Ring, Part Five (Final)

Carl drove in silence, north through Connor, further away from Musk. Millie only glanced at him as if she were afraid of looking at him directly as she leaned into the passenger door, the cool window against her face. Her hands trembled. She felt disoriented as if she’d been hit on the head. She couldn’t think straight. Carl? Carl…

A freight truck blew past them going in the opposite direction shuddering the silence in the cab. Carl stayed focused on the road ahead and remained silent. He looked rigid like a stone statue forever frozen in its pose. Millie sniffed providing the only break in the monotonous drone of the truck’s engine. She rubbed the spot on her arm where he had grabbed her and dragged her to his truck.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked finally. Her voice sounded wounded and foreign to her. Carl didn’t respond.

“Carl, why are you doing this?” she pleaded. When he didn’t respond, she mustered up the courage to be more forceful. “Carl, answer me!”

She could feel the truck barrel forward. Her throat hurt; her insides felt like they would spill out of her at any moment. She glanced at the speedometer and became more concerned, but before she could say another word, Carl finally responded to her.

“You don’t get it do you?” Carl sounded remarkably calm, like the father-figure she thought he had been at one time.

“Get what? What do you mean?” She felt a panic surge in her chest. He seemed detached from the terrible reality between them.

He took one hand off the wheel and rubbed the side of his face as if he too were trying to wipe away that reality. “I was nice to you. I defended you when the men at the mine were catcalling you and saying disrespectful things to you. I helped you, and you didn’t notice.”

She didn’t understand what he was saying. She heard the words, but they seemed juxtaposed with the way she remembered things. “What are you talking about? I thanked you,” she said, her voice shaking. “Is that what this is about?”

“Those men would have eaten you alive if it wasn’t for me,” he continued. “And what do I have to show for it? Nothing. You treated me like some throwaway. You probably do that a lot to men, don’t you? I bet you use and discard men all the time. That’s the thing with beautiful women. You can’t trust them. They’re used to getting their way and leaving you behind.” He frowned and shook his head without taking his eyes off the road.

Confusion ran rampant in Millie’s brain. She couldn’t make sense of what Carl was saying. He sounded like a scorned boyfriend. “Carl…you’re…you’re my boss,” she said, the words stuttering from her lips.

“That’s all I am to you.” He shook his head again. “You used me.”

She felt dizzy, disoriented. “I…trusted you…as an authority figure. I was thankful for all you did. I didn’t mean to disrespect you in anyway. I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“Are you really sorry? Are you, Millie? Because I don’t think you are. I think you’re used to taking advantage of people and using them in anyway you can. That’s what beautiful women like yourself do. I know. I’ve seen it many times.”

The world around her started to spin. She felt like she was having an out-of-body experience or that she was walking through a nightmare where nothing made sense or the rules of logic had been suspended for the sake of the terror.

“Carl, I don’t understand…”

“Of course, you don’t. Women like you never do.”

“Why do you keep saying that? What did I do to disrespect you? Whatever it was, it was just a misunderstanding. I never meant to do it.” She could feel the panic rising in her chest.

“You just don’t get it. I protected you. I did something for you, and I wanted you to do something for me. That’s how it works.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Carl finally broke his trance-like focus from the road and turned his head toward her briefly. He had a half smile on his face. “I want us to be together.”

It took her a moment to process the words like she had to turn over each one and decipher it in her brain before she could string them together in a sentence that made sense.

“Be together? Carl, you’re married.”

“No, I’m not.”

She felt further confused, if that was possible. “Who is the woman in the picture on your desk? And the kids?”

He laughed abruptly. “That’s my sister and her kids. I’ve never been married.”

Millie felt like she had imagined everything that had happened since she started working at the mine, like it was some elaborate play that was coming to an end. Like all actors, Carl was something completely different than his character in this imagined world.

“But I remember someone referring to the pictures as your wife and kids. You didn’t correct them.”

He turned to her with a slight grin on his face. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was pathetic. Do you know how hard it is to be a man my age who has never been married or even been in a serious relationship? Do you?”

She didn’t answer his question as he turned his attention back to the road.

“Of course you don’t. Women like you don’t have a clue. You just use people your entire life and you get away with it. Not anymore.”

“Whatever I did to you, I am so sorry. I never meant to hurt you or disrespect you. You have to believe that.”

He didn’t respond or even acknowledge what she said. He just stared out onto the highway as if he were trying to make sense of the straight road ahead of them.

“Carl?”

“Carl!”

“It’s too late for apologies, Millie. It’s too late.”

Tears began to stream down her cheeks again as she looked at him. He refused to acknowledge her. She leaned back onto the window and took a deep breath. She kept her head still but scanned the floor beneath her and the little compartment in the door. It had been cleaned out. She had been in Carl’s truck before, and he usually had stuff scattered about, nothing that could be used to defend herself, but his truck had never been this clean. He had made an effort to clean it up before he came for her.

Thoughts clicked through her brain as if she were flipping through pages in a book. She tried to remember everything she had in her bag. It sat in the back of his pickup, well beyond her reach, but it had nothing but clothes, some toiletries, and her dead phone minus the charger. She strained to think of something, but she was truly defenseless. Until a memory floated into her mind.

One morning during the previous winter, she had rode with Carl up to the edge of the mine to investigate a sample site. Although they had only been at the office for a couple of hours, a layer of ice had formed on his windshield when they got into his truck. She remembered him rambling about how he always kept an ice scraper in his glove compartment. This isn’t one of those cheap plastic ones. It’s heavy duty because the ice here in the winter can be thick. You should get yourself one.

Millie eyed the door to the glove compartment. Is it still in there?

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Wyoming.”

“Why Wyoming?”

“There’s a place I want to take you there. It’s beautiful. You’ll love it.”

She considered this for a moment. “I have to use the bathroom,” she said.

Carl looked at her briefly before turning back to the highway. “You’ll have to wait. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“I have to go really bad.”

“Can’t you wait until there’s a gas station or something?”

“No.”

“You just want to go on the side of the road?”

She looked at the blur of bushes along the side of the highway. “I can go behind these bushes.”

He eyed her suspiciously. “Don’t get any ideas. There’s nowhere to go. We’re miles from anywhere. People die out here all the time from dehydration and exposure every summer.”

“I’m not going to run. I just need to pee. Please.”

At first she thought he would ignore her, but then, she felt the truck start to decelerate. He slowed more forcefully and pulled over to the side of the road. She looked ahead and then back. She hadn’t seen another car for a long time, and none looked to be headed in their direction. The blacktop gleamed for miles in either direction.

“Hurry up.”

“Okay.”

Millie opened the door and climbed down from the truck. Carl got out as well and walked around to her side. She stood by the door for a moment until Carl nodded toward the bushes. “Come on,” he chided. “We don’t have all day.”

She felt his eyes on her as she climbed down the dusty embankment near the road and stepped through the shortest of the bushes. The scraggly leaves snagged her jeans as she made her way toward a more private spot. She looked back at him before she squatted down behind the bigger bushes and pretended to relieve herself. She didn’t stand up until she had thought everything through one more time.

“Let’s go!” Carl yelled from the side of the truck. His voice carried well in the stagnant air.

“Okay!”

She kept the charade going from behind the bush, taking time to button her pants and rubbing her palms on the thighs of her jeans. He seemed convinced, but he stayed put by the side of the truck as she climbed up the embankment. He even smiled at her as she came up to the truck.

“Feel better?”

She nodded.

“Good, because that’s the last stop until Wyoming.”

She stared at him for a moment, which seemed to freeze him in his tracks for just a few seconds, precious time for her. As he took his first step around the truck, she pulled open the door and swung into the passenger seat. She popped open the glove compartment and almost felt elated when she saw the ice scraper. She grabbed it’s rubbery handle and quickly put the weapon at her side as she slapped the door of the glove compartment shut.

Carl opened the driver’s door. He seemed out of breath from the walk around the truck. In an instant, Millie looked at the keys dangling from the ignition, and as he lumbered up into the driver’s seat, she slid toward him and struck him on the face with the ice scraper.

At first, she thought her blow did nothing to stop him. She recoiled and struck him again in quick succession. He howled and stumbled back from the door but remained halfway in the truck. She swung her legs up onto the seat and kicked with all of her might. He grunted and tried to fight back, grabbing her ankle and twisting hard. He howled again and cursed her, but she kept fighting. He pulled her closer and she swung the ice scraper at him again, stabbing the air with its metallic blade. It made contact, but it felt insignificant until she saw the blood, lots of it, gushing from his forehead.

She kept kicking and swinging. She heard a loud feral scream that she didn’t realize was her own voice until Carl stumbled and fell out of the truck. He almost pulled her out with him until she gave him another kick. Her ankle ached as she pulled it back from the edge of the door. She quickly grabbed the door and yanked it shut, but something blocked it. She tried to slam it again until she noticed Carl’s hand still wedged into the door jamb. She kicked it away and slammed the door shut.

Her whole body shook. Her heart felt like it would pump through her chest. She could barely turn the ignition because her fingers wouldn’t cooperate, but once the engine roared to life, she gunned it. The truck ran over something, and she felt sick as she looked in the rear view mirror and saw Carl lying on the side of the road like road kill.

She didn’t stop, and he didn’t appear to move as she sped away. She pumped the gas harder until she could no longer see him lying there. Only then did she start crying. Only then did she wail into space of the cabin like a wounded animal. One day, she’d make sense of all of this, but today, she was just glad to be alive.

She drove well above the speed limit. The truck’s tires chewed up the blacktop until she came upon a small town that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Her hands still trembled when she pulled into a gas station. She sat there for a moment looking around at the few people at the pumps. Every man she saw looked like Carl. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the truck. Her wobbly legs carried her into the gas station where she asked the attendant to call the police. After she shrugged off the attendant’s concern, she returned to the truck and sat there with the doors locked until she saw the flashing lights pull into the station.

Ring, Part Three

Once the house was out of sight, Millie pulled over to the side of the road. Another truck zipped past her throwing water onto her truck. The rain had finally let up some, but thunder rumbled in the distance. Her hands trembled as she fumbled with her phone and called the police. Fear quavered her voice as she explained the situation, but she felt some sense of relief when the dispatcher promised to send an officer over right away.

She sat back in her seat and exhaled loudly. The light rain dotted her windshield, each drop dribbling down the window in a blurry streak. Another rumble in the distance felt like it vibrated her truck. Her heart thumped in her chest and she breathed in the short gasps of a swimmer who had been under water for too long. A dull ache throbbed in her head.

Millie pulled up the Ring app again and watched the video several times trying to determine if there was anything identifiable about the person who blocked her camera. She couldn’t identify anything that stuck out. The intruder was dressed in a long black overcoat and the ski mask completely covered his head. He moved quickly with only a few seconds between the point he became visible and the moment the camera went black. He appeared to spray something on it like paint.

She switched to the camera on her back porch. It hadn’t been blocked. She could see the live view of her porch, dreary and gray in the storm. Her lone chair stood just as she had left it, or how she thought she had left it. She scanned the recent video history, but other than a bolt of lightning in the distance, there was nothing to see. The intruder did not venture to the back of her house. Was this a robbery?

Another vehicle passed by her and splashed the truck again, startling her. She looked up from her phone as the rain finally relented, but the skies remained gray and threatening. Enough time had passed for the cop to be close to her house, so she carefully nosed the truck into the road and turned around. As she approached her house, she could see the cop had not arrived yet, so she pulled over again at a safe distance. Only an occasional drop of rain fell on her windshield as she waited.

Her cell phone rang filling her screen with a picture of her mother, but at that exact moment, a police cruiser slowed in front of her house and pulled into her driveway. She stared at the screen for a few seconds before she decided to ignore the call and nudged the car out into the road. She pulled into the driveway beside the patrol car just as the officer opened his door.

“Are you the homeowner?” the officer asked as she stepped out.

“I live here, but I rent it. I’m Millie Farquar.”

“You called us, Miss Farquar?”

“Yes.”

“Is anyone in the house right now?”

“I don’t think so, but I haven’t tried to go inside.”

Millie pulled out her phone and pulled up the video of the intruder. The officer asked to watch it again.

“Do you recognize anything about that person?”

Millie shook her head.

“Do you have any reason to believe that someone would want to hurt you? Like an ex-boyfriend or something like that?”

“No. My last boyfriend lives in New Jersey.” An expression of semi-confusion washed across the officer’s face, but it disappeared into the fold of his official demeanor.

“Any strangers come by to visit you recently?”

“No.”

“I’m going to have a look. Is the door locked?”

“I locked it when I left this morning.”

“May I have the key?”

She stepped back toward her truck and fumbled around in her bag. The keys normally sat in a side pocket, but they weren’t there. She rustled through the contents until she found her key ring at the bottom of the bag. She could feel sweat pooling in her armpits. Her hands trembled a little when she handed the officer her keys.

“Please stay here. I’ll take a look.”

He didn’t wait for her to respond. He simply turned and began walking toward the porch. He didn’t bound up the three steps leading to the front door. Instead, he walked around the house as if he were looking for a point of entry. He disappeared around the back of the house for what seemed like an eternity to Millie. She felt a sense of relief when she saw him emerge from the other side.

“Is that camera in back connected to your app?” he asked when he returned to the front of the house.

“Yes. I checked it already. There’s nothing on the video.”

He nodded as if he were disappointed, and then, he went up the steps to the front door. He walked lightly on the wooden planks of the porch but they bowed and squeaked under his weight. He tried to peer into the windows, but Millie had closed the blinds tightly. The door squawked when he opened it. He didn’t draw his gun, but he walked into the house slowly as if he would pull his gun at the slightest provocation.

Millie waited outside next to her truck and listened for any sounds to indicate that the officer had found something or someone. Minutes later, he emerged from the house. He took his time looking at the Ring doorbell and scanning the porch outside. He looked up at the the ceiling of the porch. He seemed to be making mental notes.

“There’s no one in the house,” he said from the porch. He took a few more moments to look around and then he bounded back down the steps toward Millie.

“You can go in and take a look now if you want. I’ve checked everything. Let me know if you think something has been taken. Are there any other cameras besides the one out back and the doorbell?”

“No.”

“Have you noticed any unusual activity on the cameras in the last couple of weeks?”

“No. The only notification I’ve received was for a coyote that ventured onto my back porch one night a while back.”

“I haven’t seen many of those around lately.” He paused as if he wanted some sort of response, but then he said,  “Why don’t you go have a look.” He nodded toward the house.

Millie didn’t want to go inside, even with the officer standing right there. The video had freaked her out to the point that she didn’t even know if she wanted to live there anymore. She tried to calm herself down. She took a deep breath and went into her house. The throbbing in her skull grew more persistent.

As she walked through, everything looked normal. Nothing seemed out of place or disturbed. Her personal laptop sat on the kitchen table clamped shut just as she had left it. The laptop had been an expensive gift from her parents when she had graduated from Princeton. If the person on the video had entered her house, it wasn’t to rob the place, which made her even more uncomfortable because the motive wasn’t clear.

She opened up the tiny pantry as if anyone could hide in its cramped confines. She wandered into her bedroom and slid open the closet door. The bare bulb illuminated her clothes and a few boxes that sat on the floor, but they looked largely undisturbed, just as they had this morning when she dressed for work.

She checked her bathroom, flipping back the shower curtain quickly in case anyone was hiding behind the opaque curtain. The plastic hooks on the shower curtain scraped across the worn rod in the vast quiet of the house. She caught her reflection in the speckled old mirror that covered the medicine cabinet above the sink. She looked tired, worn down, but she ignored that for the moment.

Her hands still trembled when she walked out onto the porch to talk to the officer again. Although nothing seemed out of place or stolen, she felt a distinct unease that she couldn’t shake as if she’d been thrown into a strange world where nothing made sense. The pounding in her head made it hard to think straight.

“Nothing’s been taken,” she said as she walked down the steps toward the officer. He had been talking on his radio from the front seat of his patrol car, but he stopped and looked up to her when she spoke.

He said something into the radio and then stepped up from the front seat to see her eye-to-eye. “Do you have somewhere else you can stay?”

“No, I’m not from here. My family lives in Virginia.”

“The mine bring you to Musk?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any coworkers you can stay with? Someone you trust.”

She thought only of Carl, the one person at the mine who had befriended her in a genuine way, but he was her boss, and he had a family that included six kids. She couldn’t ask him to take her in. She felt uncomfortable just thinking about asking.

“Not really. Why?”

“Ma’am, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if this was just a prank to scare you or not. There’s no sign of entry into your house, but someone made an effort to approach your house and spray some black substance on your doorbell. I can’t even scrape it off with my key. You’re probably going to have to replace the face or maybe the entire doorbell. That’s a serious prank. The person in the video didn’t look like some kid out to scare people, but it’s hard to tell. I can’t guarantee he won’t come back. It’d probably be best if you spent the night or the next several nights at a hotel to be safe.”

“The nearest hotel is 45 minutes away from here.”

“It’s up to you. I’ll file a report and you can always call us if anything happens.”

“Has anything like this happened around here before?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but almost no one around here has one of these doorbells.”

Millie looked toward her door at the blackened face of the doorbell. She wondered if someone was just being outspoken against her use of technology. Musk was odd like that, like some Luddite enclave. It looked like a throwback to the western towns from the old movies her grandfather used to watch.

“I think I will stay. It doesn’t appear the person went into my house. Maybe it was just a prank as you say.”

“Okay. If anything else happens, give us a call. We can get here in about 20 minutes from the police station.”

The officer dropped into the front seat and shut the door to his cruiser. He nodded to her before he backed into the nook in the driveway and then ambled his way across the gravel path to the road. Once the officer pulled back onto the highway, Millie went back into her house.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She checked the lock on her door twice before she walked back to the bathroom. She needed an Advil to ward off the headache that threatened to derail her evening. She also needed something to take the edge off, and Advil would do the trick.

When she pulled open the mirrored door to the medicine cabinet to get the bottle of Advil from the shelf, she saw the writing instantly. She stepped back and stifled a scream. Tears flooded her eyes as she backed away from the sink. She stumbled over the hamper against the wall of her bathroom and almost lost her balance. The words looked like they had been written with one of her lipstick tubes, but they were very distinct and clear: I’m watching you.

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.