They Who Drive Slow

My job involves a fair amount of driving.  As I traverse the highways through my city, dodging down side streets and making rapid lane changes as I head to constantly changing destinations, I have come to recognize a specific sub-group of humanity: those who drive slow.

Although encounters are by no means rare, they are emphasized by the force in which my foot hits the brake pedal.  These people, these slow drivers, were absent at the all-important Driver’s Ed. class where we were all taught to “go with the flow,” to match speed with the other cars on the road.  Instead, these slow drivers choose to pedal along at ten, fifteen, twenty miles per hour below the speed limit, placidly ignoring the other cars that zip by like angry bees.

What goes on in the minds of these people, these slow drivers?  Are they frustrated by how fast the world moves, the rapid flow of technology, innovation, discovery, to the point where they choose to go slow as an act of rebellion, small and inconsequential as it is?  Are they nervous, have never grown totally accustomed to the speed of these iron horses, and fear the fast reflexes necessary to handle the high speeds?  Or are they simply oblivious, unaware of the bother they pose to other drivers?

As I pass these drivers, I often try to crane my head during that split second of parallel passage, when we are side by side for a fraction of a second, to get a glimpse of this person who momentarily has become my mortal nemesis.  Although occasionally surprised, I usually find that my suspicions have been confirmed.

Sometimes the driver is elderly, hunched over their wheel with both hands gripping like claws, squinting to see through both the fog of their glasses and the fog of their failing mind.

Sometimes the driver is on the phone, talking or even texting, paying no attention to the falling dials on their speedometer, the line of honking, angry drivers behind them, the cars whizzing past on their left (or worse, on their right, when they fall asleep in the left lane), the angry glares as the other drivers pass.

Sometimes the driver is talking, enthusiastically shouting (or perhaps in the depths of an argument?) at other passengers in the car, sparing only a glance to confirm that they hadn’t fully left the pavement.

Whatever the case, knowing the reason for this slow driver doesn’t usually mollify my anger.  Instead, like a hot coal in the bed of a dying fire, I must wait for my frustration to gradually subside.  I take a small bit of grim, perverse satisfaction in roaring past the driver, cutting them off sharply in hopes that the sudden movement will awaken them from their stupor, make them realize how frustrating they are being to the others on the road.

Whatever the case may be, at least I’m now past them, able to finally accelerate back to my normal speed, at least until I encounter the next One who Drives Slow.

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[Outworld] Chapter openings

Author’s note: This is not a chapter in the Outworld saga, per se; instead, it’s a series of small bits of information that will precede each chapter, as an opener.  They are only tangentially related to the voyage of our narrator and Cain, but do pertain to the same world.  


Salvation was built on hope.  In earlier days, when Outworld seemed smaller, tamer, there was a push to civilize the wilderness, to construct a line of cities and roads stretching across the territories.  At one point, some visionaries even dreamed of a railroad, linking the ends of Outworld.  Salvation was built as a rest stop, conveniently located near a water source, a railroad train.  But construction of the railroad never made it out to Salvation, and the town built on hope began to wither away.

*


The territory of Outworld is patchwork.  The landscape shifts abruptly, changing from forest to desert to ocean within miles.  Sir Charles Raymond, one of the best-known explorers of Outworld, claims that each biome came from a different world, dropped like a puzzle piece into the landscape.  As evidence, he points to the City of Dis, a square mile of ruined towers with no surrounding buildings.

*


Many gods in Outworld are feared, but even the Godsends themselves shy away from confrontation with Furor.  The self-proclaimed “god of madness,” he is known for entering thriving towns and slowly infecting the landscape, subtly shifting reality until the minds of the citizens can no longer handle the strain.  Furor is followed by a trail of twisted impossibilities and gibbering husks, capable only of carrying out his commands.  Only Hastur’s name commands more respect.

*


Where does godliness begin?  The Godsends don’t have an answer, but they know that it ends at the tip of a blade.  Although the founding of their order is shrouded in mystery, the details known only to the highest members of the order, they task themselves with hunting down the gods that roam across Outworld, slaying them so that balance might be maintained.  It is unclear whether their efforts are having any effect.

*


What is human?  The pervasive magic of Outworld has a tendency to creep into and infect those who visit its plane, leaving them changed in some way.  Some discover new abilities, while others find that they have been irreversibly altered in some way.  Some accept their changes as gifts, but most denizens of Outworld do their best to ignore the footprint left on them by their world.


[Outworld] Welcome To The Desert, We’ve Got Death And Games

The first chapter in the Outworld saga.  Previous chapter in the Outworld saga.

Music:

As Salvation faded into the dust behind us and the desert stretched out endlessly in front of us, I couldn’t help but wonder about my traveling companion. “So, they knew you back there,” I ventured, trying to cautiously broach the subject.
All I received in response was a wordless grunt, but I decided to press my luck. “Did you do something against them in the past?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light and nonthreatening.
Cain grunted a second time, but he slowed his pace slightly, falling back to walk alongside me as we trudged through the sand. “This place, Outworld, it changes a man,” he said. I fell silent, waiting for him to continue. “Or maybe it doesn’t, and we were all this broken before we got sent here. But the gods would have to search a long time to find a good, honest man here. Everyone’s got an agenda. Everybody’s after something.”
I didn’t speak, but I could feel the unspoken question hanging palpably in the air. Cain must have sensed it too. “These days, I’m just out to survive,” he said with a bitter, cynical laugh. “But back then, I was after answers. I was a fool, thought that if I just learned enough, I could make sense of this whole place. Get a handle on it.” Staring down at his feet, he shook his head. “But Outworld doesn’t have answers, just more questions. Everybody’s spirit is broken eventually. Now, I’d probably settle for just some refuge, someplace safe.”
An oasis,” I said.
Yeah, exactly. An oasis from the insanity of this place.”
No,” I interjected. “Look, over there. I think that’s an oasis.”
Cain followed my pointing finger. “Looks like it,” he agreed.
As we changed course towards the small clump of green that I had spotted, I watched him ready his rifle with trepidation. “Are we in danger?”
Never hurts to be cautious,” he replied, his tone barely above a whisper. As we drew closer, he changed his gait to a predatory stalk. “Around here, if you’re not cautious, you’re a dead man walking.”
As the sand beneath our feet turned to clumps of grass, however, the oasis continued to appear serene and peaceful. A small pool shimmered in the twilight, surrounded by several tropical palm trees. Thick clumps of grass blades were crushed beneath our feet, only to spring erect after our passing. A cricket, hidden somewhere in the tall grass on the edges of the pool, chirped softly.
I stopped at the water’s edge, lowering the pistol in my hand. “Wow, this is really calm,” I said. “I was expecting a monster or something, but this is just relaxing.”
Cain glared around at the deepening shadows, still clutching his weapon. I watched with some bemusement as he kicked at the trunks of the palm trees. “It’s never this easy,” he insisted. “There’s something here, something hiding. The razor blade’s hidden somewhere.”
When I knew that his back was turned and he couldn’t see my expression, I allowed my eyes to roll theatrically. “You know, maybe you just need to unwind, let out some of that tension,” I said. “I’m looking around, and I don’t see anything out of the ordinary at-”
My companion spun around as my sentence ended abruptly, his rifle rising into a firing stance. He followed my gaze into the center of the pool, where a pointed shape jutted up from the water. In the long shadows of the setting sun, I had assumed that there was a rock at the center of the pond. Now, with the moon’s rays starting to shine down upon us, we could see that the protrusion was clear, like ice. We could also see the unmistakable shape of a hand, trapped inside the frozen prison.
Although the muzzle of his weapon didn’t move an inch, Cain let out a low chuckle. “Rule of Outworld,” he commented. “If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s a surprise waiting somewhere.”

What waits inside the crystal? Find out in the next chapter!

How-To

“Look, it isn’t that hard. Just pick an inciting incident.”
“How do I know if it’s exciting?”
“Not exciting, inciting! Some sort of beginning. I like to start my stories in the middle of the action – sometimes even in the middle of a character’s speech,” he continued. “It throws the readers off balance, makes them have to pay attention.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t help,” I complained. “What do I really need at the beginning of a short story?”
“Well, first off, you need to introduce the characters,” Jack said, slipping into his lecturing tone. He knew that I hated it, but it was an intrinsic part of him, just like his hawkish good looks that made the ladies flock to him at the bars. “Setting also helps, although most of that can be left to the imagination. The reader fills it in for themselves,” he added.
I couldn’t help but nod along as I shifted to a slightly more comfortable seat on our ancient, beat-up couch. I used my foot to hook one of the milk crates we were using in place of ottomans in our cramped apartment, pulling it close enough to support my legs. “Right, setting and characters,” I repeated. “Can I use a narrator?”
Jack shrugged. “First person is best, in my opinion,” he said. “You have to make sure the narrator doesn’t know anything he shouldn’t. But it makes it easier to describe feelings, emotions, fill in the backstory to explain the beginning of the story.”
I already regretted asking my roommate to explain how he wrote short stories. For some reason, the question had seemed innocent enough at the time; Jack had been published multiple times, while I was just starting to try my hand at writing. I was already wishing that I’d kept my mouth shut, however, as he went on.
“Once you’ve got your characters, your setting, then you need to expand on the inciting incident,” Jack went on. “For example, let’s say you started with a conversation between two people.”
“Like this one?”
“Sure. Well, you need to build that conversation – the story has to develop, to go somewhere,” he said. As he talked, he stood up from the couch, slowly pacing back and forth in the small space between the couch and television. “There has to be some sort of change; either a revelation, or one of the characters really takes over the conversation, leads it in a direction while the other character is forced to tag along, basically limited to just asking questions.”
“Where is he leading the conversation to?” I asked.
Jack stuck up a finger. “Hold on. First off, ‘to where is he leading the conversation’. Don’t end on a preposition.” I glared at him, resenting the grammar correction. “And he’s leading not just the conversation, but the whole flow of the story! He’s your drive, bringing the story to its climax!”
“And what do I use as a climax?”
As he explained, Jack was growing more and more animated, waving his arms as he walked back and forth in front of me. “Something that’s important to one of the characters!” he shouted. “Something that’s revealing, that gets at the whole heart of the story! If you started things with a question, then the answer to that question is going to be at your climax!”
“In fact,” he continued, stopping to point a finger at me, “sometimes the best climax is simply a repetition of your question, now answered! How do you write a short story? It’s simple. Start with the inciting incident, fill in your characters and setting, and then build to the climax! Writing a short story – it’s that simple!”
#
“So do I just end the story after the climax?” I called out as Jack, his point made, headed to our fridge to grab a beer.
“Up to you,” he shouted back. “Some people do, but I think that it feels too abrupt. No, you need to wind down the story, find some way to tie all the loose ends together.”
I sighed to myself. When I had agreed to live with Jack last year, both of us fresh out of college and naively looking forward to our entry into the work force, I hadn’t realized the price that came with his success. I enjoyed tagging along with him to the fancy parties, letting him pick up the tab at the bar as we both did our best to impress the ladies, but I had quickly grown frustrated with living in his shadow. Maybe that was why I had decided to try my own hand at writing – Jack always made it look so easy, like everything he did. He could always dive effortlessly into a job or hobby, while I was forced to slog my way through, fighting hard for every inch of progress. My father had told me that my determination was my strongest quality. With Jack, that quality was constantly being tempered.
Jack stuck his head around the corner. “Actually, a good way to end the story is with some insight into the main character,” he commented. “A personal glimpse into his deep thoughts, to leave us feeling connected to him.”

[Outworld] Old Friends . . . Can Kill You

The first chapter in the Outworld saga.  Previous chapter in the Outworld saga.

Music:

As the dark figure in the entrance to the saloon raised his gun, Cain moved so fast that he blurred. Spinning around and sweeping his rifle up from the counter, he pointed it at the doorway, firing one-handed as he threw himself sideways out of the path of the bullet.
With a cry of pain, the figure at the front door fell forward into the room, the pistol sliding from his hand to rest near my feet. The other patrons of the bar, however, had seized the opportunity to draw their own weapons, and I felt Cain’s hand grab my shirt and yank me back towards the bar as shots flew overhead to shatter bottles above us. As I was hauled bodily backward, I had just enough presence of mind to grab onto the pistol, bringing it with me.
I winced as glass rained down on us. “What do we do now?” I yelled to Cain over the ringing gunfire.
Cain glared back at me as he reloaded his rifle with a fresh cartridge. “We fight back, of course!” he replied. “You’ve got a weapon, now use it!” With that sage bit of advice dispensed, he popped up over the top of the bar, blasting away at the other bar patrons.
I looked down at the gun in my hand. The pistol was large and silver-plated, with a six-round revolving chamber. A logo stamped into the handle read “Tet Corporation.” Hoisting the gun in my hand, it felt unusually heavy. “I don’t know if I can actually shoot somebody!” I called out.
Instead of responding, I felt the sharp pain of Cain’s boot connecting with my backside, shoving me out from behind the relative safety of the bar. I rolled across the floor and found myself staring up at an equally surprised man attempting to reload his own pistol. He frantically tried to snap his gun together, but without thinking I whipped around my hand and squeezed the trigger.
I stared in horror as the man’s chest exploded in a shower of red and he collapsed forward. I could have remained on the floor, transfixed, but another round dug itself into the rough wooden floor only inches from my ear, and I pulled myself up behind one of the flipped tables.
Peeking over the top of the tabletop, I saw that the last two patrons had emerged from behind their shelters and were approaching the bar. I could hear Cain cursing, and guessed that something had happened to his gun. I took a deep breath.
Standing up, I leveled my pistol at the two men. I pulled the trigger four times in quick succession, putting two rounds in each man.
As my revolver clicked empty, a silence fell over the ruined bar. Cain rose cautiously to his feet on the far side of the bar, yanking a jammed round loose from the rifle’s chamber with a grunt of frustration. His expression shifted towards grim pride as he surveyed the dead bodies. “Not bad,” he nodded. “Gather up the bullets and anything else that looks useful. We’re leaving Salvation.”

Don’t stop reading! Click here for the next chapter of the Outworld saga.

The Elephant in the Room

I noticed it as soon as I walked into the room.  I mean, how can I not?  It’s a freaking elephant.

Halfway across the waiting room, headed towards the bored nurse sitting behind the counter, what I was seeing finally clicked in my head.  I stopped dead, nearly colliding with a geriatric’s walker.  Somehow, an elephant had gotten into this waiting room!  Had it escaped from a zoo?  Was it about to go on a rampage?  What do you do when an elephant attacks – do you look big and threatening, run away, or curl up in a ball?  I wanted to say that I was supposed to make a lot of noise, but that might be for bears…

As my heart pounded in my throat and my vision narrowed, the middle-aged nurse behind the desk cut into my panic.  “Can I help you, sir?” she asked, sounding as if she already regretted voicing the question.

I turned, wondering why she wasn’t running, screaming in fear.  As I glanced around, I slowly realized that none of the other elderly patrons of the waiting room seemed to be overly concerned.  The adrenaline in my veins slowly ebbed.  “Um, just checking in,” I said to the nurse, forcing myself not to glance over my shoulder.

After proving that I did indeed know how to spell my last name and could remember my birthday, the nurse directed me to take a seat and wait to be called.  Finally, I turned and risked another glance at the elephant in the room.

Now that my vision wasn’t being clouded by panic, I realized that the elephant didn’t appear nearly as threatening as I had first believed.  The animal was definitely a pachyderm: large, grey, and with two large tusks protruding from its head, one on either side of a long trunk.  However, it was also straddling two of the waiting room’s chairs, causing their legs to creak alarmingly, and was using its trunk to flip through the pages of a gardening magazine.

For several minutes, hiding behind a Reader’s Digest, I watched as the animal disinterestedly browsed through the meager selection of reading material.  I felt as though I was observing a piece of nature.  I felt as though I should be saying “blimey” more.  My observations were cut short, however, when the nurse called my name out, summoning me to the front desk.

“The doctor will see you now,” the nurse said as I approached, not glancing up from the files on her desk.

I turned towards the entrance to the offices, but something held me back, making me pause.  “Excuse me,” I said, leaning back on the window’s ledge.  “What’s with the elephant in the room?”

Finally, the lady looked up at me.  Her expression seemed to be a mixture of anger, disgust, regret, and panic.  “Look, Dr. Renner and I have agreed to remain professional at the office,” she said to me coldly.  “I would appreciate if you didn’t bring it up, thank you very much.”

Well that wasn’t much help.  I glanced over at the elephant once more before I left the room.  It shrugged back at me.  Shaking my head, I went off to see the doctor.

My email writing process

Time to write an email!  Okay, I’ve been putting off replying to this person for way too long.  Time to sit down, write this out, and move on with the other things I have to do.  Like looking at cat pictures.

Okay, introductions.  Dear so-and-so.  Wait a minute.  Should I use “dear”?  Or do I go with “To” instead?  That seems so informal, but I don’t know if I know this person well enough to go with Dear.  Oh no, I’m hung up on the very first line!  Whatever.  Press onward.

Okay, first paragraph is going well.  Saying what I need.  Hmm, better change that word, I don’t want to use the same word twice, or they won’t think that I have an extensive vocabulary.  And I want them to think that I’m smart.  Otherwise they will totally judge me.  And I want to be judged only in a positive light.

Second paragraph time.  The first paragraph was basically just acknowledging that yes, I read their comments, blah blah blah, they are important, I’m pleased to meet them, all that stuff.  The second paragraph is where I hide the hook among the candyfloss – my request!  But I have to phrase it properly.  Don’t want to seem demanding.  Or pushy.  But I need it to stand out, too, to make sure that they see it and know it’s there, and don’t gloss right over it.  Maybe I should use bold, or underline?  Whoa, nope.  That makes it stand out way, way too much.  Maybe I can just rearrange the words to make it clearer.

Okay, got that written.  Time to end this.  One last paragraph, only one or two sentences, just to sum up the (small) body of the email.  Very nice to hear from you, thanks for the comments, I hope you can get to my request, thank you in advance!  That thank you in advance part is important.  It makes it seem like I assume that they’re going to do what I ask, so they already feel compelled to obey.  I wonder if that actually works, or, if like most people with psych degrees, I’m totally pulling this out of nowhere.

Great, now on to the closings!  Oh man, almost done with this email.  I like “Sincerely”.  It has a nice, formal ring to it, but isn’t off-putting or intentionally inserting distance.  Also, it reminds me of old timey messages.  The things that ship captains would send back to their beloveds, pining away in lighthouses for them.

Now, just my name.  Nickname?  Do I go with the full name?  Go with the rule of thumb here – if I put the full name of the recipient in the “dear” line, then I use my full name.  If I went with their first name only, and I would feel okay calling them by their first name in person, then they can get the more personal touch of only having me add my first name at the end.  Although I think Gmail cuts this off anyway most of the time, putting it in with the signature, hidden unless the person manually clicks to expand it.

Yes!  Email written!  One more quick read-through for errors, changes in phrasing, and minor editing.  It looks good!  Send!

Whew!  That went well.  How long did that take me, anyway?

What??

I spent a half hour just writing that single email!  It wasn’t even the most important one that I have to send!  That was just a warm-up email, to get ready to write the super important ones!  I’m going to be at this all day!

Ugh, I’m going to just go look at cat pictures instead.  I deserve this break.  I mean, I did just write an entire email.

Cyanide

The moment I laid eyes on the girl, I couldn’t tell what adjective fit her best: deadly, or just dead.  Across the crowded bar, her pale face shone in the dim light.  What hooked me, though, were her eyes; they were a pale, icy blue.  They were doll’s eyes, flat and emotionless.

I turned back to the barkeep.  His name was Jimmy, as it always seems to be.  I’ve been drunk in a lot of bars, and one of the eternal constants is the presence of a bartender named Jimmy.  Makes things convenient, at least.  “Jimmy,” I said.  “What’s the story on that girl, over there?”

Jimmy glanced over at me.  “She’s called Cyanide,” he replied.  “Don’t know much else.  I’d warn you not to tangle with her, though.  She’s into the hard stuff.”

As I watched Jimmy pour out shots of pure grain alcohol, I wondered what he considered “hard stuff.”  But I was taking his advice and staying out of it.  At least, that’s what I thought.

I took a pull of my own drink, glanced down, and found that my legs had betrayed me.  They were walking over towards the girl, Cyanide, all of their own volition.  I was stunned.  Usually, it’s my mouth that gets me into trouble.

Cyanide was sprawled across a long couch, sipping something frothy and opaque from a tumbler.  She glanced up at me as I approached, her expression never changing.  “Yes?” she asked, her voice as uninterested as her face.

I had no idea what to say.  “I’m Randall,” I replied.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you in this club before.”  Technically true.

“That’s because you’ve never been in this club before,” she shot back, seeing through my mask of words.  She straightened slightly, sighing as if merely sitting up required a massive effort.  She gestured with the tips of her fingers on one hand at a nearby ottoman.  I grabbed it and pulled it closer, took a seat, took a sip of my drink.

“So,” Cyanide spoke, after spending several minutes gazing at me with her flat eyes.  “What’s your poison?”

The ice in my tumbler rattled slightly as I held it aloft.  “Whiskey,” I announced.  I took a sip to demonstrate.

I could feel the disdain from my new drinking companion.  “Slow poison,” she derided.

“Oh?  What’s yours?”

For the first time, an expression appeared on Cyanide’s face; the corners of her mouth perked up in a small smile.  “My namesake,” she replied, tilting back her glass.

My first published story!

We interrupt this blog, once again, to announce that, holy shit, I have been published!

I am incredibly proud to announce that Every Day Fiction, an online literary site that publishes short stories, has published one of my flash fiction pieces.

I’m not going to post the story here, but instead will post the link – drum up some traffic for them!

Don’t worry, I’m not going to desert my blog now that I’ve hit the big time.  I’ll still be posting stories regularly!

My entry on the next Lascaux Flash contest

We interrupt this blog for a brief announcement; my entry for the Lascaux Review’s Flash Fiction contest is now up!

Here’s my short, 250-word story:

#124 Salvation
I stand in front of the uniformed guard, my amulet of passage clutched tightly in one hand. The paper wrinkles slightly in my grasp, and I try not to smudge the markings.
From behind his podium, the gatekeeper stares down at me. He does not speak, but silently extends his hand, waiting for payment. I hold out my talisman, my hand trembling slightly.
The man takes the paper from me and examines it closely, reading the cramped writings. I wait, holding my breath. This is the last trial; if I fail here, all my efforts will have been for naught. I can go no further.
After what seems an eternity, the man passes back my paper and, with an artificial smile that does not reach his eyes, waves me onward. Heart in my throat, I continue past him, now walking fast, climbing the stairs into the cramped interior beyond. I search for my seat, still refusing to let myself relax.
I stare out the tiny window, finally able to breathe, as I watch my homeland drop away beneath us. Ahead of me lies the unknown – confusion, uncertainty, risk, and hope.I can never return, and feel the acute pain of loss. But there is no longer anything to return to; my future lies ahead.
A tin voice speaks from the front. “The captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign.”

Here’s the link to my post on the Lascaux Flash website – go read more of the entries!

P.S. And there is already someone else who’s used my title, “Salvation”, for their own short story.  Mine is #124.