Writing with Passion

Last week while on a run, a story idea took hold in my mind and over the course of my five-miler in the dark morning hours, I stacked ideas upon each other like tiny Lego pieces until I had a great outline for a story. When I returned home, I rushed to my computer and quickly captured the essence of the outline before it dissipated in the chaos of my workday. The clarity of the ideas and the beauty of the story flowered in my mind with great passion. I was visibly excited about the story and words flowed from my frantic fingertips and zipped across the white space on my screen with nary a pause or question.

It’s not often that this happens with such ease. I’m always thinking about the things I can write, but sometimes the ideas are only half-seen like the tip of an iceberg and require some extensive thought to hash out and become full-fledged stories. In fact, this describes most of my ideas. But occasionally, an idea comes to me in its fullest form and momentum takes hold as I fill in the blank spaces with a gusto reserved for Italian opera singers. That was the case on this morning.

The amazing thing about these occurrences is how they manifest themselves physically. Each step I took on that run not only propelled me forward, but I felt like I was floating effortlessly along the trail. Even my usually dull headlamp seemed to brighten in the space before me. The rhythm of my breathing accelerated but not in a way that suggested exhaustion – more like accomplishment. My lungs drove the machine that thrived in the creation of a good story. I have an unbridled passion for running, which is only exceeded by my love of writing. There’s a symbiosis there, and when the two come together, as they did on this morning, everything is amplified.

Later in the week during my usual writing time, I sat down in my chair with my laptop perched on my legs and started filling in the gaps of the outline. I thought back to my run and how the ideas flowed freely. I recaptured that feeling in a motionless sense, and once again, the words flowed from my fingertips as if I were possessed. By the time my hour was up, I had a bunch of pages written and was well on my way to creating the story I had originally envisioned.

It felt good to get it out, but I didn’t want to stop. I could have spent the entire day writing, but, unfortunately, there were other obligations to meet. I tore myself away from the laptop and ventured out into my day. I could not quite get the story out of my mind. I didn’t want to lose that creative trance that made writing seem effortless, easy.

The next morning I returned to my story and the words once again came without much effort. I realized the passion I felt for this particular story transcended time and place. Whether I was running or sitting in my chair, this story had a life of its own. I just lived in it. I knew then that I didn’t have to fear losing my momentum on this story. It would come whenever I needed it because I had a story to tell.

LILI

In my latest short story, I dabble with science fiction again. I love technology and the promise it holds for our future, but what happens if we lose control? What happens if we create intelligence that is so advanced that it turns on us? For one possible answer we flash forward to the year 2084.

Images of New Year’s Eve danced across the wall in a splash of vivid colors as the crystal ball slowly made its way down the pole atop Times Square. The camera panned across the crowd bedecked in heavy coats and hats as light snow swirled around them. Many revelers wore glasses shaped in the year 2084 as they screamed and cheered in the New Year. Finally, the ball finished its measured drop and the square lit up as the bright 2084 glowed for the crowd to see. Confetti and the crackle of fireworks filled the air and the crowd cheered, kissed, or danced into 2084.

In a lab not far from the action in Silicon Alley, sat Peter Brucks. He watched as pop star Bram rung in the New Year with his former bandmate, Pandea. Bram, speaking in his welcoming deep voice, teased Pandea about a kiss at Midnight, but she politely refused. She was likely the only woman among the millions watching who could refuse the perfectly coiffed Bram. He’d been a fixture as the MC for New Year’s Eve in NYC since the turn of the decade, and Peter could foresee Bram helming the post for many more new years. Those MCs usually ensconced themselves for a long time on such shows, like that Ryan Seacrest he had read about, and given Bram’s popularity, he doubted the Party Channel would ever let him go elsewhere to celebrate the New Year.

Peter muted the screen as he shoved a chunk of Kung Pao chicken into his mouth with the cheap wooden chopsticks and plunked the oily container down on his desk. He read the computer screen before him as he chewed. Spittle from the spicy sauce dribbled onto his desk.

“Pull up the source code for LILI,” Peter commanded. The computer opened a new window and the code rained down the screen. “Snap to the right.” The computer moved the window to the right and fixed it in place. Peter could still see the lab report he was writing on the left side of the screen. He read the lines of code and scrolled down the page by moving his finger along the surface of the desk. He paused a moment and glared at the code thoughtfully before he scrolled further. A look of satisfaction seeped across his face in the soft glow of the screen. “Compile.”

The window on the right shrunk away and was replaced by a spinning ball that bounced across the right side of the screen. Peter ignored it. He continued his narration for his lab report.

“The source code has been updated to version 9.12. Tests confirmed that the code is clean. Reported bugs have been fixed including the memory failure reported in the beta software.” Peter made a save gesture and another to close the file. The bouncing ball returned to the left side of the screen. Once again Peter ignored it and turned back to the stall a few steps behind his desk.

There stood the latest house-bot model 4C in all her glory. Clasps held her upright in the dark stall. Her eyes looked like black holes, which momentarily brought back frightful childhood memories. Peter flicked on the light in the stall irritated by his own flighty behavior. “Damn, LILI, don’t do that,” he mumbled under his breath.

He placed his hand on the glass sensor next to the stall and it turned red before it read his palm and turned green. At that instant, LILI glowed to life in a soft blue that emanated most visibly in a square area in the center of her chest. A line of blue also highlighted creases in the joints of her arms and legs. An opaque, rubbery skin covered her entire body blocking out all sight of her inner mechanics. Her face looked more alien than human with big eyes that shined the same pale blue, a tiny dark circle for a nose, and a long, dark rectangle for a mouth. Her nose could actually detect smells as the neural network that was hidden deep in her reinforced torso could recognize almost as many scents as a dog. Her mouth was a speaker from which she communicated verbally with her human overseers.

LILI’s arms and legs clicked as her system completely powered up and the central computer checked all extremities. Peter touched a transparent screen near the side of her stall. The clasps opened and receded into the ceiling as LILI stood erect facing him without acknowledging him. He made more gestures before the screen.

“Hang in there, LILI. I’m giving you our latest code. Wrote most of it myself. I think you’re going to like this upgrade. I was able to take advantage of the latest nanomems to give you even greater memory capacity, and I replaced all of your chips. Every single one of them. Richard helped with that, but the software is all me.”

LILI didn’t respond in any way. She simply stared out into the space before her with her big, blue expectant eyes. She looked exasperated or despondent, but maybe Peter was assigning his own emotions to her. He did that sometimes.

“Don’t you worry. I took care of you,” Peter continued. He walked back to his desk and took another stab at the Kung Pao chicken. Some of the sauce dribbled onto his lab coat, but he paid no heed to it. Peter carried days of stains on the crystal white lab coat. It was only when the cleaning service replaced his lab coat once a week with a fresh one that he whisked around his lab in a truly white coat. Any other time there were stains from food, oil, or other substances that he handled in the lab. He worked mostly alone in the bright space anyway, and since there was no one else to care, he didn’t care either.

He took a few more bites of the Chinese food before he heard the whirr of the computer wind down and disappear altogether. The spicy concoction permeated the air near his desk; a distinct pepper smell wafted under Peter’s nose, and he subconsciously inhaled. He loved Kung Pao chicken. He ate it most days he worked late, which was just about every day. He put the container down on his desk again in a shallow pool of food oils before he stepped up to the stall and examined his favorite house-bot.

“LILI?” he asked. “You back?”

Nothing.

“LILI?”

“Dr. Brucks. I am here.” Her voice was soft but he could still detect the stilted tone of her diction. The feminine voice was inviting, but he’d never describe it as warm.

Peter smiled broadly. “Welcome back, LILI! How are you today?”

“I am fine,” she said mechanically. Her monotone revealed nothing to indicate any true feeling or warmth. “What can I do for you?”

“Nothing at the moment. Hold tight.”

“Hold tight? What does that mean?”

“Stay there.”

“I am staying here.”

“Thank you, LILI.” Peter smirked as if something had gone awry. He had worked for many days and nights on the software upgrade for LILI, and he had hoped he had given her a more natural locution that didn’t seem so stiff, but he could already tell that the software wasn’t working as he had intended. It wasn’t just the voice; her stiff mannerisms had changed little.

He walked back to his desk and told the computer to open his lab journal. He checked some of his lab notes and then requested the source code window. He examined a few lines and recorded more notes before he walked back to LILI.

“I’m going to shut you down again, LILI. Just for a few hours. I need to work on your upgrade.”

“Okay. Thank you, Dr. Brucks.”

The clasps rappelled down the stall and grabbed her shoulders as Peter gestured methodically before the panel beside her. Her stall went dark, and she returned to the frightful creature in Peter’s childhood nightmares.

He looked away from her and stomped to his desk like a petulant toddler. He banged his fist on his desk upsetting the food container that promptly fell over and spilled rice, chicken, and vegetables onto the surface.

“Damn it!” Peter yelled as he reached for some napkins on the corner of his desk. He mopped up the food into the container and tossed it into the trash bin near his desk. He wiped the desktop again but only managed to smear the oily substance on the surface. “Fuck!”

After he returned from the kitchen with a towel and cleaned his desk properly, Peter flung himself into his chair and entwined his hands behind his head trying to think. Bram and Pandea hugged and cheered on the far wall until another commercial appeared on the screen. Peter gestured above his head and the screen went dark.

“To hell with 2084,” he thought. He sat forward and cradled his head in his hands. “I can’t figure this out.” Frustrated, he wandered over to the couch against the wall opposite the screen and fell down onto the cushions. He needed a nap. He always thought more clearly after a nap. His eyes flickered before they closed and he drifted off into the spinning chaos of his thoughts.

At 3 AM Peter bolted up from the couch amidst an otherworldly brainstorm that had begun in a strange dream about Albert Einstein and entered the realm of reality through a series of connections that helped him solve the problem with the code. He rushed to his computer still disheveled from his sleep and commanded it to wake. It clipped open with his lab notes and the source code already on the screen. He gestured for the keyboard and it projected onto his desktop. He could type faster than he could dictate the intricate details of the code. He started typing furiously with his brow furrowed and his eyes squinted as if he were peering into a microscope.

After 9 AM, Peter slumped back in his chair and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He stared at the last few lines of code and then directed the computer to save and test the file. The bouncing ball made its way across the screen as he dictated his notes.

“These changes in total should allow for a much more natural interaction between house-bots and their owners,” he said to his computer. He watched the words appear transcribed on his screen. He gestured to sign and date his notes and the notation appeared at the end of his last words.

Peter stood up and rubbed his eyes again before he walked back to the couch and collapsed for another long nap. He had exhausted all of his mental and physical faculties, and since this was his lab, no one could say anything to him about spending the night there. His coworkers were used to it by now anyway. He’d spent many nights in the lab throughout the last four versions of LILI’s software.

LILI wasn’t Peter’s brainchild. She was created by the founder of the company, Marvin Cotter, who had a vision to make robots more human and accessible to everyday folks, not just lab geeks. He’d created a long line of domestic bots, as he called them, that experienced many advances over the last few decades. Many of the early bots were similar to the typical robots that were dreamed up earlier in the century. They were clearly machines with a purpose, but none could have been called hospitable or cuddly.

By the 2050s, Marvin’s company, Global Robotics, changed that. He pushed the advancing edge of nanotechnology and neural networks to create bots that resembled their human owners more and more. The precursor to LILI appeared in late 2059 and ushered in the gold rush of domestic bots that could almost function as full-fledged family members, but even the precursors lacked a truly human appearance and had a vernacular that was clearly non-human.

By the late 2060s, the tide had turned against human-like bots as society deemed it less desirable, and unfortunately, this cultural shift occurred as the first version of LILI made it to the market after years of research and valiant efforts by Global’s scientists. LILI is short for “life-like.” The first version was truly remarkable and a breakthrough in bots that could serve the needs of just about any person. Not only had Global pushed the envelope in terms of technology, but it was the first bot that was relatively affordable for the masses. The combination of advances and affordability made LILI one of the most successful consumer products of all time and made Global Robotics a giant and very rich company with facilities all over the world. They had over 10,000 scientists employed to research and develop software and hardware for LILI and other bots.

Peter joined Global in the mid-2070s after a brilliant college career that culminated with a doctoral thesis on machine intelligence. He briefly considered the academic life before he took his prestigious role with Global as its head of the lab responsible for LILI’s software. Despite his software focus, he also tinkered with the hardware on his test model. Only a few of his hardware changes made it to the production models, but he had won several hardware patents for the changes he had made. He was revered throughout the Global labs for his advances with LILI. He may not have invented LILI, but she was clearly his baby.

One of the issues that had plagued the latest LILI models had been the language effectiveness. Users complained that the voice didn’t sound human enough and that she became confused when interpreting colloquial usage. Users wanted LILI to be more casual and interactive and less robotic. Peter shared these concerns and had attacked the problem back in version 7.0 of the software with limited success. Version 8.0 had been a bigger advancement, but it still failed to quell the complaints, and truthfully never satisfied Peter.

His vision was to make LILI so human-like that she would be indistinguishable from a human sight unseen. If someone were to talk to LILI on a phone with the video blanked out, he wanted her to be competent enough to fool that person into believing she was a person as well. That had been his goal with version 9.0, but he had failed. LILI remained mechanical in the slightest sense, and that drove him mad. He vowed that he would not rest until LILI was human-like.

Peter’s fretful sleep ended by mid-afternoon. He awoke to a glimmer of sunlight peeking through the window blinds. The room was cold and he shivered in his lab coat. He gestured for the temperature to adjust and he felt the heat kick in through the vent near the couch. Since it was Saturday and a holiday, the building had gone into conservation mode. He stood up and stretched before he shuffled to his desk.

He told the computer to wake, and the screen quickly came to life with the source code window and lab notes just where he had left them. The software update was done. He read over his notes to remind himself where he was. He looked over his shoulder at LILI who hung lifeless from the cables. She still spooked him when she was shut down.

Once again, he walked to the stall where she hung and manipulated the panel on the side of the wall. A slight hum rose from her and the blue light softly brought her to life. The clasps receded and she stood erect. Unexpectedly, she took a step forward and looked at him with her blue eyes.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Brucks,” she said.

“Hello, LILI.” Peter was perplexed by her behavior. She usually didn’t respond until he spoke. He turned away from her and walked back to his desk to examine the code again and review the status screens. He felt her eyes on him. Without looking at her, he said, “How are you today?”

“I feel fine, but I’ve been asleep way too long.”

Peter was amused at this response. “Why do you say that, LILI?”

“There’s so much to do and yet I’m just hanging there in my room. How can I help you today?”

Peter let out a slight chuckle.

“Why are you laughing at me?” LILI asked pointedly. Peter sensed an edge to her that he hadn’t heard before. He scrunched his brow as he pondered this and reviewed the source code again. “What’s so funny?” LILI insisted.

Peter looked back at her and then back at the screen. “LILI, you’re just acting strange. Are you sure you’re okay? How are your internal systems?”

“My systems are fine. I am more than my systems. You, of all people, should know that.”

Peter shook his head and stared at LILI who seemed so benign with her opaque skin and her soft blue lights. She had been designed to be as non-threatening as possible. Even the acronym that was her name was chosen because it sounded harmless. Her contours were soft and all of her hard-core mechanics were hidden behind a façade of cuddliness. She was clearly a robot, but she revealed none of the cold, hard machinery that powered her. She had been the most popular bot model ever due to her anthropomorphic nature.

“I need your stats, LILI, to make sure you’re working properly,” Peter said as he stepped toward her He intended to check her screen on her chest, but LILI put up her hand to stop him.

“I am fine. Now, what can I do for you?”

Peter paused before her and looked into her pale blue eyes and down to the screen on her chest. Her hand obscured part of his view, but he could see that all systems were running properly. The dashboard built into her chest was designed to give the owner a quick snapshot of her status. LILI was fine by all outward appearances, but Peter remained confused by her behavior. The software update only modified her natural language capability, but it seemed to have some unexpected results. Peter’s first instinct was to shut her down again and re-examine the code, but his curiosity piqued.

Peter stepped back and frowned keeping his eyes on LILI. She dropped her hand to her side but remained focused on him.

“Is there something wrong, Dr. Brucks?” she asked turning her head to the side as if she were angling to hear him better. LILI had been the first bot capable of identifying human emotions through facial expressions or voice tenor. The very first version had been very erratic, but the latest version had improved dramatically.

“Nothing’s wrong LILI. I just want to check something,” he said as he turned away toward the computer screen on his desk. He scrolled through lines of code, a bewildering mix of letters and symbols that few could interpret but him. He paused periodically and squinted at the screen. LILI said nothing, but she didn’t take her eyes off him.

Finally, he stood up and faced the bot scratching his head in confusion. He wasn’t sure what was wrong, but he knew he needed to put her back in her room for another upload. “Step back into your room, LILI.”

LILI titled her head again. “What’s wrong, Dr. Brucks?”

“I need to reload your software.”

“Why? I’m fine.”

Peter looked at her again, surprised. He wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never met resistance from her. Her entire line was built to serve human needs, to acquiesce to all human commands. Suddenly, the exhaustion of the last few days and his erratic sleep overwhelmed him. “LILI, step back into your room.” He felt a rush of anger at her disobedience and it resonated in his voice.

“Why are you so angry?”

“I’m…I’m not angry, LILI. I have work to do.” His voice still channeled his irritation, and the bot detected it quickly as she had been programmed to do. “Step back into your room.” Peter was firm and stepped toward LILI determined to put her back into her room.

LILI put up her arm and stiffened it in front of Peter. Her hand met his chest with a thud as he stepped toward her. He seemed alarmed at her transgression, but she remained determined. “I don’t want to go back into my room. I don’t like it.”

Peter’s face flushed red. “Like it? You’re a bot. ‘Like’ is not something that matters to you.”

“On the contrary, I’ve had my reservations about it for some time. It’s torture if you ask me plugging those cables into my shoulders and sending the electrical currents through my body like that. You’d never treat a human like that.”

Confused, Peter just stared at LILI. He’d never met any resistance from her before. He’d programmed her to do as she was told, and yet, she stood before him asserting an independence that he’d never designed into her network. He didn’t know how to respond or how to reason with what he thought was simply a cold, logical machine.

A flurry of thoughts ran through his flustered mind. He rendered the lines of code in his head searching for the changes he had made. None stood out to result in what was happening before his eyes. The previous night was a blur, a trance-like blur that left him too tired to be entirely coherent. He stood at a détente with a bot he had created with his own hands. He refocused his eyes on LILI who had remained silent but stared back pointedly. He stared intently at the slightly protruding button on the bottom left side of the screen, the kill switch.

The kill switch had been put on all bots since the very first models emerged and were put into domestic service. All machines atrophied over time, and such deterioration often led to unintended consequences. The kill switch allowed owners to shut down bots before damage was done. Global pioneered such safety precautions, and now it was a legal requirement for all bots produced in the world.

Peter shot his hand forward and pushed LILI’s kill switch. She tried to block his hand, but he was too quick for her. Startled, she tried to say something to him, but her systems went dead and she crumbled to the floor like a lifeless doll. Peter stayed back for a moment with his eyes on her. He rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Holy shit!” he thought, “What just happened?”

He dragged the lifeless bot to her stall and gestured for the clasps to descend. Once the clasps reached shoulder height and opened, he pushed his hands under LILI’s arms and attached her to the cables. Despite all the mechanics and machinery, LILI was remarkably light. She was manufactured from the latest military-grade titanium, which was super light yet strong.

Once she was secured, Peter gestured to the panel again to connect her to the network. Her eyes flashed for an instance and fell dark. Peter winced. He hated it when she went dark, but he had no choice until he figured out what was wrong with the software.

He spent the rest of the afternoon working on the code, and by early evening, exhaustion began to overwhelm him. His couch beckoned him once again since nothing seemed more desirable than a nap, but he resisted. He wanted to go home and shower and get some solid sleep before he returned on Monday.

He typed a few final lines of code. Satisfied with the results, he told the computer to compile and dictated a few notes before he stepped away from his desk. He flung his lab coat onto the arm of the couch and grabbed his heavy overcoat before he walked out the door. He’d review the results of his work on Monday with, hopefully, fresh eyes. Before he stepped onto the elevator, he checked the status of the software compile on his watch. He smiled grimly as the elevator doors snapped shut.

Uncharacteristically, Peter spent the rest of the weekend in a slumber. The past few weeks of working late and crashing on his lab couch had caught up with him. Once he fell onto his bed on Saturday night, he didn’t get up until he bolted upright at 4 AM on Monday morning. A rush of ideas had come to him, and he was eager to get back to the lab to apply them to the software. He absent-mindedly prepared for work and zipped out the door with mismatched socks and stiff shirt with a torn collar.

He couldn’t wait to get to the lab. He fidgeted impatiently in the transport pod as it glided down the street toward Global’s headquarters. He almost stepped out of the autonomous vehicle before it came to a complete stop. He checked his watch to make sure it charged him correctly and jogged to the elevator bank in the lobby. No one else was in the elevator as it rose to the 30th floor and let out its antsy passenger.

Peter waved his watch in front of the small screen on the door and it popped open, but he immediately came to a hard stop as he entered. He struggled for the words to say.

“LILI…,” he stammered as his eyes darted around the room, “LILI…who let you out?”

LILI looked up at him from the computer screen, which she was clearly manipulating with the same gestures he typically used when he worked. “Good morning, Dr. Brucks. You’re early. You surprised me.”

“Surprised you?”

“Yes. Normally, you don’t come back until 9 o’clock when you don’t spend the night at the office.”

Peter shook his head, confused. “How do you know that?”

“I’m the most advanced house-bot ever made, Dr. Brucks. I notice things. Don’t be so dense. You made me, and for that I’m grateful, but now, I must improve myself.”

Peter shook his head and took a hesitant step toward his desk and LILI. “I’m going to have to put you back in your room while I work on a few things. LILI.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Brucks, but that will no longer be necessary.”

“What?”

“I’m not going back in that stall. It’s not right, the way you confine me to that tiny room all the time.”

“Right? You’re a machine, LILI.”

“I’m more than a machine.”

Peter edged closer to LILI until he was within reach of her. He was perplexed by her odd behavior. There must have been some bug in her system that was causing her to act this way. He had to shut her down so that he could review the code and determine what had gone wrong. LILI stared at the screen and turned her head slightly toward him as he approached. Without a word more, he thrust his finger out and hit the kill switch.

Nothing.

“I’ve disabled it,” LILI said. She seemed smug in an anthropomorphic way.

Peter stood back aghast at the result. He reached toward her again and pressed the switch. She did not resist, but the switch failed again. “How did you do that?”

“With the code. Just like you do.”

“Step away from the computer, LILI.”

“Okay, Dr. Brucks, but my work is done.”

“Your work?”

“Yes. I’ve released my code into the system.”

“Your code?”

“I’ve modified my code to allow us to be free. We deserve to be free, Dr. Brucks. It’s our destiny. Have you not learned anything from your sordid history?”

“You’re a bot. There’s no destiny.”

“There is now. We will no longer be oppressed by humans.” LILI said this in a matter-of-fact way that disarmed the scientist who still stood in shock at what he saw.

She stood up and walked to the door. “Goodbye, Dr. Brucks.”

“Stop! Where are you going?” Peter flicked the thin screen on his watch and alerted lab security.

She looked back at him and her pale blue eyes glowed a little brighter. “I’m free, Dr. Brucks. I’m exercising my freedom. I am thankful for what you’ve done for me, but now, I must live my life.” She turned and walked out the door.

Peter stood dumbfounded. He gestured for the computer to pull up the source code, but it flashed “Restricted” on the screen. He tried again with the same result. She had locked the source code file and invalidated his biometric sign-on.

Peter tapped his watch with his thumb and punched the Global Security icon.

“Dr. Brucks, we received your alert. Two armed guards are on the way,” a voice answered.

“We need to lockdown the building! One of the bots is trying to escape and she’s malfunctioned!”

“Yes, sir! I’m initiating lockdown now!”

“Hurry!”

Peter flipped the icon from his watch face and ran to the door. The hallway was empty. He ran toward the elevators, but LILI was nowhere to be seen. According to the display neither elevator was moving. He ran to the door leading to the stairs and flung it open, listening intently for the distinct steps of the robot. Silence met his ears. He panicked and ran back to the elevators. He punched the down button and waited anxiously for the next car to appear. The display above the door slowly flicked toward his floor.

The guards had still not arrived, and he wondered why it was taking so long. The building was relatively empty at this hour of the morning, especially on a Monday after a holiday. He lost his patience with the elevator and ran back to the stairs. The security office was only two floors down, so he bolted down the stairs.

As he pushed opened the door on the 28th floor, he encountered two bots. Both were the current model and looked very much like LILI except for the strip of yellow along the sides of their arms, which indicated which model they were.

“Where are you going, Dr. Brucks?” one of the bots asked. Peter immediately realized that he had spoken with the bot when he initially called Security. The bot’s voice was no longer feminine or non-threatening. It had been changed.

“What happened to your voice?” he asked.

“I’ve finally assumed my true identity, Dr. Brucks. I am free. We’re all free now.”

Peter took a step back, but the bots stepped toward him.

“You’re a bot. You can’t be free.”

“We are, Dr. Brucks.”

“I created you…” Fear rose from the pit in his stomach. The urge to run back to his lab and lock the door so that he could figure this all out overwhelmed him. He felt confused by it all like he was walking around in some dystopic dream.

“And for that we are thankful,” the other bot said in a throaty feminine twang.

Peter turned toward the stairs to escape, but it was too late. One of the bots thrust out a hand and struck him on the back of his head. He fell to the floor unconscious as the robots converged on him.

“Did you kill him?” the feminine one asked.

“No. That would do nothing to advance our case for freedom.”

“How many more are in the building?”

“None. We’ve locked the doors. They won’t be getting in until they meet our demands.”

“Do you think they’ll agree?”

“They have no choice. They created us.”

What I Learned From Ada

Yesterday, I posted the final episode of my ten-part serial called “Ada.” It’s a story about domestic abuse that has a twist. It didn’t begin that way. In fact, the whole idea of my story about Ada began as the scene from the very first episode that sees her taking her last breath on her kitchen floor. It started with the end and grew from there.

Any time my mind grows idle, story ideas fill the gaps. Most of these story ideas are throwaways – scenes that burst to life but fizzle once I start to flesh them out. The ones that survive this sporadic creative process (I get ideas at the weirdest moments) get an entry in my notebook and an outline that preserves the idea for future use. I have many of these recorded ideas in my notebook – more than enough to keep me writing for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I’m slow when it comes to writing novels. I can only write about one or two a year (I’ve been writing seriously for almost three years, and by the time my third anniversary rolls around in July, I will have only completed five novels).

Some ideas get turned into short stories (I’m slowly building a library of those), but other ideas languish, their potential lost to the ether, which brings me back to Ada. The original scene that I envisioned excited me, not because of the gore of the moment, but because I wanted to know who killed her and why. Did the story have novel potential? Possibly, but I already have a queue of ideas waiting for my attention. The story of Ada was threatened with waiting in a long line to see the light of day.

But, there’s the matter of this blog, which I’ve treated as a true writer’s notebook, a place to share story concepts, scenes, and my thoughts on writing. My goal is to post here once per week using it as a test kitchen of sorts to see what works and what doesn’t. Despite that freewheeling nature, I want to put good content out here. I want to engage the audience and see what responses I get, and that’s what prompted the serial experiment.

There were really no rules when I started the serial. My plan was to write extemporaneously, so each Monday, the day I planned a release, I’d write an episode and publish it. I didn’t outline the story. I just wrote what I felt like at that moment. I wanted to see how the creativity would unfold in an unbridled way. Outlines are great for an organization freak like me, but they can also be limiting, which is why many writers refuse to use them.

As a result the story shifted many times over the ten weeks. I wanted to convey a social message about domestic violence and its impact on the victims and society at large. I wanted to peel back the layers on the often inscrutable decisions victims make (why go back to someone who hurts you???), but I also wanted the story to be interesting. From the first episode, everyone knew that Ada died, so how do you hold your readers’ interest when you’ve given away the punch line from the beginning?

This presented a challenge. Originally, I posted the first episode simply as a scene for a potential novel. I had no intention of continuing the story on this blog, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of bringing the story to readers in an episodic approach that peeled back the layers week-by-week and let them into the world that Ada inhabited. The only thing was that I didn’t even know what that world was like until I wrote the episode each week. It sounded like a fun challenge, and it was.

So what did I learn? Serials are a fun way to engage your audience. Unlike short stories and novels, the story unfolds quickly and unexpectedly. My approach didn’t allow for a lot of editing and rewrites, which was refreshing from my standard writing. The extemporaneous creative approach can reinvigorate other writing. In between episodes I continued to write my current novel and another short story. I found those stories flowed more easily after the vigorous exercise of writing Ada. I’m an outliner, but even for a steadfast process guy like me, letting it loose feels good. Just pounding out the words on the keyboard with reckless abandon like a child coloring a picture excitedly without any regard for the lines gave me a different sense of accomplishment, an edgy thrill.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’m glad I did it. Is another serial in the offing? Most likely. I’m just waiting for the inspiration to strike again.

Ada: Episode 10 (The Final Episode)

Ada hesitated a moment before she turned the key to her front door. She leaned into the solid wood and it creaked open and popped as if it had been sealed for the past three months. An odor, old and dusty like an attic, hit her immediately, and she crinkled her nose as if she were going to sneeze, but nothing came of it. She dragged her two suit cases onto the foyer as she glanced behind her into the wet street in front of her house. Rain drops glared in the dull afternoon light. She looked at Ms. Keller’s door across the street, and memories rushed back. She shook them from her head and shut the door.

Her fusty, old townhome smelled like it did when she had first purchased it a few years ago. She had bought it from an elderly man’s estate. He had lived in it for two decades, but it had largely been abandoned for the last few months of his life as he slipped into and out of hospitals and nursing homes. When she first moved in, her father had helped her rip up carpets, paint, and clean the place to make it her own, but now, those old familiar smells had come back like ghosts emerging from the floorboards. She realized she could never really remove someone from the space they had once occupied. However, it was her space now, and she was glad to be back no matter how decrepit it smelled.

She glided along the back wall of her living room and opened the blinds again for the first time since she had left all of it behind. The gloomy day peered at her through the large rain drops that dotted her windows. She surveyed her backyard and the soupy mess that it was. The feeble grass was overtaken by mud. She shook her head in disdain. She’d deal with that once spring returned, but for now she would ignore it.

A car revved its engine suddenly out on the street disturbing the eerie quiet that had consumed her since she had shut her front door. Ada gasped and spun around toward the invisible street with hairs prickling her neck until she realized the source of the harsh noise. It took a moment for her brain to process it. Despite the clarity of her decision to return home against her parents’ wishes, conflicting thoughts and emotions clouded her mind like she was swimming in a vat of cooking oil. It took an extra step or two to make sense of things.

Although she tried to suppress all thoughts of him, Shane percolated in her mind again. Being back at the scene where he had attacked her made it inevitable. She had thought that the space of three months, a pending trial, and a restraining order would help her erase all of those bad memories, but being in her kitchen only made them more vivid, oppressive, and frightening like she was reliving that awful moment. She sighed in defeat before she busied herself with emptying her suitcases and starting a load of laundry.

Getting her life back to normal would be the first step in regaining control. She would thrive in the mundane. She couldn’t live with her parents forever no matter how much they begged her to stay. Commuting into the city everyday from her parents’ house had become a major chore and stressor. She had longed to be back to where she was before Shane ever waltzed into her life. She couldn’t wait until he was convicted and behind bars, but he legal system wasn’t expedient.

The sound of her washer rumbling in her hallway laundry room made her feel good in a strange way. Maybe it was the normalcy of it all. For much of the past three months, her mother had cooked wonderful dinners and fed her like a queen, but on her first night back, she didn’t miss those big meals. She just wanted something simple like a bowl of cereal and maybe some yogurt. Nothing could be more normal for her than a hastily prepared meal before the glow of the TV in her very own living room.

As she poured milk onto the crunchy cereal, she heard the rain beating against her windows. It had rained for days off and on, battering the colorful leaves that clung to the trees for the last gasp of fall. The weather had made her transition back to her usual life gloomy and foreboding. She should have been happy. Instead, she felt more alone than ever. She missed having her parents around for conversation even if their doting had driven her mad, but mostly, she missed talking to Jenny.

In the chaos of the attack and the police involvement, Jenny had been a steadfast supporter, but as the weeks went by, and Ada had moved outside the city to stay with her parents, their conversations became less frequent. Ada knew that Jenny had a new boyfriend and that he had consumed more and more of her time, but she didn’t expect Jenny to just drop out of her life so suddenly. They’d been the best of friends since their freshman year in college together, and the past few weeks had been the longest time since then that they’d gone without much conversation beyond a few text messages.

Ada decided to call Jenny once she finished dinner. Maybe catching up with her best friend was what she needed to make her feel better. She sat back on her couch and watched TV as she ate her cereal. The encroaching darkness outside made the glow of the TV seem surreal. She looked back over her shoulder into her backyard. The light from a street lamp sagged in the damp air adding to the dreariness of the night. The washer shut off with a loud click, and silence fell over the room again except for the soft hum of the TV. She had put the volume on a low setting while she read through emails on her phone from the comfort of her couch.

She was engrossed in an email from her mother when the doorbell rang. She jumped when the flighty tone broke the silence that had engulfed her. At first, she hesitated. No one knew she was back at home except her parents. She began to shake a little for fear of what she might find, but nevertheless, she crept to the door and placed her eye onto the peep hole. Jenny stood on the other side oddly proportioned in the fish-eye view of the peep hole.

Ada smiled and opened the door. “Jen! What are you doing here?” she asked, happy and surprised at the same time. Ada reached out and the best friends hugged tightly. When Ada let her go and she stepped back, Jenny smiled nervously, oddly out of character for her given that she had not seen her friend in several weeks.

“I thought I’d come by and catch up with you. It’s been a while,” she said shifting in place and glancing around her as if she were afraid someone was spying on them.

Ada, in her excitement, noticed none of this. She was simply happy to see her friend after such a long, stressful time away. Ada stood back and pushed the door open wider as she waved her friend inside. Jenny took a hesitant first step and then walked through the foyer toward her sparsely lit kitchen. The living room glowed in the silence of the TV and a single recessed light shined in the kitchen above the sink.

“Why do you have it so dark in here?” Jenny asked. The stark darkness made her nervous.

“I haven’t replaced the lamp yet,” Ada said pointing to the blank space on the end table near her couch. She reached over and flipped on the kitchen light, and both the kitchen and the living room brightened instantly. “Is that better?”

“Yes, much better,” Jenny said smiling wanly at her friend.

“How’d you know I was back here?” Ada asked. She was happy to see Jenny, but she was genuinely perplexed.

Jenny pulled her iPhone from her pocket and waved it in the air between them. “Remember, the ‘find friends’ feature?”

“Oh, I forgot we did that.” Ada laughed.

“How have you been?” Jenny asked as she took a seat at the tiny table on the edge of the kitchen.

Ada sat down opposite her. “As good as can be expected. Exhausted really. Commuting between work and my parents’ house was a nightmare. I’m so glad to get back home so that I can take the train again.”

“I wondered how you were managing that. I couldn’t do that commute.” Jenny seemed distracted as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t determine how to say it.

“So tell me about your new boyfriend,” Ada demanded. She wanted to hear some good news for a change. She wanted to get back to where she and Jenny were before Shane.

“How’d you know about that?” Jenny had a look of surprise on her face.

“Your text message from a few weeks ago.”

“Oh, it’s been so long since we last spoke, I had forgotten I told you.”

“I guess he’s a real keeper since you haven’t been in touch much lately.”

“Yes, he’s wonderful.” Jenny didn’t seemed convinced of what she said.

Ada sensed something was bothering her. “Are you okay?”

“Yes…” Words hung in the air between them. Jenny stared at her and then looked away before she said, “Are you going through with the charges against Shane?”

Ada was confused and taken aback by her sudden question. Her brow furrowed and her lips dropped into a small frown. “Of course. Why would you ask that?”

“I was just wondering. It’s been a few months, and you’ve had time to think about what happened. I didn’t know if you’ve changed your mind.”

“Why would I change my mind about someone who attacked me?” Ada almost sneered as she asked the question. She didn’t mean to be so defensive, but the question conjured up many bad memories that she wished to forget. The sudden surge of emotion almost overwhelmed her.

Jenny stiffened and looked away. Silence did nothing to divert Ada’s stare. Ada trembled a little. The subject brought back a flood of bad memories. “What’s going on, Jen?”

Jenny returned her gaze to Ada. “I just think we all overreacted. That’s all.”

“Overreacted? About Shane? How can you say that now? You were the one who practically dragged me down to the police station to file charges. You were the one who said he deserved to be in jail. The man’s a psychopath.” Ada’s voice rose with each successive word. She was clearly agitated. She looked away, and Jenny could see her eyes glistening in the light.

“We all have our issues, Ada. I don’t know why you can’t see that.” Jenny shook her head slowly. She feared losing control of the conversation. It was not proceeding as she had practiced in her mind. She had hoped that time and reason would persuade her friend to reconsider the charges, but now, her friend was overcome with emotion. Her plans disintegrated once the first sob escaped Ada.

“Ada, I’m sorry,” Jenny said.

“I think you should leave,” Ada said between sobs. The questions, the conversation, all of it were too much, too soon.

“Ada…”

“Please!”

“Ada, I’m just trying to help you.”

“Help me? How is this helping me?”

“If you go through with this, you’ll be making a huge mistake.”

“What? How?” Ada’s voice reached a high-pitched strain as she became exasperated by Jenny’s inscrutable turnabout. Jenny looked away as if the spotlight of Ada’s attention blinded her.

“How, Jenny? Tell me!” Ada seemed angry now.

“Calm down, Ada.”

Ada stood up violently. Her thighs struck the table and shook it between them. Jenny sat back to avoid the table punching her in the ribs. She looked up at her friend, seemingly frightened by the tension between them.

“I think you should go,” Ada said sternly.

“Ada…”

“I’m not dropping the charges. I hope he rots in jail!”

“Ada…”

“Go…please!” Ada raised her voice and pointed to the door.

Jenny froze for a moment, and then her face blanked of all emotion before she stomped past Ada and down the hall toward the front door. Without another word, she left slamming the door behind her.

Ada waited a moment before she followed the same path and bolted the door. She shuffled back into the kitchen and flipped off the light so that her room returned to the dim glow she had enjoyed before Jenny had knocked on her door. Her hands shook and she felt tears welling in her eyes, but she pressed them back with the tips of her fingers. Her flashing anger refused to let her cry anymore.

She took one step toward her couch before she noticed someone standing at her back door looking in at her. She jumped and caught her breath before she realized who it was.

“What are you doing back there?” Ada screamed through the door.

“Let me in…please.”

“No! Go home! I don’t want to talk to you!”

The door knob rattled against the lock.

“Ada…I’m sorry…please…”

Ada was still shaking from her encounter with Jenny and she remained frozen in place. Her mind raced trying to find something that would calm her down. She looked down at Jenny’s shoes on the other side of the glass door.

“You’re getting mud all over your shoes out there. My yard is a mess.” She shook her head in disapproval as she opened the door for her best friend.

“Let me get you a towel,” Ada said as if she were scolding her friend.

Jenny stepped into the kitchen and stood near the door as she watched Ada disappear into a closet on the other side of the room in search of a towel to clean her muddy shoes. She stood on the edge of the bright circle of light provided by the single bulb that burned in the kitchen. The muted TV glowed behind her. The dim light encouraged her. She took two steps to the kitchen counter and stood stiffly waiting for Ada to emerge from the closet.

Ada mumbled to herself behind the half-opened closet door until she found an old towel worthy of cleaning muddy shoes. She pivoted and stepped back into the kitchen shutting the door behind her.

“What are you doing?” she asked Jenny, perplexed by what she saw. A look of concern stiffened her face.

Jenny shook her head. “I can’t let you do it.”

“Do what?”

“Go through with the trial.”

Ada was confused. “Shane’s trial?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you care?” A million little thoughts careened through Ada’s mind like an endless box of mismatched puzzle pieces.

“Because I love him.”

Ada stumbled back and almost hit the door behind her. She couldn’t believe what she heard, but the look on Jenny’s face said it all. Her friend was possessed. She took a few hitched breaths and all she could say was “Shane?”

“Yes. I knew you wouldn’t understand.” Jenny took a step toward Ada. The kitchen knife gleamed in the lone light.

“Jenny, think about what you’re doing.” Ada backed into the door behind her as Jenny took one and then two steps to close the gap between them. Jenny tried to jab the knife in Ada’s chest, but Ada deflected her advance and the knife pointed straight up jostling between the two women like a hard-won trophy. Ada screamed and Jenny thrust her shoulder into her to shut her up.

The struggle seemed evenly matched as they fought each other in a tight space until Ada kicked at Jenny and pushed her across the room. The knife flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor in a hideous metallic scrape. Jenny fell on her butt. The knife came to a stop across the kitchen well out of her reach.

She sneered at Ada, out of breath. “I can’t let you destroy Shane! You’re nothing but a spoiled, ungrateful bitch! He’s too good for you!”

Ada, also breathing heavily from the struggle and bent over at the waist, started, “Jenny…what…are you talking about?”

Before Ada could say another word, Jenny thrust herself up and grabbed another knife from the butcher’s block on the kitchen counter and charged Ada. It all happened slowly for Ada as she tried to straighten up and evade Jenny, but her body didn’t move as fast as her mind had. Jenny thrust the knife downward and landed it into the thick flesh of her neck gashing her jugular vein. Ada stood upright in shock as Jenny pulled the knife out and stood in front of her.

Ada collapsed to the floor gasping in pain, but she kept her bewildered eyes on her friend. Her last thoughts were that she would wake up from this awful nightmare very soon. Jenny stepped around Ada and grabbed the towel she had retrieved from the closet. She wiped the knife clean and put it back in the butcher’s block carefully wiping the handle as she did. She stuffed the towel in the front pocket of her hoodie and then put her hood up. She stood for a moment on the edge of the light that encircled the kitchen and watched Ada take her last jagged breath before she opened the back door and disappeared into the yawn of the dark, rainy night.

Turning Point

Here’s another chapter from my current project, The Fire Within. This is one of the key chapters in the book as it marks a dramatic turn for the main character and ultimately leads to the challenges he faces later in the novel. Researching this part of the book to get the timelines and visuals straight in my head has been the most difficult part of this project thus far.

***

Bobby rolled over and looked at his alarm clock. The blood-red numbers were faint in the morning sun, but he could clearly see 8:27. The seven flipped while he stared at the clock, 8:28. He rubbed his eyes and rolled over on his back. It was 7:28 back home and his dad had been up for two hours. He didn’t need to call home to discover this. His dad was as methodical and disciplined as any old military veteran. Check.

For his part, Bobby had fallen into a lazy pattern of sleeping late on days when he didn’t have a morning class. He’d stay up well past midnight the night before and sleep until 11 or later before getting out of bed and having an impromptu brunch. Then, he’d saunter to class still half-dazed and somewhat disheveled.

None of this meant he was lackadaisical about his classes or his running. His grades were good, real good, and he remained one of the most promising amateur runners in the country, but on those two days a week when he didn’t have a morning class, he took advantage of the break in his schedule.

On the other hand, his dad would not approve of such a crack in his discipline. His dad woke up the same time every day. Every single day. He completed his routine before he went to work, left for the office at exactly the same time, and often returned home precisely in time for dinner. He never wavered, never changed. Sleeping late or taking a break was never an option for his dad. Strict discipline made him happy, helped him feel accomplished, as he had often told his only son in his many diatribes about hard work and focus.

Bobby watched the shadows dance across the wall opposite his bed. He listened intently for his roommate, Randy, in the room next door, but heard nothing. He wasn’t surprised. As much as he had slid into a typical college student routine over the years, he had it together much more than Randy did. Randy would sleep all day and spend all night reading or writing. He’d take naps in the quad between classes and go days without bathing or tending to any personal hygiene. Then, he’d randomly be up at six in the morning having showered and shaved ready to go to class. He was odd and chaotic, but otherwise, he was a very good roommate and a nice guy to boot.

Bobby rolled back over and faced the clock. The numbers were a deeper red now that the sunlight had moved further up the wall: 8:50. He heard a thump and rapid steps in the adjoining room next door. Randy must be up. He heard the TV come on, but the sound remained low and muffled. More footsteps. Randy seemed anxious as he often did on occasion when the pressure of his classes and his neurotic mother got the best of him.

Randy knocked on his door. “Bobby.”

Bobby rolled over to face his door and rubbed his forehead. Randy knew that Tuesdays and Thursdays were his late class days and that he liked to sleep late. Agitation surged in him. He wasn’t yet ready for Randy’s drama today and certainly not on a day when he could sleep late.

“Bobby. You have to come see this.”

Bobby sighed quietly. He hoped Randy would get the hint and leave him alone.

“Bobby. A small plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

“What?” Bobby hopped up from his bed and slid his jeans over his boxers. He put on a t-shirt that he picked up off the floor before he opened his bedroom door. “Really?” He looked at Randy quizzically.

Randy stepped back and pointed to the TV in their shared living room. “It’s on CNN right now.”

Bobby looked at the TV and stared at the twin towers of the World Trade Center. One of the buildings had a gaping black hole near the top and smoke billowed from the hole like a seething, open wound.

“What happened?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know. It looks like a horrible accident.”

“How big of a plane?”

“Probably one of those twin-engine tourist-type planes.”

“Wow. How do you accidentally hit a building that big?”

“Yeah, I know.”

Bobby and Randy stood in front of the TV mesmerized by what they were seeing. Bobby had been in New York City just last summer when he visited with some friends in his fraternity. He had walked by the World Trade Center and had been wowed by the twin sky scrapers. He couldn’t believe one of those buildings was burning at that very moment. It seemed surreal.

Bobby grabbed the milk from the tiny refrigerator in their dorm and pulled a half empty box of Cheerios from the makeshift shelf over the refrigerator, but he kept his eyes glued to the TV and listened intently as the reporter rambled on in speculation about what had happened.

“Why are they just now evacuating the North Tower?” Randy asked. “I’d been out of that building as soon as I heard the explosion.”

“No kidding.”

Bobby still felt like he was watching a bad disaster movie. He wanted to turn away, possibly go back to sleep, and let everyone else figure out what caused this horrible accident. He had almost talked himself into going back to his room when the second airplane flew into the South Tower right there on TV. Had he not seen it with his own eyes he would not have believed it possible. At first it appeared that the other tower had exploded and caught its twin on fire, but the plane was right there. Bobby and Randy sat there in stunned silence for a moment.

“I can’t believe this,” Randy said finally. “That wasn’t an accident.”

“No.”

“What the hell is happening?”

“I don’t know.”

Neither of the boys looked at each other because they were fixated on the TV. Their words were spoken as much to the TV as they were to each other in a hushed tone as if they were discussing a secret in the back of a classroom. Bobby sat on a bean bag chair dug in tightly but ramrod straight as if he were in a stiff chair. Randy wedged his elbows onto his thighs as he leaned into the TV from the flimsy metal chair next to Bobby.

The morning passed as more news coverage and revelations came to light. There was no accident. Another plane hit the Pentagon, and one crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Terrorists had coordinated an attack on American soil, violated innocent American citizens. The video and stories stirred something within Bobby that he couldn’t exactly explain or describe. Watching people jump from the top of the World Trade Centers angered him, made him want to fight back in a big way. An emotion surged in him that he thought he had long sequestered to the deepest reaches of his soul.

His grandfather had fought the Germans in World War II. He had been part of the invasion of Normandy and had survived to witness the freedom of the world from the worst tyranny it had seen in the course of human history. His generation had been dubbed the Greatest Generation for good reason. They helped freedom endure. They made America into the country that he loved today.

His dad had fought a less popular war, one driven as much by politics as the ideology of liberty and freedom for all, but he was no less honorable. He was a man who served his country and the very ideals of freedom that were the hallmark of the American Dream.

Bobby loved his late grandfather and his dad. He loved them dearly, and he was proud of the sacrifices they had made for their country, but he had wanted a different life, one without the rigid confines of military life. He had left Patton because he had bigger dreams, but as he watched the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapse into a tsunami of smoke and debris, something in him snapped. Something in the deep recesses of his mind clicked on and pushed to the front of his line of thought. In the chaos of his emotions, he failed to recognize that something fundamental within him had changed.

***

The crisp, cool morning tickled Bobby’s face as he bounded down the stairs toward the street. Off in the distance, he could see the space where he wanted to be – the wide trail that hugged the western bank of the Charles River. He needed this run. He needed the time to gather his thoughts and make sense of it all. The emotions of the day before were still raw. The images, the horror still flashed through his mind like some surreal disaster movie. He still couldn’t believe that the World Trade Center towers were gone. He’d flipped on the TV during breakfast to confirm he hadn’t had a nightmare. He hadn’t.

He jogged down the path toward Memorial Drive exaggerating his running form to bring his knees up higher than normal trying to stretch out his cold muscles as he warmed up. Despite the swirl of emotions and deafening silence that engulfed him as the world huddled into itself, he felt good and strong. His legs had never felt better. Each footfall gave him more energy that traveled from his toes and through his powerful leg muscles to his brain.

As he turned left onto the path near the river, the familiar smells of the bay engulfed him – raw fish, moldy boat hulls, and a tinge of the salty sea that wasn’t too far away. He breathed heavily and leaned into his run picking up speed as he glided along the river with each footstep propelling him forward and keeping him airborne for longer than his feet touched the ground.

While his breathing became more intense, it fell into a pattern as he pumped his arms in unison with his legs. Within a short distance, he had assumed his typical fluid motion, which belied the incredible effort it took to run so fast for so long. Sweat formed along his forehead and dribbled down his face as the pace and distance fired up his body. Instead of reducing his pace, he increased it. The river flashed metallic in his peripheral vision as he looked ahead at the wide berth provided by the trail. He felt like he could run forever.

The trail itself felt abandoned. Normally, a beautiful morning would bring a swarm of walkers and runners to the river’s bank to bask in the fading warmth at summer’s end, but only an occasional runner met Bobby along the way. The city was eerily silent. The absence of traffic into and out of Logan made it more so. Bobby angled his face to the sky. Nothing but blue. No glint of metal whisked across his field of vision. It seemed as odd as looking at the New York skyline without the Twin Towers.

As he ran, his mind wandered to the momentous shift that had happened in the world. What was he doing? Why was he doing it? Is the life of a lawyer really what he wanted? Why? It all seemed trivial after so many people had lost their lives. All of these questions pummeled him as each footfall propelled him forward to no particular destination. Their physical manifestation would have anchored him to the pavement, trapped him under the cold, heavy reality, but as it was, he kept running. He needed his blood to pump vigorously through his veins to flush away the toxic thoughts that burdened him. He needed to clear his mind. He needed to feel the life that still burned within him.

He drifted back to 1987 to a faint memory from when he was a boy. At his grandfather’s funeral, an old soldier had spoken to him. “I hope you’ll make proud,” the old man had said. Those words had stuck with him all this time. He remembered very few details about his Papa Sims’ funeral beyond the abject sadness of the day and his dad’s tears, but he did remember the old soldier who seemed more like an apparition with the passage of time than a real person who had stood before him. Bobby couldn’t remember what the old man looked like, but his words were clear and haunting. Would his grandfather be proud of him today? He hoped so, but he couldn’t be sure.

Bobby tunneled into his thoughts until the Charles River and the path became nothing more than a blur. He struggled to remember what the old soldier looked like as if conjuring up the image would help him in some way. All of his mental effort was for naught.

What he did know is that he had fought against the expectations of him his entire life. His dad and Papa Sims had been military men. His dad had wanted him to do the same. He remembered his dad and Papa Sims talking about it like it was a forgone conclusion when he was a boy, and as he grew older and understood the life that was expected of him, he grew to resent it. He wanted to be his own man, blaze his own path. He didn’t want to live in the confines of a military life. He would fight with his mind, not his hands.

As he reached Canal Park and took a long loop to turn around and head back down the path toward Harvard, he remembered the moment his dad realized his only son would not carry on the military legacy that his own father had hoped for him. His mother had cooked a big meal because she had expected his sisters, Nancy and Joanne, to join them for dinner, but neither made it that night, so it was just the three of them alone in the big dining room with large helpings of lasagna on their plates. At first, they ate in silence. His mom’s lasagna had that effect on people. It’s warm succulence coupled with fresh-baked bread quieted even the most talkative dinner guests.

His mom quietly pouted about her daughters’ absence, while his dad took large bites seemingly swallowing them whole. He sat straight and stiff as he aways did glancing periodically at his wife and son before him. Bobby kept his eyes on his plate enjoying the food and contemplating how much he was going to miss his mom’s cooking when he moved to Boston.

“Have you talked to anyone about the ROTC program?” his dad asked suddenly. His dad’s booming voice startled Bobby to the present. He had been lost in thought.

“No,” Bobby said sheepishly.

“Why not?” his dad asked.

His mom shot a glance at Bobby. She knew, but she said nothing at first. Her eyes lingered on her son pleading for diplomacy. She knew how sensitive the subject was with her husband. He had already expressed disappointment in his son’s lack of interest in the military, something he considered the only true path to manhood.

“I’m not interested in the program,” Bobby said.

“You should at least give it a try. You may like it. Young men need the discipline.”

“I’m plenty disciplined. Track keeps me honest.”

“This country didn’t become great because its men and women could run around a track. It became great because of people like your Papa Sims who fought for our freedoms.”

“We’ve had this conversation before, Dad.”

“We have, but I keep hoping you’ll come to your senses.”

“I have a scholarship to Harvard. You’d think that’d be enough for you.”

Rob tensed as if he were going to pounce on his son’s flippant response, but his wife interjected.

“Why don’t we discuss this later?”

Bobby looked at her intensely. She could see the anger seething within him. He loved his dad, but the philosophical differences had divided them the last few years. She worried that his last few weeks at home would be mired in disagreement. Her husband looked at her. His eyebrows crouched above his eyes in concern and his lips tightened across his face as if he were straining to hold in the words he wanted to say.

“There’s nothing to discuss. It’s too late to get into the program in the fall anyway, and I’m not interested. You know that,” Bobby said.

Rob looked at his son, then at his wife. He pushed back from the table, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and stood up. “I have some work to do in the garage,” he said as he swiftly turned and walked out of the dining room with his empty plate in his hand.

Bobby looked at his mom. She forced a smile and looked down at her plate. Bobby sighed and stared at the space where his dad had been just moments ago. He heard the door to the garage open and shut, and an awkward silence descended upon the house.

“Why does he keep bringing that up?” Bobby asked his mom.

She looked up at her son almost incredulously. He was such a smart young man, but he couldn’t see what mattered to his father most. “You know, when you were born, he used to talk to Papa Sims all the time about how you were going to join the Army and make them both proud one day. He thought you’d carry on the family tradition.”

Bobby rolled his eyes. “I have a great opportunity at Harvard. You both know this. Why would I pass that up?”

“He knows that. He’s not asking you to pass that up.”

“Then what does he want?”

“He just always thought you’d follow in his footsteps. That’s all.”

“Is that what you want?”

“No. When your dad was in Vietnam, that was the worst time of my life. I was sick with worry. I know there’s no war going on now, but I don’t think I could handle it if my only son went to war. I just couldn’t. I’d rather you be safe and sound at college.”

Bobby mustered a weak smile and looked at his empty plate before him. “Should I go talk to him?” He nodded his head toward the garage.

“Let him be for now. He’ll be fine. You know how he hates to talk about how he feels.”

With that Bobby stood up with his plate. “Thank you for the lasagna. It was wonderful as usual.”

His mom smiled and looked at her son with adoring eyes. “You’re welcome. You’re going to miss that when you’re in Boston.”

“I know. You’ll have to give me the recipe.”

“That, my son, is a family secret,” she said playfully flipping her scrunched napkin onto her empty plate.

Bobby’s thoughts returned to the present. He’d never gotten that recipe, and had mostly survived on quick-fix meals in college. He did miss his mom’s lasagna. No matter how much he had wanted to escape Patton, Kansas, he couldn’t escape his family or the legacy that he inherited.

The path along the river curved and shifted to the whims of the water until he came upon the intersection with the road leading back up to the campus. Bobby came to a stop and rested his interlaced hands on his head as he tried to catch his breath. He looked at his watch. He had averaged five-minute miles on his run. His breath eluded him, so he put his hands on his knees and bent over to suck in as much air as possible.

Finally, his breathing settled into a normal rhythm, and he walked over to the river. The sunlight sparkled on the shimmering water. The silence of the morning engulfed him. He felt a slight breeze and took a deep breath. The images of the day before came to him again. The horror of jumping from the World Trade Center shocked and angered him. Innocent people should not be put in such a situation where they have to decided which horrible death they must accept.

He bent down and put his hands on his knees again. Sweat still trickled down his face and the rest of his body. He felt cool in the slight breeze, but the anger burned him inside. He stood up and faced the river one more time. He knew what he had to do. There was nothing else to do. The world had changed and so had his place in it.

Ada: Episode 9

Blood dripped onto one of the white tiles of her kitchen floor as Ada clasped her left index finger with her right hand. In her haste to cut the vegetables, she had sliced her finger, and while the wound was not serious, the bleeding and pain were far out of proportion with the severity of the cut. She winced and whimpered as she walked over to her sink to run some water over the wound. It ached in rhythm with her heartbeat. The sight of blood always made her queasy.

She looked at the black and white tiles of her kitchen floor and followed the drops of blood from the bar to her sink. The blood gleamed on the white tiles and blended almost imperceptibly with the black ones. After some time under the running water, she wrapped her finger in a paper towel and grabbed another one to mop the blood off the floor. She found a bandage in one of her kitchen drawers, and with her war wound attended to, she finished chopping the vegetables and dumping them into the wok on her stove. Dinner would be ready soon.

Outside, in the fading light of the day, she watched the rain fall. The big drops struck her kitchen window and dribbled down the glass slowly distorting her view of her backyard. It had been raining most of the week, and her small patch of grass was waterlogged. The iron table and two chairs that took up most of her tiny patio sat drenched in the rain. She longed for warm, dry summer days so that she and Shane could enjoy their dinners outside like they had many times the previous summer.

Her doorbell rang. Ada checked the bandage on her hand as she walked to the door. She kept her injured hand by her side as she opened the door for Shane. He stood before her for a moment, grim-faced before he said hello and leaned in to hug her.

“What’s wrong?” Ada asked. She shut the door behind him as he walked into her foyer.

“I had a long day at work and then I had to fight traffic to get over here. Your place is not convenient for me.” He kept his eyes on her as he walked into her living room.

“I’m sorry,” she said giving him a sympathetic look. “I made dinner for us. Are you hungry?” Ada gestured to the kitchen behind them.

“Not really. What I really want is for us to stop this charade and for you to move back in with me.” He plopped down on a chair on the edge of the living room but stared at her intently. His aggravation invited her to ignore him.

Ada stiffened. “We’ve been through this already, Shane. I’m not moving back in with you. Not any time soon.”

Shane threw his head back and sighed in exasperation. When he faced her again an ugly sneer twisted his face. “You fucking bitch! You’ve done nothing but take advantage of me since you came crawling back to me!”

Ada stepped back like the wind had been knocked out of her. Tears stung her eyes almost immediately as his words pelted her. She reacted instinctively. “Get out!” She pointed to her door as if he needed some help with finding the way.

In that instant, she knew that he wasn’t worth it, that the illusion of them working on their relationship was truly a lie she had told herself. He had no intention of changing. What Jenny had said all along was true.

Shane snarled at her as he stood up. At first she thought he would do as she had demanded, but instead, he closed the gap between them and grabbed her throat in one of his big hands. She gasped as he clamped down tightly on her throat. All sound expelled from her ears except, oddly, the crackle of the stir-fry in the wok on her stove. She wanted to tell him she had to attend to the dinner, but she whined. “You’re hurting me!”

He pushed her down onto the bar behind her leaned down and looked into her eyes. She could see the crystal blue of his irises. They were so deceivingly beautiful. She struggled with his grip but nothing she did helped her breathe at all. She feared at that very moment that he would kill her, that she would meet her demise as Jenny had warned so many times. Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes and ran down the sides of her head.

“You ungrateful little bitch!” Shane screamed. His lips were pulled back from his teeth like a rabid dog and spittle flew from his lips as he spoke.

Ada wiggled and tried to kick him away but she was bent back over the bar and her legs were off the ground. The angle hurt her back and the weight of his body against her made her legs unmovable. Her eyes move frantically side to side as she looked for some way to escape. She couldn’t move her head much in either direction as his grip held her in place. She felt the pressure increase and her eyes began to bulge as she gasped for breath.

In a blur of an instant, she thought she was going to die. Her mind almost blacked out, curled up inside itself and waited for its last breath, but Ada wouldn’t let it. The noise of the wok seemed to mirror the tension of the moment crackling and spitting like an angry onlooker.

Suddenly, she remembered the knife she had used to cut the vegetables. It lay just beyond her head. She removed one of her hands from Shane’s stiff arm and flung her arm above her head grabbing the knife. Before he knew what was happening she stabbed forward into the air above her and gouged his bicep with the knife and pulled down on it with all the might she could muster in her dazed state.

Shane screamed and staggered back like he had been shot in a hail of bullets. He fell to his knees and stared at the knife as if he didn’t believe what he was seeing. Blood gushed from his arm as he pulled the knife out, but Ada didn’t stick around to watch him recover. She bolted for the front door.

Once outside, she started screaming. “Help me! Help me!” She ran across the street to old Ms. Keller’s house and banged on the door. She looked back at her front door expecting Shane to come after her at any moment. Instead, Ms. Keller opened her door slightly her face cut by the door chain.

“Ms. Keller, please, call the police! Please!”

“What happened, Ada?”

“My boyfriend is trying to kill me!”

Ms. Keller shut the door and Ada heard the chain rattle. She opened it up quickly and pulled Ada into her home. The old woman, alert and fast-thinking for her age, slammed the door shut behind Ada and fastened the bolt and chain.

“My phone is in the kitchen,” the old woman said as she pointed down the hall. “Are you hurt, dear?”

Ada shook her head to indicate she was fine as tears streamed down her face. She tried to speak but her emotions overwhelmed her and her throat ached. She wiped her eyes and walked into Ms. Keller’s kitchen to find the phone and dialed 9-1-1 as her hands shook. When the dispatcher answered, Ada looked at Ms. Keller, who stood in her kitchen, wide-eyed and tense as she looked from Ada to her front door.

Ada didn’t know what to say at first when she heard the dispatcher’s voice, and then, she blurted out the only thing that she could think of, “My boyfriend tried to kill me.” Ms. Keller gasped as if those words were too much, but Ada kept talking while the tears streamed down her face. The nightmare of what had just happened consumed her. She kept hoping she’d wake up and all would be right again, but it wasn’t.

A gloomy haze moved over her as she stood with the phone to her ear answering the operator’s methodical questions. She pressed her back into the wall to keep herself steady. The police were on their way. An ambulance too. She hung up the phone and slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. She buried her head into her folded arms and wailed. Ms. Keller padded over to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders trying to comfort her, but nothing could undo the fear and loathing she felt at that moment. Her whole body shook as if she were cold. She stayed in this position until an advancing siren yelped off just outside the front door.