Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Short stories that are not part of any larger canvas are kept here. They are further broken down by their status: finished or unfinished.

Cold Storage

I wrote this a few years ago as the first part of a series, but I never wrote more than this entry. It may be a bit rough and/or crummy. In any case, here it is.

1998

Alaska. Halloween night. Jake didn’t dress up, just so people would ask him what he was supposed to be. “I’m my evil twin, Ekaj,” he would explain.

“But you don’t look any different,” the irritating questioner would retort.

“That’s what makes me so insidious.”

Well, at least he thought it was clever, as clever as most 17-year-olds got, he decided.

Though Jake wasn’t the type to spend a lot of time on his appearance, tonight he checked himself out in the bathroom mirror, making sure his wavy, dirty blond hair didn’t look too out-of-control. A little chaos was fine, but he had to be sure it looked as if he put a bit of effort into it. He wanted to appear laid back, easygoing, no expectations. Always one to overanalyze, he assumed this would help the evening go more smoothly with Donna. Pure guesswork on his part, too, as he’d never been on a proper date, and this probably didn’t qualify either.

Satisfied that he looked decent enough in his crimson t-shirt, faded jeans, and sneakers, he slipped on a blue overcoat and headed for the door. “Be home by 1AM!” his father slurred, already six beers into a case of Old Milwaukee.

The plan was simple: Jake would meet up with Donna at her babysitting gig, which was on the west end of the Air Force base. Donna frequently sat for five-year-old Arianna, and was good friends with her mother, Tiffany. It was one of Tiffany’s “house rules” that, if Donna was going to have company during a babysitting stint, Tiffany had to meet them first. The other house rule was “no sex in front of the kid.” Jake wondered how serious that one was meant to be.

From Tiffany’s house, Donna and Jake would walk to the Halloween party at the high school, at the southeast corner of the base. Donna intended to meet up with a couple of her friends to go out into the forest near the school and perform their Samhain rituals. Jake found the concept eyeroll-inducing, but he did his best to keep an open mind. Besides, after Donna was finished with her Wiccan activities, they’d go back to Tiffany’s, put Arianna to bed, and have several hours of alone time. The prospect was nerve-wracking for Jake, who hadn’t done more than kiss this girl in the week they’d been seeing each other. They spent their lunch periods together, passed notes in the hall, and on some days he walked her home. Two days before, he’d done just that, and gotten a kiss for his trouble. It was chaste and awkward, the way the first ones often were, but he certainly didn’t regret it–he knew he was behind his peers in terms of experience, and didn’t want to leave high school without even a measly kiss under his belt.

A good twenty-minute walk brought him to Tiffany’s house. Typical of military housing, it was half of a duplex, and not very large or extravagant, just a box-like structure with windows and beige siding. He opened the screen door and knocked. No answer. He knocked again–still nothing. With a sigh, he grabbed the doorknob and discovered it turned without resistance. Since he was expected, he didn’t think much of just walking in. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. As the screen door swung shut behind him, he looked straight ahead and saw two people lying on a black sofa, one on top of the other. His heart pounded but he desperately avoided overreacting. Walking closer, he made out that Donna was definitely the one on the bottom. “Having fun?” he announced himself.

The guy on top stopped what he was doing and looked up. It was Mitchell, one of Jake’s friends, and someone he knew had more than a passing interest in Donna. For her part, Donna quickly shoved him off and sat up. “Thank you,” she said, glancing in Jake’s direction. “I told him you and I were seeing each other but he just can’t take a hint.”

Mitchell smirked, draping his arm over the back of the couch, appearing rather pleased with himself. Jake crossed his arms. “Where’s Tiffany?”

“Upstairs,” Donna said. “She’s getting ready.”

“I didn’t know Mitch was going to be here,” Jake said, his casual way of asking for an explanation.

Donna was quick to explain. “He walked me over from my house and said he’d keep me company until you got here. Obviously, he had only one thing on his mind.” She shot him a nasty glare with that last comment.

“Well, I’m here now, so thanks for looking after her,” Jake said sharply, staring at the boy who’d just been necking his girlfriend.

Mitchell may not have been the most considerate person, but he could tell when he was unwanted. He grabbed his coat and left without much fanfare. Jake finally noticed the little redhead sitting on the loveseat across the room, bouncing enthusiastically. “You’re Jake!” she declared.

He nodded. “I guess you’re Arianna.”

She beamed. “Do you want a shoulder massage?”

Jake raised his eyebrow, puzzled by such an abrupt offer and the age of the person giving it. “Maybe later,” he deferred.

Donna patted the spot next to her on the sofa. “Sit down.”

Jake did as he was told. She leaned against him. “You know that asshole wouldn’t even lend me his coat for the walk over here?”

Jake tentatively put his hands on her shoulders. “Shouldn’t you have brought your own?”

“Oh, I see. Take his side.”

He rolled his eyes.

Moments later, Tiffany finally made her appearance. She was tall, blonde, and thin, and Jake thought she looked older than she really was. For someone in her mid twenties, she had too many wrinkles, pronounced bags under her eyes. He didn’t know if it was young parenthood that caused it, military life, or something else. Nevertheless, she was in a stellar mood. “I’ve got a date tonight,” she announced, showing off her bare midriff and hip-huggers. Definitely dressed to get laid, Jake thought. “You must be Jake,” she said. “You’re not as cute as Donna said.”

“Uh, thanks,” Jake smirked.

“But you don’t look like a creep, so that’s good. When will you two be back?”

“No more than a couple hours,” Donna promised. “When is your date?”

“A little after eight.” It was five-thirty, so Jake knew they had plenty of time.

Donna grabbed Jake by the hand and led him toward the door. Tiffany went for a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, getting a head start on her evening. “We’ll be back!” Donna reassured.

The two of them began their trek across several streets and a few parks, working their way toward the high school. Donna did most of the talking, which was fine with Jake. He didn’t care for talking about himself, and he absolutely wanted to get to know her better.

“My dad almost didn’t let me babysit tonight. He pulled some bullshit with saying my grades weren’t good or something. He just likes to yank my chain a lot. Do your parents do that?”

Jake shook his head. “My dad doesn’t really care what I do, as long as I’m home on time. He knows I stay out of trouble.”

“My parents are assholes. They always hassle me for no reason. And then they reward my little brother for doing nothing, and rub it in my face.”

All of this sounded familiar to Jake. The first time they really talked, at the Homecoming dance, she’d gone off at considerable length about her father. Jake thought the man sounded controlling and manipulative, but hadn’t yet met him. She just always seemed to have a lot of ill will directed toward him. But then, what teenager didn’t fight with their parents?

Then again, Jake never really argued with his parents. He got the usual lectures about poor grades (anything below an “A” didn’t cut the mustard), sloppy clothing, and general ambivalence to the world around him, but he never properly rebelled like most of his peers seemed to. Maybe it was because he got all that chaos out of his system years before. For some reason, he just never felt motivated to stick it to his parents and make their lives a living hell. Plus, since his parents divorced, his father was in a perpetual drunken stupor, reeking of cheap beer and rum and often oblivious to anything with less than 5% alcohol content by volume.

So, Donna spent most of their journey complaining about her family. Her father was an ass, and her mother was an idiot, and her brother was a prick. Jake had very little to say that would comfort her, but he hoped being able to vent to someone would help her feel better.

It was about this time that Jake realized Donna hadn’t actually dressed up, either. She wore a green turtleneck and jeans, hardly anything that screamed “Halloween.” Between parental rants, he inserted the question: “Are you supposed to be anything for Halloween?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do I look like a little kid to you? I’m fourteen, I quit dressing up when I was twelve! And you’re one to talk. What’re you supposed to be?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m Ekaj, Jake’s evil twin.”

She didn’t look very amused. “That’s stupid.”

“You’re stupid,” he shot back.

“I’m sure I could’ve come up with something better than ‘evil twin.'”

As they walked along one of the major roads, they saw the high school coming up. Jake walked closer to her, which prompted her to tug at his coat. “I’m cold,” she said flatly. He slipped out of the thick, blue covering and threw it around her. She smiled and kissed his cheek. “You’re a gentleman.” The “unlike Mitch” was implied, Jake thought.

The sky had already darkened for the most part, but a plethora of lights illuminated the school, revealing dozens of students strolling in and out through the front doors. Jake and Donna greeted a few acquaintances in passing on their way inside, moving toward the great hall, where most of the festitivies occurred. The scene was crowded, students milling about, trying a random assortment of games. People played Twister for prizes, something Jake would’ve expected to be far too risque for the school administration to allow, but there it was–two freshman girls and a junior guy, contorting their bodies in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable collapse. The other games proved much more traditional, and involved throwing or rolling balls, tossing rings, or whacking a pinata shaped like a moose. Jake just hoped it didn’t contain “moose pellets.”

Few of the activities truly caught their interest, until Donna spotted a ring toss game using two-liter bottles of soda. “How does this one work?” she asked the senior who appeared to be in charge of it.

He answered as though it should have been obvious. “Uh, you just toss the ring, and if you get it around one of the bottles, you win it.”

Donna nudged Jake. “Win me that Dr. Pepper.” She pointed to a bottle in the middle of the pack. Jake wasn’t sure he could make it, but he figured he would try for Donna’s sake.

Pulling a dollar bill out of his pocket, he handed it to the senior and was given three rings, about four inches in diameter. The guy instructed him to stand behind the line of blue tape stretched across the floor, which meant Jake would be tossing the rings a good five to seven feet.

Standing behind the line, he concentrated, leaning forward, holding a pink ring horizontally in his right hand, lining up the shot. He gave it a spin and watched it bounce harmlessly over the collection of bottles. Donna frowned, but at least he had two attempts left. He tossed the second, which hooked the top of the target bottle, but still flew off to the left. Jake shook it off and tried to shut out all distractions for the final shot. Donna wanted that bottle, and by God, he was going to get it for her.

He pulled his arm back toward his chest, and this time tried to put very little spin on it, so it would simply land rather than swirl around the neck of the bottle. His change in strategy paid off, as the blue ring cruised through the air and landed squarely around the top of the Dr. Pepper bottle and came to a stop. Donna smiled and did an excited little jump. Jake was only too happy to reach down and retrieve his prize. “Here you go,” he said smugly, handing it to Donna.

Jake realized a few of Donna’s friends had shown up while he was concentrating, and one of them–Sarah, he thought her name was–asked if she could have a drink. Donna shrugged and extended her arms to give it to Sarah, but the latter girl’s grip slipped, and the bottle hit the floor with a bounce. Fortunately, it had not yet been opened.

Sarah bent down, picked it up, and went to twist off the cap. Jake only got as far as saying “Wait!” before the soda fizzed over and started spraying through the bottom of the cap. A startled Sarah released the dysfunctional bottle and it smacked the floor once again, spinning in circles and covering the floor in fizzy, dark soda.

Jake sighed, saw no one else moving in to stop it, and grabbed the bottle, twisting the cap back on tightly. Donna ran off to hunt down a custodian, and Jake held the bottle at arm’s length by the neck, letting the excess drip off the sides into the puddle that had formed on the floor. He stared at Sarah. “You can’t open a bottle of soda right after you drop it, you know,” he said, thinking this would’ve been common knowledge.

Sarah blushed and looked down. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

Donna soon returned with paper towels, and a janitor was in tow with a mop. The mop soaked up most of the mess, while Jake, Donna, Sarah, and two more of Donna’s friends knelt down to clean up the edges with the towels. In a minute or so, they had the mess cleaned up. Jake wiped down the bottle, seeing that it had lost about a quarter of its volume in the ordeal. “Can I try again?” Sarah asked sheepishly.

Jake gave it over to her again. “Just open it slowly this–”

And there it went again. Sarah unscrewed the cap in a hurry, and the fury of fizz resurged. Jake stuck his hand on top of the bottle, tightened the cap, and gave Sarah a dirty look. “You know what? Just keep it.” He glanced over at Donna. “You wanna get outta here?”

She nodded. Jake, Donna, and her other two friends–Vicki and Stephanie–headed out, leaving Sarah with a bottle of Dr. Pepper whose carbonation she evidently could not control.

The four of them exited the school and strolled across the street toward the forest. The trees went on for quite a distance, maybe a quarter mile or so. Just before the trees was a small park, consisting of a swingset and a merry-go-round. Donna stopped Jake there, putting her hand lightly on his chest. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come with us.”

“Why not?” he grumbled.

“Because I know you don’t believe in this stuff and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“What, exactly, do you think would happen to me?”

“I don’t know. Angry spirits. Bad karma. Could be anything. Just because you don’t believe in higher beings doesn’t mean they don’t believe in you.”

He rolled his eyes. “Suit yourself. Do you just want me to wait here, or go back to Tiffany’s?”

“Just wait. We won’t be long.”

She moved off with Vicki and Stephanie, disappearing into the woods, and Jake found a swing to slouch in. He considered following them anyway, but he didn’t want to be disrespectful. He knew very little about Wicca or Wiccan beliefs, and wasn’t sure how a fourteen-year-old raised by Christian parents could know much about it, either, but he declined to press the issue. This was their first “date,” after all, so it wasn’t as though she owed him anything.

Boredom set in and he started to swing, inching higher with each thrust forward, until the chains gave a satisfying “snap” each time he reached his apex. He didn’t know how long he’d been doing that when Donna called to him to “Jump!”

Without thinking about it, he slid forward at his highest point, soared through the air, and landed on his feet, knees bent. His shins burned every time he did it, but somehow that failed to deter him. Donna clapped with satisfaction and came over to hug him. “Told you that wouldn’t take long.”

“We’ll see you later,” Vicki said, waving to Donna. She nodded in return, and watched the other two girls walk away, going south.

“You ready to go to Tiffany’s?” Donna asked.

“Of course,” Jake said, casually taking her hand in his.

The walk to Tiffany’s duplex was largely silent, and Jake felt tense. Donna was content to walk hand-in-hand with him across the base, and all he could think about was the fact that he’d be alone with a pretty blonde for several hours. What would he do? What could he do? Anything was possible. He had a condom in his pocket, courtesy of his friend Josh. He was “prepared,” should anything happen. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to go that route so soon, particularly with this girl.

Donna said very little until they arrived at Tiffany’s, finding the woman dressed up and ready to go.

“Ah, good!” Tiffany smiled. “I was hoping I’d get to leave early. Arianna already ate, had a bath, put on PJs, and brushed her teeth. She’s ready for bed anytime, but she can stay up until 9 if she’s good.”

Donna nodded. “Same as usual.”

“Now, Jack, is it?”

“Jake,” he corrected with a shrug.

“Jake. I’m sure Donna’s already told you my rules, but I’ll restate them for your benefit. No fucking in front of Arianna. That’s basically it. You can spend the night if you want, I don’t really care.”

“I have a curfew, but thanks,” he said.

“And if you do have sex, just remember: Saran Wrap doesn’t work. That’s how I ended up with Arianna,” she laughed.

Jake hoped she was making that up. He couldn’t be certain.

Momentarily, they heard the sound of a car horn. “That’d be my date,” Tiffany said. “You kids be good!” She snatched up her purse, tossed her keys into it, and ran out the door.

Donna locked it behind her and moved to the couch, flopping onto it. “Arianna!” she called toward the stairs.

“What?” came a squeak from above.

“Just checking on you. You can come down if you want, you don’t have to go to bed ’til 9!”

The little redhead scampered down the stairs and hopped onto the sofa next to Donna. She stared at Jake again. “Do you want that massage now?”

At this point, Jake was more than ready for it, no matter who was giving it. He felt the tension all over his body, the anticipation, the arousal. He needed some kind of relief, and if that meant having a little kid rub his shoulders, well, he’d take what he could get. He hoped it would calm him down a little.

He sat on the floor in front of Arianna, and she put her hands on his shoulders. She had a tight grip for a five-year-old, and went to work immediately. She dug her fingers into his skin and worked the tension out of his muscles. He closed his eyes and sighed. He wondered if she had to give her mother a lot of these, since she seemed to be quite skilled at it.

Donna got up and sorted through Tiffany’s movie collection, a bunch of VHS tapes. There was a particular one she wanted to see, which she stuck into the VCR once she found it, then went back to the couch.

Jake opened one eye, noticing something was coming on the TV.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“‘Interview with the Vampire.’ I watch it every Halloween.”

“Oh, I’ve never seen it,” he admitted.

“We’ll take care of that. Arianna, would you mind going upstairs and playing in your room? I’ll take over.”

The little girl nodded and obediently went back upstairs. Donna started working on Jake’s shoulders, picking up where Arianna left off, and Donna was definitely more forceful about it. She practically pulled him up off the floor with each movement of her hands. She kept it up through the previews, but once the movie started, she scooted off to the side and patted the spot next to her. “Come sit with me?”

He got up and took the designated spot. Without a word, he moved his arm toward her, and she leaned forward to let him slip it around her. She sighed and wriggled against him, getting comfortable. He put a peck on her cheek, got his other arm around the front of her waist, and in moments they were about as close as they could get with their clothes on.

Donna focused on the movie, so Jake tried to do likewise, difficult as it was. He’d never held a girl before, and he found the experience intoxicating–the warmth of her body next to his, her scent surrounding him, something subtle and sweet. He felt his pulse racing and could do nothing to slow it. He thought himself an idiot: there wasn’t even anything happening, just two teenagers watching a movie.

He did his best to pay attention to the film, but it seemed physical urgency was starting to get the better of Donna, too. Something tickled his neck so lightly he couldn’t be sure Donna was actually touching him, or if it was merely his own anxiety playing tricks. He soon realized, as the sensations intensified, that Donna had turned her head and was kissing his neck. He held her more tightly, if only to give his hands something safe to do, and just let her do as she pleased.

But Donna was having none of that. She took one of his hands and put it on her chest. He quickly moved it down to her stomach. She made a slightly frustrated noise and pulled it back up, resorting to sucking on his neck now. He trembled, half out of excitement, half out of fear, no longer contesting the placement of his hand. This meant Donna only noticed the vibration coursing through his body. She pulled away from his neck to see him face-to-face. “Are you shaking?”

“Yeah.”

She tilted her head. “Why?”

“I’m nervous.”

She giggled. “That’s cute.” She scooted in and kissed him on the lips. Not gently, either–full of demands. She slipped her tongue into his mouth at the first opportunity, and he found himself virtually helpless. She knew what she was doing and he hadn’t the slightest clue. His body seemed almost alien to him, lit up with enraged hormones determined to overtake all reason. She snaked her hands under his shirt, creeping up his abdomen toward his chest, still kissing him, keeping him unbalanced.

He lost all sense of time and space, doing his best to reciprocate her moves, until she set off one alarm too many. He felt her hand working at the button on his jeans, and he stopped her cold, pulling her hand away. She broke their liplock and stared at him. Jake couldn’t discern whether she was more confused, hurt, or angry. “Why did you stop me?”

“I don’t… I don’t want to do… do that,” he stammered, struggling to get the syllables out.

She frowned. “Don’t you like me?”

He nodded. “I like you a lot. That’s why I don’t think we should.”

“I don’t get it,” she sighed. “This is what every guy wants. Am I not pretty enough for you? Are you mad at me because of Mitch?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. I think you’re very pretty. And this has nothing to do with Mitch.”

“If you like me, and you’re not mad at me, then why don’t you want to?”

He sighed. “If we do it now, you’ll just think that’s what I want from you, like everyone else.”

“What if it’s what I want?”

“Then if you like me, you’ll wait until I want it, too, right?” He couldn’t predict how she’d take having her own logic turned around against her, but he had to try.

Fortunately, she couldn’t see any fault in what he said. She didn’t look upset anymore, so he just kissed her and held her tighter. She made no complaints about that.

Despite very little happening after that, the time went by far too quickly. He held her, rubbed her back, kissed her, but mostly just kept her in his arms with no expectation or escalation. The movie long over, they sat together in contented silence.

A few minutes before 1AM, the alarm on his watch beeped. “Shit,” he muttered. “I need to get home.”

He started to pull away, and she clutched his arms. “Don’t go.”

“I have to, I’m already going to be late.”

She gave him a pleading look, eyes as big as saucers, tears practically welling up in them. “Ask for another couple hours?”

“Fine,” he sighed, getting up and going for Tiffany’s phone. He punched in his home number and waited for his father to answer.

“Hello?”

“Yeah, Dad, it’s me. I was wondering if I could stay out a while longer, like until 3?”

“No, it’s late, you need to get home.” No negotiation, no compromise. It was as much as he expected.

“Okay, I’ll be home soon then.”

He hung up and looked toward Donna. “Sorry,” he said simply. “I wish I could stay.”

She ran up and hugged him, giving him another kiss. “I wish you could, too. See you on Monday?”

“You bet,” he said, kissing her cheek.

She showed him to the door and handed him his coat, helping him put it on. “Thanks for tonight,” she said quietly.

“You’re welcome.” One more kiss, this time on her forehead.

Out the door he went, into the cold night. He already knew he wasn’t going to sleep well. Not with her scent all over him, and the fresh memories of her fingers and lips on his body. Maybe things wouldn’t work out in the long run, but if they had nothing else, they’d always have Halloween night.

It was the only thought comforting him as he made his way home in the cold, Alaskan night, green ribbons sparkling and waving in the sky above, both timeless and transient.

Smoke, Fire, and Ash

Don’t say I never did anything nice for you! Here is an all-new original short story from me. It’s a concept that I had rolling around in my head for several months, and I decided to finally get down to the business of writing it. I hope you find it enjoyable. Comments, as always, are welcomed. I may post some commentary on it later. Since I just wrote it, I’m not really in the mood to pick it apart just yet!

So, enjoy!

SMOKE, FIRE, AND ASH

April 14

Blackouts are getting worse. I was walking to school this time, alone as always. Nobody wants to be friends with the “Blackout Bandit.” I’m not sure where I was, somewhere between Godman and Oswald Streets, and the next thing I know, I’m on the roof of the school. Carly’s mom saw me up there and called 911, and they brought out a fire truck and the whole nine yards. Everyone was yelling and getting upset. Some of the kids told me to jump. I swear I don’t know how I made it up there. A fireman came up on a ladder and helped me down, and my parents took me home after the police questioned me for a few minutes. I told them I wasn’t suicidal. Mom and Dad had a few words with the principal and the cop. I don’t know what all that was about, but they took me home and sent me to my room, and I could hear them arguing for a long time. I know it’s all because of me.

I swear to God, I don’t know why I have blackouts. I’m not crazy. I’m not making it up. I’m not trying to get attention. I just want to be normal. All I ever want is to be normal, and nobody will let me have that.

These journals are stupid and I’m sick of doing them. They aren’t going to help me figure out why I’m blacking out. I never remember anything. I just wake up somewhere strange. This is so pointless. I’m having them every day and no one is doing anything about it. I’ve been to so many doctors. None of them ever find anything wrong with me. They can’t even say I’m crazy. When I’m not blacking out, I’m a perfectly normal 11-year-old. As normal as I ever am, I mean. Normal kids don’t do this. Normal kids don’t wake up on the school roof. Normal kids don’t get told they should jump.

Evan Brooks shifted nervously in his seat, trying desperately to pay attention to his teacher, but hopelessly distracted by the itchiness of his brand-new shirt. Horizontal stripes–bright red and dark blue–made a circuit around his torso, the stiff polyester irritating his skin. He wanted anything other than to be noticed, and his mother put him in the tackiest, most boring clothes imaginable. Like I’m not unpopular enough already.

Hushed tones propagated the rumor of yesterday’s “incident,” with Evan on the roof and half the student body calling for him to try his hand at flying. He decided he was lucky they didn’t ship him off to the “psycho ward,” the place where they sent crazy kids who tried to jump off of buildings. He had a therapy session with Dr. Felten after school, one he dreaded attending. He kept a journal of every blackout, and as they became more and more numerous, his notebook began to fill quickly. They used to come months apart, then it was weeks. Over the past year, the interval diminished to mere days, and for the past couple weeks, he suffered at least one a day. No one ever saw these blackouts–he never seemed to have them around anyone else. Sometimes, another person would rouse him, but his actual collapse went completely without witness.

The doctors tried every test in the book, ruling out as many diagnoses as they could. Sleep studies indicated no sleepwalking, no narcolepsy. EEGs displayed no trace of seizure activity or even abnormal brain function, other than tremendous levels of anxiety–decidedly normal, under the circumstances. That was where Dr. Felten came in.

“Physically, there is nothing wrong with you,” the Doc explained, eyeing his young patient. Evan shifted nervously on the sofa, his eyes darting around the room, as if to find an escape. “These symptoms indicate a deep emotional trauma, one you are unwilling to acknowledge.”

Evan sighed. “The only ‘trauma’ I’m having are these damn blackouts!” he snapped. “My parents have always been nice to me, I never had trouble at school until this started. Other than some bullies, I guess. But everybody gets that and they don’t zone out and wake up halfway across town.”

“Evan, the only way we’re going to get to the bottom of this is for you to be honest with me. If you can’t do that consciously, then I think it’s time to do what we talked about before.”

“You want to hypnotize me?”

Dr. Felten gave a single nod. “Your parents have agreed, and given the growing intensity of your blackouts, I don’t believe we can afford to wait any longer. I do not want to receive a call that something terrible has happened to you. I want to help you, and I think this is the only way.”

Evan slouched against the back of the sofa, eyes cast downward. “I don’t know. I don’t even like going to bed anymore, because I’m afraid I’ll end up somewhere weird.”

“You can trust me,” the Doc assured. “It’s just you and me here. I won’t let anything happen to you. If I think you are getting too worked up under the hypnosis, I’ll wake you immediately. I don’t want to trigger an episode, believe me.”

Evan blew out the breath he’d been holding in, and finally acceded. “What do you want me to do, just lay on my back?”

“That will be fine.”

The boy swung his legs up onto the couch and rested his head on the arm, folding his hands over his belly. “I don’t see how this is going to help.”

“Trust me, this will do some good. It may take multiple sessions, but we will get to the bottom of your blackouts.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”

Felten continued in a soothing tone. “I want you to relax as completely as possible. There is nothing to fear here. I want you to look up at the ceiling. Notice the spackle patterns on the ceiling–all the points and valleys. Focus on one of them. Find a spot, and focus all your attention on it. Concentrate on it as hard as you can, as if it’s the only place in the universe that matters. It’s a special place, a place only you know about, and I want you to completely inhabit it, make it your own. You will still be aware of my voice, but your body will become very relaxed the more you focus on that one spot. Just keep your attention on that spot, allowing your body to become relaxed and comfortable. At some point, your eyes may feel the need to close, and that’s okay. When that time comes, you can feel more and more relaxed. You can close your eyes and let that relaxation spread over your body. That’s it, just let it come over you.”

Evan didn’t really feel it coming on, until his eyes began to fall shut. That one spot on the ceiling–where three peaks made a kind of bright triangle, a perfect shape amid such chaos–it stayed in his mind as his eyes let go, shrouding him in darkness. Yet, he still thought he could see that spot. He could see the spot, and hear Dr. Felten’s voice as if being whispered right into his ear. His muscles loosened, the anxiety melted out of his body, and the Doc’s gentle drone lulled him.

“Now, I would like you to imagine that you are in your favorite place in the whole world, as if you were there right now. It might be a place you’ve been to before, or a place you’d like to visit, or maybe a place that doesn’t even exist–it’s your place, and it belongs only to you, and you can go there anytime you like. Maybe you are there by yourself, or maybe you have a friend or loved one with you. You are doing your favorite activities in this place–I don’t know what they are, but they are yours, and you are having a perfect day, doing your favorite activities in your perfect place.”

Evan’s thoughts drifted, until he found his “perfect place.” It didn’t even take much thought. It was simple darkness–nothingness. He felt nothing. He saw nothing. He became nothing. And yet, he could imagine no better way to be. Even Dr. Felten’s voice faded away into a formless noise. He lost touch with his body, with his senses. Nothing happened and nothing mattered, and he felt only peace–if perfect stillness was a thing that could be felt at all.

And then he snapped out of that place–pulled violently, yanked and ripped from it, tossed onto the floor of the shrink’s office, and it was no longer him alone with Dr. Felten. The gray-haired man was stretched out on the carpet, supine and unresponsible. The dark-haired receptionist had her mouth over his, blowing air into his lungs. Evan panicked. “Oh my God! What happened?”

“Call 911!” she shouted, likely louder than she meant to.

Evan got up, shaking off a sluggishness that seemed to inhabit his whole body, and reached the phone on the desk, dialing the digits. His fingers slipped over the buttons. It took three tries to get those three numbers punched in correctly. “911, what’s your emergency?”

“I’m at Dr. Felten’s office, and he’s dying or something!”

“Can I have your location?”

“I… I don’t know, on Sycamore, I think!” He wiped sweat from his forehead, his anxiety back with a vengeance.

“We’ll dispatch an ambulance immediately. Is anyone else there with you?”

“Yeah, the desk lady is here,” he stammered. She got up and came to grab the phone from him.

Dr. Felten didn’t respond to any of her efforts at CPR. She explained the situation to the dispatcher, and Evan paced frantically next to the motionless doctor. “Oh God. Oh God,” he chanted.

April 15

Dr. Felten died today. I didn’t see it happen, I was hypnotized. I thought it was going well, and then I woke up on the floor and he was dead. The desk lady said she came in and I was on the floor, and he wasn’t breathing. She checked us both and found that I was OK, so she did CPR on the Doc. He didn’t make it. I don’t know if they’re going to tell me how he died. I just have a feeling it was my fault. Everything is my fault. If an asteroid crashed into Earth and killed us all tomorrow, that would somehow be my fault.

And why am I still writing these? No one’s going to want to see me after this. I’ll be the kid who murdered Dr. Felten, the guy who was on the cover of TIME magazine and had all those fancy certificates on his wall. I’ll be the crazy kid with blackouts who killed the most respected psychology guy in the southeast.

I don’t want to be crazy. Or just take out that last word. I don’t want to be.

Evan soaked his pillow with saline tears, as much as he tried to hold them off. The Spider-Man pillowcase drank up his misery and the pillow it surrounded shielded him from the shouting outside–his parents freaking out over their son’s well-being, again. He never wanted to put them through any of this. He only ever wanted to be a good son to them, to do well in school, not be a troublemaker, get good grades, go to college, get a nice job, and be the boy they could be proud of. They didn’t have any other kids. He was their one and only chance, and he was blowing it big-time.

The sun set and he fell into a restless sleep, not knowing any other kind these days.

He expected to wake up to his 6AM alarm, to get ready for school. Even though his parents probably would have let him stay home, he wanted to go. He wanted to be normal–to act normal–to not let anyone see how badly it bothered him. But it wasn’t the alarm that woke up. It was the sound of crickets, chirping right by his head. Dew-speckled grass dusted his face, coating it with a chilly film of water. He groaned, rolling from his stomach to his back, and saw the moon high in the night sky. “Ugh,” he protested. “Not again.”

He was thankful he never changed out of his clothes the prior evening, since walking around in pajamas–or worse, just underwear–would have been even more embarrassing. He didn’t recognize the house whose front yard he’d wound up in. Even the street names were off. “Bellevue.” “Angola.” I’ve never been to this part of town, he realized grimly. How am I going to get home?

He made for the sidewalk and walked toward the denser clusters of houses up ahead, going on the assumption that it would lead him to a main road he knew, and that he could follow home. He had no idea what time it was, but the lights at every house were off. Only a few porch lights supplemented the moon- and starlight.

He walked uncomfortably down the street, his socks wet with condensation, and the occasional rock making him wish he’d have the foresight to wear shoes the next time he blacked out. He looked around at the houses nearby, noticing how big and nice they were–garages with two or even three cars, houses with three or four stories, and lots of land between them, lots more than his parents had in their little tract. He wondered if this was the ritzy part of town, where all the wealthy people lived. It took him almost a minute to go from one house to the next, a feat which took only seconds in his home neighborhood. And these houses all looked new, everything about them seemed to sparkle in the moonlight. No simple A-frames or ranches, either, but lots of angles and bay windows, hooded lights going up around the walkways to each front door, turned off for the night. And there’s no way I’ll ever end up in a place like this, not with me being a damn lunatic.

He made almost no sound with his socks scooting along the pavement, so when he heard a faint but rhythmic tapping from behind, he began to grow suspicious. He started sweating again, speeding up a little, but not turning around–if someone was coming up behind him, he didn’t want to tip them off that he heard them coming. The pace behind him quickened to match his, and grew louder and closer, ringing in his ears above the chirping of crickets. When it sounded like it was right on top of him, he spun around and saw someone a good 12 inches taller, and a baseball bat coming at his face from the left. He tried to fall backwards onto his rear, hoping that would result in a miss, but the bat connected nevertheless. Strangely, though, it didn’t move him. He saw it pass through his field of vision, and he swore it struck, but he didn’t feel it. All he felt was a slight tingle, but nothing jerked his head in the direction of the bat’s motion, as if his skull simply wasn’t there.

He hit his butt on the sidewalk and both Evan and his would-be attacker traded astonished glances. Evan thought the other boy looked about sixteen or seventeen, with short, dirty-blond hair, and an anger-red face. Built like a football player, Evan didn’t want to tangle with him at all. But they were at an impasse. “Who are you?” Evan squeaked.

“You don’t even fucking know, do you?” the older boy growled. “You killed my father, you piece of shit!” And then he swung again.

This time, Evan had nowhere to go. The idea of cracking his head open on the sidewalk didn’t appeal, and that was the only outcome he could anticipate if he threw himself backward again. So, he closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable skull-whacking. But the pain never came, and once again, momentum did not direct his head along with the bat. He opened one eye. “Are you going to do it or what?” But the older kid stood there, eyes wide with disbelief, panic quickly replacing anger.

“What the hell are you?” he demanded.

“What are you talking about?” Evan shot back, smacking his hand on the concrete.

“The bat just… just went right through your head!”

“Wait, what?How is that even possible?”

“Man, fuck this! I’m outta here!” Without another word, he took off running, taking the bat with him. Evan thought about giving chase, but saw little point in that. He just wanted to go home.

April 16

Thank God nobody noticed me being gone last night. I think it was Dr. Felten’s son that tried to beat me up with a baseball bat. I don’t know what happened. He swung at me, I thought he hit me, but I didn’t feel anything. He freaked out and ran away. What’s wrong with me???

Maybe I should’ve jumped off the school roof the other day. Maybe I did kill Dr. Felten. Something’s not right with me. I don’t even feel pain. He hit me with a baseball bat and I didn’t even move. It’s like I’m dead inside and the rest of me is still figuring it out.

I don’t know what to do.

Evan sat by himself at recess, like usual, leaning against the barn that stored the lawnmowers, portable soccer goals, and other equipment used by the groundskeeper and the PE department. The other kids played tetherball, climbed on the jungle gym, tried to see how high they could go on the swings, played hopscotch and basketball on the blacktop, and Evan just watched, grabbing handfuls of rocks from the gravel next to the blacktop and tossing each little one into the grass. If the groundskeeper caught him, he’d get yelled at for putting rocks in the grass for the lawnmower to choke on, but he didn’t care. He found that to be true of most things anymore–he just didn’t care. The other students thought he was insane, Dr. Felten was dead, and his parents had no idea what to do with him. They barely spoke to him when he was home, the three of them going through dinner as a silent ritual they all wanted to get through as quickly as possible.

He looked down at the collection of tiny rocks in his hand, tossing them one-by-one. “Heads up,” someone called, and he raised his head in time to see an inch-wide rock come hurtling at his face. He closed his eyes and cringed, but only heard the sound it made as it collided with the aluminum wall of the barn behind him. He opened his eyes, confused.

“That’s what I thought,” the same voice said.

Evan looked up and couldn’t quite make out the figure towering over him, the sun directly over the man’s head, forming a blinding halo. “Am I dead?” Evan blurted.

The man stepped back and laughed heartily. “No, you’re definitely not dead. Watch.” He took his boot-clad foot and viciously kicked a stream of rocks at Evan. All of them plinked harmlessly against the barn, settling on the sidewalk behind him. Evan looked even more confused.

“What is this?” he begged. “What’s happening to me?”

“You’re changing,” the man said simply. “You’re becoming who you were meant to be.”

“You mean I’m going crazy?”

“No, not at all. You’re ‘manifesting,’ I guess we’d call it.”

Evan sighed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’ve been watching you for a while. Saw you on the roof the other day. And the other night, with Doc Felten’s kid. I’ve seen what you can do. But I think you’ll have to prove it to yourself, before you’ll believe it.”

Evan scoffed, shrugging his shoulders. “I still have no idea what you mean.”

“I know. Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.” He turned around and strolled off.

“Wait!” Evan called after him, but it was like the man just vanished. He swore he never took eyes off the retreating figure, but the man was gone all the same. Maybe I really am out of my damn mind.

April 17

As if I didn’t have enough problems, some crazy guy started talking riddles to me yesterday. It sounds like he’s stalking me. He really creeped me out. I don’t know what to do. Something weird is going on with me. Stuff passes through me like I’m not even there. He told me I wasn’t dead but I feel like a ghost. I feel like I’m just wandering through this world and no one notices I’m here.

Is this what it’s like to be dead? Am I really even writing anything in this journal? Or is it a fake, too? Am I a dead kid imagining I’m doing things, but I just won’t let go? If that was true, could I even realize it? I wish someone had answers. I think that guy did, but he wouldn’t tell me. He said I couldn’t be told. Whatever it is, I just want it to happen. I can’t stand waiting, wondering what it’s all leading up to.

I just realized, I didn’t black out last night. What does that mean? Am I done? Then why do I feel worse than before?

Evan set out the next morning for school, eyes cast downward at the sidewalk as he took even steps, his thumbs hooked into the straps of his backpack. He barely noticed a chilly morning breeze, the last gasp of the previous night’s rain shower, the delicate fingers of a cold front pulling away from the area. A distant dog barked. Evan sighed, not watching up ahead, having the route to school memorized for some time now. Six streets down, left turn, two streets down. He’d made this walk since he was eight, never with a problem, except for his recent blackout. His parents suggested driving him to school in the morning, just to make sure he got there in time, but they didn’t protest when he insisted on walking himself. He wondered if that was because they didn’t want to smother him, or because they resented him and didn’t care if he never came home.

He wrapped himself up so deeply in these thoughts, he never saw the cherry red Acura round the corner where he was crossing. The driver never saw him, either. Evan just stopped dead when he saw the bumper cross into him, and time seemed to slow to a crawl. A black powder formed at the point of impact, just above his knees. He expected to fall over and smack into the hood, but instead he had the sensation of floating, his body disintegrating as the car passed through it. No blood, no cracking bones, not even any sprains, just a dark dust spiraling out from the bottom of his torso. He made eye contact with the driver as his face came up toward the windshield, and then he became a being more of touch and tingle than sight and sound. He could no longer see, but he remained aware of his surroundings. The breeze he’d so easily ignored before became a part of him, wisps of air and mist entangling with gray particles, dancing through the sky. He felt himself moving up, up into the air, high above the car, above the trees and houses, until they were all distant dots without form or function.

And then he came back down, quickly and deliberately, making an arc toward the roof of the school, coming up fast, and he felt his own substance again, his feet smacking into the concrete, and his body tumbling end-over-end across the roof. He gasped for air, landing on his side, clutching his backpack tighter than before, somewhat dazed but vaguely aware of what had transpired.

He still remained somewhat uncertain, and the last thing he wanted was to be found on the roof of the school again. They’d lock me up for sure this time. So, he stepped toward the back of the building, climbing up to the edge, facing outward to the playground–empty and quiet. He sucked in a deep breath, prepared to believe it was his last, held his arms out at his sides, and let himself fall forward. He saw the ground approach, faster and faster, and at the last second realized he didn’t want to see himself hit, so he squeezed his eyes shut.

That feeling came again, the blissful nothingness, the wind carrying him away from everything, and he realized what he could do, finally. Thoughts formed in the particulate mass dancing through the sky. Dust. Ash. Something. I’m something.

April 18

Mom and Dad,

I’m sorry I always made you worry so much. Things are going to be so much better from now on, I promise. I’ll be the son you always wished you had. I’ll be something special. I am something special.

I love you.

Over and Out

This story came about as part of a writing contest. I wanted to write a short, self-contained time-travel story that nevertheless left some puzzles for the reader to work out. In the end, it was my unhappiness with this story that led me to write The End of Civilization instead, which is a starkly different kind of story.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one. It’s just one of my more obscure, short pieces. With some revision it would be a good addition to a short story anthology, which I’ll get around to one of these days.

Enjoy!

OVER AND OUT

“I tried again last night,” Harv whispered across the table, his breath sending the steam above his coffee spiraling toward his companion.

“Any luck?” Mitt probed, taking a second to brush a danging hair from over his eyes.

Harv sighed. “No. Not yet. I’m starting to wonder if I should give up.”

“Nobody ever got anywhere by giving up, man.” Mitt took a sip of his red tea, leaned back in his seat, and let out a relaxed sigh. “You gotta stick with it.”

Harv stared into his cup, glaring at his face’s reflection. “I’m running out of time, not to mention funding. If I don’t have a successful run by the end of the month, they’re going to pull the plug. And then I’ll never get another shot.”

Mitt smiled. “There’s always my basement, if you get kicked out of yours.”

Harv rolled his eyes. “I’ve spent millions building this prototype. I couldn’t even move it across the room, much less across town. And I seriously doubt the agencies financing this project will just let me pick up and run off with it.”

“Unless it works.”

“Unless it works. Which is the heart of the problem.”

“Don’t you think about why you built it?”

“Every day.”

“Then that should be enough to motivate you.”

Harv bit his lip. “Motivation isn’t the problem, Mitt. It’s expertise. Timing. I know guidance systems. I know EM spectranalysis. But this…”

“I have the utmost faith in you, man. If you can build a guidance system to nail a dust mite from orbit, you can do this.”

“They’re totally different.”

“No!” Mitt slammed his hand on the table. “They’re the same, Harv. The same. It’s all physics, man. It’s all physics.”

“Then why don’t you help me?”

Mitt frowned. “I have my reasons, man. You know that.”

“No, you never told me what those reasons are.”

“And I can’t. Just deal with it.”

Harv sighed and stood up. “I need to get back to work. Same time tomorrow?”

Mitt looked past him, seemingly lost in thought. Harv snapped his fingers to bring him back. “Oh, right. Sorry, man. Shit, I might be too fucked up tomorrow. Just call me if I’m not in.”

“Okay, but you’re buying if I have to wake your ass up.”

“Deal.”

Harv sat at his desk, shook the ads out of the newspaper, and put his focus to the World section. He did this every day, scanning the articles, usually fixating on the ones about military conflicts. Or paramilitary, guerilla. He tried to err on the side of caution. If an air strike wiped out a family of 12 in Kenya, he put it on his whiteboard. If an article mentioned an explosion of unspecified origin, the high end of the estimated body count got added to his total. At the end of this morning’s count, he found himself culpable for three billion, one hundred fifty-six million, four hundred eighty-eight thousand, two hundred and fifteen deaths, give or take.

He considered the elaborate device on the other side of his workshop, six years of hard work, bruises, sprains, stubbed fingers and toes, cuts, abrasions, sweat, and aggravation. He’d spent ten years building the theory, six years testing it by hand. He was close. He knew it. But he also knew he was in the midst of the hardest work. He could afford no assistance–both due to the expense, and the secrecy required by his project.

Each night, he stepped into its central chamber, switched it on, and waited. The first time, he was gone for a few seconds. The next time, a minute. The next, twenty. He was up to five-hour journeys now, a feat which had taken weeks to work up to. He needed to go longer. Much longer.

“It’ll never work, Harv,” a voice taunted from the shadows.

Harv nearly tipped his chair over. “Show yourself, whoever you are! I’ll call the police!”

“You won’t want to in a moment,” the voice called, stepping out of a dark corner of the workshop. He wore a sleek, black jumpsuit, fitted firmly to his form, sporting a buzzcut and a stone face. “You’ll want to hear what I have to say.”

“Then you’d better say it quickly.” Harv kept his eyes on the intruder, his hand fumbling around in the bottom right drawer of his desk.

“You won’t find your gun there. We need to talk.” The man grabbed a loose chair and sat in front of the engineer.

Harv folded his arms. “Go on.”

“You’re wasting your time with this.”

“With what?”

He tilted his head toward the great machine. “You’ll never change anything with it.”

Harv narrowed his eyes. “Are you going to stop me from trying?”

“We already have. We were informed some time ago that you were working on such a project. We altered certain components. It doesn’t send you anywhere–except dreamland.”

Harv scoffed. “Bullshit. It’s getting there. You don’t know a damn thing about it.”

“Actually, I do. Did you think you were the first person to ever build a time machine, Harv?” He stood up, strolled toward it, ran his hand along one of the many power conduits. “Your version is crude, but you were on the right track. We have much nicer ones. More compact ones.”

“‘We’?”

“Try not to think of it as a government conspiracy. It’s much deeper than that. I don’t want you to think of us as a small collection of rogues, twisting history to our own ends. This spans generations, centuries. It transcends culture. In some ways, it transcends our species. Do you think we’d let you upset what we’ve worked so hard to create?”

“And what did you ‘create’? Are you responsible for these horrors?” He pointed to his whiteboard.

“No,” the man said, curling his lip into a smirk. “You are.”

Harv took a deep breath, as if the anger boiling within could be expelled as air. “Get out.”

“Not yet, Harv. Not yet.”

A spark of recognition. “…Mitt?”

The man smiled. “That’s not a name I’ve used lately. But if it makes you more comfortable, you can use it.”

“I don’t understand. Are you from the future?”

“In a manner of speaking. I came to warn you, as a friend. Some will not tolerate your attempts at tinkering with time. We have strict rules about these things. We modified your device as a passive attempt at thwarting you.”

“Now that I know it’s there, I can just remove it, though.”

“And before you even finished, we’d have it put back.”

“I see your point.”

“Good. Then I hope I won’t need to visit you again.”

“Just one question, Mitt.”

“What’s that?”

“Who was the ‘informant’ that told ‘them’ about my work? Was it you?”

Mitt frowned.

“I thought so.”

“I had my reasons.”

“I’m sure you did.”

Harv worked furiously through the following days and nights. He ignored Mitt’s calls. He had no further visitors. While his original machine stood, he worked on various extensions and enhancements, some of them running throughout his house. He knew his effort might be futile, but he had to try. If nothing else, he didn’t want to be a quitter.

Without so much as a test cycle, he grabbed a manila folder from his desk, notes he’d scrawled across dozens of pages as he’d worked, and stepped into an upstairs closet. He pulled the string that would normally turn on the light. This time, he felt something much, much different. The disorientation that had accompanied his previous attempts was gone. The closet dissolved into darkness, then light, and he found himself surrounded by the clothing of a teenaged boy.

Stepping out of the closet, he startled the young man sleeping in the bed against the far wall. “Holy shit! Holy shit! Who the fuck are you?”

Harv put his hands up, folder in one of them, trying to calm the boy. “Relax, Harvey. I’m your friend.”

“The hell you are, perv! Get the fuck out of my room!”

“Look at my face, Harvey. See who I am?”

The boy peered at him. “You kinda look like my dad. And kinda like… me?”

Harv nodded. “Remember how you always thought about building a time machine? Among all the other things you thought about.”

“Rockets. I want to build rockets.” He raised his hands as if holding a rifle. “Nail a dust mite from orbit. BOOM!” He simulated the recoil with his hands. “It’ll be sweet.”

“Two things. First, you might want to think twice about that sort of thing. Second, you’ll need this.” He handed the folder to his younger self.

Harvey opened it, glanced through the pages, looked confused. “What the hell is this shit?”

“You’ll find out in about 30 years. You’ll be watched. Don’t take shortcuts. Make longcuts. Obfuscate your work. And whatever you do, don’t tell Mitt about it.”

“Who?”

“Just remember the name. Don’t tell him about what’s in that folder.”

“Okay, but…”

Harv didn’t catch the rest of the sentence, as the world shimmered again, and he was back in his closet. He stumbled out to find the jumpsuited version of Mitt glowering at him. “What the hell did you do, Harv? Tell me, what the hell did you do?!”

“You’ll never find out.” Harv pushed past him, headed down the stairs, back toward his basement.

Mitt chased him all the way. “Goddammit, Harv! We need to know! You changed the past! I don’t know how you did it! That’s what we have to find out!”

Harv halted halfway down the stairs, Mitt’s face coming within inches of his own. “Then go back and stop me, if that’s what you need to do.”

“We can’t! You’ve already changed something! We have to know how you did it to undo it, otherwise you’ll just do it again.”

Harv ignored him, kept on down the stairs. He swung open the basement door and made for his desk. He found the manila folder, empty except for a note stuck to the edge in his own handwriting: “DID WHAT YOU SAID. GOOD LUCK. -YOU” He smiled to himself and went for the main chamber at the center of the device. This time, it wouldn’t simply knock him out. Mitt called to him as he put one foot into it.

“Goddammit, Harvey! Do you have any idea what this will do? We’ve worked on this for millennia! Thousands of trips! You’re fucking it up!”

“How’re you going to stop me?”

Mitt stopped right in front of him. “I’ll kill your fucking mother if I have to. I’ll do it myself, I swear. Get away from that machine and start explaining!”

“Make me.” Harv typed commands into the control panel inside the chamber, ignoring Mitt.

“We’ll get rid of you completely. You’ll never exist.”

Harv made eye contact with Mitt once again. “Do it. I can’t hurt anyone if I never existed, can I?”

Mitt sighed, a glimmer of compassion showing through his eyes. “Nothing you do is going to change anything, Harv.”

“I know. But I have to try.” He switched on the machine and took his chances.

“Good luck, man. Good luck.”

Death of the Critic

Some background on this might be helpful. There was an incident a couple years ago in which a video game reviewer was fired for lambasting a game that was heavily advertised on the same site that published him. Evidently, it came down to this powerful (and monied) advertiser walking, or the reviewer losing his job. As a business decision, you can see how it makes sense, but it makes the actual review site look like they have zero credibility.

With that in mind, I wrote this piece on December 7, 2007. Entitled “Death of the Critic,” it is a somewhat facetious take on the issue, using toilet paper as a metaphor for video games. Some might argue the comparison isn’t far off! Someone besides me, that is. I like video games just fine! It would just be nice to see more integrity in the field of video game reviews. Unfortunately, impartial reviews are becoming a thing of the past.

Anyway, I’ll spare you the lamentation. On with the actual writing!

Death of the Critic

Joe stood anxiously in his supervisor’s office. Joe, you see, was a consumer product reviewer at a major magazine. He’d been reviewing household products for five years. He had five criteria with ten-point scales: reliability, ease of use, quality, eco-friendliness, and value. He’d never been questioned by his superiors on his material before. Not until today.

Rick, his boss, let out a sigh. He was holding the latest issue which had, by all accounts, passed editorial review. Already on newsstands. Joe didn’t know why he was standing here, but he knew it wouldn’t be good.

“Joe, what product did you review this month?”

The words were difficult to choke out with a dry throat. “Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper,” he managed.

Rick opened the magazine to the page containing Joe’s review. “This is it, right?”

Joe nodded.

Rick flipped to the next page. “And what’s this?”

Joe started to go a little pale. “A full-page ad for Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper.”

“Exactly.” Rick leaned back in his Aeron and folded his arms. “Joe, we have certain obligations around here. Who do you think pays your salary?”

“The subscribers?” Joe guessed.

Rick smirked. “No, Joe. Not the subscribers. The advertisers. Subscription revenue is a drop in the bucket compared to what our sponsors pay. Now, how do you suppose our sponsors feel to see their products savaged in the magazine they paid good money to advertise in?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say ‘savaged.'”

Rick flipped back to Joe’s review and quoted a passage. “‘Using Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper was an ordeal, to say the least. I have no empirical research to back this up, but I imagine wiping my ass with a petrified pine cone would be a less painful experience. After three uses of this poor excuse for toilet paper, I went through an entire container of Tuck’s pads. If this tripe is ‘weaved,’ then it must have been weaved out of bamboo. I’ve never chafed so much in my life.’ That’s one paragraph, Joe. You have a serious tone problem here.”

“I was just trying to give an honest review.”

“People don’t want honesty, Joe, they want comfort. They want consistency. You know what’s not consistent? Seeing your extremely derogatory review, then turning the page and seeing a contradictory full-page spread. It’s confusion. It’s madness.”

“I think our readers are smart enough to distinguish magazine content from advertising.”

“What are you talking about? The advertising is the content! The articles, the crap you and the rest of the writing team insert every other page, it’s filler. We’d fill the pages with nothing but ‘lorem ipsum’ if we thought it’d sell copy.”

“You don’t understand, Rick. That toilet paper was vile! I couldn’t give a good review of it. My ass still hurts from it. It was awful.”

“It’s toilet paper, Joe. You know what people do with toilet paper? They wipe their asses with it. Do you think they care what they’re wiping their asses with? No, they don’t. They want it cheap, they want it made of something resembling paper, and as long as it doesn’t clog up the toilet, everybody’s happy.”

“But more discerning customers would want–”

“‘Discerning customers?’ We’re not talking about Wall Street stock brokers, here. We’re talking about soccer moms with their brats in tow, looking for a bargain. What’re they going to remember when they see Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper? They’re going to remember your review. They won’t buy it. Sales will plummet. Eigen will consider their ad a failure. They will pull their advertising, and the sales department will have to spend weeks sweet-talking some other corporation into buying full-page ads. And what will you do then, Joe? Tear their product into pieces, too? Ninety-nine percent of everything is crap. That holy one percent is not being advertised between these covers. I expect my reviewers to pay extra attention to our triple-A products–the products advertised in here.”

“But by ‘extra attention’ you just mean we should softball them because they’re paying us, right?”

“Dammit, Joe, you just don’t get it. That’s why I’m in charge, and you’re not. You don’t understand business.”

“I would think people want an honest–”

“Fuck honesty, Joe. You know what’s honest? You’re fired. Clean out your desk.”

Joe didn’t say another word.

Commentary: Overall, I’m not too dissatisfied with this. The ending is kind of abrupt but that’s because I didn’t want to belabor the point. It’s not a very long piece of writing, just long enough to communicate the two points of view involved. I think both are valid, to a point. A business exists to make money, a critic exists to provide a more or less objective view of a given artifact. Sometimes, the two can’t easily coexist due to conflicts of interest. Nevertheless, I would rather see a business take it in the pocketbook than sacrifice their integrity–an intangible which is often worth a lot more than any money an advertiser would be throwing at them.

In general, I don’t have too many problems with how I wrote this, except that Joe’s boss isn’t the least bit sympathetic. Given that this was intended as a satire, it’s not the worst thing in the world, but I’m concerned his POV might be overselling it.