Friday, April 22, 2016

What You Can Change and What You Can't

I haven't written fiction in months, but recently I found my old copy of Larry Niven's anthology Convergent Series (1979). The last story is a time travel story, though totally unrelated to what you'll read below.
I started thinking of writing a time travel story. Actually, reading all of the short stories from so long ago rekindled my interest in writing fiction. I know I'm really limited in this area. Like always, I had a great start for the story but no ending. That's my weakness. I need to think of a good ending first, and then start writing.
By the by, the ending came to me. I opened a text editor and started typing start to finish. The story below is the result.

My name is Mark Miller, and when I discovered time travel, I decided to use it just like everyone else does in all those science fiction books and movies. I decided to change the past. No, not just the generic past, mine. I wanted to change history, just like Marty McFly did in "Back to the Future".

Here's what I want to change.

When I was five years old, I killed my brother. It doesn't matter that it was an accident, I did it. Jason's dead and it's because of me. He was only three years old.

I probably should blame my Dad, but I can't. I should probably blame him for going to the store "for just a minute" and leaving me and Jase alone. I should probably blame him for leaving a loaded 45 caliber pistol in an unlocked drawer in his night stand.

But I can't.

I'd seen where Dad put the pistol after cleaning it and loading it. He cleaned it every couple of weeks, I think. Mom wouldn't let me and Jase even have toy guns. Mom and Dad got divorced when I was four, and whenever we got to visit Dad, she was pretty strict about what toys we could play with at his house.

So when Dad put us in front of the TV with "Toy Story 3" in the DVD player so he could go to the store "for just a minute" (he'd run out of beer), me and Jase were alone.

I think it was because Woody was a cowboy and cowboys always have guns that made me think of Dad's gun. I paused the movie and took Jase into Dad's bedroom. I just wanted to show him something cool, a real gun, like what a real cowboy would have.

Jase followed me everywhere, so it wasn't hard to get him to come with me. Even though we were alone, I still told Jase to be quiet, and practically tiptoed into Dad's bedroom. It was a bright, sunny day in outside, but Dad had these heavy shades over his windows, so his bedroom was really dark.
I left the bedroom door open so some light would get in, and took Jase by the hand to the edge of Dad's bed.

I opened the top drawer of his night stand. I didn't see the gun at first and thought maybe Dad had moved it. Then I dug under his socks and shorts and found it.

But it was big and heavy, and when I pulled it out of the drawer, I slipped. I don't know what happened, but I heard the biggest "boom" I'd ever heard in my life. Jase didn't even scream. He just dropped to the floor, his white t-shirt was all red.

I don't remember much of what happened next or maybe I don't want to. Mom got sole custody of me and Dad only got supervised visits.

After a while, I didn't even want to see Dad anymore because just looking at him reminded me of what I'd done. I didn't blame him. I knew I wasn't supposed to play with Dad's gun. But my Mom blamed Dad.

I guess Dad blamed Dad too, because on the first anniversary of Jase's death, he killed himself with that same gun.

Mom had already been taking me to see Dr. Steward because of Jase being shot, so when Dad committed suicide, I just kept going to her for grief counseling.
It's been thirty years since I lost my brother and Dad and I don't think about them much anymore.

Or I didn't until I discovered time travel.

How does time travel work? I don't know. I only discovered the thing, I didn't invent it.

I discovered time travel at the bottom of a well on my Mom's property. A few years after Jase and Dad died, she bought this place a few miles out of town. She wanted to give me a home without all the bad memories of the old one. It had a big field out in the back where Mom said I'd have plenty of "run out room."

It wasn't a bad place to grow up and, when the hurt of Jase and Dad wasn't so bad anymore, I started to make friends at school. We loved running around in all that grass, climbing the trees, making snow forts in the winter, and basically being a bunch of kids.

There were parts of the field that grew wild and were thick with thorn bushes. Mom told us kids to stay away from there, but it was big enough that we still had tons of space to play in.

I grew up, moved out, got married, and got divorced (my ex says I can't commit because I don't want to have children). She got the house, and I got an apartment.

I still visited Mom every weekend and a lot more after she told me she had cancer.

She died last month and now I'm back in that house of hers with that big field in back.

I discovered time travel when I was clearing some overgrown grass and bushes in her field, the places Mom said I couldn't play in when I was a kid. I don't need that big house and that huge field just for myself so decided to sell the place. First, I need to fix it up, so I started by clearing the worst parts of the field. It's going to take a lot of evenings and weekends.

I don't know if Mom even knew about that old, boarded up well. Maybe even the previous owners (whoever they were) didn't know about it. Who knows how long it's been there.

But I was chopping away the bushes and when I pulled one back, tripped, and fell onto the boards covering the well. Good thing I dropped the hatchet I was using on those bushes.

It was just like the scene from that movie "Batman Begins" when little Bruce falls through the boarded up well and breaks his arm.

Luckily, I didn't break anything and the well wasn't as deep. There were no caves for bats to come in. Just a damp, musty smelling, dark hole in the ground.

How the hell was I supposed to get out?

That's when I saw the ladder. It was built into one side of the well. Just rusty metal rungs. I tested one and it seemed solid enough.

I suppose if I'd just climbed out right then, I'd never have discovered time travel, but I was tired from working all morning, and I was sore from the fall, so I sat down a minute.

I started thinking about Mom. The funeral was nice. It's what she wanted. No memorial service. Just a few words said over her at the cemetery before they put her coffin in the grave. I could feel the tears well up in my eyes when everything got so much brighter.

Instead of sitting at the bottom of a well with the only light filtering in from the top, I was sitting on grass with broad sunlight filtering through the trees. I started to panic, recognized where I was, and that didn't help.

I was in the cemetery where I buried Mom. I was siting under a tree. I could hear the leaves and branches over me moving in the breeze. I could hear a faint voice in the distance. It was mine.

I was mostly hidden behind the tree, and her grave was far enough away that I wouldn't see myself unless I looked right at me under the tree.

I saw myself in that grim black suit I bought for the funeral. I saw a few of Mom's friends. I saw the coffin, Mom's coffin.

I stood up and thought I was going to vomit. I closed my eyes and grabbed the tree to support myself. When I opened them again, I was grabbing one of the metal rungs of the ladder at the bottom of the well.

That night, I ate dinner alone in the dining room at Mom's house (I still can't call it "my" house). I'm a bachelor, so frozen pizza and a beer is good enough. I sucked down cheap beer and bad pizza and told myself it was all a dream.

Maybe I'd hit my head and actually passed out and dreamed about Mom's funeral. But why would I dream about seeing myself at a distance? Why dream about two Marks? Why not just dream about the funeral like I've been dreaming about Mom's dying, and Dad, and Jase?

Yeah, the nightmares had come back after Mom died. Actually, they started when I admitted her to hospice. I saw all the blood on Jase's t-shirt. I saw Dad's coffin (closed, he'd shot himself in the head) at his memorial service. I saw Mom the last day of her life, looking more like a cadaver than my living, breathing Mom.

It had to have been a dream.

But the sound of the wind in the trees was so real. I could feel the breeze on my skin and going through my hair. Sitting under the tree, I could feel texture of the grass under my fingers, and the rough bark when I stood up and grabbed the tree.

It's the next day now. Sunday morning.

I had the same nightmares last night, except I also saw myself looking at myself at the cemetery. So maybe that means I didn't travel in time and it was just a dream. But I also as an adult saw myself as a kid pulling the gun from Dad's night stand, slip and fumble with it, and watched it go off, shooting my little brother square in the chest.

Was what happened in the well yesterday a dream? I had to test it out. I had to be sure.

I ran out into the field, to where the well was. After climbing out of the well yesterday, I didn't do anymore work. I didn't do anything but brood. I hadn't bothered to board the thing back up or cover it or anything. I didn't have any neighbors behind that part of the field so who would see it?

It was only nine in the morning, but in August, the days get hot quick here. I stopped at the edge of the well and realized I was sweating because it was hot but I was also shivering.

I thought about boarding the damn well up or better yet, pouring concrete down its gullet, but I had to know.

Instead of falling, this time I carefully climbed down the ladder. The rungs were old because they were rusty, but they were also strong and didn't sag under my weight at all.

I was at the bottom. Yesterday, I was thinking of Mom's funeral and then I was there.

And then I was there. I was standing under the same tree but instead of hearing me talk over Mom's grave, I saw her coffin being lowered into it. I, that is, the other "me" was already gone. Maybe because I was already there earlier, I couldn't come back to the same moment in time. This was as close as I could get without meeting the "me" that had traveled through time yesterday, only now it wasn't yesterday but only half an hour later.

You know what I mean. Time travel is hard to talk about.

I waited a long time. When I was actually at Mom's funeral burying her, I didn't stay to see the coffin go in the ground. I left before the workers at the cemetery could do it. I didn't want to watch. Now, I watched everything.

I waited a long time. I waited until they finished putting the dirt back in. I waited until they went away. I waited until no one was around. Then I walked away from the tree, down the hill, and I stood over my Mom's grave again.

I haven't visited it since her funeral. I keep telling myself I'm too busy. I keep saying I have too much work to do between my job and getting her place ready to sell.

But the truth is, I can't stand death. Death took away my brother, my Dad, and now my Mom.

No, death didn't take Jase. I did it. I didn't mean to, but I did. And because of it, Dad killed himself, too. I miss them all so much.

I was standing at the bottom of the well again. I don't know how long I was away, but when I climbed out, and looked up at the sun, it was nearly noon.

I can't stop cancer so I can't save Mom, but if the time travel well works just because you think of when and where you want to go, I can save Jase. And if Jase doesn't die, that means Dad won't die either.

I know I probably should have waited and planned things out, but now that the idea was in my head, I couldn't think of anything else.

I climbed back into the well. I knew exactly where and when I wanted to go. Not to the moment before I shot Jase. It would be too hard to explain how I suddenly got into Dad's house and why a stranger was keeping two kids from finding their Dad's gun.

I shot Jase on a Saturday afternoon. Dad had picked me and Jase up at Mom's place Friday evening after he got off of work. That's when I'd go back. Where I'd go was Dad's backyard. I knew where he kept the spare key (he'd locked his keys in the house a few months before Jase died, and I saw where he kept the extra house key to get back in).

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, I was in Dad's backyard. It was mid-afternoon. I saw my bike on the ground near the back door. It still had the training wheels on. Dad was trying to convince me I was big enough for him to take them off, but I was scared of falling. I can't remember if he ever got to see me riding a two-wheeler.

No telling if any neighbors were looking. I quickly moved the rock the key was under and used it to unlock the back door. I put the key back and put the rock back on top, then walked inside.

I stopped. I couldn't swallow. I could barely breathe. It was Dad's house, just as I remembered it, just as it was when I was five. I felt happy and terrified at the same time. The kitchen smelled like Dad's "infamous" meat loaf. I was trembling again. A thousand childhood memories, things I hadn't thought about in years, climbed out of dark parts of my brain and into the light like they all happened yesterday.

I guess it's thirty years ago, so they did happen yesterday, or close enough.

I started to walk to Dad's bedroom. I didn't want to go in. I was afraid of what would happen if I saw where I shot Jase again.

But Jase is still alive. Dad's still at work. He won't leave there for at least another hour, and then he has to go pick me and Jase up from Mom's. I can do this, I can stop Jase and Dad from dying.

I made myself open the door to Dad's bedroom. It was the exact same dim light I remember the day Jase died. That will be tomorrow afternoon. I can change that.

My legs felt heavy as I moved them, one step after the other, toward the night stand. My hand was trembling as I reached to open the drawer.

"Stop it you idiot!"

I clung my hands together to steady them.

I reached out again and pulled the drawer open. I pulled Dad's socks and shorts aside.

There it was. The gun. That damned 45 caliber revolver.

All I had to do was unload it and put the bullets somewhere else. Then, tomorrow, when little Marky picks the gun up and fumbles with it, it won't go off. Jase will still be alive. The worse that will happen is that I'll get scared for sneaking into my Dad's stuff, put the gun back, and drag Jase back into the living room so we can go back to watching the movie.

I didn't even realize I'd picked up the gun until I looked at my hands again.

As you can imagine, I hate guns. I've never owned one. But I figured out how to get the revolver open. I pulled six shells out, put them in my pants pocket, closed the chamber and put the gun back just like I found it.

I don't think Dad did anything with it between now and tomorrow afternoon so he shouldn't know the bullets are missing. But where to put them? I suppose I could just take them back with me. Dad will have a mystery about how the gun got unloaded and where the bullets went, but that's nothing next to a dead three-year old son.

Dad must have kept extra ammunition around somewhere, but I had no idea where that would be.

Screw it. Let him have a mystery. The gun's unloaded, that means I can't shoot Jase tomorrow.

For a second, I thought about stuff like fingerprints, and other clues I might be leaving behind, but up until yesterday (from my point of view), I didn't even believe in time travel, and I don't know anyone who does. No one is going to look for a time traveler and probably not even an ordinary break in just because six bullets go missing.

I'm going back to Mom's place, back to the well.

And then it was dark, I mean completely dark.

I was in the well. It had that same musty smell, the same dampness, but there was no light. I felt around and found the metal ladder. I could feel the cold and the uneven texture. What happened? Did I come back to the wrong time, before I found the well, before Mom died?

Only one way to find out, I blindly gripped the ladder and started to climb. I must have gotten maybe halfway up and my foot slipped. I lost my grip and fell back into the darkness.

I didn't feel hardly any pain when I hit the bottom. Then I didn't feel anything at all.


My name is Jason Miller and when I was three years old I shot and killed my brother.

I guess I could blame my Dad since it was his gun. I never would have known about it except a few weeks before, my older brother Marky had shown me where it was. He pulled it out of Dad's night stand next to his bed to show me when Dad wasn't there.

Marky slipped with the gun and dropped it, and we both got so scared that he put it back, closed the drawer, and we ran out of Dad's bedroom.

We didn't live with Dad, we just visited him every other weekend. The next time we visited, I remembered where the gun was. I thought Marky would want to play with it again. Hell, I was just three. What did I know? He was watching TV. Dad was out front talking to a neighbor or something, I guess.

I went to get the gun. It was really heavy, but I wanted to show it to Marky. I took the gun into the living room. I didn't know what guns did except for what I saw on TV. I didn't even have a toy one to play with. Mom wouldn't let us have toy guns.

"Hey, Marky." I said grinning. I was pointing the barrel right at him.

It was thirty years ago, but I still remember the look on his face as he turned toward me, kind of surprised and scared. And then I tripped and I heard the biggest "boom" I'd ever heard in my life.

Marky's face just sort of disappeared in a bunch of red. I screamed, dropped the gun, and ran into Marky's and my bedroom.

I don't remember everything that happened after that. I guess that's a good thing.

Well, some of it I do remember. I remember my Mom blamed Dad because he had a loaded gun in the house. I remember him and Mom shouting at each other about it, how he accused her of sneaking into his house and unloading it, and how he needed a loaded gun for "home protection" or something like that.

I don't think I saw much of my Dad after that. When I was four, he used the same gun to kill himself.

I had nightmares for years after Marky and Dad died. They finally went away. Mom took me to some shrink for grief counseling. I guess it worked. After she moved us to a house with a big field outback, I started to make friends at school, and they'd come over all the time to play with me.

But Mom died of cancer last month and the nightmares have come back. I thought maybe if I saw a psychologist again, like when I did when I was little, you could help them go away again.

I wish I could find a way to change things, to change the past. I wish I could go back and make sure the gun was unloaded or something. If only I could travel back in time.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stephen King's Novel 11/22/63: A Book Review

I think the last Stephen King novel I read was The Stand, first published in 1978. That's probably not true, now that I think about it. It was probably Firestarter which came out in 1980.

I stopped reading King after that. His books were too long, they tended to plod along, the characters were all depressing, his towns were always depressing, and all his stories seemed to end badly.

As I recall, King's novel The Dead Zone was about a man who, after getting in an auto accident and going into a coma, awakens with the ability to see a person's future just by touching them. This story too was about a man who tried to change the future, in this instance, by assassinating another man who was destined to be elected President and start a nuclear war.

So it's possible that King was mining some of his old material when he wrote 11/22/63: A Novel. Maybe so, but it's a lot more complex a novel than his previous works, at least as far as I know since I stopped reading him over 35 years ago. This, I think, is because this time King tackled one of the most famous events in American history: the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

King himself says that the idea of writing this story first came to him in 1972, the year I graduated high school, but he didn't think he had the "chops" back then to do credit to a novel of such scope, plus the research demands were formidable.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century that was no longer true, and Jake Epping's story was told.

I would never have known about this novel except for a chance discovery on social media of an upcoming six-part television series on hulu based on King's book. Reading the premise fascinated me and, finding a copy of the novel at my local public library, I couldn't resist giving it a whirl.

I was dismayed that this tome was over 800 pages long. I don't have a lot of time for discretionary reading, and even though I read somewhat faster than the average person, it would still take a while to work my way through the whole thing.

Fortunately, it's a page turner.

Yes, especially the town of Derry, Maine was horribly depressing and even unrealistically grim. The communities King develops tend to have personalities of their own, as if they were living (and often evil) beings. Derry: bad. Jodie, Texas: good. Dallas: really bad, but not as downright creepy as Derry.

I liked Jake Epping. He was a borderline normal human being, a recently divorced high school teacher who seems emotionally closed, but only because he's not very emotionally expressive.

Jake got into this mess because he was teaching an adult ed class, one of the students was the high school janitor who was endearing, walked with a limp, and had an acquired brain injury. Harry writes an essay for Jake's class that tells about the night that changed his life, the night when his drunken father attacked his mother, siblings, and Harry with a hammer and killed everyone except Harry. Harry lived, but not without severe consequences.

Jake showed uncommon compassion for Harry and his tragedy but there was nothing he could do about it. After all, you can't change the past...


But another resident of Jake's little community, Al Templeton, the owner of a local diner that served the world's best and most inexpensive hamburgers, had a secret. At the back of the restaurant's storeroom was a sort of "rabbit hole," a tesseract, an invisible doorway that lead to a single destination: September 9, 1958 at 11:58 a.m. You can go back to that moment in time, stay as long as you want, even years, then step back through to 2011 and you'd only have been gone exactly 2 minutes. Step back again, and it's September 9th all over again and whatever you changed on your previous trip was reset. It's as if you'd never gone through before (well, not exactly, but Jake doesn't figure that out until the end of the novel).

It's doubtful Al would have shared this secret with anyone, but another one of his secrets got in the way. You see, the "distance" between 9/9/58 and 11/22/63 is just over five years. Al had this crazy idea that he could save the life of John F. Kennedy, prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from ever carrying out the assassination.

The problem is, toward the end of the five-year journey, Al got cancer.

So he came back to 2011 and told the only man he thought he could trust, the only man young enough (mid-30), healthy enough, and unattached (Jake was recently divorced from his alcoholic wife and they had no children...well, he had a cat), and shared not only his secrets, but all his research (King's research, actually) on Oswald and associates with him, charging Jake with Al's original mission: save JFK at all costs.


Because Al believed that had JFK lived, he would have changed our nation for the better, maybe stopped our involvement in the Vietnam war, saving the lives of countless young men. Of course no one would know how history would play out until (or unless) Kennedy was saved.

A few things.

There's a yellow card man or a red card man or some other color card man who is always waiting near the "time portal" (for lack of a better term) in 1958. He's a wino, probably homeless, dirty, panhandling for money to buy more booze. But he's also connected to the portal somehow, as if he knows something, as if he can tell where Al was from during his trips, or where Jake came from.

The color of the card he wears in the brim of his hat keeps changing, indicating "something". On the day when Jake Epping finally accepts the task of stopping Oswald kill Kennedy, when he encounters the wino in 1958, the card is black and the man had cut his own throat and bled to death.

Another thing. Time doesn't like to be messed with. As long as you didn't actually try to make changes in history, time left you alone (more or less). But when you planned to make a change, time pushed back. You could still exert enough energy to overcome the resistance, but the bigger the change, the bigger the push back.

When Jake decided to save Harry's family from being murdered and prevent Harry's brain injury, the first time, he suffered through severe stomach flu, an attempt on his life by someone else who had a grudge against Harry's father, and he was nearly killed by Harry's Dad himself. Oh sure, he saved Harry, but his Mom still got a broken arm out of the deal, and Harry's brother still died (his sister lived, though).

The second attempt went much better, but Jake had taken precautions against the push back and amazingly, they worked.

But there was no going back. Rather than let the cancer kill him, Al had taken an overdose. Once his death had been reported, his diner would be sold, torn down, and some sort of mega-store would be built on its grave...

...and the tesseract would burst like a soap bubble and Kennedy's assassination would once again be reduced to a subject for history classes. Jake had only days, probably just hours, to step through the rabbit hole one more time and begin his journey through the long five years until November 22, 1963.

The majority of the novel chronicles Epping's living through the late 1950s and early 1960s as George Amberson (and King's portrayal of even the tiniest details of living in America during that time period were exquisite), would-be novelist, substitute teacher, and occasional gambler (like Marty in the second "Back to the Future" movie, Jake had been armed with the results of all the major sporting events, especially the upsets, as a means of making some ready cash), his adventures, first in Maine, then in Florida, and finally in Texas as he, acting on all of Al's research, slowly builds toward the day when he'd attempt to stop one of history's most famous assassinations.

Reading 11/22/63 was like watching one very long multi-car collision...horrible and yet fascinating. People suffered so terribly, and yet, I absolutely needed to know how or if Jake/George was going to save the President's life.

I think the original plan was for Jake/George just to lie low for five years, live modestly, make the money last, and stop Oswald, save Kennedy, and then go back to a better and brighter 2011.

But a man has to do something for five years.

Jake/George isn't a trained time traveler like you'd see in other stories. He has a few facts to go by, but unprepared, how does a man from the 21st century fit in at a time when computers filled a room, manned space exploration was in its infancy, and married couples in TV sitcoms still slept in separate beds?

But in many ways, this isn't really a story about time travel. It's like most of King's novels, about an ordinary person in a highly unusual circumstance, fighting against time itself, as if time had a life of its own, as if time was trying to kill Jake, in order to do what he thought was good, perhaps the greatest good in history.

But history fought back.

Jake/George falls in love, which makes things worse, not for him and not for his lovely Sadie, at least not at first, but for his mission. Time no longer has one target, Jake himself, to shoot at, now it has the woman he loves as well (and time makes them both suffer).

True to form, King introduces a small parade of insane, cruel, brutal individuals into the novel. The results are depressing and desperate, but like the aforementioned car wreck, I couldn't turn away. I found myself, having stopped reading to drive somewhere or perform some other task in mundane reality, terribly worried and wondering how I would ever find a way to stop Oswald. Yeah, I know. I started to identify with Jake/George. It got kind of personal.

Time batters and shreds Jake/George so that he ends up with only hours and then minutes to spare, rather than years, to find and stop Oswald. He does, but the consequences are disastrous. No, Jake/George, though maimed, lives, but so many other people die...

...and as it turns out, so does the future.

I waited a long time to get to this point in the novel and it's almost a let down. This isn't because of a fault in the novel, but because everything up until this moment, has been focused on killing Oswald and saving Kennedy, and in spite of time, it works.

But where do you go from here?

As it turns out, back to 2011, but again, referencing Marty McFly and his visit to the alternate 1985, it's the same town, but it's changed so much, and not for the better. Saving Kennedy doesn't save the world, it fractures reality. The green card man, a different one from the guy who committed suicide during Jake's last trip down the rabbit hole, explains it all to him.

Each trip doesn't exactly reset time. There are residual echoes from the previous trips. Each trip, and especially each change, tangles the different strings in time and if the tangles aren't stopped, existence itself is undone.

The only thing Jake can do is leave the alternate 2011, where no one has ever heard of Jake Epping and most of the world is a war zone, go back to 1958, do nothing, save no one, and then go back to his original 2011, go back to being a high school teacher, and let his scars and limp remind him that no one attempts to change history unchallenged.

Jake resisted. He could still save his beloved Sadie, Sadie who died trying to stop Oswald. Sadie who was almost killed and permanently scarred by an insane ex-husband (a classic King character), Sadie who was the only woman Jake really loved.

All he has to do is risk the very fabric of existence.

The novel was published in 2011, so there's plenty of information on the web that explains the ending, how King resolved the dilemma. Or you could avoid the novel altogether and watch the mini-series on hulu next month.

I'll leave that to you.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and almost considered reading it again. But that would feel too much like Jake's failed first trip through the tesseract, and then him going through again to replay history with a different outcome (besides, I've got a headache). Maybe a trip down the rabbit hole will let you, with great effort, change history, but King's novel will always begin and end exactly the same way.

The ending is semi-happy. At least King gave us that much.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Suspended Fiction Writing Experiment

Frankly, I just don't have the time to devote to this right now. I am actually writing a book with two other authors, but it's not fiction and, since it's for pay, the publisher should get my premium time.

It's too bad because I just thought of an interesting variation to my Arabia Terra story, one that I think I like better than my original vision. Guess it'll have to wait.

I don't know if anyone cares or not. Some of my fiction stories (more like fiction beginning of stories) have gotten some looks, but beyond that, I doubt they have achieved any traction.

I guess I'll postpone any work in this direction until sometime next year, if the bug has still got a hold of me. If not, then I guess it wasn't worth my time.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Am I Dead?

I'm still trying to do exercises about characterization, but none of the tasks in the Novakovich book are floating my boat.

So I'm making this up as I go along. I started this story out with one of the murder scenes in the 1984 film The Terminator (which is why we never find out who the murderer is in my short story below). 

However, as far as the film goes. Sara Anne Connor's story ends when she dies. From my point of view, there's a lot more to tell.

This is just a draft. If it were a "real" story, it would probably be longer. I'd have to "flesh" a few things out, if you'll pardon the unintentional pun (you'll get it once you start reading the story.) 

I'm concerned that I'm having Sara forgive her husband too quickly and too easily, and that she might be seen as being co-dependent by asking his forgiveness, even though he's done his share of wrongs. I think you'll see my point though, once you've read how Sara's tale really ends.

My name is Sara Anne Connor and I'm dead.

That should be the end of my story, but as it turns out, it's just the beginning.

I didn't expect death to be like this. I was always taught that as a Christian, when I died, I'd go to Heaven to be with Jesus.

But I didn't. I just stood there, looking at my body, collapsed at my feet. I was shot six times by a man I'd never seen before. I answered a knock at my door. I wasn't expecting anyone. I'd just put my baby down for her nap. My little boy was playing with his Tonka trucks on the back patio.

I had the security chain on the door. I wasn't expecting anyone and I thought someone like the Jehovah's Witnesses might be coming around again. I opened the door. He asked if I was Sara Anne Connor. I said "yes". I thought it might be one of my ex-husband's friends trying to find him. Since the divorce, he hasn't been easy to find.

But the man with the coldest eyes I'd ever seen, like a fish, like a machine, slammed the door open, breaking the chain.

I saw the gun and I was paralyzed. I knew I should run. I knew I had to protect my babies. But I froze. I don't remember what I was thinking. It was like I was asleep and watching myself in a dream.

After he stopped pulling the trigger, he turned around and left. He didn't say anything. His face never changed from being impassive and emotionless. He turned around and walked out of my house. Then I looked down and saw my bleeding corpse lying at my feet. I opened my mouth to scream but I couldn't hear anything.

I was vaguely aware that Jenny was crying from her crib. Timmy came running in from the back. I could hear the screen door slam and his running feet pounding across our worn, hardwood floor.

"Mommy! Mommy!" He was yelling and shaking me, trying to wake me up. But I wasn't asleep. I was dead. I felt dead inside, too. Then my feelings came back to life and I started crying.

"Timmy, I'm right here. Mommy's right here," I tried to say. I reached down to him but I couldn't touch him. My hands, my real hands, were lifeless and cold. I couldn't console my son. I couldn't tell him everything was going to be alright.

That's because nothing was going to be alright. My children didn't have a Mommy anymore. Their Dad left months ago, giving up on our family rather than his drinking and gambling (and other women). He wasn't going to raise Timmy and Jenny. He wasn't going to get a job to support them. He wasn't going to spend time playing with them or helping Timmy with his homework. He wasn't going to take them to church.

My babies were abandoned and I don't even know why. Why did that man kill me? What's going to happen to me now? Why didn't Jesus save me? Why didn't he take me to Heaven?

I used to make jokes about attending my own funeral just to see what it was like, to make sure my favorite hymns were played at the memorial service, to hear my Pastor recite special psalms over my grave.

I watched my sister holding Timmy's hand as the funeral ended. Her husband stayed home with Jenny. I watched my sister help my little boy into her car. I knew she would drive him back to their home in Los Alamitos. I never thought she cared enough to provide a home for my children. I never thought that, when he found out I died, Jeff, my ex, would realize Timmy and Jenny needed a family.

I pushed my sister away because she and her husband weren't Christians. I pushed her away when, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how passionately I witnessed to her and told her how coming to Christ was the best thing that ever happened to me, she refused to become a believer.

I pushed Jeff out of our home because he couldn't hold a job but he spent every spare dime we had on horse races and his beer. I tried to get him to go to church with us, the kids and me, I tried. I thought if he could make friends with other godly men that it would help turn him around, help him be a good father and husband.

He didn't want to listen to me either.

Of all the people at church, Pastor Bill, Shelly and the other women in our Bible study group, my spirit, my soul doesn't visit any of them. Only Jeff, only my sister Emily, and of course, my sweet little children. Jenny cries missing me and poor Timmy is so heartbroken and mad at God for taking me away from him and his sister to go to Heaven.

It's been five months now and I'm still not in Heaven. What's wrong with me? Why doesn't Jesus love me? Why am I like a ghost haunting my family?

Dear God, I forgive them. I forgive Jeff for all his faults. I still can't believe I'm watching him go to his first AA meeting. Emily's husband Terry, I never knew, he's been a recovering alcoholic for over ten years now, he took him.

Now I'm watching Emily at her house, rocking the baby in her arms and reading to Timmy from his favorite Bible stories book. Why is she doing that? She doesn't believe, does she? She even started taking him back to my church.

She really does love my children. She and Terry never had kids. I never knew she could be such a good...mother.

I forgive Emily for hurting me by not receiving Christ into her heart. I forgive her for loving Terry more than she loved me. I forgive...

I'm dead. I don't breathe. Why do I feel like I'm short of breath? Why do I feel scared? I can't be hurt. Why am I hurting inside?

I'm already gone from this world. I can't touch anything and nothing touches me. I feel nothing...nothing...

Nothing except sorrow and loss...and regret.

Jesus, please forgive me for everything I've done wrong. Please take me into Heaven. Please take me into your rest.

You aren't going to forgive me, though, are you?

Emily's just put the baby down in her crib to sleep, and she's getting Timmy into his PJs so he can go to bed soon. She's reading him another Bible story about Jesus. What's that he's saying? "When I die, will I see my Mommy in Heaven?"

My heart is breaking for the thousandth time.

"The Bible says that if we repent and ask forgiveness from Jesus and from anyone we have hurt, we're saved and we go to Heaven when we die," she says, comforting him in a hug.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you yesterday, Aunt Emmy," Timmy starts to softly cry. "Will you forgive me?" If only I could take him in my arms. I so love Emily for being so sweet and caring to him.

"I forgive you, sweetheart. I always will," Emily smiles down at him, rubbing his tears away with a finger.

"Please forgive me too, Emily." I hear the words but it takes me a second to realize I'm the one who said them.

Oh God. I am so sorry. "Emily, I'm so sorry for how I've treated you. You're my sister. Jesus doesn't want me to not love you. The years I've stolen from you, years where we could have acted like a family. Years you could have been an Aunt to Timmy. He didn't get to know you, to love you, because I was alive. I was selfish. I was wrong."

"Timmy, please forgive Mommy. I love you and little Jenny more than anything. I kept you from your Aunt and Uncle who really love you, too. I am so sorry. Please forgive me. Jenny, please forgive me."

"Jeff, I've been hurt and angry at you for so long. I thought everything was your fault, like God made a mistake giving you to me for a husband instead of a Christian man. You tore my heart out when you walked out on our children...on me. I was too blind to see I'd pushed you away, too...that I stopped loving you when I gave my heart to Jesus. That's not what he wanted me to do."

"Please forgive me, Jeff. Please forgive me for not being a good wife to you. You really were a good husband and father and you would have stayed, I know you would have stayed...would have stayed and not started drinking, not started gambling, if I hadn't changed so much."

I don't know how long I've been crying. I don't know where I am. I can't see them anymore. I can't see Jeff or Emily or Terry. I can barely see Timmy asleep in his bed or Jenny's sweet little face in her crib.

"Good-bye my babies. Mommy's going away now. I'll always love you. But it'll be OK. Uncle Terry and Aunt Emily love you too, they love you so much. Daddy loves you. I'm glad he's visiting you and playing with you. I'm glad things are going to be OK."

I can't see any of them anymore. I've stopped feeling sad. I love my family, and I know Jesus will take care of them. I believe that. I believe it with all my heart.

I feel so peaceful. Bright light is all around me. I feel warm and weightless. I'm letting go. I'm forgiving. I'm forgiven.

My name is Sara Anne Connor...and I'm going to Heaven.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Transformation by Vision

I've now progressed to Chapter Three: "Character," in Josip Novakovich's book Fiction Writer's Workshop. I've found that describing a scene, particularly from memory, is more difficult than I imagined.

For instance, in writing a very short illustration of The Alley as taken from the 1984 cult classic film The Terminator, I had neglected a great deal of detail about the contents of the alley (I'd forgotten how many discarded newspapers there were, water pipes running up the sides of buildings, the shapes of the buildings themselves). I saw the film again over this past weekend, and realized that I had described mainly the darkness and what I remembered about alleys in general, not this particular alley.

How much more difficult will it be to describe a person and to make that person seem convincingly real? What sort of person should I describe? Should I use an aspect of my own personality, someone I know, some famous or historical figure, a mythic being from some ancient tale of lore...a combination?

In the opening pages of this chapter, Novakovich describes the "conversion" of the Apostle Paul, what changed about him and what didn't. Of course, he takes the traditional Christian view of the Apostle whereas, my own internal image of "Rav Sha'ul" is somewhat to drastically different.

So I have my starting point, I think...

For the basis of the following short character piece, please open a copy of the Bible to the New Testament, and read Acts 9:1-19
"I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope."

-Stanley Elkin
His traveling companions gently deposited the Pharisee at the edge of a sleeping mat in a small, rented room just off of Straight street in Damascus. This wasn't how they'd imagined entering the city, nor was Sha'ul the man with whom they had traveled from Jerusalem. Only hours ago, he was a fiery zealot (though not literally associated with the Zealots), breathing murderous threats against the disciples of a Rav named Yeshua, who had died and supposedly been resurrected, vowing their imprisonment or destruction for (supposedly) speaking against the Temple and the Torah.

Sha'ul's once penetrating gaze had dimmed, and wide-open but unseeing eyes had become dulled in the aftermath of the blazing light that bathed their party on the road approaching this city, and a voice only Sha'ul could clearly hear had spoken to him of things astounding and forbidden.

"We will take our leave of you now, my Master," Simeon nearly whispered to the once vital but now strangely shrunken, frail Pharisee. "We need to secure our own rooms." Sha'ul seemed deaf as well as blind for he did not respond. "We'll bring back food."

Without turning toward the speaking man, Sha'ul faintly nodded his ascent as if he could still see the unknown vision from the road. Simeon and his two cohorts quickly escaped the oppressive presence of the now sightless and helpless minister of justice against the religious sect they'd learned was called "The Way." Their once proud mission was reduced to ashes.

Although it was highly irregular, Simeon would send one of their group back to Jerusalem with a message for the High Priest, who, a Sadducee, had consented to issuing letters of authority to the Pharisee Sha'ul permitting him to arrest and remove any disciples of this Rav Yeshua from the local synagogues and return them for trial. Would the Cohen Gadol have any instructions given these disastrous events? What were they to do with Sha'ul now?

"Why do you persecute, me he said," an abandoned Sha'ul muttered to himself in dim light and utter darkness. "Prosecute me? Prosecute him? How was I to know? How was I to know there was substance and power behind these measly group of heretics?" a still crushed and astonished Sha'ul murmured.

"How was I to know that you were the Moshiach, the Son of the Most High, the resurrected one?" Sha'ul abruptly screamed, as much to Yeshua as to the blind heavens!

Hearing no reply nor expecting one, the minutes lapsed and his rapid, ragged breathing slowed. Sha'ul supposed it was the traditional time for the Minchah, the afternoon prayers, and began to daven silently to Hashem, the Most High God, His God, who had abruptly become, if not a stranger, then at least the surprising source of something unexpected, as this new dimension of reality came into focus in the Pharisee's life.

Throughout his prayers, Sha'ul's mind raced in a countering subtext of desperate thought about who he is becoming now that he has been confronted by Yeshua, whose disciples he had condemned and yet how Sha'ul is condemned by the power behind and above the sect of The Way. Sha'ul had always been zealous for the Torah, for the sacrifices, for the Temple. He had kept every Law and tradition of his people in the manner of the Pharisees. He washed up to his elbows before eating every meal, kept all of the precepts so that he was always ritually pure, even when most of the time, he was away from Jerusalem and unable to make Temple offerings.

He was among the greatest of the Pharisees, in spite of his youth. A member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Jew among Jews. He had risen quickly among his peers, but then in those scant few moments of being blasted by the radiance of Heaven, he had fallen from the brightest heights and into total darkness; from the clouds to sheol.

Only his prayers offered faint luminescence, for even now, in his humility and humiliation, Sha'ul's hope was in Hashem, Maker of Heaven and Earth. If indeed this Yeshua is the Son of the Most High...

"How, Oh Hashem? How could I have been so wrong?" Sha'ul's prayers fell in disarray about his feet like wounded sparrows. "How can I put my hope in You when I have been so opposed to him? How could I have been so right and yet discover I've been so wrong?"

Sightless eyes wept bitter tears of contrition and repentance. This is the way Simeon found him when bringing Sha'ul his evening meal, which was repeatedly refused. This is how Sha'ul spent the next three days and nights, weeping, fasting, and praying, until another man who also had a vision, but a much more gentle one, came to Sha'ul's room and introduced himself to the future servant of Yeshua as the disciple Ananias.

Sha'ul was about to receive another revelation, the second among many. The Torah, the Temple, the Priesthood, the sacrifices were eternal. But in Messiah, they could now be experienced in ways Sha'ul had never imagined.