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Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In, flash

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Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Advice to a Young Traveler
886 words

If you fall in the badlands, you die -- alone and forever. The holdouts doesn't send retrieval teams out for travelers, and professional retrievers are few and expensive; unless you've got deep-pocketed family, nobody's going to be coming for your core, and everyone knows it. Walking the badlands is a declaration of suicide clearer than the official ones, with less paperwork. If you want to go out there for something besides death, you have to be ready.

The first step is your research, as much as you can manage. When I did it, I had a few months of satellite maps, along with my target's coordinates. It's the one perk of badlands retrieval: no scavengers, so bodies stay where they fall, as long as the salt pan holds up. I spent months with the satellite data, figuring out where the salt was thinning out and plotting the least treacherous path I could. It takes time, but more research means a faster route and fewer leaps of faith. If you fall in the badlands, you die, so don't take any more chances than you have to.

Look, before we go any further -- I can teach you, but I'm not a professional, and I'm not going to guide you out there. All right? I put in my time, I made my one lucky run, and that's it for me. I can patch into your drone, but I'm staying right where I am.

Anyway, what you've got to do is find a slow, steady path. I found one that got me a day's walk out of Holdout 9 before I spotted my first mud pit. What you want to do is have your drone run surveillance, look for fresh pits and thin salt, and walk as lightly as you can. Take enough rations for detours, and then some more; if you fall, you die, but at least you won't die starving. I starved to death once, in one of my first few incarnations -- exposure's a better way to go, trust me.

Once you're heading into the hills, that's when things get tricky. It's hard to tell the difference between salt and hill-glass unless the sun's high; most of the glass can take your weight, but not all, and it's slick as anything. The most dangerous part is the feeling the hills give you, though. It might be altitude, it might be something in the air, but the further you get into the hills and away from the holdouts, the nicer it feels. You start to feel like you could live out there, and and you start seeing fish swimming in the glassed-in pools, waiting for your hook. It's all a mirage. A doctor explained it to me once -- something about the pleasure centers, hungry for novelty, telling you you're having an "adventure." You're not. You'll die.

My target made it two days into the hills. I still don't know what he was trying to do. Some of our friends said he was ready for real death, but I don't believe him; I know he wasn't happy, but I don't think he'd wanted an end. I think he was trying to reach another holdout. We'd had a dozen incarnations each at Holdout 9, and I think he was just... no, dammit, I'm not rambling, I'm getting to my point. I was a few hours away from him when I let my mind wander, trying to figure out why he'd done it, and that's when my foot hit the glass and slid downhill. The cliff was sheer, and I couldn't get my footing before there was no ground under me; my drone pinwheeled through the air, trying to catch me, claws grabbing and ripping through my shirt. I'd fallen.

I want to say it was skill that saved me, but I'll be honest: it was luck. My drone slowed me down, and the glass I landed on was thick enough to catch me. If I'd panicked, though, I'd have been done for, so maybe there's a little skill, or just a calm mind. If you fall in the badlands, you die -- but not every stumble is a fall.

I found my target on a patch of salt flat, waist-deep in mud, core protruding from his forehead. If you're pulling a core, tug hard; they're sturdy, and they're stuck in pretty tight. Once I had his core clear, I packed it up in my drone and sent it on to Holdout 16 for resurrection. I don't know what he wanted, but I knew he didn't want to be back at 9, and I owed him a new start. I loved him once. But I guess that goes without saying, huh?

I decided I owed myself a new start, too. Crossing the flats droneless is suicide, but I made it here to 21 -- maybe skill, maybe luck. Maybe the kind of thing you can do when you stop caring. I figure it doesn't matter anymore.

I'll be honest with you, kid; you have to be crazy to do this. If you fall in the badlands, you die, alone and forever. But if there's something out there for you, and you care about coming back, I'll do what I can.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In, flash

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Thursday Night at the All Saints Zineworks
1479 words
Flash rule: There is no more bad writing.

When bad writing rots, it leaves ash behind: gray and sticky, more like human remains than burnt paper. It foils all efforts to contain it; the walls of the All Saints Zineworks are smeared with ashy streaks, like the sad efforts of a dying Sharpie, and all the volunteer monks wear grey. The Zineworks smells like decaying masking tape.

Four years after the great disintegration, the Zineworks still gets donations of boxes dug out of attics or dead relatives' studies. Laura and Jamie are on intake duty tonight, sifting through a dozen file boxes labeled "DAD OFFICE," searching for intact scraps of writing deemed good enough to survive. Laura's wearing goggles, a shower cap, elbow-length gloves, and a garbage-bag poncho over her coveralls; she's got a meeting in the morning with her boss, and she can't afford to have oily specks of word-ash clinging somewhere she won't notice. Jamie wears an apron over a sweatsuit, nitrile gloves, and a grin. He's a career ziner, and the mess is his uniform.

"So," says Jamie, "how's the novel going?" He dusts off the cover of a paperback: King Lear, not very interesting, but an unfamiliar edition and fully intact. If there's commentary inside, the libraries will want it. If not, he'll find uses for it, if only the cover art. Waste not, want not.

Laura doesn't answer. She's squinting into the grey dust of her current box, and then she fishes out a few small sheets of fine-print text -- a technical manual for a desk phone. "Jamie, check this out. Look at the diagrams! How in the world did this survive?"

"You're the tech writer; you tell me." Jamie ambles around the work table to Laura's side, and he looks over the pages she's spread out. They're mostly diagrams, but the multilingual text is dense enough that this is definitely writing, enough to be judged. He's skeptical. Manuals like this hardly ever make the cut, and sometimes storage shields things from judgment until they get dragged into the light. "Could just be a fluke."

"But if it's not? Could be a two-page spread. Could be a whole zine, if we have enough to build on. If we find any of this guy's handwriting..."

Laura's not wrong, but she's asking for a miracle. When some great cosmic editor came down and cast judgment, most of what evaporated overnight was handwriting: memos and notes, photo captions and greeting cards, letters and diaries. Anything with a full sentence was fair game, then and now, and it's left the past a ruin. If they find a scrap of OFFICE DAD's handwriting and the family grants him reproduction rights, Jamie'll make a zine about it -- but that's a very big "if."

Jamie takes the manual pages and moves them over to the proving shelves. If they've just escaped the cosmic editor's notice for now, they'll rot away soon enough, and anything still intact after a week or two is good enough for a zine. The current crop is promising, if not particularly cohesive, but that's where Jamie comes in -- or should be where he comes in, anyway, if inspiration allows. Time to distract himself again. "Okay," he says. "So. The novel."

"It's going," says Laura. "Slowly, but... you know how it is. I've got seven versions of Chapter 5 in my drawer right now, and it looks like at least one of them'll last. I started a draft of Chapter 6 and Word hasn't puked on the file yet. So... it's all good enough, at least? So far. We're about to get into the plot, though, and I'm going to fall flat on my face."

"Don't sweat it. Your outline's hanging in there, right?"

"Right. I know, the outline's solid, but there's so much work to do adding meat to the bones. I'm terrified I'll have to burn it down and start again, if God doesn't do it for me. Hey, is that a notebook?"

Jamie looks down into the box, where he's been aimlessly pushing dust aside, and sees the wire spine of a memo pad. He pulls it out and flips through -- lots of pages gone, to decay or use, but what's left is mostly covered with lines of numbers and odd shorthand in teal ink. OFFICE DAD had loopy, flowing handwriting, and he used a fountain pen. It's gorgeous nonsense. It'll look amazing cut up and arranged on the page, framing the tech manual or whatever else they can find.

"poo poo," says Jamie, for determined emphasis. "I think we have a zine on our hands. Maybe a series. Let's keep digging."

***

Laura leaves early -- that meeting in the morning -- but Jamie stays until the last of the DAD OFFICE boxes are clean and empty. There's a decent pile of material on the proving shelves, at least a full issue's worth, but he stops thinking about it the moment he leaves the Zineworks and heads for the subway. He can't think about work forever, no matter how much his brain wants to.

Jamie's apartment is full of non-written ephemera, which is the only kind left. The few books left on the bookshelves are surrounded by tchotchkes: souvenir coffee cups, framed photos, anything to create the feeling of a complex life. Half the shelves now are filled with albums and shoeboxes full of photos, the products of long weekends of estate-sale scrounging.

Jamie takes off his shirt, scrubs down his face and hands, and looks at the photo he keeps taped to the bathroom mirror: a dark, unfocused shot of a family standing in front of an illegible historical marker, with the left side of the image taken up with the blurry pinkish shape of the photographer's thumb. It's the most incompetent photograph Jamie has ever seen , and yet it was spared when most of the written word was wiped off the face of the Earth. Jamie figures that was the creator trying to send a message -- that words were over, that it was time to move on. He can feel word-burnout in his bones, taste it on his tongue, and it's all inky ash and masking tape.

Words sell, though. The appetite for any fragment a zine-monk can find, thrown together into pamphlets and collections and volumes to fill empty library shelves, is what makes him the only paid employee of the Zineworks, and Hell if he's going to throw that away just because he can smell rotting office supplies in his dreams. The photo work can come in his free time. Maybe then he'll feel like a real artist, like Laura must feel right now.

Jamie dreams of road trips: infinite scenery, light and shadow, wordless.

***

Laura takes a 20-minute shower when she gets home, until the last trace of ash washes down her drain and she feels human again. She needs to be at work in nine hours; there's no chance of working on the novel tonight. And yet...

She wraps herself in a bathrobe and sneaks over (sneaks, she thinks, alone in her own apartment, like she's hiding from God) to her filing cabinet. She opens the bottom drawer and peeks into the hanging folder there marked "Chapter 5." The seven drafts are all still there, although some of them are failing, ink blurring and pages starting to tatter and flake. Draft 6, she's pretty sure, is dead; Laura pulls it out and drops it in her trash can. The rest still look salvageable, and Draft 4 is still pristine, three weeks after writing it. That's the winner, she suspects, or hopes. Maybe it'll actually be good. Maybe it'll just be good enough.

This novel, if she finishes it (when, she corrects herself -- when she finishes it!) will be adequate. Her day job in technical writing has given her the skills to create adequate writing, serviceable words that last as long as they need to. If she turns this outline into a novel that does its job, that'll be something, won't it? It'll be better than having the story trapped in her head forever. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Laura's not worried about selling the thing. The world needs stories, and publishers are hungry to fill up their backlist with work that'll last at least a few years. When the book's done, it'll sell. It it rots a few years later... then that happens, she tells herself. There's no endurance contract on this one. She'll survive. She'll write again. Nothing's forever anymore, so all it has to be is what it is.

Laura falls asleep and dreams of high school. On her desk, her novel outline waits for her: ten years old, paper still pristine, judged worthy. In her filing cabinet, five drafts of Chapter 5 slowly molder, dropping grey ash into the bottom of the drawer. One draft endures. It's good, or good enough.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In with Home of the Horrible "Hung-Ups," the Death Worshippers

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



A Day For Black Salt
1330 words
New World nation: Home of the Horrible "Hung-Ups", the Death Worshippers

After so many years preparing, Uncle Cinder-in-Bone was wasting his death. The old man hung from the oracles' scaffold, limp against the metal hooks and leather straps that held him, and silent except for heaving breaths. He'd hung for an hour already, and One-Month-Feverish had expected him to begin his death-song within minutes, once the initial shock had blossomed into agony. How could his voice had failed him? They'd practiced so long, the two of them. No death in the realm had been so carefully cultivated.

"Uncle," whispered One-Month into his radio. "Uncle Cinder. Say something." It took him a moment to remember that the radio was one-way, just receiving and recording from Uncle's transmitter -- a foolish mistake, and a childish one. At least there was nobody around to notice; even the priests had left, and the lay worshippers had congregated around the hung-up oracles who'd begun their death-songs, off in the other courtyards. Uncle Cinder had no blood family left, and his professional mourners had all made their excuses. One-Month was alone, and the weight of that made it hard to stay standing, let alone meet his master's dying eyes.

Still, One-Month had his duty, and he forced his head up to stare at Uncle Cinder -- who was moving. Slowly, with a burst of tortured wheezing, the old man turned his head towards One-Month, with a terrible focus in his eyes He was mouthing words, which came through as whispers in One-Month's radio: "One-Month. Black. Salt."

One-Month took off running.

***

The black salt was at the back of the drug vault, sealed in a priest-locked box, but Uncle Cinder'd taught him the combination years ago; the polished metal dials slipped under his sweaty hands, but soon enough, it was open. One-Month gently extracted one of the tiny single-dose vials from the foam padding. Inside were a few scant milligrams of sticky black powder, little enough that he could start the preparation in the vial itself. One-Month set it down on the workbench, pulled on gloves and goggles, and finally felt the beginnings of calm.

Preparing a solution of plain black salt was simple: dissolution in propylene glycol, a centrifuge step for clarity, and that was that. A plain black-salt injection wouldn't do here, though. It was half entheogen, half analgesic -- good to call the ancestors, but without your pain, how would they ever find you? This solution would need the antagonist, and a moment's search turned it up on the reagent shelf: a plastic canister, its pre-Disaster labeling worn off, but relabeled in Uncle Cinder's precise hand as "Bishop's Lunch." One-Month had never had handwriting half as neat, or an organization system half as rigorous. He'd ruin it all within a week once this shop was his, wouldn't he?

One-Month put his hands down on the cool surface of the workbench. This wasn't the time to think about the future. Drug preparation was a matter of the present and a careful plan, and his was nearly ready. The black salt would open the gates, the Bishop's Lunch would hold them open, and then... dragonfly powder for delirium? It wasn't as if the side effects could matter now.

From his shirt pocket, One-Month's radio broadcast the steady sound of ragged breathing. Uncle Cinder hadn't broken through on his own, but he was still alive, and there was time for the preparation. One-Month had done a thousand simple dissolutions, and what was one more? This wasn't a curative order. There wasn't even any need to centrifuge.

One-Month added solvent first, and the black salt melted like a dream; the solution always looked like the thin grey slime on the shore of the Bay of Black Oil, which was Uncle Cinder's sure sign that the solution was correct. Next came five grains of Bishop's Lunch, which sank to the bottom of the mixture, and two grains of dragonfly powder, which fizzed and sublimated away almost as soon as One-Month capped the vial. A minute of agitation on the vortexer, and it was done. One-Month grabbed a syringe, one with the thinnest-gauge needle he thought could manage the solution, and he packed his pockets to run back.

Now was the matter of the dosing. How long had it been, One-Month thought, since he'd gone climbing?

***

Uncle Cinder's courtyard was still deserted when One-Month returned, but the solitude didn't help his racing heart. He stripped off his lab gloves -- how could he have left them on? -- and wiped the sweat from his hands before approaching the scaffolding. The rusty metal creaked as One-Month set a foot on a lower bar, but his hands found a grip, and he began the ascent. His muscles burnt by halfway up the wall, and his fingers trembled, but his body pushed him forward. As long as it had been since he'd been in Spandar territory, he hadn't quite forgotten the forest arts.

At last, One-Month pulled himself onto the narrow wooden catwalk behind Uncle Cinder's suspension point. Up close, the old man reeked of sweat and copper; dark blood seeped from the hooks that held him, and foamy bile covered his chin. When he turned his head to face One-Month, it was with a grimace of agony -- but still, his eyes were bright. "Boy. You brought it?"

"I brought it." One-Month knelt down next to him and began to prepare the syringe. "Black salt, Bishop's Lunch, and dragonfly powder. Is... is that what you wanted? Is it all right?"

"Good. Good instinct. Throat."

"But it'll bleed," said One-Month by reflex; Uncle Cinder, with slow deliberation, gave him one last withering glance. "Right. Right, the throat. Hold on."

One-Month raised the syringe, inhaled, and plunged it home into Uncle Cinder's carotid artery. The needle was slow to empty, too slow, and by the time he withdrew it, Uncle Cinder was already twitching. The song would come soon, and One-Month couldn't be seen to have caused it. The sentence for producing false oracles was death by morphine, quick and shameful, and burial in the pit. "Uncle," One-Month stammered, "I -- thank you. I'll do my best with the shop. Thank you for everything."

"Good boy." Every syllable came through gritted teeth, now, as Uncle Cinder fought the drugs for one final moment. "Always a good boy. Now run."

One-Month blunted the needle in the vial, stuck his supplies in his pocket, and clambered back down the scaffolding. Uncle Cinder had began to keen, and One-Month could hear the footsteps of approaching priests. He had to run, had to destroy the evidence, before someone came looking for him. He dropped from the scaffolding and fell into a crouch, trying to catch his breath, and froze as Uncle Cinder's voice erupted in stereo, from above him and from his forgotten radio: "Rib-Catches-Lung! Rib, guide me..."

Slowly, One-Month exhaled and let himself slump to the ground. Uncle Cinder's voice rose, from a wail to a scream to a full-lunged howl, and took on the strange syllables of the ancestral language of the oracles. A few priests were in the courtyard now, staring raptly and raising their recorders, and One-Month knew more would come, but none of them could ever notice him. When you were witnessing a miracle, who cared about a simple mourner?

One-Month lay back onto the hard-packed earth of the courtyard, staring up at the darkening sky. The space behind the scaffolding smelled of rust and soil, but the wind carried the scent of sacred agony from above, and he thought of his own sweat and fear. What would his own death smell like? Would he have the privilege to hang? Would he have the chance to sing?

He'd have his chance, he told himself. He'd cultivate a good life and an honest death -- and if that failed, there were other compoundings for black salt. A lozenge under his tongue would produce a fine delirium, without having to depend on an apprentice with a needle. Uncle Cinder, he hoped, would be proud.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In. "Friendship of a child is water into a basket."

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



This Will All Be Funny In Ten Years
1772 words
Idiotism: Friendship of a child is water into a basket.

The first time Hannah really thinks about Joshua Vaughn is in fourth grade, in the spring, when his father dies. Joshua is out of school for a week, and the school brings in a counselor to talk to the class. The counselor just says that Mr. Vaughn "passed away," but Hannah knows how he died: drowning, trapped in his truck when it broke through the ice on the Chena River. It had been on the front page of the paper, and Hannah's father had grumbled about it as he'd read. "Pushed it too late. Always some idiot who pushes too far."

Joshua isn't an idiot, though, no matter what his dad was. He's always just blended in before, a boy who lived in the strange secret world of boys, but he's never been mean to the girls -- just quiet. When the counselor asks them to write letters to Joshua, Hannah thinks hard about him for the first time, and the first memory that arises is his working on an art project: carefully painting water over his watercolor-crayon landscape, making his flowers bleed into the grass. I'm sorry about your dad, she writes in her letter. I would like to be your friend. Next to it, she draws a flower.

When Joshua comes back to school, he's still quiet, but that's all right. He speaks to Hannah for the first time when they're grading each other's math quizzes; "I think you put the decimal in the wrong place," he says, handing back her quiz with its 9/10 on the top. (He got 7/10, with his decimals all over, but Hannah knows he knows better.) Hannah starts trying to draw, just to ask Joshua for help; nothing ever looks right, though, and he doesn't have much to say. "You have to get the lines right," he says, or "draw the clothes first, then the person." What sense does that make? But he can draw, and she can't, and she wishes she could understand.

Every time they talk this way, Hannah just wants to ask him to hang out with her, out at the edge of the playground. There's a tree out there that has a row of dead branches you can play like a xylophone, and she wants to share it with him; he's not in band, but she thinks he likes music, that he'll like her special tree. Whenever they head to recess, though, Joshua is off like a shot with his own friends, and she can't think of anything to say.

"These things take time," her mom says, the night Hannah finally breaks down and tells her about it. "Just be a good friend. He'll notice -- or he won't, and there'll be some other boy who'll like you. There's plenty of time and plenty of fish in the sea."

Hannah wants to tell her mom that it's not like that, that she doesn't like Joshua like that, but the fact that Mom's words sting means maybe she does? She doesn't know what it feels like, and it doesn't feel like the books say it will, like a huge hot rush of liking. It's quiet. It kind of hurts.

***

Hannah realizes she's in love with Joshua Vaughn in seventh grade, during one of the "socials" that her school puts on, where the whole building's open but there's nothing to do if your friends didn't come. She's sitting on the bleachers in the gym, watching boys in pressed button-down shirts and slacks shoot free throws, trying to focus on her book but always ending up staring at the boys. Their moms must have dressed them, just like Hannah's mom dressed her; her skirt's ankle-length and flowy, but Hannah still sits with her legs pressed tightly together. She misses her gym shorts as much as the boys do.

When Joshua wanders into the gym, Hannah's surprised to see he's alone. Her friends have mostly drifted apart in middle school, but Joshua's have stuck together; Hannah isn't sure if that's the difference between girls and boys, or if it's just the difference between her and Joshua. She doesn't want to work up hope that he'll come sit next to her, but it takes her a moment to calm her heart when he does. "Hi, Josh. What's up?"

"Nothing," he says. "Mrs. Muir said she was gonna open up the art room, but she isn't here. Everyone's in the cafeteria with the music, but who wants to dance?"

Hannah would like to dance -- maybe not now, not in this skirt and the kitten heels her mom said were "so cute," but sometime. "I dunno," she says. "I don't even know how to dance."

"Nobody does. They're just leaning against each other and swaying."

"Ugh," says Hannah, swallowing the first thought of that sounds nice. "Gross."

"Yeah, right?" Joshua falls silent, staring down through the slats in the bleachers. "Hey, Hannah? Do you hate it here?"

"Yeah. Yeah, it sucks. My mom made me go, and she made me wear this stupid--"

"No," says Joshua, loud and sharp, and Hannah feels like she's been slapped. "I mean, this school. The whole town. There's nothing to do, and everyone's stupid, and it's always cold and everyone thinks that's fun, and I just... I hate it. You know?"

Hannah likes it in Fairbanks. She likes Pioneer Park and UAF art camp, and the first snows of fall, and when breakup hits and the whole town is puddles -- but she thinks of breakup and remembers Joshua's father, on the ice and in the river. "It really sucks," she says. "I can't wait for college."

"I'm gonna go as far away as I can," says Joshua. "Texas or Hawaii or someplace warm. What about you?"

Hannah's never thought about it, but she stifles her sudden urge to tell Joshua she wants to go wherever he's going. The fact that she loves him, that maybe she's loved him for years, hits her like a thunderbolt from Heaven. All she wants is for him to kiss her, there on the bleachers, or reach for her hand. They could go dance. She could eat lunch with him and his friends. She wants it all, in vast waves of wanting, and all her words die in her throat. He's watching her with his sweet dark eyes, and he's so sad, and she can't say anything she feels.

"I dunno," Hannah says. "Somewhere warm sounds nice."

***

Hannah gets into Reed College, down in Oregon, and when she tells Joshua, the first thing he says is that it's way too close. They're hanging out in his basement, the way they do every month or two when Joshua calls and says he needs someone to talk to, and she's always happy to listen. "Still too cold there," he says. He's heading down to Texas for college, and in a few months, she knows she'll never see him again. Now is the night to tell him.

"I love you," she says. "I think I've loved you since fourth grade. I know we don't have much time, but I just thought..."

Joshua stares at her -- the first time in a few years, Hannah realizes, he's really looked at her -- and he's grimacing like she's just puked on the floor. "No."

"I mean, we could just date for a few months. Or go long-distance?"

"No. I'm sorry. This can't happen."

"I -- I could transfer schools, if you wanted. Go to Texas with you if --"

Joshua shakes his head and stands up from the couch. "I'm sorry, but no. I can't... Hannah, do you get what I'm saying?"

Hannah wants to keep asking questions. She wants to ask if Joshua's gay, and tell him it's okay if he is, or if he doesn't know yet. She wants to ask if he just doesn't like her that much, because that's okay too -- it's always been okay -- she could handle it if he were willing to pretend. But she does get it, and she stands up too. Her heart is in her throat.

"I should go," she says, and she does.

Spring is coming, but the fastest way home is over the river, and she doesn't even think about her route. She's halfway across the ice when there's a sickening crack, then the splash of her passenger-side wheel going into the water. Her distracted self-pity is replaced by panic, and then by practiced motions: unbuckling her belt, killing the engine, yanking the keys. She didn't leave her window open, like her dad said to do, so she has to risk the door. The car lists when she opens it, and she throws herself out and bolts for the riverbank.

Hannah's thoughts are an insane adrenaline-juiced jumble: did she leave anything in the back seat? Will they have to haul the car out? Will that drain her college fund? She forces her mind away from the sudden image of her father's apoplectic face, focusing on getting her phone out of her pocket. She needs to call 911, but the first thing she opens is her text messages. She's texting Joshua before she even knows what she's doing: my car just went into the river, all lowercase, like she's shitposting. Like it's funny.

The response is instant: WHAT THE gently caress, then a few moments of typing, then NOT loving FUNNY! Joshua never curses. gently caress, Hannah thinks -- his dad. The ice. She starts typing back it's not a joke, this is really happening, i'm so sorry, but she's blocked before she can send it. Of course she is. She deserves to be.

There's a deep splash, quieter than she expected, when her car capsizes.

Hannah blinks hard. She needs to stay calm, needs to think. There's a restaurant about ten minutes' walk downriver that'll still be open; she needs to get in there, stay warm, and call 911, then her parents. Hannah starts walking, trudging through slushy spring snow, and tells herself not to cry. It's still cold enough that tears will freeze to her face.

Hannah tries to think of her mom and her advice: how this'll be okay, it's not the end of the world, it'll be funny in ten years when she's out in the world and Fairbanks is a bad memory. She tries to force it through the morass, but she can't do it. All she can do is trudge. There's already slush in her shoes, seeping into her socks.

Ten minutes, she tells herself. Hannah can just make out the lights of the restaurant in the distance, as far away as the stars.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



AITJ?

Yes. I am the judge.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



True Butt Confessions
329 words

archived

Antivehicular fucked around with this message at 03:19 on Jan 5, 2022

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



WEEK 449 CRITS

I have a lot of complicated thoughts about this week! Mostly just that I'm not sure most of the pieces here were successful, probably because "write a plausible reddit advice post" and "write a satisfying narrative" are... not entirely congruent goals. A lot of this week was very plausible to me as reddit posts, but common reddit-y elements (lack of interiority, confusing progressions, major details getting glossed over, everyone being shallow and awful) made the stories less satisfying to read as stories for me. So it goes. Weird week.

Chairchucker, "My (33M) partner (69M) of the last 12 months..."

Oh, good, we're starting with that classic r/relationships subgenre, "my relationship is perfect other than this huge nightmare problem!" This is pretty fun, and actually a pretty plausible post, but I feel like this could have used more detail. There are a lot of things you could explore here that could make this more interesting as a story -- what is domestic life with a Reptoid like, anyway? Are there other red flags here that the narrator is glossing over, or is Seth legitimately a good partner? (I'm particularly interested in why and how an alien scout is a good cook; I feel like there's a story there.)

Azza Bamboo, "My sparkle plum fairy is sad..."

I'm gonna be honest: this piece didn't work for me at all. I see what you were going for here, with trying to do an archetypal "order vs. whimsy" sort of story and work from a theme down, but the problem with top-down planning like that is that you have to make the concrete characters and events work along with the theme; if a story is about a big idea, but the actual events are sloppy, it's not going to work, and I think that's what's going on here. There's very little plot (not necessarily a problem for this week, since plenty of r/relationships posts are just people barfing about their troubled relationships without a clear narrative), and the characters don't work; the narrator, in particular, is so dippy and clueless that she's instantly unlikable, and I'm not sure how intentional that was. (TBH, my initial worry was that you were trying to depict her as neurodiverse or cognitively disabled, and... that'd be a whole other crit.) I was really waiting for a twist that would take this out of the realm of "incredibly stupid, childish woman wears down her husband" -- like, I dunno, the fairy stuff she believes in is real, or her husband really did have a passion for picture frames -- but it never came through. (Also, I don't want to hammer on this because I know it wasn't your intent, but this sort of "stupid, childish, wasteful wife exists to spend her tired breadwinner husband's money and make his life a living hell" story is a misogynist archetype, and it makes me uncomfortable to read.) I think that, for this sort of story to work, both these characters need to be more fleshed-out and sympathetic, and there needs to be some glimpse of how this marriage happened in the first place. Maybe that's too much to ask from r/relationships week, but that's how I feel.

Mrenda, "My boyfriend left open jars in all our cupboards..."

This one's all right, but I think it falls prey to a major issue in this week, which is being too on the nose and having too many wacky asides; it feels very self-consciously like comedy writing to me, which weakens the piece. The core concept of "somebody has trouble opening jars and this turns into a running argument about fitness regimens" basically works, and I can sort of see the open-jar retaliation, but the deliberate allergen-adding feels less like a logical progression of the story and more like a reference to something that comes up a lot in these Reddit posts. There are fun parts here, but I'm not sure it all hangs together.

Yoruichi, "I (clitoris, 39) called my neighbour (rear end in a top hat, 39) a dick..."

I feel weird saying this about the story about genitalia, but this is the first one this week where the characters felt like human beings with actual problems, instead of Wacky Comedy Problems. The anatomy jokes are funny, but I think it really helps that there's a grounding here of very relatable pain and anxiety ("does my partner like this sex act specifically because he thinks I don't like it?" is way too goddamn real). I'm kind of curious what the rear end in a top hat thinks about all this, but it's a solid piece as is.

Chili, "My Fiance Will Not Be Attending My Wedding"

This one is pretty charming! It reminds me of the r/AITA post about the couple whose families were giving them poo poo about not calling each other "fiance" after they got engaged, so they started calling each other "dear friend" and "close associate" and other ridiculous things just to piss their families off. The main characters are likable, doing a bizarre thing that seems to work for them, and even the families' concerns don't seem unrealistic -- in a week that is fairly easily focused on terrible people being terrible to each other, it's a real palate cleanser to read about people being nice in weird ways.

Beezus, "My boyfriend lied about not being a dark magician..."

A pretty simple r/relationships riff, competently executed. I think this one is stronger for staying relatively focused on the single throughline of "SO is a dark magician and lying about it poorly, in a world where dark magic is a known thing," with some good gags building off of that; I particularly enjoyed being told what a passive-aggressive mood launching spiders out of your mouth is, and the assertion that old books leaking is common in Moldova. Not a ton to say about this, but I enjoyed it.

a friendly penguin, "AITA for throwing out all of my dragon's gross stuff?"

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this one, but it didn't work for me. The core riff of "princess starts screwing with dragon's hoard" is solid enough, but I think the religious-relics angle just doesn't work for me; it refocuses the story purely on the princess being oblivious and ignorant, which is less interesting than basing her conflict with the dragon on other grounds (like, say, the classic "it's arranged how I want it"/sentimental-value argument with a being that might be thousands of years old), and the end with the princess being trapped in a box by priests is kind of jarring. Did she actually get turned into a statue by the dragon, or is it just based on her touching all those relics? Not sure I follow this.

Baneling Butts, "How to convince my ex-girlfriend's boyfriend..."

This is a pretty solid piece on the whole, and it feels like one that could actually be a plausible r/relationships post; "my girlfriend's family all sleep together in a big weird nest" certainly isn't any stranger than some things people have posted there in earnest. I think the weak spots to me are the occasional jokier asides (things like meeting someone LARPing and the baby chiropractor) that really feel wink-wink, nudge-nudge; for formats like this, I think it works better if there's total sincerity in the voice, even if that means reducing the joke density some.

brotherly, "My (25M) wife (27F) won’t stop buying CPR dummies..."

OH MY GOD, IT'S NOT COMEDY. Holy poo poo, have you ever had a day when you've been eating junk food the entire day, then you decide to eat some carrots or something and your nervous system lights up like a Christmas tree with approval of your consuming a vitamin? That's what reading this piece was like for me.

Honestly? This is really good. I'm not sure if the voice is perfectly r/relationships, and obviously these events aren't completely plausible as real human behavior, but I think it's solid enough as an actual short story that it doesn't bother me -- it pushes things to extremes, but in a way that works as an effective horror narrative, and enough of the notes are completely reasonable (particularly the "I definitely need to get a divorce, but I don't want a divorce" ending) that it's still reasonably grounded.

Thranguy, "I(26M) have just gotten out of a three year relationship with my future self(30M)..."

This is pretty decent, although it feels like it was generated more around the AITA punchline and the Wikihow flash rule than anything else. The style is extremely authentic, but I feel like I would have liked to see it fleshed out a little more to improve the narrative. I want to know more about this relationship, and particularly about the narrator's feelings about restarting it -- obviously he doesn't want to, but I'd like to know more about his thoughts in retrospect, the things that his "future"/eminent-present self did, maybe some more portents that this was never that happy a relationship for the older version?. I dunno. I feel like there's a lot of room for character work here and we mostly got pickles and Heinlein references.

Rhymes With Clue, "My (38F) husband (34M) is jealous of my brother (38M)..."

Reasonably well-constructed, and completely believable, but I feel like I'm missing something -- that there's some element here that I'm not getting that'll make the story click, or there's a joke I'm missing. I think the idea is that Zeke and the narrator have authentically done some crimes together, up to and including killing Zeke's dad, but it took me a couple of reads to get and is almost too subtle. It's hard to modulate -- this is the kind of thing that could be really hamfisted -- but I think maybe it needs to be emphasized a little more. (Or maybe this just isn't the format to tell this story, although "my husband is irrationally jealous of my stepbrother, for all the wrong reasons" is very r/relationships.)

sparksbloom, "AITA for hiring a hitman to kill my wife's birds?"

This is maybe the best of the wacky pack, with a pretty plausible voice and a cohesive if ridiculous escalation of events, and the ending is really good; it is 100% Reddit-plausible that this dude has watched his marriage turn into a psychosexual horror show and is still, God bless him, going to try a stupid little strategy to right the ship. Pretty good, pretty weird, and not on-the-nose.

crabrock, "I told him it's either me or the car, AITA?"

Oh, Goddammit, this is fanfiction, isn't it? I want to like this, but it's fanfiction.

This is another one where I feel like the format maybe isn't serving the story completely well. It's a good, breezy, plausible r/r post, but I sort of want this to dig into the fundamental personal terror of realizing that the car you and your husband gently caress in is a sapient robot, who knew and understood everything (and seems to have enjoyed it!), and also that your husband uses it as his confidant for your relationship problems. It's a ridiculous scenario, but it's also life-destroying, even in a universe where Transformers are a known quantity! Maybe I just want to read serious works considering the existence of Transformers and their potential effects on interpersonal relationships, I dunno, or at least the extended dead-serious remix of this story. That said, it's good for what it is, and I appreciate that the narrator does take this seriously.

Still, man. Fanfiction. I dunno if I can roll with this in good faith, even as I gave you more goddamn fanfiction prompts. I am large; I contain multitudes.

curlingiron, "Can I sue my employer for injuries..."

First of all, props for using a Reddit post format other than r/relationships or r/AITA. Fun to see.

So this is very short, probably not technically an entry, very dumb, and honestly a piece I enjoyed more than most of the week. It's simultaneously completely stupid and also something I could see happening, with about the appropriate level of elevation. Maybe I'm biased, but there's basically no situation that strikes me as too stupid to happen in a company bathroom. A one-joke piece, but it's a pretty good joke!

toanoradian, "AITA for tricking my mother-in-law into eating dog food?"

I feel like there's something here that I'm missing. We have some classic r/relationships elements here -- complicated family relationships, disagreements escalating into nightmares, loving around with people's food, anime -- but I'm not sure this all fits together into a cohesive whole. It's kind of more a series of events, and even those don't completely hang together.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



gently caress it, I'm in. I've got this story in my head and I may as well write the drat thing.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



"Chest Compressions" and the Cracked-Open Ribcage of Desire
957 words

The fanfic "Chest Compressions" (stylized in lowercase by the author, capitalized by me because lowercase titles make me twitch) is beginning to rise out of obscurity, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. This essay isn't intended to publicize it, or to celebrate it, or even explain it -- because that I certainly can't do. This is just thinking-in-type, and I suspect it won't even be posted online, just left to rot in a hidden folder next to a dozen half-finished bad ideas. Too much of what I write is just an attempt to explain things to myself, so what's a few more words of it?

"Chest Compressions" is obscure for understandable reasons. It's based on the Canadian TV series Burnouts, a formulaic drama about firefighter/EMTs which lasted two seasons; Burnouts never attracted much fandom attention in the first place, but what little it did was focused on the two main characters, both attractive white men with a passionate rivalty dynamic tailor-made for slash fandom. "Chest Compressions," by contrast, focuses on a romance between two supporting characters, both so minor that (based on archive tags) they don't feature in any other Burnouts stories in the archive, let alone as a couple. A niche pairing in an unloved fandom isn't a good start, but what doomed "Chest Compressions" was its own length and content: just over 76,000 words, during which very little actually happens. The story's only content tag is "Slow Burn," and the immense word count is spent on painstaking character development during fire-station downtime (without even the episodic emergency plots of Burnouts) or various mundane activities. It's textured, intricate, and amazingly dull. There are three sex scenes, all in the last quarter of the fic, all brief and vanilla. The prose is adequate. It's hard to imagine "Chest Compressions" appealing to anyone besides someone deeply invested in these characters -- and, as far as I can tell, the only person who is that invested is the author.

If you can bear with "Chest Compressions" for a chapter or so, though, it starts to itch at you. It's the feeling familiar to anyone who's written fanfic for a mediocre canon: I can fix this. There's something here -- something worth exploring. I can make this worthwhile. Actually finish the fic (and you probably will, once the brain-itch has its hooks in you), and the words of your own fic will flow quick and joyless, like compulsion or possession. (I produced 5000 words in just under three hours; I've never written at that pace since, and thank God for that.) "Chest Compressions" has over 200 related works on the archive, unheard of for a fic with under 1500 hits. Very few of them are about Burnouts; none are about the main characters of "Chest Compressions." Most take their inspiration from some fleeting scene or line of dialogue, the kinds of passing details that the brain seizes to gnaw on. Some of these related works use mundane fanfic tropes, but most include some unique kink or plot device totally new to fanfiction, often completely bizarre. Some become popular. A few have even become ubiquitous; the first ishinaki-byo fic is on the list, reframing a scene from "Chest Compressions" in the context of some slice-of-life anime, and the first waxboy fic is one of the few related Burnouts fics. (It directly plagiarizes a lot of "Chest Compressions"'s dialogue -- not a classy move. Waxboy fandom being a total shitshow feels like karma.)

I've read "Chest Compressions" seven times, and everything on its Related Works list at least once, and the only theory I have is that "Chest Compressions" is fandom in microcosm. It's a thorough mediocrity, of worth only to its creator, but reading it creates the spark of recreation in its rawest, most personal form. It compels you to crack open your ribcage and let out something too weird and stupid for anyone else to ever love -- but some people do love it, maybe even with a consumptive fury. What is it like, I wonder, to see your secret id spawning thousands of fics and reams of tedious drama? Do you feel seen? (I think I'd feel seen.) Would it be better to post it and see it ignored?

I've never posted the fanfic I wrote after finishing "Chest Compressions"; I haven't even re-read it, and I suspect I never will. This essay will end up next to it in my scraps folder, and I'll move onto safer pastures. I'm fairly sure I'm not alone. When you do the math on hits vs. related works, and even if you remove the many who didn't finish or don't write, there must be a fair number of us with unpublished heart-vomit fics out there. I tell myself I can't be the only one like this, staring at a text file full of my worst and my rawest, unable to bear the thought of it being seen. (Digested? Judged?) Maybe I've betrayed myself, but at least I'm not alone.

"Chest Compressions" has just under 1500 hits, over 200 related works, thirteen kudos, and five comments. One of them is from me; all I wrote is "thank you," shamefully enough. The author never replied, to me or to anyone else, although they've kept writing in larger fandoms, with safer pairings and common tropes. I think "Chest Compressions," and the fics that it inspired, are the sort of things you only write once -- one baptism of fire, one broken ribcage, one moment of ugly stupid glory. The genius of "Chest Compressions" is that its ugly glory is contagious. If more people find it... how many, I wonder, will be cowards like me, and how many will be brave?

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



THUNDERDOME WEEK CDLII -- Dragon Week 2: The Dragoning



Back in November 2018, I ran a dragon week that got five entries. I have always regretted it, but we've seen a lot of new blood since 2018, so let's try this again.

The rules are pretty simple: write a story about dragons. I will accept metaphorical dragons if necessary, but I'm more interested in literal ones. Mythological near-dragons are fine: cockatrices, amphisbaena, giant island turtles, tsuchinoko, particularly cool griffins, you know the deal. Dinosaurs do not count unless they are magical. As I said back in 2018, you probably know what a dragon is, so follow your heart.

Flash rules are available upon requests and will be neat facts about your dragon.

Standard rules apply: no erotica, fanfiction, Google Docs, political screeds/topical political satire, archive-breaking formatting, or dick pics.

Word Count: 1500
Signups Close: Friday, April 2, 11:59PM Pacific
Submissions Close: Sunday, April 4, 11:59PM Pacific

Judges:
Antivehicular
sparksbloom
ONE MORE??

Entrants:
sebmojo - Your dragon's stomach is an alchemical crucible and can render dross into treasure, or vice versa, at its will.
Fuschia tude - Your dragon has a dozen pairs of wings, but it is flightless.
Baneling Butts - Your dragon cannot tolerate the touch of solid matter. It is liquid, and it turns any environment it dwells in to liquid as well, heating solids and cooling gases.
brotherly - Your dragon's breath is always deadly, but it is never the same thing twice.
toanoradian - Your dragon is incapable of hate, even under duress.
Chairchucker - Your dragon was man-made and does not know it.
Armack
Azza Bamboo
Thranguy - Your dragon is made of fire and breathes blood and bile.
crimea - Your dragon was not born a dragon; its previous identity is its most carefully guarded secret.
flerp - Your dragon craves the flesh of an extinct creature.
Noah - Your dragon dwells only in rainclouds; when a storm begins to dissipate, it flees to the next.
Idle Amalgam :toxx: - Your dragon is a master of a human trade or craft, and practices it for the joy of it, although it requires an appropriate price for its services.
Beezus - Your dragon does not grow scales. It covers its bare skin with stolen things.
Dr. Kloctopussy - Your dragon diminishes as it ages, shrinking ever smaller as its riches and power increase.
Tree Bucket - Your dragon pupates. Nobody living knows what will emerge from the cocoon.

Antivehicular fucked around with this message at 09:25 on Mar 30, 2021

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



sebmojo posted:

in can i have a flash

Your dragon's stomach is an alchemical crucible and can render dross into treasure, or vice versa, at its will.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Fuschia tude posted:

All right gently caress it in gimme a dragon fact

Your dragon has a dozen pairs of wings, but it is flightless.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Baneling Butts posted:

gently caress yeah dragons! Fact me please :)

Your dragon cannot tolerate the touch of solid matter. It is liquid, and it turns any environment it dwells in to liquid as well, heating solids and cooling gases.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



brotherly posted:

In and fact me please

Your dragon's breath is always deadly, but it is never the same thing twice.

toanoradian posted:

I hate dragons, both my bully and my least favourite rival are into dragons. Give me facts.

Your dragon is incapable of hate, even under duress.

Chairchucker posted:

I seek knowledge of dragon facts.

Your dragon was man-made and does not know it.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Thranguy posted:

In and fact me.

Your dragon is made of fire and breathes blood and bile.

crimea posted:

in flash

Your dragon was not born a dragon; its previous identity is its most carefully guarded secret.

flerp posted:

in dragon fact

Your dragon craves the flesh of an extinct creature.

Noah posted:

In. Flash please.

Your dragon dwells only in rainclouds; when a storm begins to dissipate, it flees to the next.

Idle Amalgam posted:

In with a flash rule, please

:toxx:

Your dragon is a master of a human trade or craft, and practices it for the joy of it, although it requires an appropriate price for its services.

Beezus posted:

In, flash pls.

Your dragon does not grow scales. It covers its bare skin with stolen things.

Dr. Kloctopussy posted:

🔥In and flash plz 🐉

Your dragon diminishes as it ages, shrinking ever smaller as its riches and power increase.

Tree Bucket posted:

Ooh, dragons! In and flash, thanks.

Your dragon pupates. Nobody living knows what will emerge from the cocoon.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Applewhite posted:

I'm going to regret this but I can't turn down a prompt about Dragons, not even with a midterm next week. IN. Flash pls.

Your dragon only hoards completely ruined things. It subsists on fungus, maggots, and ash.

crabrock posted:

in, dragon me plz

Your dragon practices brood parasitism, carefully disguising its eggs as precious treasures of many kinds.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Signups closed! Happy dragoning.

One judge slot remains.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Submissions are closed!

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



TD WEEK 452 RESULTS: What a Drag(on)

Lots of ennui in the judge chambers this week, folks. This was kind of a disappointing lot, with lots of disagreements, but all settling at "meh." After some not-particularly-spirited debate, here are your results:

Winner: curlingiron, "Clutch and Kindle"
HMs: Tyrannosaurus, "wild one"; Fuschia tude, "Rook"
DMs: Azza Bamboo, "A Tale of Geldal"; Idle Amalgam, "Roll to Save Against Personal Growth"; Gorka, "Malicious Compliance"
Loser: toanoradian, "Three Lies"

curlingiron, it's your show!

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In, pls to hellrule

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Late Autumn on a Rocky Island
980 words
U2 flashrule: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqdJ6CsXt4Y
Hellrule: your characters are all naked and extremely cold but have hella hair

Archived

Antivehicular fucked around with this message at 03:19 on Jan 5, 2022

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



TD CDLVI: File Clerks Fight Crime



Admit it: at some point, during a boring shift at work, you've envisioned writing a thrilling action-adventure novel where the protagonist -- an average person, with your job, even! -- uses their pluck and expertise to fight crime, or take down zombies, or solve a forensic-accounting mystery involving Santa Claus, or something. (Some shifts are more boring than others.) This week, I want you to bring one of these visions to life.

Write me a story based in some facet of your professional or other specialist knowledge. Hobbies and special interests are also fine! As long as it's a field with some level of specialist knowledge, and you're using it, all is well. What I'm looking for is stories that feel authentic and, hopefully, show me something interesting or cool about your profession or specialist subject. (Obviously, I will not be fact-checking these, but if your story is all about space wizards in low earth orbit, I may ask for your space wizard ID number to run against the registry. Conversely, please do not doxx yourself, reveal confidential information about clients, or whatever. The laws of creative nonfiction apply here: it doesn't need to be the unvarnished truth, but it needs to be plausible as coming from your lived experience.)

All genres are acceptable, not just action-adventure; this includes fantasy/SF, but see the caveat above. It should feel real even if there are elves involved.

Standard rules apply: no erotica, fanfiction, political screeds/topical politics, Google Docs, archive-breaking formatting, or dick pics. Even if your specialist subject is dick pics.

Word Count: 1500
Signup Deadline: 11:59 PM Pacific, Friday, April 30th
Submission Deadline: 11:59 PM Pacific, Sunday, May 2nd

Judges:
Antivehicular
Gorka
Noah

Writers:
My Shark Waifuu
Simply Simon
brotherly
Azza Bamboo
Thranguy
Weltlich
anime was right
Chairchucker
sebmojo
Yoruichi
Uranium Phoenix
QuoProQuid
crabrock
Sitting Here

Antivehicular fucked around with this message at 06:59 on May 3, 2021

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Oh hey, I forgot to close signups!

Signups are now closed. Gorka is co-judging -- one judge slot remains.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



And having given out an hour or so of You Say You're Working On A Thing leeway, submissions are closed.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



TD 456: Results

After a week where it wasn't clear if the judges' schedules were going to sync up at all, the Council has managed to convene in the dark of night (US time) to render judgment. After much discussion, we have determined this is an old-school week, with exactly one of each mention.

Winner: Uranium Phoenix
Honorable Mention: crabrock
Dishonorable Mention: anime was right
Loser: brotherly

Crits will be forthcoming as soon as I feel less like garbage! Anyway, it's UP's throne.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



The Congregation of the Catacombs
1483 words

The old catacombs along the southeastern coast are traveled only by scoundrels, mourners, and the desperate, and after his misadventures in the Warden Mountains, Shadrach Zann was all three: a thorough scoundrel, mourning the failure of his campaign and the loss of his sellsword's pay, and desperate for passage back to more temperate country. A derelict chapel offered him welcome passage to the catacombs, and a half-day's stroll down the quiet corridors of the dead did a great deal to improve his mood. He reminded himself of the funeral customs of the mountains, of the niches sealed with delicate stonework, and was delighted to find a scattering whose seals were clearly undisturbed. By his third day in the catacombs, antique bracelets jangled around Shadrach's wrists, agate effigy figurines of horses and hawks were swaddled in his pack, and he wore a tiger's-eye circlet on his brow simply to amuse himself. At this rate, Shadrach thought, he would regret returning to the surface.

On the fourth day, as Shadrach rested at a crossroads to eat his evening meal of hardtack and dried goat, he heard a strange clattering coming from a corridor. He rose, hand swift to the sword at his hip, but his panic became despair when he saw the thing approaching him: a walking skeleton, clean moon-white bone shrouded in immaculate black silk, motes of grey half-light in its eye sockets. What use would a sword be against bone? There was only one strategy that offered much hope: surrender, the scoundrel's oldest friend. "I am at your mercy," called Shadrach, raising his hands above his head. "I mean no ill."

"And I mean none to you!" called the skeleton back, in the rich tones of an ancient king or well-remembered father. "Be at ease, traveler. It's been a long time since we had a visitor in our halls. Tell me, are you fresh from the surface?"

"A few days away from it," replied Shadrach, all too aware of the weight of his days of plunder resting on his wrists and forehead. "Show me the exit, and I'll be on my way."

"Nonsense! You are our guest. Let me invite you to our gathering -- if you would grace us with a few stories of your surface travels, we would be honored. Would you be so kind?"

Shadrach considered his host: the shining sockets, the fine silk shroud, the fingertips worn by time into polished ivory needles. He silenced the part of his brain already appraising the silk, but he listened carefully to the one which imagined the skeleton's grasp on his throat. "The honor," he replied, "is mine."

***

In an ancient and forgotten chamber of the catacombs, its sarcophagi collapsed to rubble, the skeletons mingled with the rowdy joy of a wedding party. Some were dressed in silk, others draped with decaying furs, and still more were in what might be called the state of nature. Shadrach's host led him towards the center of the room, and the chatter and laughter fell silent in his wake. "My friends!" announced his host. "We have a living traveler! He has agreed to grace us with stories; let us give him all due honor."

Shadrach was bidden to sit on a half-ruined sarcophagus, and he sat. Too keenly was he aware of the crowd, dozens of visages of Death, any of whom could end him on their slightest whim. He cleared his dry throat. A murmur went up, and a moment later, his host pressed a glass into his hand: a mouthful of a dark, vinegar-sour liquid that must once have been wine. It went down his throat without returning, which was enough, and Shadrach began to speak.

"My name is Shadrach Zann, and I've recently arrived from the Warden Mountains. My company and I were hired by the Duke of Annamiro to break a siege on his city by Veronis to the east, seeking control of the trade routes. We rode in to find the Veronis camp in shambles, for..."

There was a dead silence in the air, and Shadrach knew at once that it was not the silence of rapt attention. After he trailed off, there was a voice from the crowd. "War stories? How tedious!" Murmurs of affirmation followed, from which Shadrach could only glean that Annamiro was constantly being besieged by someone or other, Veronis more often than not, and oughtn't someone have learned by now? Shadrach's host made a dry, half-cough sound that Shadrach suspected was a skeletal attempt to clear his throat. "Ah, my apologies, friend. I should have warned you about military topics. Do you have anything else?"

Shadrach tried to clear his mind. There were a few amusing anecdotes from his youth; if they were good enough to win drinks from soldiers, perhaps they'd convince skeletons to spare his life, he thought hopelessly. "Well! As a youth, I was an apprentice at the Academy of Antiquities, before my father's fortunes failed. My mentor once called on me to perform a strange initiation --"

"No!" The protesting skeleton towered over its fellows, but its voice was high and strained. "No wizards. No rituals. Nothing like that!"

"Ah." Shadrach gritted his teeth. "The audience has spoken, then. I throw myself upon your mercy, friends. What kinds of stories would you like?"

"Well," his host said, "perhaps you might start with the weather."

"Oh! Yes, yes, of course," said Shadrach, speaking without thinking, as was so often useful in his travels. "It's been a lovely warm summer. Good weather for traveling, of course, and they tell me it's good for wine grapes."

Another murmur went up from the crowd, but a warmer one, Shadrach thought (or hoped, at least). "Wine grapes? Have you seen them? Are the hills covered in vines?"

"I'm afraid I couldn't tell you. This season I've mostly been through pastureland, sheep and cattle --"

The host stepped forward, resting his skeletal hand on Shadrach's shoulder convivially; Shadrach forced himself not to flinch. "Ah, cattle! Yes, I recall that once saw a cow. What color were yours? Mine was, I believe, yellow."

"Mostly white," said Shadrach, "and sometimes spotted, with great curling horns. The villagers have a saying about plain white cows producing fine white cheese, and you know, I don't think they're wrong? I could have lived off of the cheese they make in those villages." He scanned the silent horde, who seemed mesmerized. Was this the secret? Weather, animals, food -- the stuff of life, after its long absence? Very well, then. It was not below Shadrach's dignity to wax rhapsodic about cheese.

For the hours that followed, Shadrach remembered every meal he had eaten over the last few months, and described each in painstaking detail; if his audience lost patience with him, their ivory faces didn't show it. He spoke of rainstorms that forced hasty stops to a night's travel but left the fields and foothills green; he told tales of every village mongrel and stray goose he could think of, and endured requests to replicate their calls. Only once his throat was dry and his voice was a croak did the skeletons begin to dissipate, apparently satisfied. Shadrach's host beamed. "A fine performance. Very fine. Come with me, please?"

Shadrach, weary and jittery, could only follow. His host led him down a dusty corridor, continuing to speak. "Yes, all in all, a most successful visit, and we are grateful to have had you. It's only a shame about the war stories and the bit about the Academy. I was very much hoping I could extend you a permanent invitation to join our congregation -- it has been some time since we have met any so recently among the living -- but we are very selective about our company, as I hope you can understand. Even the threat of further war stories, I fear, is enough for some of my company to brand you a bore. My sincere apologies; I only wish I could offer you eternity."

In a stammering, raspy voice, Shadrach reassured his host that he understood completely. They had arrived back at the crossroads from which they'd departed, and with a deep bow, Shadrach's host turned and left him there. Shadrach's nerves and knees collapsed at last, and he slumped to the floor, to spend a fruitless hour waiting for sleep.

When his strength returned, Shadrach marched through the catacombs until he found a stairway, and he ascended into a chapel and interrupted a pig farmer at prayer. He'd hoped to be many miles further down the coast when he emerged, well out of range of Annamiran or Veronisan agents, but the concept of fighting a living man seemed almost refreshing. A few day's labor bought Shadrach passage to a quiet western port, and there his stolen grave goods bought him a year's comfortable living -- but for months, he dreamed only of black silk and ivory needles.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In, God help me

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Whybird posted:

I've uploaded my entry to Google Drive, since it feels like a lot of words to cram into one post. Lemme know if that's not the way we do things round these parts, and I'll stick it in a post instead.

The Arcadia Facility

Generally we post directly in the thread -- IIRC the archive can't pull from Google Docs. So, yeah, I'd make a full post.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



The Curse of Cannery Island
3971 words

Archived

Antivehicular fucked around with this message at 03:18 on Jan 5, 2022

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In, flash

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Yours, Mine, and Ours
1075 words
Flash rule: The Hundred League Stair/'Neath Fungal Fronds

The Glass Valley spread out before Nadja for miles, and all she could think about was how dry the air was. After months in the jungle air, rich and humid and spore-smelling, the Glass Valley tasted like clean desolation; cautiously, Nadja removed her kerchief and breathed in deeply. There was very little of the dust she'd expected -- recirculated, surely. She squinted at the domed glass ceiling, where nets of amber beads glittered. Filtration systems? The engineers would know, she told herself. For now, all that mattered was that she could breathe, no matter how wrong it felt.

Nadja stepped onto a glossy black sidewalk, unmarred by the footprints of the dead, and began to map the city of the Glass Valley. Chains of air-gapped apartments were suspended by cables strung between the ground and the roof, like vast strings of beads. Domed fields still held the desiccated remains of ancient crops; whatever had killed off the people of the Glass Valley, it had not been famine. Nadja navigated the maze of blocks and bead chains, each one a faceted jewel, and each one utterly alone. "What a sad place," she muttered to herself, and to the small bundle of telepathic warmth that rode in her hip pouch. "What a sad way to live."

I remember them, whispered the voice of the Jungle in Nadja's mind. They were afraid of me, of course. All of this was to keep me out. Now that we have found it, Nadja, surely you'll let me have it?

"I..." Nadja knew she should -- that she'd made promises to the Jungle, to the vast fungal mind that had guided her this far -- but staring at the unspoiled ruins, it was hard to envision letting the Jungle have its way with them. Every other city they'd found in the Jungle's reach was rotted to nothing, even the stone pitted and leached; they would never know how many nations had risen, fallen, and been devoured. Was it wrong to want to keep this one, just for a little while?

"In time," Nadja said. "Once we've investigated it. Once we know if it's safe for you to spread here."

I taste the lie, Nadja. It's no use.

For the rest of Nadja's day of surveying, the Jungle was silent. When at last Nadja could walk no further, she found a place to sleep with a view of the roof and of the distant fungal canopy, white fruiting bodies hanging over her behind the crazed glass. It was still too dry in here, too quiet and still, but it was a touch of home.

***

Nadja awoke before dawn, tangled up and sweating, with a leaden mix of nausea and hunger in her gut. The air around her was an oven. She gulped down half the contents of her canteen, mentally cursing the glass walls and amber-bead seals of this ancient city, this beautiful prison. Just a few days and she could start to think about returning home, she told herself, to civilization --

And leave me here, came the voice of the Jungle. You will not propagate me, and then you will abandon me? I led you here, Nadja, to this toxic place. Everything you asked for, I have offered. Are all single-bodies this selfish? There was an unfamiliar tone in the Jungle's voice, something oddly childish.

"No, it's not like that," Nadja replied, slow and steady, as if the tone of her voice mattered. "I'm taking you back with me, of course. I know you want the Glass Valley, but we need to study it first and make sure it's safe. Who knows what poisons they have in the ground?"

I'm not afraid of their poisons, Nadja. I will not be cheated. There were a few moments of mental silence, as the lone fruiting body spoke to its distant tendrils throughout the jungle; Nadja had learned by now that a mind that spanned half a continent was often slow. The only ones who ever cheated me were the Glass Valley people. The others kept their agreements, even at the end. They gave me their dead fresh from the sickbed, and you will not give me this dried-out husk of city?

"We will, but you have to understand -- what my people want is just a little time, to study and understand these ruins. Once we're done, they'll be yours. I might take my lifetime, or longer, but I'll do whatever I can. I promise you that, Jungle, like I promised you my body when this work is done. Maybe fifty years? One single-body lifetime."

So soon? I thought... I worried. Occupation, rebuilding. Fresh poisons and solitude for all of us. I feel truth from you now, Nadja, but will you offer me a better taste?

Nadja nodded, pointlessly, and pulled her penknife from her pocket. She opened her hip pouch and unwrapped a portion of the fragile fruiting body that served the Jungle as ambassador and mouthpiece. Once a segment of absorbent white fungus was exposed, she sliced open her fingertip and pressed it to the spongy flesh, letting the Jungle taste her more fully than her sweat could offer. Honesty always carried best in the blood.

Thank you, Nadja, murmured the Jungle. I taste the truth in you. One day, your people will give me the Glass Valley, but by then I hope we are all friends: you and your kin, me and mine. Is it true my kin live in your city?

"Four hypha-minds," Nadja said, "and five root-minds. They can't wait to meet you. You'll go farther than you ever imagined, and we'll do it together."

Together, in time. What's mine and what's yours will be ours, one day.

Nadja nodded again, to herself, and stared up at the glass room and the vast fungal canopy beyond. She tried not to think of technicalities, of study and toil, of the contracts and treaties that the Jungle would have to abide by to be a civilized hypha-mind. Time would solve everything, and they had time -- Nadja a little, and the Jungle eternity. Neither of them would ever again be alone.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



Scavenging a Dream
1120 words
Flash picture:

The Darwin's Gall had never made it to its destination, but its sample preservation chambers were still full: fuzzy quadruped shapes under frosted glass, deep in cryosleep. Helen squinted at the control panel, confirming several dozen sets of stable vital signs -- and, more importantly, a functional vintage cryo rig, all systems still green. "Pretty sure this is payday," she said, glancing back at her crewmate behind her. "Good catch, Kayla."

Kayla was silent, which Helen hadn't expected. If there was one constant with Kayla, it was sound: the constant hiss and pop of her hot mic in Helen's ear, punctuated by the low mutter of her thinking out loud. Silence meant serious concentration, or trouble, or usually both. "But," started Kayla, then stopped again. "The animals? What about the animals?"

"What about them? They're not gonna suffer. Won't even wake up."

"But... they're pets. Cats and dogs. Don't those go for big money in the bigger habs and the colony ships? Plus, it's been... what, sixty years? Maybe these are rare pets now. Maybe extinct pets! I read a book once about pets, and I think these might be purebreds? That one, with the pointy ears? I think that's a shepherd." Kayla stepped forward, pointing at a large pointed-eared shape within one of the tubes. "And the on-screen data says some of these are tuxedo cats! If we can just get them back to a major station alive..."

Helen kept her mic dead as she sighed. Kayla had a good eye, and better scavenger instincts than you'd expect, but she'd been raised in a big hab, the kind of place where the upper levels had pet allowances and everyone got picture books and dreams. Carrying that kind of childhood into scav work was a recipe for getting your hopes up and your heart broken. "Lot of big 'if's there. Even if the rig's stable, it'd be a hell of a job extracting it and keeping them alive. Don't have the food and life-support allowance to wake them up for transit, so what do we do? Haul the whole ship? Might have the fuel, but that poo poo drops us from black to red real, real fast. We're not luxury dealers, Kay. You ever sat down with the purser and looked at the books?"

"Once or twice? We didn't talk about allowances or anything."

"Rhetorical question. My point is, it's a margins game, and you're asking for a big gamble here. We're not in the gambling business. You can take it up with Cap and the purser if you want, but they're gonna say the same thing I'm saying."

"I know. I know." Helen wasn't sure she'd ever heard Kayla disconsolate before, and it was a tone she didn't like, especially cut with helmet-mic static. "Just -- cats. Dogs. I always wanted a dog, Hel. And I thought, maybe some kid out there gets one, and we get a little money, and we don't just leave them here..."

"Talk to the purser. We've got a week left on this job. Just don't expect miracles."

***

That night, Helen shut herself in her quarters and pulled her haul of data sticks from her pockets. It was a bad habit, she knew, and one that working with Kayla and other greenhorns just made worse, but it was a reflex now when she was rummaging through personnel quarters. Most of the crew of the Darwin's Gall had died in their beds; better to filch from drawers than stare at corpses. Looking at the sticks afterwards, Helen couldn't justify, but everyone needed a vice in this business.

The first stick's files were mostly video, mostly thumbnails of the same subject: an animal, big, brown, pointed ears. A dog, clearly -- maybe that shepherd? It practically had to be, didn't it? A scroll through showed videos up to three days before the Darwin's Gall went dark. The next stick, a different animal (a cat, Helen was pretty sure, small-eared and round), but the same pet focus. The third stick was all about a family of three black-and-white cats. Helen wasn't a genius, but the dots weren't hard to connect. The Gall had been a small research vessel, not a family ship; they'd given the crew a pet allowance, and the pets had become their lives. What else was there to love on a ship like this? It was easy enough to imagine it from there: your engines stall, your life-support fails, and you get maybe one day's warning that you'll suffocate in your bed if you're lucky. Whatever -- you take a mission like this, maybe you don't care whether you live or die -- but you've got this stupid animal who loves you, and you've got a cryo rig just big enough to save it. Maybe you tell yourself it's just so they won't suffer. Maybe you hope for a crew of soft-hearted scavengers to show up, sixty years down the line, and try to save your drat cats.

Maybe, Helen thought, you hoped right for once.

She patched herself through to the purser. "Johanne," she said, "you're a video buff, right? What's hot on Concord Station right now?"

"Oh, the usual stuff. Mostly documentaries, animals, sentimental stories. Why do you ask?"

"Because I think I've got the sentimental story of the year right here. Sad derelict research ship, stranded and adrift, all of them pet nuts -- and the pets live. I've got tons of footage we can send ahead to Concord if we've got the bandwidth and we can make it work. I'm assuming Kayla talked to you?"

"At length," said Johanne, "and with tears. I'm going to have to crunch the numbers. We're still talking about a huge fuel expense to haul the Gall back, slightly amortized by material scrap. I could distribute your videos tomorrow, which would give Concord two weeks to circulate them before we'd arrive with the animals. That's... shockingly good timing. About the peak of viral demand. And at that point..."

"At that point, we have celebrity pets, right?"

"We have a bidding war for celebrity pets, quite possibly. This is a bizarre plan, Helen, but it could be a serious payday."

"Fantastic. I'll drop off the sticks in the morning."

That was the thing about growing up a scavenger, thought Helen, as she tidied up the data sticks and packaged them for delivery. Third-gen scavvers didn't get a lot of picture books, and they definitely didn't get a lot of dreams, but there was a thorough education in follow-through. You want something stupid? Then you have to get clever. Helen tried not to want stupid things, but when she did, there wasn't anyone more clever in the business.

Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



In, with HYGIENE

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Antivehicular
Dec 30, 2011

I wanna sing one for the cars
That are right now headed silent down the highway
And it's dark and there is nobody driving
And something has got to give



A Dirty Shame
1495 words
Flash rule: HYGIENE

Detective Alison Campbell had grown up next to a landfill, and the scent of the Esposito house was uncomfortably nostalgic: sharp notes of food waste, melding into the generic filthy-sweet of old garbage, and dirt under it all. She wiped her feet on the spotless doormat, then walked through a sticky patch of ground-in soil and (probably) apple juice on the foyer carpet. What had once been a classic old-style front room, all floral wallpaper and silver-framed family portraits, was now so full of trash bags that it was impassable; Alison noticed a cat litter box in one corner, but declined to investigate further. Her partner, and the corpse, were waiting for her in the master bedroom.

Julia Esposito had died on a top-of-the-line mattress, lying between soiled sheets and a ratty comforter that smelled of stale perfume and potting soil. The drinking glass and empty pill bottles on the nightstand were already bagged for evidence transport by Alison's partner, who stood by the head of the bed. Leonard Pappas was a thoughtful detective, one who could follow Alison's lead or take it himself: one of the best cops she'd ever worked with, and about the only partner she'd ever liked. "Oxycodone," said Len. "The medics assumed an overdose, and they're probably right, but... ligature marks, hand and foot. Murder. What'd the neighbors have to say?"

"The usual, but I think they meant it. Said she was a nice old lady and a good neighbor, no trouble." Nobody wanted to be the first one to say a dead woman was a nasty old bitch, but she'd read sincerity on the faces of the young couple who'd lived next door to Esposito. "They hadn't seen her in a couple of weeks, but they assumed she was traveling; she'd been talking about a Niagara Falls trip with her daughter's family. Usually they saw her out of the house at least a few times a week. She looked after their kid sometimes."

"In their house or hers?"

"They didn't say. I'd have asked if I knew about this." Alison paced towards the vanity, with its neat array of perfumes and a broken mirror: a single forceful fracture, probably with a hammer. "Len, have you done a full house walk-through? Does this feel off to you?"

"Stole my thought, Al. Hoarder places aren't my specialty, but the details don't fit. All this trash, but... don't hoarders keep clean stuff, too? Clothes, groceries? Esposito's closet looks like she did a Goodwill clean-out yesterday, except there's a cat box in there. I've seen four filthy cat boxes in this house and I haven't seen any other sign of a cat. No food, no toys. No fur, for God's sake."

"And even a cat couldn't have gotten to the one in the front room," Alison added. "There were no walkways in that trash. The stains on the carpet are still sticky, like they're fresh."

"The kitchen's that way too: sink's stacked with old dishes, but there's a clean load in the dishwasher. Grime on the stovetop, shiny under the burners. Trash is rotting, fridge is neat. All the mess is a few days old, max"

"But that's months of trash in the front room. So our options are that Esposito is a secret trash hoarder, including litterboxes for cats she doesn't have, but keeps everything clean until she goes on a week-long oxycodone bender and gets killed by her dealer or something --"

"I don't think she was an oxy fiend. These bottles are from two years ago, prescribed for surgery, never refilled. I think they were just convenient."

"-- or the other option," said Alison, "which you beat me to. Someone comes in, kills an old lady, and tries to frame it as a hoarder suicide. If it were just the food mess, I'd think the killer was squatting and laying low, but nobody brings their garbage collection to a botched robbery. This was calculated. So who hated her enough to do this?"

"Good question," replied Len. "Gonna have to get the sweepers in. Don't envy them today."

***

The sweepers came up empty; the killer had ruined the place, but they'd kept traces of themselves out of it. That added skill to the equation, and Alison started pushing hard on that angle, since personal resentments weren't panning out. There were no bitter ex-spouses or estranged children lurking in the periphery of Julia Esposito's life, and interviews with Esposito's friends didn't reveal so much as a book-club squabble. The first thread of hate came from a source Alison neglected, and the one she should have checked first: the cold-case file.

15 months ago, someone had burnt down Julia Esposito's gardening shed. It hadn't spread far, destroying just the shed and a section of fence; a controlled burn on a clear, still night could only be arson. Nobody'd seen anything, save for a neighbor who'd reported seeing an unfamiliar van with red livery in the neighborhood -- "belonging to a local cleaning company," the attending officer had noted. The case had gone cold, and Julia Esposito herself hadn't been concerned, commenting in her interview that she "wasn't really a gardener."

Julia Esposito hadn't been a gardener, but her killer had tracked potting soil all over her house, the one off-key note in the hoarder simulation. A cleaning van had been seen at the arson; the killer had kept themselves sealed, like a professional, and who but a cleaner to have infinite access to hoarder detritus? A professional, then, employed somewhere with red-liveried vans.

At last, Alison had something like hard data to crunch. Of the two cleaning companies in town with red vans, only one handled heavy-duty cases: Lionheart Cleaning, a firm that contracted for crime-scene cleaning. That wasn't a good sign; Alison had met the Lionheart crew a few times, even bought them a round or two at the bar. They were good people, she'd thought, but... they were the right kind of professionals. She sent the lead to Len, with a request to look up gardening connections; "something going on here," she wrote in her email. "Look for potting soil receipts."

Len came through, as he always did. Mike Braga, supervisor of the Lionheart crime-scene detail, was on camera buying three large bags of potting soil, one each at three hardware stores across town over the course of a week: maybe suspicious on its own, but definitely so for a man who lived in an apartment. Alison remembered Braga, tall and sunburnt, a happy drunk, a storyteller -- he'd had a lot of stories about juvie, hadn't he? Time to bring him in, she thought, and sent the paperwork.

Alison awoke the next morning to a phone call: Len. "They sent the guys over for Braga," he said, without bothering with an introduction. Found him dead in the bathtub. Clean to the end, I guess."

***

There was no reason for Alison to read the confession, with the case closed, but she did it anyway. Mike Braga had written out his last thoughts in longhand, in neat blocky tradesman's print, on wide-ruled looseleaf. I, Michael Raymond Braga, confess of my own free will to the murder of Julia Esposito, it began: stiff and formal, like half-remembered legalese. Further disclaimers followed: things about Mike's ex-wife and children, stuff that felt too private for Alison to do more than skim.

I lived with the Espositos for two months, the second paragraph began, and they were the worst of my life. It went onto describe a foster family with a checked-out father and fastidious mother, appalled at her new son's inadequate hygiene. I was 13 and nobody ever bought me deodorant or taught me to do laundry. Mrs. Esposito thought I was an animal. Punishments followed, constant chores, and eventually exile to a "bedroom" that was a screened-off half of the garden shed. Everything got dirty in there. You couldn't keep the bugs out. She screamed at me for dirty clothes, but how was I supposed to keep them clean in a goddamn shed?

Decades later, Mike wrote, he'd seen her in passing at the grocery store. Something rose up in me then, a hunger, and I couldn't stop it. I thought burning down the shed would take care of it, but it just made it worse, until it ate up my soul and hollowed me out. All I could think was, how'd Mrs. E like to live in filth? How'd she like the dirt and bugs? How'd she like to get screamed at? She gave up after three days. That's when I gave her the pills.

Alison folded up the paper, slipped it into a plastic bag, and dropped it into the case file. The interested parties would get the barest facts; nobody's families needed to know about the garden shed, about long strange legacies of torture, about the scent of soil. Everyone involved was dead. Maybe that was good enough.

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