To Love a Story

The thrill of a new story idea sends a tingle down my spine. That first encounter heightens my senses and kicks my heart into an extra gear. Suddenly, I can think of nothing else as I bask in the glow of its loveliness. The touch of the keyboard feels electric. Its promise augurs something I have yet to know, but I throw all caution to the wind because it can be nothing but greatness.

Possessed by the idea, I begin in earnest, words flowing from my fingertips as lightning bolts from Zeus striking the ephemeral page. The courting of words, a beautiful siren’s song, coaxes my muse onto her balcony. The manic progress ebbs and flows like the tides shaping the sand into a work of art. My heart swells as I breathe life into characters, paint the canvas of settings, and speak the indelible words that will be remembered and quoted by generations. With desires announced and conflict put in motion, the flower blooms with a frenetic passion.

My infatuation bursts into the night like a firework that launches with great promise of visual and aural display. The tremor-inducing first few chapters rivet me leaving me tangled in the sheets of literary desire. My best ideas spent, shot into the vague darkness of the plot, I languish in solitary repose, my imagination besting reality. The hype and hope begin to flicker ever so slightly as the pretense of fantasy loses its grip on me.

The beauty and perfection I had once held in high esteem fade. The imperfections become more obvious and out-sized, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Suddenly, the story seems askew and inhospitable. We need time apart to determine how we really feel about each other, but one day leads to another, and then, the once-promising romance falls into the dustbin of memory. The pages languish unfinished. A melancholy falls over me, a feeling of missing someone or something that had once been the center of my universe.

Erstwhile bright alleyways fade to a misty gray leading to ever darker paths through the graveyard of potential, a sad relic of the fatal arc of a love story. Feet scuffing the ground beneath me, the petulant little boy inside me feels dejected and discouraged until a glimmer catches my eye. Up ahead in the misery sits something bright and glittering. My pace quickens until I am upon it and hold it in my hands in all its glory; my love flowers once again.

A familiar tingle trickles down my spine. I can think of nothing else.

Concept: Leaving Arizona

Red Connor’s headlights flashed on the large blue sign up ahead to the right of the Interstate. The sign sparkled in the beam of light, glowed really, as he sped toward it. The blue became deeper and the words, despite being blurred by his tears, became clearer. The cartoon image of the sun with exaggerated red and yellow rays shooting from the horizon sat below the words “Leaving Arizona.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and breathed an unwarranted sigh of relief. He watched the sign welcoming him to New Mexico come and go. No matter how far and how fast he traveled from Phoenix, he couldn’t escape. He knew this, but he kept his foot pressed on the gas pedal and his eyes focused on the largely vacant road ahead of him.

The hum of the car’s engine surrounded him, soothed his frayed nerves. He sunk back into the supple leather seat of the luxury sports car. He remembered when he bought the car and how it made him feel. He loved the way the seat wrapped around him and kept him snugly in position when he zipped around sharp turns. The steering felt firm like he was gripping the road with his own two feet. The low profile of the car gave him confidence that he could handle any turn, and he did. He’d spent many weekends just driving through the desolate canyon roads of northern Arizona testing the limits of his driving skills. How else could he stamp out the anger that swelled inside him.

For a moment, only the glow of the dashboard provided him any light inside the car. Either side of the freeway was vacant as the darkness swallowed him. He felt safe in that moment as if he hid behind a giant cloak and no one knew he was there. That’s the way it’d have to be from now on. He had no one but himself to blame for what he’d done.

In the miles-long, dark space behind him, two needlepoint lights pierced the night sky and Red held his breath. He maintained his speed right at the speed limit – he couldn’t draw any unnecessary attention to himself – and gripped the thick steering wheel a little harder as the two eyes grew brighter. The car behind him traveled at a very high speed, much more so than normal on this long stretch of isolated road in western New Mexico. Red peered into his rear view mirror trying to discern the type of vehicle approaching him. Was it a police car? He couldn’t tell.

The car came upon him quickly. It’s bright lights flooded his car almost blinding him. He swallowed hard and blinked away the light before the approaching car jerked into the left lane and sped past him. Red tried not to look, but he couldn’t help but notice the clunky old Dodge Charger as it gunned by him. He couldn’t make out the driver in the dim light, but he doubted that the driver noticed him or his car. If he had, he would have slowed down or given some indication that he had seen something out of the ordinary.

The Charger’s taillights disappeared into the darkness like two evil eyes descending into a cauldron and Red felt alone again, relieved, but the red lights brought a memory to him, something deep in the recesses of his mind. His Uncle Carl owned a Charger when Red was a boy. He’d seen those same taillights disappear in the darkness before. A feeling of loneliness overwhelmed him. Shouting, crying, and the sound of flesh being slapped and punched flitted through his foggy, repressed memories. He pushed the sounds out of his mind and refocused his eyes on the road ahead, but his heart still raced like the eight-year-old version of himself threatened to burst out of his chest.

His headlights struck a bright, green sign along the side of the road that announced that Gallup, New Mexico was only two miles ahead. He felt a need to stop to get some coffee and maybe something to eat, but he knew that he couldn’t. Not now. He watched as the exit came into view and then fell by the wayside. He’d have to stop at some point or he’d get stopped against his will. Either option filled him with dread.

His phone buzzed in the console between his seats. The screen momentarily brightened his dark car as the notification floated on his lock screen. He squinted at the screen and read the text from his wife. “Where are you?” The screen went dark. Marie. What would he say to her? He blinked slowly and took a deep breath. Nothing would make this easy. He decided to ignore her text.

More traffic appeared on the road ahead of him and in the other direction. Headlights on the opposite side of the freeway washed across his car and lit his face. He glanced into his rear view mirror and caught sight of his bruised right cheek and the cut that run the length of his right eyebrow. He winced as if the sight of his wound renewed the pain, but the truth was that the pain had settled into a dull throb. He didn’t really feel it anymore. He didn’t feel anything. The adrenaline still gushed through his veins.

A mile or two east of Gallup, darkness once again shrouded him. He felt safe at that moment as if no one would ever find him. His phone lit up again with a text from his wife, each text becoming more and more frantic. He couldn’t put off texting her back or calling her. She deserved to know what had happened. She deserved a lot, certainly more than him. He didn’t know what to say to her. Nothing he said would make her understand or make the situation any better.

In a moment of clarity, Red knew he had to come clean. He had to tell the truth. There was no escaping it. He grabbed his phone from the console and pressed the button for his home screen. His poked the telephone icon and slid his thumb down to a familiar number before he held the phone to his ear.

After three rings, his mother answered, “Hello.”

She sounded groggy as if he had woken her from a deep sleep. He looked at the clock above the touchscreen in his car. It was only 8:30 PM in Texas. He swallowed hard suddenly unable to speak. Thoughts and memories raced through his mind in a jumble of confusion that only made him feel disoriented, discombobulated. The wound on his face suddenly radiated pain and a burning sensation sparked through his chest. He gasped for air inaudibly and heaved.

“Hello?” his mother said again. “Who is this?”

“…Mom…”

“Red? What’s wrong?”

His car veered to the edge of the road and his tires struck the rumble strip along the white line. He pulled the steering wheel to his left and corrected his path. He still couldn’t breathe or speak. He felt outside of himself as if he were looking down from above the car watching himself struggle to say something to his mother.

Finally, words formed on his tongue, “I…killed him. I killed Dad.”

He heard her breath hitch on the other end of the line like something had jumped out from behind her couch and scared her. “Red, please tell me this is not true. Please.”

A tear escaped the corner of his eye and trickled down his cheek. He sucked in a long breath trying to maintain his composure. The air in the car felt limited, stale. He could smell the blood on him, the residue of the gunshot.

“I couldn’t take it anymore, Mom. Not after all of the things he did to you – to us. I did it for you.”

“Red…I didn’t want that…”

He could hear her begin sobbing and he began to cry as well. He’d always reacted that way when his mother cried. He’d seen her cry so much throughout his life that he thought he’d be immune to it by now, but instead, her sadness overwhelmed him.

“What about the kids? Marie?”

“I don’t know…”

Her breathing and sobs rattled in his ear. She caught her breath. “Where are you now?”

“I’m just outside Albuquerque. I’m on my way to your house.”

She fell silent on the other end of the line. Red imagined that she had a tissue in her hand swiping away the tears that wouldn’t stop.

“Okay…I’ll be here…” Her sobs overwhelmed her again.

“It’ll be okay.” Red tried to assure her, but he knew his words were hollow, improbable. He waited for her to respond.

“Just get here…I love you, Red.”

“I love you, Mom.”

He punched the red icon on his screen and dropped the phone back in the console. The road ahead of him blurred in his tears. He wiped his face again with the back of his hand and pressed the gas pedal a little harder. His car sped up and cut through the darkness with a renewed urgency. He didn’t have much time left before the cops realized where he was or figured out where he was headed.

A renewed determination filled him as his tears dried on his cheeks. He didn’t regret what he’d done. He should have done it years ago. That much he knew, no matter the consequences.

Concept: Something Lovely

Levon Page knew something was different about Trisha Lovely from the moment he met her. She didn’t seem prepossessed with the typical things that possessed women his age. Levon wasn’t many things, but he was a man who wanted someone to love him unconditionally, someone who wasn’t fixated on physical ideals or wealth. The world owed him that at least. He’d done his best with what he had, and he didn’t complain. What he wanted was very simple.

Short and somewhat pudgy, Levon didn’t fit the physical stereotype that most women expected of African-American men. He wasn’t lean and athletic, nor did he play any sports. He’d never enjoyed them when he was in school and only felt compelled to participate as part of the physical education requirements. He preferred to read and he loved bookstores like Powell’s in downtown Portland. He could spend hours browsing the shelves there, and he never left without a new book that he would usually devour inside a week.

But most women didn’t understand that, at least the women he met and took on dates. Once they realized he wasn’t interested in going to a Portland Trailblazers game and that he preferred the intellectual over the physical, their eyes started to drift until eventually they fell by the wayside and moved on. Levon had grown to expect this, sadly, but he still longed to connect with someone who could appreciate his intelligence and look past his apparent physical flaws.

He thought of this every day when he walked from his condo in downtown Portland to the lab where he worked just west of the Willamette River. He enjoyed the half mile walk no matter the weather. He had lived and worked in downtown for five years and had walked the beaten path to his office in all kinds of conditions, but regardless of whether it was raining during the late fall and winter or sunny and chilly in the spring or early summer or hot in the middle of the summer, he felt a rush of gratefulness every time the revolving door of his complex deposited him on the chipped, gray sidewalk. He felt grateful because he saw the worst that life had to offer in his lab, and no matter how lonely he felt or how desperate for love he became, he still had a good, healthy life.

As a senior research scientist at a local biotech company focused on finding a cure for cancer, he often encountered people struggling to survive, and many times, he only met the remains of their lives after they had passed and the biopsies of their cancers were reviewed, discussed, and probed like they were an abstract academic subject. He didn’t have to deal with the people much because his job primarily focused on the science of cells and uncontrolled growth. Powerful microscopes and computers were his audience along with his fellow research scientists who worked for him. Nevertheless, he could not quite escape the human element of the disease, and it gave him an ingrained gratitude for his own health.

While his work satisfied his thirst for intellectual challenges in spite of its dour nature, his love of bookstores provided an outlet to escape the threat of cancer and what it could do to a person’s life. He worked long hours, but he always made time for Powell’s. Even at the end of a long day, he’d hail an Uber and take the short ride over to the bookstore. Once there, he’d browse the endless shelves looking for anything that piqued his interest. He loved literary novels, the likes of Khaled Hosseini and Wally Lamb, novels that captured the essence of life in beautiful words strung together in a captivating narrative. He often imagined his own life as a literary novel, a man searching for that one connection in his life in a sea of unrealistic expectations.

He felt alone, disconnected, as if he had fallen overboard and was slowly drifting out into the ocean without a life preserver, paddling frantically to stay afloat. He had a small group of friends with whom he hung out on occasion, but his work kept him busy, and his interests did not involve sports or concerts. None of his current group of friends really found books as fascinating as he did. Some of them didn’t even read now that they weren’t forced to do so by university coursework, but he joined them for dinners and some outings, if only to have some companionship outside of his coworkers.

During one late-night trek to Powell’s, he stood alone in one of the deep aisles of the old part of the bookstore eyeing the spines of an endless row of books when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He glanced down the aisle and that’s the first time he saw Trisha. She, too, stood alone studying the book spines. At first, she didn’t notice him, but after a few moments, she looked at him and gave him a faint smile before she returned to her search.

Something about her smile and the way she slightly moved her lips as she read the spines of the books made Levan curious, hopeful even. As she glided along the row of books, she moved closer and Levan stayed put. Finally, she was right upon him.

She almost bumped into him, but she stopped just before her shoulder touched his. She seemed startled that he didn’t move, but she smiled when she looked at him. “Hi,” she said. A glimmer of hope surfaced within him.

She stood slightly taller than him, at least in the heels that she wore. Even in the harsh overhead light, her caramel-brown skin glowed. Levan took in the whole of her. She wore a nicely-tailored, pale green dress that fell just below her knees and hugged her slender hips. The dress had a high neckline with sleeves that hung just past her shoulders. Her arms were smooth and muscular. She moved oddly for a woman, less gliding and more ambling, but what she lacked in grace, she made up for with beauty. She had a nice lean face that glowed with youthful exuberance. She wore a lot of makeup, something that Levan normally did not like, but it looked good on her. She had a smaller nose than he had expected and gorgeous full lips that shined a bright red with her lipstick.

“Is there something I can help you find?”

“Do you work here?”

Levan laughed. Normally, he’d be offended by a question he heard too frequently, but not this time in this situation. “No, but I come here a lot.”

She seemed a bit perplexed by his offer to help, but then she smiled again and said, “I’m looking for this book called ‘The Cancer Diet’ by Dr. Richard Myers.”

That word, the one he tried to escape outside the office, ricocheted through his mind. He stumbled a moment. “Oh…I’m sorry. Do you have cancer?” he asked. It seemed like an intensely personal question, but it popped out of his mouth before he had a chance to reconsider it. He had to know if this beautiful woman lived under the threat of this terrible disease.

She stopped eyeing the bookshelf and really looked at him with an expression close to pity. She shook her head. “No, my mom does.”

“I’m sorry.”

“She’ll be fine. She’s beat it before; she can beat it again.”

“She’s been in remission?”

“Yes. She has breast cancer. The last time she had a mastectomy and they got it all, but now it’s back.”

“Is she getting chemo?”

“Yes, but it’s killing her this time. She’s ten years older. She’s not eating well or much at all really.” She turned her attention away from Levan and looked at the bottom of the shelf in front of them.

“Have you tried the diet section?”

“It’s not just a diet book. It’s a self-help book. Dr. Myers believes that diet is one way to fight cancer and keep you healthy when you’re going through cancer treatments. I read a review of his book online. I think it will help her.”

She moved to the shelf to his right and scanned the top. He watched her as she moved along the top shelf and down to the second one, her lips continuing to move as she read the spines.

“Here it is!” She reached to the third shelf in front of her and pulled a book from the crowded shelf. She cradled it in her hand and cracked it open to read the inside flap of the dust jacket. A picture of a smiling white man in a suit took up most of the flap.

Levan smiled as he watched her read in silence, subtly moving her lips. “I hope it helps.”

“It can’t hurt,” she replied, still focused on the book.

He waited a moment for her to read the short blurb on the dust jacket and then introduced himself when she briefly looked up. “I’m Levan.” He prepared to extend his hand but she seemingly ignored him.

She flipped to the first page of the book and then stopped as if she just had heard what he said. She closed the book and put it under her arm before she extended her hand. “Sorry, I wanted to make sure it was the right book. I’m Trisha. It’s nice to meet you, Levan.” He held her hand for a moment longer engrossed by the soft, warmth of her palm and fingers.

She smiled back at Levan giving a big toothy grin that revealed perfectly straight, bright white teeth behind her full red lips.

“Do you come here often?”

“Are you trying to pick me up?” She laughed when she said this but Levan blushed. He felt nervous all of a sudden as if he were out of his element, but he was in his element.

He gave a hesitant laugh. “Maybe.” He didn’t say it with confidence and in his mind he kicked himself for being so weak in front of a woman that clearly interested him. His thoughts felt naked.

Trisha was still laughing, but she didn’t seem to be laughing at him as much as with him. She seemed nervous too, shy even.

“I come here a lot. I love this place,” she said as if she needed to explain why she was there.

Those words were music to Levan’s ears. “I do, too. I’m surprised I’ve never seen you. I normally recognize regulars.”

She smiled. “I’m usually here during my lunch break.”

“You work nearby?”

“Just down the street. I’m a paralegal for one of the law firms.”

“Nice. I work downtown near the Hawthorne Bridge. I do research.” Levan kicked himself for being so vague and uninteresting. Normally, he could drone on endlessly about his work making it sound so much better than it probably was, but as he looked at the beautiful woman before him, he lost himself in her eyes, her brilliant smile, and coherent words eluded him.

“What kind of research?”

“Scientific.”

“Okay…any particular area?”

“Oh, yes, sorry…I do cancer research…” He kept chastising himself for being so spacey, but she perked up and eyed him suspiciously.

“Seriously?”

He scrambled around in his head as if he had actually lied because the truth seemed so coincidental given what she had told him about her mom. “Yes, I work for Biologics. It’s a small biotech start-up that’s working on cures for specific types of cancer.”

“Really? What types?”

“Pancreatic, prostate, breast, and lung cancer…those are our primary focus areas.”

“What do you do for them?”

“I’m one of the head research scientists for their lab here. We have labs all over the country, but this lab is the biggest in the company since it’s based here.”

She seemed excited but in a state of disbelief as if his response were an elaborate pick-up line, but he’d never been good at pick-up lines and he wanted to tell her that to help her understand, but he stopped himself. He let it sink in.

“This is almost surreal. I’m here looking for a book to help my mom deal with breast cancer and I meet someone who’s trying to cure it. Wow.” She mouthed the last word in an exaggerated fashion that almost seemed mocking to Levan, but he just smiled at her.

“Are you close to any treatments that can be used on people?”

The air rushed out of his chest as he sunk into himself. “No. We’ve made some progress, but we are years away from any trials.”

He could feel the hope drain from her as if she were a balloon that had just been untied. He struggled with what to say to keep her talking to him. She fingered the book under her arm and finally pulled it to her side like she was prepared to walk away.

“That’s too bad. My mom could really use something right now.” She seemed despondent and disappointed like many of the women who floated into and out of his life.

“Well, I should get going. My mom will be worried if I’m out too late, and I should check on her anyway. It was nice meeting you, Levan.” She extended her hand again and he took it gratefully, still enamored by how soft it was. He didn’t want her to walk away.

“You never know though. Things happen all the time in the lab,” he said. He immediately wanted to kick himself for blurting out such nonsense. The work in the lab was slow and tested the patience and intensity of even the best scientists. Progress could be years away. He usually told everyone this, but he grasped at anything he could say to stay in the presence of this woman aptly named Trisha Lovely.

“We can always hope.” She smiled weakly at him and turned to walk away.

He frantically thought of other things to say. “It was nice meeting you. I hope your mom gets better. I really do.”

She looked back at him, her radiant smile brightening the entire aisle. “Thank you. See you around.”

She turned her back to him and walked down the aisle disappearing around the corner in an instant and it felt like she had not been there, that she was an apparition. Levan stood in his spot still searching for something to say that would bring her back, but he was at a complete loss. He wavered in his spot as if her absence would knock him down. He closed his eyes a moment and replayed their short conversation in his head.

He thought of grabbing a book and following her to the checkout so that he could continue talking to her, but he feared looking like a fool, and that fear held him back. It always had with women, but more so with Trisha. Her stunning beauty and infectious smile paralyzed him. Why would she ever want to go out with him?

Minutes ticked by audibly in his head until he outlasted his fear and rushed to the front of the bookstore. He had to talk to her for a moment longer and at least get her to consider going out with him. The path to the checkout seemed longer than he remembered as he darted among the browsers rehearsing what he would say. He took one final turn around the last aisle and rushed to the front. The checkout line was empty. A cashier looked at him and saw that he had nothing to buy and turned his attention to the other cashier nearby. Levan felt deflated. He had let Trisha slip away.

He rushed through the doors onto the street whipping his head each way hoping to catch a glimpse of her walking away, but the crowd, although relatively sparse, seemed to block any view of a woman in a lovely green dress. He dropped his chin toward his chest and sighed. He’d never find someone to love.

Elements of Reality

I’m late posting this week because I’ve been busy writing my latest story concept, which I hope to post next week. I’ve been pulling idle ideas out of my writer’s notebook and bringing them to life on the page for the first time to see if the stories have legs. I have far more ideas than I currently have time to write. I’m averaging about 1-2 novels per year at the rate I’m going (I only have about an hour to write each day).

My latest story concept has captivated my imagination the way all my novels do in the beginning. It’s fun bringing long-dormant characters to life for readers. I love the creation process and how it produces seemingly real people from nothing. These characters become real to me over the course of writing a novel, and I love stepping into their shoes and experiencing the world from their point of view. It’s both refreshing and eye-opening, but none of my characters can escape the reality that’s around me while I write.

All of my stories have some real-life elements in them, some are as contemporaneous as how I feel at the moment I’m writing. One morning, when I was writing my latest novel, I gave one of the characters a pounding headache because I had just recovered from one the night before. My love of coffee is sprinkled throughout many of my novels, and in some scenes characters react how I had reacted to a similar situation in my life. Last week’s concept, My Father’s Daughter, liberally used many of the feelings that I felt when I went to visit my father at the hospital before he died.

Writing a novel is an intensely personal experience. I don’t know many professions that isolate you and put you in a position to determine how all the players in the room experience the world you’ve created. It’s inevitable that elements from your real world will seep into the fictional one you’re creating. I find it entertaining like the Easter eggs you see in movies – relics from the creators that are a nod to something real or imagined.

Some stories lend themselves to the parallels in the real world. My novel, All Things Certain, begins in a bar as the main character watches the fantastic and unbelievable ending to a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks a few years ago, in which the Seahawks stole the game on a controversial touchdown. I had watched the game and used it as the starting point for the novel I begun shortly thereafter because nothing captures macho bravado (in the U.S. at least) more than men watching a football game, and I needed something that set the tone for the story.

While it’s true that fiction writers live in a make-believe world, we often bring in bits and pieces of the real world both out of necessity and habit. We can’t help but be affected by what’s happening around us and if there is something to be gained by bringing in elements of the real world, then why not do it. It’s all part of the craft and makes for interesting stories in their own right, so the next time you’re reading a story on these web pages, see if you can find these artifacts. Heck, make it a drinking game if you wish (or maybe not).

Novels & Marathons

I ran the Sioux Falls Marathon yesterday, so I had a lot of time to think about many things from 9/11 to writing to life to running (yes, you think about running while running – or at least I do). One of my favorite things to do when running, especially during long runs, is to turn over story ideas in my head. Most of my time was spent working through how I’m going to end one of my current projects, Into the Caldera. I’m in the last two chapters of that one, and I want to end it on a thrilling note.

I tossed around several ideas as I ran along the Big Sioux River outside Sioux Falls. I expect to finish the rough draft this week, and I’m confident I know how I want to end it. It’s just a matter of executing.

Speaking of execution, as I thought about my novel on the run, I couldn’t help but compare writing a novel to running a marathon. They are more similar than you might think. Sure, one is mental and the other is mostly physical, but they both share a common profile. Or, maybe it was just my depleted glycogen stores playing tricks on me. It’s been known to happen, but hear me out.

Novels, like marathons, begin with a lot of pomp and circumstance (at least in my head). There’s the excitement of beginning a journey and where it will take you. Of course, you know where a marathon will take you, but the journey to that destination is largely unknown (will I feel great the whole race or will I be reduced to a shuffling mess at mile 24?). Every single time I’ve begun a novel I’ve been pumped to type those first few words or sentences onto the page. The first chapter usually just flows from my fingertips as if the novel were writing itself. I’m usually so excited to start that I could spend the entire day just writing.

That excitement carries over to the first few miles…err…chapters. It’s like the momentum of the start just carries me forward with little effort. No sweat. This is the honeymoon stage where I’m simply in love with the idea of the novel and enjoying the first steady miles of a race. I’m all smiles. There’s no struggle. No doubts. Just me and the pages or miles that whisk by without a care in the world.

Like all honeymoons, this feeling soon comes to an end. The dreaded middle of the novel announces itself just like mile 13 in a marathon makes you realize that you are ONLY halfway to the finish. What? I have to do that mileage again?  The excitement at the beginning belies the ugly truth that the middle won’t be so easy to navigate. Every single author struggles with this, or at least, this is what they say in the articles and videos I’ve seen. I know I struggle with it. My pace slows, ideas seem at odds with the feel of the novel, and I wonder aloud how I’m going to have that great ending I’ve already planned. By mile 13 in a marathon, my pace starts to slow, I start to question my sanity, and I wonder how I’m going to hit my goal time. See. It’s the same.

The flutter and stutter of the middle is enough to make anyone want to quit. Doubt sets in and desire comes into question. I’m reading a training book called How Bad Do You Want It? by noted professional athlete Matt Fitzgerald. His central theme in the book is that winning (however you define it) boils down to your psychobiological makeup and how bad you want it. He’s talking about athletic endeavors like running, but he could say the same thing about writing a novel. Getting through the lull in the middle really tests your mettle, and it’s not just getting through it, it’s creating something that will make your reader want to keep reading. Easier said than done.

The good news is that if you can make it through the middle of a novel (or a marathon), you can bring it home. As I hit the mile 24 marker yesterday, my feet started moving faster. I could taste the finish line. I pumped my legs harder. The sooner I crossed that line, the sooner I could rest and shower, both of which had immense appeal to me at that moment. Likewise, when I’m nearing the final chapters of a novel, I start working more furiously. It’s like I received a fresh jolt of creative energy because I can see the end. I can’t wait to cross that finish line to the first draft.

During the mad dash to the finish, all those doubts fade away. While I may have questioned why I was even doing this in the first place during that awful lull, the only thing I’m thinking when I cross the finish line is “When can I do this again?” All that pain and I still haven’t learned my lesson.

Maybe I’m a masochist after all.

Behind the Curtain

Thad Baker watched the large screen in front of him. He gestured to the screen and it flipped to the power control panel for his encampment. The dashboard showed all green, and he smiled. His company had achieved remarkable success in the last two decades of the 21st century on earth. While he was mostly known as the father of true artificial intelligence and his company had become synonymous with the bots that dominated earth and now inhabited Mars, his PowerFuse technology remained his primary pride and joy. Years of research had led him and his vast team of scientists to finally tap the mysteries of nuclear fusion to develop a long-lasting and seemingly-endless power source.

His technology spread like wildfire before the global economy fractured and fell apart in the face of drastic climate shifts as survival became the main concern of world citizens. His wealth multiplied many times as homes and buildings left the power grid and relied exclusively on his new invention. His modern bots were powered by PowerFuses. Every vehicle on the planet had switched to PowerFuse after oil reserves dwindled and disappeared altogether.

Baker swelled with pride every time he reminded himself that the mission to colonize Mars would not even be possible without his technology. His bots had been the first to arrive and explore the planet in a way that only a human could. His PowerFuse technology drove the space ships that arrived on the planet. The modular buildings that sprung up on the barren surface and hummed with breathable air could only do so because of his technology. The human race owed him its existence. Without him, humans would have long ago perished in the diaspora of war, disease, and environmental implosion.

It was with this inflated sense of self importance that Baker sat in his chair in the control room overlooking the excavation site and watched his spaceship enter Martian airspace. The ship carried supplies and another batch of bots. His launch capabilities were fine. They were still intact because he had a heavily fortified facility deep in the desert of Arizona that had escaped much of the chaos that had brought down Western States. Most importantly, his facility was completely staffed with his bots, not people. He trusted his bots. He had never trusted people, and he was happy to not have to rely on them to keep his enterprise running.

The ship nudged closer to the surface, slowly descending on the landing strip just north of the excavation site. Baker felt remarkably calm. Everything had come together as he had expected, and he felt confident that his plans for the colony were on track despite the trouble they had run into with Sanjay. He had warned Sprockett about the son of the great Raja. Raja had been a fiercely independent Senator who had rebuffed Baker’s offers numerous times. No matter how much sons fought for their own legacies, they were never too far away from their fathers. Nevertheless, Sprockett had insisted that Sanjay was the right choice for their plans. A politician’s son understood the importance of leadership he had said. He had been wrong.

Footsteps clicked behind him. “Mr. Baker, the ship has landed,” a bot said to his back.

Baker shook himself to the present and looked at the screen before him confirming what the bot had told him.

“Get the bots to work on the site after the supplies are unloaded,” he commanded.

“Yes, sir,” the bot replied.

Baker’s mind returned to Sprockett. The Senator had become a liability with his reckless and power-hungry behavior. Baker had cautioned him about his actions with Sanjay and the result was just as he had suspected. Sanjay rebelled because Sprockett had disenfranchised him. Despite being a life-long politician, Sprockett was remarkably tone death to human motivations. Now, Baker worried that others in the colony were disillusioned with Sprockett and his leadership. Baker needed Sprockett to succeed. He needed a front man, someone who could be the face of leadership while he pulled the strings from behind the curtain. He didn’t want to be in the spotlight. It had never been kind to him, and he resented it enough to shy away from it.

Sitting alone in the control room, his worries got the best of him. He hadn’t talked to Sprockett in two sols and the Senator had not come out to visit him or update him on the progress of the colony. He grew antsy and rapped his finger tips on the tabletop before him. He gestured to the screen and pulled up the comm system, another of his company’s great products, and hailed the Senator from across the rocky expanse between them.

The Senator answered after a few seconds. “Mr. Baker, how can I help you?”

“I need you to come here and update me on your progress,” Baker said solemnly. He betrayed none of his nervousness.

“I can update you right now.”

“No. I want you here in person.”

“But…”

“Mr. Sprockett, I’m in no mood to argue. Get here. Now.”

“Okay. I’ll be there in a few…”

Baker flipped off the comm before Sprockett could say anything else. He’d grown tired of the Senator and his loquacious ways. He’d never known anyone who could say so little with so many words.

He sat back in his chair and rubbed his chin. He remained unsure of how to deal with the Senator and the fledgling colony. He didn’t need any of them. He had his bots and all the luxuries he needed in his little encampment. People weren’t reliable like his bots. They weren’t intelligent either as evidenced by his life experience and the way they bickered and fought over trivial things like religion and economic philosophies. It had all been for naught, and they destroyed the planet as a result. He had the power to end it all, to reign supreme.

A wicked smile crept across his face. The potential power wracked his whole body with an eagerness that betrayed his logic. Another thought trickled through his dense mind. The bots could never truly replace humans, and they lacked the emotional connection with him that he craved. He’d never had someone that connected with him in such a way. He’d had friends that had come and gone and potential love interests that never lasted beyond the initial bloom. He’d spent so much of his life focused on his science that he had never looked up for someone with whom to share his passions. The experience had dulled that part of him, but as he now had the power to squelch all that remained of the human race, he hesitated. Not yet.

A voice interrupted his thoughts. “Sir, we’ve uncovered some interesting artifacts. You should see this,” a bot said behind him.

“Not now.”

The bot hesitated in the spot behind him. Baker could tell it was unsure of what to say next.

“I’ll pull it up on the screen.”

The bot wavered in place for a moment before it left the room. Baker flipped through the camera feeds until he came to the one showing the advancing efforts of the excavation. His jaw dropped open and he pushed himself up in his chair to peer more closely at the screen. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He shot up from his chair and beat a hasty path out of the room. He had to see this with his own eyes.

The Second Transport

When Jane opened her eyes, Olivia’s face filled her field of vision. Olivia’s head seemed to float in the space in front of her with a look of concern. Even with worry wrinkling her face, Olivia was a beautiful woman. Jane felt an equal dose of admiration and jealousy. No one would ever describe Olivia as plain.

“Captain? Are you okay?” Olivia asked.

Jane tried to move her head, but her neck resisted. She moaned before the realization that she had no helmet thrust her into an instance of panic. Olivia recognized the reaction. “It’s okay. We’re in the apartment. Your helmet is over there,” she said nodding to the table behind her.

“What happened, Jane?” Olivia asked.

Jane looked confused as if Olivia had asked the question in a foreign language. Everything seemed blank, nonexistent, as if that very moment was her first breath of life. She remembered no history, no life. For a brief moment, she even forgot who she was, but hearing her name chased away the darkness like a fog dissipating in the rising sun.

“I don’t remember,” Jane replied struggling to get the few words out of her mouth. “How did I get here?”

“Two bots brought you here. You were unconscious when they dropped you into your bed.”

Jane closed and opened her eyes slowly. “Did they say anything?”

“No. I asked them what happened and they said they didn’t know. They claimed they found you unconscious, but I don’t believe them.”

Jane rubbed her forehead and swiped her hair back out of her face. She let out a big sigh as she tried to erase the confusion that plagued her. Images of an angry bot flashed in her memory like a puzzle missing just too many pieces. Her eyes flickered in concentration.

“You okay?”

Jane remained lost in thought.

“Captain?”

Finally, Jane returned to the conversation. “Yes, sorry, I just can’t remember what happened. Do you remember where I went?”

Olivia thought for a moment. “No. You didn’t say. I talked to you before I went to bed last night. When I woke up, you were gone, and then, the bots brought you here.”

“What were we talking about?”

“The transport. Edgar.”

The mention of the transport triggered a shrouded memory that almost revealed itself. Jane tried to concentrate harder. Finally, a few more unfamiliar thoughts broke loose into her conscious mind. Captain Regal. The launch of the second transport. War. A bot. The pieces fell into place.

“I talked to the Captain of the second transport,” Jane revealed. Her voice sounded as if she were reading from a script. Her memory unfolded before her. “Captain Regal.”

Olivia gasped and stared at her Captain in disbelief. Her mouth hung open for a moment before she spoke. “You did? Last night?”

“Yes.”

Olivia narrowed her eyes and glared at Jane. Her forehead scrunched in concentration, and Jane briefly thought she looked beautiful even when she contorted her face so.

“Are our families on that ship?” Olivia asked. She spoke as if she were waiting for a punch, hesitant and halting.

“They are. Regal said so.”

Olivia let out a breath of relief and tilted her head back. When she faced Jane again, her eyes were still closed as if she were squeezing them shut to prevent any tears from escaping. “Thank God.”

A silence slid between them – Jane struggling to conjure the memory that felt like a dream and Olivia basking in the confirmation that Edgar was not too far away. Olivia moved toward Jane and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder before she hugged her. They held that embrace for a moment, a relief from the stress of the battles fought and the ones to come.

“Did you talk to Rachel?” Olivia asked when she pulled back from Jane.

“No, I didn’t have time.”

“How did you get past the bots to get into the Control Room?”

Jane paused searching her memory. The face of a bot pulsed in her mind’s eye and startled her. The bot snarled in her memory, but she knew they didn’t display such emotion. Finally, she said, “There were no bots there. No one was there, not even Sprockett.”

“You just walked in?”

“Yes. I just walked in.”

At that moment, it hit her. She recalled turning around to face the bot that grabbed her throat and choked her. She vividly remembered the feeling of dangling by her neck as if she were being executed by hanging. The bot’s words to her were muted, but the feeling was there as alive and real as if it were happening all over again. Jane stared at Olivia, bewildered.

“What’s wrong?” Olivia asked.

Jane didn’t respond.

“Captain?”

Jane tried to say something but no words came out as if she were choking all over again.

“Are you okay?”

Jane stuttered. Olivia put her hand on her shoulder and looked into her distant eyes. “Jane, do I need to get a doctor?”

Finally, Jane uttered, “No.”

Olivia waited for her colleague to speak again. A few uncomfortable seconds passed.

“A bot tried to kill me. That’s why I was unconscious. A bot discovered me in the Control Room and tried to strangle me to death. I don’t remember everything because I passed out.”

“Oh my god!”

“I remember not being able to put my feet on the ground and the blank look on the bot’s face, but that’s it.”

Olivia sat back down in the chair next to Jane, stunned by the revelation. She wanted to cry out of frustration, anger, and fear. Nothing, it seemed, had worked out according to plan. She worried what this meant for Edgar and her. Would they really be able to live the life they had expected in their new home. The promise of the Mars colony felt illusory and sullied by the change in plans and leadership.

“What do we do now?”

Jane shook her head slightly, still dazed by her ordeal. “I don’t know. I just want to see Rachel with my own eyes and make sure she’s okay.”

Olivia agreed. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen once they get here.”

“We have to make the best of it. At least we’re alive. That’s more than I can say for others in Western States.”

“For now at least.”

Jane jerked her head toward Olivia. She didn’t say anything, but those four words sent a cold chill down her spine.