Entropy excerpt–an apocalyptic microscene

The morning is the mottled gray-pink of bad meat. A cloud scrim hides layers of more clouds and the dawn and the sun. The heavy air condenses on the wind shield sending rivulets scuttling up and over the car.

My dread is tinged with a growing nervousness. What was merely butterflies in the stomach is quickly becoming cockroaches under the covers—I don’t know what I’ll find in Madison. There’s only been a couple of other cars on the interstate between Rockford and Madison, if one doesn’t count the dozens of abandoned cars. The silence of the road gives way to a bull bellowing without his harem. It’s the quiet I dislike.

But has it been thirty miles since I last checked? Close enough. Besides, we’re getting close to Madison. I turn the car radio on. The static is set at a low enough volume to let Jared sleep. I hit “Search” and let the car cycle through the frequencies. It searches. And it searches. And cycles.

“Nothing?” says Jared as if we expected nothing. He’s still in his sleep position with arms crossed, eyes closed, his head leaning on the window. I turn the radio off.

“Nothing.”

Your Vision + Their Vision = Revision

Rewrites have to happen–that’s just a part of life. They’re just less fun when directed by editors, writing instructors, beta-readers . . . There’s that sinking moment of “things not working as intended.” Que sera sera.

A couple weeks ago (here) I posted about being asked to write a piece for consideration by a new comic book company. The piece I wrote was third person, present tense, script style, ie how I picture graphic books. The feedback I got was to make it first-person, past tense, memoir style. And that adaptation took me 2 weeks, due to work and life and procrastination and surliness in various combinations. I don’t even know if I’m on time to be considered still, but it’s sent off. And I feel much relieved.

Now I have 2 very different accounts of the same event. That’s a win. And maybe not a big deal to people used to doing writing prompts. But I’m not, at least, not since poetry-writing grad school 7 years ago. So I grumped and groused until I got it done.

Here’s the thing: the story tells of an emergency and disaster. A death. My original immediacy was in the present tense. The new immediacy is in the first person narration. These are big changes, but done for now. Until I hear back from them again with a new suggestion . . .

Some say death is the great equalizer. But in my 6 years as a nurse, I’ve begun to believe that sickness and dying are the equalizers in that it can come for anybody at any time and no amount of life experience can predict how one will deal with it.

I’m Trixie Carmichael, a nurse on 4West, a medical floor, at Youngstown Township Municipal Hospital. Sometimes it’s almost easier to talk about what I don’t deal with as a nurse. 4West is that floor—the one without babies and kids, without surgical patients, without cancers, without psych. And rarely do patients die on our watch as we have an ICU for that. What we do have is bad blood pressure, trouble breathing, seizures, unexplained aches and pains, and diabetes. We stabilize, we control, and then we send you home better than you came in. But, I’m not surprised when you come back a few months later . . .

Writing Upon Request

I been writing for decades, traditionally poetry which is the only medium I’m published in [here, here, and here] though more recently in prose fiction. I also started actively reviewing last year. Suddenly this year I’m being asked to review things upon request–which is great. Now, I’ve been asked to write a storyline for a comic book company.

Comic books has never been on my horizon–but it is done. And sent. If it gets used, I’ll talk about it and promote it. If it doesn’t, I’ll likely post the story here. But the request was odd:

Write a memoir-style piece, without zombies, set in the world of Night of the Living Dead.

So, this is what I’ve done. I’ve written a story about dealing with life and death and the various ways in which people deal. In my 1st year out of college, I worked in a hospital. One of my assigned patients was on death watch, and then died, on my shift. This was not my usually floor, nor my usual experience in the hospital. Frankly, it was surreal. And worth writing about.

I’ve written a single shift memoir of a fictional nurse that has a patient on death watch, afflicted by an unknown cause. Seen are the other nurses, a doctor, the patient and importantly the five adult children of the patient. Even if it never gets published, writing the piece was cathartic.

Character Interactions: Walsh and Britt, the siblings

Sibling dynamics fascinate me as a sibling can be one’s biggest rival and cheerleader all in one. So when it came time to introduce a new character that had only been referenced as the far younger sister of a main character in the urban fantasy series I am creating, I knew I really had to explore how their interactions would reflect twenty years of history.

Walsh [Benjamin Walsh], who narrates this scene, is well-established as a reserved music teacher that does not easily open up about his private life or feelings. However, as he becomes convinced that his sister, who’s thirteen years younger, is in danger, he goes to Madison, WI to get her and her newborn daughter to bring them back to his home in Chicago. The idea of living together again has him feeling both wistful and nervous.

     I feel a bit guilty showing up unannounced to my sister’s door at 7:30 in the morning. So, I try to peer in through a window and I knock gingerly. To my relief, Britt appears like a wraith concealed by the sheer white curtain.
     She opens the door wide. “You’re here,” she states the obvious. “And, you look like crap,” she says to continue a life-long habit of greeting with an observation that usually verges on both truth and insult.
     “You chopped your hair off,” I notice.
     “It’s called a pixie.”
     “You pixied your hair,” I correct.
     “Thank you.” Her arm beckons me in. “Your niece is in the kitchen. We need to be quiet—Chuck and Tess both were tending last night.” Having bartender roommates is yet another reason to move my sister out.
     Bea, my niece, is not even two months old. My last visit to Madison was during the week she was born. Today, she is flopped back in a portable, rocking seat. Quiet and bright-eyed, she is happily strangling in her tight little fist a cloth raccoon that has the consistency of a sock.
     “I wasn’t expecting you, Benji. Did Michael not come with you?” Britt picks up Bea and goes back to bottle-feeding her.
     Britt has always and will always get away with calling me “Benji” in that peculiar way in which younger sisters always get away with their precocious obnoxiousness. I’m admittedly particularly soft on her. If for no other reason, than that she was my thirteenth birthday gift. I was an only child on my twelfth birthday when I made the fateful wish for a sibling. I was a lonely kid, a young, gay wisp of a boy whose body refused to mature in synch with the rest of the boys. So, I wanted someone who’d love me and look up to me. In particular, a sister. I was leery that a younger brother might quickly become the sporty son that I was not.
     Usually, I’d get to choose what I wanted for dinner on my birthday. But not in 1988. No, for my thirteenth birthday, my dad and I had hospital hamburgers with none of the fixings. He did let me have a soda with my dinner. So there was that. Mom still wasn’t in labor and doctors were worried. She was big enough to burst—stretched to the point where I expected her skin to become transparent revealing my stubborn sister within. Four days later, tired of waiting, doctors took Mom into surgery and delivered Brittany Rose Walsh. Britt. The sporty, rebellious kid that I was not.
     My sister was seventeen when I first brought Michael home with me. She loved him. He was the perfect accessory—the lover of her gay older brother. To a teenaged liberal rebel who had already donned veganism, smoking menthols, and sipping Jägermeister, we were perfect. Her love affair with the idea of us was short-lived however. All too soon it had become clear to her that we were boringly domestic. We were sell-outs to the American dream.
     “Michael and I are no longer together,” I confess.

Entropy: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances

The urban fantasy series that I’m writing under the working title, Entropy, thrusts the world into chaos. A modest percentage of the population acquires extraordinary abilities, call them superhero powers if you will, however the “gifted” largely do not handle it well. Bryson Finney and Jared O’Shea, whom I’ve introduced in previous posts, are two of those ordinary folks. Their case is peculiar, though, in that they each have premonitions of strange events from the future time of the change: millions of birds braining themselves into buildings overnight, grounded air travel, disrupted internet, television signals, cellular service . . .

They don’t know what this means or when it’s going to occur. That’s the situation when Jared [narrating the scene] wakes up one morning at Bryson’s where he is dog-and-house sitting.

Ripper is whimpering, but he has food and water. I open the backdoor a few inches to let him slip outside. I’m not going to be playing with him while I’m in my underwear. The neighbors don’t need a show.

My bagel pops up at the same time that Ripper starts growling and barking. This is his serious bark reserved for raccoons, bats, opossums and the neighbor’s Doberman. Squirrels, robins and the other neighbor’s poodles get a more playful bark. I should check on him. With my luck, I’d be enjoying a bagel barely an hour after Bryson and Kate leave for a week’s trip to Texas, and their dog would get carried off by an eagle due to my negligence.

Ripper paces alongside the back of the house to the right of the door. He’s fine and barking at a clod of dirt. There seems to be a few clods right at the edge of the lilies. Or, they’re lumps of fur. “Ripper, come on! Come back in!” Don’t make me come out there in my underwear. Maybe I should go grab a pair of cut-offs. Is that a mouse? One of the clumps is moving. “Rip! Come here! Now! Ripper! Rip. Rip.” It moves in a funny way, like—BATS. “Ripper COME here!” Neighbors be damned. I’m out the door ready to scoop up the stupid, obstinately deaf dog. It’s comfortably cool out. It must have rained last night. Fog still shrouds everything beyond two houses away. Ripper starts to back away from a bat feebly crawling with a wing outstretched like an awkward crutch. The pup backs towards me. The multiple clods of dirt I saw are all bats—there could be five in the yard. Only one moves. I wish I were wearing shoes or at least socks. And maybe shorts. Grounded bats equal sick bats. With a lunge, I scoop up Ripper. I waste no time getting back inside and bolting the door behind me. I’ll deal with the bats later. When I’m dressed. Or after work, even. I wish Bry had left me a note about the bats; I wouldn’t have put the dog out.

My cell phone waits in the living room not charging. It contains a text from Bryson: “Craziness at O’Hare. Fog! Ambulances on the tarmac. Don’t think a plane crashed. Check the news. ETD is not changed yet.” He could have mentioned the damned bats. I respond, “Downed bats in the backyard. What gives? Rip’s OK.” I look at my phone for a good half-minute waiting for a return text. Nothing.

My bagel’s cold.

The news conjectures about the incident at O’Hare, though details are slow to trickle in: One ground crewman is dead. . . .One full luggage cart is destroyed. . . .No reported injuries on the plane involved. . . .The pilot’s taken in for questioning and drug-testing. . . .The air traffic controller is taken in for questioning and drug-testing. . . .The dead ground crewman is identified as Alicia Fuentes—mother of two. The picture forms of a landing gone horribly, freakishly wrong. By mid-morning, half a dozen other pilots in the air over O’Hare and Midway at the time of the accident have reported instrument anomalies lasting for some minutes. Heavy, early fog didn’t help.

Character Introduction: Bryson Finney

In my original superhero urban fantasy series, the second of the 3 primary characters that take over the 1st person POV is Bryson Finney. I’ve previously highlighted his near-brother status to Jared O’Shea in posts here and here. With Jared as the first narrator, Bryson is usually seen through his filter. However, the following scene shows Bryson, the Texas-transplant, in his natural element–grilling and doting on his wife, Kate, and his puggle, Riptide aka Ripper.

Bryson is already working the grill. It looks like we’re having corn on the cob and sausages. It seems awfully early in the season for corn. “Did Kate tell you we renamed the dog? Waco was a terrible name; everyone up here thinks of Branch Davidians. As a kid, our dogs always had Texan names: Austin and Texarkana were beagles, Houston was a Chihuahua, Dallas was a springer spaniel, Tyler was also a Chihuahua, and Midland was a bulldog.” I knew about him having dogs, but I’d forgotten about the Texas-themed names. “My stepdad named them. Obviously, he’s a freak about Texas. He’ll be disappointed that I broke tradition, but this here’s a Yankee dog. Riptide. Like my band—Riptide.”

“Yeah, Kate said. About time you actually used that name.” Bryson is smirking and grilling, quite proud of himself. Kids can be punks, but I bet Bryson’s students like him. He has that right amount of intensity about whatever he believes in. As a teacher, his passion is history and how technology, science, war and politics have propelled society’s development. This guy knows more about America than anyone I know.

“Did Kate tell you anything else?”

“Not really. She’s getting together with Barb and friends. Barb’s the tall one, right? Are you ready for a beer? Bigger question: are you ready to dreamwalk?”

“We’re pregnant, Jared.” WOW! Bryson is looking right at me. Smiling, but not smirking. I believe he could cry. I can feel myself misting up.

“Dude!” Really? Dude? My reaction blows. I’ve got to do better than that. “That’s great news, Bry.” My voice wavered when I said “great news.” I am such a wussy that I could tear up to a beer commercial. Bryson has turned his attention back to the grill. He’s beaming. “Too bad you already used the name Riptide for your dog. You could name the kid Galveston or Amarillo.” I can’t think of any other Texas cities.

“Odessa if it’s a girl.” He’s laughing. “I’ll take a beer. Unless you think it could interfere with the dreamwalk?”

“One can’t hurt.” I’m still shocked by his news though I guess I knew they were trying. I am going to spoil this kid rotten.

Character Research: The Epileptic and the Musician

In the past couple of weeks, I have editorialized on creating a diverse cast of characters for science fiction and urban fantasy that transcends bias based on race and/or gender. Part of that diversity also means creating characters that have world-experience that goes beyond the limits of my own resume and relationship history. But, to do this requires: curiosity and research.

I can imagine what a certain situation or job would be like, but that doesn’t mean I’m correct. I like to run micro-scenes by people that have a better know-how into a scenario. My partner’s brother was a military lifer, he is my go-to for questions of rank and organization as my series delves more deeply into a dystopian US under martial law.

Jared, the primary narrator of the first book talked about here, here, and here, has a seizure [Oh, spoiler alert. <–back there. Skip that part.] Having not experienced a seizure first hand, I've given the appropriate scenes to an epileptic and the mother of an epileptic for critique from those who've intimately experienced it.

Kate, looking the sickly yellowish-green of bad limes, wipes my forehead with a cool cloth. “Bryson!” she yells, “He’s stopped seizing. He’s back with us, I think.” I feel very achy, but the headache and buzzing noises are gone. Kate’s look softens, “Jared? Are you okay, Jared? You’ve had a seizure. But you’re going to be alright.”

I’ve pissed on myself. The warm wetness has soaked through the chair. I’ve never felt shame and embarrassment this thoroughly. I wish they had not found me like this. “Thank God, you’re okay,” Kate adds while brushing my hair from my forehead. Bryson is in the doorway behind Kate. He listens to his phone but watches me intently.

“How are you feeling, Jare?” Bry asks with louder than normal volume. How am I feeling? Wet, embarrassed, achy, ashamed, thirsty. Thirsty? Yes, just a little bit. “I don’t know,” he snaps at the phone, “He hasn’t answered me yet.” Kate looks up at Bry, her eyes begging him to not get snippy on the phone. “The ambulance is on its way,” he assures her. She accepts this answer and turns back to me.

Another character, Walsh, teaches piano and voice at a local university. While I am a singer involved in multiple choirs, I still went to a profession singer-pianist to scan his scenes for accuracy.

. . . we’ve settled on the emotive “Danny Boy.” That is what we are running currently. My fingers lilt into the old Irish tune by memory, finding jazz hidden between the lines and notes on the page. My mind, though, drifts over to the window and out into the garden. Eric’s voice and pitch waft gently away from the key my piano playing offers.

I stop playing mid-phrase, letting my final chord ring. Eric winces and corrects his note. “Shit,” he concedes allowing his stance to slump. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. And, I was really into it that time.” I move to advise, but he beats me to the lesson. “I know,” Eric whines, “I stopped listening. It’s just that same phrase where the piano part doesn’t have my note—“