Tag Archives: Serial

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.

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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.

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Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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The Pros and Cons of the Serial Narrative

For the last month I’ve been addicted to Serial, the This American Life podcast spin-off covering one story from week to week. The first story is the case of a murder that happened fifteen years ago and the case for and against the man convicted of the the crime. Each week we’re treated to an in-depth analysis of some aspect of the crime, from high-school relationships, to the layout of the park where the victim was buried, to recreating the route of the prosecution’s timeline.

This episode marked the halfway point for the season and in some ways it feels like we have enough to have formed some kind of an opinion as to whether or not Adnan Syed (our supposed killer) is guilty or innocent and what it would mean if he was either. My own opinion is mixed along the lines of whether he should have been convicted based on the evidence and whether he actually did it.

I trust the This American Life people to tell me a good story, and on that they have delivered, even if it is likely to be as unresolved as many of those Dateline true crime specials. It’s definitely interesting as someone who writes mysteries to realize how mushy real-life cases can be: conflicting accounts, evidence that could mean one thing or another, evolving understandings of the validity of technology as evidence, etc.

But the week-to-week format is getting a little frustrating. With a deep focus on one aspect in every 30-45min episode it can often feel like we’ve only added one or two pieces of information to our appraisal of the case. It still feels that there’s a lot being held back, even after this latest episode that tries to lay out all the reasons why the killer looks guilty. If anything it’s giving us a sense of the way a real investigation would work, you spend a lot of time learning one or two pieces of information, and then you have to figure out how that fits into the building narrative you’ve made of the case.

And Sarah Koenig, our journalistic host and guide through this whole tale, is a bit of an unreliable narrator. Not in the sense that I believe she’s lying to us at any point. She actually lays her vulnerabilities bare in each episode, her shifting opinions, her uncertainty, areas she pursued that don’t play out. One thing in particular that struck me in this last episode were some awkward conversations with Adnan with some long silences that other people might have edited out. These give the listener a sense for the true flow of the conversation and how some statements or questions can stop and make you think.

Probably I’m most frustrated that I don’t just have this whole thing to listen to now. If this were an audiobook it would be like missing the last six disks of the story. But since the episodes are being produced as the show airs, I’ll have to wait patiently each Thursday for a new bite. And I’m also trying to resist the temptation to listen to each episode before I can bring it home for the little red haired girl, who has been listening along with me. In the meantime I’ve been listening to each episode repeatedly trying to absorb every detail (even to the point of e-mailing the show with a question about cell phone timing).

The truth is, no matter my frustrations with individual episodes, how long this is all taking, moments when I feel like I’m only getting part of the story, I’m going to keep listening. On that at least, Serial and the This American Life team have succeeded again.

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