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Category Archives: Sleepwalkers

(Friday Fiction) Changeling: The Talk

Writing 150Our protagonist gets a name! I’m still feeling out how being a Changeling would feel in inner-city Baltimore. I think there’s something distinctive about the idea and I’d love to try and capture it. Here, Mr. Foster takes our narrator to McDonald’s for an explanation of what’s going on. Or not.

I don’t know if I’ve ever really SEEN the McDonald’s at Walbrook Junction before. I’ve walked past it all the time, and it’s always been the same place since I was a kid. The outside is the same fake stucco that covers the entire crumbling strip mall, and the inside is this big, open space that is way cleaner than it should be for the neighborhood but still choked with the smell of a generation’s worth of fryer grease and industrial cleaners. The tile is old, the walls are peeling but scrubbed clean, and the chairs are so worn you wouldn’t know foam was in the seat. I had always thought it was a dump, like everything there, even if the owner gave a shit about it being clean.

That was until I went in there with Mr. Foster. When he picked me up at my house, it was in a car that was twice the size I had remembered it being. The dashboard was covered with weird knobs and words in another language, but he drove it just fine. We cruised through my neighborhood, and it was like I was seeing everything for the first time. The trees were bigger and greener. The abandoned house looked like it was alive, sitting back from the street with its mouth wide open like it wanted to eat you. There were rats and cockroaches playing double-dutch on the sidewalk.

Walbrook Junction looked mostly normal, except for that McDonald’s. It was a castle with — I shit you not — an actual moat around it and banners flying and everything. When Mr. Foster walked up to it, a drawbridge just appeared. When he opened the door, one of the old mascots — the bird with the yarn hair — curtseyed and greeted him like he was a visiting noble. “Good afternoon, Sir Baobab,” is what I think she said.

Everybody seemed to know him. He walked up to the counter and the worker there stared up at him. Mr. Foster is a tall dude, but…he was really tall here. His Afro scrunched against the ceiling, and you could hear the horns coming out of his forehead scraping against it. His skin was unnaturally black but kinda brown, like molasses. And his hair was white with little flecks of black in it. That’s not how Mr. Foster looked before. And I had known him for like, five years now.

He ordered two quarter pounders with cheese, two Big Macs, a 20 piece Chicken McNuggets, and the biggest Coke they had. I got a double cheeseburger and a McChicken, then some fries and a milkshake. I don’t know why, but it felt like I had to keep up with him. The way everybody was acting around him, it made me want to live up to something.

We got our food, and he wasn’t charged for it. He told the cashier where we were going to sit (at a table in the corner) and he said “I’ll make sure you aren’t disturbed.” Before we sat down, he took a lima bean out of his pocket and put it on the chair. It sprouted immediately, and a new chair made of vines formed over it, sized up for him. He caught me staring, but he just pointed at me to sit down.

Mr. Foster tore up his food immediately. I couldn’t stop looking around. There was a five-foot squirrel dude mopping the floor and wiping down tables. Every once in a while, a rat walking on its hind legs would walk up to him and he would chitter at it or something, and then it would go off and pick up trash or put balls back in the ball pit.

I’ve been seeing shit like this ever since I got mugged. It’s still straight-up crazy to me, but with Mr. Foster it was the first time it felt like it was a kind of crazy I could live with.

“What do you want to do with your life?” When he spoke, he demanded you listen. He had that kind of voice.

“Uhm, what?” I was distracted by the squirrel-dude, and caught off guard by the question. What did that have to do with anything?

Mr. Foster leaned in and rounded his shoulders. There was a table between us, but I still felt trapped. “I said, what do you want to do with your life?”

I stared at him for a long minute. My mind went blank. Was I supposed to know what I wanted to do with my life when I was just in high school? Wasn’t that what college was for? I reached for anything I could think of, the first thing that came to mind.

“I want to cut hair.” I felt so stupid right after I said it. Mr. Foster lifted his eyebrows, but otherwise he didn’t react.

“Why?”

I shrugged. “It’s cool to just be able to talk to people all day while doing something nice for them.”

Mr. Foster nodded. “You know how to cut hair?”

Oh shit, I didn’t even think of that! I shook my head quickly. “Naw, but I can learn. It looks like something I can get pretty good at.”

“Yeah, you think so, huh?” Now he seemed amused. But not in a way that made me feel bad. “You just need some clippers and a YouTube video, right?”

“Maybe a head to practice on or something, I don’t know.” I returned his smile without knowing why. None of this made sense. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about the fact that all kinds of impossible shit was happening all around us right now? That we were in a McDonald’s that suddenly looked like a castle? That he was some giant unnaturally-colored dude that seemed to pull a lot of respect here? Why were we talking about hair all of a sudden?

“Listen, I got a few friends who could use a haircut.” He shifted in his seat, and the whole thing groaned, vines and all. “I’m going to bring a clipper set over to school tomorrow. It’s yours. And in two weeks’ time, you’re going to come to my house and cut hair. That’s how you’re gonna pay me back. Deal?”

“Uhm. Deal.” I glanced at a small group of rats that seemed to be arguing about a mess on the floor. They were squeaking at each other in these high voices that made it hard to make out what they were saying. “But shouldn’t we be—?”

Mr. Foster put up a big hand to stop me from talking. “You’ll get to talk all you want in a couple of weeks. But if you have questions, you write them down one at a time on this.”

He made a motion like he was sliding something to me across the table. It didn’t look like anything at first, but when I looked down there was a piece of paper there. It was thick, like a page out of an expensive journal or something, colored yellow-brown with all kinds of spots in it. It looked awesome. Too good to write on, even. I gathered it up and slipped it in my backpack, not really sure what to say. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. You write the question, and I’ll see it. I’ll write a response, and you’ll see it on that slip of paper.”

“How?”

“Magic, that’s how.” The look on his face let me know he was giving me a big secret. “It’s like untraceable email, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” I still felt weird about all of this, but kind of comfortable. “But what if my parents find it or my sister starts snooping in my room?”

Mr. Foster shook his head. “They won’t see it. Only folks like you and me can. If you want to know what I mean by that, that’s your first question.”

He got up all of a sudden, and it looked like he was going to smash right through the ceiling. But he didn’t. “I’ve got to go, but I want you to know two things. First, you’re not crazy. You’re special. Second, if you ever feel like you’re in danger or this is too much to handle, you come here and ask a cashier to get me. I’ll come as soon as I can, OK?”

I nodded. I didn’t really like it, but I nodded.

“Good.” Mr. Foster grabbed my shoulder when I stood up and squeezed it. “You’re a good kid, Marvin. It’s going to be OK.” He stared at me with those weird blue eyes of his until I believed it.

And then he drove me home.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2016 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Friday Fiction) Changeling: Emergent

Writing 150It was my first day back in school after the mugging, and people were treating me surprisingly well. I guess word had spread about what happened, which was cool, but what was most interesting was how the story changed based on who told it. The teachers talked about how I nearly got away by telling a story about this little Br’er Rabbit figure I had, which is true — I made it up on the spot because I didn’t know what else to do, and all that fear and anger and desperation just came out of me in this huge rush. It felt great. It made me dizzy, and sick, like I was high af. I couldn’t remember what the story was if I wanted to.

If you talk to my classmates, though, they’ll tell you how I started “acting crazy” after the first punch was thrown, speaking in tongues and all that. I was pointing to things that weren’t there, and having conversations with myself, and got in a fight with thin air. The people who attacked me were so confused that they were about to run off until I clocked one of them real good upside the ear. Then they jumped up and beat me down.

That’s true, too, but I don’t like to talk about it.

I’m adopted, and my mother was institutionalized for being a paranoid schizophrenic. When I was in the hospital, there were a lot of doctors who told me that I “had taken a pretty good blow to the head” and to let them know if I started seeing things that weren’t there. I couldn’t tell them that my room was filled with balloons of all sizes and shapes, that somehow managed to change color right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t tell them that these had been brought to me by a bunch of creatures that couldn’t exist — rats in waistcoats, or CPR dummies that told me where all the good drugs were, or an elephant that liked to be the size that would be most disorienting for you. I knew where that road lead, and that was one I wasn’t going to take.

So I pretended everything was fine, and I got pretty good at living a double life. In one of them, I was the victim of a violent crime recuperating from a possible concussion. In the other, I was this storyteller that every imaginary friend in the hospital would come to for advice or jokes they could take back to kids in other wings. I have no idea where these stories came from; it was like there was some doorway inside of me I could access now, and it all came spilling out. I really liked that feeling, and that disturbed me. I knew that I was getting whatever my mother had, and it was only a matter of time before things went bad.

I really did think that would be my first day back in school. There was so much going on I could barely keep it together. I saw a dragon on the roof, casually muttering to itself how these “insects couldn’t appreciate” the value of its own personal “hoard of knowledge”. I think it might have been the mascot for our football team. I saw trees gossiping to each other about who did what and when. There was a tiny bus that my mother nearly ran over, taking rats and squirrels right up to the building. The sky was made of rainbows, a feverish ripple of color that never stayed the same thing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but it was also terrifying.

My aunt thought that I was nervous about being back in school after my whole “incident”, and I was fine with letting her believe that. The walk from the car to the front door was the longest walk of my life.

How do you tell someone that your mind is broken forever? I knew, deep down, that whatever this was wasn’t going away. If I sat down and closed my eyes and told myself that none of it was real, the colors would fade and all of this madness would get harder to see. But it made me feel sick. I was pushing that door of stories further and further away every time I did that, and there was some different part of me that fought against that hard. When the visions came back, they were more intense than ever.

So I was sitting in homeroom, trying to ignore the squirrel seated next to me in a little desk, chattering away about how excited she was to learn about American history from the tree out in the quad. The other students either came up to me to ask if I was all right, or snickered at me for being crazy. I was just getting calmed down when Mr. Foster walked into the room.

Mr. Foster is one of those guys that everybody in your neighborhood knows. He’s been at Highland Park High School forever and taught Social Studies to an entire generation of people around the block. He lived alone, and hung out with a bunch of people way younger than he was, and he had this thing about swords. We started calling him “Ghost Dog” a few years ago, and the name just stuck. He was a tall dude with an Afro and a 70s moustache. He wore a trenchcoat like he was Shaft, even in the summer. He was an awesome guy, but he was easy to make fun of.

At least, until now. He ducked under the doorway and pushed himself into the room. At first, he looked like he always did, but then there was this weird snap, like electricity popping. Then he was eight feet tall and blue, with these little horns and ridges coming out of his forehead. The coffee mug in his hand was this this hammer as big around as my chest. His trenchcoat was this steel suit of armor that shined like lavender when the light hit it.

I startled, and Mr. Foster looked at me. He sputtered, and then stared. He flickered a couple of times, back and forth between the old teacher and this monster dude. But then he stayed there. A rat on his desk asked him who the new kid was, and Mr. Foster flicked his hand like he heard it.

When all of the imaginary rodents at the edges of the room piped up with a “Good morning, Mr. Foster!” and he grunted in acknowledgement, I knew that he was seeing and hearing the same things I was. And I have no idea how that’s true.

But if I was crazy, then so was he. We shared the same visions. And if he could somehow live his life outside of an insanitarium then he had to teach me how.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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Friday Fiction: The Thin Man (Sleepwalkers)

Writing 150(I wanted to get away from Abigail for a moment and explore the story of someone else. I think the setting needs a lot of work; the magic and tone have yet to feel really grounded, though the characters are slowly but surely taking shape. I like the idea of moving fairy-tale creatures into the hard world of the urban center, but I’ve been so far removed from it I’m not sure if it feels authentic or if I come off as an interloper making my best approximation. This is very first draft-y, a proof of concept for the kind of scenes I’d like to have in an eventual novel of this. 

The Thin Man is based roughly on Eshu — both the African trickster god and the kith from Changeling: the Dreaming.)

Even though he walked down the street like he owned it, everyone on the block new the thin man had no business there. He floated down the cracked sidewalk as if those shined brown oxfords never touched the ground. His suit cut far too clean and sharp a silhouette. His dark skin shined under the street lights, and he was surrounded by a sweet smell, an aroma of coconut and cinnamon. He shared nothing in common with the usual people hunched over the marble steps in front of packed rowhomes. They sagged beneath the weight of their baggy clothes. They dragged their boots through the ever-present trash in the gutters. They smelled like Olde English and blunts.

He always seemed to be directly under a street light whenever anyone looked at him. The halogen bulb made him glow, outlined his features clearly enough that you could make him out a block away. The thin man in his shined shoes and tailored suit and precise, squared-off haircut held an expensive-looking phone in his hand. His fingers were long and thin and well-manicured.

Normally the men on the street would have swarmed this fool the moment he stepped into the neighborhood. They would have ruffled his clothing, threw him into the gutter, relieved him of his wallet and phone. But for some reason they couldn’t quite place they left him alone. They would look at him, think about rolling him, and then there would be something about him that gave them a bad feeling. It kept them away from those pools of light he stood in. They stayed stooped in the shadows and mumbled.

If they had thought about the voodoo priests down south, or the Sufi who danced through Turkish markets, or the old man who sat on a stump and told stories down by the river; if they had looked at him with their back facing the nearest library and their feet pointed in the direction of the nearest blues hall; if they had smoked a little bit more and talked a little bit less, they would have seen what kept them away. It was a set of eyes too large for the human head, sharp and clear and as purple as void. It was ears that were long and pointed like daggers, cutting through words he heard until they bled. It was the way his features were sharp and angular, put together all wrong but in such a way that they couldn’t come together any other way. They would know he was not one of them, and not just because of his suit.

The thin man himself walked down the street, glancing at his phone, looking up to double-check its findings. The street was dark and mostly deserted. Half of the rowhouses were boarded up, their marble stairs dirtied with soot and grime. The street lights were busted or burned out everywhere he wasn’t, an impossible fact he took for granted. He briefly wondered what he could do to revitalize this place. Despite appearances, it wouldn’t take much — maybe a new business here or there, a couple of gentrified residences. A graffiti artist painting a mural, a community garden. That might do nicely.

But first he had to find the kid. The app told him that the child was close, and that he was close to having his Grand Dream. It was not a good one, if the lights were any indication. The next block over, he could see tendrils of smoke curling around traffic signs, railings, cars. Alarms were going off, and the halogen bulbs sputtered and died. In a few minutes, he supposed, neighbors sleeping in their beds would be seized by a powerful nightmare.

The man quickly walked down the street, unbothered by the cowed and hostile stares he received from the people around him. One more glance at his phone told him that the kid was in the house right in front of him, halfway down the block. He stopped and turned. The house’s porch light, long sinced burned out, turned on to illuminate him. From the cracks between the walls, dark and shadowy tentacles writhed around the building. There was no doubt about it. This was the place.

He looked around and picked up the lower half of a broken bottle, setting it down in front of him. It took a little bit more doing to find a whole bottle, but he managed it and set it just behind the broken one, closer to the rowhome. Then, a 2-liter plastic bottle he found in the gutter. He stacked these, one behind the other, shortest to tallest, then placed a hand on the top of the bottle. He felt it cut into his skin, a small trickle of blood running down the side.

He put his hand on top of the next bottle, then the next, leaving a small red print on the cap. Then, just a little higher behind the 2-liter, he placed his hand on nothing at all. There appeared a small red plane of light, about the size of a two-by-four. Higher still, another lit rectangle, and another, all the way up to the house’s second-story window.

The thin man climbed the stairs he had made, looking down towards the porch light. It turned off as soon as his feet left the ground, bathing him in darkness. If anyone were to look his way, they’d see a man in a suit walking on thin air. The impossibility of the magic in the eyes of the uninitiated would dispel it, and he’d collapse the twenty feet or so to hard concrete. And that simply wouldn’t do when he was trying to save a small child from himself.

Inside the window, he saw a child’s bedroom with no one in it but a large, hulking monster. It was black all over, enormous and hunched under the ceiling, covered in a constantly-writhing mass of little black tentacles. It slid its glowing red eyes around the room, then towards the window. The man smiled. Classic bogeyman. Powerful, but easy to deal with if you knew how.

He pulled a buzzer from his pocket and stuck it to the outside wall. The window opened once he pushed the button. As he climbed in to the kid’s bedroom he pulled out a small laser pointer, flicked it on, and turned it on the monster.

The effect was immediate and dramatic; the room lit up in a flash, as bright as daylight. The monster’s surprised expression instantaneously burned into the wall around the closet door it had emerged from, its tentacles raised as if in surrender. The horrific shriek was cut off once it was slammed back from this world and into the next, leaving behind nothing but its shadow. The residue was crude and roughly drawn, a child’s crayon painting of a monster. The man winced. He would need to clean that off. But first, he needed to make sure the kid was all right.

He settled down on his knees, then hunched over as low as he could to peek under the bed. The kid was there all right, wide-eyed and panting. He was right on the cusp of his Dream, the traumatic and wonderful incident where his true nature would awaken and he would claim his birthright as a Sleepwalker.

“Hello,” the thin man said, smiling as he felt the magic of the kid’s transformation wash over him. His suit faded to reveal a lavender thawb under a bisht as richly purple as a desert sky.

“Hi,” the kid said, the word short and panted through his breath.

“Just breathe. It’s going to be OK.” The man felt his eyes change, enlarging and taking on an almond-shape. The iris, pupil and sclera merged into a solid, jeweled purple. “I’m here now.”

The kid’s own eyes widened. Horns erupted from his forehead, and his legs squirmed as they grew fur. “Who…who are you?”

“I’m your Dreamcatcher,” the thin man said, and closed his eyes as the kid erupted into his new life.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

The Hero In Their Natural Environment

Myth 150If you’ve been reading a few of the things that have been passing through my writing desk over the past year, you’ll probably notice that I’ve taken a number of stabs at Sleepwalkers — the current crop of stories will be the fourth set featuring Abigail and her friends. I know I’m running the risk of exhausting your ability to care about these guys before I even get to tell their stories, and that prospect terrifies me. Still, trust me when I say that I share your exasperation at these half-measures, and I know the time is quickly approaching where I’ll just have to sink or swim.

The reason I’m having such trouble with the setting is that I don’t have an entirely clear idea on the rules of the universe or how anything works. It’s my first time actually dealing with magic and fantasy on a systemic level, and it’s a really daunting thing to consider. Will nailing down a rule here actually cause significant problems during the third act, for example? What sort of unforeseen consequences will people who are smarter and wilier than me discover? What if something that looks good on paper actually becomes a huge pain in the ass for the story, but it’s too fundamental to remove easily? So forth and so on.

That’s bad enough, but Abigail has been giving me absolute fits ever since I first met her. I’ve wanted to write a female protagonist for a while now — and Abigail just popped into my head with a story and personality all ready-made. As I started exploring her, though, I realized just how…complicated it would be to tell. There’s a lot going on here; not only is there this brand new shadow-world of modern fantasy that we have to discover together, but there’s also the matter of Abigail’s background and what that does to the story.

She comes from an abusive home, and that emotional and physical abuse becomes a major trigger for Abigail’s “discovery” into her true nature. But that’s a very tricky landscape to walk through. Major abuse at the hands of a family member causes all sorts of emotional and mental issues that are difficult enough to explore; what happens when you’re in a setting where thoughts and emotions actually become real? What does that do to someone? And how can people who find themselves in similar situations within the real world learn from and empathize with this sort of thing? It’s an exciting puzzle to crack for me, but a very difficult one. I don’t want to sensationalize this kind of trauma, or over-boil it into some sort of melodrama. It needs to have a proper weight and perspective.

Perhaps I’m just not ready to tackle Abigail’s story yet, but I feel like I need to get it out. It’s an important one to me. There are other protagonists in other settings — Matthew and his chimerical universe, Abernathy and the Unstable Future — where their personalities feel inextricably tied to their settings. I want to talk about these specific people in these specific worlds. Separating them has never really been an option for me. I can’t imagine Abigail popping up to talk Matthew through his change, for example.

I’m curious if other people have that same sense of firmness with their characters. I suppose that’s one of the reasons cross-overs and fan-fictions always bothered me; I buy characters as an extension of their environment, and the universe a storyteller constructs is a relatively fixed one. I don’t like seeing Miles Morales jump into Earth-616 to have an adventure with Peter Parker, for example; it feels wrong, oddly incestuous, for parallel universes to touch so closely.

At any rate, Abigail is proving to be a really tough nut to crack. I want to fully explore the damage done by her father, but I also don’t want her to be so broken that the audience can’t empathize with her. I want to portray the helplessness that victims of abuse feel, but I don’t want to make her helpless and passive. I think the key to understanding Abigail is to read a bit more about emotional and physical abuse, what that does to you, but it’s quite difficult stuff for me to mine. I have a feeling that once I have a firm grasp of Abby’s situation, her pyschology and issues, the world will solidify around her. As always, my protagonist is my anchor for any setting, the fixed point that I can always come back to once I’ve explored the world a bit.

For now, though, I’ll be using this latest crop of Sleepwalkers stories to wrap my brain around a few of the things I’d like to do and get to know the supporting characters a bit more. I think the characters are key in cracking this setting, though I could be wrong.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you have a trick or tool you use when you’re trying to nail down a character or setting?

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014 in Self-Reflection, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

Friday Fiction: Abigail Comes Home

Writing 150(This is the first bit of fiction featuring characters from my Sleepwalkers setting. Of course, it focuses on the main character of Abigail. I wanted to quickly sketch out what it was like for her at school and at home, and how the pressures of being bullied by her schoolmates and father while a mother with her own shit going on would affect her. One of the things I’ve learned — and experienced — is that going through life with not one safe space to retreat to will mess you up, and the emotions that come from that will manifest in weird ways if you don’t know how to deal with them or don’t have an outlet.

At the same time, I don’t want to present Abigail as a “poor little match girl”. It’s a tricky balance to strike, properly painting an awful experience without feeling like you’re being manipulative or ham-fisted about it. I don’t feel like I’m quite there, but this is a pendulum shift away from the more lyrical and fantasy-oriented looks I’ve had of Abigail until now. 1422 words.)

Abigail imagined herself getting into a fight with Debbie Wizer the entire bus ride home. She stood up at a stop sign and came out swinging until Debbie went down, and then she’d sit on her and just start punching. The other kids, excited with the thrill of adrenaline and bloodlust, rose in their seats and started cheering. For some reason, the bus started rolling again while all of this was going on.

The cheering would die down slowly when everyone realized that Debbie wasn’t fighting back. Abigail kept on punching, watching from some place in the back of her own head as Debbie’s head rocked one way, then the other. She felt the impact of her knuckles on skin. She watched in fascination as blood started to appear, as if by magic. Each punch took Debbie’s face farther away from her typical cultivated perfection. Bruises popped instantly. Her face swelled and darkened. Her lips grew chapped and bloodied.

The children on the bus went quiet, but no one thought to stop her. She kept going. Soon the only sounds were her grunts and the blow of her fists on increasingly tenderized meat. When the bus came to her house, she stood up, shook the blood and skin off her fists, and walked out. She made sure to thank the driver.

Abby shifted in her seat, and felt her nails digging into her palms. Debbie was right behind her, talking to Eliza Vintner about some stupid gossip. It would be so easy. All she had to do was turn around, grab a fistful of hair in one hand and start wailing away with the other. Eliza would scream and try to stop her, but she was pretty sure she could shrug her off. It would happen so fast. No one would know what to do. And she was pretty sure no one would make fun of her again, knowing that she could snap at any moment, knowing she could rain down a storm of violence unheard of in Solar Hills High. They would never mess with her again.

The bus stopped. The driver called. “Abigail Carter,” she said, as if she were reading the name off of an especially boring manifest. Abby looked out of her window. She saw her house staring back at her.

She got up to go, and an unexpected shame washed over her. She had been passive for another day. She had invited abuse to be heaped upon her. She could feel the eyes of the school bus on her as she gathered her books and her backpack and rose to go.

“Bye, Abbi-fail.” She heard a giggle from the seat behind her. She wasn’t sure if it was Eliza or Debbie, and she couldn’t turn around to make sure. Either she would go into some sort of rage-fueled frenzy, or she would break down crying right there.

The sun was warm and bright on her skin when she stepped onto the sidewalk. She heard “Abbi-fail” echo in her brain, even over the rising hum of the bus as it went on. She stared at her house. The only consolation it offered was the chance to be alone in her own misery for a few hours.

She clutched her books to her chest, felt the weight of her backpack across her shoulders, and walked up to her front door. Her house might have been nice once, but years of neglect had given it a slightly run-down appearance. The wood on the stairs had warped through countless rainstorms, her yard had developed bare patches of earth surrounded by yellow, stressed grass. Her mother had added bricks between the sidewalk and the yard as something of a border, but those hadn’t spruced it up as much as she wanted. Abby took the stairs two at a time, looked at the few wooden chairs strewn about the porch, and went inside.

The air was cooler indoors, but tinged with stale cigarette smoke. Abby found her mother sitting in front of the TV in the living room, taking long drags from something with menthol and sipping from a glass that probably wasn’t apple juice. An open bottle was on an end table next to her.

“Hi Mom.” Abby glanced to the TV. Two women were rising from their chairs on a stage to fight; a bald, burly security guard appeared from nowhere to break them up.

“Hey, sweety.” Her mother’s voice was tired, drowsy. But the affection was there. “How’re you doing?”

Abby crossed the distance between the living room door and the couch. She leaned over to kiss her mom on the forehead. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just a lot of homework, so I’m going to get to it. When is dad coming home for dinner?”

The woman on the couch turned to look up with glassy eyes. Abby was startled by an expression she couldn’t read. “It’s payday, honey. Your father’s not going to be home until late.”

“Oh.” Abby felt her stomach drop. She would be staying in her room tonight. “You want me to go ahead and make dinner for myself?”

Her mother nodded.

“You want me to make something for you?”

“I’m fine, sweety.” She set her glass down and grabbed the bottle. The sharp smell of alcohol filled the air as she emptied it and set it down. She lifted the glass and took a long drink, then finished with a pull from her cigarette. Her eyes never left the television. “I’m just fine.”

Fifteen minutes later, Abby locked herself into her room with a plate of hot dogs and potato chips. She felt a pressure in her stomach and chest that needed to come out somehow. There was all of this…stuff that she didn’t know what to do with. If she left it to her body to decide, she stabbed things with scissors, or punched the wall, or thumped her head against her desk. She cried or pinched herself. Sometimes she would just sit and shut down, lose hours staring at nothing. When she was done, she felt weird, like she had done something she knew wasn’t normal. But what else was she going to do? She couldn’t find a proper place for whatever she was feeling, so any release of the pressure would have to be enough.

Right now, she felt like she didn’t have the energy to do anything. So she dumped her food and books on her computer table, sloughed off her backpack and collapsed onto her bed. It took her a few minutes to register the noise coming from her closet, the sound of something bumping around, then being dragged.

“Hey kiddo,” a voice said at last. “Tough day, huh?”

Abby turned to see the Gnome standing there. He was a short fellow, maybe two or three feet tall, with skin that looked like baked dirt. His hair was white and expertly styled underneath a small, pointed red hat, and he had impressive facial hair. His eyes were huge and blue, the color of sapphire, and right now they stared at her. She read concern on his face. He was impatient.

“I just want to sleep for a while,” she heard herself say. The Gnome grabbed her hand in both of his and pulled.

“I know you do, but…listen, I’m sorry you had a bad day, but I need you to get up and help me finish packing. We need to get out of here.”

The urgency in his voice stirred something within her. She propped herself on an elbow. “What?”

“You know how bad paydays are, don’t you? Well, this is going to be worse than most. And you shouldn’t be here for it, OK?” He let go of her, then hopped off the suitcase he had been standing on.

She looked at her closet. Half of her clothes were off the rack. She suspected they had been stuffed into the huge, lime green piece of luggage next to her bed. “What, you want me to leave? I…I can’t do that. I just can’t leave Mom.”

The Gnome stepped forward, and put both of his hands on her knee. “Honey, it’s too late for your Mom. But it’s not too late for you. Not if you leave now. Let’s go.”

Abby felt like she was about to burst. She knew this was crazy, of course it was. But even worse, she knew this was right. She had to go. She couldn’t be here when daddy got home.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2014 in Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

Odds and Ends

Self Improvement 150The votes are in, and it looks like I’ll be working on a Sleepwalkers story for February’s Friday Fiction posts. Thanks to everyone who voted! There’s a lot I still feel the need to wrap my head around with these guys before I’m really comfortable telling the story that I want to tell, and this is a very good excuse to play in that sandbox for a while.

There are so many things that I’d like to do that it’s making my head spin, and I’m coming dangerously close to being paralyzed by choice. This is a great thing and an exciting time: I could learn how to drive a car, devote a lot more time to writing (within that choice is a dizzying array of subchoices — do I work on Pathfinder? Creative non-fiction? Sleepwalkers? Chimerical World? Unstable Future? Some other setting?), devote time to learning French, exercise, cooking, reading, community building, Buddhism, the list is endless.

That’s one of the reasons I’m becoming more enamored with the idea of project management — taking a high level view of all the things that I’d like to do, breaking them up into milestones, breaking up those milestones into manageable chunks and then doing them. At the beginning of every month, you take a look at your goals for the last month, whether or not you achieved them, what could help you make things easier for next month, then set your goals. Every week, you take a look at your monthly goals, figure out which manageable chunks you can fit into your schedule where, and work from there. By devoting time to taking a high-level view at how you’re doing, you can spend much more time with your nose to the grindstone confident in the fact that you’re going where you want.

So I’ll be trying out a system for that this month, though I’m already a bit behind with my goal-setting for February. I’ll try to sit down a little bit today to figure out what it is I want to do, and how I want to direct my focus. Then I’ll start work.

One of the things I’ll definitely be doing is paying more attention to my diet and trying to ramp up my exercise. I’d like to get in the habit of running at least three times a week and doing “maintenance” weight-training for two. I’d like to cook in a lot more, take breakfast and lunch to work, save as much money as I can. I’ve spent so much time being in the habit of buying food and not thinking much of it, but bringing my own is at least healthier, if not cheaper than eating out all of the time.

That’s what’s on my mind these days, pretty much. How can I be more productive? What can I do to be a better writer, husband, person? How can I exercise more and eat less terrible things? I want to build good habits so that I don’t have to think about them as much; you never want to be that guy that traps someone in the corner of a party to talk about their diet. That’s what blogs on the Internet are for!

 
 

Friday Fiction: The Big Dream, Part 1

Writing 150(This snippet of fiction might seem familiar to you. That’s because it’s a rework of the first bit of my Sleepwalkers story. I wasn’t quite satisfied with what I had written before, mostly because I felt like I didn’t know Abigail well enough to tell her story properly. Now I feel like I have a better handle on her nature and her background, and what her experiences before we read about her does to a person. So I’m going to give it another go here.

I’ll at least write up a few parts for this to get us through January, but I’m not sure what’ll happen after that. Probably write other “chapters” as they come to me. I love the idea of the faerie updated for modern times, but I want to find a way to make it distinct from the obvious influences of Changeling: the Dreaming and The Dresden Files.)

 

It only took twenty minutes or so for the screaming to drive Abigail insane. She knew to lock herself in her bedroom by nine PM, but the thin walls only did so much good. The front door would slam, her father would call for her mother and then there would be nothing but raised voices for hours. She would try to do her homework, but the words would make less and less sense until they were nothing but symbols floating off of a blank page. They would bob in the air, rearrange themselves until they told her “Go into the closet and shut the door.”

Everything after that she would remember as some kind of dream. It felt like her head came away from her body, because she couldn’t feel the shag carpet beneath her feet any more. She would float to the closet, where the door would open once she got near it. Her hair would float around her head like a tangle of snakes. Her pajamas would be become a silk-spun dress, so light it felt like she was wearing nothing at all. She would drift into the closet, which was always deeper than she remembered, and she would sit down in a circle of her own shoes, and a shape would move in the darkness towards her.

She never really saw it, but she called it the Gnome. He was short, she knew — the top of his head matched hers when she was sitting and he was standing. He was shaped like a potato with short, stumpy legs and big bare feet. Sometimes his eyes would flash yellow in the darkness. Maybe he wore glasses, maybe his eyes were just that big. He smelled like a mud pie that had been left in the sun for a day, but she didn’t mind. He was friendly, and he would tell her stories while they played card games she was sure he made up. Sometimes, and this was her favorite, he would tell stories with the cards, always pulling the one he needed from the top of the deck to move the tale along.

The numbers and suits glowed in the dark, and sometimes she would see a flash of his nose, or a mouth filled with sharp teeth. His skin looked like bark, and she wondered more than once what it would be like to touch him. But she never dared. The Gnome could be dangerous, she knew. When his anger flared, he could hurt anyone quicker than either of them could realize.

Once, when her father was really far gone, he came into her room and threw open the closet door. He was huge and terrible, his eyes a void that made her feel small and alone and afraid. The Gnome was there, between her and her father, his shoulders rounded and his back hunched. Mushrooms bristled along his back. They smelled like wet grass, only different, and her stomach turned flips if she breathed in too deeply.

“Leave her alone,” the Gnome said.

“What the fuck–?” her father said, and stumbled out of the door. He looked at her differently then, at least when he was sober, and he talked to her even less. When he was drunk, he stayed out of her room. She was relieved, but it made things even worse for Mom. When Abigail woke up, long after the screaming had stopped, she would find her on the floor in the kitchen or the living room and make her as comfortable as she could. Someone had to. She couldn’t stand the idea that her mother thought no one looked out for her. At least Abigail had the Gnome. Her mother would have her.
It was Tuesday night, and Abigail had trouble focusing on her homework. Distractions had been worse for a couple weeks now. Words would float and glow, shift and change into the marks of languages she had never seen. Shapes flickered just on the edges of her vision, like shadows of creatures she could never catch. Worse, her teacher had called her father at work about how much homework she had been missing, and how many tests she had been failing. She knew that when he came home, it would be bad. Her mother had told her that she was disappointed, had sent her to her room immediately, had told her not to come out until she came up to check on her homework. They looked at each other, and knew they were both in trouble.

But she went, and she tried to focus on her schoolwork, but the words shivered and hid whenever she looked at them. The shadows were more obvious than ever. The creatures were trying to be seen.

It took two hours of mounting dread for the voices to start whispering to her. Now she was worried she was going crazy, that the fear unlocked something in her brain that she couldn’t put back. The Gnome was one thing, it was how she dealt with things, but this was something different. “Run” and “he’s here” tickled the hairs of her ears; the syllables were sharp, and hoarse, stones against windows, or the air being let out of tires.

Abigail had no idea how long she had been staring at the same page of her textbook when she heard the car door slam. Her heart leapt into her brain; all the blood made her dizzy. She smelled something in the air, electricity, rain, honeysuckle. She heard the front door explode open, the slurred roar of her father, the immediate surprise and fear in Mom’s voice. “RUN” a voice hissed in her ear. But where would she run to? How could she slip out of the house and leave her mother alone with a monster?

“Abby.” The voice came from behind her; not a whisper, but clear and heavy. She turned around slowly. Her eyes widened, and the air was gone from her lungs. She couldn’t scream.

Her walls were covered in mouths. They were moving, forming sounds she didn’t recognize, flashing teeth and tongues and darkness. They brushed against her posters, peeled the wallpaper, rustled the things on her dresser and nightstand. Her room was a live thing, a ripple of sound that passed from one end to the other. It was impossible. Impossible.

“Abby, look at me.” The voice again. The mouths were silent but kept speaking. She looked at the figure on her bed. There was a potato there, with large hairy feet and a face that left no room for a forehead. His skin was the color of playground dirt. His irises were the color of dandelion flowers. His eyebrows and hair and beard were all the wisps of the seeds she would blow whenever she could. He was impossible. But he was there. She saw the way he bent the mattress where he stood, heard the springs creak as he stamped nervously. He spoke, and she saw sharp teeth. He turned his head towards the door and saw mushrooms sprout from his head, sink into his shoulders. He was the Gnome. And he was here. He was real.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2014 in Sleepwalkers, Writing