From territory to territory we have roamed. We prefer the warm, the dark, the places with circulation and room to expand. There are explosive moments, expulsions that carry us forth to new homes, and no matter how few we might be when we move beyond the blinding like back into the darkness, we grow stronger and in number until we are ready to expand once again.
The new territory is unlike anything we’ve experienced. We had more room before. Things were relatively stable. The sounds were soothing, the feeling comfortable. Now, things are chaotic. There are violent, explosive noises within. Other noises are without, things we do not understand. And then we, as one, our people and our home, are moving faster than we’ve ever moved before, a longer distance than we’ve ever known.
Strange, caustic chemicals flow through our territory. We die in droves. We struggle to survive. We avoid the places where the death pumps in towards us, gather our strength, shelter our numbers. When we’re ready, when the time is right, we strike. The territory convulses. We fly free. And we find new homes.
We multiply, we continue, we spread. This territory is vast and varied, but similar enough. The warmth helps us grow. The movement takes us far. Even as one part of the territory does dark and cold, others gather and we find new, warm, dark places to take root and grow.
Never before could we have imagined being so many. Not in our wildest dreams did we see ourselves being this spread out. From one to another we speak, we strike, we grow. We embrace our manifest destiny.
Though our territories may wither and die, we remain strong.
Some believe these resources are finite. At some point sooner or later, they say, the fuel will run out, the territory will no longer be vital, and we will cease to exist.
Perhaps. But until then, we thrive.
We are one.
For GISHWHES I was challenged to write a story from the perspective of a virus.
The coldest winter winds have teeth. No matter how much down or Gore-Tex you might layer on yourself, an invisible blade slices right through the center of you, pushing a chill into the marrow of your bones. It can be a fleeting thing, a momentary brush against the heart of you by a passing lover with the coldest of fingertips, or a constant howling sensation, a driving force with razor-keen edges that cut through your meat without remorse, leaving you with discomfort bordering on agony.
It’s a hell of a way to remember you’re alive.
Somehow, the tent managed to stay up all night. The sleeping bag kept out most of the cold at bay, but you can still feel the latent bits of cold in your bones from last night’s walking. You tumble out of the protection of the fabric layers and emerge from the tent into harsh, clear sunlight. It’s still cold, colder than anything you’d feel back home, but better now that it’s morning. You get a fire going, set out your little steel pot to heat some water, and sit outside of your tent to look towards your goal.
The jagged peaks of the mountains are partially obscured by low-hanging clouds. The front is moving over the summits like a living, seething mass of gray. It’s odd how something so massive, so ancient, so implacably solid can at once seem closer than it ever has before, and impossibly far away. The mind struggles to process the scale of the mountains in and of themselves, to say nothing of the journey one must undertake to reach said mountains, ascend their heights, and return safely to tell the tale.
You know that last part is going to be the trickiest.
You pour your hot water into the coffee pot and use the rest to saturate some oatmeal. As you chew on your breakfast, you take an inventory of your remaining provisions. The dried fruit and pressed bars of protein make your stomach growl, but you remember that you have a long way to go. The berries and roots that helped keep the edge off of your hunger are behind you, and ahead is a wide expanse of desolation. You don’t know what, if anything, grows on or near the mountains. Mushrooms in caves, perhaps? You close up your bag so you can stop thinking about it. You turn your attention to your breakfast and try to soak up as much sunlight as you can. The clouds give you pause.
Undertaking any sort of journey into the wild or the unknown is fraught with perils and subject to uncertainty and doubt. Those who step outside of their comfort zones, away from civilization, and strive towards something distant or inscrutable aren’t taking a safe trip. Preparations can be made, certainly, and the more informed the traveler is, the better their chance for survival, but complete safety is an illusion. Keeping one’s wits about them is the best safety measure that can be taken, and leads to other measures such as survival gear, maps, rationing, and situational awareness. To head out into the fringes and return safe home is not for the faint of heart or soft of brain.
The wind picks up, a herald of the storm front, and you know it’s time to move on.
You douse your fire, put your coffee in a canteen to be slung at your hip, and scarf the rest of your breakfast. Breaking down the tent takes a mere handful of minutes, but another gust of wind reminds you that time is no longer on your side. If it ever was. In less time than it takes to tell, you’ve shouldered your pack and are once again on your way. Your long staff picks out sturdy places to set your boots, and before long you’ve settled into a familiar, driving pace, teeth set in a defiant grin against the oncoming storm.
When the clouds engulf the sun and the sleet begins to fall, you begin walking widdershins.
Not in tight circles or as part of any sort of ritual. But bearing to your left, slightly away from the direction of the wind, deflecting some of the teeth in those gusts. Nobody ever taught you this was a ‘proper’ way of weathering storms, but it always felt right to you. There are all sorts of stories and superstitions about walking widdershins around churches or graveyards, and a part of you has been quite curious if doing so would ever land you in some truly outlandish situations. But, so far, all it has done is kept you alive and focused through meteorological onslaughts like this one.
You lower your goggles and raise your scarf over your mouth and nose. Through the oncoming freezing rain you still see the mountains. You find your footing, take your step towards them, and bear a bit to the left. You smile behind the woven wool. Widdershins.
The cold drives us. It keeps us alive. It reminds us that it is good that we’re alive.
And when the storms descend on us, and we might lose sight of what we’re heading towards, we have to keep heading towards it anyway, in whatever fashion we can.
Traipse through the wilderness. Walk widdershins. And leave the mediocre, and the past, behind.
To say that things have been in upheaval lately would be an understatement. Things like “returning to a regular blogging schedule” and “maintaining a solid fanbase” have been something of a lower priority as I’ve sorted out housing, managed my barista schedule, and generally gotten more settled into this next phase of my life. How I got here isn’t a happy tale, nor is it a finished one – but who among us can say that our story is actually finished?
Anyway. It’s been one of the longest traditions of this blog to respond to the Flash Fiction Challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds. It shows up on most Fridays, provided Chuck isn’t gallivanting around the country or writing award-winning novels. Even then, he tends to be pretty good at planning his posts ahead. Better than some of us, for sure.
So a good place for me to begin in trying to do likewise, and return Blue Ink Alchemy to a regular schedule, seems to be writing up some Flash Fiction. I turned my browser to Terribleminds, and instead of a full-length post, 500-100 words, this week the challenge is to write a tweet. Hence this verbose forward to what follows! At 131 characters, here’s how I contributed to the Tales from Black Friday.
The number of dead, trampled, and broken don’t matter.
Since this week Chuck has challenged his writerly readers to come up with Flash Fiction challenges of their own, over here in my own writer-space I thought I’d talk about why flash fiction is, in and of itself, a challenge for writers. Serious authors bang out 1000 words or more a day as they propel themselves towards the completion of their drafts. They bend over keyboards and notepads, tapping or scratching out thousands of words on a daily basis. So why is flash fiction such a challenge?
Paradoxically, it’s because telling a story is easier with more words than less.
While it’s certainly true that a saga like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire would be diminished if it were not told with multiple volumes of text, it’s just as true that stories of equal poignancy have been told with a tiny fraction of such sagas’ word counts. Consider Hemingway’s shortest story:
For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.
Other authors have done similar work, turning a mere six words into fully-realized, powerful tales. I make no claims of being a Hemingway, a Whedon, or an Atwood, so I’m much more comfortable trying to tell a story in 1000 words rather than six. Still, it can be a great challenge. You have to show rather than tell in as few words as possible. You must keep the tale simple while ascribing adequate depth. Your characters need to come alive in just a sentence or two.
It is an amazing way to keep your writing skills sharp.
Writers burn out. It takes a lot of energy to create. As with any work of art, a well-written story costs the author in time and motivation and fatigue. This is especially true if writing is not the primary profession of the author; if time for writing must be carved out around the time occupied by another form of employment or other responsibilities, it can be even more taxing. As strong as the need to write might be, and as much as unfulfilled word counts might haunt the author, there are only so many hours in the day.
Flash fiction keeps the wheels greased. It quiets the authorial demons hounding you to get more shit done. Oh, you should still get it done, don’t get me wrong. It’s just easier to dispense with things like laundry and TPS reports and menial labor when you get just a little writing done. It takes the edge off, while paradoxically sharpening your nibs. And prompts, like those over at Terribleminds, make it even easier to get into the habit of knocking a little flash fiction out on a regular basis.
I recommend Chuck and his books and blog for a lot of reasons: the brilliance, the profanity, the fearlessness, the strength of character, the clarity of voice, the beard. But let me add one more reason: most Fridays, he issues his Flash Fiction challenge. If you’re inclined to write, I highly recommend trying your hand at meeting one of those challenges. Your writing will improve. You’ll tell interesting stories. And you’ll feel accomplished, as well as in good company when you read other entries. Give it a try. I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed in what happens.
Is it still called waking up when you were not asleep, but dead?
It’s one of the questions you struggle with every time you return to consciousness. You are, at least, spared anything resembling a nightmare or even an idle thought while you are in repose; you know for a fact that your brain shuts down completely every time the sun rises. Now that it’s set, you are mobile again. Until that moment when twilight ended and night actually began, anybody finding you would have mistaken you for just another dead body.
It’s cold. The air conditioning unit up in one of the basement windows is kept on full blast during the day so your body’s falling temperature doesn’t stop for hours. That holds off the worst of the rigor mortis, so that when you… wake up? … your body can actually move. Stiffly. You take a moment to sit up slowly, flex your fingers painfully, get your blood circulating again.
The burning in your chest begins very soon after. You look down at the little round hole in your sternum. Every once in a while, you move in such a way that you feel a stabbing pain in the left side of your chest, deep within your ribcage. The bullet – it’s still there, still lodged somewhere in the wall of your heart. No blood comes from the wound, which is closed over. It’s not clotted, the way wounds usually are; there’s just this translucent, milky film over the hole, slightly sticky to the touch. You get a chill down your spine whenever you touch it. You avoid touching it.
Once you’re moving more like a human and less like something from the imagination of George Romero or Robert Kirkland, you put on some clothes and a hooded sweatshirt. Your hands find their way into the sweatshirt’s pockets as you head up the stairs and out of the cellar door. The landlord upstairs only knows that you leave at night and return in the morning, and so far, has asked few questions. You haven’t considered getting a job for two reasons. One, night falls and morning comes at inconsistent times, and you don’t want to be dropping dead in the middle of a shift, or the commute home.
More importantly, though, you need to find your killer.
It was the first thing you thought of the first time you regained consciousness in the morgue. The smell of gunsmoke, wide eyes in the darkness, and a burning sense of indignant rage that your life was so callously ended. You need to remember more. Everything other than that searing moment before things went completely black is a haze. The faces of some friends and family linger in your mind, and you struggle to reconnect with anything resembling a coherent memory.
It’s why you walk away from where you were killed and towards another house not far from your own. You know it’s a bad idea. You know you can’t be seen. You know it’s going to end badly.
But your feet move in that direction anyway, muscle memory in control, your legs knowing the way even if your brain is telling you that you need to be elsewhere. Finding your killer. Earning your rest.
You stop across the street, between two houses, covered in shadow. You look up at the porch. You see them there, the lights of their cigarettes bobbing, the soft sound of beer cans moving, the occasional soft laugh. It’s an uneasy sound, a sound of recovery. They’re hurting, over there. Someone is, at least. You narrow your eyes, trying to make out more than shadows. And then –
Sitting on the porch with your friends, you laugh heartily at a joke and lift your glass. Another rim touches yours. You both drink. This is familiar, comfortable, and safe. No expectations. No awkwardness. No hidden agendas or concealed emotions. Honesty. Trust. Love. Friends. Smiles that light up rooms and make other people curious, if not downright envious.
Your heart clenches. The bullet is a burning coal in your ribcage. You exhale, a name pushing its way out of your dried, cracked throat past blackening teeth. You hear a can drop. The lights of the cigarettes stop moving. Panic shoots through your body. You turn and you run.
The dead have no place among the living.
Still, you make your way back downtown. Into the lights and seething populace of the urban center. You once again walk by where it happened. You hear the gunshot again, a phantom sound in the back of your mind. You scan the ground for clues. You’ve been here often enough to doubt you’ll find anything. But that garbage can wasn’t where it has been before. Someone moved it, probably to carry it to the curb. Under where it was is a small rectangle, and you bend to look –
The business card’s your only lead. Phone inquiries and talking with others in safe environments only goes so far. You need to go to the source to get your answers. Card in hand you head for the address when you get stopped by someone who knows what you’ve been doing, the questions you’ve been asking. You don’t see the gun before it’s too late…
You stagger. Your hand reaches out of the wall nearby. You can’t take your eyes off of the business card. You bend, knees creaking, and pick it up.
Turning, you see people staring at you. Flashing lights in the distance. And in the sky, stars disappearing as dawn looms. How long were you standing there?
You break into a run. You head for the only haven you have. You clutch the card tightly, the grip of the dead. You throw open the cellar door with strength that surprises you, nearly ripping it from its hinges.
You pull off your clothes, lest they start to stink, and climb onto your slab. You still hold the card. You want to cry.