last he eased back to a normal rhythm, he pulled at the fold of skin under his night shirt. “See this,” he said, waving the glued over wound at his father. At this distance John could see it more clearly – almost a surgical incision.

          “It doesn’t hold. If he doesn’t return, it will open, and I’ll bleed out.” He stopped, listening once again.

          “Nicholas,” John started.

          “Shhh!” Nicholas held one finger before his lips, then cocked his head back towards his room. Finally, he sighed.

          “Yes, I’m telling him. What the hell do you think I’m doing?

          “Well, hell with you. You know how long I’ve wanted to tell someone?” Nicholas turned back to his dad, shaking his head and rolling his eyes in a ‘can you believe this guy’ gesture.

          “I’ve so wanted to tell you, you know that right.”

          John looked at his son, a mix of pity and horror in his eyes. “You killed Matt. You and this thing, you killed the Hoffmans.”

          “Damn, dad. Have you even been listening? The girl did that. I just walked in at the wrong time and she gave me a friend. I had to feed him. He needed me to grow, but now he’s here.”

          From beyond Nicholas John heard a rustle, then that raspy, violin clicking as something large skittered over the wood, a squelching gurgle dragging behind it.

          “Huh.” Nicholas shrugged. “Ade wants to meet you. What do you say, dad?”

          “I’m sorry.”

          “What?”

          John lunged forward, grabbed his son, and slammed him back into the doorjamb! He screamed as his head cracked into the wood, and behind him that shrill, crackly gurgle split the night once more.

          John fell to his elbows and army-crawled down the hall, his son moaning behind him. Behind that, the skittering resumed.

          John had made it as far as the living room entryway when he felt a sudden yank on his leg, and yet another burst of fireworks blocked out his vision.

          “Dad,” Nicholas more breathed than said as he hunched over him. “Dad, I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be alone with him.” Nicholas motioned beside him, and John shifted his gaze.

          A mass of shell and flesh coiled around Nicholas’s foot, like a cat rubbing against its owner’s leg. The thing had to be two feet long, its front resembling a cross between a tick and a lobster, all mandibles, antennae, and claws. Two lidless black eyes stared out,and behind its head, a small thorax with six segmented legs, quivered as it caressed against his son. Finally, the thing ended in a long multi-segmented abdomen, thin and translucent and riddled with veins dragging out in an amorphous mass that bloated at its end to the size of a basketball. The whole thing rippled and gurgled as it moved, then its eyes shifted to John, it’s mandibles opening and a mouth more mammal-like than insect, yawned open revealing rows upon circular rows of needle-like teeth and pulsing gums.

          John recoiled, then reached up and grabbed for his son. Whatever happened, he would not be a part of this abomination. Nor would his son, not even if meant killing him. Only Nicholas pulled back too quickly, dodging from his father’s grasp.

          That parasitic thing tensed around his leg. “But I don’t want to,” Nicholas said. John knew he wasn’t talking to him. “Fine.” He looked to his father. “Now, I’m sorry.”

          Nicholas brought the tenderizer down on John’s head and the world went black.


***


          As he came to, his head thumping to an excruciating internal drum solo, the first thing John noticed was the dust catching in the sunlight from the living room window. He found himself lying in his arm chair, his entire body aching. His son sat on the couch, showered and in a fresh set of clothes, his legs kicked up on the coffee table as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.

          “Nick?”

          “Morning, dad,” he said, stretching back into the couch, his shirt pulled taut over his massive belly, the fat once again bubbling out from a shirt now at least two sizes too small.

          “You think I could pick up some new clothes, today? These don’t fit anymore.”

          “Sure,” John said, shaking his head, trying to clear it. The drum solo intensified. Everything seemed so normal, the previous night nothing more than a vivid nightmare now vanished in a bad hangover. “Yeah, yeah, we can do that,” he continued, still staring at his son’s exposed belly.

          Suddenly it quivered, and shifted, something big pressing out against the skin. Nicholas leaned forward, grabbing a handful of shredded meat and bone from a plate sitting on the couch beside him. He shoveled the bloody concoction into his mouth.

          “Thanks, dad.” He offered the plate to his father. “Hungry?”

          John recoiled, trying not to think about what his son was eating. More he recoiled from his own reaction. His stomach rumbled and he realized that he was hungry; hungrier than he had ever been in his life.

          He tried to fight the urge, but instead found himself accepting the offered plate. He began to eat and something inside him twisted and turned and for a moment he thought he heard a quiet voice speaking in his head, urging him to eat even more. Again, John tried to resist, but he couldn’t. He ate another bite, and another, the drumming of his head softening as his own tears began to fall.




Back to Part 1

Diving Into Polls

© Arbi Babakhanaians | ID 6533043

By Chris Hutton


          This week, we’re taking a break from my 7 Lessons Learned series to announce a new feature on the site… or, perhaps more appropriately, a new feature that I am exploring for my author’s platform. If you haven’t already noticed, I’ve created a polls section on the main navigation. Periodically I will be pushing new polls onto the page. My intention here is to provide the opportunity for my readers to more actively engage with the content creation for this site.


Topics:

          To that end, I will be asking about such topics as:


          Upcoming Story Types:

          My first poll provided the option to vote on one of my upcoming stories and whether it should be horror or science fiction and how long of a story you as a reader would like to see.


          Prompts:

          In the near future I intend to request story prompts, whether a line of dialogue, a title, or a phrase. After I collect a set number I shall post my favorites in a poll on which my readers can vote to choose the prompt for an upcoming story.


          Preferences:

          What genres do my readers prefer? What story lengths are most suited to their reading style? What content engages you in social media? Basically, I may poll about general preferences to better understand what my audience enjoys.


          Getting to Know You:

          Quick polls on topics such as preferred authors, favorite books, films, etc.


Why, Why, Why?

          Every time I think that I have begun to understand social media I slip just a littler further down the rabbit hole. That doesn’t quite answer the question, does it?

          I started looking into social media polling with one simple goal: engage my audience. I wanted to encourage a back and forth communication between myself and my readers and to help generate a sense of community. Polls seemed like a great way to do this. I could ask a reader what type of story they wanted to read next or if they enjoyed some types of content more than others. Essentially, I could allow my readers, you, to have a voice in what content I create.

          Sounds good, right?

          Well, it doesn’t work unless you can get your readers to take the survey. Or find your readers. I have a lot of followers, but that doesn’t mean I have a lot of readers. I wish it did. I’d be ecstatic to have some 3,000+ readers. Hell, I’d be ecstatic to have 100, or even 10 that I don’t know. I have plenty of followers, but very little evidence of how many people are actually reading my work.

          One kernel of advice that I came across recently suggested that it is better to have 100 engaged followers than 1,000 inactive followers – or something to that effect. I’ve seen this same sentiment in so many permutations in various blogs now that I’ve lost count. The point is that in building a community of actively engaged readers, you create a lifetime audience rather than a passive reader that maybe checks your site once or twice and then never again.

          Hell, I came across a whole article on how to get your first 500 engaged twitter followers (though coincidentally that had nothing to do with polls). Yet the point stands. Engagement is key. Polls are one way I am seeking to create that engagement.

          Is it working? Well, I just started so I can’t really say yet.I can, however, say that I am currently lost in a sea of polling apps and articles on online surveys and marketing. Personally I’d love some advice to cut through the noise. I barely know where to begin. So I guess, if you’re reading this, hopefully you can learn from my mistakes, and/or my progress depending on how this goes. Also, if you happen to know of a polling app that embeds polls directly in social media posts and websites across Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress, while sharing votes across all platforms, please let me know. That’s the current Holy Grail for which I quest.


Should I care?

          That’s all good and all, but why am I telling you this?

          That’s a fair question. I could have simply started a poll on my site and left it at that; but that doesn’t guarantee my interested readers would know about it. How often do you check a site’s main navigation to see if it has been updated? If you are like me, probably not too often. You look for changes on the front page (which I am still exploring), and you read the new content. So, dedicating a blog seemed like a good way to get readers aware that I had begun polling and why I was doing so.

          Plus, I tried to post it under the radar, but, well, it remained under the radar. I put out my first poll and received two votes (technically four, but two were me testing the polling system, so I don’t think that they count). The point is, my first week of polling did not go so well, and I thought that a blog post might at least raise some awareness.


Quick Resources on Social Media Polling

          That being said, if you’re interested in increasing your own social media engagement for your author platform, my primary advice is to do your own research. I’m just getting started, so what do I know? However, if that doesn’t sound so appealing, feel free to piggyback off of some of mine. Here are some articles for you. I’ll update this blog entry in the future as I explore the topic more.


4 Facebook Tools for Your Social Media Strategy

Focused specifically on Facebook, the article provides a brief argument in favor in polling then jumps into reviews on 4 different Facebook polling tools.


5 Reasons to Include Polling in Your Social Media Strategy

This one is more relevant to companies and brands, but most of its takeaways can still be applied to writers and bloggers.


11 Ways Marketers Use Twitter Polls

Quick callouts to different uses for polls and clear examples of each. I wasn’t convinced I’d find it useful when I clicked the link but after reading through it, I am already rethinking my polling strategy. I even just posted my first Twitter poll, so there we go. And in ten minutes I’ve had more engagement with the twitter poll than the one on my site had in an entire week. That’s something.


How to Use Twitter Polls to Engage Your Audience: 13 Examples from Real Brands

Another article on effectively using Twitter polls to engage your audience. Huh. There’s that keyword, again: engage.


How to Supercharge Your Social Media Presence with Online Surveys

An article reviewing the pros of engaging your social media audience with surveys.


          Anyway, I hope that this is useful to someone.

          Happy Writing (and Polling), All!

Hunger – Part 1

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          “John.”

          “Not now.”

          John cracked a beer and settled back into his well worn armchair. Time for kickoff. Denver Broncos vs the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. He didn’t have any skin in the game, but he needed to unwind and it was on.

          “John! He needs help.”

          “Chrissake, Em. I just sat down.”

          Emily rounded the corner into the living room and, gripping the entryway, straightened herself into her most imposing stance. At barely five foot two and ninety-five pounds, the pose failed to impress.

          “Then get up,” she said. “This is our son.” She paused for emphasis then shifted gears. “And don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”

          “Jesus, Em,” he said. Sometimes you had to goad back, even if you were poking the proverbial bear.

          John sat down his beer, careful to use a coaster (Emily insisted on it), and stood. He towered over his wife by nearly a foot, his figure lean and intimidating without any effort. Years in the Marines and a strict exercise regimen had kept the traditional middle-aged gut at bay.

          “What is it now?”

          “He won’t come out of his room. He’s been in there all day, just sitting and eating junk.”

          “Well don’t give him junk food and half the problem is solved.”

          “He says he’s hungry, but it’s more than that.”

          “Yeah. He’s fat and he’s lazy. If you’d let me work it out of him I could have him straightened out in no time.”

          John loved his son deeply, but the boy had no understanding of discipline. His mother had coddled him from the start and the horrors of this past summer had done nothing but make Emily softer on the boy. John had long felt the need to break Emily of the habit, but he had indulged her instead. Soon he would have to consider that his son’s needs outweighed Emily’s happiness. Nicholas needed to be taught a lesson.

          “John, keep your voice down.”

          “Truth hurts. The boy needs to hear it.”

          “You know it’s more than that. The boy needs a doctor.”

          “You mean a shrink.”

          “I mean a professional that can help him cope with what he saw.”

          John let out an exasperated grunt. This again. He and Em had danced this dance many times over the past two months – ever since Nicholas discovered the Hoffmans dead in an apparent murder suicide.

          As on most Saturdays, Nicholas had headed over to the Hoffman residence shortly after breakfast to visit his best friend, Matt. He hadn’t had any formal plan, but John suspected his son had intended to spend the day playing jungle adventurer with Matt and thrashing their way through the woods surrounding New River.

          Instead Nicholas had arrived to find the Hoffman residence locked tight and no one answering the door. Their cars had been in the drive, so, certain that they were home, Nicholas had wandered around back to rap on Matt’s window. That’s when he found the bodies mutilated and splayed out on the floor of his best friend’s room.

          He had not been the same since. John had provided his son space to grieve, but when a month passed with no sign of a return to normalcy he had begun to worry. He didn’t want to be harsh and he understood Emily’s concerns, but he didn’t believe the answer lay in the finely crafted web of lies concocted by some quack head shrink. Not only would Nicholas likely come back with his head stuffed with some mother-hating, daddy-did-me-wrong nonsense, but moreover if word got out that he was seeing a psychiatrist the boy would be a laughing stock. There would likely be more damage done from bullying than healing by his doctor.

          “John?” Emily crossed her arms and demanded an answer.

          “No. The boy needs discipline, not some fraud enabling him. I won’t hear it.”

          “You won’t hear it –“

          “– No, so don’t start. I’ll talk to him, but I draw the line at head doctors.”

          Emily withdrew into herself. “Okay.”

          That settled, John took a swig of his beer then wiped his lips dry with his arm.

          “Good,” he said, and started down the hall. As he strode by, Emily reached out and gently brushed his arm.

          “Be easy on him, okay?”

          He could see the pleading in her eyes and softened.

          “Of course,” he said. “I’m not a monster.” And with that, he turned parting from his wife and strode down the hall.


***


          As he neared Nicholas’s door an unease settled into his gut. Nick was talking to someone, but the conversation was one-sided, as if the boy were on the phone, but that couldn’t be right either. The cordless phone was charging on its stand in the kitchen. John could see it as he glanced back over his shoulder. Looking at it as he listened in on Nicholas he found himself more and more puzzled by the fragmented conversation.

          “…says I should slow down.” Nicholas paused as if waiting on an inaudible reply, then continued.

          “It was implied.” Silence again. Then:

          “Well, no… but she may have a point. Look at me.

          “You’re right. Odd phrasing, but still.

          “Well, yes, I am. Always. Nonstop. But that doesn’t mean I’m not huge. There is no way I’ll make soccer in the fall.

          “It is too important. It’s important to me. I matter here.

          “Well, I don’t know, but I don’t want to be this way anymore. I don’t. Does it have to be so much?”

          Nicholas’s voice trailed off, softer, slipping into a gentle whisper. John leaned closer pressing his ear against the door.

          From the other side he heard a faint scratching, mixed with a barely audible gurgling. As it stopped, Nicholas spoke once more, still in that muted whisper.

          “Are you sure? I didn’t hear nothing.”

          He paused and the gurgling bubbled up through the quiet, along with that soft scratching. As it subsided, John could make out the faint sounds of a bag of chips crinkling, followed by footsteps approaching.

          “Hello?”

          John pressed back from the door just in time as it eased open a crack. His son stared out, one paranoid eye framed in the gap between the door and the doorway.

          “Yes, dad.”

          “Open the door.”

          “What?”

          John sighed then butted his shoulder into the door. Nicholas stumbled back, pinwheeling his arms, then fell flat onto his ass.

          “You heard me. I said open the door.”

          John entered, stepping over his son, and shut the door behind him.

          “Who were you talking to?” he asked as he took in the entirety of the room. It was a mess of junk food wrappers, empty plates, trash fantasy books, and coverless comics – the last just one more habit of which John intended to break Nicholas.

          “No one, dad.”

          “Uh-huh.” John marched to the closet and flung the door open: nothing but shirts, both hanging and wadded in a ball on the floor. “You need to clean that up.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          John turned 180 degrees and hauled to the bed, lifting the frame up as he peered under. More comics and wrappers. A cockroach skittered back from the light.

          “Shit, son. You need to clean this whole room before our house becomes infested.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          “This place is a shitheap, you know that?”

          “Yes. Yes, sir.”

          “Well then why didn’t you do something about it?”

          John locked eyes with Nicholas. The boy stood at a rapt attention in the center of the room, fifty pounds overweight, his chins jiggling as he stuttered his responses. Sweat stains leaked from his pits, and his shirt stretched taut over his expanding belly.

          “Hell, boy. What are we going to do with you?”

          John didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped to the room’s sole window, yanked it open, and leaned his head out, searching the yard. “Who’s out there?”

          “No one’s there, dad. Really.”

          “I’m not stupid, son. You were talking to someone.”

          “Just myself. Really.” His chins wobbled again, and sweat beaded down his brow.

          John pulled in from the window and focused all his ire on his son. “You’re hiding something. Out with it.”

          John sat on Nicholas’s bed and patted the mattress beside him.

          “Come on, Nick. Fess up.”

          Nicholas plopped into the empty space beside his dad, the frame groaning under the sudden pressure.

          “Jesus, son. Sit yourself down, don’t throw yourself down. Have some damn sense.”

          “Sorry, sir.”

          “Now, who was it?”

          “Ade.”

          “A-who?”

          “Ah-deh.”

          “What the hello type of name is that.”

          “I don’t know.”

          “Well, they’ll just let anyone in now days, won’t they. Fuck. What the hell were you doing sneaking company? You’re allowed friends over. It ain’t late. No need to sneak them in and out.”

          “I didn’t sneak anyone in or out.”

          “Come again?”

          Nicholas bit at his lip, turning his eyes down. More, this bite wasn’t a simple nervous tick clamping down on his lower lip. No, Nicholas seemed to be nibbling at the lip. Almost tasting it. Finally he spoke.

          “Ade’s imaginary.”

          John let his chin drop to his chest as he flung his head down and shook it. “Oh hell, boy.” John shook his head some more and pressed at his temples. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

          “I’ll be better. I promise.” The boys eyes pleaded with him, and at last John caved.

          “I know. I know you will, but I’ve had hard enough time keeping you away from the head shrinks with you just overeating. Now you’re talking to people that aren’t there. Shit, once your mother finds that out, she’s liable to sneak you off to Brynn Marr whether I consent or not.”

          “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea, dad. I’ve gained what, seventy-five pounds in two months?”

          “No. Fuck Brynn Marr. No son of mine.”

          “That’s thirty-seven pounds a month. What if it doesn’t slow down?” The desperation dripped from Nicholas as he spoke. John couldn’t miss it. His son genuinely feared that the weight would just keep coming – that he’d what, eat himself to death?

          John wanted to lay down the law. That’s how his dad had raised him and how his dad’s dad had before him. You didn’t play warm fuzzies and go for long walks and talk it out. You told your child how it was going to be and you expected they followed through with the order. Yet, looking at the fear in his son’s eyes, he knew Nicholas was no soldier. He was a child seeking help.

          “Why are you doing it? It’s Matt, right?”

          “I thought so, but I don’t know.”

          “You can do better than that.”

          “I miss him, I do, and I still have nightmares–”

          “Nothing in that room room can hurt you,” John said interrupting. Nicholas needed to know that he was safe. “Not now and not ever. You understand that, right?”

          “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

          Nicholas tugged at his tight clothes trying to pull up his pants, and when that failed, trying to tuck down his shirt. They’d just bought him new clothes two weeks ago. John would have to hit the PX with his next paycheck. Even if he could get Nicholas to drop some of the weight, it wouldn’t be enough anytime soon. His boy deserved the dignity of proper clothes. He deserved more than that. John could see the fear in his son’s eyes, and at last he understood that it wasn’t fear of rapprochement. Something had terrified his son, not with the fear of God but with the fear of something much worse. Something darker. That just could not stand.

          “Look, if you saw someone, if you think you’re in danger, you need to tell me. We’ll tell the police. They can lock him up, and I’ll guarantee you no one will touch you. I’d snap their neck they so much as looked at you wrong. You’re safe here, you know that?

          “Yes, dad. It’s not like that. I didn’t see it happen, but I think they were right. I think it was a… a murder-suicide. I’ve accepted that and I’ve mourned, dad, and I’ll always miss Matt, but I’m not sad anymore.”

          “So what is it?”

          “I’m just… hungry…”


On to Part Two

Want to Write? Read!

© Photographer: Ginasanders | Agency: Dreamstime.com

By Chris Hutton


          This whole post could be as short as this. You want to write, read. There blog done for the week. No…


Okay, a bit more then.

          If you don’t read novels, don’t write them. Don’t read short stories, don’t write them. Don’t watch tv, don’t write television. Or….

          To put it in a more positive light:

          If you want to write novels, read novels. If you want to write short stories, comics, or for film &/or television, read short stories and comics and watch tv and film (and better yet, read teleplays and scripts).


Why?

          Because it makes you a better writer. Beyond writing itself, there is no better training ground for the craft. Read great works, read crap works, just read. From the greats you can pick up on what it is you like so much, and what they do so well. Even more, from the not so great work, well, you can pick up on what bothers you. What techniques drive you up the wall? Do you hate adverbs? Does passive voice grate on your nerves. Do cliches, like those littering this paragraph, make you want to scream (see what I did there (twice)). I once had a professor that told me there was never an excuse to starting a sentence with ‘it.’ It’s not advice with which I completely agree, but I imagine that he picked that up from one too many sentences starting with ‘it’ in something that he read.

          Of course, the items entailed so far are more grammatical than anything else, but there is so much more to be learned. What stories excite you? What stories bore you? How do you feel about starting in the middle of the action and then flashing back? Personally, with rare exceptions, I prefer the straightforward narrative, What about the types of work you like? Do you want your horror pumping with gore, or exuding dark psychology? Both? What about your science-fiction? Perhaps you prefer slow tales of humanity at its limits, or maybe you want hordes of aliens and laser fights around every corner. Reading will let you know what you love and what you hate. In the end, I hope that we are telling the stories that we love, not the ones that we hope will impress. I could try to write some piece of modern literature, but I don’t read it. I read King and Hill and Cutter and horror and James S A Corey and near-future science-fiction. And if that is what I read, that’s what I write.


But so many reasons…

          I get it. For those of us who want to write, it can be hard enough to find time to put pen to paper. Now some nobody with a blog is saying you have to read as well. Jerk.

          There are a million reasons why we don’t read enough, although perhaps the crux of the dilemma is the usual culprit for so many of the things we don’t do – time. There just isn’t much of it. Again, I get it. I do. I want to read a lot more than I do, but I can’t make the time; but I do make some time, even if only a few pages a day I make sure to read. Usually I aim a bit higher, but the point is, when you find yourself having no time, exhausted from the stresses of everyday life, try to push through even just for a page or two. Make that effort.

          Beyond helping you become a better writer it is a matter of respecting your audience. If you don’t enjoy the medium enough to spend your time on it, how can you expect anyone to spend their time and hard earned money on your stories? You can’t.

          Oh but, beyond time, I frequently hear one other excuse – one for which I have far less tolerance: I don’t want to be influenced.

          To that I say, “Well, that’s just ridiculous.” If you are going to write, you need to know what has been done and what hasn’t. You need to know what works and what doesn’t. You need to know the craft and you can’t know that if you’re not reading.


Not just words…

          And lest you think that I am talking out of my ass, here is a rundown of what I have been reading over the past six months.


Comics:*
Marguerite Bennett

  • Animosity, Vol. 1

Ed Brubaker

  • Fatale, Book 4
  • Fatale, Book 5
  • Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1

Jonathan Hickman

  • The Black Monday Murders, Vol. 1

Joe Hill

  • Locke & Key, Vol. 4
  • Locke & Key, Vol. 5
  • Locke & Key, Vol. 6

Zack Kaplan

  • Eclipse, Vol. 1

A.J. Lieberman

  • Harvest

Jeff Lemire

  • Descender, Vol. 1
  • Descender, Vol. 2
  • Descender, Vol. 3

Michael Moreci

  • Roche Limit, Vol. 1
  • Roche Limit, Vol. 2

Rick Remender

  • Black Science, Vol. 1
  • Low, Vol. 1
  • Low, Vol. 2
  • Low, Vol. 3

Scott Snyder

  • Wytches

Charles Soule

  • Letter 44, Vol. 1

Michael J. Straczynski

  • Midnight Nation

Brian K. Vaughan

  • Paper Girls, Vol. 2
  • Saga, Vol. 4

Joshua Williamson

  • Nailbiter, Vol. 1

          *includes only trades that I read during this period


Novels:
Dathan Auberach

  • Penpal

William Peter Blatty

  • Legion

Michael Crichton

  • Sphere

Michael Connelly

  • The Concrete Blonde

James S.A. Corey

  • Caliban’s War

Sara Gran

  • Come Closer

Joe Hill

  • Horns

Michael Koryta

  • The Ridge

David Wong

  • John Dies at the End


Currently Reading:
Ania Ahlborn

  • The Pretty Ones

Isaac Asimov

  • Foundation

Michael Phillip Cash

  • Stillwell

Blake Crouch

  • Pines

Nick Cutter

  • Little Heaven

Lily Brooks-Dalton

  • Good Morning, Midnight

Arthur C. Clarke

  • Childhood’s End

Lev Grossman

  • The Magicians

Joe Hill

  • 20th Century Ghosts

Stephen King

  • 11/22/63

Scott B. Smith

  • The Ruins

Ian Whates

  • Solaris Rising 2


          If for some reason you take pleasure in long lists of what I am reading (like this one), you can follow me at goodreads and keep tabs on my reading progress. Not sure the benefit there, but hey, transparency.


Don’t just trust me

          What do I know? Hell, you don’t know me. I could be a gigantic liar. So now that everything I’ve written is called into question, let’s throw some quotes at you from people you might trust (if I’m not making them up).


“If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source.”
– Natalie Goldberg 1


          Over the years, I have read many books on storytelling and writing. Many are forgettable, others like Natalie Goldberg’s (quoted above), not so much, but I take all with the proverbial grain of salt. Yet of all the books I’ve read regarding the craft of writing, Stephen King’s On Writing is my most cherished. King, as always, doesn’t mince words or attempt to fancy up the process to sound more profound. He tells it simple and straight. The book has a few basic sections, CV (his personal journey as a writer), The Toolbox, On Writing, and On Living: A Postscript. In that third portion (On Writing) King delves into the importance of reading to a writer, and every time I glance through those pages I imagine the title Read, Damn You! sitting above the text instead of the simple – 1 – that actually acts as the header. The quotes that follow are taken from that portion of his book and are some of my favorites among many.


“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
– Stephen King 2


          And although King mentions that his reading is done for pleasure, not specifically learning, and entails an incredible 70-80 books a year, he admits that even when reading for the fun of it, we are learning.


“[T]here is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
– Stephen King 2


          Beyond that, he makes a strong point about the encouragement we can feel from reading a bad book.


“What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff? One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one [bad] novel… is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.”
– Stephen King 3


          And to my earlier point regarding the importance of quality reading, he has this to say:


“Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling… Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
– Stephen King 3


          I could spend a whole blog quoting just this one section from King’s book, but that seems vastly inappropriate, so I’m going to leave it at this overabundance of quotes and just encourage you to pick up the book yourself (Look, you can find it here). It’s worth the time.

          My apparent love affair with King aside, he is not the sole voice on the importance of reading to the writer. A quick Google search will turn up a plethora of quotations.


“Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out.”
– William Faulkner, interviewed by Lavon Rascoe for The Western Review, Summer 1951
Found in Writers on Reading: 12 Quotations on Learning to Write by Reading



“Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”
-Neil Gaiman
Quoted in Donalyn’s Miller’s Reading in the Wild
Found in Buzzfeed’s 17 Writers on The Importance of Reading


          Or check out yet another blog on the importance of reading to the writer. Try this one:
https://www.writingforward.com/better-writing/read-more-write-better
Sneak Peek at “10 Core Practices for Better Writing” – Read More and Write Better by Melissa Donovan on WritingForward.com.

Wrapping her up

          Still don’t take my word for it? That’s probably wise. Don’t. Make your own call. But if you do believe me, then just read already. I have some short stories you can start on. Try my free reads if you’re desperate for some material, but no matter what, if you’re a writer and you want to excel, then read. Read anything. Read everything. Read as much as possible. No ifs, ands, or buts.

          So…

          Happy Writing (and Reading) All!

1Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p54.
2King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p145.
3King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p146.


Back to 7 Lessons Learned

Ablation: Part 7

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          Talia spent the day pondering the message she had sent. She knew that it had been necessary, but the pain of letting go still left her unsettled. She skipped lunch. The “mid-day” meal took place in the common hall of Zhōngxīn, a decision made by the colonists in order to to encourage a unity among the group – to build that all too critical sense of community. Yet it was that very sense of community that compelled Talia to remain behind. After her goodbyes, she had no energy left to deal with people.

          She stretched out on her bed, now littered with pillows pilfered from the empty quarters, and stared once more at the ceiling. As a child she had bedecked her bedroom with glow-in-the-dark stars, spending numerous evenings contemplating the great mysteries of space as she stared at them. Now she let herself drift back to those simpler times, when the expanse of the universe held such wonder and amazement, and she had not yet fathomed the sorrow of its conquering.

          She had stared at those stars and dreamt of soaring among them. Interstellar travel still seemed fanciful then, but Mars had been colonized and the asteroids and the outer planets seemed within humanity’s grasp. She had contemplated then what it would be to see the sun from the edge of the solar system, as another distant star. There had even been public debate about pushing into the Oort cloud; she had witnessed some of the exploratory panels in the VR newsfeeds. Soon the Oort cloud had taken on a Holy Grail-like intensity in her passions, and she had set her sights on its exploration. That mission had propelled her into the top universities, where her focus had shifted with the evolution of the public debates, resettling on the closest stars now nearing civilization’s extended reach. Still the stars guided her, their siren call unabated until she met Milton. With a family, everything changed.

          When she left for Anima twenty-four years prior, Talia thought that she could somehow cling to both the loves of her life, Milton & Bernard, and the stars. Only now had she accepted that such a thing might not be possible, and that realization soured her to the mission ahead, and to her own self worth. Still, Talia knew that she had not gone far enough. She had bid her family farewell, but she still clung to one remaining message, and as long as it went unseen, she would never truly say goodbye.

          She knew what must be done. Talia rose, steeled herself, and pressed play on her terminal.


***


          The screen sizzled to life popping with a frenetic energy unlike any message that Talia had previously viewed. Milton, older than before, but by at most a year, pressed at his eyes. His recent crow’s feet had grown deeper and his face had a foreign layer of stubble, but the most disconcerting change was his continued lack of glasses. As his eyes flickered about, his expression was devoid of the characteristic confusion that typically held sway when he didn’t wear his corrective lenses. He could see.

          He straightened up, pressing down on the collar of a light gray, seeming seamless uniform. This too sparked Talia’s curiosity, being far from his typical tweed professor garb.

          “I’m sorry, Talia. I’m sorry about my last message. We had to say goodbye. There was no way that I could know for certain that I would succeed, and the pain was becoming too much for Bernard. I didn’t want to continue to hurt him, no matter what hope I held.

          “Some time back I realized that I had to shift focus. I started, oh, eight years ago. I knew after the first year that this wasn’t tenable. It’s strange spending the first half of your life dedicated to one century only to rededicate yourself to another, to multiple, as your middle years approach.

          “Again, sorry, if I’m not making sense. We’re in a hurry here.”

          In the background numerous men and women, all in the same smooth gray uniform, milled about each seemingly marching with purpose, though to what purpose Talia could not say. The throng of humanity crowded out any visual cues as to where Milton had recorded the message. One of those passersby bumped into Milton, shouting a rushed apology as he scurried away and accentuating Milton’s point. Everyone was in a hurry.

          “I’m not sure we have the planning down as well on this one, but it was a narrow window and we had to move quickly. As I was saying, I shifted focus. I now have doctorates in British colonial history, ancient history, and in twenty-first century Martian colonial history. I figured that I would cover my bases, you understand.

          “Of course you don’t. Maybe I should just show you.”

          Milton reached forward and tilted the camera up. Soon a massive colony ship dominated the screen, hovering behind the milling masses of people seen through the viewing window of large space station.

          “We couldn’t be sure to be accepted, but humanity couldn’t wait for Anima’s first settlers to arrive. I hedged my bets diversifying my studies and turns out with my expertise in the historical complications of ancient societies and colonization both terrestrial and otherwise, I actually have something to offer a mission like this. And since they sent over enough specialists on the first wave, they are actually allowing more slots for families this time around.

          The camera tilted down revealing a young boy of no more than ten, with curly brown locks and an ear-to-ear grin. “Hi mom! Dad says we’ll be there soon. Just a dreamless sleep away and we’ll finally get to meet!”

          “I wanted to tell you before,” Milton said, jumping back in. “But I didn’t want to get your hopes up. Or mine really. Any number of complications could have canceled this flight. I might not have been accepted, we might have failed training, administrative changes could have wiped it from the budget, delayed launch, or altered colonist requirements. You know how this goes. But now, now we are on the eve of departure, and our call to board is underway. We’re coming, honey. We are going to be a family again.

          “Come here, Bernie.” Bernard squeezed in by his father.

          “We love you,” they said together. “See you soon!”

          The recording stopped.


***


          0 Messages

          Talia let out her breath in a deep gust. She hadn’t even realized that she was holding her breath until that moment. Her family was en route to Anima. At least they had launched for Anima. That message had come almost nine years after she had left, so they were, what, fifteen years into their voyage by now? It would be a quiet eight years, but then they would be reunited. Talia could feel the elation welling up inside of her, but she also felt something else – a deep sense of dread.

          If they were on their way, if another colony ship was en route, why hadn’t she been told when she landed on Anima. The wake shift should have known. Gustavo should have known.


***


          Talia tried for five hours before she finally tracked down Gustavo. After searching Tir Corridor, she made her way to Nabu’s homebase where she cornered Alexei Mikhailov, the resident geologist, and one of three remaining chemists. Alexei was the eldest colonist outside of the wake shift and had struck up a well-known friendship with Gustavo since the evacuation. Outside of that friendship, however, he tended to the reclusive side. When Talia found him he was all too eager to point her in Gustavo’s direction and to return to the solitude of his research. He hadn’t even noticed the tension in Talia’s shoulders and the anger knitted in her brow – or if he did, he valued his solitude more than his friendship.

          Armed with directions from Alexei, Talia made her way through Ekata Hol and into Athena Corridor. The quarters were pressed against an outer hull, and though Talia knew the walls were too thick for sound to pierce, she swore she could hear the fiery winds raging outside reflecting the anger boiling within her with an odd synchronicity. The rage beating in her temples, she turned one final corner into the westernmost room in Enhet Basen. It jutted out from the rest of the base like a peninsula, windows opening on three-sides to the night of Anima. Gustavo stared out through the center window.

          As she entered, he spoke.

          “Sometimes I think that if I stare hard enough, I can see the faintest glimmer of the twilight. It’s never really there though – always just out of reach. Still, if I’m lucky I can make out a falling star or two.” He turned. “Care to join me,” he started, then cut off. One look at Talia and he surmised the truth of the situation.

          “I guess you know. You’re one of the only remaining colonists with actual family in flight. Figures you’d be the first to find out.”

          Talia stopped cold. She hadn’t expected Gustavo to just blurt it out. She’d expected a fight.

          “There’s no use hiding it,” he said, as if reading her mind. “I knew that it would come out eventually.”

          “Then why not tell us? We had a right to know. Hell, what about all of the colonists that left? Did they have family coming?”

          “Some.” Gustavo sat, showing the first signs of weariness that Talia had ever seen in him. He motioned for her to join him.

          “No thanks.”

          “I understand.”

          “Well, I don’t. Everyone that left. How many would have stayed if they knew their families were coming?”

          “There’s no way I can –”

          “– No, don’t. Don’t answer that. Just tell me why? Why wouldn’t you tell us?”

          “We decided it was for the best not to.”

          “We? The wake shift? The whole wake shift knew didn’t it?”

          “Yes.”

          “And you all unanimously gave a giant fuck you to everyone in cryo and agreed to keep your little secret – that there was a second colony ship en route?”

          “There was some disagreement, but not enough.”

          “You mind telling me who disagreed.”

          “I can’t. The decision was made. Unanimous or not, we all agreed to abide by it.”

          “And how many of you that stayed have family coming. Do you?”

          “No, but some of us do.”

          “And how many of you that left had family coming?”

          “None.”

          “Hell, Gustavo. That’s exactly my point. No one with family coming would have left. You owed it to them to tell them.”

          “Did we? What if I told you that the second vessel received orders to turn back two years ago?”

          Talia eyed Gustavo, weighing whether to trust him.

          “We received the message about a month before we landed. Six months after our sensors indicated Anima was tidally locked we received the first concrete data on the atmosphere. We had to report back to the Coalition that Anima was not the Earth-analog that we had hoped. Once they received that data, the Coalition sent out the order for Ravanna, the second ship, to return. They received that message almost two years ago. As of yet we have not received word as to whether the order was obeyed. No one knows what the crew decided.”

          Talia knew immediately the crux of concern. If anyone had stayed waiting for family they might have stayed in vain. There was no way to know for certain if anyone was coming. Not yet.

          “So?” Gustavo prompted.

          “So I don’t know.” She began to break, her anger receding with her understanding. “I still feel you should have told us.”

          “And if that vessel returned home? How many colonists would have stayed due to false hope?”

          “I understand that. I’m not thick. But if it didn’t? If Ravanna arrives at Anima, what then for those that left hoping to see a family that won’t be waiting for them?”

          “Those who chose to return had already committed to losing their families. Everyone they had ever known will be fifty years older than when they last saw them by the time Unity returns to Earth. For them, Earth’s call outweighed family bonds. If they had stayed and no one ever came, then they would not only have lost their family, but also their only chance of seeing Earth again.”

          “That’s how you justified it?”

          “I didn’t say it was my call, but that was the consensus.

          Talia noticed how Gustavo glanced back to the door, as if looking for the other wake shifters. He had been the voice of dissent. He agreed with her, and yet still he championed the decision he had fought. Even now, a quarter of a century lost to mission, and he was a man of orders.

          Dr. Ernst relaxed her arms onto the window ledge, easing the tension in her shoulders and looked out into the dark. Gustavo settled back in beside her.

          “How many more have family?” she asked.

          “Four of the primary crew, two of the wake shift.

          “Hmm,” Talia grunted. There was no more to say. A decision had been made, and though she could be angry with Gustavo for accepting that decision in the end (and she longed for that anger), she also knew that there had been no good choice to be made. She had accepted her fate when she thought that she had lost her family, and now that this was uncertainty, she could do no more than the same: accept.

          “There,” she said, pointing out a shooting star.

          The meteorite streaked across the firmament, its debris melting and evaporating in its wake as it broke apart in Anima’s atmosphere – another victim to the inhospitable planet, breaking apart and crashing, until it too settled onto the surface, now a part of this world no matter from where it once originated.

          “It’s beautiful,” Gustavo said.

          “Yes, it is.”

          Talia nodded, settling in as a small meteor shower began. Man had spread to the stars, and she had a role to play. More, she had hope once more, and whether Ravanna would one day hail them from orbit, or would return back to Earth, she knew that she had a family out there somewhere, fighting the friction and trying to remain whole. She would await word from them, a message that might never come, but also a message that might; and that was enough.




Back to Part 1

Fall Down. Get up.

© Flynt | Dreamstime.com – Falling down the stairs

By Chris Hutton

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

          At some point everyone stumbles, everyone falls. The key to success, at least so I’ve heard and believe (though admittedly using anecdotal, and therefore questionable, evidence) is not who doesn’t fall, but who stays down and who stands back up.

          Recently I disappeared from my blog for over 3 months. This was a huge misstep. My writing trickled from a steady 3-4 times a week to nearly non-existent. I had my reasons. We all have our reasons. I went on vacation, got back with a flu that evolved to strep throat that evolved to a sinus infection that devolved to a flu that ended in an ER visit. Suffice to say, I had a fun few months (and way too many visits to the doctor).

          The point is that I fell. Now I am standing back up. That is what has to be done if you want to write. You will lapse… you will slip, but hopefully you will also get back to that keyboard and jump back to your writing.

          This falling and getting back up is all about the long game.

          When I came to Los Angeles for school (yes, I am a former film student) one of the first bits of advice that I was offered, beyond always take Fountain, was to give yourself ten years. Each overnight success in this town could easily take ten years.

          Mind, that’s not ten years of sitting on your ass hoping to make it, or piddling at your craft but never putting in the big effort, but ten grueling years of working your ass off, making connections, and honing your craft whether you are in the mood to do so or not. I don’t know if the theory is solid (there may be better paths), but there is some grain of truth to it. Time and again I have witnessed people arrive here with huge aspirations only to leave after a few years and move on. For some they realized that they had different dreams. Some became jaded with the industry, others realized they didn’t love it or it wasn’t for them. Some loved it but relocated and continued the fight from a new home base.

          But everyone that I know that succeeded, they fought for it. Whether they stayed in LA or fought the good fight from afar they kept writing, kept competing, meeting, networking, and above all working until they reached their aspirations.

          In my time here I have fallen. I’ve landed in jobs that didn’t leave time or energy to write – jobs where I worked 60, 70, 80 hours or more a week; jobs where I returned home to eat, sleep, rinse, and repeat. My life has changed and rerouted down many new paths.

          Yet after every adjustment, I have pushed myself back to the keyboard. My ten year mark approaches and I refuse to give up. Rather than take each misstep as a failure I stand up and learn from them, hoping to carve some modicum of success from those stumbles.

          Some of those deviations led to numerous connections within entertainment, helping me to build a network. Others introduced me to project management, entertainment marketing, web and print promotion, and social media management. Now my skill sets here vary, but strengthening each of these areas, focusing on what I have learned rather than dwelling on perceived failures, has allowed me to keep looking ahead with a positive light. I work with my connections and apply my knowledge of marketing to move forward with a stronger plan, one that has hope of getting my writing out there and in the hands of the most important people in the process of storytelling – the audience.

          Even with this most recent fall, I learned. I learned the value of a backlog and am now hard at work generating that glut of content before pushing forward, so that the next time unforeseen illness strikes everything doesn’t come crashing to a halt.

          My point here boils down to this: everyone stumbles, but we can learn from our failures, and if we stand back up rather than dwelling on our mistakes, then and only then does anyone have a chance of succeeding. So while I took a misstep and allowed my blog to lapse, I am now picking myself up and moving forward with hope.

          Thanks, and Happy Writing!

Ablation: Part 6

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          A week passed with the final message from home still unopened, then another, and another. A month after the majority of the colonists had launched back to Earth and a calm had finally settled over Enhet Basen. The remaining settlers, well, they settled. Life returned to daily routine, even if a new routine.

          Talia began each day with a quick breakfast in the kitchen off Mímir Corridor, which she shared with Haruka, Mímir’s group leader, and Dr. Sam Keeling, the physician that she had seen parting ways with an elderly relative in the Departure Hall of Launch Pad 73C so many light years ago. She now knew that the woman had been his mother, and that she had died only two weeks after Dr. Keeling left. He hadn’t had the heart to return to Earth after hearing the news. Now the three of them were the sole inhabitants of Mímir Corridor, which had been built to house fifty original colonists, with padding for 25% more. That had been built in as a safety precaution incase the colonists were unable to build new housing before the population expanded. Now, the empty halls and quarters echoed with the slightest movement, the untouched housing a reminder of everyone that had left the colony and everyone that had been left behind on Earth.

          All the remaining colonists had a sob story, not just Talia and Sam. Haruka had been one of the few to travel with his family, yet his wife and daughter had returned with the other colonists. This shared grief in the fresh loss of their families bonded the three final members of Group Mímir: a physician, a military commander, and an astrophysicist, and each orphaned in their own way. They were far from the oddest “family” to have formed within Enhet Basen – just one of many adopted families struggling to understand their new life in the twilight.

          Talia settled in beside Haruka for a breakfast of eggs and artificial bacon. They didn’t have the livestock for real bacon and while some of the groups had cultured meat, Mímir’s bioengineer and her team had not stayed behind, leaving their lab in Yedinstvo Kholl sadly unstaffed. They could have easily attained the supplies, but it was early yet and Talia lacked the energy to shuffle her way down to Tenjin corridor where Ikeno grew the cultured pork. At least eggs were in bountiful supply, as plenty of hens had made the voyage and themselves outnumbered the remaining human colonists.

          “Morning,” Talia said, before starting on her eggs.

          Haruka merely nodded.

          “Good morning ,” Sam said as he sat. “Any luck yet?”

          Sam was referring to Talia’s current project, collaborating with an engineer from Ogma to set up the observatory. Dr. Ernst wanted to collect as much information as she could about the local solar system. She had the opportunity to gather the most accurate data yet on the Alpha Centauri system. That would be the legacy she left for humanity; and one day it might prove critical for the colony on Anima.

          “Not much,” she said. “We found the files for the print, but we only have two functional print crews, and they’re still tied up on the start of Nabu’s electrolysis project and the construction of the first remote outpost with that architect, Lacroix out of Lao Zi. Bachir says it will be at least three weeks before one of the units frees up and two months before he has anyone trained for the third unit. Not that it matters. He’s already promised that one out.”

          Talia stopped and chuckled. “You know, for a colony dependent on interstellar travel, we’re already short–changing the value of the stars.”

          Haruka remained silent, but Sam nodded his agreement. “We always have. Just hang in there. You’re welcome to join me on my rounds. You know how awkward it can be when you’re the GP for half the people you know?”

          “I’ll pass.”

          “I thought so.”

          “Thought what?” Gustavo turned the bend into the kitchen. “Mind if I join you?”

          Haruka gestured for Gustavo to sit, maintaining his silence. The more time lapsed since his family’s departure, the less he spoke.

          Gustavo took a seat. While not a full-fledged member of the Mímir family, he had earned at the very least a satellite membership. He floated between Tir, Nabu, and Mímir, though he and the three other wake shifters had discussed taking over Athena Corridor, as none of its delegates had remained.

          “I come bearing gifts.” He slid a plate of cultured pork onto the table. “Ikena and the other growers set up a stall in Zhōngxīn.”

          “And this is why you’re always welcome,” Talia said.

          “I thought you would appreciate that. So where were we?”

          Sam caught Gustavo up on the idle chitchat, Talia nodding along. As they talked, Gustavo smiled and laughed, an ease in his posture hinting at a peace of mind that had escaped the others of the crew. Sam played as if his loss had dulled, smiling and chatting, but the tension in his shoulders and the vacant look in his eyes gave away the truth of his pain. Yet Gustavo displayed no such tells, his peace seemingly genuine.

          Perhaps that was truly the case. Gustavo had twenty-four years in flight to accept those that he had left behind. What’s more, he had stayed in communication. Rather than the over eight-year lag that the rest of the colonists would now experience with each message sent, he had been able to carry on communication from the start of the flight, the lag growing larger with each passing year, allowing him to acclimate to the temporal distance. He had watched as his family and friends aged, and he had aged with them.

          “What was it like being awake?” Talia asked.

          “Come again?”

          “Working on the wake shift for all those years, just you and a skeleton crew, pulling gradually further and further from Earth. What was it like?”

          Haruka perked up a little at this. He didn’t move or join in the conversation, but the clicking of his fork against the plate ceased and his gaze had shifted to his three crewmates. Even Sam’s chatter ended.

          Gustavo paused considering the question. “There’s no simple answer, I’m afraid. Lonely… and passionate. We were a small family, much like we have here, but larger. We had a lifetime together. You might as well ask a man to sum up his entire career, or an entire marriage.”

          He paused again, waiting for more. Talia didn’t respond. She had long ago learned you often learned more with silence than with questions. Sam, unfortunately, never learned that lesson.

          “Yeah, okay. Well, what about working comms? You and, what’s her name, Sofie?”

          “Safaa.”

          “Yeah, the Kenyan comm’s specialist.”

          “Moroccan.”

          Talia watched closely, noticing the first signs of frustration – no, anger – from Gustavo. Sam’s line of questioning, and more importantly his callous references to Lt. Safaa Jebbour, struck a nerve. There was a story there, between the two of them; between Gustavo and Safaa. There was always a story.

          “Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Sam continued. “She was in communication with Earth, in charge of the data relays and whatnot, right?”

          “That’s right.”

          “Word is you two were close. So I was thinking maybe you were there for some of… well let’s say, the critical communications.”

          Gustavo eased. “Yes. I was there when we informed Earth that Anima was locked, and I was there when we received our new landing coordinates.”

          “So you knew that we’d be settling in perpetual dark?”

          “Not right, away,” Gustavo said. “No, at first we thought we’d be landing in the twilight zone. Lt. Perret discovered the miscalculation, but of course by then it was too late to course correct.”

          “Jesus. So you knew coming in the shitshow that we were landing in.”

          “I knew the challenges, yes.”

          Sam only seemed to be digging himself deeper, and simultaneously turning the conversation further and further away from Talia’s point of interest.

          “The distance,” Talia interjected, “did it have the same effect for you?”

          “Did the time lag destroy my relationships back home? Is that what you mean?”

          “Yes,” Talia said.

          “Some. Most to be more precise. But the goodbyes came long ago and once I could accept them, well, life became more bearable. You just need time.”

          Yes, time, Talia thought. Time and to finally let go.


***


          The green light blinked letting her know that her recording had started. Talia sat before her terminal in her personal quarters dressed in jeans and a simple blouse. She had printed the clothes specifically for this message. It was important that she not be in the same uniform as in all of the messages that had already been sent. It was important that Milton and Bernard finally see some change. Her hair had also grown longer in the six weeks since the colonists had landed. The outfit and her hair would have to be enough. Age wise there would be little difference visible.

          Part of Dr. Ernst wondered why she put this pressure on her appearance. She had decided during that breakfast with Gustavo that she had to say goodbye. Yet if that is what she truly wanted, she questioned why she had made such an effort to heighten the differences between this message and those that came before it. What did it matter if she had come to say farewell.

          Yet it did. It mattered. Her family needed a change to the status quo, and this was the least that she could do for them.

          “Hello Milton,” she started. “Hello Bernard. I wish that I could see you. Both of you. I wish that I could have been there to watch you grow up and grow old. I wish I could have shared those experiences with you. And I know I could have, that life could have been different – that I could have stayed – but… well would we have survived that decision? I don’t know. I’ve always been with the stars and to have turned down the opportunity to settle the first interstellar colony, I think that would have broken me all the same. Broken us all perhaps.

          “I know that doesn’t make what you have been through any easier. And I know that you said your goodbyes and that you needed to let me go. I understand that.

          “Where am I going? I should have scripted this. I considered it, but I thought you deserved better. You deserved to hear from me straight. No filter. Now I think I’m just rambling. Maybe I am. But…”

          Talia sighed and settled back into her chair, casting her head back and staring up at the ceiling.

          “Hell. I’ve made a mess of this already.”

          Talia leaned forward ready to cancel the recording then stopped. Instead she settled back.

          “When I started this, this recording, I told myself that I would give you what you needed. That I would let you go and that this would be my goodbye. I had even convinced myself that, well, that this closure is what I needed. I needed to let you go, too. There’s this man, Gustavo. It’s nothing like that.” Talia shook her head. “It has only been six weeks for me, but even if it had been six years or sixty I don’t think I could move on. But Gustavo, he stayed awake the whole way to Anima. He was the cryo-engineer if you remember. Anyway, I’ve seen him a lot since I decided to stay. Oh hell, I’m telling this all wrong.

          “Obviously you’ve heard the news. We missed the twilight. The atmosphere has less oxygen than we thought. The pressure’s good. A little less than Earth, and the air is breathable for a time, but we have to get the oxygen percentage up if there is any chance at long term habitability. The winds are strong though, and that carries the hot air from the starward side of the planet back, so even in the dark the temperatures are bearable. Better if we had made it to the twilight, but that is what it is.

          “Anyway, you’ve both known this for years, I’m sure. The point is, I had an option to come home. Most of the colonists took it. No one wanted another Mars fiasco, struggling to live in a hostile environment. We all wanted the Earth analogue that we had been promised, and that’s not what we got, although I think that we could make it work. I didn’t decide to stay for that opportunity though. I didn’t stay to be a part of the great mission that brought me here. I’ll be a part of it, and there will be some solace in that, but I stayed for you.

          “I do not regret my decision, either to come or to stay, but only that you could not join me. There is important work to be done here, but most of all, I had to stay for you. If I had returned home Bernard would be in his 50s, nearly two decades older than his own mother, and Milton, you’d be in your 80s. I might not even see you again. Here, however, I thought we could have a relationship, no matter how distant. I could watch you both grow old. We could be a family.

          “That’s what I told myself when I decided not to board the return shuttle. I wasn’t ready to let go. I’m still not.

          “I’m not even sure how this message is going to end. I told myself that I would say goodbye. That I would grant you the peace that you requested, and that with that closure I would be able to let go of the pain of our loss. As I said, I’ve been spending some time with Gustavo from the wake shift. We were speaking this morning. Haruka and Dr. Keeling are, well, they aren’t great. We’re all still grieving family that we lost. It is fresh for each of us and we haven’t accepted the goodbyes, not completely. Gustavo, on the other hand, he’s had time to accept his losses, to let those who needed it go. Speaking with him, I thought perhaps it was time that I accept your decision. The more I talk, however, the more I know that I can’t let go of you. I need you, and that’s not fair. Not to me, but more not to either of you. There may be no happy ending here. So what to do…

          “I still don’t know…”

          Talia let herself cry, for a moment, then dabbed at her eyes.

          “Well, hell. This really hurts. But you know that already, don’t you? I love you. Both of you. And I’ll always be here if you want me to be. But it’s not right. So I guess, this is goodbye. For good this time. I won’t message again, unless I hear from you. I wish you both the best. And I’m sorry.

          “Stop recording.”

          Talia leaned forward and clicked off the screen.




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On to Part 7

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