Keg

You never can tell what you’re going to find in a New York bar. Greeley’s looked like a comfortable place to sit on a stool and sip a cold one, so I pushed the door open and looked inside. The bar itself was a solid, polished slab of mahogany, and the stools were sturdy and well-upholstered.

I sat down and sighed. As a salesman for a sundries distributor, I travel endlessly around the Boroughs and a new watering hole is a good thing for a young man’s thirst. I was thirsty as a desert nomad far from his oasis and exhausted from the heat of the pavement.

The barkeep pointed at the tap, I nodded, and soon he slid a mug of ale to my waiting hand. I took a sip and simultaneously heard a rude noise.
“Jeez and crackers, another drummer!”
I looked over to my right and then looked down. A tiny, pig-faced man stood there, glaring at my sample case next to my stool.
“I beg your pardon, sir? I am simply having a mug of Greeley’s best.”
His face twisted, even more, becoming indescribably ugly.
“Useta be honest, hard-working gents came in here to wash the dust of a day’s work down. Now we get the likes o’ you!”
He turned away and walked off, his small legs pumping rapidly, swung around the corner at the end of the bar, and disappeared from view.

The barman came up to the counter where I was and grunted.
“That’s Keg. Don’t mind him. He’s just missing his old mates, boys he drank with twenty years ago. Times they change, and people come and go.”
I sipped some more and listened to the barkeep for a bit.
“This place is his home, and always will be. I promised the previous owner I’d keep him on.”
The barman dried the mug he was holding and hung it up above the bar. He stuck his hand out.
“I’m Mike Greeley. Proprietor and bottle-washer here.”

I shook his hand and imbibed a bit more.
“Why does the dwarf make his home here? Is it Christian charity, or is he a useful draw? I wouldn’t think he’d attract customers.”
Mike stuck his hands in his apron and leaned back.
“It’s slow right now. I’ve some time to tell ya. Drain that and I’ll show you something.”

I tilted the rest down my throat and stood. Mike dropped his towel over a rod behind him and walked around the nearer end of the bar.
“This joint has a basement. It happened there, mostly. I’ll explain more down there.”
He lifted a small panel set into the floor and drew a box of matches from his apron. He struck one and lit a lamp. I followed him down a short flight of stairs, and Mike hung the lantern on a hook.

There was a wall of set bricks, crusted and damp, and near the base of the wall was a wooden board, hanging by a wire from two nails. Mike lifted the board gingerly. A hole, perfectly circular, a little more than a foot across, with a slight lip. I peered inside and saw an endless inky dark, naught else. Mike told his story.

It was a few years after the War of Rebellion. Andy O’Neill owned the place then, I was a dishwasher, and Keg was just one of the customers. He worked as a pinsetter at a bowling alley and ran errands. One August they was demolishing a building two doors down, and we was open despite that. On that Saturday afternoon one of our guys ran in at sunset, all worked up. “Trouble! We gots trouble! Everybody come outside and help us!”

Well we’d heard all kinds o’ bashing and crashing and we’d been paying it no mind, but there had been a catastrophe — the lads with the hammers and axes had tipped their building over on the one nigh to us and both went down into rubble and dust. We set to and started heaving boards and bricks into the street and pulling souls outa the wreck. We worked half the day and Keg ran from the bar to the workers giving them beer and water and sandwiches to sustain the work. Soon we had no more of the living to hear and reckoned we’d found all the dead, iffen I recall the toll was about five or so unfortunates. Two stone walls were fallen flat at the bottom of the mess, and we couldn’t lift that to look, and anything under was surely mashed flat. The coppers and firemen left, and we thanked the weary citizens who had stood up to help rescue the victims. The borough left a man to guard the ruins, as they was apt to shift, and too dangerous for the curious to pick at.

I was helping Andy clean up and restock the bar, for we decided, as tired as we were, the curious who wanted to gawk at the rubble and talk about the collapse would come in and drink. I took empty crates down to the cellar and carried full ones up. On the third trip, just heading up the stairs, I heard the faintest of sounds, and I thought I’d imagined it, so I stopped and set my load down and cocked my ear — and it was there, steady though faint — a thin wail, like a mewling cat. I had a babe at home, and another on the way, and I knew it was a child and my heart sank.

Andy came down at my yell, and we plied our ears and our hands and found a painted patch of plaster on the wall, and we bashed that off, and well, you’re looking at it — some sort of cast iron pipe, no more than fourteen inches acrost.  Someone had stuffed it with rags soaked in pitch, probably to keep rats out, and now we pulled that plug out with our hands. Now the wailing and crying seemed to fill our ears. We yelled and called into the pipe and there was no change, except now we could hear some snuffling and coughing along with the screeching. I talked into the pipe, trying to calm the bairn while Andy ran upstairs. A few of our regulars had come in, along with a few gawkers from the accident. We brought them down to hear and see if we could come up with a plan. Right off we had a man run down to the fire station. I kept yelling into the pipe, the wailing and crying continued, and I thought, At least they ain’t dead yet, but I couldn’t see how we’d get them out.

The firemen shined lanterns in the pipe, hung a small lamp on a pole and stuck it in, but couldn’t see anything except darkness further along. More than thirty feet long the pipe must be, and no sight of anyone inside, or of the other end. One suggested getting a terrier and some cord, another said we could dig a tunnel, but the risk of whatever void was under the rubble being collapsed was deemed too great. Various schemes were thought up, but all dashed against the hard facts.

Then Keg, our smallest customer came down the stairs. He was munching on a pickle he held in one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. I’d not seen him for a few hours and had forgotten to look under the back table, where he’d often take a snooze when business was slow. He complained of the noise and yammering and it took some yelling and explaining to get through to him the nature of the predicament. As one of the firemen angrily berated the dwarf the other reached into his pocket, took out a piece of cord and laid it against the pipe opening, used his thumb to hold the measure and then laid it against Keg’s back. The small space in the cellar became almost quiet. The dwarf turned half around and swatted at the cord. “What are y’ doing!” The fireman looked at us. “He’d fit, with an inch or so to spare.” For a moment there was no sound except for the wailing and sobbing from the hole.

Keg’s face went gray, and he stammered at us, “What d’ye mean, I’d f-fit! What -” One of Keg’s drinking buddies, Karl, a German fellow, put a hand on Keg’s arm. “You can save dem, you can fit in ze hole, you can reach dem!” Keg turned and tried to run, but one of the firemen grabbed him.  Keg struggled in his grasp, screaming. “You don’t understand! I can’t go in there! I’d die!”

I’m afraid we mostly yelled at him, and it for a minute or so it was a meaningless mess o’ yammerin’, but Mike shouted the rest down and put Keg up on a small footstool, pointed a finger at the dwarf and said in a low voice. “I’m listening to ya, Keg, but consider your words — that child will surely die if you don’t help.”

Keg snuffled a bit, wiped some snot off his face, and glowered at Mike, ignoring the rest o’ us.
“You don’t know me or me life. I’m nobody’s friend, an’ nobody’s hero. Been spat at and laughed at me whole life. Me ma was ashamed of me, kept me locked in a closet for month after month ’cause I ran off wunst. I canna bear small places, and the dark. I fear ’em like death isself. Ya wanna tell me why I should put my neck out for anyone?”

Mike put both his hands on Keg’s shoulders, like a father would his son, and held Keg’s gaze with his own. It was the damndest thing to watch.
“Keg, I can’t promise you na harm, but we’ll do our best to keep ya safe, and we’ll put a light in with ya, I swear. You say ya have na friends, but I’ve known ya and never talked ya down, ha’n’t I?”

To watch Keg’s face was like watching wax melt, as his features softened, although his eyes were still hard and suspicious.
“I-I know you, Mike. Ya would ne’er hurt a man, not even a dog like me.” Keg looked around at the faces of the men in the cellar. “I don’t know you knobheads. Whatever we do, Mike’s in charge or I’m out!”

Once we had Keg’s reluctant agreement, we cast about for stuff to get the job done, if we could. We were mostly a bunch of common laborers, but that’s not nothing. John McMenamy useta be a hard-rock miner, and he brought his old canvas cap, and a wick lamp which hung on the front. We had a couple carpenters who started putting together some boards we could tie to Keg’s stumpy little legs, and I found a cushion to tie to his pants so we had something to push against.

So in he went, muttering complaints, and worrying his lower lip with what he had for teeth. The first set of boards on his legs, and his body rubbed with grease, we slid him into the dark maw and seed it might work, for there was some small gap twixt Keg and the grimy pipe. Mike’s biggest fear is that the pipe would be too long, or we’d end up shoving Keg into something that smothered him, so he kept up yelling down the pipe to the dwarf, and then pausing to hear back. The pipe somehow made an echo for Keg’s responses, which were sometimes angry, sometimes fearful.

“Tha’ fooken smell, Gah! The smell! Feh… Ah, gawd it’s so close, I feel like I’m in Satan’s arse!
“Can ya see clear ahead, Keg? Is there space still for ya?”
“Yeh, I can see ahead, all pipe, but ahead! Ah ya damned lot o’ rowdies, why’d I ever trust you?! Ah, can feel the weight above me and all around me!”
Keg whimpered while we strapped on another ten feet of lumber to the rest, and pushed him in deeper. As a faint counterpoint, we heard the child cry again.
Keg stopped complaining for a few moments and I could hear him draw a deep raspy breath.
“Shove me along, ye bastards! While there’s still life in them and me!”
The work was slower than you would think, as we added to Keg’s sideways stilts and pushed and pushed, and stopped to check, the whole thing got heavier, and we had to handle it slower. I feared, and so did Mike and Old Jim the miner, that the rig would separate, and trap Keg half-way in the pipe. We set to battening the joints with rope and wire and as it got further and further in, some carpentry nails.

We were in about thirty feet, and Keg was just steadily cursing and crying now, and suddenly the boards in the hole began moving and rattling and all we could hear in the small cellar was Keg screaming and screaming for at least two minutes, and then, nothing.
No Keg, no sound from the child. Dead quiet. Keg wouldn’t respond to our calling and pleading. I finally grabbed the poles, and pulled back a few feet, and pushed forward a few feet, and shook them, heart in my mouth.
“Keg! Keg! Keg, talk to us man! Talk! Let us know you’re still there!”

After listening for a few minutes, and shushing the men in our small crew, I bent my ear close to the end of the pipe. I rapped the board with a small hammer and heard it echo in the pipe. I heard a low, growling sound, almost too low to hear.
“Damn ye.”
I shouted.
“Keg! Come back! Come to, man!”
“There was a rat, ye bastards. He came right up to my face and I could see his nasty little teeth!”
“Keg, we were…”
“My arms are so stiff but they moved, oh they did, they did! He came and came and I got him and snapped his rotten little neck, I did!”
“Keg… do you want to come out?”
“I… I canna come out, I still hear ‘im from time to time. He’s scared, and he’ll die, I know. I can’t go back. This little rat bastard will ride along with me the rest o’ the way. Push! I see room ahead!”
We heard Keg sobbing as we tied on more boards and shoved him in, again, and again, and yet again once more.
Keg was yelling at us now, to “put on more board, shove me inta the bowels o’ Hell!”
Forty-five feet in or a little more and Keg yelled back.
“I-I can see the end! Push me aboot four feet more, and ready to pull back!”
We put on the last of our boards, baling wire, screws, and rope and pushed slowly to a pencil mark one of the carpenters made. It took almost all our strength.
Mike and I put our ears to the hole.
“Keg! Can you see out! Can-”
I stopped. I heard crying, not Keg’s voice, but the child’s. It wasn’t quite so faint as before, and now, now it echoed like Keg’s voice did!
Keg spoke, not quite yelling.
“Pull! Pull steady and strong!”
We pulled, and pulled, and ripped off lumber as we pulled, and piled it up to one side. We listened and wondered.
Keg exhorted us a few more times to pull, but we heard him talking in another fashion.
“Hold on, hold on! Don’t struggle, ah ye brat!”
We hauled and piled, and pulled nails and unwound wire and pulled knots open and finally Mike and I yanked Keg from the grimy pipe, and as he came out, his hands, tight and purple and filthy, pulled out a young child, sobbing and whimpering and with sunken eyes in her pale face.

The men had a blanket ready, and wrapt it ’round her, and washed her face. One added a few drops of brandy from his hip flask to some water in a cup and had her sip it. She was shivering and sobbing still, and it was as if she knew not where she was now.

The rest of us slapped Keg on his back, crying and hurrahing him, and we were lifting him to our shoulders. He slapped our hands away and said something, and backed away. Mike waved his hands and quieted the men. The little girl stopped crying and said something. I couldn’t make it out.

Keg had a look in his eyes I’d seen in war veterans, remembering shelling and dead comrades. He shakily walked back over to the pipe.
“I hafta… I hafta…” He bent his neck and cursed under his breath. “Put me back in tha pipe.” He turned his dead eyes back to me.
“Her brother is still in there, alive, and waitin’. He’s hurt, I don’t know how bad. There’s bodies in rubble all over.”

We cleaned up Keg a bit, quickly, gave him a coupla swigs of brandy and a chance to stain a wall, put more oil in his lamp, trimmed the wick, lit the lamp again and put him back in. We had some men take a break and brought more in. But we only had one Keg.
He was a lot quieter now, except for a few sobs and snuffles when he was in about half-way.

About two hours it took, strapping and wiring up the boards, pushing more confidently now that we knew there were no obstructions in the pipe. When we got to the end, Keg cursed and cursed.
“Damn brat! I can’t see him! Gawd damn him ta hell! Where is he?”
There were some clattering sounds.
“Push me two feet more! More!”
More clattering sounds. Silence. Our breathing seemed the loudest thing ever.
“I cut maself loost. I gotta go find him.”
“Keg, no, get back in, we’ll get ya back, ya’ll die!
One response, then silence.
“Damn ye, just hold tight.”
We heard nothing, nothing at all, for too many heartbeats. Then Keg’s voice again, in a different trembly timbre.
“I tied him to the boards. Pull him out.”
“Keg, can ya hold on until we push them back for ya?”
“Well, I’m gawdam well gonna hafta! PULL!”
During the awful hours we spent pushing and pulling Keg in and out of the pipe, and back in, we managed to get a sawbones, and he had a litter waiting and an ambulance ready outside.
We eased the boy, skinny and bleeding, from the pipe and the doc took over, listening to his heart and chest and then cutting away his clothes, cleaning his wounds with a tincture. We wrapped him in a blanket and the ambulance boys took him and his sister away.

We sent a bundle of rope and a bottle of water back along the pipe. We didn’t hear aught. When we figgered we had it pushed out the other end, Mike yelled and yelled for more than a quarter hour with no response except an echo. We rubbed out hands and felt half dead, wondering what had happened, until we heard a clattering and rattling in tha pipe. Mike bent to the hole and yelled.
“Keg! Are ya all right?”
Silence, then more rattling. A low voice, tired and full of fear.
“Pull. Please! Pull!”
We pulled and got him out. Keg sobbed all the way back, like a small child. We were glad to hear anything from him, even though he din’t answer us when we yelled.
Mike untied him, and he lay on the floor and puled like a baby, crying his guts out, and wouldn’t stop for several minutes. Mike hugged him and he calmed a bit.
“The boy… he… he was trynta get his pa out, and …another. His pa was dead. Then he fought me, and I had to lay him out to get him in tha pipe. Is he gonna make it?”
Mike stroked Keg’s hair like his own child.
“Aye, the doc thinks he will. Tomorrow we can go to the hospital and see them.”
“No, no I canna go, I can’t look…”

“Keg lapsed into crying and coughing. We cleaned him up and took him out of that place, and the carpenters put that board over the hole that you see today.”
The barkeep slid the board back over the pipe, and carefully latched it.

I drew in a deep breath. “I don’t want to be here either. Let’s go upstairs and you can sell me another beer, and a sandwich.”
Back at the bar, I sipped at the draft, feeling more fortunate than usual.

“The little guy’s a hero, then, facing his fears, saving two kids. Did he go to the hospital then?”
The bartender was slicing some cheese for my sandwich. He turned a moment.
“He couldn’t. He refused to see the children he saved. You see, sir, the people in the rubble, they was all twisted up and bent and crushed, almost as one with the debris. Dead, all but one. One was alive. Keg had an hour to think it over until we could push the boards back to him, an hour to watch, and when we sent him the rope, time to act. Keg did what he had to do, and when he left, there was no one left behind to suffer. Not even the kids’ mother.”

Meeting the Protagonist — This Story needs Fixing

Fix the story - writer working

The craft of a writer can be divided into three irregular amorphous tasks which mix into each other:

  1. Think of something to write that someone would enjoy reading.
  2. Write the story you thought of, as well as you are capable.
  3. Fix your hideous errors and make the story into what you had hoped to write.

Of course, I’m leaving out all the steps in learning how to become a writer, how you market the work, establish a brand, and the most important — how to die wealthy — but those three tasks are how you grind out the stuff.

It’s time to fix a story. Let’s look at this introductory chunk of a short story I wrote recently:

You never can tell what you’re going to find in a New York bar. Greeley’s looked like a comfortable place to sit on a stool and sip a cold one, so I pushed the door open and looked inside. The bar itself was a solid, polished slab of mahogany, and the stools were sturdy and well-upholstered.

I sat down and sighed. As a salesman for a sundries distributor, I travel endlessly around the Boroughs and a new watering hole is a good thing for a young man’s thirst. I was thirsty as a desert nomad far from his oasis and exhausted from the heat of the pavement.

The barkeep pointed at the tap, I nodded, and soon he slid a mug of ale to my waiting hand. I took a sip and simultaneously heard a rude noise.
“Jeez and crackers, another drummer!”
I looked over to my right, and then further down. A tiny, pig-faced man stood there, glaring at my sample case, next to my stool.
“I beg your pardon, sir? I am simply having a mug of Greeley’s best.”
His face twisted even more, becoming indescribably ugly.
“Useta be honest, hard-working gents came in here to wash the dust of a day’s work down. Now we get the likes o’ you!”
He turned away and walked off, his small legs pumping rapidly, swung around the corner at the end of the bar, and disappeared from view.

The barman came up to the counter where I was and grunted.
“That’s Keg. Don’t mind him. He’s just missing his old mates, boys he drank with twenty years ago. Times they change, and people come and go.”
I sipped some more and listened to the barkeep for a bit.
“This place is his home, and always will be. I promised the previous owner I’d keep him on.”
The barman dried the mug he was holding and hung it up above the bar. He stuck his hand out.
“I’m Mike Greeley. Proprietor and bottle-washer here.”

I shook his hand and imbibed a bit more.
“Why does the dwarf make his home here? Is it Christian charity, or is he a useful draw? I wouldn’t think he’d attract customers.”
Mike stuck his hands in his apron and leaned back.
“It’s slow right now. I’ve some time to tell ya. Drain that and I’ll show you something.”

To clear one thing up right away: Keg the dwarf is the main protagonist, not the nameless traveling salesman who stopped in for a drink, or the bartender, Mike Greeley. It’s not a bad beginning, but beginnings have to be fairly sharp and do their job efficiently. What’s the job here? Establish the setting, get you interested in the characters, tease the reader into staying with the story. Since two of the three characters you meet in this section will be important to the rest of the story, there are some things missing, and it needs some tightening up. That’s not to say I’m going to start it in media res (in the middle of things) or make it too modern. It is a period piece and I want some of that nineteenth-century pacing. But it needs fixing, all right.

The first thing I’ll do is work on the conversation between Mike the barkeep and our nameless drummer, make it tighter and shorter.

Then I’ll push all the text together and reparagraph it. You’d be surprised how often that improves the flow or shows flaws you wouldn’t spot as easily. Hmmm, I’ll have Keg flipping the salesman off for a bit more flavor. I should add a brief desciption of Mike to make him come a bit more alive.

Always consider the atmosphere and setting when you build a conversation. Have a character do a bit of ‘business’ as they say in the theatre – have them act or move or hold something. Have a character pick at her nails or look at a bug on the wall. Tie it into an emotion if you can, or have it fulfill a desire. If you want to be coy, have them touch or introduce something important to the story later on. Don’t just have people stand around like talking heads.

Reread. Find a couple of blemishes. Fix them. Greeley’s isn’t ‘new,’ call it ‘good’ instead. Don’t use ‘thirst right next to ‘thirsty.’ Describe Keg’s voice. I don’t like ‘imbibe.’ Change ‘place’ to ‘bar.’ Tweak tweak pluck pluck, but don’t spend hours doing it. Reread again. Say it out loud. Change ‘You never can tell what you’re going to find in a New York bar.’ to ‘You never know what you’re going to find in a New York bar.’ Change ‘I sipped some more and listened to the barkeep for a bit.’ to ‘I sipped some more and listened some more.’

Ponder a few things. Is describing Keg as ugly important to the story? Should I be more considerate to the feelings of little people? I decided to leave it in, as it’s touched later. I’m putting in a representative character and the other people in the story are treating him the way people from that time would treat him. Besides, he’s going to be the main protagonist.

The denizens of Greeley’s bar are ethnic Irish, with a sprinkling of other immigrants. There is a contrast in their diction compared to the young salesman, who apparently made it through some schooling. Show the distinction but don’t over-emphasize it. Most of the story is a reminiscence. Let the folksy cheerfulness and maudlin references slowly slide away in the succeding sections. This first section is the set-up, the chair you slowly slide out from under the reader.

The revamped section:

You never know what you’re going to find in a New York bar. Greeley’s looked like a comfortable place to sit on a stool and sip a cold one, so I pushed the door open and looked inside. The bar itself was a solid, polished slab of mahogany, and the stools were sturdy and well-upholstered. A genial-looking gent in his fifties stood behind the mahogony, and gestured to me. I sat down on a stool and sighed. As a salesman for a sundries distributor, I travel endlessly around the Boroughs and finding a good watering hole is a good thing for a young man’s thirst. I was as dry as a desert nomad far from his oasis, and exhausted from the heat of the pavement.

The barman pointed at the tap, I nodded, and soon he slid a cool mug of ale to my waiting hand. I took a sip and simultaneously heard a cross scratchy voice complaining.
“Jeez and crackers, another drummer!”
I looked over to my right, and then further down. A tiny, pig-faced man stood there, glaring at my sample case, next to my stool.
“I beg your pardon, sir? I am simply having a mug of Greeley’s best.”
His face twisted even more, becoming indescribably ugly.
“Useta be honest, hard-working gents came in here to wash the dust of a day’s work down. Now we get the likes o’ you!”
He pointed right at my face, made an even ruder gesture and walked off, his small legs pumping rapidly, then swung around the corner at the end of the bar, and disappeared from view.

The barman dried the mug he was holding and hung it up above the bar. He stuck his hand out. I shook it, and did what I do best – listen.
“I’m Mike Greeley. Proprietor and bottle-washer here. That’s Keg. Don’t mind him. He’s just missing his old mates, boys he drank with twenty years ago. Times they change, and people come and go.”
I sipped some more and listened some more.
“This bar is his home, and always will be. I promised the previous owner, I’d keep him on.”
“But why, sir? Why does the dwarf make his home here? Is it Christian charity, or is he a useful draw?”
Mike stuck his hands in his apron and leaned back.
“It’s slow right now. I’ve some time to tell ya the whole tale. Drain that and I’ll show you something.”

I’ll toss the question of his name into the next section:
“He’s called Keg because when he walks his little legs make his body trundle along like you was rolling a small barrel of liquor on its end.”

Reread. It’ll do. I particularly like the apron. Gotta have a place to put your hands.

 

Pawn & Gun

Pawn and Gun

It was my summer job, working with old man Jenkins at the Pawn & Gun. I just swept up, polished the sweaty fingerprints off the glass in the cases, opened boxes and stomped them flat to fit in the dumpster behind, and many other such chores. I didn’t get to sit behind the counter with the guns and watches and jewelry and all the glittering things. That was Mr. Jenkins’ privilege as owner. At the time I envied him his throne.

The shop was huge to me, and like a treasure trove, with the jewelry and gold and silver sparkling from end to end of the glass cases that formed the counter, with old man Jenkins sitting behind it all on his swivel stool, register right behind him in the center. He had a big pale green paper blotter on the counter in front, where he’d put the object, whether a watch or ring or coin, while he discussed a deal with its owner.

I would stop sweeping at first, and watch and listen to Mr. Jenkins smile and speak softly and amiably to a customer, whether buying or selling, genuine friendliness in his voice, but with an unstated savvy behind his figuring and offers. By the second or third week, though, I’d quickly resume when Jenkins would cock his head at me while he was negotiating, showing me he’d noticed. He was kind but firm with me about getting his two dollar’s worth out of each hour I worked. “It takes a certain amount of money to keep the shop profitable, Sam, and I can only make so much from a small town like ours.” He was always going over the store’s books when business slowed, and then slide them away under the register when the bell on the door went ding.

In high school, we’d studied Greek Mythology, and I’d listened because the stories were so fantastic. My favorite was about the Fates, three sisters who spun the threads of each person’s fate into our common destiny. In their hands, as they sang and wove were a man’s, or a woman’s, or a child’s fate, and they determined what happened to each.

Soon I realized that old man Jenkins also held the threads of people’s lives in his wrinkly hands, even with his ever-present smile, because I would see how people used the store to see them through life’s high and low points. A couple in love would come in and shop for a set of wedding bands, alcoholics would pawn something every day to feed their habits, a man whose paycheck didn’t stretch far enough would bring in something, maybe a clock, or his father’s watch, and put their immediate future in old man Jenkin’s hands as he put his jeweler’s loupe to his eye, a bright light on the item of value, and hum lightly as he evaluated it. Then he’d lay it down on the blotter and softly announce what he’d give for it, either in pawn or sale.

I saw people pawn the prized jewelry of their dead mother to help bury her, and another pawn his gun to buy a bassinet. And… once a nervous, jittery man with thick curly hair and a thick jacket not well-suited for a hot summer day came in and asked to see a rack of gold bracelets and reached under that bulky jacket, only to see genial Mr. Jenkins unsnap his holster, the holster that held his Colt .45 ACP pistol — he’d bought it after his service in Korea as a Marine. The nervous man turned around and left the store without a word. Mr. Jenkins thought for a moment, and then turned and picked up the phone and called the police. Only then did his smile return.

Threads were paid out like lifelines but sometimes snipped off short too. A man who had pawned his wife’s jewelry, being told the goods were sold, long after his loan was due, long after many letters were sent, asking in a low moan, “How am I going to tell my wife? She trusted me.” A man just short of his rent bringing in a phonograph to sell, and Jenkins sadly shaking his head no. So many sad times in a pawn shop.

One unseasonably cool June evening I heard Mr. Jenkins get philosophical about the effect his business had on his customers. He’d just bought a fancy guitar from a college coed home for the summer. Her ex-boyfriend had bought it for her and she couldn’t stand seeing it around. “I love playing, and I want to get better, but having the guitar… it hurts every time I see it,” she said. Mr. Jenkins bought the guitar, hung it up, and persuaded the girl to keep playing, and offered her another less fancy guitar at a good price. When she left the store, a bit happier, he said, “People bring me their problems and I give them what I can. Sometimes advice, sometimes cash, and rarely, redemption.”

Pawn & Gun was seasonal, I found out during my three months there, as a burly gentleman in jeans and a flannel shirt came into the shop my first week and paid off his loan, interest and fees and all, and reclaimed his carpenters’ tools, a yearly ritual for him. Hunters came in just before fall to look at shotguns and jackets, and in the back lot, there were a couple of boats that made their way back to the water of our nearby lake that summer.

But there were circles of thread that trailed only down, down, down, as I soon found out. In my first week, there was a Mr. Palmer in to sell some antiques that belonged to his parents, and he muttered low to old man Jenkins, who wrote up his ticket for sale. He started coming in every month, sometimes more often, and he sold jewelry, a coin collection, and so much more valuables over the weeks that I thought for sure he had a bad habit, like cocaine, as he became visibly thinner in the summer I worked at the Pawn & Gun.

It was Labor Day, and Mr. Jenkins was paying me my last wages before I went back to school, shaking my hand and telling me he hoped to have my help again in the holidays, when Mr. Palmer shambled unsteadily into the Pawn & Gun, his face yellow and drawn. He smiled at me, but it was a smile of lips and teeth only, nothing in the eyes. I looked at something else, I had to, his eyes were empty, like none I’d seen before.

“Hey Sarge, I’m looking for something in the way of protection. Had a break-in last night.” Jenkins looked closely into Mr. Palmer’s eyes, and spoke slowly, low but clear. “Now, you know, Carl, nobody calls me that unless they’re reminding me they served too. You know I won’t give you much advantage as an ex-Marine. Call me Matt, like you did before.”

They discussed guns for a few minutes, about caliber, and type, and grip and finally Mr. Palmer purchased a .32 Browning revolver and a box of ammunition. The purchase was tucked neatly into a brown paper bag and stapled shut like a package. Then old man Jenkins did something very odd to me. He stood up, walked around the counters, and hugged Mr. Palmer. The doorbell dinged as Palmer left.

Mr. Jenkins sat down, looked at his hands, and thoughtfully said to me, “Sam, you know we’re going to get that one back soon.” I asked, “You mean Mr. Palmer?” He blinked once and looked at me with a worn-out expression. “No, son, I mean the gun. Carl Palmer has late-stage liver cancer, and he’s at the end of his rope. I imagine his son will come back to our town to bury him, and of course, he won’t want to have it around… to remind him.”

Writing a Short Horror Story

Unamed

Everyone enjoys a good scare. The breath pulls in, the heart skips a beat and then races, adrenaline flows — it is a stimulant and even a catharsis. If you’re not harmed, the momentary perception of risk is sublime. What could be better? I’ll tell you. To draw that five seconds out to five minutes, or even an hour. That’s horror fiction. It’s the combined effect of a good story with a prolonged sense of unease, culminating in existential dread. Best of all, after the climax, you can close the book and stand up unharmed. Your knees might be a bit weak.

My own opinion is that the short story is the best form of horror. You can build quickly and pull the reader’s head back and frighten them, or engage a deeper sense of horror. The difference between a short story and a novel is the difference between dropping a fake spider in someone’s lap or doing a long con like arranging a fake séance. The longer form can fall down of its own weight.

So you’re going to write a short horror story. What are the important things you have to do?

Your ingredients should include:

Identity. Your reader needs to care about someone in the story, caught up in a situation that is increasingly dark and fatal. Give them someone they can identify with.
Care about your protagonist(s):
– The reader should fear for them, and thus feel fear themselves.
– Your main characters should reflect the reader’s own persona.
– Horror is the loss of control in what should be familiar and safe.
Show them a character they can feel for, then put them in jeopardy.

Fear. Some primal fear needs to permeate the story. The story needs to be soaked in something simple and inescapable. It needs to ooze fear. At any point, the reader should be feeling trepidation as if some unknown person is going to draw the point of a razor across their palm.
But, evoke other strong emotions if you can:
– Revulsion and possibly disgust.
– Pathos, empathy, sympathy, even for the evil you invoke.
– Panic. Difficult to do on a printed page, but even its shadow is effective.
– Sadness which is pathos’s cousin. Horror shouldn’t be happy, usually.
Play on their heartstrings with a claw hammer.

Plot. You need a strong story.
Go to the well:
– What scared you in your favorite horror stories?
– What myths or ghost stories can you crib from?
– What true-life horror can you use as a base?
You have many cultures to chooses from, they all have ghost stories and tales of pride fallen.

Suprise. You need to lead your reader in one direction, raise their expectations, and then jolt them, get them off balance. Throw their belief system into shock. Show them, and through their senses, your reader; something awful, and familiar, and unbearable.
Be precise in your use of gore and squick.
– The genre varies in this, dial it up, carefully.
– What level elevates the story?
– What audience do you want?
Pick your market, how explicit your story is will differentiate pulp from literature.

Mystery. Your protagonist or the reader must be provided with a mystery, one which increases in importance through your narrative until the consequences of solving it or not become fatal.
You can make this a minor element or blend in mystery as a major component:
– Your degree of mystery can range from ‘What is behind the door?’ to ‘Have they really walled up the Baroness in the cellar?’
– The protagonist can be led by details, clues in manuscripts, or their own endeavors.
– Hiding a mystery inside another mystery is quite realistic.
Best of all, getting an answer that is shockingly unlike the ones they expected can be a climax.

Foreshadowing. A cloud no bigger than a man’s hand foretells the storm. Any sign, from a gloomy day, a dead sparrow on the windowsill, or the shadowy figure of a man in the forest.
Show the doom that is coming:
– Give your reader the small signs of a greater evil.
– Help them to a stunning realization in small pieces.
Foreshadowing can help walk the story from normalcy and safety towards the pit of horror you are about to throw everyone into.

Suspense. Your story has to follow a rising arc, one where a shadow first appears, then events draw and stack one upon each other towards a crisis. The turns and twists after this are where your story can pull the curtain aside suddenly, or roll towards an inevitable doom.
Make your reader want to stop, but compel them to keep going:
– Make your story strong, and make your characters drive the story.
– Consequences should be fatal or worse.
– Walk the reader through a course of action.
– Accelerate the pace.
– Slap the reader in the face with a climax.
This is how you make it a page-turner.

Block out a story arc, storyboard it, do research to flesh out believable details, then write, write, write. Make yourself shiver.

Dust

Warehouse sketch

Ming Zhao wiped his forehead with a gloved hand and adjusted his mask. The lousy vent hood was malfunctioning again, and he could feel the heat through his lab coat, his body sweating and his clothes damp, sticking to him tightly. The new batch of fentanyl, blended with carfentanil, was a perfect designer drug. He was testing the end product, fresh from a ball mill, a dust almost as fine as smoke, so easy to mix and ‘cut’ with filler for the end customers, distributors in America. He placed a cotton swab in a test tube and watched the reagent change color. Excellent.

Zhao noticed, almost incidentally, that he had stopped breathing. He dropped the test tube and grabbed his throat, making a small pitiful sound as air bubbled through his lips ineffectually. Zhao tried to calm himself and reached his hand for the pre-filled syringe next to him, loaded with naloxone, an opioid antagonist used to instantly reverse overdoses. In a triumph of concentration and will to survive, the chemistry student jabbed the syringe through his jacket into his arm and pushed the plunger all the way down. He relaxed, waiting for relief. He found a few moments later that now he could no longer close his eyes or move. A fellow chemist found him dead a few minutes later, wide-eyed and mouth open, slumped on the workbench.

Business is business and proceeds regardless of small accidents. The tested product was heat-sealed by masked workers in small bags, padding wrapped around them, carefully packed in cardboard boxes. The boxes were stacked inside a bin marked in Chinese, words which would translate as ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components’ — although both the company name and the paperwork attached to the bin were elaborate fiction.

Men in white coveralls loaded the bin onto a plain panel truck while a man in a brown uniform and two armed soldiers watched intently. Once the truck was sealed and locked, the brown-suited man banged on its side and the truck drove off down the dusty road, its cargo headed for a seaport and eventually the United States.

Six weeks later, in Long Beach, a worker at GreenShip Services (a new competitor in the shipping, freight, and logistics business) lightly tossed package after package onto conveyor belts. One small box hit the metal guard of the belt and ended up crooked and half off the belt itself. The box slammed into a steel support strut, and flew off the belt to the concrete floor, landing on the point of a corner and getting slightly crushed.

The worker retrieved the package from ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components’ and handed it to his manager for examination. Mel the Manager’s job was snap decisions. He pulled the box back into shape and slapped some brown tape on the corner. He couldn’t see a few fine particles puff out from the taped tear and didn’t even suspect that he inhaled them.

Mel put a sticker on the box that said ‘Damaged and examined’ and put the box back on the belt. He watched his workers and the endless streams of packages bumping each other along the conveyor belts and plopping into canvas bags. His mind was more on the bowling league game that night than on his job. Mel coughed a couple of times, grabbed his chest, and fell to the floor dead.

The damaged package dropped into a canvas bag at the other end of the facility at about the same time Mel’s heart stopped, and while Mel’s employees tore open his shirt and gave chest compressions, the bag was loaded onto a truck headed to Los Angeles.

Mindy Dawson backed her green truck up to the loading dock at the main GreenShip facility on North Main Street. She set the brake, hopped out and sprinted up the ramp, and pulled her seven mini-pallets of packages up to the truck and started building her load, checking which locations on her route she’d stop at last, and stacking those packages in first, running her dolly in and out of her truck as she stacked heavy boxes down at the bottom of the stacks, and shoving smaller boxes and envelopes into shelves and cubbyholes along both sides. Soon the inside of the truck was a maze of packages with just enough room for her to squeeze through the stack and piles.

Mindy latched the back of her truck and jogged back to the driver’s seat, chestnut ponytail wagging. She set her cap on her head, smiled at herself in the rear-view mirror, and put the truck in gear. She enjoyed her job, loved to drive, and especially liked meeting people along her route.

Back at the loading dock, a stocky man known to everyone as ‘Gooch’ pushed one of the mini-pallet jacks Mindy had returned over to another stack of packages. He rubbed his eyes and felt dizzy. “Hey Gooch,” another worker called out, “Whaddya think about the Chargers game last Sunday?” Gooch smiled and walked over to his friend, but suddenly went wobbly in his knees. He sat down abruptly on the cement floor, feeling numb and sweaty all over. “I-I don’t feel so good…” An ambulance took him still alive to the USC Medical Center emergency room where he fell into respiratory arrest and passed away. Nobody at GreenShip connected Mel’s and Gooch’s deaths to a single cause.

Mindy and her green truck with the GreenShip flower-petal logo sped along State Highway 110, and took the offramp at 3rd, turning at Sepulveda to the jumping-off point of her route in the Financial District. GreenShip Dispatch tracked their drivers and vehicles carefully, from the moment Mindy snapped her seatbelt on through the receipt of each package, and even how fast she was driving and what route she took.

Her first drop-off was at the stately Hotel Buenaventura, a classic building design from the 1940s. Mindy pulled four boxes onto her green dolly, bumping into the shelf where she’d earlier deposited the small box from ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components.’ A small amount of white powder smeared onto her uniform sleeve just below the shoulder. She was a bit distracted thinking about the doorman at the Buenaventura, who Mindy thought of as a big hunk of beefcake.

Maximo Rodriguez pulled on his white gloves. He was still relatively new at his job and didn’t feel comfortable in his suit, cap, and gloves. He knew he was part of the reason guests paid four hundred dollars a night at the Buenaventura, part of the atmosphere, right there with the faux Roman columns, the deep pile carpet, the magnificent staircase that swept in an arc up to the inside balcony, and the tall glass doors he guarded.

His eyes flicked to the brick sidewalk flanked by reflecting pools, and the figure in green rolling a dolly towards him. Maximo’s smile broadened and he pulled opened the door. He knew this chica, with a bubbly personality, a wash of freckles across her nose and a slim body. He deeply appreciated another chance to chat with her.

“Mindy! Mi corazón…” He tried his best to be suave and saw the amusement in her smile as she pulled the dolly into the lobby. She plopped the packages on his desk and presented her electronic tablet to him. “Maximo, you flirt. Honestly!” Mindy smiled warmly back at him regardless. He picked up the stylus, signed for the delivery, and watched as she rolled the dolly back to her truck, her firm buttocks and slim hips receding. At least she remembered his name, and so he had hope.

Maximo picked up the packages and carried them into the office, where his manager Barbara was typing away at her workstation. She thanked him without looking up. The door to the office did not close. Why didn’t it close? she thought, not quite paying attention. She was still half-focused on her spreadsheet when she heard Maximo fall heavily to the ground when he finally let go of the door. Maximo was shuddering, convulsing, his tongue sticking out. Barbara was frightened, but apparently felt he was having an epileptic seizure. She took her sweater off, folded it, and put it under his head, then picked up her desk phone and called 911.

Dispatcher: 911 — Where is your emergency?

Caller: I need an ambulance at 408 South Figueroa – The Buenaventura Hotel, in the lobby! My doorman, he’s having a seizure!

Dispatcher: Is he conscious? Can he speak?

Caller: Send an ambulance! No, he’s shaking all over and his body is jerking around.

Dispatcher: I am sending an ambulance. Keep him from striking himself on furniture if you can.

Caller: I-he’s not breathing! What should I do? Oh, God! He’s going to die!

Dispatcher: Ma’am, I am going to instruct you in this. Please put your phone on speaker if you can. Follow my instructions until the ambulance arrives.

Caller: (coughing)

Dispatcher: Ma’am, are you there?

Caller: (gagging sounds) (coughing) (apparent Cheyne–Stokes breathing)

Dispatcher: Ma’am an ambulance has been sent. It will arrive shortly. Please talk to me.

Caller: (apparent Cheyne–Stokes breathing)

Dispatcher: Ma’am, are you there?

Dispatcher: Ma’am, are you there? Please respond. The ambulance is on its way.

(No further response)

The EMTs arrived in a Fire Rescue Unit eight minutes later. They entered the hotel lobby, looking around for the patient. One noticed the manager’s office door was ajar and walked over, discovering Maximo’s body on the floor, partially blocking the door. He bent down to check the body for vitals, noticed Barbara’s body just beyond, and yelled to the other EMT. She didn’t answer. Alarmed, he looked up over his shoulder just in time to see her collapse on the floor. He managed to drag her outside before he became dizzy. The Fire Rescue Unit driver called in for more units and for LAPD response. The driver was the only survivor.

Lt. Amanda Fergus of the LAPD Hazardous Materials Unit looked at the scene behind her. She’d ordered a perimeter set up a block back from the hotel and had the residents evacuated through building fire escapes. The crowd forming up behind the tape and barricades bothered her and she picked up her handy-talky. “Sargent, that crowd needs to break up and head out. They’re pressing in too much. Call in more units if you need to.”

She turned her attention back to her laptop, a cardboard shade on top allowing her to see the picture clearly. Two HMU officers in full biohazard gear had bagged and removed the bodies and one officer had taken the initiative to find the DVR for the hotel’s lobby security camera and rolled back the video to a few minutes before the 911 call.

Fergus watched the replay and ordered the HMU officers to remove the DVR and bag it for evidence. She called the Chief of Police. “Sir, this is Lt. Fergus. Just before everything happened at the hotel there were packages delivered by a female driver from GreenShip. She arrived at 0912. She came in the door, chatted with the doorman, dropped the packages on his desk, and left. Then people started dying.” She heard an authoritative grunt on the other end. “Calling GreenShip and asking for cooperation?” “Yes, sir.” “Keep me in the loop, Lieutenant.”

By the time GreenShip instructed their dispatcher to work with Lieutenant Fergus, it was a few minutes after eleven. Mindy pulled up next to a food truck painted fire engine red that advertised ‘Flaming Burritos!’ While she waited impatiently in line, Mindy noticed the white powder on her shoulder and brusquely brushed it off with her glove. She paid for her burrito and dashed back to her truck. Drivers were allowed brief breaks, but the GreenShip dispatcher was known to get testy if the truck was stopped for longer than ten minutes. Mindy hopped back in the truck and looked at the tablet. Her next stop was City Hall. She turned up Broadway. She could eat the burrito after her delivery there.

As she turned the corner, a man in khaki pants and a blue shirt with an embroidered name tag that read ‘Ken Taylor’ climbed up into the cab of his truck and placed the bag with his burrito under the seat. He eased out into a turn, on his way to the next gas station. He keyed his radio. “Dispatch this is 5755, I’m on my way to CE #161 at Naud Junction. Out.”

Ken began to feel a familiar and unwelcome sensation. This confused him. He’d stayed clean from heroin for more than a year. How could he be getting high now? The gasoline tanker turned onto the freeway and accelerated, even as Ken became less coherent in his line of thinking. He became convinced he was still in his apartment, a piece of rubber tubing around his arm, vein popped, injecting… He shook his head. No. He looked out the window and pulled his tanker back into the left lane to pass a flatbed hauling cable spools and in his mind he was right back at the apartment, pressing the plunger on the hypo… …and flying, flying…

The tanker smashed through the freeway railing and plunged to the ground, turning over and over as it crashed through a sandwich shop, a hamburger place, and a pizza restaurant. Flaming gasoline spread everywhere. Unfortunately, since it was lunchtime on a weekday, the fire department was soon pulling dozens of bodies from the mess after the fires had been knocked down.

Back at the food truck, a man pulled out a knife and began screaming unintelligibly. He tried to climb into the food truck and began slashing wildly at people trying to pull him back. He collapsed on the ground, foaming at the mouth. Two of the people trying to hold him down became dizzy and faint and lost consciousness soon after.

The dispatcher called GreenShip #57, driver Mindy Dawson. They called again and kept on calling. They then informed Lt. Fergus that their driver was not responding, and her truck was parked on North Main adjacent to City Hall — and that there were six packages addressed to the Mayor. Subsequent reaction to the GreenShip Incident could be described as ‘frantic.’

Mindy rolled her dolly up to the security checkpoint and flashed her ID to the officer present, who waved her around the X-Ray machine. She swiftly rolled down a hallway and around the corner, whistling to herself. She saw an arrow on the wall, indicating she was approaching the mayor’s office. Mindy paused, took out her pad, and keyed up the delivery. She didn’t notice a blinking square in the upper right corner. No one at GreenShip had ever sent her a live alert before. She laid the pad on the packages and began to push the dolly again, and stopped.

A police officer, with sweat running down her face, was pointing a Beretta right at Mindy’s chest. “Halt—Halt—Halt! Hands up in the air, turn around! Down on your knees!” Mindy complied, her heart racing. “W-what’s wrong! What’s happening?” She turned her head around and saw a line of police running towards her, guns drawn. The first officer was walking slowly backward, away from her, keeping her gun aimed at Mindy’s center-of-mass. “Lie down! Lie down and don’t move! Face down!” The officer’s voice was shaky and uncertain. Mindy flopped onto her stomach just as a wave of police officers came around the corner, saw her, and confusedly turned around and ran away.

The first officers from the LAPD Hazardous Materials Unit arrived ten minutes later and Mindy’s panic and confusion reached a peak. She raised her head and the closest officer yelled, “Head down! Or I will shoot!” Mindy plastered her face to the floor, breathing heavily. The closest HMU officer came up in her positive pressure suit and told Mindy, “Please stay still.” She fastened a mask to Mindy’s face. The HMU officers began covering Mindy’s dolly in plastic wrap and other officers set up cones at either end of the corridor and escorting officers outside where they could get sprayed with water and sent through a tent for evaluation. Four were sent to the hospital showing signs of intoxication from what was identified as fentanyl. They were given Narcan and soon recovered.

Officers and detectives with strict instructions were sent back along Mindy Dawson’s route to perform wellness checks on package recipients. Some were found in good health and their packages properly isolated to be retrieved later by HMU. Some others were not as fortunate, and the death toll steadily increased. As Mindy was interviewed, she mentioned the food truck and several units were dispatched along with Fire Rescue. The tanker crash and inferno came into focus as part of the GreenShip investigation.

A custom design and fabrication shop, in a quiet industrial building, was visited by a pair of officers wearing masks, with Fire and Rescue outside. The police had been told by GreenShip that the package recipients had been called many times, with no answer. The officers pushed open the door and saw a woman sitting at a reception desk with a pleasant smile, a phone headset on the desk, a magazine open before her. One officer spoke to her. “Miss, we need you to…” He stopped. The woman’s face was motionless as wax. The officers backed out of the office, and called in the last available Hazardous Materials Unit. All four occupants of the office were already long dead. In the back office, the package from ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components’ lay unopened next to a bench with masks, gloves, a ventilation hood, and various chemical supplies.

At the drug factory in China, production continues and generates a great profit. The plain panel truck drives away from the factory down the dusty road once a week, and the name of the company on the packages is different every time. Business is business and proceeds regardless of small accidents.

Paint a Scene for your Reader

A scene in a story is just words on a page. In your story, it had better have a purpose. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

But let’s assume the scene belongs in the story and not on the cutting room floor. How do you keep the reader interested and focused on your writing?

Here’s some writing from a first, very rough draft of a short story in the Horror genre:

An unmarked warehouse stood at the end of a dusty road where a farm once was. A rolling steel door wound itself slowly open, and a panel truck drove inside. There was a group of boxes stacked inside a bin marked in Chinese, which would translate as “Guangzhou Circuit Board Components” — although both the firm and the paperwork attached to the bin were elaborate fictions.

Men in white coveralls loaded the bin onto the truck while a man in a brown uniform and two armed soldiers watched intently. Once the truck was sealed and locked, the brown-suited man banged on its side and the truck drove off down the dusty road, its cargo headed for the United States. Inside the warehouse, in neat separate laboratories, with vapor hoods, pressure vessels, and all sorts of elaborate equipment, several dozen chemical technicians worked synthesizing powerful narcotics for the international trade.

The narcotics just shipped were worth many millions of dollars, separated into small packages on their way to many independent distributors, who would ‘cut’ the pure product to only a few percent active content, for the undiluted synthetic narcotics were far too potent for use and ultimately deadly. Each package, small enough for a child to hold, had enough poison inside to potentially kill thousands of people. The drug was at least 200 times deadlier than heroin and a fatal dose was measured in picograms.

The bin joined many such bins inside a shipping container at the port of Tianjin, swung on board a massive cargo vessel, and out to sea, where it traveled for almost three weeks to the Port of Long Beach. In a customs center, the bin was opened, and the packages transferred and their barcodes scanned as package companies took their assigned parcels to their regional sorting facilities.

As a first draft, it’s not horrible. It’s complete, it’s obviously an expository scene, explaining something important to the story. The problems at first glance are that it’s not exciting and it’s too wordy. The pace is slow. It has little human interest. People are going to die later in the story and it has little foreshadowing.

You should show the reader an interesting person right now and then kill them. Give them a very temporary background character.

Say hello to Ming Zhao, a 22-year-old chemistry student who moonlights three days a week at an illegal factory making synthetic fentanyl and an analog of carfentanil, in the form of a finely milled powder ten thousand times more powerful than heroin.

“你好”

Oh don’t worry, fella, you’re a non-player character. Go put on your lab coat and sit over there, please.

Ming Zhao wiped his forehead with a gloved hand and adjusted his mask. The lousy vent hood was malfunctioning again, and he could feel the heat through his lab coat, his body sweating and his clothes damp, sticking to him tightly. The new batch of fentanyl, blended with carfentanil, was a perfect designer drug. He was testing the end product, fresh from a ball mill, a dust almost as fine as smoke, so easy to mix and ‘cut’ with filler for the end customers, distributors in America. He placed a cotton swab in a test tube and watched the reagent change color. Excellent.

Zhao noticed, almost incidentally, that he had stopped breathing. He dropped the test tube and grabbed his throat, making a small pitiful sound as air bubbled through his lips ineffectually. Zhao tried to calm himself and reached his hand for the pre-filled syringe next to him, loaded with naloxone, an opioid antagonist used to instantly reverse overdoses. In a triumph of concentration and will to survive, the chemistry student jabbed the syringe through his jacket into his arm and pushed the plunger all the way down. He relaxed, waiting for relief. He found a few moments later that now he could no longer close his eyes or move. His fellow chemist found him dead a few minutes later, wide-eyed and mouth open, slumped on the bench.

Business is business and proceeds regardless of small accidents. The tested product was heat-sealed by masked workers in small bags, padding wrapped around them, carefully packed in cardboard boxes. The boxes were carefully stacked inside a bin marked in Chinese, words which would translate as “Guangzhou Circuit Board Components” — although both the firm and the paperwork attached to the bin were elaborate fictions.

Men in white coveralls loaded the bin onto the truck while a man in a brown uniform and two armed soldiers watched intently. Once the truck was sealed and locked, the brown-suited man banged on its side and the truck drove off down the dusty road, its cargo headed for the United States.

See, all you had to do was give the reader someone to identify with. You don’t have to kill them in most genres. You also used the action to reveal details previously buried in the rather thick expository text of the first version. Now the scene moves, it has a rhythm and power. You’re showing along with telling. It has some suspense and plenty of foreshadowing. The reader is paying attention and in their mind’s eye is following those packages.

It was best to lop the last two paragraphs off and shrink it into part of the next scene’s description. They really didn’t belong in this scene, anyway.

“嘿,我呢?”

Quiet, Zhao, you’re dead.

 

Flowers of Fate

Stone Bench

The boy ran up the lane, his thoughts filled with a sweet tension. What would she say? How did she feel about him? Did she know he loved her? His heart beat faster, and his hands were hot. The wind whipped around him, trees sighing like his heart as the leaves moved against each other in waves.

Far away, men sat in a room filled with another type of tension. Pride fought with fear, and anger contended with both. Would their preparations go unnoticed? Were their plans subtle enough? Would they live to see the next minute? A technician pressed switches, and two men grimly stepped up to the console, produced twin keys, inserted them and twisted.

The girl walked along the street, almost skipping. Her heart was light and without care. Her hair was long, black, and braided on the sides. Her eyes were brown with golden flecks, and her skin smooth and olive. Her best feature was that she did not know her own beauty.

The boy slowed a little, out of breath. He needed to bring a gift. There was a flower stand, and he saw a rose of uncommon size. It was pink and red with violet streaks, and he knew that it would be fitting. He emptied his pockets, and gave his money to the vendor, who seeing his fever returned a few coins with a smile.

Lights raced in lines along the console, and the room shook. Men leapt to their feet, and as the fire blossomed outside, they cheered. Their country would join the ranks of the wealthy and powerful. They too could reach far and crush those they opposed. The blood ran hot in their bodies as the flames rose and diminished. They called to their God and praised Him by way of praising their own ingenuity.

She stopped for a while and watched the ducks glide along the pond, and then turned her slim wrist around and saw it was time to meet him. Her pace quickened. She found herself in a favorite place, a lane of cherry trees, the blossoms falling like snow around her. She turned around and stared up through the blossoms at the blue sky.

He held the rose in his hand, the green paper crinkling as he walked towards the park. His sharp eyes saw a tiny form, spinning among the cherry trees. He ran one hand through his short black hair, and wished he was taller, and his face less round. He touched his chin, and almost turned away. Courage blossomed in his heart, and he walked faster.

The fire climbed higher and faster, orange and red becoming blue and cold. When it was no larger than a dot from the ground there came a splash of white and red and blue, shimmering in the stratosphere like a ribbon as the larger portion fell away. The hopes and fears of the men crossed into space, where the sky was darker than their hearts, and the fire spread out into the vacuum like a ghostly violet orchid.

She pirouetted once more, and reached up to the petals, and made a wish with her eyes shut, long lashes over her smooth eyelids, and her mouth forming a perfect bud. She slowed, and felt a hand touch hers. She knew the touch, and her eyes flew open in glee. It was he, and he held her fingers with a delicate grip. The girl smiled, for her wish was true. He came.

The rose he held behind him for only a moment, for he blushed and brought it out. Her eyes shone with a pure light, enjoyment and not greed, and he loved her even more. Her delicate fingers took the rose, and she brought it to her nose, and closed her eyes. He held her hand more firmly, and they walked between the trees, the cherry blossoms falling around them.

It spun slowly as it separated, its cover falling away like leaves behind it, and tiny jets sprayed here and there to slow its rotation. Silent here in the darkness, the sun rose behind the limb of the Earth and rainbow colors surrounded the small cone as it reached its zenith. Gravity won over momentum, and it arced downwards. First violet, then orange and yellow streams washed along and away from it.

The couple found a stone bench at the end of the path, a little away from the rest of the park, and they sat on the cool stone, only their hands touching. The boy knew what he wanted to say, but a cold hand seemed to grip his heart, until he looked in her eyes and whispered to her. She brought the rose up to his face and leaned towards him, for she knew. She whispered back to him and the world seemed to stand still.

The wind buffeted the cone as it slowed, and complicated things began to happen inside. A steel rod pushed two pieces of metal together, a tiny computer calculated speed, altitude and position, and made a decision. Strong pulses of electricity, exquisitely timed, raced to their destinations, and fired the many small charges in a graceful symmetry. The device disappeared, to be replaced by a light and fury too powerful to have a color, as death unfolded for the city below.

She kissed him, her hand in his, their bodies yearning towards each other, the rose almost forgotten in her other hand. Their souls met, their love was all there was, and they passed from this perfect bliss without pain to the other side of existence as their world disappeared in a white wave of heat and light. Trees, buildings, and all life were swept away.

The only solid object remaining in the park was the thick stone bench, and as the ashes fell like the cherry blossoms before them, the light of the sun broke through the gritty clouds. If anyone had been there, they would have seen the shadow of the lovers burned into the stone of the bench, and faintly an image of a rose in a shadow of a hand.

La Pâtisserie

la patisserie

The scent of cinnamon and honey rolled in the breeze, and I followed the trail down the cobbled road. The pastry shop was small and old, but was well-kept and clean. As I entered, a small bell on the door chimed.

An old woman was rolling dough out on a stone slab, and I watched her for a while. She patiently rolled the dough paper-thin, folded it over on itself, and rolled it again. She held up the strip, measured it with her eye, and cut it with kitchen shears. She laid a thin cloth over the dough, her eyes came up to me, and she gave me a sly slight smile.

“Welcome to Âmes Douces. My apologies. Our filo is the hardest dough to roll out. You have to finish what you have started. Then you must cut it short.”

She wiped her hands on a towel, and came up to the register.

“What can I get for you, monsieur?”
“What is your best? I fancy myself to be a gourmet.”
“We have a famous baklava. It has a rich, subtle flavor.”
“May I try some?”
“By all means. Here.”The morsel of pastry vanished as it entered my mouth, and a symphony of flavors emerged – honey, cinnamon, almond, and a smoky undertaste gave way to a mournful sweetness of lemon zest. Suddenly I imagined a small girl playing at the beach, throwing a ball in the surf. Then I was back in the bakery, and I shook my head.
“I’ll take some of that. It’s incredible. A very refined taste.”
The old woman smiled and slid some of the treat into a bag.

I walked back to my hotel, and laid the bag on the dresser. I opened the top, snagged a piece, closed the bag, and plopped down on the bed, intending to watch the news. I took a bite of pastry… She was walking along the sidewalk, looking in windows, and I could feel her sadness. Where was her mom? The girl stood up on tiptoes, holding a small purse in one hand, and craned her neck to see inside the store. There were toys and stuffed animals inside, so she skipped inside. The light seemed different somehow, hazy and colorful…

I was back. I looked at the pastry in my hand, and took another bite…

She picked up a stuffed bear with large eyes and a blue ribbon around its neck. A remote voice spoke, with no words audible. Her head turned, and a rush of sensations poured over me – a hint of perfume, a slight coppery taste, a chill on her skin, and a view of a well-pressed red skirt, nylons, and black shoes. The voice gelled and became coherent. “Can I help you, miss?” A hand softly gripped my shoulder…

The hotel room had a slight smoky taint to the air. I got off the bed, shakily, and stumbled to the bathroom. I stared at my reflection. My eyes were shiny and cruel-looking, my skin taut. I splashed water on my face.

When I returned to the bed, the bag was still there, of course. There were a few crumbs of pastry on the bedspread. I opened the bag and looked inside. There was enough pastry left to spend the whole night, perhaps, being… what, precisely?

The aroma from the baklava was enticing…

I was haggard the next morning, and my feet moved by themselves. The bell chimed, I passed within, and faced the old woman again.

I leaned wearily across the counter and whispered to her…
“How do you do it? Why?”

Her smile was an amiable web of wrinkles.
“I hope you enjoyed your treat, monsieur. I recommend the miniature Apfelstrudel…”

I interrupted her and gripped the edge of the counter so hard my fingers turned white.

“No! What happened to me? Why did I see those… things? What is in your pastry?”She tightened her lips, though her smile did not disappear, but simply became sardonic.

“Vous êtes drôle… Monsieur, you see our sign. Vous parlez français. Would you ask the butcher whether he puts blood in the sausage? You are a gourmet. You know that great cooking, like all art, requires… sacrifice.”

She wrapped up the strudel in a bag and placed it on the counter. Her eyes gleamed.The world spun around me and I looked into the fires of Hell.
Âmes Douces… Sweet Souls. How low and foul a being would I be if I did this?

I laid the money on the counter, took the bag, and left.

Gone Before

gone before...

The sun glinted off a small object, tumbling slowly end over end. Maxwell breathed slowly, smoothly, and pushed away from the airlock with his legs. He saw in his rear view video feed the ship receding quickly. A moment watching this, and Maxwell whispered, “Select Ranged Target 122798, cross-hair image superimpose, forward feed.” Now he saw the tiny cylinder approaching in the reticule the tracking computer provided.

He breathed again, air like silk in his throat slipping away. The image steadily grew in his visor, and merged almost seamlessly with the glinting, blinking thing he saw with his eyes. A jet on his suit fired once, instantly opposed by another, and the two objects became one.

Maxwell brought his arms slowly towards his face, and muttered another command to the computer. A few hisses and thumps and his velocity relative to the tumbling object slowed to a crawl. Slowly, slowly, slowly. His fingers touched the object, and he expertly opposed the spin with one hand and caught it with the other.

He drew his legs up, and spun slowly around. Maxwell examined his prize, and read the inscription: James Montgomery Doohan (March 3, 1920 – July 20, 2005)
The stars spun in his visor as he rotated, and he tucked the cylinder, shiny but slightly pitted, into a belt loop and pushed some webbing around it, then tugged the covering tight. He smiled as he noted the ship coming into view again. “Let’s take you home, Scotty.”

Commander Jai Tiberius Maxwell, Chief Engineer of the United Earth StarShip Enterprise, first of its class, landed feet first on the airlock hatch.

On Alien Biology and 'Hard Sci-Fi'

Monster by Piolinfax

Monster credit Piolinfax – Image on Wikimedia Commons

I’m making up stuff again. The squishy sort of stuff, things an autopsy, a scanning electron microscope, centrifuges and spectrometers might be involved with if these were real-world organisms.

Building a monster requires some science. It’s best done if you’ve studied a soupçon of biology, a bit of chemistry, maybe even engineering if you’re fabricating a serious danger to your protagonists—say something that can survive in the dark vacuum of space, slice your arm off and eat it, break down a door with ease, is absolutely paranoid about its own survival and looks really ugly to us wee humans.

The alien race I’m designing is called the Sigotha:

The Sigotha as adults are about six feet long, and can rear up to twice that height. They resemble a cross between a lobster and a scorpion, and actually have both an internal and external skeleton. These apex predators are armed with a retractable scimitar blade on each leg, claw-hands on the front legs, a stinger tail, and four mandibles that are capable of slicing through metal conduit. A blow from one of their legs or the tail can send a man flying down a corridor. Their limbs can be coordinated in an attack that would reduce a cow into steaks and choice cuts within moments. They have two sets of eyes on the head, one set usually retracted, and speak in a series of clicks from their claw-hands, which also have prehensile appendages for manipulating tools. There is a tympanum or drum mouth on their upper thorax which they use to mimic sounds. Hearing, vision, sense of smell all surpass humans. The Sigotha are faster on ‘foot,’ amazingly agile, and have somewhat quicker reflexes than human beings. Their exoskeletons resemble metal armor, although the carbon-silicate material is much lighter and more difficult to penetrate than any material we use as armor today.

Yet again the humans have expanded out into the galaxy and encountered another sapient apex predator.  There are lots of fascinating and horrible creatures in science fiction. Some are filled out only enough for a plot line, others are built into waking nightmares.

There are many creatures out there, but this one is my own (hugs his Sigothan, which emits a sibilant series of buzzes and tries to reach his head with a rapidly-clicking lobster-like claw). We’re going to have so much fun together!