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.”

Great Beginnings

Story ideas often come to me at the most inopportune times like when I’m about to fall asleep or right in the middle of a long run. I’m usually prepared for those scenarios because I keep my iPad on my nightstand (I have an electronic notebook) or I just keep ruminating on the idea while I’m out on the trails so that I don’t forget it. I’m not complaining; I’m glad I have the luxury of too many ideas in my writing notebook. I can think of nothing worse than pages of blank white paper (or, in my case, a blank screen with an irritating blinking cursor). Nevertheless, it’s interesting to look at these ideas and how see how they evolve as I flesh out the short story or novel.

When I look at my notes, they most often describe a scene that provides the spark for the story. Invariably, all of my notes describe the beginning of the story; the point where it becomes most interesting, or at least interesting enough for the reader to want to read on. My notes for my first novel, The Vanishing, simply describe the scene where Ella is on the verge of killing her husband and the agony and emotions she’s experiencing. That’s how the novel begins, and from that scene the story unfolds revealing how Ella arrived at the point where she wanted to kill her husband. My original idea, the beginning of the story, set the mood for the whole novel for both me and the readers.

My current project, The Fire Within, starts with the main character struggling to run around a track on his prosthetic legs, which is exactly how I described the idea in my original notes. I want to capture the readers’ imagination with a great beginning that leads to a deluge of interesting questions and, hopefully, leaves them wanting much more after the first chapter. Beginnings have to be one of the strongest parts of your story if you’re going to keep the reader engaged, which is one of the reasons my ideas tend to start there. I often ask myself “Why would I be interested in this story?” The beginning has to satisfactorily answer that question. It’s no accident that agents only ask for the first 20-40 pages of a novel when you query them. If the story doesn’t work in those first few pages, it’s not going to work over the course of 80,000 words.

Once I have the concept of the story down and understand how I’m going to start the story, it’s time to turn that great beginning into a dynamic short story or novel. For short stories, the beginning is usually enough to propel me forward for 5,000-8,000 words. I often think of short stories as scenes from larger novels, and if I look at any of my short stories, I could easily turn them into novels if I thought the story had enough gas to run over 80,000 words. With novels, the beginnings provide the literary compass for me as I outline out the major sections of the story. I constantly go back to the beginning as I develop the outline and ask myself if the storyline is staying true to the original idea. If not, I make changes. It’s actually rare that I get to the outline phase and change the direction of a story completely away from the original idea. If the beginning is truly as good as I believe it is, then it will hold sway over the whole writing process.

None of this process precludes me from changing the beginning. I refine it over and over as the story develops, but the essence of the beginning is always there. The idea from which the story sprung remains a central point of focus for me. I’ll often go back to my notebook and read my notes just to see if the story stayed true to my original idea. So far, each of my stories have. I view the original idea, the great beginning, as the foundation for the story, and if you truly have a solid foundation, you can build a strong story that stands the test of time and revisions. A great beginning is that important.

 

 

Forever I Love You

Just in time for Halloween, I’ve written a creepy short story. Some people live in their own head too much and that’s just a little creepy for the rest of us. Feedback and comments are appreciated.

“I suppose there’s something bothering you,” I stated matter-of-factly to my girlfriend who sat, stone-faced, in front of me staring out into the space over my shoulder like I didn’t exist. I was annoyed, irate at her nonchalance. She’d been nothing but one of the most demanding women I had ever known and this was the attitude I got for catering to her every need like some servant.

She said nothing in response, not even a sigh, which she was prone to do all too often when it came to me. It was like I wasn’t good enough for her. Bitch.

I stood up from my seat and turned away from her to put my half empty glass of milk in the sink. She remained at our kitchen table refusing to relieve me of my anxiety. We had reached an impasse, and there was nothing I could do to change it.

“I have to go to work,” I said solemnly peeking through the tiny slit in the curtains above the sink. I reached up and pinched the flimsy material together to close off the view. I couldn’t risk having someone see into our house. I quickly scanned the living room and the dining room ensuring all the drapes were tightly closed. The heavy curtains in the living room choked off almost all of the light. The room felt like a cave, damp and moist and cold with something more than a musty smell that made my nose crinkle as I breathed in heavily. The air conditioner whined outside the kitchen window. I shuddered in the cold despite the heavy coat I wore.

The chill froze my fingers. They were numb and tingled in the frosty air. I had removed my gloves to eat breakfast, but even in that short time, the frigid air penetrated the pores of my hands making them feel like ungainly blocks of ice. I ran some warm water over them in the sink using her silence as an opportunity to regain my composure. I dried my hands and put my gloves back on. I felt relieved by the fleece lining that pampered my fingers, but I still couldn’t feel the tips.

I said nothing to Monica as I gathered my laptop and put it in my backpack. I zipped it shut in one fluid motion and flung it over my shoulder as I walked to the door leading to our garage.

“I love you,” I said as I looked back at her. She still sat at the kitchen table staring out into the space before her like she was trying to discern some pattern in the wallpaper. She said nothing. She didn’t even look my way. I knew that I had crossed some unseen threshold with her. I had pushed her too far.

I shook my head and stepped into the garage. The door shut behind me and I turned to lock it. For a moment I thought that the front door was not locked, and I panicked. I returned to the house and hurriedly walked through the kitchen and living room to the front door. It was locked. I sighed in relief and exited through the door to the garage again locking it securely behind me. Monica didn’t even notice this. She said nothing. Her ambivalence saddened and enraged me.

Before I raised the garage door, I removed my gloves, heavy coat, and the extra pants I wore in our house and stuffed them in a cabinet in the garage. I locked the cabinet and checked it twice before I threw my backpack in the passenger seat of my car and hit the button to the garage door. I backed out of the garage and watched the garage door shut before I left my driveway. I looked around at the neighboring houses. No one was watching or loitering around our house, which did little to calm my jittery nerves. I’d have to deal with Monica when I returned home.

It was a typical summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid despite the overcast skies. I flipped on the air conditioning in my car to cool things off. I’d grown so used to our cold house that I was often surprised when I felt the heat in the summer. It was always winter in our house. A smell similar to dead leaves lingered around me. I sniffed the crook of my arm to determine if it was my shirt. It smelled sour like it had been left damp too long and didn’t dry properly. I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. Hopefully, no one at work would notice.

***

Monica and I weren’t always this far apart. We were deeply in love at one time, or at least, I was in love with her. I still am. We met at the grocery store down the street from our house. Well, it was just my house then, but after she moved in with me, I thought of it as our house like we had always been together there. I had spotted her in the produce aisle perusing through the organic peppers, and immediately, I became enthralled with her. I pushed my cart up to a nearby fruit display and pretended to search for the perfect red apple while I watched her from the corner of my eye. Even with that limited view, I could see that she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.

She must have fussed over those peppers for a good three minutes before she moved on from the produce section. I threw a few apples into a bag and placed them in my cart before I tailed her to the next aisle. She’d stop and I’d do the same desperately trying to find something that I needed wherever I happened to stop. This continued for the next half hour as I flitted from aisle to aisle watching her and getting as close to her as possible without alarming her in any way. I’d been through that situation before with other women and I couldn’t afford a repeat. My probation officer had warned me about this behavior, but I couldn’t help myself even with the specter of prison hanging over me.

By the time Monica had half-filled her cart and jostled through the meandering housewives with their throngs of toddlers and preschoolers, I knew for sure she was the one for me. The way she carefully studied everything she placed in her cart showed how much she cared for those she had to feed. I desperately wanted to be the one she cared for.

I stood behind her in line at the cashier. I watched her every move. She brushed up against me as she emptied her cart. “Excuse me,” she said. I was close enough to smell her perfume. It made me turn cartwheels in my head. I knew I loved her.

She finished checking out, and I quickly placed my bag of apples and a box of cereal in front of the cashier. I didn’t want lose her. The cashier tried to be friendly with me, but I brushed him off indicating that I was in a hurry in the rudest possible way. He clammed up as I paid and rushed out the door without even a thank you from that ungrateful asshole.

I scanned the parking lot quickly looking for the black-haired girl who wore a bright red blouse and a white skirt. Luckily, I spotted her near a cart corral just outside the exit. The clank of her cart striking the railing of the corral got my attention. I walked toward her even though my car was on the other side of the parking lot. As I got closer, I slowed down and pretended to be looking for my keys. She didn’t notice me and I used the time to get a closer look at her from behind my sunglasses.

I watched her get into her silver Nissan Altima and mentally noted her license plate number, A757433. She backed out of her spot and drove toward the exit. I stood there watching her leave. I knew she was the one. Finally, after all the time I had spent searching for the woman of my dreams, I had found her.

Were it not for my resourcefulness, we would not be together. I walked in through the front door of the vehicle registration database and plucked her home address from the records. I’ve always been good with computers. Once I had her address, I camped out in front of her apartment and watched her come and go during her daily routine.

She usually left for work around 7:30 AM and drove to her office on the outskirts of downtown where she worked on the fourth floor of a low-slung office building as the executive assistant to some asshole sales guy. I hated that guy. He’s was so pompous that I wanted to punch him in the throat. When he disappeared later, I was glad to be rid of him, but I was surprised that Monica was so sad about it.

I once visited Monica in her office; although, she didn’t know me at the time. My company actually had some space in the same office park where her building was located, so I wandered into her building pretending to be looking for my company’s office. She was never the wiser. It was the first time I really heard her sweet voice, and she talked directly to me. Her eyes were so sparkling green that they mesmerized me. I probably lingered in her presence a little too long because she asked if there was a problem after she told me my company’s office was in the building next door, but I didn’t care. I was smitten.

During our courtship, I almost got fired from my job. I’d shown up late several days in a row and had pretended that I was working out of the office next to Monica’s building for longer than I should have. I was sitting in the courtyard watching Monica have lunch with one of her girlfriends when my boss called. The system had gone down and had been down for half an hour and no one had addressed the issue. I wasn’t paying attention. He really chewed my ass out for that one. Luckily, it was a simple fix and I had the system back up within an hour.

After that, I decided I’d have to spend time with Monica only at her place. She lived in a ground-floor apartment about ten minutes from my house. She had these vertical blinds covering her patio doors in the back of the apartment that she rarely closed all the way. She also sparsely used her patio, so I could sit out there not far from her back door and watch her through the slats of the blinds.

This worked well as long as that meddlesome neighbor of hers wasn’t out on his patio smoking. For the most part, I was able to avoid her neighbor because there was a line of trees and bushes that enclosed the back of the apartment building mostly to hide the ugly retention pond that stood on the other side of the trees. I could hide among the thin trees and stay out of sight.

The neighbor was always looking my way when he was out on his patio. He kept peering into the darkness like he could clearly see me. I was quiet and kept my movement to a minimum, but he still bore a hole through me from his patio. He even called out to me a couple of times, but I said nothing. He later drowned in the retention pond in a horrible accident one night. Monica was distraught. I could see it on her face through the blinds.

Monica lived alone except for her cat. One day while she was gone to work, I went over to her place to check on her cat. I wanted to make sure it had plenty of food and water. The damn thing hissed at me when I came through the patio door. I tried to assure it that I was friendly and was only there to help, but it scratched and bit me when I tried to pet it. I chased it into her bedroom, but I lost my enthusiasm once it lodged itself under the far reaches of her bed. The cat ran away not long after Monica moved in with me. Good riddance.

Monica remained coy for the first few months of our relationship until we met each other at the grocery store again. She had returned to where it all started, and I was feeling sentimental and really not paying attention to where I was going.

“Don’t I know you?” she asked catching me off guard as I turned into the aisle not far behind her.

I paused and tried to look confused or maybe like I was thinking. “I think so. Don’t you work at the Oakridge Plaza office?” I said after a pause. My mind raced through a flurry of possible responses.

“I do. You do, too, don’t you?”

“Yes, I’m in the building next to yours. I’m Larry Randall.”

She smiled like she knew we were meant to be. “I’m Monica Pearson. Nice to finally meet you…officially. I’ve seen you around a lot. I remember you came to my building one day looking for your office.”

“Yes, that was my first day at that office.”

“You trying to find something?” she asked nodding to my empty cart.

“Looking for some cereal,” I said quickly not really thinking about what I needed. I had followed her into the grocery store. I didn’t really need anything.

“Cereal is on aisle five,” she said nodding to her left and smiling at me. “Very nice meeting you. Again.” Her smile had disappeared and she started to walk away. I wanted to say something to make her stay. I loved talking to her, but I couldn’t think of a thing. Instead, I whisked my cart around and headed over to aisle five.

I put a box of cereal in my cart and lurked along the aisle at the top of the store looking for Monica. She’d seen me. I mean really seen me. My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t want to let the moment go. I couldn’t. I had to tell her how I felt.

She took a long time to finish her shopping. When she finally entered the line at the check-out, I lingered out of sight near the top of aisle four peering ever so slightly around the display of toilet paper on the end so that I could watch her. When she finished paying and rolled her cart toward the exit, I paused a moment before I abandoned my cart and fell in behind her as she walked to her car. It was time to tell her how I really felt about her.

***

When I finally arrived at my office, I sighed heavily as I walked through the door. I didn’t like my job. I was good at it, but my boss was an asshole, and he was always on my ass about getting things done. I disliked him so much that I purposefully took twice as long to do things just to piss him off.

“Randall!” my boss yelled from his cubicle as I clipped my laptop into the docking station on my desk. I sighed again.

“Yes.”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Be right over.” I looked around but all of my coworkers were absorbed in their own work and refused to acknowledge me or the persecution I suffered at the hands of my manic boss. I slid my feet along the cheap, industrial carpet as I walked down the aisle to his cube. Someone had brought in a cheese and sausage biscuit. I could smell it among the sea of cubes and the tops of heads that dotted the wide-open office. My stomach churned. I hated the smell of sausage.

“What’s up?”

“The fucking Feds were here yesterday asking questions. Do you know anything about any hacking activity on our network?”

“Yesterday. When?”

“Sometime after lunch. Have you seen any strange activity on our network?”

I didn’t see anyone come to our office yesterday, but then I remembered I had left early to go to Monica’s apartment. She’d been whining about her how dry her skin was and how she needed the face cream that she normally used, so I went to her apartment to retrieve it.

“Randall?”

I shook my head slightly and looked at my boss. I felt dazed and confused for a moment. “No, I haven’t seen any strange activity.”

“Have you been monitoring everything?”

“Yes, of course.” I resented when he assumed I wasn’t doing my job. I was damn good at my job and he couldn’t even join a laptop to the domain without my help. Asshole.

“They claim that someone hacked the DMV system from here and they requested activity logs for the past month.”

“Did you give them the data?”

“What the fuck do you think? They had a warrant.”

“Oh…” I felt a sharp pang in my stomach and a sweat broke out on my forehead. Dread descended upon me. Images rattled through my brain like someone was flipping through a photo book. I thought of Monica and all the women before her. I thought of her boss and how he looked so shocked when the knife plunged into his heart and how he clung to my arm as he fell to the ground. I thought of her old neighbor and how he struggled against the extension cord that squeezed the life from his neck. And that damn cat.

I made up some excuse about feeling sick and left the office as quickly as I could. I did feel sick, but not in a way that would endanger the health of my coworkers. My boss was a major germophobe, so he didn’t quibble with me leaving work. The moment I said I thought I had a fever, he physically withdrew from me as if I were going to spew blood on him.

I rushed home as quickly as I could to consider my options. Even the slacker Fed geeks could figure out that I hacked the DMV from my office network. They probably couldn’t pinpoint exactly who did it, but there were only a few dozen employees in the IT group, and it was only a matter of time before they narrowed it down to me. I hadn’t really thought it out completely when I peeked into the DMV system. I had done it on a desperate whim because I wanted to find Monica and tell her how much I loved her. I was willing to risk all for her love, and after all that effort, it had come down to this.

She said nothing when I walked through the door. I had put my coat and gloves on in the garage, but when I stepped into the kitchen, I knew something was wrong. The house was only moderately cool, and the lingering odor of rotten leaves permeated the whole downstairs. I ran to the thermostat and checked the temperature. It was near 50 degrees, and the air wasn’t running despite the setting being lower than the temperature. I lowered the setting further. Nothing. The air conditioner had stopped working. I slammed my fist against the wall near the thermostat and cursed my luck. Everything I had worked for was falling apart just as fast as it had come together.

***

Monica looked surprised when she opened the door to her apartment and saw me standing there with a bouquet of roses in my hand. She had told me in no uncertain terms that she was not interested in going out when I had approached her the day before in the parking lot at the grocery store. At the time she seemed put off by my admission of my love for her, but I knew in my heart that she just needed some time to process what I had said. Women always take a long time to figure out how they feel, so I decided to give her some time.

“Larry, what are you doing here?”

“I bought you some flowers.”

She clutched the door like she was going to shut it in my face. Her behavior stirred anger in my gut, but I held it in check. My anger was what had gotten me on probation in the first place, but how could she be so fucking ungrateful?

“Thank you for the thought, but I cannot accept them.” She stepped into the door and closed it a little more, but I could still see her face and the top of her shoulders.

“Why not? I bought them just for you.”

“I can’t. I told you that I already have a boyfriend.”

I tried to look into her apartment. I felt like I already knew the place because I had spent so much time peering through the back patio doors. “Then, where is this ‘boyfriend’ of yours?”

“He’s not here. He lives in New York.”

“New York? If I had a girlfriend like you, I’d be right here by your side. How can he leave such a beautiful woman alone?”

I thought she smiled ever so slightly, but it could have also been fear overtaking her. I felt intense, and I probably looked it. Some of my other girlfriends had told me I frightened them when I became intense. I’m not sure why they felt that way.

“Look, I’ve had a long day. I need to get some rest.” She started to close the door.

“Monica, wait…can’t we just go to dinner, get to know each other a little, and feel this out?”

A definite look of fright glowed in her eyes. She looked like a dog about to be beaten. “No, I’m sorry…”

She tried to close the door the rest of the way, but I stuck my foot in between the door and the threshold. She pushed harder, but I stood there angry and distraught. Before she could scream, I put my hand around her throat and pushed her back into her apartment as I flung the flowers to the floor of her foyer. I shut the door behind me and locked it with my free hand. Her throat was so tiny in my big hand. I didn’t mean to hurt her, but my anger overwhelmed me. I felt like my mind just went blank.

***

I lost track of time. I had fixed the air conditioning unit, and the cold air had returned. I shivered in my own living room sitting next to Monica who stared blankly at the wall before us. I was too upset to watch any television because I was afraid I’d see the Feds closing in. Instead, I surfed the web from my laptop looking for options. I knew what I had to do at that moment, but I refused to think of it. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to let Monica go.

Finally, I put my laptop aside and reached for Monica’s hand. It popped when I bent it to fit inside mine. The odor in our house had steadily grown stronger, and I could scarcely ignore it, but nothing could change how I felt about her. She looked at me, and for a moment, I could detect love in those pretty green eyes. I smiled faintly and held her hand more tightly.

“You know I love you, right?” I said to her.

She said nothing. She just tilted her head at me like she probably did when she saw a kitten or a puppy, an adoring look reserved for those special things in her life.

“I’ll always love you no matter what happens, but we may have to separate for a while until this blows over.”

“What blows over?” she asked.

“The Feds think I hacked into some system.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, but I did it for you.”

“For me?”

“Yes, you. I did it to find you. Because I love you.”

Her head tilted again with that adoring look. “I love you, too.”

I smiled and leaned in to kiss her cold lips. I hugged her tightly for a long while, but when I let her go, I knew what I had to do. There were few other options as the walls of my world closed in on me.

***

I’d never embalmed a body before, but like everything else I’d learned, I turned to the Internet. I found all the resources I needed to do it including how-to videos that demonstrated the practice. I learned to use the femoral artery on women and to aspirate the organs using a trocar. There were many resources on the right chemical mix to preserve the body for the longest time possible, but it was all a matter of the environment in which the body was stored.

I’d seen blood and disembodied corpses before, so it was nothing for me to watch those videos and do it myself. It was harder when it was someone I loved so, but I knew it was for the best. I wanted Monica to look just like she did on that first day I met her. It took a lot of work to remove that contorted expression from her face and hide the bruising on her neck, but I was not able to remove the blood from the whites of her eyes. I slipped some cotton under her eyelids and glued them shut. I painted her beautiful greens on the tops of her eyelids so that I could always look into them.

I had to massage her body quite vigorously to loosen the stiffened muscles. Even after all my effort, she remained difficult to position or move, so I kept her mainly in a seated position and tied her to whatever chair she sat in. I moved her to my sofa after I first finished and sat next to her. I held her hand in mine, and for the first time since I had met her, I felt like I was truly loved in return. I leaned in and kissed her painted lips. They felt cold and rubbery, but I didn’t care. I loved her.

***

The woods behind Monica’s apartment were thick with summer weeds and leaves, and I could move around back there with almost no chance of being seen. That nasty retention pond bred mosquitos and kept most residents away from the area during the heat of summer, but the ground was soft and easy to cut into with the blade of my shovel.

It was almost 3 AM by the time I finished. I shed my clothes and put them into a garbage bag after I changed into a clean shirt and pants. I disposed of the shovel and the garbage bag in the dumpster behind the grocery store near our house. I thought it was poetic that I dumped these things at the same store where our story began, but now, Monica was safely resting until I could get back to her. Once I resolved this issue with the Feds, I’d bring her back to our house, and we’d spend the rest of our lives together. That was the promise I made before I covered her in the soft earth.

By the time I got back to our house, it was almost 3:30 AM. I stumbled through the kitchen and up the stairs to our bedroom. I had turned the air conditioner off, but the house still felt cool in the stagnant air. The smell made me uncomfortable, but I ignored it as I collapsed into our bed and dreamt of Monica. I dreamed we got married in the most wonderful ceremony in Maui. All of my other girlfriends were there, and they were jealous of Monica and of how happy we were.

***

Several days passed and no Federal agents showed up at my door or at my office. My boss said nothing else about the Feds or the network activity. I went about my job as usual, but I didn’t feel normal. I missed Monica. Everything at our house reminded me of her. I couldn’t even sleep in our bed because I missed her so much, so I mostly slept on the couch with the TV silently flickering across the room. I was miserable.

One night after work, I stopped off at our grocery and grabbed some beer. It had been a while since I had gotten drunk, but I felt that I needed to blow off some steam. I flipped on the White Sox game and started drinking.

As the night wore on, I realized that drinking didn’t make me forget about Monica. It made me think of her more. The more I drank, the sadder I became, and the more I wanted to see her again. I knew I shouldn’t think that way, but I couldn’t help it. The gravitational pull of her soft lips and her fierce green eyes was just too much.

After Midnight I drove carefully over to her apartment and wandered back into the woods by the retention pond. My measly flashlight with its weakening batteries was of little help, but I found the spot where I left her and started digging furiously with the pick axe I had thrown in my car.

I didn’t think I had buried her that deep, but it took a while before I felt the pick axe strike something other than earth. I could see by the weak light that I had finally exposed her top half. I shined the light into the pit at her dusty face. I wiped the dirt from her eyes and her lips. The greens I had painted were faded and smudged and her lips were dry and crusty. I reached behind her shoulders and bent her up toward me just a little and kissed her lips.

“I love you, Monica,” I whispered in her ear. The damp earthen smell flooded my nostrils.

“Freeze! Police! Put your hands up!” a man yelled behind me furiously. Two bright lights suddenly blinded me. I could hear the click of metal and before I could say anything two heavy dark figures descended upon me and knocked me to the ground.

I yelled out Monica’s name desperately. She had to know that I wasn’t a bad man, that I loved her, and that we’d be together again soon. I screamed to her and tried to explain, but one of the men whose knee pressed me into the loose dirt beside the pit whacked me in the back of the head as he yanked my hands behind my back. I couldn’t breathe because my head was pressed into the soft dirt, and for a moment, I thought I was going to die a horrible death asphyxiated by the very earth that had held my Monica.

One of the men jerked me up to my feet, but I was dizzy and all they said to me was jumbled and nonsensical. I tried to say something, but all that came out was the dirt I had inhaled. I started crying and begging for them to let me see Monica one last time, but they ignored me and dragged me past the retention pond and to the front of her apartment where other bright lights were flashing and other men were moving purposefully from vehicles to her apartment. They shoved me into the back of one of the police cars and all I could do was fall on my side and cry. I cried out her name and screamed my love for her. She hand to know how I felt about her because I loved her. Forever.

Taking a Short Break

Writing a novel can be intense and emotionally draining, so it helps to take a step back sometimes and do something else to relieve the creative tension that often surges during the six months it takes me to write a first draft. I like to tackle short stories during these breaks. They allow me to keep writing while switching gears to refresh my mind on the story at hand.

I’m currently working on my fifth novel, The Fire Within, which in a very intense story about a wounded Iraqi war veteran who returns home and struggles to resume his life after losing his legs to an improvised explosive device while on patrol outside Baghdad. As you can imagine, the story is fraught with emotion and intense imagery that makes it exhausting. Trying to capture the essence of the story in all its raw nature is difficult, so I find myself going over each chapter again and again tweaking it to set the proper tone. It feels like it may take longer than the usual six months to finish this one.

After a few weeks of writing I found myself needing a break from the story, not only to rejuvenate my creative senses but to stretch other writing muscles. It’s almost like doing the same focused exercise every day for weeks and realizing that other parts of my body need activity too. I definitely didn’t want to break my writing habit, so I switched to a short story instead.

I keep a list of short story ideas so that I have story concepts at the ready when I’m in need of a break from my novels. It’s almost like going outside after being cooped up inside all day. The new concept or idea frees my mind to do something totally different and helps me keep my momentum when I return to the novel. These breaks are a necessary part of the writing process for me, and since I have yet to break through the publishing process, I’m not under any strict deadlines at the moment.

I’m currently writing a creepy short story about a man who is obsessed with the object of his affections. The obsession, of course, goes too far, but his grasp on reality is a little bit skewed. It’s a first-person narrative, so the reader is forced to view the world through his not-so-stable lens, which makes it even creepier. Once the reader realizes what has happened, I hope it elicits a run-for-the-exits response. That’s my intention anyway since it’ll be Halloween in a few weeks.

This short story couldn’t be further afield from my current novel, so it gets my mind thinking in a different way, and when I return to my novel next week, I hope to feel like it’s new in some ways and that should improve the story. Anytime I can look at a familiar subject with fresh eyes, it’s bound to make the results better. I just needed this “short” break to make it happen.

Write Anything

Given my usually busy schedule, I have a set time to write every weekday from five to six in the morning.  That hour is precious to me, so you’ll often find me in my favorite chair pounding away on my keyboard until the vortex that is my day pulls me away.  By the time I sit down in my chair I’ve already had breakfast and at least two cups of coffee, so I’m ready to go.  I’m a morning person, so this time of the day is my most focused and productive.  Once I sit down, I can usually dive right into writing mode.  I’ve rarely had a problem with thinking of something to write.

That’s not to say it comes easily.  Sometimes, when I’m in the throes of a story, I find myself staring at the blinking cursor on my screen wondering where I should take the story.  Other times, I find myself simply exhausted with the story and I realize I need a break from it – not from writing but just that story at that particular moment.  One way I’ve gotten around this problem is to have several things going at once.  For example, I’m currently editing a book, working on a new one, and writing a short story.  I don’t work on them at the same time obviously, but each day I can decide which one I feel like working on.  That helps me make the most of my hour and keeps me from burning out on any particular work.

Then, there are the rare days where my mind wanders and I feel somewhat random in my writing.  I don’t feel like working on any of the irons I have in the fire.  What to do?  I usually just open up a blank Word document and just start writing whatever comes to mind.  There’s a lot of relaxation in just writing from a stream of consciousness.  Often, I find new ideas take root and turn into something bigger whether its a new novel, short story, or a blog post.  The current short story I’m working on found its genesis on one of those mornings when I simply wanted to be random.  Before I knew it I had a few pages written, and now I’m well on my way to another story for this blog.

On the other hand, many times I just end up with scraps of stuff in my files that served mainly as a creative outlet but didn’t turn into anything substantial.  That’s fine too.  I think it’s important to just write during my designated hour each day whether or not it works out.  Writing, like any craft, requires exercise to get better.  You always have to stretch yourself if you ever want to grow as a writer, much like a runner has to push the limits if she wants to get faster or go further.

On those days when I’m feeling less than enamored with my current work, I just write anything.  Get myself out there and run the fast mile to see what happens.  It’s better than staring at that damn cursor as the time ticks away.

Drone

Vijay unlocked the door and entered his house, his parent’s house actually, and for the first time in his life, he was home alone.  He felt a little scared but mostly elated because his parents had finally relented and let him be at home by himself.  He had turned thirteen on his recent birthday, clearly old enough to be trusted.  He didn’t need someone to watch over him anymore.  He wasn’t a child.  He was thirteen for crying out loud, practically an adult.

He shut the door behind him letting its heavy edge bang against the frame.  The thump reverberated through the empty house.  Had his mom been home she would have admonished him for slamming the door, but she was still at work and he could do as he pleased.  He liked that.  He dropped his backpack on the kitchen counter and immediately rummaged through the refrigerator looking for something to eat.

He found some leftover vegetable samosas stuffed into a plastic container on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and he smiled.  He loved samosas.  He took four of them, they were rather large, and placed them on a plate before he heated them in the microwave.  As the microwave hummed, he stood in the center of the kitchen and looked around him energized by his new-found independence.

His stomach constricted, partly from hunger, but also from the fact that he was alone in his house for the first time.  Only the sound of the microwave cut through the silence that blanketed the house.  He looked into the dining room and saw the pale shadows that lingered over the glossy table.  He glared at the TV with its gray-black screen eerily reflecting the sofa and the big window behind it.  Finally, he looked out into his backyard through the kitchen window before the microwave let him know that his samosas were ready to be devoured.

He sat at the small kitchen table hunched over his plate eating his mid-afternoon snack, his mind racing to determine what he would do first.  He thought about walking to his friend Albert’s house down the street, but he remembered Albert was still at band practice after school.  He sulked for a moment as he thought of other things to do.  He couldn’t be bored on his first day by himself.

Vijay returned the empty plate to the sink and washed the greasy food stains from his hands.  As he rubbed the soap into his palms and let the warm water flow over his hands, he looked out of the kitchen window again.  The deep blue sky contrasted perfectly with the flowering trees and the warm breeze that ruffled their limbs.  He could smell the flowers in bloom even though the windows in the house were shut tightly, an artifact of his walk from the bus stop to his front door.  He stared into the endless blue sky when a thought finally took root in his brain.  He knew what he wanted to do.

After a quick jaunt up the stairs in his home taking two steps at a time, he slammed himself onto the floor before his bed and reached under it to retrieve one of the best gifts he had ever received, a quad-copter drone.  He carefully pulled the drone from under his bed and sat it before his bent legs and switched it on.  A dull blue light reflected off the black, ominous body of the drone assuring him that he had battery power.  Likewise he flipped the switch on the controller and the small video screen came to life showing a featureless, up-close shot of the carpet in his bedroom.  Vijay smiled like a lion that had just spotted some helpless prey.

Outside in his backyard, Vijay placed the copter onto the patio table and stepped away studying the remote before he brought the drone to life.  His father had bought the drone for him for his thirteenth birthday.  It had been a present that came with a stern warning.

“Do not spy on anyone, Vij.  Do you understand?” his father had said.  Vijay had responded that he understood, but the curiosity of potential got the best of him.  He imagined investigating the lives of the neighbors around him.  The pull of the forbidden leered irresistibly at him encouraging him to try it just once.  He tucked those thoughts into the back of his mind that day when he and his father went to a nearby park and played with the camera-bearing drone.  They took videos of themselves from up in the air and snapped shots of the park from angles that were otherwise inaccessible.  His father had been so impressed with the fidelity of the camera and the steadiness of the shots that he downloaded the videos and pictures and put them in the family photo collection.  He even posted one shot of himself and Vijay piloting the drone on his Facebook page.

Now, Vijay stood alone in his backyard with nothing but the memory of his father’s warning standing between him and his desire to explore his neighborhood.  Without another thought he pushed up the sliding switch on the remote, and the copter whirred to life emitting a low hum as the rotors cut through the air.  He leveled his thumb against the left joystick and the drone lifted straight up into the air.  He let it settle a good twenty feet above him before he pushed the other joystick and the airship jolted to the right into his next-door neighbor’s yard.  The copter zigged and zagged for a moment as Vijay regained familiarity with the controls.  After a few moments, he piloted it expertly along the rows of homes down the street from his house.

The steady journey down the line of manicured, fenced backyards dampened his imagination.  He had concocted scenarios in his mind of shocking revelations seen from the air and safely relayed to the video screen on his remote, but most of the houses appeared empty save for the occasional pet.  The Murphy’s dog lay in one of their patio chairs sleeping comfortably.  Another home had a bubbling fountain that glistened in the sun, which caught Vijay’s attention.  He hovered over it for a moment even swooping down to get a different view before he became bored and flew off to the next house.

It didn’t take long for Vijay to get bored of the whole endeavor and return the drone to his own backyard where he landed it on the patio table and switched it off.  He sighed as he laid the remote on the table next to the copter and disappeared into the house for a drink of water.  He stared at his drone from the patio door as he downed the water, and he wondered what he could do next.  He swore that being at home alone should be much more exciting than this.  It had to be.

He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and checked for any texts.  Nothing.  Albert was still at practice.  He slid it back in his pocket as an idea took hold in his brain.  He instantly decided to walk to the park he and his father had used for their maiden drone flight.  He felt it would be much more exciting to launch the drone there and explore the surrounding area.  He pulled his phone out and texted his mother that he was going to the park.  He waited impatiently for a response, but he didn’t give her much time before he was out the door and on his way to the park.

A few minutes later, Vijay arrived at the mouth of the park on the north side closest to his house.  It stood largely empty save for a few toddlers gathered on the rather small playground equipment.  They played and squealed aimlessly as their mothers ringed them and chatted with each other on the warm spring day.  The mothers largely ignored him, and he kept his distance.  Young mothers were often wary of teenagers, and they’d certainly be concerned if his drone got too close to one of their precious children.

The park stood in the center of a neighborhood of relatively new houses, a thin strip of green that broke the monotony of similar rectangular houses with fenced backyards.  Other than the swath of green space in the midst of the cramped development, it offered few of the amenities of a real park beyond the tiny playground equipment on the southern edge of the field.  Kids mostly used it to play baseball or football, depending on the season, and occasionally, parties of neighbors would wheel their propane grills to the clearing and have summer cookouts.  Vijay had never paid much heed to the park until he got his drone.  He had been too old to have much interest in the playground when his family moved to the community.

The drone whirred to life once again and Vijay stroked the controller until the copter was floating above the park.  He looked at the video screen and saw himself standing in a sea of vibrant green as the copter ascended higher and higher.  He navigated the drone along the trees lining the park getting a sense of what the field would look like from space.  He imagined he was mapping the area, noting the key features that made the park and the neighborhood unique.  The drone traveled south from him toward the playground and he could see the children playing on the swings and slide.  They appeared even smaller from the aerial vantage point than they did from where he stood.  He noticed one of the mothers look his way and he guided the drone away from the kids back toward him.

He pushed the drone higher above the trees and into the backyards of the houses that abutted the park and skimmed along the line that the fences drew through the neighborhood.  The drone hovered and Vijay used the joystick to turn it around and scan the neighborhood.  He began snapping photos of the area, slowly turning the drone to get a panoramic view.  He decided he wanted to compare his pictures to the aerial shots in online maps.

He dropped the drone lower and snapped more intimate photos of the houses and the yards below it.  Vijay watched the screen on his remote as he took his pictures, but one photo froze him in his tracks.  A man, not entirely visible with the drone camera, stood at his patio door, motionless, but apparently unaware of the drone’s presence as he looked through the glass.  Vijay kept the camera pointed toward the man waiting for him to do something, anything that might be interesting.

The man disappeared into the shadows of his living room.  Vijay hovered the drone for a moment longer, and started to whisk it to the next house when the man appeared at the door again.  Vijay paused and watched.  He didn’t really understand why he kept the drone there, but something compelled him to see what the man would do.  As if on cue, the man opened his door and stepped out onto his patio looking directly up at the copter.

Vijay froze instantly.  He knew at that moment he’d been caught spying on his neighbors, exactly what his father had told him not to do.  He had violated his father’s trust in him and he felt immediately ashamed.  The act of getting caught had made him very aware of what he had done.  The drone hovered in that instant of realization as he stared at the man through the screen on his remote, but before he could pull the lever on the controller to move the drone away, the man raised his arm and leveled a gun at the drone.  Vijay didn’t recognize what was happening at first, but by the time he flicked the lever, the man had shot his drone down from its perch in the air.

Vijay heard the shot echo in the air around the park.  The house in question was just on the other side of the trees that lined the edge of the green space.  He heard a yelp, several actually, in the direction of the children playing in the park.  He looked over at them still shocked by what he had seen.  The mothers were scampering to gather their kids and leave the park.  Vijay stood there watching them frozen in fear.  He couldn’t believe what he’d seen.

The camera had gone black once the shot had been fired, but Vijay twisted the levers on the controller hoping that his drone was still functional.  He looked above the trees but saw nothing.  He flitted through the pictures on the controller screen until he came to the one taken of the man standing at the patio door.  He stared at it closely.  He didn’t recognize the man.  He flipped forward to the next few pictures.  He had subconsciously snapped shots of the man’s backyard as he hovered.  He had a picture of the man reappearing at the door and stepping out onto his patio, but he didn’t have a picture of the man firing at his drone.  He stared at the last picture with the man’s face in clear view.  He looked threatening, troubled even.

Vijay glanced down at the playground.  The mothers and their children were gone.  He was alone in the park.  He looked across the street and around him, but there was no one around.  Had the gunshot scared everyone off the street?  His heart continued to race at what he had seen.  He took one last look at the man in the picture and switched the controller off.  His drone was gone.  He dropped the controller to his side and returned to the sidewalk leading toward his house sullen and despondent.  He didn’t know how he was going to explain the loss to his father.  He certainly didn’t want to tell him the circumstances under which he lost his toy.

He looked down the street toward the houses that abutted the park.  A lone figure cut the horizon at the corner of the street.  It stood still as if looking for someone or something, but it was too far away for Vijay to tell if it was the man in his video.  A streak of fear shot up his arm and constricted his chest, and he broke into a run back to his house.  He looked over his shoulder before he bounded up the steps to his front door.  No one was behind him.  He felt relieved as he shut and locked the door behind him.

Still shaken from the incident, Vijay squirreled himself away in his bedroom.  He hid the controller in a desk drawer and plucked his laptop from his desk.  He sat on the bed and surfed the Internet trying to distract himself with some videos on Minecraft strategies, but he really couldn’t focus on the videos.  He knew in his heart that he was in the wrong.  When he was discovered, and he would be, his father would be furious and his mother would cry.  He’d be grounded for a long time.  The only bright spot in all of this was that his father was out of town until the weekend, and since his mother always had a hard time being harsh with her only child, he knew he’d have a temporary reprieve until his father returned home.

In the distance he heard a siren, and his heart sank.  He knew the man had called the police and it was only a matter of time before they traced the drone back to him.  The women in the park had seen him piloting the copter and could easily describe him.  He had that distinctive look that was easy to describe given his Irish mother and Indian father.  The police would canvas the neighborhood house by house until they eventually reached his.  It was only a matter of time.

The tension made him fidget and restless.  He paced in his bedroom and when that became too confining, he paced the hallway and downstairs to the living room.  He tried to distract himself with the TV, but even the Cartoon Network couldn’t hold his attention.  The nervous energy rattled him and every passing car he heard outside sounded like a police cruiser arriving to take him away.  Finally, before he expected his mother to arrive home, he spread his homework out on the kitchen table and began working on it, or at least pretending to do so.  Maybe, he thought, if his mother saw how diligently he was working on his homework, she wouldn’t believe that he’d been spying on the neighbors that afternoon, or at the very least, she’d be a little forgiving for his one mistake.  These thoughts made him work harder.

Eventually, he heard the familiar sound of the garage door opening and he knew his mother was home.  He quickly finished the last math problem on his homework and waited for her to walk through the door pretending to be deep in thought.  She walked into the kitchen with a grim, worried look on her face.  In that moment, he thought she knew what he had done already.

“Oh, thank god, Vijay, you’re here and you’re safe,” she said furtively, visibly shaking.  She put her bag down on the counter and hurried toward him hugging his head into her as he sat at the table.

“What’s wrong?” he asked sheepishly, afraid of what she might say.

“Someone was killed down the street.  I heard about it on the radio on the way home.  Police are all over the neighborhood.  I started panicking after I heard it, but there was nothing I could do.  I wanted to call you, but my cell phone battery had died.  That was the longest drive not knowing if you were safe or scared to death.”

She hugged him again.  He felt her body shaking, heard her heart beating rapidly, and listened to her short, clipped breathing.  Tears streamed down her face.  He inhaled her perfume and sighed a sense of morbid relief.  No one would care about his drone incident in light of the death in the neighborhood.  He vowed never to do something so stupid again if he escaped this one mistake unscathed.  He decided he wouldn’t make any confessions because there was a good chance he was in the clear.

His mother finally calmed down and ran through her typical evening routine with her son minus her husband.  Vijay’s father traveled a lot for his job, so his absence wasn’t unusual.  They did just fine by themselves.  After dinner, she settled in front of the TV and flicked on the local news.  Vijay finished the last of his English homework and joined his mother on the couch in front of the TV.

Their neighborhood made the top story on the evening news.  Vijay watched the news anchors hand the story off to a reporter at the scene.  He immediately recognized the area surrounding the reporter and felt shock at how close the crime was to his own house.  The crime occurred near the park he had been at that very afternoon.

“Mark, Joyce,” the reporter began, “police are still on the scene here in the Cherry Hill neighborhood trying to gather clues about what happened in this usually quiet subdivision.  Details are sketchy, but we do know that a husband and wife, were found shot to death in their living room this afternoon by their daughter who returned home from school.  Police aren’t saying much at this point, but based on interviews at the scene, no one has reported seeing anyone enter or leave the house this afternoon other than the two victims.  Some neighbors did say that they heard and reported a single gunshot in the vicinity of the victim’s home before the bodies were discovered, but no one could pinpoint where the gunshot originated from.”

The reference to the single gunshot startled Vijay and he concentrated on the scene around the reporter.  The video footage switched to an aerial view as the reporter continued piecing together the story of the murdered couple.  Vijay saw the stand of trees that lined the park and the row of houses that shared their backyards with the green belt.  The line of the fences looked familiar and he realized that his drone had flown in the very area where the couple had been murdered, but he couldn’t tell if his copter had been in their yard.  The yards all looked the same to him.  He struggled to remember what he had seen.

“The police are asking anyone who may have been in the area around three or four this afternoon to consider if they saw anything that might be helpful to them in this case and come forward…,” the reporter spoke into the camera.  He said more words, but Vijay tuned him out.  All he could think about was the man who shot down his drone.  Fear seized him.  He just knew that the man was the murderer, and he had a picture of him on his camera.  He began to shake, so much so that he left the room for fear that his mother would notice how the story rattled him.  He’d crumble the moment she asked any questions.

Vijay ran up the stairs to his bedroom.  His stomach ached and he felt sick, but he ran to his room anyway and shut the door behind him.  He stood before his bedroom window and looked out into the fading light of the evening.  The neighborhood gave a false sense of calm and serenity as most people were in their homes having dinner or settling in for the evening.  The unusually bare sidewalks gave him pause.  Everyone knew the killer still roamed the streets and that had changed typical evening routines.  The killer.  Vijay shivered.

He flipped on the lamp beside his bed brightening his room in the shadows of the evening.  He pulled the remote from his desk drawer and turned it on.  He stared intently as the tiny video screen came to life and began to scan the pictures he’d taken earlier.  The mental images from the newscast still floated in his mind, so he compared his pictures with what he’d seen on the news.

The news helicopter’s aerial shot of the victims’ house revealed two patio chairs with bright red cushions in the backyard.  Those cushions stuck in his mind as if they were familiar, so Vijay studied the pictures on the tiny screen to see if he could spot those same markers.  Maybe he was in a different part of the neighborhood and all his worry was for naught.  Maybe his mind was just playing tricks on him, a way of making his guilt surge and inflict well-deserved pain on him.  A guilty conscious does not go quietly.

None of the backyards he had photographed had red cushions, but when he came upon his first picture of the man behind the patio door, he could see a reflection of red in the glass.  The next few photos pulled back from the door as the drone had floated above the fence line.  His camera remained fixated on the house until the photo where the man stood below the drone right before he shot it down.  Vijay could clearly see one of the red cushions to the man’s right before he raised his gun.  Vijay gasped and stared deeply at the picture.  He had a picture of the killer.  The realization of his conundrum physically shook him.  Fear tightened its grip on him shortening his breaths and inflating his heart beats.

To go to the police with the picture would all but ensure he would get into trouble with his father for disobeying him, but to not go would withhold critical evidence that would help the police catch the man who had ruthlessly murdered two of his neighbors.  He didn’t know the victims and this somehow made his decision more nuanced, but in his deepest heart, he knew what he had to do.  He had to go to the police and suffer the consequences with his father later.  It was the right thing to do.

Despite the obvious moral obligation, Vijay debated his decision with himself.  A part of him wanted to hit the delete button and forget about it all.  The police would eventually catch the killer.  They had other means of identifying who had done it.  Vijay had seen a lot of episodes of C.S.I. and he knew detectives were whip-smart when it came to catching killers, but he also knew that some killers got away with their crimes, and he felt that the evidence he had would ensure the killer in this case would not walk away.  He zoomed in on the man’s face in the picture.  He didn’t know the man, but he was clearly identifiable in the photo.  Vijay would recognize him if he saw him again.

Despite the dread he felt, Vijay decided to confess to his mother so that she could call the police and turn over the evidence.  As he steeled himself for the obvious scorn he would face, the doorbell rang.  Maybe the police were already at his house asking questions like they had of other neighbors.  He felt relieved to some extent.  The guilt that plagued him would melt away once he confessed, and although he’d have to work hard to earn the trust of his parents again, they’d at least feel good about the fact that he did the right thing and helped the police solve a crime.  He suddenly felt an odd sense of pride.

He turned off the remote and the screen blipped to black, but he kept it tightly in his left hand as he opened the door to his bedroom and started down the stairs.  He could hear voices in the foyer below.  A man, authoritative like a police officer, talked seriously with his mother.  He slowly made his way down the stairs dreading the confession and the inevitable look of disappointment that his mother would weigh upon him once she understood the magnitude of his disobedience.  He hated disappointing his doting mother.

He turned the corner on the stairway landing and took the last few steps into the kitchen.  He saw his mother talking to a tall man in a black leather jacket.  At first she didn’t notice Vijay, but she glanced over at him mid-sentence and abruptly shifted her train of thought nodding in his direction as she said, “Here’s my son right now.”

The man in the black leather jacket turned with a smile already formed on his face to greet Vijay.  He extended his hand as Vijay’s mother smiled uneasily at the introduction, still shaken by what had happened in her neighborhood.

“Nice to meet you, Vijay,” the man said.

Vijay stood back frozen in place refusing to extend his hand.  Fear enveloped him and prevented any words from escaping his mouth.  His mother reached for him unsure of whether to admonish him for being impolite or to ask him what was wrong.  She touched his arm and he flinched as the man who shot down his drone withdrew his hand and pulled a gun from under his jacket.