Dear Mr. Write, 901975:
Our small writers’ club paid you $3000 for showing up at our hick town workshop and showing us boobs how to write and, by the by, selling us autographed copies of your books. For that kind of money, I think you could have read all of my story about the woman who lived in two dimensions at once and could change one to suit the other. At most workshops, such as those given by the talented Nancy Kress, we read our stories out loud and everyone says something nice before we lay on the criticism.
At your workshop you read from your newest book and a couple of good reviews of your books, pointed out that your descriptions are symbolic and your metaphors apply to the universal human condition, told the same story twice. and then passed around a book contract so we amateurs could see what one looks like.
“Don’t look at the figures, ha ha,” you said. But I couldn’t help noticing the 50,000 big ones you’d gotten as an advance.
As we were about to leave, you handed back my manuscript and said, “I read most of it. It needs a lot of work.”
I glanced through the remarks you wrote– on the first page only– and saw they were pretty damned sarcastic. You were packing your contracts and books into your briefcase, and I said, “What’s this mean? All these ‘Huh’s you’ve written here?”
“I didn’t understand it,” you answered.
I said, “Look here, you’ve got ‘Really?’ written all over my story. And here you ask, ‘Where did this paradox come from?’ I explained all that in the first paragraph. You even criticized a description I stole from Stephen King!”
You were snide. “Even if you stole all your descriptions from Stephen King, who’s a ninny and a boob, and not an artist such as myself, I would still not read your story because I don’t believe it. It couldn’t happen!”
“It’s only the first draft. I was going to rewrite it after you critiqued it.”
For the first time you gave me your full attention. “You have to write for the public. And the public isn’t going to believe this woman-in-two-dimensions-with-control-over-them-both bullshit. Every jerk who thinks he’s a writer says, ‘But it’s true!’ Make me believe it.” Then you added, “And your sentence structure is all screwed up.”
I know I sounded whiny; I was almost in tears. “But that’s why I wanted you to read it! To help me with my sentence structure. Isn’t that what established writers do– help fledgling writers who have great ideas?”
You glared at me. “You don’t understand. Yours is not a great idea. I found it unrealistic, unscientific and impossible to follow.”
Then you left the workshop to return to your hideaway in the Catskills.
So you’re asking yourself, “Why is this screwy chick writing to me in prison when none of this stuff really happened?”
Mariev, Erie Matriarch
The Writers Bloc
Often, the writer joked that if he could clone himself, he would; a dozen identical versions of himself to finish all the short stories, screenplays, novellas, and novels his fingertips had not yet birthed. The ideas—quite a few of them, the list of the unrealized growing longer as the writer’s years waned shorter—tortured his days as well as his nights. They called to him, begging for Fade Outs and The Ends.
“This is going to sting,” the duplication specialist said.
The writer was used to suffering for his art. He considered telling the man about the summer he lived off garden tomatoes and a big bag of white rice that a relative donated to his empty kitchen. Or how a jealous and frustrated fellow writer attacked him in a parking lot after an open mike reading and one too many beers following one too many rejection letters. Or the ache in his heart, because so many of his ideas would be lost in the ether if his heart gave out first.
“Don’t worry about it,” he settled for instead, and suffered the sting—which really did hurt—in silence. The writer had a high tolerance for pain.
They began to grow, six instead of twelve. Twelve, he was told, was impractical—the body could not handle a dozen and survive, or reabsorb that many tubules once the clones expired. The burial expense on six alone was going to be exorbitant. While alive, six would require food, clothing, and shelter, according to strict American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Clones rules. An ASPCC advocate would be present at all times. And the six would also require something else of the writer: a total of twelve pounds of adipose tissue per week to maintain cohesion. He could spare fifty pounds, so the equation sounded perfect.
They began to grow, dropping from the writer’s body like tiny pink seeds attached to thin, translucent umbilicals. He gently gathered them in braids and, in quick time, six juvenile versions of the writer matured, each nourished by his excess fat.
The writer sent them to write, six versions of himself seated around the kitchen table, each with a stack of blank lined pages and a cup full of new pens. One, he gave his laptop, opened to the script writing program. That writer typed. And typed.
The projects began to be completed. In two weeks, the writer had lost some twenty-plus pounds and gained thirty-two completed titles, mostly short stories, but some longer pieces and three screenplay drafts. Plunked in his favorite chair, the writer lost weight and gained the Fade Outs and The Ends that had, for so long, eluded him.
“We’ll keep him alive as long as possible,” whispered his voice from a different set of lips. “With less feeding off him, he’ll last longer. We’ll last longer.”
“We’ll need to kill the others.”
The writer opened his eyes. The six continued their work, under the watchful gaze of the ASPCC rep. He’d imagined it, the writer thought, returning to sleep. Then night fell, and the hideous pain slammed into him. Four of the writers were screaming, too; their umbilicals severed. The advocate from the ASPCC lie slumped on the floor, not moving.
Two copies of the writer seized his wrists.
“We’re done doing your dirty work,” one said.
As four detached versions of the writer writhed and died, the survivors dragged him over to the table. One thrust a pen at him, the other a stack of blank pages.
“Now write,” they commanded.
Her Crazy is My Familiar
She invites me for drinks every few months, waits for dusk to serve me turpentine and soda, calls it retsina, calls my poems sorcery. If I don’t bring olives and cheese we will have only stale bread with scorpion oil and horseradish to dip.
We read aloud, share what we have rewritten, edited, perhaps resurrected as new, agreeing if it is new, then there has never been anything like it before, and if it is improved, then there must have been something that didn’t quite measure up before.
When she reads, she swallows her words as she nods her head in an affected way of keeping time to some metronome only she can hear, pausing unnecessarily in the middle of a line, repeating phrases robotically, seems more like playing scales on the piano than music, says the way I read is the same as listening to someone talking, says that’s no way to read a poem aloud. If I do force inflection, she accuses me of becoming insufferably performative.
She coaxes me into filling in her blanks, giving her camels hoofed in brass, patina of red gumdrop, imagery she will later quote as her own, doesn’t care that I recognize what is copied from earlier poems I have shared with her.
She confesses in her poems to strange behaviors, like how she never clips her nails in the house and always burns the hair that falls from her head, will not leave any part of herself laying around for visitors to gather up and use in curses and something about this intrigues me, but most of the time I don’t understand her poems, what happened to chronological reality? All those zombie comics, vampire films, graphic novels, Bloody Mary’s for breakfast, did they take her too far? She says no, she also says she does not have a drinking problem, claims to merely live a life that is a drinking solution.
She admits to writing difficult poems. Feels hidden and safe within, doesn’t intend to keep her readers sober but rather control where she lets us in to join her private drunkenness. I do not, believe me, do not understand the appetite for the difficult poem, what forms it, or the selfish desire of the poet who wants to write the poem that won’t let me in.
I do, however, understand her need for privacy, but what’s the point? Sometimes I find myself looking at a poem of hers that clumps itself on the page as if I am looking at a forest fire or shipwreck and I am flying above the disaster that makes no sense at all. She says I should pretend her poems are caves, cathedrals or catacombs wherein the tightest, darkest, longest passages lead to the largest, most brightly lit rooms. She insists the more difficult the poem the more portals it has to what is easily understood.
When I ask her to stop lifting, misdirecting phrases I have tasted, cooked, served, when I say please take my lines out of your work before we become vignettes of each other double-exposed, color of faded fraud, air-jabbing with both middle fingers, she says creators and creature-women who plagiarize used to be called mad, burned at the stake or more lately confined to a lunatic institution or at the very least heavily sedated.
She smirks at my refusal to admit we all steal from each other, disguise, deceive, lie, she ignores my absolute dismissal, one I try to hide along with my profound denial of how I could never write as I do without her, because although stinking of autopsy, we both know, she screams in my face that unconsciously nods in agreement, that her crazy is my familiar.
“Are you sitting comfortably?” the Storyteller asked. I glanced at the empty blister-pack on the bedside table, pulled the covers up to my neck and nodded.
“Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time-”
Once upon a time it wasn’t like this. Once, you hardly remembered your dreams, good or bad, and didn’t need a Storyteller to send you safely off to sleep.
No one knows for sure what changed. A prion infecting the brain perhaps. Increased solar activity? Or global warming, or fracking, or aliens. Whatever it was, dreams became more common. And more powerful. A nightmare could kill you, or drive you insane, and maybe that was worse. So you made preparations to ensure sweet dreams.
Stories were the key.
If you were wealthy enough you hired a Storyteller to sit by the side of your bed and read you into a peaceful slumber. They’d stay with you until the sleeping tablet kicked in. The poor had to settle for recordings, podcasts, that sort of thing.
Storytellers were preferable. They could adjust their tales to match your mood. Important on nights like tonight, my mind busy with the day’s distractions.
I zoned back into the story. Fairytales, always fairytales. And not the Grimm variety, these were happy ending guaranteed. Distant enough from real life not to trigger any unexpected emotions, but with common themes of good triumphing over evil, of Princes winning the hands of Princesses, of-
Of ugly trolls smashing their way into the Castle?
“I’m sorry?” I interrupted. “I may have tuned out a little there. Do you think you could start again?”
The look she gave me. I’d not had this Storyteller before. But her reaction was common enough; they’re all so damnably precious, so sensitive about their stories. Even if, at the end of the day, it wasn’t the stories that mattered, it was the state of your mind as you drifted off to sleep. Nothing they could conjure up could ever compare to what you were about to dream, the vivid Technicolors and exhilarating rides of the subconscious. Their stories were just the appetizer, a nudge in the right direction to ward off dark thoughts.
Such as trolls smashing down front doors.
Anyway, having finished giving me the look, she smiled, rather nastily. “You should fall asleep in exactly seven minutes, so no, I can’t start again; this is a fifteen minute story. Would you like a recap?” she asked, and I nodded, already composing an email in my head to send to the boss of Sandman Services Ltd early the next morning. Sometimes artists forget who pays the bills.
“Okay,” she said, “the wicked stepmother sent out word to all the evil things in the Kingdom, promising as much gold as they could carry and no questions asked to anyone who rid her of the young Princess before she turned sixteen. Are you with me so far?”
I raised a finger.
“This isn’t one of the usual agency stories, is it?”
“No,” she agreed.
“Isn’t it a bit dark?”
“Yes, I suppose it is. New company policy. Too many people not paying attention to stories they’ve heard a dozen times or more before. We need to spice things up a little.”
“But the point is still to have a happy ending, yes?”
“Absolutely,” she beamed, though the smile failed to reach her eyes, “Which, if you let me continue, will arrive in… oh, four minutes.”
I peered nervously at the countdown timer. With the latest sleeping pills, chemists could send you to sleep within a carefully calibrated thirty second interval. That was progress for you. It sidestepped all the ridiculous adlibbing tellers used to have to do, to avoid a too sudden ending from jarring you back to wakefulness. Maybe I shouldn’t have interrupted her. It was only a harmless fairy tale, after all.
“Sorry. Please continue,” I said, with my best air of contrition. My official complaint would make sure she never worked again, but the clock was ticking and I could feel the tension building.
The Storyteller tilted the angle-poise lamp towards the wine-colored curtains, bathing the bedroom in a dismal glow before picking up her tale.
“As the troll burst into the entrance hall, shattered remnants of the oak door all around, the stable boy took his stand on the staircase, spear in one hand and shield in the other.”
I nodded, relieved. It was corny; the young hero pretending to be a lowly worker, saving the day and winning the Princess’s hand before revealing that actually he was of Royal descent, but at least this was known territory.
“Alas, the troll was the least of the gathering foes and now that the door was smashed, dark forces crept in, eager to claim the Stepmother’s prize. Nightcrawlers slinked unseen across the ceiling towards the Princess’s chambers, the air turning stale and cold.”
My bedroom was also much too dark, shadows pooling in the corners. Shivering, I closed my eyes, but that was no better.
“The stable boy bravely threw the spear and his aim was true! But the troll was a mountain troll, his skin thick and his muscles thicker; the spear only served to enrage him.”
I stared at her, my mouth agape, as the timer ticked off its final minute. She placed a hand on my chest and began to press, breaking the strict “no contact” clause.
“The troll’s fist wrapped around the weaponless hero’s torso, squeezing, squeezing, until his ribs began to crack, tortured lungs collapsing, splinters of bone creeping towards his laboring heart. And then! Just before it was pierced, he heard the final screams of his beloved Princess as the creatures of the night tore her apart. The End.”
“You imbecile!” I cried, a tremor in my voice, “What sort of dream am I bloody well going to have now?”
“What makes you think,” she hissed, needle-teeth glittering in the blood-red light, “that you’re not already dreaming?”
Scary Story by Bill Thomas
The Stories They Tell
In her back yard, between the skeletal branches of the dead azaleas and the weed-choked square that was once a vegetable garden, an apple tree grows.
Pale blossoms dapple its branches, bleached white by the sun. Bees gyrate to the blossoms’ songs, thrusting and grinding uselessly over the long spring, the faint buzz of their frustration occasionally joined by the dwindling rings of the unanswered phone inside the house.
Dissatisfied, the blossoms wither. They sink into pale corpses, into brown knots of worry. Overnight, they drop like stones to the gray earth below.
The next year, the bees refuse to dance. And the year after that. And the year after that.
The tree never bears fruit.
In her back yard, overshadowing the hail-dented eaves of the two-bedroom house she’d hoped would be filled with cooing laughter by now, an apple tree grows.
Its blossoms are a pale shade of yellow, delicate as moth wings. They flutter in the breeze, clinging haphazardly to their branches. Many are lost.
Over the summer, the surviving blossoms turn to nubs, round and glistening like burnished gold. It hurts to look at them, as much as it hurts to stare into a mirror and trace the new lines that have aged her face so suddenly.
When autumn paints the tree, the apples bow their branches to the ground. One by one, the branches snap, spilling their burdens onto the soft grass below.
She gathers the golden apples into the moving boxes she keeps meaning to fill and sells them from the corner pharmacy’s parking lot to pay for her growing psychiatrist bills.
Bereft of most of its branches, the tree does not survive the winter.
In her back yard, roots stretching hungrily outward and cracking the concrete of the now-empty koi pond, an apple tree grows.
Tightly clustered blossoms, bright as limes, peek between the spring leaves. Praying mantises and lacewings make their homes amongst the hundreds of blooms.
When the apples bulge forth, they gleam like green mambas.
She cannot bear to eat the apples, not with what is buried at the tree’s base, so she shares them with the acquaintances who don’t know her well enough to ask personal questions, with the coworkers she can’t avoid if she wants to keep the job she struggles daily to care about, with the psychiatrist who accepts them with the same empty expression he greets everything with, and with the numerous doctors who, despite their never-ending probes and tests, still claim there’s nothing wrong with her, that the fault lies elsewhere. Over the next few months, every woman who has eaten of the fruit finds herself pregnant. Even the ones who weren’t trying.
She stares at her pantry, new lines marring her face as she slams her fist against the empty shelves again and again, but no apples remain.
The next year’s apples are tones of sepia, like old photographs. She gorges herself on them, eating little else, until even hearing the word ‘apple’ sends her heaving into the toilet. Despite this, she shares them with no one.
She grows sick of apples, but that is all that happens by the year’s end. The next spring, she calls a tree service and has the tree chopped down. Only the stump remains, and that she refuses to disturb.
In her back yard, ground slickened by the broken sprinkler head she doesn’t have the energy to replace, an apple tree grows.
Its blossoms are red silk, slippery beneath the languid sunlight. Her gaze slides off their petals. When the apples burst forth, they are bright like fresh blood refusing to clot. They pulse and throb like tiny hearts.
Screaming, she rips them unripe and barely formed from their branches and throws them to the roots below where they turn wet with rot. They bleed into the earth, and every day smells sickly sweet with their dying.
They are just apples, she tells herself as she watches them decay. But that doesn’t stop her from hating them. Nor does it keep her from scheduling sessions with a second psychiatrist.
In her back yard, weathered with age and burdened by regret, an apple tree grows.
Back and forth, she rocks between the roots, shovel in repose beside her and tears streaking her soil-grimed cheeks. She picks up an apple from the nearby pile, forces a single bite down her constricted throat, and holds the opened end to her ear. She listens for a while, nodding in rhythm to the words only she can hear: In her back yard, an apple tree grows… At the end of each story, she pitches the apple with a pale-knuckled grip against the fence with the rest of the discarded fruits.
Inside, the phone rings. And rings. And rings.
For a traitorous moment, she considers abandoning the fresh grave beside her and the swaddled remnants of her womb’s most recent failure, but the phone’s ringing finally stops. With a sigh, she grabs another apple in her shaking hands and takes a bite.
Maybe this one’s story will be better.
The Context of Paradise
My son’s eyes wide and wondering, I tell him of the angels. We lie side by side in the cot, a worn blanket to cover us. The thin metal walls groan as the cooling earth around us presses in; this is how we know it is nighttime.
He’s never heard the word.
“Angels, yes,” I say, brushing a thick drape of hair from his face, “Terrible things, all eyes and rotating wheels of bone and skin. Very few of them have mouths, but the ones who do always smile big scary smiles.”
I pull my lips up at the corners to show him. He giggles at first then falls silent as the image in his mind changes.
“They were made by God.”
“I know God,” he says.
“God you know, yes. The good and right God, but they killed him. The wild, grinning angels threw him to Earth because he wouldn’t let them have fun with humans, the kind of fun only they could imagine, the kind of fun from the darkest days of the Earth.”
I pause and smell the constant, damp scent of earth. The only smell of nature my son has ever known, the only one I can seem to remember. I still have the memory of a memory of cut grass and falling leaves in autumn, but it’s become like a photograph photocopied again and again until all that’s left is the blurry black and white haze of figures. The memory mingles with reality, the dead leaves and dead grass in the soil infringing on what I think those things smelled like above ground. I wonder if there’s anything green left.
“God’s dead?” His eyes big and rimmed with tears.
“We found refuge, at first, in his ribcage. It fell in the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado. Do you remember that from your map?”
He nods. He knows the maps, the cold, objective paper world above. It’s nothing more than fact. I’ve never told him about summers in Estes Park with sunshine dancing through thick green aspen leaves to warm the skin. He can point to the green tint marking the national forest, but he’s never been told about the evening sea of orange and purple over Long’s Peak. The others feed their children nostalgia, stories of walks through shady trails next to softly chuckling streams, things that are lost forever—reality turned fantasy.
“God’s skin was like fabric woven from moonbeams, impossibly soft and neither warm nor cool. We cut it open and lived inside, sheltered from the maniac angels who soared over the Earth, catching up any human unlucky enough to be seen,” I say, keeping him at length, denying him any comfort for this moment.
“What did they do to them?”
He’s breathing hard, near panic. I want to turn back and tell him it’s all a story, but it’s a story he needs to hear before we resurface.
“They remade humanity in their image, twisted wheels and animal skulls, many eyes and grinning mouths and giddy brains. And they, the humans, lived through it. The angels refused the gift of death to their new creations. You could hear them outside God’s ribs, screaming and laughing and singing blasphemous praises to their terrible new gods. They’re the ones who eventually found us and chased us out of our refuge. We ran, losing many, until we finally found a new shelter…here.”
He starts crying and shuddering, uncontrollable and frantic.
“We can’t go up!” he screams.
I give him a sad smile, “We’re almost out of food and two sections are about to collapse. Kirk won’t allow us to stay.”
As if summoned, our leader Kirk ducks through the low door into our section, irritation painting his face. He’s allowed to be irritated. He’s allowed to feel however he wants. He’s the one who thought to make an underground shelter out of broken down school buses, welding them into a sealed ring and burying them. He’s also my son’s father, but he refuses that label. That’s not a label for the apocalypse.
I tell my son to wait, to be quiet, and I join Kirk in the next room.
“Why is he crying? Other people need their sleep, tomorrow’s going to be difficult enough as is.”
“I’m telling him scary stories” I say, wincing at the scent of liquor and badly decayed teeth.
“Why would you do that?”
To prepare him for horror, to exorcise my demons, to give him a tool to fight his own demons.
I shake my head, “I’m done now. He’ll be quiet, I promise.”
Kirk points towards our section, “No more. You bic?”
I nod, “Yeah, bic.”
I rejoin my son who is shivering and wide-eyed but quiet. I hold him now. It’s my reflex to tell him it’ll be okay, to fall back on the role of comforter. But I want to be honest, from this point forward. I pet his head, humming, and eventually he falls into a restless sleep.
The ramp to the surface is made from two semi-trailers. Three hatch doors like the ones in submarine movies are between us and the world above. Each door has a lock, each lock with a different combination. A hiss and blast of foul, dusty air meets us in each chamber. At the last door, Kirk pretends to forget the code and laughs. My son is silent but his entire body shakes as I hold him against my chest. Finally Kirk opens the last door with the help of two others, pushing debris and dirt off of the hidden entrance. Wind driven snow piles up around our feet. Fifteen women, three men and eight children shiver, cut through by the vicious Wyoming wind.
Outside I set my son down. He sees a field of snow, turned grey from ash. The sun is a dim, almost imperceptible disc behind black clouds. The other children sob and clutch their mothers, their dreams of green and growth collapsing. They’re unprepared, horror ambushes them.
My son looks to the sky.
“It’s silent,” he says.
I nod, “Yes.”
“There aren’t any angels up there.”
“None,” I say, “This is the world as it is.”
He looks up at me and smiles, the first smile I’ve seen in ages.
“It’s beautiful, mom.”