Category Archives: Short Stories

40 minute stories, social writing experiments, and longer original pieces.

The Sky Below (Chapter One)

What would you do if your world turned upside down?

Every other Thursday I’ll be presenting the next chapter in my serialized novella, The Sky Below. The story will be available on the blog as well as on the Internet Archive in a variety of tablet and eReader friendly formats. You can download the full book so far or the individual chapters as they come out (since this is the first chapter there’s just the one download 😉 ).

Comments and questions are always welcome. Enjoy!

UPDATE: Internet Archive links are now live. Download this chapter in EPUB, MOBI or PDF formats here.

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CHAPTER ONE

Kammie leaned heavily against the supply closet door, catching her breath before pushing down the handle. She stumbled inside, letting the door close loudly behind her. The room was pitch-black and just as silent; the only noise was the faint blowing of the air conditioner. Lately she’d been taking all of her breaks in this closet. If she were on some racy doctor show she’d be having sex with a young resident in here, or popping drugs stolen from the pharmacy. But in real life this was the only place she could get some peace and quiet.

She reached down and pulled her leg up to her waist, leaning against one of the metal racks for support. She slipped off her right shoe and smiled at the thud of rubber against tile. Her right sock soon followed, then her left shoe and sock. The floor was cold, and the sweat of standing for 13 hours straight caused her feet to stick to the tiles. She flexed and stretched, pleased that she could still stand on her tiptoes, despite the worrisome cracking noise they made each time.

The other nurses spent their break time sitting and gossiping, the older ones reminiscing about the days when they could get a smoke break or when the vending machines were filled with something besides sunflower seeds and diet soda. The younger ones talked about the families they never saw, or the men they never had time to date. Kammie had never smoked, and the last time she was on a date was during Clinton’s first term, so she never had much to contribute to either conversation.

The truth was they were all nice people, dedicated in one way or another to the service of nursing. They cared for people when doctors had already moved on to the next problem. Kammie sometimes resented the ease with which the newer nurses dealt with electronic medical records, or the seniority some of her peers had managed to snatch for themselves while leaving her in the same job for the better part of two decades.

But life hadn’t been so bad to her; she had money enough to take care of herself and her cat, Alomar. After a night of sleeping alone in the apartment, “mari” would greet her at the door and leap onto her shoulder like a parrot. She would walk around Kammie’s broad shoulders, tickling her face with her tail. Even if it was just a ploy for tuna, it felt nice to be wanted.

If she had that and the ground beneath her feet, then what did she really have to complain about?

Well, maybe Mr. Deckland Thomas, room 12 on the floor. He’d call her a damn n—– one minute, and the next be trying to pinch her ass. More than a couple of times she’d fantasized about smothering him with one of the pillows she fluffed behind his head, but that would be too quick. She used to read Edgar Allen Poe when she was in school and liked the idea of sealing someone in a tomb brick by brick. In Deckland’s case it would be layer after thin layer of surgical bandages, the gauze slowly cutting off the flow of air. This thought made it easier to keep a smile on her face whenever she had to be near him.

Kammie flexed her toes again, hearing only two cracks this time. She pushed a button on her watch, her face illuminated in a blue glow. She had maybe six minutes to go to the restroom and get a cup of coffee before the last three hours of her shift. Reluctantly, she leaned against the shelf again, turning her socks inside out for the second time that day.

* * *

Reverend Marcado was startled into awareness by the heavy creak of the main doors of the Old Stone Church. Most mornings he liked to get into the building early, maybe six in the morning, sit in the front pew, and work on his sermon. Some people might find the empty silence of the place deafening, but Marcado believed that God was always talking to you, and that you needed to find somewhere quiet to really listen. If he woke up especially early, he might sing a few verses from “Of the father’s love begotten” and enjoy the reverberation against the Romanesque columns.

This morning he had been absorbed in the words of the Apostle Paul in what was becoming a yearly series on the Corinthians. Marcado had always found Paul equal parts refreshing and exasperating, which if nothing else made for dynamic and challenging sermons. The reverend found Paul’s attitude toward marriage and sex particularly amusing, especially considering the reverend was married and had two children. Marcado had often wondered if Paul ever burned with the desire he spoke of, or whether he was really content with his single life.

It helped to think of these saints, even the Apostles and Jesus himself, as people. There was an over two thousand year old connection between the Christians of that early church, and the people who came to this 200 year old building. All of them strived to be righteous men, to speak the truth of God, and to have a relationship with him. But they were all men, and most were sinners save Jesus. Some people spent their time emphasizing the wholly God part of Jesus, but Marcado had always been drawn more to the part that was wholly man. It’s hard to have a relationship with a God who doesn’t know anything about what life is really like. Jesus did know. And as for Paul, he surely knew what it was like to fall in love with a woman, even if he never chose to pursue it.

These thoughts, which had absorbed him for many hours through the morning, were momentarily scattered by the abrupt noise of the door, and the crowd that entered. One of the benefits and curses of pastoring a historic church was the throng of people who wanted to have a look around. Some were welcome old friends of marriages or baptisms past, but most were tourists, looking for the interesting and historic features of Cleveland before crossing the square to the Horseshoe Casino.

The reverend admitted that some of his grouchiness about the casino and the tourists had less to do with any particular righteous thoughts about gambling, and more to do with being sad that the old Higbee’s of his childhood was gone. Still, there were better ways to spend your money than throwing it into a slot machine, like going to an Indians game or spending an afternoon at the West Side Market. Maybe if a few of these tourists were feeling generous they would shoot a couple of bucks to the preservation of the building before asking him if he could show them how to get up into the bell-tower.

Marcado whispered a silent prayer, closed his Bible on the page of notes, and walked toward his office.

* * *

Bethany switched her phone to silent, feeling embarrassed that it had rung three times already since she’d been standing in the line at Dunkin Donuts. Her salary as a legal associate gave her enough to afford higher priced specialty coffee, not counting the espresso machine in her office, but something about the simple taste of couple buck hazelnut had never lost its charm for her.

Her leg vibrated, screaming for attention as she advanced another few steps closer to her daily indulgence. She knew who it was without even needing to look. It would be Grace, her sister, with a question about a new medication for her mother, or complaining about another nurse who gave her attitude. In theory her sister was supposed to be helping take care of their suddenly ill fifty-six year old mother. In actual fact Bethany might have had better luck getting her sister to file amicus briefs.

Grace had flown in from Indiana two weeks earlier and was staying at Bethany’s apartment. Before that they hadn’t seen or talked to each other in three years, when their parents told them they were getting a divorce. In retrospect, Bethany could see why Grace had thought she had been cold during the whole proceeding. They’d both been upset, and had the typical adult children reaction of being partly surprised, partly betrayed, and partly in denial. It was no small wonder that they had resumed their childhood roles, Bethany as the pragmatist wondering if both parents had a good lawyer, and Grace reacting emotionally, screaming at all of them and storming out.

This argument hadn’t gotten any better when their mother fell ill. Their mother was an alcoholic, a chain smoker and had never cared about what she put into her body. No one could exactly blame their father for leaving, but Grace had been getting particularly upset about the whole “in sickness” part of their parent’s now broken marriage vows. “He couldn’t have waited just a few years? He would’ve still had his freedom, and she wouldn’t have to die alone.”

It was true, if a bit over simplistic. For all her pragmatism, Bethany could be just as emotional as her sister. Her father hadn’t left because he could longer tolerate their mother’s drinking, but because he didn’t want to see her die, or so Bethany suspected. Some people can hack it; they can sit at the bedside and hold their loved one’s hand until the end. And some can’t bear to watch, especially when that end could have been avoided.

If he had been spending his divorce cavorting with women, or buying sports cars, she might have felt differently, but all their father seemed to do was sit in an apartment reading his books or listening to classical music. Once a month or so, Bethany and her father got breakfast together at Big Al’s on the east side of town near Shaker Heights, and she’d tell him about the goings on in the firm, never once mentioning her mother. They had the next breakfast planned for the upcoming Saturday and Bethany still had no idea what she was going to tell him.

“Excuse me, miss?” A young Latino woman in her early twenties interjected from behind the counter.

Bethany’s thoughts refocused on the world around her, nearly causing her to stumble as she realized she was now at the front of the line.

“Are you alright?” the woman asked.

Bethany didn’t want to know what her face was saying that made someone ask that question. She merely answered, “Yes. I’ll have a large black hazelnut coffee.”

She paused a moment before adding, “And a maple donut.”

* * *

Eddie Williams shuffled his feet in the dirt, forestalling the inevitable. This pitcher had his number, just like the rest of them this season, or so it seemed anyway. Eddie could adjust his gloves, shuffle his bat up and down his hand, and arrange the dust in concentric circles, and it would do nothing to throw off this man’s rhythm. The count was already 2-1 and the ball had been a gift.

He tried to remember what a privilege it was just to be standing on this field, to be playing the game he loved since the first time he hit a ball in that grassy field behind his house, some thirty years ago now. Now he was kicking the dirt on Jacob’s field, or Progressive field, or whatever the owners were calling it today. He’d gotten to go to a World Series, a thrill even if it had ended like so many had for the Indians in the last 50 years. But those days felt long behind him.

If he had been some up and coming rookie, a .201 average would have been fine, especially if he played some valuable position like first base or shortstop, or even catcher. But Eddie was an outfielder watching the ball sail by on the other side of the field from the bats of more talented men.

He stepped onto the plate, bending his knees and putting his weight on his right foot. The pitcher tugged at his cap, signaling he didn’t like the catcher’s first call. At least they were showing him the respect of selecting exactly the pitch that would take him out. But Williams already knew what that pitch would be. In all his years at the plate he’d never quite gotten the knack of the breaking ball, and the man who faced him was something of a master. It was as if threw the ball on remote control, changing its trajectory and speed with a few nudges of a control stick, or even with his mind.

Eddie shook his head. This was no time to be thinking like that. He breathed in slowly, and exhaled, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and moving the bat around in tiny circles. He’d hit it this time, right over that smug son of a bitch’s head. This time for sure.

“Strike three!” the umpire called from behind him.

It took Eddie a couple of seconds to realize it wasn’t the breaking ball, but just a simple fast ball. He’d been waiting for the ball to slow down and by the time he saw it wasn’t going to, it was too late to swing. Dejectedly, he walked back to the dugout. Alfonzo Orlandez, his teammate, ran past him as if he wasn’t even there. Nobody wanted to sit with him on the bench anymore, for fear his slump would rub off on them. He walked past the rest of the lineup to sit at the far corner wishing the game was already over, even though it was only the fourth inning. He’d have two more times up at bat if he was lucky, maybe enough to finally dip him below the .200 mark.

He looked up from staring at the dirt when he heard the crack of a bat. Alfonso had connected off the first pitch, sending the ball soaring high to the left of center, an easy pop fly to end the inning. The outfielder was already under it, tracking the ball’s progress in the sky. But as the ball reached what should have been its apex, it just kept going, up and up and up. If Eddie didn’t know any better, he would have sworn the ball was actually getting faster.

Alfonso was tracking the ball too, and the first base coach was screaming at him to go.  Still in a daze he dropped his bat and began running. Ten feet from the bag his next stride didn’t hit the ground. The one after that sent him tumbling backward. As Eddie watched transfixed from the bench, Alfonso started floating, his feet swinging uselessly below him.

The fans gasped in astonishment, then shock as they realized they were floating out of their seats as well. The dull roar of the stands became a terrified scream. The air felt electric, every hair on the back of Eddie’s arm was standing on end. It wasn’t until he hit the top of the dugout that Eddie realized he was floating too. His right shoulder, sore from all those years of swinging, cracked against the cement ceiling. He closed his eyes in a moment of pain, then forced them open to see what was happening.

As Eddie watched, his shoulder throbbing from the impact, Alfonso stopped floating and fell into the sky.

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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Massey (Part 2)

“I don’t know. If I’m going to be giving you all my Lego blocks, I think I should get something in return,” Michael, an older boy in Daniel’s school said during recess.

“But you don’t even play with them anymore,” Daniel said. “You just said so.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t,” Michael said, the words weighing from one side of his mouth to the other. “You know how it is. I’ve got something you want, and you’ve got something I want. Nothing in this world’s free.”

Daniel knew what Michael wanted, his 1970 Reggie Jackson card. In 1970 Jackson had a batting average in the low .200s and a little over 60 RBIs. Just three years later in 1973, Jackson led the league in RBI’s with 117. Arguably, 1970 had been one of the worst years of his career. Daniel liked the card for that reason. It reminded him that even though sometimes things get hard, the best is yet to come.

Michael had lost the card to Daniel some months back when they’d been flipping them out in the gravel behind the school yard. Michael didn’t really want the card back, he just didn’t like the idea of losing to somebody smaller than him. If the card had sentimental value to Daniel, all the better, since it would make giving it up all the harder.

Daniel sighed and opened one of his notebooks. He’d slid the card in one of the pockets, and had taken to looking at it during especially hard math tests or whenever the teacher or his father had just been yelling at him. Reluctantly he handed the card over to Michael, who tossed it in his bag without a second thought.

“I’ll bring the bricks over to your house tonight,” Michael said. “What do you want with ‘em anyway?”

Daniel shook his head, “Nothing. I just really like Legos is all.”

 

Daniel had made a dozen such deals in the space of a week. Rather than meet him up by the house, he had the children deliver the bricks to an old tarp he’d set up at the back edge of his father’s fields. The planting for that section had been done for weeks and he’d volunteered to take care of he watering and feeding of that section to save his father from having to go out that far.

Lester had been proud to see the boy take some responsibility, and in truth was dog tired from the last days of digging and hours of lying under a hot greasy engine. His hands and his face were black, and the tractor was no closer to moving than if he had just pushed it.

At night, long after everyone had gone to sleep, Daniel would sneak out to the field with a flashlight and an old picture he’d taken from one of the albums from when his father had first bought the tractor. The Colorado sky was big and full of stars, so bright that sometimes Daniel didn’t even need the flashlight.

Some nights a few of his friends would come by and help with the work, sorting bricks into colors, helping him balance sections while he built the underlying support structure.

“Why does the outside have to be all red bricks?” Lucas, one of the boys in his grade asked him.

“You ever see a Massey Ferguson any other color but red?” was Daniel’s reply. When he ran out of red bricks, he took to painting the other colors, finally applying a coat to the whole outside of the frame to keep everything smooth and consistent. Some of the pieces he had to glue together for the extra support.

He’d drag himself back to the house a couple of hours before sunrise. By the end he could practically sleepwalk to his bedroom. His mother looked concerned when she came up to wake him every morning. Usually, all she had to do was shout that breakfast was ready, and Daniel would tear down the stairs. But now she practically had to shake him just to get him moving.

Fortunately school was almost over, so his grades didn’t suffer too much. Some of the other kids even took pity on him during some of the tests and let him copy their answers, though for some this was better charity than others.

 

The last Tuesday of May was the hottest all month, getting to nearly 90 in the heat of the day. Lester’s legs were rubber, and his face was leather from spending all day in the hot sun. When he licked his lips he could taste the salt of his own sweat. Daniel was waiting for him outside the house, his hands clasped behind his back, his face looking down in the dirt.

“What’s the matter, son? Why are you standing out here when you should be helping your mother with supper?”

Daniel’s voice was small, and Lester didn’t hear him the first time he spoke.

“What was that. Speak up boy!”

“I said I had something I want to show you!” Daniel finally yelled. Lester couldn’t remember a time when Daniel had yelled about anything. That alone was reason enough to be just a little curious.

Daniel took him out toward the fields he’d been taking care of that season. Lester assumed that Daniel wanted to show off his handiwork, maybe to get some advice from his old man on how he could make the crops grow just a little bit higher. He got confused when he saw an old brown tarp draped over something taller than Daniel. It had a familiar shape but he couldn’t quite place it.

Without a word Daniel took one end of the tarp and pulled. It seemed to take all of his strength for just a moment, before the tarp popped off of something that had caught it, and sent Daniel stumbling back a few paces. The sight in front of Lester nearly did the same.

Standing before him, in perfect detail was his tractor, rendered in thousands of tiny bricks of plastic. He ran his hand along the top of it, and found it as smooth as the metal on his old rig.

“I sanded down the pegs on the outer bricks,” Daniel said.

Lester just stared aghast. Finally he said, “The ‘M’ and the ‘E’ are missing.”

“Of course,” Daniel replied, “this is your tractor.” He got a little twinkle in his eye as he saw genuine admiration in his father’s eyes possibly for the first time in his life. Dad had always preferred Jimmy,not for any particular reason other than he’d known the boy longer.

“Hey Dad, watch this,” Daniel said, jumping up on the black seat.

He turned a golden rounded key to the right and on cue an engine roared to life, kicking back a little smoke at first, but then running smooth, smoother than Lester remembered even on his tractor’s first day.

Daniel kicked a lever into gear and inched the Lego rig forward around his father. He patted the space behind his seat.

“Hop on Dad, we’ve got to get back to the house. We’re already late for supper.”

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Massey (Part 1)

For the past month I’ve been participating in Bradbury’s 52, a writing group run by Jo Eberhardt. Each week she gives us a prompt with a person, place and object. Last week’s was a farmer, a toy and the place could be anywhere we want. I thought you guys might be interested in the result:

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Lester knew that knocking in the engine was a bad sign. He’d ridden this tractor for 12 hours a day for the last ten years. In previous summers, he’d been able to keep his old Massey-Ferguson tuned up after even the slightest cough or hiccup. But even though the oil embargo had officially ended a few months ago, the price of fuel was still too high. The oil he was running through the engine was dark and gritty, blacker than the coffee his brother Jeffrey brewed. Pretty soon he’d have to strain it just so it could start resembling a liquid again.

“One more row,” he kept whispering to as he moved the throttle forward gently. “Just one more row and we can both get some shut eye.”

He wasn’t sure why he was clearing this much earth anyway. They hadn’t seen barely a quarter inch of rain all month, and the temperatures were six degrees hotter than the last summer. Between the money he’d already had to put into the tractor, and the increased price of seed he’d be lucky if he broke even, and that was only if two-thirds of his crop survived the next few months.

The big wheels on either side of him shuddered and shook, the ground to a halt as greyish blue steam began to rise from the red hot engine. Lester quickly shut the tractor off and slammed a hand down hard on the steering wheel. The rubber of the wheel had practically melted in the shape of his hands between the heat and the metal inside of the wheel, and striking it he nearly broke his hand. Since he was alone in the field he allowed himself the luxury of screaming in pain.

Jumping down a second later he kicked the big tire, which resulted in both his foot and his hand throbbing.

“Damnit!” He yelled as he kicked the tire again. Looking down the row he could see that he’d missed the edge by only twenty feet. Twenty feet the tractor could have cleared in a matter of minutes would take him hours by the sweat of his back. He contemplated the trip back to the barn to get all the necessary tools and his already aching back, shoulders, legs, and now hand and foot. He’d have to get up even earlier the next day, especially if we wanted to try to fix the tractor which was now burning oil, but right now warm food and good couple hours sleep were what he needed most.

He contemplated a final kick but thought the better of it, instead running a hand along the long since faded red paint above the engine housing. On one side his older son had scratched out the golden letters for ‘M’ and ‘E’ from Massey, a joke Lester had found amusing at the time, even though he’d had to whip the boy on principle. Somehow he continued to find an excuse as to why he never painted it back. He gave the engine a final double-pat then started the quarter mile walk back to the house.

 

Daniel knew that look on his father’s face before he even had to say anything. And his father never said much, at least not to him. His mother knew the look also, and wordlessly spooned out a bowl of the soup she’d kept on boil for God knows how long. His father accepted the bowl graciously, then sat down beside Daniel and his older brother Jimmy. Their mother brought each of them bowls then, making sure they each had a generous helping of the scarce vegetables inside. Her bowl was mostly broth but she always said that was where the real flavor was anyway.

Daniel’s father said a quiet grace then turned to Daniel. “How many times have I told you not to play with your toys at the dinner table. Honestly, you’re old enough that you should be out in the field working with me.”

Daniel’s mother put a soft hand on her husband’s shoulder. “I let him play on the table. The pieces are small, and can get lost in the floorboards if he plays down there. Besides I think he has something to show you.”

“Well?” Lester said, looking his son up and down. “What’ve you got for us Daniel?”

The young boy pulled the object from under the table where he’d hidden it. “It’s not finished yet.”

The object was a small rectangular block of red with grey contoured and jutting out from underneath. A half circle of smaller black bricks were attached around a larger red center piece at the back. Even in this half finished state, Lester recognized the shape of his familiar tractor.

“I know you’ve been having trouble with your tractor lately, and I thought maybe I could build you a new one.”

Jimmy chimed in from across the table, “There’s no way he’d be able to ride in something that small, stupid. That thing could barely haul a potato.”

“I know that,” Daniel said defensively. “I just don’t have enough bricks for a bigger one yet, but I thought I could at least learn by building a smaller one.”

“I think that’s very nice,” Daniel’s mother said, “Don’t you think so, Lester?”

Lester picked up the toy roughly with one hand, and examined the front of it. He looked at it sideways for a minute, then down the front. “You’ve got the front grill all wrong, and the tires at least two sizes too big.”

He put the Lego tractor down on its side, the half finished wheel spinning uselessly in the air. Daniel grabbed it quickly, and swept the rest of his bricks into a box he’d been keeping by the table. Before his mother could say anything, Daniel had taken the tractor and the bricks and was running up the stairs to his bedroom.

Without a word Lester slid Daniel’s bowl over to his place, drained the last of his bowl, then started work on the second bowl.

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The Fractal Man (Third Iteration)

Hey, have you read parts one and two? If not, you might want to check them out before reading today’s post. ~BTW

———————

“Hey buddy! Could you get a move on please?”

A large man in a Hawaiian shirt stood behind me, lugging several carry on bags. His wife stood beside him, bouncing a young boy in her arms. Both boy and wife have curly hair and pleasant smiles, probably the only thing keeping the large man from using harsher language. I step to the side and try to find a corner I can lean against to get my bearings.

“The plane probably had to circle back for mechanical trouble,” I said quietly to myself. “You were asleep and didn’t hear the announcement.”

I walk aimlessly and find myself in baggage claim. As if anticipating my arrival my single black bag rounds the metal bend and starts moving toward me. I stretch out a hand and pick it up. ‘Don’t they usually transfer these between planes if the flight’s been changed?’ I thought.

Getting back to the ticket counter wasn’t easy. I actually had to go outside, run out to the exit, and then back up to the first level, all while trying to drag my bag behind me. The air was warmer, even though the sky was still gray, and I quickly became sweaty, which if I’m honest can happen at any temperature. I spent a few minutes just inside the doors catching my breath and not wanting to seem like a crazy person walking up the counter.

waiting-in-line

The line was long. It was midday and a lot of people were checking in for their flights. I tried to pass the time by reading a light little mystery on my phone, but the guy in back of me kept impatiently bumping me when the line moved even a fraction of an inch. By the time I reached the counter I could hear my heart thumping in my head from irritation, but I slapped on a pleasant smile for the lady who looked like she had already been awake for 19 hours.

“Hi, I was on the flight to Vegas that left at 8am, and I was wondering if you could tell me if that flight’s been reschedule.”

The woman nodded and typed something into a computer. A moment later her expression turned confused. “Sir, there were no flights at 8am. You were on the returning flight?”

“No,” I said patiently. “I left this morning.”

She looked at my black bag, then back at me. “Do you still have your ticket stub?”

I fished into my jacket pocket, having to sift through a couple of crumpled up receipts before finding the smooth cardboard of the ticket. “Here you go.”

She looked at the ticket, typed the number into the computer, and frowned, “Sir, this flight left two weeks ago.”

I took the ticket back from her and stared. “No see right there, today’s the 12th.”

She shook her head, “No it’s the 26th, sir.” She pointed to a clock with a date and time behind her. I’d been standing in this line the entire time and I hadn’t noticed it.

“Hey buddy. What’s the hold up?” shoulder bumper said behind me.

“Nothing,” I mumbled, and turned back toward the door.

I’d lost two weeks? My only vacation time. That line had felt so long I could have lost a couple of days waiting for the ticket counter, but I could have sworn my flight took off this morning. I couldn’t have slept all that time could I?

On the drive home I slowed the car in front of every bank that showed he time and the temperature. Sure enough it was 53 degrees and it was March 26th. I was due at work in the morning.

PNC-Bank-1

When I got home I emptied my pockets. Sure enough one of the receipts was for the bar in the Bellagio. Had what happened in Vegas really stayed in Vegas to the point I didn’t even remember it?

At work I was alarmed to see new saplings being planted on the slanted grass out in front of the plant. When I asked my boss about it he said the company had a number of new clients visiting over the next few months, and the CEO had wanted the company to look vibrant and thriving. Plus the ground was soft and that was the time to plant trees, right?

I buried my head in my phone as I walked to my car. Everywhere I went they were following me. They wouldn’t let me leave. I tried to get as far away as I could think, and they pulled me back. As I drove along my secluded route home it felt as if the branches were reaching out into the street. Like any second those organic fractals would pull my car off the road and into their roots.

At home I smoked cigarette after cigarette, ashing on the carpet. My hands were shaking. TV offered little pleasure, the singer I’d liked had been kicked off her show in the two weeks I was “gone”. Food tasted as ashen as the gray pile accumulating at my feet.

It wasn’t until I had been sitting staring for what felt like hours that I noticed my office door was ajar. My body moved outside of my own control and pretty soon I was standing in front of my books. Rows and rows of books by Devaney and Barnsley and Mandelbrot. Dietmar Saupe and Heinz Otto Peitgen.

I used to love studying fractals. It was fascinating to me to see how the world could be designed, could be understood by just a few simple equations. What I didn’t realize, the sin that so many who pursue knowledge commit, is that once you see how the sausage is made, you don’t really want to eat it. I saw how the world was put together. I could see the seems, every crack every crevice. And they sang to me, they called, they entered my mind. I no longer felt comfortable in the world, and the world knew it.

Fractals weren’t possible before computers. Dr. Mandelbrot worked for IBM when he first discovered his eponymous set. Yet they’ve been all around us all this time. Something that sprung from the artificial, is wild and organic in full life.

mandelb

My arms swept across the shelves with new found power. Old spines cracked as they hit the hard wood of the floor. Pages creased and tore, until all I could see was the bare brown back of my shelves. I looked down at my feet at the multicolored pile of forbidden knowledge, took a drag off my last cigarette, and knocked the ashes onto The Fractal Geometry of Nature, the book that started it all really.

I stayed home sick the next day, and the next. My lungs felt like swiss cheese. My heart pounded dangerously loud, and my head swam in colors. On the third day I started the car, drove to the end of the street, and turned onto the single road that connected my home and my work. The sky was still gray, fading into white, like fog. I drove and I drove in silence, passing the little diner and the coffee shop near my home. After about fifteen minutes I frowned. The coffee shop was on my left, and my clock had jumped forward nine and a half hours.

So the world wasn’t letting me go to work now? Well, maybe there’s an upside to all of this.

To be continued…

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The Fractal Man (Axiom)

The third iteration (part) of my serial short story will be posted on Wednesday. For today as I sit here in my church listening to some live killer sax (from Molto Cappriccio) and waiting for 147 Windows 7 updates to install, I thought I’d give you a little background for this story, and to reassure some of you that most of it is fictional.

As with a lot of things here on the Blog, this short story is an experiment, a little bit of a departure from my regular genre to write a more introspective piece. My mom said this is a very “English major-y” story. I’m not sure what that means, but as a writer I like to think I can write any sort of genre, hopefully still with my own voice.

This much is true about the story you are reading, whenever I look at trees I see fractals.

It doesn’t quite rise to the level of affliction as with my character, but it is definitely a change in the way I perceive reality. Apparently spending a year and a half in deep study of the subject (and if we’re honest fairly continuous interest afterward) can cause the way you look at the world can change. I don’t know if this is permanent and it isn’t the same for every tree. We visited Jekyll Island for vacation a few weeks ago. There the trees are palm with Spanish moss growing all over them. Though I know they can be modeled with fractals, I haven’t yet studied the method deep enough, and it was somewhat calming to just see trees and not fractals.

I do sill love fractals, I wouldn’t be contemplating writing a second volume about them if I didn’t, but it is fascinating to observe how what you put in your head shapes you. If I had spent the last two years deep in revision in Dark Mater, or writing the next two Surrealities, no doubt my view point would be very different.

Another inspiration for this story is the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a book containing narrative case studies of various mental afflictions. I found this book deeply fascinating, particularly the ways in which the patients perceive reality, or unreality, when certain parts of the brain are damaged.

As for why I’m writing this story there are a couple of additional reasons. I was a little geared up to write a story this weekend for the NYC Midnight contest, and though I sadly didn’t make it to the second round (though friend of the blog Jo Eberhardt did and hopefully her latest story went well), I wanted to have a place to spend that energy. And as far as process goes, this story is being written on the fly, in much the same fashion as Denied the Stars last year. I know where the story is going, and most of the component parts in the middle (I didn’t avoid going to Vegas just because I’ve never been there in real life, though this be madness and yet there is a method in it). Oh and I know trees aren’t dead in the winter, they lie dormant, but to my character they appear dead. Foreshadowing, or setting a tone ;). Each iteration is written the day before it is posted, usually in about in an hour.

So be sure to check out the first and second iterations before Wednesday. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the story thus far, and where it is going. Feedback is definitely appreciated. I post stories like this here to learn what works and what doesn’t, so feel free to say anything. And feel free to ask any questions I haven’t covered here. You never know I might answer 😉

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The Fractal Man (Second Iteration)

I had to get out of here. At least for a little while. I needed to leave them behind.

I thought about the plain states, flyover country to most people, but potential sanity for me. all those flat spaces you can see for miles without a tree or a shrub in sight. But nature, even in its most passive of forms is not a friend of my affliction. The whole natural world is fractal, from the veins in leaves, to the patterns in blades of grass. The voices might be shouting quieter in the heartland, but they would still reach me.

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I needed the most unnatural, most human place I could find.

Where else but Las Vegas?

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Out in the middle of that desert, amidst the flashing lights, the gambling, the decadence is the very antithesis of the natural. You don’t go to Vegas to be one with nature. You go to drink, to gamble, to eat beyond gluttony, to consume shows that titillate and amaze, and to leave everything you do in that desert.

I wake every morning and check to see if my chest or my arm is hurting. Some times I tell myself it’s just the way I’m sleeping. Sometimes I think it’s a muscle cramp, or repetitive stress. Sometimes I think it signals the coming heart attack.

But somehow I know it’s fibromyalgia. I can’t say why, but the way the pain feels, the way it travels through my nervous system, seems to be the physical embodiment of what I see every day on my drive. My pain is fractal.

Then again I could just be kidding myself. I don’t eat that well. I live a stressful life. I have a detailed oriented, stressful and sedentary job. I smoke. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I’m not dying.

I need to get out of here.

Talking to my boss to get time off is surprisingly easy. As passionate, as driven, as important as I feel, I know I am just one interchangeable part in a large machine. I can spend my entire day browsing the net, or listening to the radio and barely writing ten lines of code and I will feel invaluable, and I’ve never been given any sign to the contrary. Sometimes I try to motivate myself out of a sense of professionalism, of knowing that if I ever lost this job I would have to raise my standards. But somehow I can never bring myself to do this.

I decide to fly to Vegas, not only so that I can spend more time there, but because the thought of a cross country drive taxes my ability to cope. I can survive the thirty minutes it takes to get home each day, but 12 hours for multiple days? And the unfamiliarity of the country side only causes the images to jump out at me all the quicker. I am bombarded by new stimuli. A plane is safer. If I fly in coach with the window shade pulled down. Even the flyover states look different from the sky.

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I spend most of the flight asleep with a mask over my eyes, and headphones in my ears. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I don’t want to take in anything new. I want to step off this plane and find myself in the middle of sin city. And after four hours I do step off the plane. I walk to the end of a long narrow hallway, and my eyes refocus as real sunlight hits them again.

Except it is not real sunlight, but light tinged with gray, and the same endless winter that has trapped me for months.

I am standing in the same terminal from which I departed. My plane flew for hours and I never left.

What the hell is going on?

To be continued

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The Fractal Man (First Iteration)

If I leave for work early enough, I don’t see them.

I can drive in total darkness, and though I know they are all around me, somehow I can keep my mind calm. I take back roads and places were lights are never on, but inevitably that means I am only surrounded by more of them.

The time change has been playing hell with my plans. Not only has it negatively affected my sleep schedule, but now the sun rises and I can’t even step outside my house before I see one.

Trees, dead trees. They’re everywhere you look.

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It doesn’t snow much where I live. With snow the pattern is blurred, the image less sharp. My mind can float between long patches of white and it never tries to land. Of course I know that each snowflake is one too, but it’s the trees that haunt me. The trees that demand my attention.

The sky is perpetual gray. It should have been spring weeks ago, but all we seem to have is winter. Every day it’s cold and my windshield is covered with a diffusion limited aggregate which I quickly try to dissolve with my heater. Then I drive and there’s L-system’s everywhere.

I don’t see the math. As good as I am, I’m a programmer after all, I don’t have the RAM to look at a tree and see how it was made. But I see the pattern, see each branch split and then split again, each part similar if not identical to the part that came before.

In the spring, summer and fall the leaves hide the pattern. Sure, there are iterated function systems for leaves but they’re too chaotic to nail down. They’re focused on numbers. L-systems, however, they’re just words, letters, commands. The mind is built on an L-system. The brain is a three-dimensional Hilbert curve. The lungs, an inversion of the trees I see every morning. Maybe that’s why they steal my breath away when I look at them.

I try to focus on the road, on the wavering yellow line, the cracked pavement, the dust on my dashboard. Anything to keep my world inside the car, into the few feet directly in front of me. Of course this isn’t a very safe way to drive, but somehow I manage.

Work is calmer. Desks, cabinets, tables, chairs, cups of coffee as long as it’s kept in a thermos where the steam cannot escape. It’s all so human, so Euclidean, so simple. Nothing is chaotic. Each day is a repetition of the one previous. Every conversation is a variation on the same couple of phrases. Each cubicle individual but the same, arranged in grids, with calm regular hallways.

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The food is simpler too. Hamburgers in round disks. Fries in long rectangles, or tots in cylinders if the mood strikes. Anything organic has been homogenized, processed, packaged until it is comfortable for the human form to consume. Even the pi/4 radians of pizza.

I don’t like my work. I mean who does really? But it’s the only time I don’t really think about them. My building’s in an industrial park with lots of stark parking lots, and the few trees that are in the distance can only be seen from the windows of people with much better offices than mine.

But inevitably the day ends and I have one of those work places where people are actually encouraged to keep regular eight hour schedules so I can’t hide in my cubicle waiting for it to be dark again. Fortunately, there’s a bar right down the road. It’s surrounded by trees of course, but the windows are shuttered, the room kept dark for the TV’s and pool tables. I drink weak beer and wait, every now and again going outside for a cigarette to see if it’s safe to move again.

I really should quit smoking, but somehow the thought of what the habit is doing to those perfect bronchioles makes me smile, helps me to calm down. But the habit also forces me outside and outside is where they can find me.

The beer dulls the senses enough to put a haze on the world around me, further helping my efforts to stay inside the car. I don’t get drunk very easily, I’m a pretty big guy after all, but if I drink the right I amount I can dull my senses until I can get back to my house.

I sit in the living room again because I don’t have the courage to enter my office. My books are there. I could just get rid of them, after all they’re the reason any of this is happening in the first place. But knowledge isn’t something you can just package up and send out of your life. And those books call to me at night, dying to reveal their secret truths of the universe to which they have only given me a glimpse.

Instead I drown myself in the banality of reality television and game shows, eating the same frozen burrito every night for dinner. I go to bed, and I pray that my dreams are black, calm, silent.

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And this is how I spend my days, or at least that’s how it’s been for the last three years. The world is an endlessly repeating self-similar place, and I’m beginning to wonder if things will be this way forever.

To be continued

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