Sunday, October 26, 2014

You're My Bogeyman

This week's flash fiction challenge was to write a horror story with disease as its axis.

Sometimes, writers bend the rules of these things, and that makes for good stories. I'm not going to just bend them this week, though – I'm outright breaking them. It's not because my "muse" is failing me, but because real life is whispering in my ear so much more loudly.

This week's entry is still a horror story, and it's about a disease. The rule I'm breaking is the whole "fiction" thing. Sometimes real life is so much more apropos.

You're My Bogeyman

This Halloween, unlike in so many of the ones in the past, I'm not going to follow the tradition and dress up. We all dress up as the thing that scares us – the demons that haunt us, sometimes in bad dreams, and sometimes marking anxieties that make us uneasy while we are awake. It's not remarkable that I'll be flouting the tradition and refusing to dress up.

What's remarkable is that I've been dressing up every day for quite a while now. I've been donning this costume for years, as the thing that terrifies me the most in this world.

It's you.

You terrify me. All of you. I know you don't mean to, and the vast majority of you will show me nothing but kindness when I step out of my door and do what I do during the day. It's not your fault. The culprit is the demon that follows in my shadow, taking up residence in my head as he pleases.

There are two me's in this body. One of us is the one that speaks most freely with a written word, combing over each one carefully to ensure that it's as free of the other's taint as I can make it. He whispers in my ear nearly constantly, and I don't know what life would be like without him.

I call him a demon or a shadow, but my doctor calls him Depression. The Zoloft doesn't shut him up, but it's softening the weight and power that he has in doing his work. I don't understand everything about why he does what he does, but it can weigh me down quite a bit while I'm trying to do the things that make me happy.

The First Rule
It turns out that I'm not the only one who has one of these loud shadow demons. I'm a member of a huge club, but we don't actually do anything together. The first rule is that you don't talk about it. We slink into rooms camouflaged and unnoticed, sometimes giving a subtle nod of solidarity when we recognize each other. We're everywhere, though. Some of us make your food, drive your taxis, and make the software on your beautiful new phone. We can be very good at dressing up and fitting in.

We don't talk about it because we have a disease, and sometimes we feel broken.  People don't want to know we're there, and talking about it doesn't do the listener any good. We're all busy, and everyone has our demons to fight, and all of them are as equally formidable and legitimate foes as our own.

The difference in talking about it here is that I have a way of talking here that enables you to stop listening without offending me – you can stop reading here, and it's okay. I don't blame you, and I won't mind. It doesn't undermine my purpose for writing it because you don't have to read it as much as I have to write it.

Sadness and Novocain
One of the reasons we don't talk about it is because other people already have. The issue with that is that it's clinical or nuanced and dulled down because nobody wants to be in this club or know what it's like. The result can be that we're often swept into this group of brooders and worriers and do-nothings who just don't take the necessary actions to make themselves happy. Maybe these people enjoy being clothed in this sadness like a blanket. They do it to themselves.

Like every stereotype, there's a kernel of truth in that. There is an aspect of it that is magnified by bad habits and unwillingness to face it head-on. Some of it is biological, though. Some of it is just bad luck and hard times manifested in the long term.

Depression is the dulling down of everything, like a form of psychological Novocain that the brain administers in response to pain. Sadness isn't the depression, though. It's that strange tingle left after the Novocain has done its work.

The Appetite for Happiness
We eat because it makes us full and satisfied, but when we numb the pain, we also numb that satisfaction that comes when something does go right. When things go wrong, the demon mutters things like, "It didn't matter anyway," or, "Well, what did you expect?" When they go right, the demon will say, "It was luck. You're still not good enough."

In the long term, when the things you did to be full don't bring that feeling of satisfaction, some will compensate by consuming voraciously and incessantly, and some will simply stop altogether when it doesn't alleviate the discomfort. Thus arises the inactivity, the hopelessness, and the withdrawal from the rest of the world that is, after all, very different.

For the longest of times, I have been part of this latter group. I have languished away in my recliner watching football, wasting time in escapism by watching movies and playing video games to forget all the problems in my life that the demon said I wouldn't have been able to solve anyway.

I feel like I've awakened after a long sleep, and inherited the life of someone who gave up a long time ago while I was sleeping. Today may not mark a day where I get an underdog win over the demon who haunts my waking dreams, but it marks a day where I'm going to do something very unorthodox and new to get an upper hand in the long game.

Today, the mask will stay here when I go out to face you, and I am refusing to give the demon his cover in my cloak that has allowed him to run over me unfettered for far too long. If he wants to haunt me, he can do it in the light of the day. I'm hesitant to do this to you because he is ugly. But he's me.

Yes, this Halloween, I am scared of this demon and of you. This time, though, I'm facing you as I am, demon and all. I need to do this.

I've been told that even the most fearsome demons will languish in the light.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Flash Fiction - Spammerpunk horror

The Flash Fiction Friday challenge was a hard one for me this week - frame a horror story in a spam email.  I've never written horror, but it was interesting to try.  I came in pretty far under-budget at 194 words.

To: [private recipients]
Subject: We know what you did

We know who you are, and we know what you did.  It's okay if you don't.  We expected that.

Do you know that niggling feeling in your gut lately that says you don't quite fit in this world with the people around you?  We do.

Have you noticed the way that feeling of déjà vu is growing more common lately?  Or how about the way that strange visage that stares back from the mirror in the morning looks less and less like the person you thought you were?  We can explain that.

On those long, tired, evening drives home, there are those lost minutes when you don't remember taking some of the turns.  You thought your subconscious had taken the wheel under the lull of the radio.  You're more right than you know.  We can help.

Don't reply here.  This address is not secure.  Later, on your morning walk with the dog, look for the rock that doesn't belong, beneath the tree that never was a tree.  It will guide you to us.  

Trust your intuition - it knows the way.

Take care.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Flash Fiction - The Nature Show

I enjoyed Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction challenge quite a bit last week. This week's (Picking Uncommon Apples) was interesting, too.  Find three apple names from his list, and infuse a story you write with them.

My three are: Malinda, Pixie, and Lacy.

I had only the faintest of ideas what I was going to write when I sat down, but this is what I ended up with:  The Nature Show (1339 words).

The Nature Show

Malinda sauntered out into the courtyard, trying to appear carefree and relaxed, because studies showed that appearances make it so, and a smile could supposedly make you feel happier. With two accounts going from her inbox to invoicing this month, she felt like all the anxiety and pressure should have started to die down, but she still felt like the wolves were snapping at her heels.

She found her usual bench under the shade tree that looked out toward the fountain. Everything was the same as every other day, except the fall was beginning to chill the air, and the fountain's water had been dyed a strikingly unnatural blue in honor of the Royals' unexpected appearance in the playoffs. Malinda was never a fan of baseball, but she ceded that anything which electrified and united the city was undoubtedly for the better, even if it was just in hoping that our guys smacked a ball with a stick better than the other guys.

She sat gingerly down on the bench, trying to allow herself to relax in the hour she had before she was due back at her desk, and unzipped her purse to remove her sandwich – always the first part of lunch. She shook things up today by making tuna salad instead of her normal turkey and cheese, even taking an extra couple of minutes to include diced apples like her grandmother always did.

Her grandmother was always matronly and practical. If she were still alive, Malinda would have called her last weekend like usual to hear all about how the corn was growing higher than your head at Papa's farm, and how being twenty five and single, why would she have a thing in the world to be so stressed about... and why wasn't she dating again yet?

Before she opened the zip-top bag to fulfill the next step in the weekday ritual, she reached up to touch her port scar. She rarely did it consciously, but she did do it often. It was grounding, as if some part of her was afraid she would forget all about the whole ordeal which only ended four months ago – the chemo, the sick leave, the mastectomy, all the unwanted but-you're-so-young-and-life-is-so-unfair attention from her co-workers who barely knew her name before, and almost always misspelled it. And her hair that had just grown out enough to be a pixie cut that she might have done on purpose, so she could get rid of those stupid hats that nobody wears except for cancer patients who don't want you to know that they're cancer patients.

And Floyd the coward, who had been by her side since high school, but decided that he had to "move on" because... well, she wasn't the same after the cancer, and he didn't know how to love this new Malinda because she could barely love herself.

Yes, the scar was still there, and she knew every nuance, bump, and irregularity of that ugly pink blob that now sat across her heart from a useless prosthetic breast, and only partly covered by a lacy white bra that no man would see. Life was still this, and she had made it through, but things were just now getting back to normal, whatever that meant. Right now, it meant a sandwich, and watching the fountain do its silly work of endlessly pumping that disgusting blue water through the dregs of bird excrement and wishing well pennies.

She came here because there were people, and all varieties of them passing through. Auto mechanics, geeky hipsters always tapping on their shiny new iPhones, lawyers with their briefcases, and other cogs in the machine like her who pretended to fit in to play some integral part. These people saw each other but didn't feel obligated to feign affection aside from the occasional pleasantry which might have sounded like excuse me, but really meant something like you're in my way.

Humans were a strange species, and while the cancer hadn't killed her, it had put her in this strange place where she felt like she wasn't really part of it anymore. Now she viewed it from the outside in, like on a National Geographic documentary. With their command of technology and their suits and Lexuses and OkCupid, people declared themselves at the top of the animal hierarchy, in effect, because they were capable of crafting the most wasteful and intricate mating dance imaginable.

A jet of blue faltered for a moment and Malinda startled. Through the blue and across the fountain, sitting casually with his arm up on the rest, was a man who looked through the fountain back at her. His hair was brown and shaved short, but his leather jacket was a stark black. In her surprise, she immediately cast her eyes back to her sandwich, which was now half gone. She took another bite, turning aside to the shops to her right, deciding to watch him from her peripheral vision.

In another life, the old Malinda may very well have found him handsome. He wasn't imposingly large (like Floyd the coward), and he had a face that seemed incapable of harshness or anger. The new Malinda wondered academically if she could grow to trust even a man like that, if he was what he appeared to be and everything else she wanted.

She turned back to the bench in curiosity to find it empty, and even craned a bit to make certain. Then, she surprised herself by feeling a bit disappointed.

As she took the last bite of her sandwich, she reached back into her purse for another zip-top bag containing the yogurt of the day (cherry cheesecake, an old favorite) and a plastic spoon with which to enjoy it. She noticed for the first time that the lid was pink with a ribbon, because of course, October was breast cancer awareness month, and so Malinda declared herself officially aware.

As she reached for the spoon, a voice rang out saying "Hello", and her back straightened as she startled once again. She looked up to find a man in a black jacket with closely shaven brown hair now standing aside her bench. Why was he interrupting her lunch, and what the hell did he want? Her eyes widened, her heart raced, and the hand that was reaching for the spoon now found her scar. One finger traced its contour.

The man took a step backwards as he realized her condition and spoke again.

"God, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I don't want anything, really." She exhaled and would have closed her eyes if she weren't keeping watch on the strange but handsome-to-the-old-Malinda man.

"I just wanted you to know, in case you didn't know or had forgotten, that you're beautiful."

She looked away and smirked, her cynicism spilling out of her in a slight laugh, but he kept on. "You see, I may be dying, and I'm trying to learn how to be honest with the world in case I have to leave it soon. This seemed like a good first step: find a woman who I think is beautiful and just tell her. I'm not even going to tell you my name, so I have nothing to gain, and you'll know it came from honesty. I'm really sorry to have scared you."

Malinda's smirk was halted as it waned, and she struggled to open her mouth and say something, but she was utterly lost as to what the right words would be. He saved her the trouble. "I wish you the best," he said, and turned to calmly walk away.

It took a few long moments, but with the help of the yogurt of the day and the sounds of the fountain, some semblance of normalcy returned, and Malinda watched this odd species in the nature show for a few more minutes before returning to her desk to finish her day's work.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Flash Fiction - From Sentence To Story

Last week, Chuck Wendig posted a flash fiction challenge called "One Amazing Sentence".  This week, the challenge was to write a story from someone else's sentence last week.  The sentence that spoke to me was Laurie Jameson's:

The tree’s skeletal fingers stroked the ground as if to comfort the girl who lay below.
I have to admit, though, I jumped the gun and wrote this last Sunday, so I wrote to 500 words, instead of 1,000. I figure untimely words are better than the ones I didn't write, though. Anyway, here it is:

Great Potential

The tree’s skeletal fingers stroked the ground as if to comfort the girl who lay below.  The leaves of the gnarled oak were just beginning to turn with the onset of autumn, and they flowed with the breeze like a futile, desperate wave to betray the old tree's secret to the search team arriving on the scene.

Dust began to settle back down to the caliche road to reveal the growing number of dark sedans that parked alongside it.  Men and women emerged from each car with blue jackets and white block letters on their backs, carrying clipboards and cases to the gate where they convened at the mouth of the clearing.

A bark and a whine broke the monotony of rattling leaves and singing birds.  A German Shepherd sat placidly beside an open car door with a slowly wagging tail, her keeper hunched ahead of her and poised to set her training to use.  Through the day, the search team's uncertainty would give way to imminence, and a family would finally have their questions answered.  They would be able to set their little girl down to rest, and a man would be brought to justice.

Crime scene photographs would reveal a scene carefully set, a shallow grave marked subtly with a clear plastic box containing a desiccated prom corsage.  For the entirety of the summer months, the girl lay straight and supine, wearing a lavish formal dress, hands placed over her heart.

The autopsy would reveal slight ligature marks and a skull fracture consistent with blunt force trauma, which probably killed her instantly.  DNA evidence would prove her to be a missing nineteen year old woman from two towns to the west, and fingerprint evidence lifted from the body would link her to a man of twenty one years who was already "in the system".

What protocol and police work would not reveal, though, was the tapestry of tragic events that led her there.  The signed confession would not state that she was the altar at which he worshipped, and that her faintest smile quieted the most cruel and cacophonous voices in his head.  No trial proceeding would paint the picture of him sobbing like a helpless child and cradling her lifeless body when she fell and hit her head on the bathtub, declaring to himself that his life was over, too.  

She wanted to go to Arizona State to play softball and study biology, but he knew that they shared something profound.  He saw in his own misguided mind that they had great potential, and he just had to find a way to make her see it.  

Where there is that great potential, there is possibility for great things, but the fulcrum under the balance which directs that great weight can be strikingly imprecise.  The breeze continued to blow the branches of that old oak and the birds continued their songs, forces unmoved by those purest intentions and those darkest parts of that very nature that they realized.