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The Scream

The clapboard shutters banged against the cedar planks. The wind dislodged debris from the barn that ratcheted against the house. Dan sat motionless on the couch in the living room. He muted the TV so he could listen again for the scream.

This time it sounded like a cave woman being beaten. The scream was piercing, like a nail dragging down aluminum siding. Sally down the road would have called for him by name. His mother would have screamed for a moment, then remembered her son would be terrified and stopped, sucking up whatever death and despair lay ahead. No, it couldn’t be anyone he knew.

On TV, a fat man in a tank top stood on top of a beat-up car. Dan watched as the car’s hood flipped up and knocked the man from the car. He lay on his back, supine, shaking a fist at his luck.

Outside the cat-like scream etched itself across Dan’s reality. He sat bolt upright. He could ignore it no longer. He thought for a moment about what he’d need to protect whoever was outside suffering such horrors at the hands of what — an animal? Dan wasn’t a fighter. Christ, he’d barely been able to manage the twenty pushups for his P.E. Final. How was he supposed to fight off an aggressor?

The whole of the house took on a sinister glow to it. There was not light enough in the kitchen to find the flashlight that must have been there — black as the darkened storm outside. Of course, he couldn’t turn on the light. Sure there was power, but what if the muscle-bound thug saw the light come on and decided to get his ass out of the cold and slashing rain.

Why would someone be outside his house attacking a woman? It really didn’t make sense. He’s just imagining it, Dan tried his best to convince himself. It would pass and he would see. Maybe he should just go to bed. Get up in the morning and check for blood splatter. Maybe look for footprints heading back to the main road, out to Route 17. Then he could call Sheriff Black and have him come take a look at the evidence. Sure it was circumstantial — no he couldn’t prove the blood was that of a woman, but just look at the bootprints; they practically scream aggression, fat, blocky wedges of mud separated by thick lines, with a massive V at the base. A work boot, sure. But couldn’t he see, this was a man’s boot who had done something unspeakable to a sweet woman.

Outside a lightning strike lit up the night sky. Dan crouched down instinctively just as he heard a moaning sound, coming from around the corner of the house, off the patio, down a small flight of wooden steps, and near his mother’s geranium plants. His father had pulled a rather large bush from the area several years earlier, and the geraniums were a recent addition. Dan imagined them getting beaten by the hectic rain outside. He wondered how quickly flowers recovered from such abuse.

The moaning continued with the wind and the sounds seem to coincide with increased gusts, like the injured person was somehow speaking in concert to the aggravating increase in wind speeds. Of course, they would. It was terrible outside.

If he could just find the flashlight, he would be able to shine it out the window and see exactly what was out there. He could cast a light into the darkness and identify it. He thought for a moment that that sounded a bit poetic, like he was terrified of the unknown and could suddenly end the hysteria. He could lance it like a  boil, ending it’s power over him. In the vernacular of his peers, he could make it his bitch.

Then he found it, a pen like wand of a flashlight, cold and gritty from caked on mud around the handle. It was stuffed in the back of the drawer, just behind a refrigerator bulb and tucked underneath an old atlas.

Dan held that tiny pen flashlight and with anxious breath turned it on against his leg, so the light would only illuminate the coin sized spot on his jeans, not the entire room. Again, he didn’t want some thug realizing salvation was coming for him. He wanted to keep the element of surprise.

A crack of lightning confirmed Dan’s suspicion that the person outside was indeed groaning and moaning with the increased severity of the storm. The glowing golden coin of light on Dan’s leg confirmed that the flashlight was in working order. Now he could make his way to his parent’s bedroom window, where the moaning sounds seemed to be directed, and shine the flashlight into the bush-less area outside, where the geraniums would bound to be beaten and bruised by the storm.

He crept to the windowsill, listening for any sounds. He found his parents room to smell like the familiar scent of mothballs — the white, stinky resistance.

In the corner between the narrow edge of his father’s sturdy dresser and the tan colored wall, rested a 12 gauge shotgun loaned to his father from his grandfather. It was a pump shotgun, the kind used to fell deer from a hundred yards. He knew a box of shells lay secured in a box in the top dresser drawer. They were slugs, again used in the act of killing deer. His father wasn’t a hunter though. He fenced in college, but hunting was beneath him. It was due to the house, the new job, and making a name for himself. He was the marketing director of a hunting apparatus manufacturer. He needed to practice and Dan’s grandfather gave him the means to do so.

Dan thought he saw a spark of light outside the window that stretched underneath those geranium petals. It wasn’t bright, not a flash or reflection from lightning either. It was stronger than a firefly. It was more like a solid gleam of green, an emerald purchase against the darkened velvet of night. He positioned himself on the edge of the curtain, off to the side, nearest the corner with the gun and the buckshot secured in a box near his shoulder. He could reach into the dresser and pull that box out if whatever was outside came crashing through the window, into the house.

Dan positioned the flashlight’s lens against the glass. He realized too late that the exterior storm window pane would reflect back the light and make the entire operation moot. In fact, he was so startled by the light bouncing back at him that he could only faintly hear the startled scurry of a raccoon, or opossum, or tiny deer as it kicked and hurtled itself back into the bosom of the crashing storm.

Synesthesia as a literary device

a walk in to the woodsA writing exercise book I have used for a while touched on synesthesia today. The term refers to a neurological condition where the patient has one or more sensory experiences linked in their minds. Examples might be someone feeling the color blue or describing the sudden darkness of a room by way of the octaves the room had been lowered. I’d equate it to the belief that LSD makes one hear colors and see sounds.

For your reference, here’s the Wikipedia article on Synesthesia in literature page…

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which one or more sensory modalities become linked. However, for over a century, the term synesthesia has also been used to refer to artistic and poetic devices which attempt to express a linkage between the senses. To better understand the influence of synesthesia in popular culture and the way it is viewed by non-synesthetes, it is informative to examine books in which one of the main characters is portrayed as experiencing synesthesia. In addition to these fictional portrayals, the way in which synesthesia is presented in non-fiction books to non-specialist audiences is instructive. Author and synesthete Patricia Lynne Duffy has described four ways in which synesthete characters have been used in modern fiction.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia_in_literature

The exercise I read wanted us to use synesthesia in a short description. It should not be obvious we have used the device, but rather hidden it like a down pillow in a newly washed case.

Here’s my sample for you to ridicule.

Pollock stood on the cradle of straw stacks that lined the edge of the barn. Before him, a long wide beam would carry him to the next loft, where he would scrounge and hide from his brother. A cloud passing over on the summer day softened the cracks in the beam, so it almost seemed sturdy.

Pollock placed both feet on the soil-brown beam. He inched across the great expanse, a sour flavor emerging with each step — the air around him thick and wet with humidity. Each creak of the beam colored his soul blacker and blacker until he felt like he would sink into the abyss, dark as night, lost forever. But he kept on, and on, until he made it.

Carrying

ForestThe truck bounced along the inward road, humming by the bare trees of the Herd’s woods north of their home. Two children, Denny and Paul, swayed in their bulky winter outfits, scarves wound round their necks, while their father jerked and guided the truck over the frozen road. Trailing behind them, the family wagon that sometimes hauled the lawnmower, manure, and, today, cut wood, jumped a jutting gray rock just before the truck pulled to a stop.

“Come on boys. Paul, grab the saw. Denny use these.” Denny grabbed the lifeless brown gloves from his father and slowly pulled them over his hands.

“Why do I always have to carry?”

“Because. We all carry, buddy. Your brother carried once.”

“You’re a runt. That’s why.” Paul strutted to the back of the truck, legs a little rubbery, his build not much heftier than Denny’s.

“Someday you will, Den,” Denny’s father said to him as he rested his broad hand on his son’s shoulder. “Paul, start cutting that fallen one over there. Denny and I will get the tarp.” Paul grabbed the orange chainsaw from the back of the truck and leaned to the left as he carried it to the fallen tree. It looked like a storm had taken this one out; a jagged, bright cut was made about midway up the trunk. Lightning. Denny and his father stood on both sides of the white board wagon. They rolled the blue tarp up so the inside of the wagon, scattered with wood debris, could be filled with fresh wood.

As Paul yanked and yanked the machinated uttering of the cold inner workings fought to come alive. He choked the engine and pulled hard on the cord, shattering the silence of the forest with startling white noise. Denny and his father began scouting around their vicinity for more trees to be cut, so Paul could work on them while they carried the cut wood to the wagon. Every Saturday the routine was the same: pull out from the house around eight and make it back by noon for lunch. Then in the afternoon the wagon would be unloaded into the old coal chute in the back of the house. They would stack it along the limestone rock walls in the small room with the dirt floor, spider webs, and sixty-watt bulb swaying in the dust.

Later, Denny would say he heard his brother yelling as if in trouble. But they had walked farther away from the truck in search of the fallen tree and he at the time couldn’t be sure if he heard something or if the muffler warming his ears had fabricated the sound from the snapping of limbs and the crunch of snow. They kept on searching until Denny’s
father turned to him and said they should get back, they would drive a little further to find some more wood. They walked back. Denny searched the slatted trees for any sign of an antler. He liked to track, to find the hoof prints of deer, imagining himself a superior hunter, heading through a mountainous region, scouting, eating off the land, noticingsigns of disturbance in the trees, being able to smell the descent of his prey. He thought of these things as he and his father curled down the small slope back towards the truck.

From their angle, they couldn’t see the tree that Paul was working on, or the trunk that was split in like a V, jagged and snow covered. Denny’s father couldn’t hear a revving saw and Denny noticed that spindly limbs were still poking out above the truck cab, reaching into the morning sky. Denny’s breath was warm, as it filtered through his scarf. He pulled the scarf down and asked his father if Paul had stopped working again.He was known for that. He was a slacker. Denny knew he would never stop working if he were using the saw. But carrying wasn’t an all the time thing. The wood didn’t come fast enough, so eventually a break came.

The father and son walked around the cab of the truck and they heard the idle saw before they saw it resting a few feet from Paul and the blood soaked snow. They noticed the deep gash in Paul’s left arm, near his bicep. After Denny’s father lifted his oldest son’s limp body from the snow, Denny saw how the blood had warmed the snow, melting it down to the forest floor. He saw the remains of a Sycamore leaf, brown and yellow, pooling the blood in and around its dried veins. He heard his father yell at him, a distressed look peeling across his face, as he carried Paul in both his arms. Paul’s blue striped stocking cap, falling off one side of his face. Snow speckled the cotton pattern of his jacket.

“Take your brother!” Denny’s father laid Paul across Denny’s outstretched arms. Paul was heavy, heavier than Denny expected. His knees almost buckled as his father went and started the truck to back it around, so they could head for home and call for help. Denny watched as his father struggled with backing the wagon up. He could feel the warm blood trickling down his left hand, seeping through his brown gloves. His father was frustrated and unable to back up the truck. The trip straight ahead would lead them miles away from the house that was only a mile away if they could get the truck turned around. Denny started hiking towards the house, talking to his brother, telling him everything would be all right. He was in the hands of an experienced carrier.

The American Quest

Alex’s breath fogged in the cold night air. The sweatshirt he’d grabbed from the back of his chair smelled like old milk or cheese. Alex checked the pocket and pulled the lint out, throwing the tuft into the bushes. By two-ish in the morning, the streets had died. Earlier, pangs of hunger had set in, and Alex didn’t want the last package of noodles, crunched and broken on the cupboard shelf. He deserved a treat.

The corner-store was less than two blocks from his single bedroom flat. The neighborhood was built in the 1970s and had gone into disrepair due mostly to landlords hording money against unsung bullshit. No one really knew the state of things anymore, especially with how much the politicians garbled. For Wall Street things were fantastic, thought Alex. For the out-of-work, code monkeys, not so much.

Alex walked through the intersection of Derby Street, dimly lit against a flickering streetlight. He could see two figures standing next to a parked car, their hoods pulled over their heads, creating a single, large shadow behind them. He figured they must be kids, probably breaking into cars. He watched as one guy slapped the other’s arm with the back of his hand and pointed towards Alex. For a moment, Alex thought of the game he’d just left. Maybe they were players too. He always wanted to meet fellow gamers in the wild. He’d love to talk to someone about the loot he’d collected or the secret dungeon he’d crawled through for the fiftieth time, all for a random chance at a glorious riding mount. He’d been trying for half a year.

“Hey, you got a light.” One of the hooded men asked as he came shuffling up the sidewalk. He held a bent cigarette between two fingers.

“No, man. Sorry.” Alex looked down the sidewalk.

“You got a few bucks then?” The guy turned toward the corner store, shouldering next to Alex as he walked. The other guy pushed lightly on Alex other shoulder with a hand as if to say he was repeating the question. Alex kept walking. He thought about the night he’d won the crown jewel riding mount off the six armed beast, Death Strider. The mount was coveted by players throughout his server. Many farmed it after the weekly reset, because that was the best time to defeat the boss and get the mount — the statistics gathered from thousands of playing hours suggested as much. Fourteen had been found dropped within an hour of server reset.

“I don’t have any extra money. I’m heading to get a few slices of pizza,” Alex’s voice cracked. He was sorry he’d said it. Why would he tell them what he was doing?

The only time Alex saw the mount, the raid leader, a goblin named Chugbugoo, had pocketed it for himself, even though Alex’s character, Teemo, was the one who rolled the highest. The mount was rightfully Alex’s. He’d filed a petition and waited for redemption, logging in at odd hours to see if his request had been fulfilled by Sky Support. Then the green check-mark had been ticked and Alex saw the stupid response. Loot rules needed to be said upfront. A master loot raid was up to the discretion of the leader. Alex then knew the dice rolls were for show — the true power was held by the raid leader. After that, he’d always forced the lead to announce loot rules in chat.

The guy behind Alex said, “Why don’t you just give us your wallet and we’ll go in there and get what you wanted?” He said it like the offer made sense, like he was talking to a fourteen year old girl looking to buy Schnapps, not a guy who hadn’t seen the Death Strider mount in fourteen weeks, a guy who only wanted to buy a few slices of pizza to push down the bile gurgling up his throat.

“No.” Alex stopped walking, his hands hanging dumb at his side. “I’m not giving you shit,” He looked at each of them. He saw their scrawny faces, the sprouts of hair under their chins, acne scars, bloodshot eyes. He saw terror curtained behind a drugged veneer.

“Now leave me be.” The one guy laughed, and the other followed with a snort and a short squeal. “We’re just giving you the rub,” the other parroted the same, but Alex didn’t care. He was going to get his reward.

Are you a writer?

I was reading this article on Forbes titled “Why You Shouldn’t Be a Writer.” The article got me thinking, and, maybe a bit defensive.

You shouldn’t write if you’re not called to it. Do you hear the siren song? Writer’s bear a burden. They must write. I do agree, to an extent, but human virtue tends to be a bit more prickly-by-appearance yet smooth-to-the-touch.

Consider that life itself can change priorities and attitudes about what can and won’t be done regarding a dream. A person may have to build a crib, install a car seat, and change diapers in the middle of the night. All the while knowing they could be writing if they just had time. Life does happen and can take us away from our passions.

Mental challenges can also hinder the creative process. Disabilities, diseases, and other cases of illness can dampen the creative spirit. For others, they choose to write through the pain and suffering. And that’s really the message. Take the time, make sacrifices, but write.

You were not a writer during those down times. I was there myself for quite a while. Am I back? Yes, I would say so. But to really know if it’s for real, we need to dig into ourselves, find that core desire, and see if it has any life in it or does it feel brittle, aged, and cracked?

There’s no “magic secret”; writing is like everything else; ten percent inspiration or talent, and ninety percent hard work. Persistence; keeping at it till you get there. As Agnes de Mille said, it means working every day—bored, tired, weary, or with a fever of a hundred and two.

MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY

My distance from fiction was largely due to time constraints and lack of discipline. For the past several years, I’ve been plugging away at articles that stifled my creativity. I wrote about insurance, student exams, US cities, Brazilian wood, armored cars, RC planes, dentists, restaurants, sofas, children’s bedroom furniture, and dozens of other topics. Each tap on the keyboard brought me one step closer to creative suicide. Think DFW’s brilliant story about the IRS auditor, Wiggle Room.

Of course, I had motive for going the article writing route. I needed to keep my lights on. My passion for writing wasn’t burning bright enough to light my house or filling enough to keep my belly full. But maybe a better writer, a Saul Bellow, I.B. Singer, or Stephen King, would have suffered by candlelight to get their story onto the page. And, maybe, I should learn something from the early writings of these authors. Many wrote in extreme poverty because the only thing that mattered was the story.

E.B. White handled his own mail and responded to all the inquiries from his fans. So too did Isaac Asimov, writing more than 10,000 letters to fans who wrote him over the years. Of course, responding to fans is still writing, so their exercises can be found as less of an excuse and more of a waypoint regarding their particular character.

In my case, I deal with the time constraints, but I also have self-doubt regarding my writing prowess. I’ve bottled it all though. My self-doubt looks strikingly like Coca-Cola. Each time I write, I’m dropping a Mentos into the mix.  Who cares if I’m terrible at it. I’ll only ever know myself, if I get to creating more stories. And if I never become a “writer” rather than an “amateur author,” then so be it.

Ragdoll

The scene seemed strung up by a cosmic playwright in its banal twist of unfortunate underpinnings. For a moment, from the passenger seat of the missile-like Volvo, you could almost switch places with each of the characters in the forthcoming conflict. The ragged black man with his pistol arm extended towards the frightened couple on the sidewalk. The little boy who peeked from the restaurant window, over a too-tall bench to see what in the world was happening out there. And my husband, Darby, really Steve, but Darby was my youngest son’s interpretation of Daddy until speech therapy, hunched over ready to ram this dog into a thousand kibbles on the hot pavement.

Later at the hospital, Darby would look over at me and say he wished he’d thought about what he was doing. But what choice did he have? He couldn’t see any other outcome. He didn’t discuss the brains that met our Volvo’s bug stained windshield. Nor the fact the couple panicked and almost ran into oncoming traffic once their assailant had been subtracted from the equation.

But let’s imagine for a minute you are the assailant holding your pistol at a couple of wayward travelers. A couple, seemingly innocent of anything other than being too carefree with their wealth. The woman wore an elegant purse over her shoulder, the contents of which bulged, jingled, rang, begged for one thief or another to take it off her person. The man was no better. He held a smartphone in the slick palm of his hand, looking periodically at its screen, then allowing it to swing like a pendulum along with his gait. In the man’s back pocket the outline of a wallet so pronounced one could only assume he either carried a rolodex of credit cards or more than a dozen tightly packed green bills. Not even the thief would suspect just how many family photos this digital-aged man was carrying in that wallet.

Or imagine the boyfriend or husband — whatever he may be — and take it from their point-of-view. Honey, it’s a nice breezy day, the sun is shining high in the sky, so let’s take to the streets, walk up to the ice cream stand, share a malt, pretend the walk will be pleasant even among the exhaust and Saturday late-afternoon traffic. So you help your wife pull on a cream colored sweater that would contrast nicely with a bullet hole, the crimson red of the blood spilling into the threads, melding the outfit into a letter-sweater of death. Imagine then being pulled up, stopped by a crisp instruction from a hoodlum.

“Stop right there.” And they had stopped, waited until the capillaries in their eyes felt like they would burst from too much mental stress. How could this happen? To him? What had he heard? Don’t look them in the eye. No, that was a bear or panther. This was a murderer. He could see it in the eyes. They were as good as dead. It was then he’d felt the warmth of his own discharge gush down his leg, followed by heart pounding disbelief as he watched the ragdoll of a man crumple on the hood of a speeding car.

But from my perspective, the whole affair’s beginning, the man with his pistol arm extended may have only been trying to hand a dance club flyer to the couple, who in their sanguine daze dodged him like he was some sort of murderer aiming the tube-like flyer, with its drop shadows, aliasing, and kerning. And, only then, if Darby hadn’t been changing the channel, looking for his damned game, maybe the bug spattering on the windshield would have been its only decoration.

Descriptions feel rewarding at the moment

I can’t help but be amazed that of all my writing, I favor descriptions the most. I feel rewarded by seeing the world come alive. I need to work more on transitions though. While reading, I’ve been paying attention to the way writing takes shape from one thought to the next. How the author keeps pace, but makes us care about what he’s saying the whole time. I don’t want my work to be the middle-backbreaking prose that stifles many novels. I want it to sing and carry a tune throughout the whole piece.

It’s nighttime and the air is crisp. As we walk down the sidewalk, the sounds of the stoop lessen and it grows eerily quiet for an inner city block. Up ahead, an abandoned warehouse has a gleaming new gate among old stretches of chain link. Weeds have grown through the fence at odd angles, casting shadows down the length of sidewalk that move and dance with the breeze.

 

Black Triangle

Small waves lapped against the next contestant as she bobbed in the water. The game was called “Don’t shit a brick.” The goal was to see who could doggy paddle the longest while holding a brick. Juvenile, sure. Was it fun? You’re damn right it was.

Jennifer had cried out with glee when she first entered the water, then her face squished in like a sponge when she was handed the brick. She momentarily grimaced as the red, clay brick scraped against her inner thigh. But she managed to hold onto it surrounded by the vibrantly colored speedboats of her classmates.

Her red and blue bikini top was fastened tight around her neck, but the grasping texture of the brick threatened to expose her sun shaded breasts to the boys leaning off the sides of their boats, cheering wildly like she was crossing the finish line with each minor stroke.

The coldness of Lake Holshire had sucked my breath away earlier in the afternoon, when the first round of tubing had begun.  The coldness could be seen on Jennifer’s face, in the way she gasped for air and kept her eyes focused on one spot in the sky.

Maybe if we had brought more than one brick, the contestant would have felt better about dropping it to the mossy bottom below. As it were, Jennifer struggled with the weight and the beers she had drank earlier.

She managed to keep herself afloat as someone yelled, “She looks like she’s shitting a brick!”

The three speedboats all had their engines killed and their anchor points tethered, leaving a triangular opening in the water. As the ever buoyant Jennifer struggled with her clay hindrance, the boats sloshed and shimmied so that Jennifer was no longer in the center of the triangle, but closer to Davis’ boat, a shining red and black beast that could hit sixty miles an hour without blinking.

I yelled to Davis, “Get her out, man. She’s finished.”

He didn’t even look at me, but kept staring down at the top of her breasts that glistened just above the surface of the water.

In the afternoon sun, the water was a navy blue, like the oppressive folds of storm clouds about to spit rain.

Davis was now laying on the edge of his Mastiff, as he called the red and black racer, urging Jennifer to just give up and take her top off. She didn’t need to be weighted down by it. Her faux laugh filled her mouth with Lake water, which she spit out with squinting eyes.

“Shut up, Dave,” was all she managed to mouth before slipping under water.

Davis turned to Trev, “Did you hear what she said?” He didn’t see her submerge into the triangle of darkness, like a pole searching for the bottom of Lake Hols.

The water rippled outwards where the crown of her head had gone under, breaking symmetry on the side of the Mastiff. One, two, three seconds pass. No sign of her. She’s not coming up. I search the black water to see if I can find her, but cannot.

I glance at the others. There’s more than a dozen people and not one of them seems concerned that Jennifer has just taken the plunge to death. She’s a caught bobber and no one wants to reel her in.

Alcohol does dumb shit to people.

I dive in, momentarily wondering if I should have jumped in feet first rather than swan dive into the water. But I don’t hit her. I open my eyes and am amazed at how bright it is underwater. The boats cast long shadows down a corridor of the lake, but there’s wide expanses receiving bright sunlight now. I can see Jennifer with her eyes closed about ten feet below.

She drifting there like a person caught between a dream and waking. She’s let go of the brick but her hands still hold it near her chest. Something in the water brushes against my eyelids causing them to close momentarily. I fear she’ll be dead when I get her in my arms. Will she drift away when I’m back?

I reach her, grab her underneath her arms and start kicking for the surface. I can see the long angular shadows from the boats spread wider and wider, until I’m panting above the dark expanse of the black triangle.