Category Archives: writing

A Short Story for the Feast of Epiphany

Or…parts of tomorrow’s sermon I could not keep.

 

The vastness of the night sky is nearly blue above them, the trail of stars etched into it, needle holes in the firmament, holding back the waters of the wild.

The magi travel on the open road, all alone, not speaking to one another. The only sound is the sound of their saddles, shifting, and the bells on the straps, but it is lost in the vastness of the dark. One hums to himself, yet the sound is simply absorbed into the spectacular scene above, and they follow a new star, a strange star, toward Jerusalem. Continue reading A Short Story for the Feast of Epiphany

Novels in my head…

What happens when you put a weapons lord together with a dissatisfied, angry teenager, a normal girl just desperate to feel, two broken and angry old men, an Old Testament prophet turned into a drugged out rave queen, and an ice princess ninja assassin? Well, you get the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a future world where class stratification is literally represented by heaven and earth. (Ninja Assassin and Old Testament prophet slightly exaggerated.)

I’ve been working on one that is a child-spawn of one of my oldest projects, “The Grunge Appeal.” Right now, it’s working title is “Not My Love Story” for the opening paragraphs by the melancholy narrator:

“Do not be fooled. This is, above all, a love story. And it is not my love story. They were children, and they had just discovered, as children do, how the world pumps and flows through their arteries, how the tiniest itch in the universe can electrify their every nerve. They were at that part in their youth when you are simultaneously self absorbed and absorbed by everything: the one part in life when you can see and feel and hear the machine that you belong to with complete and unassailable empathy.
 
And when that knowledge had struck them, quite without warning, they also struck each other. Aleksandr and I, seeing the ferociousness in their devotion, took advantage of them. We had lived our whole lives as poor, broken men. We had only wanted to feel, as they did, that the world is impressionable.”

The novel traces the lives of seven characters through a world in our not so distant future, where a great war has devastated the nation-states of today and created a class stratification that is based on the physical space of ground, tower, and sky. In the sky are the floating cities, where the rich and powerful moved to evacuate the devastation of war. In the middle are the towers, the small urban protectorates that the sky cities maintain to bolster their economies. Then, there are the free quarters, the slums surrounding the towers where people flock from outside the protectorates, places that are in limbo, places that the sky cities own but do not really govern. Dreams of good work in factories bring people to these slums, yet the corporations that manage them are irresponsible and not under any knowable law. Lastly, there are the nation states outside of the protectorates, beaten down nations with nothing left, all of their urban centers now owned by corporations that float above them in the sky, and scarred deeply by the memory of the war that destroyed them.

The love story at the center of this novel is between Michael and Arie, a boy from the free quarters and a girl from the towers. They meet at a low-grade college, the only one that both can pay for, and fall in love at the same time as they fall for the dream of having a different, less impotent life. Michael has old ties to a nationalistic gang-turned-syndicate which tells utopian tales of life without skyton rule. However, his fervor for ideas does not always translate into success–he struggles to listen to his professors, unconvinced of their wisdom, and more convinced of their brainwashing. Even though he wants to succeed, he meets no one who understands how to help him, or so he thinks, as he arrogantly and insistently denies any hands offered to him. Arie, drawn to his convictions and poetry, follows him without question, as he fills the gaping hole of emotionless consumerism that she was raised in. She finds his rhetoric liberating, his story intoxicating, and his angry demands for a better future inspiring. She is the kind of girl that demands hope out of every inch of the world, demands beauty from everything she sees, and in her voice their world is described in loving rigor.

Michael eventually brings Arie “down under the tracks” to meet his ‘family’, or the group of men and women who surround an old syndicate knight, Aleksandr Fedor.

Aleksandr is supposedly a washed up man. He owns a bar underneath one of the train stations, and at every semi-regular interval the train shakes the foundation of the place and reminds them all of their status underneath all things. His business partner, Jacques, is another narrator for the story. Together they have been taking in stray kids with talent and connecting them with people who can make their life something better, even if it only is protection and work with the syndicate.

Five years ago, Aleksandr was the lauded knight of the syndicate, working some of the dirtiest and most difficult ‘removal’ jobs alongside the famous and capable Shim. The two of them were the gentlemen who established the right of the syndicate, turning it from a nationalistic gang with lofty ideals into something that did indeed hold a place in the hierarchy of the free quarters. However, now that the syndicate has power over the drug trade, and the prostitute rings, and the right to collect bribes, they have become increasingly less interested in their original, pure cause: demanding attention from the Sky Cities, demanding the right to be free.

Now, Shim is a drunk and his daughter, Angel, is being held close by the syndicate. Aleksandr is left mostly alone, but his ‘building’ of a ‘family’ is not going unnoticed. They know that by holding Angel and his other companions close, they have control over him. But this is not enough. Two of the counselors decide that in order to remove Aleksandr from their horizon, they will command him to assassinate someone so high profile that it will simply ruin him. They choose the man running for governor for the protectorate, Edmond Hawthorne Feris.

Aleksandr then has to make a choice: refuse, or go forward and most likely be killed and imprisoned in the process. It is Shim, drunk as he is, in his filthy apartment with his daughter cleaning up his continual mess, that tells Aleksandr that he must go forward: to absolve them all from the sins that their cause has perpetrated after achieving power, they must make a statement in its name even if it is absurd. Angel becomes infuriated with her father’s recklessness, but in the end, after her rage gets the better of her, she says: “Our blood doesn’t boil anymore. I would rather be dead than be like this.”

So Aleksandr takes the challenge.

It is in to this world that Arie walks, quite unaware. Michael knows the history of his family. Their plans develop at exactly the same time he is looking for any form of rescue from his decent into nothingness. He grabs hold of them as if they are a rope dropped into a bottomless well. Arie, in love with the Michael she knew before the crash, is determined to remind him of the person he could be, rather than the person he is becoming. She imagines that the hand she is offering him is the one that can save him, so long as she keeps it extended for as long as possible. But, in her attachment to him, she inadvertently becomes a part of their plan. She is becomes friends with others involved in the plan, like Angel and Persephone, the wild, drugged fallen princess of the Sky Cities, and Peter, the computer skills teacher.

Even though Persephone’s drunk, drugged statements are painfully true and prophetic, the seriousness of Arie’s place in the plan does not truly sink in until Michael finally fires that shot, and the police descend on him. Then, in a dark alley in the free quarters, our first narrator, Jacques, takes her identifications, her money, her credit cars, the photographs of her brothers and sisters, and rips them up, discarding them so that she can run from the eyes of the police and become invisible. In the end, unable to save Michael and wrapped up in the violence that destroyed him, she walks into the abject poverty of the free quarters, because as Jacques says to her, “The only way to truly disappear is to be poor. You have no life up there anymore.”

It is a novel about how violence comes from systematically enforced impotence, the way in which young men feel powerless, the failure of education, the invisibility of the poor, and the way that invisibility occasionally erupts and breaks all the rules. It is originally based off of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in which seven young men become involved in a conspiracy to assassinate a figure of their oppression. However, that small act causes an eruption of world war, tips a delicate balance, and sets in motion a century of madness, violence, pain, but also incomprehensible progress, cultural development, and human development. It is the story about how just one upset, ignored, and arrogant individual can set the whole world on fire, and how each one of our personal stories and convictions can influence even the greatest systems. It is also a warning against turning to violence for absolution, as the characters in the novel are all destroyed and broken by the end. This is something in a way that I struggle with, because even though it is a demonstration of each person’s power, it is a negative one, and one that ultimately ends in destruction and chaos.

This dissonance, perhaps, is why it is so easy do write about but not easy to actually write.

I wrote a short story!!

Feeling thoroughly inspired by my collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors, I felt inspired to spin a short story. I like the concept but I’m not sure I really spun the tale the way it should have been spun, so I’m posting it here for you to examine and criticize. Please rip it to shreds, so that a better story comes out.

The Most Famous Destination on Earth (Working Title)

Amelia had been looking forward to this trip for her entire seventeen-year-long life. Everyone went to the mountain. Everyone who was anyone had been to the mountain, and Amelia had waited seventeen whole years to go. Her parents didn’t think travel was very important—and her father didn’t really like crowds or lines—but this year was the year. Amelia was going and she was ready. Finally, she could say that she had been to the most famous place in the country—finally she, too, could brag about basking in the heat on the mountain’s rocky outcroppings, falling for a sweet boy in the red glow of its sunsets, and being ensnared by wonder over the ancient customs of the strange, yet beautiful locals.
She was ready.
She bought a new camera for the trip, and she and her friends—Roberta and Lillian—had all bought new outfits for the entire weekend. As their airplane lifted off, they spent the entire time imagining—guessing at what they would do, pouring over tourist brochures, and snapping photographs of their eager faces.
They few into the airport and from there met with their tour guide. The whole time, Amelia had been writing down a detailed journal of the events. She wrote about how she felt and how everything looked (for she fashioned herself a kind of writer), and about her enthusiasm, and about every person she saw who walked by. (Especially the attractive young men.)
As the tour bus rounded the last of the surrounding foot hills, the girls gasped as they laid eyes on the mountain. It was dark, shaped like a thousand gnarled hands, all trying to reach up into the red, cloudy sky. The clouds swirled like a hurricane, and cracks of yellow, smoky lightning struck out through the glow. It was a perfect black citadel against a red, churning sky, invigorated by the groans of something angry at its core.
Everyone on the bus gasped at its beauty, and then immediately started snapping photos from the window of the bus.
The bus pulled into the resort hotel’s parking lot, and Amelia and her friends hurried out. Hundreds of other tourists were milling about, ready to start their weekend plans with cameras strung around their necks. The hotel was regal and white, with beautiful palm trees that danced in the warm wind. On the other edge of a decorative fence, Amelia could hear small children enjoying the pool.
They hurried up to their room, and spent the early morning looking at the various travel brochures. They ate a comfortable meal, staring at the beautiful view from their window, giggling about their potential suitors, and marking in their brochures what they did and didn’t want to do.
They decided to do the culture tour first, which included dinner, exploring, and a chance to see the local culture at its best. They changed their clothes and joined a tour from outside the hotel lobby.
Amelia opened the window of the bus and let the hot air run over her eager face. She loved the feel of the wind on her face, and as they sped up the mountain, she started to feel elated—excited, full of wonder and amazement.
The road was precarious, like a rollercoaster, with twists and turns and switchbacks that revealed statue after statue of black, scalding rock. Amelia was mesmerized, watching the strange and beautiful countryside go by. Soon her hotel was just a spec on the ground, a gleaming white pearl in the sunlight. She was now under the shadow of the mountain’s clouds, and the hot air from the window was assaulting her face with vigor and new smells. Lightning flashed around the bus, and all the girls had their faces (and cameras) plastered to the window.
The tour guide’s name was Betsy, and as they alighted from the bus at the walking trail, she shook everyone’s hand.
“Walk lightly here,” Betsy was telling the travelers. There was a long stream of walkers ascending the path, and across a small crag, Amelia could see others walking up a different path. It was exciting to be a part of something so popular—to finally see the things that everyone had talked about for so many years! And it was living up to every standard she had imagined it would.
“What’s that smell, Betsy?”
“That would be brimstone!” she replied with enthusiasm. “It’s an ancient word for one of the mountain’s prized delicacies—it’s a local word, really, but you might know it as sulfur.”
“Fantastic! It’s so… authentic!” the excited gentleman said, and began to snap photos with this enormous camera. In a moment, a young woman was asking him about the make and model—and his different lenses.
“After dinner,” Lillian was saying, “We should go sunbathing. Look up there!” She pointed to a flat outcropping where hundreds of women were basking in the heat.
“Yeah! We should do that!” Roberta nodded.
“Then we can watch the sunset from there,” Amelia said.
“Right! And do you know what happens at sunset?” Betsy was next to them, grinning happily.
“No,” the girls said.
“The boss himself comes out to take a look! Every sunset the chief parades by the doorway, and you can watch the local festivities. It is really an eye opening experience, you know—you can really see the local culture at its finest—truly ancient customs that have gone on forever—since time began!”
“Wow!”
“The chief likes to put on a good show. You know, for eighty dollars, I can get you and your friends seats in our special interpretation section. When sunset comes, we can interpret the whole show for you, explaining the different rites, and customs, and symbols that are used in the indigenous performance.”
“Oh yes! That would be wonderful!”
They continued to ascend the mountain, and then she saw it—Amelia climbed over the trail, and suddenly it didn’t go up anymore. She had climbed to the top, and below her, on the other side of the mountain’s craggy peak she could see it—a sea of red flames, licking and flaring and screaming with the sound that fire makes. The flames roared, contorting and swirling and screeching, and in the flames were faces—so many uncountable faces—adding to the sound as they bent and howled, adding to the sounds the screams of eternal damnation.
The group gasped—their jaws dropped, stunned by the display of such an amazing view. Everyone paused to take in the magnificence—the majestic colors, the deep, angry sky and the lightning, and most importantly the smell of the sulfur—all adding to the perfection. It was, as Amelia had hoped, the most amazing thing she had ever seen in her life.
They took the scene in for a moment, but only a brief moment, before they picked up their cameras and started snapping away merrily. Amelia took a deep breath of the scent, shot several panoramas, and began walking down the path after Betsy.
“You must get bored, watching all these tourists falter at the sight of something so magnificent.”
“Not at all. Something so amazing never becomes common place,” Betsy responded. “You see, there’s always something happening. Always a different kind of torture, or perhaps a particularly interesting shape of flame—you know, for being eternal, the flames of Hell are very creative. They never disappoint the onlooker. You can never get tired of watching the locals!”
Amelia turned around to look down at the roiling flames and faces again. Smiling broadly, she nodded her agreement. “How fascinating they are!”
“They must feel like zoo animals,” said a man with a wide brimmed hat on. “Having tourists parade in front of them all day like that. Look at them. Poor things. Enduring all that and then having us tromping around taking photographs, pretending as if we really do care about their plight…”
“But it is very beautiful,” Amelia replied. “Surely they must know that it is beautiful.”
“Yes, it is quite a privilege to live in such a gorgeous place,” Betsy replied, grinning and shuffling the gripey man past her. To Amelia, she looked down her nose and said, in a quiet voice, “I always say, if you don’t like tourism—don’t be a tourist! But what can you do? A Debby Downer is a Debby Downer no matter where he ends up!”
Amelia giggled. “You don’t suppose they feel offended at the pictures, do you?”
“No, no,” Betsy waved her hand. “They love the attention from us. Makes them feel important. You know, eternal torture can be a pretty grim lifestyle. We provide them with something to break up the day. Now come along—the ideal viewing point is down this way.”
“Hey look, Amelia!” Roberta said excitedly. “There’s my Aunt Gloria!”
“Really?” Amelia gasped. “Wait, wait, I want to see!”
Roberta was fumbling through one of the brochures that she had. “Okay… so what are they doing to her and why?”
“It says here,” Lillian said—she had always been the brains of Amelia’s group of friends, and she knew everything about everybody—“that local justice requires flatterers to be showered with human excrement. For eternity, of course.”
“Flatterers? That’s a local word, isn’t it?”
“Yes. ‘According to the local dialect,’” she read, “’Flatterers are people who tell excessive lies or enlarge the truth.’”
“Oh,” Amelia nodded, raising her eyebrows. “Why do you suppose they do this?”
“Researchers don’t really agree, but some believe that this is because excrement represents the filth of their previous words.”
“Well I suppose that would make sense—my aunt ran political campaigns,” Roberta explained.
“Wow,” Amelia grinned. “What interesting wisdom the ancients seem to have.”
Just then, as they were admiring the scene of strange justice below, Amelia felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around, and faced a young man. His lips were wide and full, his nose straight, long, and his eyes were a deep, expressive blue-green. His hair was just a little too long, just a little rebellious, and he had a warm, inviting smile on his face. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation,” he said. His voice sent flutters up her stomach. “Do you want me to take a picture of you and your friends? With the aunt in the background?”
Roberta and Lillian were watching with smirks on their faces, their backs to the flames of hell as Amelia nodded briefly, and barely whispered. “Of course—yes, that would be great.”