Parallel, part 5

This is the final chapter of a new sci-fi story I’m working on. To catch up, you can read parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. Also, this is a rough draft that I’m still working through, so any constructive feedback is welcome! Enjoy.

I stumbled into Miniver’s that night with basically just one goal in mind: to forget about everything by getting completely drunk. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer.

“Comin’ right up,” said the bartender.

The place was pretty packed. I spun around in my chair to look around a little bit, scanning the crowd for familiar faces. After the incident last time, I really hoped I didn’t see any freaky alternate versions of my wife here messing things up with her perfect new guy. Of course I couldn’t see everyone in the place, but from what I could tell the coast was clear.

But see, I guess I had lied to myself a minute ago. ‘Cause as it turned out, there wasn’t just one reason I had come here tonight. It wasn’t just the escape and it wasn’t just the alcohol—although those were part of it too. But no. It was her.

Even though I had left in a hurry last time, I remembered what Kelly had said. She was gonna be back here over the weekend, which was now. And it just so happened that I was lucky enough to find her now, sitting by herself at a small table in the center of the room. I grabbed my drink and walked over.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

“Now there’s a pretty face I recognize,” I said. “Knew there had to be a reason I came tonight.”

She looked up at me, paused for a quick second, then smiled. “Hey there!” she said as she stood to hug me. “Rob, right? I didn’t know if I’d see you here tonight!”

“Yeah, well, I figured I’d stop by,” I said. “You said you’d be here this weekend, so I couldn’t forget that. Had to at least try to find you. Although I didn’t really know when exactly you’d be here. Guess I just got lucky.”

“Well, not yet,” she said with a wink.

I glanced up at her. “You mean…?”

“Here. Come sit with me,” she said, pulling my arm gently. “Let’s sip our drinks and just enjoy the band for a while.”

“Sure,” I said. I sat and took a drink. I listened to the band. I looked at Kelly. And I started to relax. It felt good. At that moment I wondered why I didn’t do this a hell of a lot more often.

“Did you really come down here just to see me?” Kelly asked sometime into my second drink.

The question caught me off guard a bit. “Well, sure,” I said. “Or, at least, that’s a big part of it. I mean, there’s you, which is great, by the way…but also, I think I just needed to get away for a bit, you know?”

“Got a lot going on back home?” she asked.

“You could say that.”

“You never really did tell me where you were coming from. Or what you do. Still just passing through town for the night?”

I clenched my teeth a bit. Should’ve seen this question coming sooner. “Well, uh, yeah. I’m a security guard. Work’s not bad. I mean, it’s not amazing, but it is what it is, right?”

“I didn’t think most security guards got to travel that much,” Kelly said.

“Yeah, well, that…it’s complicated,” I said. Which was true. More complicated than even I fully understood, really. “Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.”

“Haven’t had enough drinks to open up just yet?” she teased.

“Guess not,” I said with a smile. “Maybe I better have some more.” I swallowed another mouthful.

“Still, it’s pretty late to be traveling,” she said. “Especially this time of year. You have a warm place to stay tonight?”

“No, not really,” I said. “I was probably gonna head back home after a while. I’ll be fine. And besides, I got to get back to my w—”

Wait. Nope. Don’t say “my wife.” That was a close one.

“Hmm?” Kelly asked.

“Got to get back to my work,” I said. “Although, then again, I don’t gotta work again ‘til tomorrow night. The late shift. You know.”

“Sounds like you might be better off staying in town tonight, then,” she said. “Hey. Don’t worry. I’ve got a really nice apartment just a couple blocks away. Whole place to myself and everything.”

“You…want me to spend the night at your place?”

“Yeah! What do you say?”

“Well…who am I to refuse such an offer?”

I ordered another drink after that. At least one more. I’m really not sure. Honestly, the rest of that night is still just a blur in my mind.

*          *          *

I woke up with a major headache. The sun was too bright and I was still recovering. Crap. How much did I drink last night, anyway? Should’ve known that was a bad idea.

I opened my eyes. Where was I? I didn’t recognize it. Until my head started to clear after a minute. I was in bed, in a bedroom much more neat and fancy than my own. I looked down and saw Kelly lying there next to me, still asleep. She still looked just as beautiful as ever—hell, even more so, in what she was wearing—but somehow it just didn’t feel right this time.

“Damn!” I spat out. “This…could be bad.” I got out of bed and began scrambling on the floor for my clothes.

Kelly rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked up at me. “Good morning,” she said slowly, still waking up. “Good time last night, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was amazing.” I still could barely remember any of it. But I remembered enough to know I had screwed up bad. “Hey, uh…what time is it?”

She reached over to a bedside clock. “Like one.”

“PM?”

“Yeah.”

“Crap. I gotta get going.” I looked back up at her. “I mean, I’m sorry to run and all…”

“Hey,” she said. “I get it. I mean, it’d be great if you could stay, but you did tell me you had to be back for work tonight. Long drive ahead of you?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Crap. Look, it’s not you. I hope you don’t think that. It’s just I really shouldn’t have stayed so long.”

“I understand,” she said. “Don’t worry. But hey, maybe another time?”

I grinned as I buttoned my shirt. “Maybe so.”

And maybe there would be another time. I didn’t know yet. I was still figuring a lot of things out. But honestly, that other time is not what I was thinking of on the walk back home and the—uh—whatever you call the trip between dimensions. Nope. I was really just thinking about Mona. I may not be the brightest guy in the world, but even I know that, if I was trying to patch things up with her like before, then this sure as hell wasn’t the way to do it.

But she didn’t have to know, right? That’s what I told myself. I could tell her I went to the bar with Vince and then stayed at his place ‘cause I drank too much to get home safely. Yeah. That would work. She might still be mad, sure, but she’d probably buy it, and then I could just forget about this whole thing with Kelly and leave it all behind me. It would work. It had to.

I got home and stepped through the door. “Hey, Mona?” I called out. “Babe?”

No answer. Maybe she’d be upstairs in the bedroom.

But no. I checked and she wasn’t there either. Maybe she was out somewhere for the day?

I went into the kitchen and called her name again. I didn’t see her. But I found a note on the fridge. And man, I did not see this one coming at all. The note said:

Rob,

I don’t know where you are or what you’ve been doing, but I’m sorry. I can’t put up with this anymore. I was really worried about you at first, but it seems like you’ve disconnected your phone, so I guess you don’t want to be found. I just can’t handle waiting around for you anymore when I’m obviously not a priority to you. After the second day or so, I decided I needed some space. Please don’t try to call me for now. Maybe we’ll talk again when we’re both ready.

-Mona

A million thoughts went through my mind, but one of them jumped out right away. Second day? I was gone overnight, yeah, but definitely less than one full day. Unless—

I ran back up to the bedroom, to the calendar Mona always kept. It should be Sunday, ‘cause last night was Saturday. But the calendar said Tuesday. And the bedside clock said the same.

“No, no, no! That’s impossible!” I yelled. “It’s been a day! Less than a day! I know it! What the hell happened?”

I looked down to my wrist. It was this stupid watch. Had to be. No other explanation. I don’t know how, but somehow it wasn’t just messing with dimensions. It was messing with time, too. The time I spent over there took up more and more time here. I should’ve seen it before from all the other times Mona had told me I was late. But I didn’t. I had stayed out for nearly eighteen hours this time, but that was what—three days here? More? Among other things, I had missed a few days of work. Mona had tried to call me, but I guess cell service doesn’t carry well between dimensions. Now she was gone and I had blown it big time.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

I ripped the watch off my wrist and threw it against the bedroom window. It fell to the floor along with broken shards of glass.

Then I sat on the bed and screamed out loud. And I wondered if there was anything to drink in the house. I guess maybe I should never have been so eager to get away. I should’ve forgotten all about that other dimension and just left that crazy life alone. I figured I’d be okay with staying home a lot more from here on out. But something told me home just wasn’t gonna be quite the same anymore.

The End

Parallel, part 4

This is the fourth part of a new sci-fi story I’m working on. To catch up, you can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. Also, this is a very fresh rough draft that I’m still working through, so any constructive feedback is welcome! Enjoy.

It was darker than I expected when I got back home. Weird weather we’d been having this week, I figured.

I opened the door and strolled inside, nearly ready to pass out. I hadn’t had a whole hell of a lot to drink, but I’d had enough and my mind was a little fuzzy. Plus, I hate to admit it, but I’m not as young as I used to be, and I gotta be up early most days for work. I can’t just stay out until all hours of the night and morning and drink myself numb like back in the old days. I got responsibilities and a body to take care of.

Mona was standing in the living room. Waiting for me, apparently, with the way she was glaring when I came in. She didn’t look too happy.

“Hey, babe,” I said.

“Rob. Nice of you to come back home.”

I shrugged. “Well, yeah. I always do.”

“Where have you been?”

“Out. Around town. You know, hanging with the guys. Having a few drinks and all that.”

“Only a few?”

“Yeah. I had like two or three.” Maybe not everything I was telling her was the exact whole truth per se, but that part was. Like I said, I can’t go too overboard on the drinking anymore. Although even two or three drinks was maybe more overboard than Mona would have liked.

“Do you know what time it is?”

“Sure. It’s like ten. Need to get to bed soon.”

“Rob, it’s one in the morning.”

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

I looked up at her and blinked. “Huh?”

She slowed down her speech in that condescending way she always does. “It. Is. One o’ clock in the morning.”

“Bull,” I said. “I may have been drinking, but I was keeping track of time. I left around eight, after dinner, and I was only out for two hours. Okay, maybe like two and a half. So I guess it’s maybe closer to ten thirty or eleven now. But I know for a fact it ain’t—”

“Rob, check your watch! I know what time it is!” Mona shouted, gesturing toward the silver device on my wrist.

“Uh, it’s broken,” I said, covering it up with my sleeve. The funny thing about a fancy high-tech doohickey like this watch was that, for all the great stuff it could do, it didn’t actually tell time. “But look, I couldn’t have been gone more than—”

“Rob, I’ve been here waiting up for you for hours,” Mona continued. “I know exactly how much time has passed. It’s not my fault if you’re too drunk to realize that.”

Looking back, there were of course other clocks in the house we could have looked at to settle this once and for all. I wouldn’ta minded seeing her admit just how wrong she was. But at the moment I was too buzzed to think of it, or just too mad to let her be right this time. She had just made it into an attack, after all, and I didn’t want to let it slide. “Look, I am not drunk!” I yelled. “I know how much beer I can handle and how long I can stay out. What, am I not allowed to hang with the guys anymore and go where I want without you always nagging at me every single second?”

“That’s not what I said, Rob,” Mona insisted. “But this is getting ridiculous. I worry about you, you know—but I guess I’m the only one. It’s obvious you don’t really care about me. Not enough to call or come home at a decent hour.”

“Look, now that just ain’t fair,” I started. “I…” My voice trailed off. I couldn’t quite think of what to say. I did care about her…didn’t I?

“What?” Mona asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I gotta get to bed. I can’t do this right now, and I got work in the morning.”

“Rob, we are not done talking about this!”

I didn’t answer. I just stumbled off to bed.

But see, that’s one of those conversations that you really can’t forget, at least not for a long time, no matter how much you try to pretend you’re big and tough and you don’t care. ‘Cause, believe me, I tried, and I just couldn’t get over it. A couple days later I was still thinking about things. It hadn’t felt right when I ran into Mona—that other Mona—in that bar in the other dimension. So I came home, and I hadn’t gone back out since, but things still weren’t quite right here either. And maybe Mona was right. Maybe I could do something about that. Maybe I didn’t have to keep escaping to some whole other universe if I could just start fixing the way things were at home a little bit.

I got the idea when I was taking a walk in the middle of the day. I didn’t go too far—maybe just ten minutes from home, twenty round trip. Mona was still at home when I got back. I stepped inside, hand behind my back.

“Hey, babe.”

She looked up. “Oh hey. Thought I heard you go out like an hour ago.” It actually wasn’t an accusation. Just a conversation.

“I stepped out for a little bit,” I said. “But I’m here. And…uh…I got these. For you.” I reached out my arm and held out a dozen roses in front of her.

Her face lit up. “Oh, Rob,” she said. “They’re beautiful. Thank you.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it.”

She took the roses from me and smelled them. “And they’re fresh, too. Wow. Where’d you get fresh flowers around here? Didn’t that place on Third Street close down a while back?”

“I—uh—I know a place,” I said. “Not too far from here. You know, tiny little cart in the back of an alley. Real small and out of the way. You probably wouldn’t know it. At all.”

“Well, they’re wonderful,” she said. “I’d better get a vase for these.” She started walking toward the kitchen.

I followed after her. “Hey,” I said.

She didn’t look back. “Hmm?”

“Hey, so. Are we…you know…are we cool?”

She paused, then sighed, then turned around to look at me. “Rob…”

“I thought you’d like the flowers.”8478291523_cdfc7d7970_z

“I do,” she said. “I like the flowers and I appreciate the gesture. I really do.”

“So…?”

“But you and I still have a lot of problems, Rob. And flowers can’t fix them all.”

“Yeah, but, I mean…I’m trying, right?”

“Maybe a little. You’re starting to. But there are things we still need to talk about between us.”

“Like what?”

“Like where you keep disappearing to, and why you stay out so long. I still haven’t forgotten the other night.”

Well, there it was. I couldn’t believe this. So ridiculous. Guess I wasted all that money on flowers for nothing. Those things ain’t cheap, either. “Look, I already told you, it wasn’t even that long,” I said. “And as for the where…well…there’s some things I can’t exactly talk about…”

“See? I knew it,” Mona said. “You’ve got some secrets. Something you don’t trust me with.”

“It’s not like that,” I said. “It’s just—”

“No, that’s exactly what it’s like. We’ve got to trust each other. Otherwise this thing we have can’t work.”

“Oh, like you trust me?” I shot back, raising my voice higher. “‘Cause that’s not how I see it. Can’t even let me out of the house or let go of a stupid grudge from a few days ago. Even after I went and got you flowers.”

“Can’t you see it’s not about the flowers?” she shouted. “It’s about us! And your secrets! And how you’re never here for me! And—”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t have to put up with this. “You think I’ve been gone too long before?” I asked. “Well, not long enough, apparently. Not if your whiny ungratefulness is what I have to come back to every night.” I stormed off toward the door.

She kept talking and yelling, but I honestly don’t remember what she said. It was the same kind of stuff we had both been saying all along. I just needed to get out and escape. I could use another trip to another dimension.

To be concluded…

Click here for part 5!

Parallel, part 3

This is the third part of a new sci-fi story I’m working on. To catch up, you can read part 1 here and part 2 here. Also, this is a rough draft that I’m still working through, so any constructive feedback is welcome! Enjoy.

I was pretty sure I had seen her here before. In fact, I knew it. Long blond hair that perfect was hard to forget, after all. Not to mention those lips, and the legs, and…well, everything else, really.

I reached the bar and found an empty seat—right next to the beautiful babe I had in mind, luckily enough. “Gimme a beer,” I told the bartender. He half-nodded silently and turned around to start pouring. I began to ease into my seat, swung around, and tried to glance up inconspicuously.

No good, though—she was looking right at me. Our eyes met. I had no choice but to smile. “Hey. How you doing,” I uttered halfheartedly.

“Is that your opening line?” she asked, returning my smile.

My heart pounded. I cocked an eyebrow and spoke without thinking. “Excuse me?”

Beer Bar
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

“Just asking,” she replied, taking a sip of an almost-empty drink. “As conversation starters go, you might still have a bit of work to do.”

Honestly, this was already going better than I ever could have planned it. “Well, forgive me for not being prepared,” I played along. “Next time I’ll be ready.”

She smiled again. “Well, I certainly hope so.”

“I’m Rob,” I said. “I think I’ve seen you around here before.”

“Kelly,” she said. “You probably have. You look a little familiar yourself.”

“You come here often?” I asked.

“Pretty often,” she said. “I live close by, and I’m a fan of the band.”

I quickly looked over to the musicians. “Who’s playing?” I asked.

“They’re called Lemuel. Local indie band I’ve seen around here a few times.”

I nodded. “Yeah, uh, I never really heard of them. But they’re not bad.”

“You like music, Rob?”

“Sure,” I said. “Don’t know much local stuff, though. Well, especially here.” I realized immediately that maybe I shouldn’t have said it.

“Not from around here?” she asked.

“Not…exactly,” I answered. “But I’m kinda familiar with the area. Feels like home, a little bit. But no, I’m just passing through for now.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “It’s nice to have some company. It’d be great to have someone to listen along with.”

And there it was. I paused for a half-second. This chick had already been forward, sure, but now I had an open invitation to keep playing this game. I started to smile. Paused. Somehow I thought of home for a split second, but then I looked back up at Kelly instead and broke out in a full-on grin. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll stick around.”

“Good,” she said. “We can work on your conversation skills—and your tastes in music.”

“Heh. Yeah.” The bartender set my beer down in front of me. “Hey, another drink for the lady, too,” I said. He nodded and got to work.

I had only been planning to stay out a couple hours in the first place. After all, I had to get home sooner or later so nobody would wonder where I was. But man, did those couple hours fly by fast. I almost lost track of time with this babe. She was interesting enough to talk to, I guess—I always like a lady with confidence—but just looking at her too got me excited. Man, was she something else. And honestly, the band really wasn’t too bad either. Whoever would have thought it’d be so much fun to go to a concert in another dimension, with a band that probably didn’t even exist back home? I thought about staying even longer, maybe even finding someplace nearby to spend the night…

But first I had to go someplace else, after the second or third beer started catching up with me. “I need the men’s room,” I told Kelly. “But you stay right here.”

“Of course,” she said.

When I was done in the men’s room and walking back to the bar, I looked down at the silver wristwatch thingy again to make sure it was still there. Of course it was, but I just had to check. I patted the thing a couple times just for good measure. I still couldn’t believe all the good luck it was bringing me.

“Rob?” A familiar voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Yeah, babe?” I said it without thinking. Then I did a double-take. It wasn’t Kelly standing in front of me. It was Mona.

“Mona?” I asked, frantic. Hell, was I gonna hear it from her now. “What are you doing here? How did you even get here?”

“I…came through the front door, Rob.” She let out a small giggle. “What did you think?”

“Yeah, but I mean—this place! You know…the city? The whole area?”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “Well…I’ve always lived here. You know that, Rob. Maybe I should ask you what you’re doing here. I haven’t seen you around in forever! I didn’t even know you were back in town.”

My brow furrowed. “Didn’t know I was…?” But suddenly it hit me. I think I caught on to what this was. “Oh, right, right,” I said. “Sorry. I was, uh, just a little confused there for a minute…”

“Little too much to drink?”

I forced a laugh. “Yeah! That. It’s totally that.”

“Still, you look well. How are things?”

“Oh, things are great! Everything’s good. And hey, thanks. Uh, you look good yourself. Changed your hair and everything. It’s nice.”

She started twirling her hair as she talked about it. “Well, thanks, but this isn’t exactly recent. I mean, you haven’t seen me in years. Not since…” She stopped twirling and her eyes fell. “…well, you know.”

I didn’t know. I mean, I could tell it was something bad, but the thing is, I really didn’t know. By this point I had gathered that this wasn’t my Mona. This wasn’t my wife. It was her, but in a parallel world where everything was different. Any number of things could’ve happened.

“Well, uh, to tell you the truth, I’m a bit fuzzy on the details,” I said. “Uh, you know. The alcohol and all. Think maybe we should take some time to…uh…catch up for a bit?”

She paused. Then she laughed. But it was a nervous, awkward laugh. “Rob…” she said. “I…sorry. I don’t think I should do that.”

“No? Not even a few minutes?”

“Look, it’s late, and we were getting ready to leave, and…well…I’m sorry, Rob. What we had together was special once, and it’s really good to see you back in town again and doing well, but it’s been a long time, and I just don’t think it’s a good idea to—”

“No, no, I get it,” I said. I really didn’t, but I just had to play along. “Sorry to bring it up. I didn’t want to make things weird or anything. In fact, I was just…”

A tall, muscular, dark-haired man walked up behind Mona and put his arms around her. “Hey, babe,” he said.

Couple
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

“Hey.” She tilted her head up and they kissed quickly on the lips.

“Ready to go?” the guy asked.

“Yeah! I was just…starting to say goodbye.” She looked back at me. “Good running into you, Rob! Maybe I’ll see you again soon if you’re still around town?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” I mumbled. I couldn’t even look at her and that huge hunk of man around her. “I gotta go. Bye.”

I walked back to the car where Kelly was sitting and went to grab my jacket.

“You up for another drink?” she asked.

“Not now,” I said. “I actually gotta go.”

“Really? Already?”

“Yeah. Sorry. Something came up.”

She looked at me. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah. It’s great. I just gotta run. I don’t feel too great all of a sudden.”

“Oh.” She looked sad.

“It’s not you. I had a good time. Honest I did. This is just…it’s different.”

“Well…okay,” she said. “But there’s another show this weekend if you’re interested in coming. I’ll be here.”

“Uh, sure. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ll see you later.”

I tried not to think too much on the walk back to the street corner.

To be continued…

Click here for part 4!

Parallel, part 2

This is the second installment of a story I’m currently working on. If you missed the first part, you can read it here. As always, I welcome constructive feedback, and I hope you enjoy reading!

I don’t really know how to explain it. See, I’m not stupid, but I’m not exactly book smart either. Advanced science and all the newest tech just really aren’t my thing, and I could barely even begin to tell you what exactly this thing on my wrist had done to me, or what it was even designed to do. Honestly, I had no idea what it was back when my buddy Vince first snagged it off of one of the science nerds at work. He tried to sell it to me at the bar one night, and I told him he was stupid for taking it at all. Me, I would never steal off the guys we worked for. I may not be a genius, but I’m too smart for that. But I’m also not above taking a good deal when it’s offered to me, and like I said, the watch looked like silver, and you could tell it was pretty high-tech something-or-other too. I paid Vince a hundred bucks for it, and I’m pretty sure it was a steal, because over the next couple days I overheard some of the nerds talking about some real important piece of tech that had mysteriously gone missing. Course, I just smiled and moved on whenever I heard stuff like that. What they don’t know won’t hurt them, right? And I know Vince won’t say anything. No way he’d bring the cops down on himself, and besides, he doesn’t even work at the lab anymore. A couple weeks after he swiped that tech, he got fired for coming to work high. Told you he was a freaking idiot.

But I digress. I had the watch and it had definitely done something, bringing me to wherever this place was. The first time I came here, once I got over the shock and got my bearings a little bit, I definitely wondered just what had happened and how the hell this was even possible. A part of me still wonders, if I’m being honest. My first thought was that it was some kind of teleporter that sent me to a different part of town. But see, I looked it up after I came back, and there’s no Gatz St. or Avenue E anywhere near town. So forget that idea.

I also picked up a newspaper that first time just to try to figure out what was going on. And hell, did that confuse me more than ever. Not only were

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

the sports stats all wrong, but there were some team names that I knew for a fact weren’t real. Who names a pro football team the Rhinos, anyway? But what’s more, according to the paper, Obama wasn’t even President. It was some white guy I never heard of and can’t even remember his name. See, this place looked like home at first, but a lot of stuff was off in really weird ways.

Then I wondered if maybe the watch was putting me in some kind of virtual reality. But that didn’t make any sense either. If that was the case, then what happened to my body while my mind was just sitting there hallucinating all this crap? You’d think somebody would notice the same guy just lying or standing on the street corner for an hour or more. See, like I said, I’m smart, so I think through stuff like this, and I know virtual reality has got to be out of the question here.

I had a hunch, but I couldn’t be sure. So one night I had called up my nephew Brandon.

“Brandon! Happy birthday!”

“Hey, Uncle Rob!” he said. “Um, it’s not my birthday.”

“Whatever. So I’m a little early. Figured I’d call you anyway, just so I don’t forget.”

“Umm…thanks.”

“Yeah, no problem. Hey, listen. Wanted to ask you something.”

“Sure. What?”

“You read a lot of books, right? And go to the movies? You like all that high-tech sci-fi space stuff?”

“Yeah, I like it a lot. Why?”

“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on…in this show I’m watching,” I told him. “It’s like, this guy got transported to a different place. Well, it looks a lot the same, but it’s different somehow, and a bunch of stuff about the whole world has changed. That make any sense to you?”

“You mean like another dimension?” Brandon asked.

“Is that what they call it?” I asked. “Yeah, sure, like that. Um…what exactly is that?”

Brandon apparently knew what he was talking about. “Well, the theory is that there’s an infinite number of parallel dimensions, or alternate timelines, with an infinite number of possibilities. They might seem kind of like ours, but they’ve changed in different ways at some point in time. Any number of things could have happened differently in this world. It’s like when they went to the mirror universe on the old Star Trek and they had to fight evil versions of themselves. Although, in the new movies, the whole thing is really a different timeline because—”

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

“Yeah, yeah, I think I got it,” I told Brandon. “Thanks, kid.”

“Sure. What’s that show you’re watching? It sounds interesting.”

“Uh, I forget the name of it. But I’ll definitely let you know. Just don’t worry about it for now, okay? How’s school?”

So that was it, I guess. The watch wasn’t taking me anywhere else in my town, or even on my planet or in my universe, for that matter. So far as I could tell, whenever I pressed that button, I opened my eyes in a whole different dimension where things weren’t quite the same as I knew them. Except nobody here was fighting evil versions of themselves like in all those stupid overpriced action flicks. They were just trying to get by and live their lives, just like regular folks in my own world too. So coming here was perfectly safe and could still be a nice way to relax. But just the fact that I really was in some kind of alternate timeline made it a brand new adventure at the same time, and also quite a unique change of pace from whenever I got tired of how things were back home.

I got to Miniver’s and stepped inside. The room was dimly lit and a band was playing in the background. I walked around and began to look for a place to sit and kick back for a bit.

And that’s when I saw her.

To be continued…

Click here for part 3!

Parallel, part 1

This is a new short story I recently thought up and am currently working on. The title is a work in progress, as is the story itself. I hope to continue it more over the coming weeks. Feedback and/or constructive criticism are very much welcome! Thanks for reading.

It’s funny how, no matter what you do or where you go, you never really know what’s gonna come out of it. Of course, that night I did know where I was going, even if nobody else would have guessed it in a million years. Hell, if you had told me a couple months back that this was even possible, I would have said you were crazy. But not now. Not anymore. Now I knew exactly where I was going, or at least I thought I did. Not that knowing it really did me a whole heap of good in the end, though.

“Where are you going?” Mona asked me as I grabbed my coat and rushed for the front door.

“Out,” I said.

“I can see that, Rob,” she said. “I’d like to know where you’re going when you get out of the house.”

Street Corner
Photo taken from Flickr Creative Commons. By Chris Dorley-Brown.

“Just around town,” I said. Technically, it wasn’t false. Not exactly.

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a couple hours. Probably not much more.”

“Right,” she said with a scowl. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“No, really. Just a couple hours. I’ll be back before you’re in bed. I promise.”

“Just leave if you’re going to,” she said. “I won’t wait up.”

“Fine!” I shouted. “You’ll see! And I will see you when I get back!” I slammed the door and walked off onto the sidewalk and down that street.

Sometimes I couldn’t believe that woman, always nagging and criticizing me for no good reason. I mean, sure, nobody ever said I was the perfect husband. I’ve made my mistakes and I got my fair share of secrets. Who doesn’t? I guess it kind of made sense for her to wonder what was up, considering how much I was keeping from her lately. But whatever I may be, I do know that I’m not gonna flat out lie to my wife. And I’m also not one of those lazy bums who just stays out all night doing nothing and going nowhere. When I go out, I damn well know how long I’m gonna be out. If I say I’ll only be a couple hours, I’ll only be a couple hours.

I guess it started one of the first times, a week or two ago. Well, not all of our problems—most of those started a lot longer ago than that—but I mean the thing about her doubting how long I’m gonna be out. Mona wanted me home at seven for dinner or something one night, so I made sure to only stay out an hour and be home promptly by seven. But she insisted that it was closer to seven-thirty, that I was late and being careless, that I didn’t make time with her a priority. Which is stupid. See, I work as a security guard for hours on end at a fancy lab with big brains who put out all kinds of high-tech developments. What’s more, I may be one of the few bums there who actually gives a crap about his stupid job. So you better believe I’m used to keeping track of time and I know exactly where I am from one minute to the next. It makes absolutely no sense for her to tell me that I wasn’t home in an hour when I know for a fact that I was. And besides, like I said, I may not be perfect, but I wouldn’t lie to her. After all, I love her—or, at least, I thought I did at one time. It’s just that things change over time, and sometimes I needed to get out a bit and get a change of pace, is all.

Which I guess is what brought me to where I was right at that moment. Standing at the corner of 5th and Higgins, just a few blocks from the house, right near that old worn-down country church we used to go to few times a year. I usually did it at this spot because it’s a low-traffic area, or at least it was at that time of night. Nobody else had seen me do it yet, so far as I’d been able to tell. I took a couple quick glances around to make sure the coast was clear. Then I lifted my wrist and pulled up the sleeve of my coat, revealing what would look to most people like a fancy silver watch underneath. I glanced one more time, took a deep breath, and then pressed the button on the side.

My entire body tingled with an electric sensation for a quick second. My vision went black for a little bit too, but I was more used to it this time than I had been before. Almost immediately, I opened my eyes and found myself standing in the exact same spot where I was before. Like I had told Mona, I was just staying nearby in town.

Dimension City
Photo taken from Flickr Creative Commons. By Katrin Shumakov.

Except that I wasn’t in the same spot. Not exactly. I hadn’t moved at all, but I wasn’t on the corner of 5th and Higgins anymore. Instead, the street signs read Gatz Rd. and Avenue E. And instead of the weathered steeple that had dominated the skyline just a minute ago, a local bar and restaurant advertised its name on a flashing neon sign: “Miniver’s.” The place all around was the same as home, but just…it was different. Things had changed in the blink of an eye. I started walking down the sidewalk toward the restaurant.

To be continued…

Click here for part 2!

Character Challenge: A Fresh New Spin

Adaptations and retellings of stories have been around for probably almost as long as storytelling itself. Sometimes we think it’s a relatively new phenomenon, given how much of Hollywood’s output these consists of reboots, remakes, and sequels these days, and how little of it is comprised of original ideas. But really, with ancient epics and legends being passed down orally from one generation to the next, with classics from the Greek myths to Shakespeare’s plays drawing large influences from stories that were already well-known in their cultures, the practice has been a major tradition for a long time.

Sure, all the retelling and rebooting can certainly be overdone, and not every new story that comes out of it is a winner. But still, there’s a reason why retellings and adaptations hold a certain appeal, both for audiences and for writers. It allows the opportunity to take something that people already like and look at it in a new way, or for a new writer to put his or her own personal spin on it. The oral storyteller can elaborate or expand on the story the previous generation told him by using his own unique storytelling style. A new director can take a superhero or cultural icon who’s been around for decades and try to make the character fresh and original for a new audience. While we sometimes praise original ideas more simply because of their originality, there’s still a certain appeal to taking something that already exists and making it new, or making it our own.

The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character's backstory. And it's been pretty good so far!
The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character’s backstory. And it’s been pretty good so far!

Of course, there are countless examples in our culture, but the one that got me thinking about this concept recently was exodus-posterExodus: Gods and Kings. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I want to, despite whatever surrounding controversy there may be from various groups. But in the wake of recent films such as Exodus and Noah, I wrote a post on my blog about the next biblical adaptations I’d like to see if this trend continues. And that got me thinking of how, sometimes, a well-developed adaptation with very complex and human characters can be fleshed out based on very little. While the Exodus is a fairly significant portion of the Old Testament’s narrative, Noah’s story is confined to only a few chapters in Genesis, and yet a full-length movie was made about him. The same can be said of Jonah, one of the other suggestions I made in my post. A whole full-length film could potentially be made out of the Bible’s short account and relatively sparse descriptions of character development.

Based on this trend in books, movies, and more, your challenge is to take a pre-existing character–from literature, film, history, religion, or whatever you want–and flesh them out more or add on to their story. You may want to choose a minor or more obscure character so you’ll have more liberty to be creative and more ground to cover that hasn’t already been taken by the main character. If you don’t know much about your character yet, then figure it out or make it up based on what little you do know. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What is this characters’ motivation? What are his or her goals or desires?
  • Why does the character want this goal? Is there anything that happened in their life to set them on this path? (Remember, drawn-out origin stories are all the rage these days.)
  • What will your character do to meet his or her or goals? What lengths will they go to?
  • Are there any conflicting desires or interal struggles? If so, why, and how will your character deal with them?
  • How does this character see others? What are their relationships like with other people? (You can use characters from the work you’ve already chosen, or, if not many are available, then make up some significant relationships of your own.)
  • Are there any other quirks or interesting personality traits that your character might reasonably have?

Of course, there are plenty of other aspects of character you can flesh out and explore, but these are a few that might be especially helpful in elaborating on a lesser-known character who someone else has already created.

Once you feel like you know your character fairly well, write a short scene (or, if you’re up for it, maybe the beginnings of a longer project) focusing on this character. Are they going about their normal daily life, or maybe beginning a grand adventure that will define them in the long term? You decide! Use what you know about the character and follow their activities with your writing. Make sure to be creative along the way!

Short Scene: Three Troubled Brothers

At long last, I’ve done a bit of fiction writing again! This scene is the beginning of a story idea that’s been in my head for a while. I want to say it’s a bit like a modern-day The Brothers Karamazov, except that I unfortunately have never read the whole book (yet). But like the excerpts and summaries I’ve read from TBK, this story focuses on three brothers with three different outlooks on life and faith. Maybe one day I’ll flesh this out into a full story or novel, but this is what we’ve got for now. Also, this is a fairly rough/rushed draft, so constructive criticism is welcome. Enjoy!

Scott shoved another bite of pancake into his mouth and chewed, wasting little time on savoring its sweetness as he went.

“You gonna be ready to go soon?” asked his father, glancing at the clock.

“In like ten minutes,” said Scott. “I just need to finish eating and then brush my teeth.”

“I’m almost ready!” Scott’s mother called, from the other room but quickly advancing in his direction. “Just need to find where I set my glasses down.” She stopped at the kitchen table. “How are the pancakes?”

“Good,” said Scott. “They’re always good.”Pancakes

“We have another thing of syrup, if you want it. I think we just ran out of the other one.”

“No, thanks. I’m good. I got some already.”

“You sure? I don’t mind getting it for you.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Oh, I’ve got to check on the other boys,” his mother said to no one in particular. She moved from the kitchen and knocked on an adjacent door.

“Hmm?” came a voice from inside. Scott kept chewing his pancakes, and tapped his fork sporadically as he listened.

“You almost ready for church, James?”

The voice was flat and unenthusiastic. “Yeah. I’ve been ready for a while.”

“Oh, but I haven’t seen you much. You’ve just been in your room the whole time.”

“I’ve been reading my Bible.”

“Kay.” A pause. “You want a quick breakfast before church?”

“Sure. I’ll come out in a minute.”

Scott heard the door close, followed by quick footsteps. “I’m a little worried about James,” his mother said in a harsh whisper as she grabbed the full container of syrup and set it on the table next to Scott. Scott scowled slightly.

“Why?” Scott asked.

“He spends all his time reading his Bible. I mean, I know it’s a good thing, but he’s not doing fun things that boys his age do. He doesn’t really play sports or video games or anything. And he doesn’t talk to us as much, either.”

“I don’t know,” said Scott. “I mean, it’s good that he’s reading his Bible.” As Scott said this, he was acutely aware that it was a good thing to read the Bible, because somewhere in the back of his mind he felt the sinking weight of knowing that he wasn’t doing it enough. He hadn’t read his own Bible in three days. Or was it four? Or more?

“I guess,” whispered his mother. “But he’s only fourteen, and he’s so serious! I’m just worried that he’s not having any fun.”

A brief patter of rapid footsteps was heard, and then the basement door swung open. “Oh, there’s Howard,” said the mother.

Howard sauntered to the table, grabbed a couple pieces of bacon, and began to ingest them quickly. He did not sit down.

“Morning, Howard,” said his mother. Howard nodded, his mouth full.

“You almost ready for church?” their mother asked. James quietly stepped out of his room and made his way toward the kitchen table. His father paced through the adjacent living room, adjusting his tie and gathering his things.

“I’m not going,” Howard uttered nonchalantly.

His mother scowled. “Not going?”

“Nope.”

“What do you mean you’re not going?”

Howard looked up at her. “I’m not going. We talked about this.”

Scott still sat at the table, finishing his pancakes and listening in uncomfortably. James was seated at the table too and had begun wolfing down a quick Pop Tart.

“I know we talked,” said their mother with a sigh. “I guess I was hoping you’d come to your senses by now.”

“I did,” said Howard. “I decided I’m not going to your stupid church anymore.”

“Howard.” His father stepped closer. “Respect your mother.”

“What? It’s true!”

“Howard.”

“You’re just mad because I’m not a Christian anymore.”

“I’m not mad,” said his father. “I never said I was mad.”

“We’re not mad,” said the mother, her voice rising. “We just don’t understand why you say you’re not a Christian anymore.”

“Because there’s no evidence for Christianity,” said Howard. “It doesn’t make logical sense.”

“That’s not true,” Scott spoke up.

“Truth is subjective,” Howard answered.

“No it’s not,” said Scott. “That doesn’t make sense. Facts are facts, whether people believe them or not. And there’s plenty of factual evidence for Christianity.”

“No there’s not. Faith is blind.”

James sighed quietly.

Scott spoke up again. “You’re wrong. It’s the truth. Just look at all the fulfilled prophecies, the historical evidence, the news today and everything—”

“Scott,” their father interrupted. “That’s enough fighting. Both of you.”

“I just don’t get it,” the mother interjected, her words pointed toward Howard. “Do you really think walking away from God is going to help you?”

“I didn’t do it to be helped,” said Howard. “I’m just following the evidence.”

“But, if you would just let God help you, I really don’t think you’d be so depressed all the time.”

“Mom, that’s not how it works.”

“Yeah,” Scott agreed. “Depression is psychological. I mean, I’m sure spiritual factors can coincide with it—”

“Scott,” said the father.

“What? I was agreeing with him this time. It’s a known scientific fact. Depression is psychological.”

“It’s just that we had to pay the hospital bills,” their mother continued loudly. “And drive out there to check on you every day, and everything. I don’t think you understand that this isn’t easy for the rest of us, either. And I don’t think you’d have all these problems if you would just come back to God again!”

“Whatever,” Howard said, grabbing the rest of his breakfast and marching away from the table back toward the basement. “I’m out of here.”

“Howard,” said his father.

“I’m not going to church with you!” Howard shouted.Church

“Fine. You don’t have to,” his father said calmly. “But don’t go too far. I want to talk to you when I get home.”

“Am I grounded?” Howard asked sarcastically.

“No. I just want to talk.”

“Whatever. I’m gonna do what I want. Soon I’ll be out of here for good anyway.”

His mother sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“I’m nineteen!” Howard protested. “I’ve gonna move out sooner or later, once I can get the money!”

Scott took a deep breath. He was almost twenty-three, and also eager to move out, but so far his Bachelor’s Degree had been little help in finding him a stable job.

“Good luck with that,” said the mother. “You haven’t even been able to hold down a job.”

She was talking to Howard. Scott knew that she was talking to Howard. But he still drew another deep breath.

Howard rushed down the stairs without saying anything else.

The sound of Scott chewing his last bite of pancake was not enough to drown out the silence.

James spoke up. “I guess we should pray for him,” he offered feebly.

“We should get ready for church,” said his mother. “I just need to go find my glasses.” Her voice wavered and she walked off.

“I’ll go get my Bible,” said James, retreating back into his room.

Wordlessly, Scott got up to put his plate in the sink.

He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.

“Scott, I do want to thank you for your steadfastness,” said his father. “Whatever is going on with Howard has been…trying. But I do appreciate you staying true to what we’ve taught you and not going down that path.”

Scott froze for a minute, unsure of what to say.

He wanted to say, “Steadfastness? That’s not me. I haven’t been steadfast. I’m too selfish. I’m too prideful. I know God is there, but I’ve got to admit He feels distant sometimes. Sometimes the logical arguments seem more real to me than God as an actual person. And I can only blame my own sin and selfishness for that. I haven’t lost my faith, but I’ve lost my youthful idealism. I don’t have the same hope and joy and enthusiasm that I did when I was James’s age. Yes, I still believe in God, but I don’t have much hope in this world or in people anymore. Half the time I don’t even believe in myself. At least, not like everyone else does. Not like you do, Dad.”

Instead he said, “Uh, sure. Of course. You’re welcome.”

Fear Not

There’s a story behind this story, albeit a short one. I asked friends for writing prompts; one of them responded with “fearnot” (possibly mistyped; I haven’t asked). On a whim, I googled the single word and discovered that there’s a little place in Pennsylvania called Fearnot. I began considering how I might combine that name with the biblical two-word version of the phrase. (P.S. – there’s a Bethlehem, PA, too.)

___________________________________________

“Fear not.”

I don’t look up from my magazine. I hear this a lot. “Yeah, weird name for a town, isn’t it?”

“No, not ‘Fearnot’—fear not. Hey. Mary.” He reaches out and taps his fingertips on the page I’m reading. “You might want to pay attention.”

It’s not like I haven’t dealt with my share of obnoxious customers in the years I’ve been working the family convenience store. What really gets to me is when they use your name, though. Just because I’m required to wear a name badge doesn’t mean everyone gets to talk to me like we’re buddies, and this guy is really pushing it. Gritting my teeth, I finally glance at him.

“That’s better,” he says. And then he looks at his iPhone and reads out: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour [the ‘u’ is audible, somehow] with God. And, behold—”

“It’s a little early in the day, isn’t it?” I ask, stepping back from the counter. I’ve dealt with plenty of drunks, too.

The guy sighs. “Would you just let me finish? This is important.”

He doesn’t look drunk, or high, or crazy. He’s just the standard plaid-shirt-trucker-hat-white-guy type that we see a lot of around here, since we’re just off the highway. There’s definitely something weird about him, though, and it just gets weirder the longer he talks to me. I don’t know how to explain it. If the Long Island Medium were here, she’d probably be talking about auras and shit like that. Not that that’s something I’d usually say I believe in, but my impression of this guy is of presence—like there’s more to him than fits in a body. It’s making my skin crawl, especially once I see that he’s the only customer in here with me. The store phone is on the wall behind me. If I want to call Dad in, I’ll have to turn my back on the guy across the counter.

He’s noticed my uneasiness. He grins and says again: “Fear not. Like I said—found favour with God.” Then he goes back to reading from his phone. “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called—”

“What the fuck.” I reach behind me for the phone, fumbling up and down the wall until I knock the receiver off its cradle. It swings down on its spiraling cord and I try to grab it without looking away from the guy, in case he tries anything.

“Whoa, whoa, you’re fine, kid.” He moves back a little, holding up his hands. He’s still got the phone out. “Sorry. HQ likes things delivered pretty formally.” He gives his screen a quick appraisal. “Okay, yeah, we can skip the rest. I got through the important part. Anyway, congrats! No need to invite me to the baby shower.”

I’ve gotten hold of the receiver by now. I can’t dial without turning around. “Get out of my store.”

“Sure. Just a second, though—I want to make sure you processed all that. I know it’s probably tough to wrap your brain around. I’m Gabe, by the way.”

“Get out, or I’m calling for help.”

“Don’t shoot the messenger, kid. Sure, it’s a shock, but HQ’s got big things for you. Just the one big thing, really, but it’s big. You’re going to be the really important mom to a really, really important guy.”

He’s keeping his distance, at least, and his tone is as casual as ever. I look him in the face, trying to evaluate him. There’s no volatility in his expression. As far as I can tell, he’s mentally stable and is utterly sure of the things he’s saying. That doesn’t make them any less bizarre.

“Gabe,” I say, “please get out. I’m very uncomfortable right now.”

He drops his eyes to the floor. “Sorry. There wasn’t really a better way to tell you that you’re three weeks pregnant with the incarnation of divine purpose.”

“Not getting any less uncomfortable.”

“Really, I’m sorry about that, but that doesn’t change anything.”

My grip on the receiver has loosened just a little. He’s still got that sense of presence about him, but now that I’m getting used to it, it doesn’t seem particularly ominous. Just…present. I don’t think he’s a threat. And I’ve still got the phone in my hand. I can play along for a while—this morning has already been more interesting than my entire summer so far.

“So…pregnant with divine purpose. What, I hooked up with God?”

Gabe snorts. “Please. He doesn’t go in for that kind of thing.”

“If he’s my baby daddy, he could have had the decency to show up himself instead of sending you.”

“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough, Mary.”

I plant my free hand on my hip. “Is he at least going to pay child support?”

“Mary—”

“I wouldn’t have pegged God for a deadbeat.”

Something shifts in Gabe. I feel it more than I see it, and it makes my fingers lock tight around the phone. In this moment, I’m certain that he’s not human. There’s far, far too much of him to be contained in the body standing across from me. When he speaks again, his voice surpasses the merely auditory and seems to cut through planes of consciousness I’d never known I could experience. “Mary,” he says. Just that—just my name—and it shuts me up. I feel like someone’s grabbed my shoulders and shaken me.

And then he’s back to Gabe, in his flannel shirt and his Timberlands, with the big smile on his stubbly face. “I know this is a little wild,” he says. “You’ve just got to trust me. More than that—trust the one I’m speaking for.”

I stare at him, off-balance. Now that the moment of jarring revelation has passed, it seems distant and absurd—a half-remembered dream with its own skewed logic. However weird this guy is, there’s nothing he can be but human. “You’re really serious,” I say to him. “You really think all this is true.”

“I’ve got access to a lot more information than you do, kid. Whatever you say now, in eight months you’re going to be delivering the Son of God. …Delivering. Heh.”

I ignore what’s apparently an in-joke. “Like I’m going to believe that when I know it’s scientifically impossible for me to be pregnant, based on complete lack of sexually activity—not that it’s any of your business.”

“Just go check. I’ll even pay for the test.” He pulls several crisp bills out of his wallet.

Grudgingly, I take the money and stick it in the register, then dig behind the counter for a pregnancy test. Dad keeps them back here so he can side-eye all the local teenagers who ask for them.

“Go wait outside,” I tell him. He obliges and I lock the door behind him. Then I head to the tiny bathroom back by the soda fountain.

– – –

When I come out of the store, Gabe is sitting on the curb, playing with his phone. I sit down a few wary feet away.

“So?” he asks. He’s grinning again.

“What the fuck,” I say, defeated.

“Sorry. You’ll just have to believe me when I say it’s for the best. The best possible best.”

“Why me, though? Is this payback for something I did wrong? Mom always said my smart mouth was going to get me in trouble…”

“This isn’t punishment, kid. You’re the one for the job. Smart mouth and all.”

His enduring good mood isn’t doing anything to help mine. “My parents are going to kill. me. And Joe—” I dig both hands into my hair, realizing. “Shit. I can’t lose him, Gabe. He’s the best guy I’ve ever met.”

“You won’t lose him. Believe me.”

It’s definitely easier to believe him in light of that little blue plus sign. But I still don’t want to believe him. “This is really God’s will, or whatever? I couldn’t just talk to Planned Parenthood and save myself all the trouble?”

“Nah. The phrase ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ is pretty potent when we’re talking divine intent.” He reaches over and offers his hand. When I take it, he squeezes tight and says, “It’s going to be all right, Mary. Really.”

“Really?”

There’s a pause. I look at him and find that his smile has worn down a little at the corners. He gazes off at something I can’t see. For a resonant moment, I can feel the expansive otherness of him again. Then he breaks out of it and looks back at me. “It’ll be all right in the end,” he says. “There’s a lot to happen before then. But you don’t need to worry about that right now.”

“Yeah. I have enough to deal with.”

A semi-truck pulls into the lot. I get up from the curb and start toward the store, then turn back to Gabe. “You going to visit me again?”

He shrugs. “No idea—that’s up to HQ. But we’ll be looking out for you. Remember what I said at the beginning?”

Fear not. I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to fill myself up with those two words. When I look up, Gabe’s gone and the driver of the semi is climbing out of his cab. I go back into the store and slip behind the counter, where my magazine is still open to a full spread of celebrity baby bumps. Shaking a little, I turn the page.

Sparks, Part II

A continuation. Part I here.

_________________________________

“Fensk! Caerwyn!”

Practiced discipline had me out of bed and upright an instant after waking to my name. I wasn’t exactly awake, but I was standing at attention. Blearily I saw Rusk turn over, still sleeping.

The shout from outside came again, bringing me to lucidity. I ducked out, leaving Rusk. His body was hanging on to the chance at rest for as long as it could, and I wasn’t going to be the one to stop it.

“News?” I asked the runner, squinting even against the soft dawn light.

“You’re wanted in the pavilion.” He glanced behind me at the tent. “Caerwyn—”

“—is not to be bothered.” I gave him a look that made him duck his head and sidle away. Swearing under my breath at whoever invented mornings, I headed back towards the center of camp.

General Tormund was at the center of a knot of people gathered by his pavilion. I made my way through, none too concerned with whose feet I stepped on.

“General?”

He frowned at me. “Where’s Caerwyn?”

“Still mending. What’s happened?”

“A couple of our scouts just returned with word that a party from the south rode into the Beldane encampment last night. They’ve brought in their own mage.”

I stared at him, feeling as though I’d been struck in the face.

He must have realized my shock, because he gave me a grim nod before he continued. “The scouts report seeing a young girl arrive with an escort. She became agitated at several points and started throwing off sparks. It seems likely she is inexperienced and uncontrolled. Nonetheless, I have no intent to let them use her against us to any extent.”

My ears were ringing. I knew of perhaps three living fire mages – the gift had only awakened a few centuries before, and since then it had cropped up unpredictably across our kingdom, with no pattern of heredity. And the fire magic was ours, given to the people of Valder. Whoever the Beldane mage was, she surely had our blood in her somewhere.

Over my spinning thoughts, I managed to ask, “What do you plan to do about her?”

“I’m sending you and Caerwyn to retrieve her.”

This was almost as great a blow as the first revelation. “General – they’ll be guarding her like she’s made of gold.”

“The scouts say she’s being kept isolated at the northwest perimeter of their camp. Little wonder, if she can’t contain her magic.”

He was right. I thought of the way Rusk’s bad dreams sometimes brought smoke curling from his clenched hands. The devastation of a night terror for an untrained mage housed amidst a cluster of very flammable tents…

“Eight or nine hours’ sleep isn’t enough to bring Caerwyn back to capacity,” I said, dispelling the image. “He could go tomorrow.”

“By tomorrow there may well be an attack underway. You’ll go today, while the Beldane are still working out how to handle the girl. I don’t need Caerwyn to fight. He’s the only one of us who can’t be burned.”

Besides that, I realized, it would probably be best for the younger mage to be approached by someone who shared the gift. I shut my eyes for an instant to collect myself, then opened them again to find the general watching me keenly. “I’ll get Caerwyn,” I told him. Reluctant as I was to disturb Rusk, this was a matter that warranted it.

It took some doing, but I managed to wake my charge to a degree that facilitated comprehension of what I was telling him – at which point he completed the rest of the waking process himself, his expression registering the same earth-shaken shock I’d felt at the news.

“And what is it we’re to do with her?” he asked as I strapped on my bow and quiver.

“We’re bringing her back here. Come on, up you get. I wish this could wait, but we’re to go now.”

Booted and equipped, we both made for the pavilion. Rusk was definitely stronger for his night’s sleep, but he wouldn’t be any use in a fight. Better to avoid any confrontation altogether, if we could. General Tormund showed us the updated map of the Beldane position, marking the girl’s approximate location as well as the places our scouts had spotted theirs. “You’ll ride to here,” he said, pointing, “then leave the horses there and continue on foot to where they’re keeping the girl. Once you have her, you’ll follow the same route back. You’ve both trained for stealth work – I trust you’ll be competent enough to manage this. Fight only if it’s necessary to keep someone quiet.”

The horses were ready for us when he’d finished. We climbed up and rode out of camp at a trot, Rusk’s mount a little uneasy under him. Animals always seemed to recognize a mage as something odd and dubious.

Day had truly broken by now. We were as discreet as we could be at such short notice; our clothes were drab under their coatings of of mud and ash, and I’d left my armor behind to avoid the weight and jangle. As we rode, I returned to thoughts of the Beldane mage. A young girl brought to the battlefield from who-knows-where, with no training and likely very little understanding of her own abilities. Beldane had no study of magecraft, since they had not been given the gift. The commander of their army would have even less grasp of a mage’s limitations than General Tormund had.

The girl would be terrified. I couldn’t imagine waking one day to discover that something in my veins had stirred and altered me without warning or explanation. More than that, waking to discover that I’d been made into something no longer quite human, and that I somehow contained a destructive force that I’d never asked for. I glanced at Rusk, trying to see him as he would have been two years ago, when his gift manifested. He was fifteen then, and noble, and the talk was that his family had essentially disowned him to keep their house from association with magic. He still bore their name, even if he’d been consigned to be the army’s own walking flint-and-steel.

We reached the rocky outcrop where we were to leave the horses. The scattered trees we’d been riding past now stood nearer to one another, thick enough to offer us some cover for our walk. We both knew roughly the circuitous route we would need to follow to avoid the Beldane watchers, but it would be a slow, careful progress nonetheless. I unslung my bow and made sure my quiver was in place for quickest reach. Then, after exchanging nods, we continued on.

Luck or providence went with us, for we came into sight of only one set of Beldane soldiers, and they didn’t see us. They were moving on a path which curved away from ours. Only when they had been out of sight for the space of several silent breaths did I lower my bow and relax the drawn string. I kept the arrow nocked, though – we were nearing the camp.

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To be concluded in my next post.

 

Sparks, Part I

My next few posts will be parts of a short story that I just finished for a fiction writing class. It centers on a couple of characters who have been wandering around at the back of my mind for a while now.

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The fires on the battlefield were burning out, and the two armies had each pulled back, hauling their wounded with them. My exhausted charge and I walked at the rear of our forces. I had his arm over my shoulders, and we were making our way along at a trudge. It had been a brief skirmish – like a couple of cats squaring off to take a few petulant swipes at each other before backing away. But several of those swipes from our side had been burnings, and I could tell by his unsteady steps that Rusk had expended a good deal of energy in the fight. He’d had to burn yesterday, too, and hadn’t been given enough time to recover. I narrowed my eyes at the figure who rode far ahead of us. He and I would have another talk tonight.

Rusk stumbled over an uneven patch of ground, and I stopped for a moment to brace him as he caught his balance again. He was pale even in the warm wash of sunset, his eyes unfocused. He’d scorched the sleeve of his shirt, though he’d rolled them above his elbows before the battle, and soot from his hands had somehow ended up smeared across his forehead. Feeling my appraisal, he looked up at me. “I know I don’t cut a particularly glorious figure.”

“Staying alive ought to be more your concern. I’ll make sure the general doesn’t do this to you again – make you burn two days in a row.”

He only shrugged and picked up the pace a little.

Returning to camp, our army quickly went about procuring food and fire. Some turned to me and Rusk as we passed, presumably to ask him for a spark; on meeting my glower, they turned immediately away and set about starting their campfires themselves. They were getting used to Rusk’s presence as a fixture of the army, and I didn’t like it. The general asked too much of him as it was without every lazy foot-soldier expecting him to light up for them.

I got Rusk settled in the tent, left my armor and weapons in a heap on my cot, and went striding back out with my jaw set. We had only been in the field for three weeks, but that had been time enough for me to come to a clear understanding of the way things stood as far as the military and magecraft were concerned.

“General,” I said as I ducked inside.

He was bent over the strategists’ table, marking the map. “Warden.”

“You’re going to kill Caerwyn if you keep sending him from fight to fight without letting him rest. I’ve told you before – it takes days for him to get back to full strength after a few hours of burning.” The general still hadn’t glanced at me, so I persisted, “If he’s such an asset to the army, you’re doing yourself no good by wearing him thin.”

“We need him on the frontlines. Every appearance he makes is another blow to the enemy morale.”
I moved closer, leaning forward over the table. “I’m sure it will devastate their morale to see our mage drop dead at their feet.”

Now, finally, the general looked up. He was a surprisingly small man, around my height, with heavy brows that seemed perpetually set in a straight, hard line. “We don’t coddle our soldiers, Warden,” he told me. “The rest of them fight when they’re told. You’ve been away from the front for some time, so I’ll refresh your memory: everyone’s tired. Everyone’s worn thin. No one is as well-treated as they think they should be. But everyone fights. Your pet mage can just learn to persevere like the rest of us, in spite of his blue blood.”

I bristled. “Let me explain – Caerwyn isn’t just another soldier, and the things you order him to do aren’t the same—”
“You’ve said your piece, Warden,” he said, rapping his knuckles sharply against the tabletop. “And I’ve said mine. You may go tend to your lordling.”

His expression was quite clear: he had no intention to listen to me. I pulled back and gave a perfunctory bow before leaving the pavilion, seething.

“You shouldn’t fuss so much, Merric,” Rusk said when I returned. He was midway through a wad of dried venison and already he seemed a little stronger. “It’s not worth your getting so agitated.”

“I’ll fuss if it means saving your life.” I shoved my armor out of the way and sank onto my bed, digging in my pack for food. My shoulders were still pulled tight with frustration – there was much I wanted to say about General Tormund that would do no credit to my honor. Nor would it do much of anything at all, really. My time would be better spent praying that the enemy gave us a respite.
“Do you think we’ll fight again tomorrow?” Rusk asked, apparently following the same trail of thought.

“No. You’ve got them scared.”

He laughed and held up one hand to show me how it still trembled slightly. “They must not be looking very closely at me if I frighten them. One dizzy, scrawny mage kid with middling aim and a tendency to singe his own eyebrows. They’d do better to be afraid of you.”

“I’m here for defense only,” I said. “And your aim is definitely improving.” That made him smile.

When we’d finished eating, I blew out the lamp and we made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the low, unforgiving cots. Rusk had done well so far to keep from complaining about the conditions, which had to be impossibly far removed from the way of life he’d grown up in. House Caerwyn wasn’t the highest of the noble families, but they were wealthy and well-favored in the court. I was certain that, up until his abilities revealed themselves, Rusk had led a very easy existence – all silver spoons and fine clothes and grand events. And here he was now, an anomaly turned walking weapon.

And here I was, a soldier turned…well, they’d titled me a warden, but I wasn’t sure that encompassed my role. They’d chosen me for the time I’d spent working with the wyrm unit, before the army had abandoned that particular experiment. Fire was a familiar companion for me. I was used to the stiff fireproofed gear, to the smell of smoke in my hair and on my skin. The difference here was that I was working with a person, not a moody lizard the size of a pony.

By the regularity of his breathing, Rusk was already dead asleep. I listened for a while, quietened by the sound, before I drifted off.