Author Archives: benplopper

26 Stories

26 Stories: In Golgotha, the Dead Bear Many Scars

Imposing a deadline on myself has had an interesting side-effect. The story I am about to post has had two very recent edits, the last completing, oh *checks watch* ten minutes ago, maybe? This is a story that I think I could edit into oblivion. The initial version was overly wordy, and I decided to make a shorter version (ostensibly to meet a word-limit deadline for a contest put on by my current favorite serial fiction podcast, The Magnus Archives, which you should absolutely go and listen to immediately). Ultimately, even though I missed the deadline for that, tightening it up made for a better story… or, beginning to a story. But it was still wordy. My favorite editor, Farah, and I both independently determined that I had too many artificially drawn-out sentences, redundancies, and unnecessary prose. So I chopped it down again. I am certain that it could use even more chopping, but my own deadline is here. So, with that, I give you a story with a long and wordy title, “In Golgotha, the Dead Bear Many Scars” (working title… I need something better) that may or may not need more work.

Enjoy!

In Golgotha, the Dead Bear Many Scars

Second Floor

In Golgotha, the dead bore their Scars openly. More than the ghosts of past injuries, Scars were manifestations of deep trauma. They were a lingering and twisted homage to the dead’s greatest shames in life, which in turn bound them to a hollow eternity in the desert of ground bones that was. The Scars shaped the shades into, at best, imperfect self-reflections of the humans they once were.

At worst, it turned them into something else entirely.

Golgotha was the dead’s land, and it reached out into infinity, at least as far as any of its residents knew. It had a sky, but how far it extended beyond the sickly yellow hue of daylight or the inky violet of night was another mystery. If stars hung in the firmament or a moon orbited Golgotha, there were no signs. Occasional flashes of light hinted at tumultuous storms, but never brought rain. Thunder, or something like it, often boomed across the wastes, thundering and groaning like the grind of a great and ancient machine. In those echoes, a keen ear could pick out the screams of the Lost. The dead were all lost, of course, but they were not all Lost. These were distinctions that mattered when nothing else did.

The lost and the Lost; scars and Scars.

Rabia wandered Golgotha alone. Her sandaled feet had learned to accommodate for the shifting of the white sands. Winds blew clouds of dust and bone across her skin, causing an abrasive agony that she had, nevertheless, learned to tolerate. Despite its outward appearances and similarity to human myth, Golgotha was not Hell. It did not serve to punish with lakes of eternal fire or sadistic torture from twisted demons. The torture of the Golgotha was self-inflicted. Beyond that, Golgotha just was. Rabia’s Scars made it impossible to avoid the unceasing sand-blasting. Not her mundane scars, the pockmarks from the acid that had burned her face when she had dared to remove her niqab in a public square. The acid scars and memory of the pain that created them were barely noticeable compared to her Scars. Those she had to endure in this place as a reminder of her debasement.

Not debasement for defying her husband or the patriarchal society that forced her to hide all of her features but her eyes behind a faceless black robe. What she carried—what shamed her most—was that she had capitulated after the attack. In the confines of her mind, she had screamed at herself to continue to defy the culture she increasingly felt had devalued her contributions. She desperately longed to be a hero and agent of social change like Malala Yousafzai or Mukhtār Mā’ī. Instead, she had retreated behind the safe anonymity of her niqab. She had felt pain and fear, and rather than make a stand there and free herself or die a martyr, she gave in to the oppression.

In the end, the acid hadn’t been enough, and her husband and his brothers had felt that she had to die to restore her husband’s “honor.” He had debased himself in the eyes of others by marrying an upstart of a woman, and only a public stoning would make it right. For him.

Rabia’s Scar was her niqab, fused forever to her body in Golgotha. More than fused, in fact, the niqab became her skin. She took on the haunting shape of a specter robed in the black and purple of bruised flesh. Her face displayed no nose, mouth, ears, or hair; only her muted amber eyes remained inside the borders of a rectangle of pale flesh. She had changed from a figurative facelessness woman to a literal one. With her robe now her skin, and her skin her robe, every grain of sand forced over her dragged its way along a body of raw nerves disguised as what would be protective clothing otherwise. Each gust brought fresh pain. But again, she had learned to accept it. What else could she do?

And so it was that Rabia traversed Golgotha, with little direction or destination in mind. There was no call for either, here. Golgotha held no logic or reason, no natural cycles like the movement of the tides or the rising of the sun. Night and day came and went at the whims of some unpredictable force. Direction, both in terms of navigation or purpose, was an illusion. A futile attempt to find order where there was none.

In time, Rabia found herself at a crossroads. A solitary structure rose like a tumor, diverting the winds and forcing them around it, piling dunes against the building’s windward side. Rabia saw the building as a seedy inn from the more questionable neighborhoods of Peshawar. To others, it would be different. A North-American roadside motel in disrepair. A European flophouse. A Chinese opium den from an older time. Regardless of how it appeared, it was a collection of empty rooms for travelers passing in need of a brief respite from the wastes. Relieved at the prospect of getting out of the stinging winds, she entered the building with little worry for safety.

The lobby was sparsely decorated. An empty vase sat on a weathered coffee table. Moth eaten chairs surrounded it. A broken hookah nestled uselessly in the corner. Attached to the lobby was an open space, occupied by several tables and an uneven distribution of chars to go with them. No one was at the front desk, so she passed the ruined chairs and walked into the inn’s dining room.

This area was open on the inside, reaching up three floors worth of rooms arranged in a square around the “atrium,” as it were. Dust hung in the air, and week light filtered in from a skylight that was somehow still intact. In the rear of the room, she saw a bar, and behind it, the man who she assumed was the innkeeper.

He was a large brutish man with a ruined face pressing through the jagged hole of a shattered car’s windshield that was as much a part of his face, now, as Rabia’s niqab was her flesh. It looked like the violent crowning of a baby’s head, ringed by javelins of glass that drew dark red canyons across his cheeks, forehead, and the bridge of his nose. Tendrils of flesh uncoiled from his abdomen and wrapped around the bar, becoming a part of it. Some of them had also latched on to bottles of old liquor, suckling at them and rippling with peristaltic waves as they moved the bottles’ contents into the innkeeper’s body. She didn’t inquire as to the nature of the man’s Scars, as it was often seen as impolite. It was rarely difficult to interpret them, however. Scars were not intended to be subtle.

Their interaction was brief and silent; she couldn’t speak, and he seemed to see no need to. There was only one reason she would have entered the inn, and there wasn’t a reason for the innkeeper to do anything but turn his ponderous bulk to a row of hooks, take a room key, and pass it over to her. She took it from him, and their brief transaction was completed.  She was not charged in any currency, though something less tangible and more ephemeral was exchanged. Even in Golgotha, there were prices to pay. Whatever it was that passed between Rabia and the innkeeper—the cost would find her later—she felt that it would be worth it to spend a night in a private room with a bed, sheltered from the winds and the sand of bone therein.

She made he way up to the second floor and, without sparing a moment to inspect her room, sank slowly onto the rickety bed.

*             *             *             *

She woke the next morning to a rising commotion. Like the Illusion of the need for a bed for the night, sleep wasn’t necessary. She had slept because she did so in life. Sleep had been her escape; the only time where she wasn’t her husband’s property. Sleep brought dreams where she was the woman she’d wanted to be. Waking then had been a cruel interruption to her fantasy world. Now, it was just another moment in time, for there were no dreams in Golgotha.

She didn’t know why she left the room and walked to the landing overlooking the atrium. The concerns of others weren’t hers; this was a hard lesson she had learned both in life and in death. Something, however—some unidentified pull—guided her there to the railing, staring down at the small crowd that had gathered below. They appeared to be arguing in hushed tones that occasionally rose in intensity and with a growing fervor. She recognized the owner of the inn immediately not only by his hulking size, but the flesh fettering him to the bar.

With him was a small man who appeared to be another traveler just in from the wastelands. Clouds of bone-dust puffed off him with every gesticulation. The traveler’s arms appeared to be scaled by overlapping disks of metal that clanked with each of his excited movements.

Rabia moved toward the staircase to the ground floor and approached the impromptu quora. Overturned chairs rested on at least half of the old tables that she passed on her way to the small meeting. She moved smoothly with a practiced elegance that made her appear to float across the uneven wooden planks. She eased into the huddled group that consisted of the innkeeper, the traveler, and the third speaker, likely one of the innkeeper’s employees. She was an older woman with an opened chest cavity that revealed a cold gray nestled partially within her ribcage. None of the others spared more than a passing acknowledgement toward Rabia. She was not interesting at all. Being unnoticed had been a necessity life a part of a culture that preferred its women to be invisible.

What was more interesting than the gathering was the small person who was the apparent focus of their discussion. Curled up on the floor, seemingly asleep, was a child. A girl of not more than 10 or 11, sleeping deeply despite the din above her. She had locks of dark, curly hair, lightly powdered with the same ubiquitous dust. Her clothes were similarly clouded, but the colors in her summer-style dress held a memory of vibrancy, sharply contrasting the muted gloom of her surroundings.

It took Rabia some time to realize exactly what it was about the girl that was different.

She had no Scars.

Scars were never hidden. They were reflections of regret and shame, forcibly exposed in the Golgotha. Rabia could no more easily throw a second robe over her body and cover her Scars than the old woman could put a shirt over her chest, or the innkeeper wear a cowl in front of his ruined face. The traveler couldn’t cover the scales on his body, which she now saw were tarnished coins. It was not the nature of the place to allow one to hide one’s Scars. And yet, this child had no visible Scars, which meant she had no Scars at all.

“I’m telling you,” the traveler said, exasperated at having to explain this yet again to his disbelieving audience, “she’s not from here. Can’t you see?”

“Yes,” the innkeeper said, “I can see that, and you have said that, many times. However, she is here, and nothing has changed.”

“We should take her in,” the older woman said, a tremble to her voice. “We should take care of her.” Reflexively, she reached into her chest and put an aged hand on the cold stone lodged in place of her heart.

“And what then? What would we do with a child?” the innkeeper asked.

“She’s hardly the first child that has ever been.”

“She’s not just a child,” the traveler said. “She is something new. She might have… value.” At that, his coin scales rippled and clanked along his arms. Rabia saw a haunting emptiness in his eyes.

“She has no value,” the innkeeper scoffed. “Nothing has value.”

“We can’t leave her,” the older woman said, pleading in her voice. “The Lost will get her.”

“Ain’t no one seen no Lost here in ages,” the innkeeper replied.

“I’ve seen the Lost,” the traveler said.

“You’ve not,” the innkeeper said, but his conviction wavered.

“I have,” he insisted, that empty look deepening. She’d seen that look once before, and it hadn’t ended well. She feared the traveler and his intentions not just toward the child, but to everyone.

As the trio continued an argument that could have easily carried on for as long as the Golgotha existed, the child stirred. She whimpered softly, a dream of some kind running through her subconscious mind. Rabia thought that there was a warming effect, being near her. Something about her was more substantial than anything she had ever encountered in the years (ages? Eons?) she had wandered. As she stared, the child’s eyes fluttered open. While the others were still trying to determine what to do with this discovery or if the Lost were closing in on the crossroads inn even now, the only eyes that met the bright blue of girl were Rabia’s amber irises.

“Who’re you?” the child asked, unaware or indifferent to her surroundings. Rabia tilted her head at the girl’s question. There wasn’t a hint of fear in that small voice. Rabia smiled; or imagined she did as her mouth was permanently closed behind the flesh-cloth of her Scar. She put a hand to the space where her mouth would be and shook her head sadly.

“You can’t talk,” the girl said more than asked. Rabia nodded.

“Oh,” the girl replied. It was at this point that the others noticed.

“Well,” the innkeeper said, “she ain’t dead.”

“We’re all dead,” the traveler said.

“She ain’t any deader, then.”

“She spoke to this woman,” the older woman said. She addressed Rabia, directly. “Is she yours?”

Rabia shook her head.

“’Course not,” the scaled traveler said, nearly hissing. “She’s not yours because she’s mine. I found her! Finders, keepers!” He moved to scoop the girl up into his arms, but even as the girl shrank away from him, Rabia interceded, imposing herself between the scaled man and the girl. “Out of the way,” he said, but without the confidence to back it up. Rabia felt the child press against her leg, peering out at the man. With her arms outstretched, her robe-like stretched out like black bat wings. He was already mousey and small, and Rabia’s posture was clearly intimidating. He thought about pressing the issue and spared a look toward the innkeeper and the woman. The innkeeper, satisfied that the matter was solved, turned away and trudged back to the confines of the bar he could hardly travel far from anyway. The old woman’s gaze was locked on Rabia, her hand still clamped tightly on the stone in her chest. There was hope in that pleading look, as well as pity for the child (and perhaps, regret?). The traveler knew that he would find no support there for his claim. His scales rippled and noisily clicked in frustration.

“Fine,” he said, “you can have her. She has no value to me. She’ll have none to you, either. Something like that only brings trouble, you mark me.” He skulked away, sitting down at a table near the back with a grunt of disgust. Rabia lowered her arms, turning away from the traveler to look down at the child.

“Thank you,” the older woman who said it. Her eyes were wet with welling tears. “She wouldn’t have been safe with him.” Rabia felt that the child wouldn’t have been safe anywhere and was not certain that she was any safer with her. However, it was clear that the girl was her responsibility, now, like it or not. A part of her, quite a large part of her, in fact, regretted the decision to seek shelter in the inn. It was the traveler’s insinuation that the child was property that had set her off. That this child—this girl—was something traded down the line, and not a person in her own right.

Her Scars itched, and it was decided.

*             *             *             *

Rabia once again crossed the Golgotha, but this time, she was not alone. The Scarless girl traveled with her. Both now braved the stinging winds of the desert, still with no specific destination in mind. And yet, Rabia felt that her wandering now had purpose, though she didn’t yet know what even that purpose was.

Perhaps, she thought, Golgotha has borders after all.

THE END?

 

26 Stories

26 Stories: Confessions of a Mad God

My second effort on my personal writing challenge is a theatrical monologue. If, for some reason, you’re not familiar with the format, good news! I generally am not, either. I mean, I know what a monologue is (one onstage actor/character, lots of lines, etc.), but I’ve got no actual practice writing any.

This also touches on some of the more metaphysical concepts that constantly float around in my brain despite being a pretty staunch skeptic and atheist. But just because I don’t subscribe to religious or spiritual ways of thinking doesn’t mean that I don’t find the subject fascinating and great sources of story ideas. In this story, it’s about what it would truly mean to be omniscient. We short-lived, narrow-focused humans can’t truly grasp what it means to know everything when most of us can barely handle the small subset of data that we do know. This story at least touches on the idea of what it might do to a sapient mind to be truly omniscient.

In this case, the character is a homeless man who believes he is god, or rather, God occupying the body of a homeless person. Either way, one of them is mentally ill… or you are. Or we all are (spoiler alert, I am). As you read this, if your’e not familiar with the stage play format, it should be pretty easy to follow. Text in parenthesis are stage directions (and “(beat)” merely means a pause). Imagine a single actor on stage, addressing “Robert” on the street outside a building that at bare minimum, makes you a bit uneasy.

Confessions of a Mad God

First Floor, Street

SCENE

(A street in front of an imposing residential building, somewhere in a busy city. A stoplight or stop sign is the only defining characteristic. As the lights come up, GOD—disheveled and homeless—sits with a cardboard sign that says something Biblical. It doesn’t matter if it actually means anything; that’s unimportant. For a number of reasons.)

GOD

(After a moment, to an unspecified person walking by.)

Spare some change? No? Okay, fine.

(After another moment, to someone else.)

Anything for someone to have a hot meal? No? Okay, bless you.

(And again)

What about you, Robert? Something for a hungry old god?

(Beat)

Yeah, you. Robert.

(Beat)

You’re trying to figure out if you know me. I assure you, you do and you don’t. Don’t-

(Excited)

Don’t! Don’t walk away. Listen to me for just a second, okay? You’re weirded out, I get that. “Hey, who’s this homeless guy who knows my name,” you’re thinking. And that’s fair. Who am I? I mean, aside from God…

(Pleading)

Wait, wait! I know that sounds out there. Please!

(Reaching out)

Please. Don’t leave yet. Hear me out. Hear me out and you can go on your way and live your life and not think about the lunatic who accosted you on the street today. I know how this looks. Believe me, I know exactly how this looks, in more ways than you think that I know. It’s not everyday that you meet God, and not only does he claim to be God, but he seems to know things like your name, Robert, or things like how…

(Desperate, as the target of his pleading seems to be wandering off)

… you’re currently afraid that you’re a terrible husband to your wife Lucy, or a bad father to your daughter Sarah. But you’re not. They both love you, even if you doubt yourself. And believe me, the desire to mate and run off? That’s a completely natural thing that almost all other animals hew to, but most of your kind don’t give into it.

(Pauses, then smiles a little)

Yeah, that struck a chord, didn’t it? Wanting to run away and leave it all behind isn’t something you’ve told anyone, not even your therapist, because you’re afraid she’ll judge you. It’s okay, though… no one who matters is going to judge you. Well, except me…

(Puts his hands up)

Kidding! I’m kidding! I mean, I’m not, but I am. I’m a lot of things at the same time. It’s kind of nuts, you know? Of course you don’t know, but maybe I can make some sense of it for you, if you’ll just take a second?

(Beat)

Okay. Okay, this is progress, Robert. So you want to know, “why is it that this crazy God is pretending to be a homeless person?”

(Beat)

No, I assure you, it’s not the other way around. I-

(Taps his chest)

-am a crazy God, and I’m… not so much as pretending to be a homeless person, as I am occupying one. Let me ask you a question, to start: what are the major characteristics that you know about me… by which I mean “capital-G” God?

(Listens, and holds up one finger, then another, then a third, responding to Robert)

Right, “omnipotence,” “omniscience,” and “omni-benevolence.” Two of those aren’t one-hundred percent correct, but hey, in the words of the immortal Meat Loaf, “two out of three ain’t bad…” or… I guess, one out of three?

(Shakes his head)

No, I’m getting confused again. Okay, look: Omnipotence is out, because of the whole “can God create a rock so heavy even he can’t move it” paradox. The answer is no, because I’m not actually all-powerful, so it’s not really a paradox. I am very powerful, sure, but even I have limits.

(Beat)

Next, am I all good, or all loving, or all just or whatever you want “omni-benevolent” to mean? No. Fuck no. Evil exists. If I could stop evil then I clearly haven’t, which ain’t very “good,” which also reinforces the not all-powerful thing. Tapeworms exist. Kids die all the time, and kids don’t deserve anything bad. Fucking Nickleback exists. So that nixes omnipotence and being the ultimate goody-two shoes. Which leaves?

(Expectant)

That’s correct! Omniscience! I do, in fact, know everything.

(Beat)

Oh yeah, it’s super great. Uh-huh. Knowing everything. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Are you envisioning what you would do with that power? Why am I even bothering to ask, because of course I know that’s the first thing you thought about. Some shit where you know the results of sporting events or the next big company to invest in while they’re still working out of a garage. Yeah, that’s not what “everything” is. That is an infinitesimally small subset of everything. Here… let me explain to you what “everything” means.

(Deep breath)

So let’s start with a baseline. In theory, I know what every single living being is thinking and doing at any exact moment, right? And I know how that’s going to turn out and know everything that lead up to that thought and everything that results as a consequence of it. So that’s billions of beings right this moment with a myriad of thoughts doing more than a few things at every discreet instance of time, and I can see the outcome of those events as they are happening, before they are happening, and well after they happened.

(Beat)

It does sound like a lot. Just that right there should be enough to be overwhelming. There aren’t entire computer networks that can handle that much information. Now, expand that. Every living thing at some level has what you might think of as a “thought” is in there, too. The amount of biomass that is aware and taking actions based on that awareness on this planet dwarfs just you. There are hundreds of millions of insects alone for every one of those multi-billion of your kind. Add the other animals. Add the fungus and bacteria and viruses and you can only imagine how many things’ thoughts and actions, and the knowledge of the consequences of those thoughts and actions, are running around up here!

(Points to his head, getting agitated)

And it doesn’t stop with living things! I know everything! I know when every single pebble rolls down a hill. I know how that pebble will careen off of other pebbles, causing other pebbles to roll down the hill in different directions. I know how each molecule of air will move across this rock, and how that movement will affect other molecules, which will affect other molecules, and on, and on, and on!

(Even more agitated)

And that’s just on this planet! If you count the number of molecules in not just the solar system and galaxy and universe, that’s close enough to infinity to your mind, but-

(Yelling now)

-I can count each and every single one!

(Spittle flies as he continues)

Every single motion of every single molecule and every consequence of every molecule’s motion from the beginning to the end of time is RUNNING THROUGH MY HEAD RIGHT NOW!

(Breathing rapidly, he moves around the stage, as if chasing “Robert”)

And it doesn’t stop there!

(He pauses, taking a deep breath.)

Do you remember Heisenberg? The guy who said you can’t know both the position and speed of an object?

(Beat)

No, wait… of course you don’t. What was I thinking? Wrong… wrong audience. Well, nonetheless, that’s something that your kind can’t observe, but I CAN! Both properties of each and every particle in all of existence at the exact same time!

(He laughs)

And you know what? You know what the icing on this cake is?

(Laughing again, nearly maniacal.)

There. Are. An. INFINITE. Number. Of. Universes! So all of that knowledge that I know? It is infinite! I know that there are universes where Heisenberg discovered that there are more than two properties of a particle you can’t fucking know, and I know all those right now, too! There are universes where that Heisenberg guy is a semi-sentient collection of atoms that are almost-but-not-quite Helium that doesn’t know shit about shit! So you’ll excuse me if I’m a little! Fucking! CRAZY!

(Panting now)

(Takes a moment to center himself)

Okay… okay, sorry. That’s hardly your fault. That’s not even my fault, even though it is entirely my fault.

(Beat)

Yeah, it’s “weird” alright. So fucking succinct. So fucking your kind.

(Beat, listening)

What do you mean, “what do I want?” To tell you about it, that’s what.

(Beat)

“Why?” Fuck, man, I don’t know…

(Expecting Robert to get the joke)

Do you get it? “I don’t know?” And I just got through with all the omniscience stuff?

(Exasperated)

 I’d like to say I gave you a sense of humor when I made you, only I didn’t really make you on purpose. You just sort of showed up in this reality. Not all powerful, remember? I mean, I can make life, and I have made life, but you really, really don’t want to meet the life a crazy god made intentionally…

(Spaces out)

(Snaps, remembering)

Oh! That’s what it was! That’s why I was trying to talk to you or someone who would listen.

(Intense)

The other things? The things I did make?

(Beat)

They’re coming. They found you, and they’re coming, and they are not at all going to be happy when they get here. They worship me, too, for some stupid reason, and right now, they think that I like you better, and they are petty beings.

(Pause)

No, they’re not demons. Your “demons” are cute, they really are. With the tails and the horns and the rawr

(Chuckles)

These are something else entirely.

(Deadly serious)

They’re something else that you can’t even fathom. And when they get here, they are going to do horrible, horrible things to all of you. Your imagined eternal torment and lakes of fire are going to seem so blissful when the end comes. But the end is going to take a very long time.

(Beat)

A warning? Well, I guess you can see this as a warning, but what are you going to do? Leave? They’d find you. They’ll find you here and in every reality where you flourish, and some where you can’t. And besides, whatever it is you think that you can do, even in the realities where you can get others to listen to you, it doesn’t matter. See, that’s the thing about omnipotence and near-omniscience. I created these things almost perfectly, but not quite. And I can tell you this…

(Motions ROBERT closer)

I know the outcome. In every version of every reality it all comes crashing to an end because of them. Because of what I made. And you can’t change it.

(He laughs)

I made something just heavy enough that I can’t lift it… I can’t hold it up…  and it’s going to crush all of you—and likely me—with it. And maybe then…

(Beat)

Maybe then, I can die.

(Beat)

You? Your kind? Well, if I hadn’t made those things, then maybe you would have eventually understood what it meant to be me, so consider yourselves lucky. But I always make those things, every time, without fail. It’s something in my nature I guess. No, those things are going to come for you, and you will weep, and beg, and plead for me to do something, but I can’t. Or I won’t. Either way, it doesn’t matter. No, Robert, this is all I can say…

(Staring)

The Humans are coming, and they are not merciful.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: He Summons His Muse

I feel like I have to edit this post, at least so that I can clarify what, precisely, this is. It is the first part of a story that I am choosing to put “out there” for general consumption. It is part of a greater story that has to do do with muses and inspiration. It is, as is consistent with me, not something with a happy ending. I.e., it will end up dark eventually, just give it time.

I felt like it was appropriate to start out this endeavor, by a character who is clearly not me in any capacity whatsoever (he totally is) doing something drastic, albeit unintentionally, to find his inspiration. Bear in mind that I look at the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses as something beyond human, though more like a force of nature and less like a capital-G God one might be familiar with.

He Summons His Muse

Part 1

The glass shattered against the poster hanging on the wall with a ferocity that would have surprised anyone other than the person who threw it, had there been anyone in the room with John when he let it fly. The bourbon it contained, as expensive a version as John had been able to afford, which wasn’t saying much, ran from the point of impact and down the poster, drawing damp amber tears on the stylized flapper’s face that leered out at him from the poster, forever frozen in time. The gloomy basement apartment, barely lit by only a few electric bulbs and weakly warmed by a stuttering radiator, was a stark contrast to the look of unrestrained, hedonistic joy that had been forever captured by the third-rate poster artist he’d commissioned to promote his one and only successful endeavor.

John put his head in his hands, his bangs spilling over them and dangling there, greasy and slick, his hair (in addition to the rest of him) having gone for days unwashed. He sighed, drawing the breath from somewhere deep within his lungs and letting it out with a full-body shudder. The typewriter on the desk in front of him was stoic and unyielding, presenting a stark-white sheet of paper hiding the ghosts of stories that would, at this rate, never be told.  John picked his head up and rubbed at his eyes, bloodshot from too little sleep and too much of that cheap bourbon now puddling on the floor. He stared at the typewriter, looking at it as if hoping to see the words he sought there on the blank page; words that he had yet to write and would likely never write. He cast his gaze back toward the poster he had just defaced, the flapper still enraptured, the booze seeping through the paper, weakening and thinning it to the point of tearing. “The Bandleader’s Muse,” it said in a bold modern font, and below that, “A Play by Johnathan Frederickson.” He sighed again, watching as the liquor stained the paper, disturbed on some level that his poster for his play was now defaced, but unable to summon the will to care.

“Consider those necessary libations for you, oh muse,” he said to the poster with a degree of bitterness that surprised no one. “And give me some fucking inspiration, would you?” he added.

With another sigh, he pushed his damp hair back from his forehead. He shook his head, regarding again the typewriter, and slid his chair out from his desk. He stood, absently pulling the slacked suspenders up over his shoulders. He walked around his desk to the floor in front of the poster, jamming his hands into his wrinkled pants pockets. Shaking his head in defeat, he bent down to the floor to collect the broken shards of glass from his tumbler. The glass, a gift from his closing-night celebration, was one of the last extravagances he owned, and it was now fragmented and scattered across the floor. As he collected the shards, he yelped and yanked his hand back, a sliver of glass embedding itself deep into his palm. The pain only somewhat deadened by the alcohol, he took in the damage the glass caused, a miniscule javelin pressed deeply into the skin. A small piece of it jutted out, exposed above his clammy palm, glinting in the faint light of the room. He raised his hand to his teeth, grasped what he could of the glass knife between them, and pulled. The shard was either deeper or more substantial than he had anticipated, because as he felt it slide out, it brought with it agony. He hissed and spat the shard to the floor as blood welled in his palm, a stark red against the pale white of his skin. He looked at it stupidly as he turned his hand over, watching the rivulet of blood trace a lazy path along his deep palm lines, down his wrist, and underneath the sleeve of his shirt. He swayed, and instinctively reached out to steady himself, pressing his hand to the poster. He pulled his hand away, leaving a red handprint on the neck and scandalously exposed, plunging neckline of the woman.

“Shit,” he managed to mutter, looking from his bloody hand to the poster, unable to process how he had managed to deface his own poster twice now in one evening, with both booze and blood.

Beaten and exhausted from fighting with his writing and his continually slipping sense of self-worth, he turned back to his room and froze.

The woman in his bed stirred, stretching with the languished ease of a housecat awakening in a small square of afternoon sunlight streaming through a bay window. After a long, satisfying reach toward the ceiling, she rose up onto her elbows and looked lazily around the room. Inexplicably, she wore the same outfit as the flapper on the poster, complete with a garish, glittering headband and a loose string of pearls strung around her long neck. The feather nocked in the headband shifted as she took in her surroundings with an otherworldly ease and grace. Finally, after another stretch and a yawn, her eyes locked onto John’s.

“Hey there, Johnny,” she said.

“Uh,” was all that he could manage in reply.

“I get it,” she said, “it’s a little odd for a gentleman to suddenly find a woman in his bed when he was certain that his bed was empty.” She looked at him appraisingly, “Which is a shame, to say the least. You look like a man who should regularly wake up with different women, and I dare say, you shouldn’t be too gentle.”

“I…”

“You’ll want to know who I am, right?” John’s non-answer was all she needed. “Well,” she continued, “you can call me Callie.”

“Is that short for something?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “but what it’s short for is a little too ‘on the nose,’ if you understand.” She followed it with a light tap to her nose with the index finger of her left hand. “Therefore, we can stick with ‘Callie’ for now.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand,” he said.

“You’ll get it later,” she said, taking a second and longer look around the apartment, as if to find some sense of familiarity there. She then sighed, much as John had sighed earlier, before the strange woman—Callie—had appeared in his apartment. “I,” she said, “am your muse.”

“My muse?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Did I… did I drink too much to remember you coming back here?”

“No,” she replied. “Or rather, you may have had too much to drink prior to my coming here, but you finding me here in your bed is not related to that. Give it time, though.” She swung long, olive-skinned legs out from under the moth-eaten sheets and onto the floor. She wiggled her toes as if discovering them for the first time and smiled. “It’s nice to have these again,” she said.

“Feet?” he asked.

“Feet,” she agreed, and flexed her fingers in front of her face. “Fingers. Ears. Eyes.” She looked down the neck of her blouse appraisingly, “breasts. Presumably a pussy.”

John blanched.

“Spare me your false Protestant modesty,” she said. “I know how men think. I’ve known how men think for quite a long time.”

“I…” he stammered.

“Human sexuality is more natural than you care to admit. You have been tainted by centuries of belief that such things are ‘forbidden’ or ‘dirty.’ Where I come from, the human body is nothing at all to be ashamed of. My pussy, your cock and balls.”

“My co— Where do you come from?” John asked.

A coy smile was her only reply.

“You’re not going to tell me?” he asked.

“It’s a bit difficult to explain, Johnny.” She thought about it for a moment. “Let’s just say, as painfully clichéd as it is, that I come from both somewhere deep within you and far away.” She swept her arm dramatically to emphasize some great distance.

“Europe?” He asked.

“You’re funny.”

“You’re not making much sense.”

“You know,” she replied, “back when I was the bee’s knees, I wouldn’t have been questioned quite like this.”

“I really,” he said, “don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

She smiled, halfway between a smirk and a frown. “It doesn’t matter. The thing is, you needed inspiration. I… I inspire.”

“A muse,” he said, repeating her earlier assertion.

Le Lotto,” she replied. “Or, I guess, ‘bingo.’”

“So, some whore who I found and—” his throat suddenly constricted, cutting him off. She marched close to him as he struggled to breathe, staring with the intensity of an angry predator facing down its cornered prey moments before pouncing.

“Not” she said, angrily, “a whore. And I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, John, as we go forward.”

He gasped and choked. She relinquished her stare, and he collapsed to the floor, sucking in a lungful of air.

“Being comfortable with sex does not make me a prostitute who, by the way, would still deserve your respect for the essential services provided. A whore is something different,” she said, leaning down to where he suddenly found himself.

He tried to respond, gagging against the release of the crushing pressure against his windpipe.

“I am your muse,” she said, “and you should treat me as such.”

“What,” John managed to stammer, “does that mean?”

“It means,” she said, her earlier benevolence returning, “that I am here to help you.  But you,” she punctuated with a sharp finger, “must respect me. Agreed?”

“That’s an odd demand,” John said, ill-advisedly, “coming from a woman who appears to have shown up in my own bedroom without my foreknowledge or consent.”

She smiled down at him, genuinely. “See, that’s why I like writers. Wit in the face of death. John,” she said, “I’ve been around longer than you know. I’ve been here,” she tapped a slender finger against his forehead, “since you were barely a trickle of your father’s seed on your mother’s thigh.”

“Hey!” John shouted, before Callie raised her hand, halting him.

“We are all, at some point,” she replied, “not but cum dripping out of the cunts of our mothers. It is the way of life.” John flinched at this, turning his head away. With a kindness that belied her previous aggression, she approached and put a gentile hand to his face.

“John,” she said, “please. Don’t find in my visit a reason for fear or mistrust.”

“But,” he replied, “how can’t I? You just… showed up here. I know I didn’t bring you here, but here you are.”

“But you did bring me here, only not in a way that you think you did. I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. Do you know,” she said, “that blood has been a part of the rituals of so many cultures throughout the ages? So much so, that the idea of a blood offering is built into at least one ritual of every major religion. Even the Christians have it, though they substitute wine for blood.” She laughed, distracted. “It amuses me that they are unknowingly giving praise to an entirely different god with that, but” she shrugged, “everyone forgets or ignores the origins of their deeply held beliefs.”

John looked to his bleeding hand and up to the poster where his crimson handprint stood out brightly on the muted colors of the poster.  “That… summoned you?”

“Not on its own, no. See, that’s the part that so many of those rituals get wrong. The blood is a symbol of sacrifice. Of the supplicant’s willingness to give of him or herself. Which is why those cultures that sacrifice others or livestock are missing the point, to a degree. The livestock is important, to be sure, but the bleeding of the beasts is incidental to the smoking and offering of the aroma….” She stopped. “But look at me, reminiscing on old times. It’s not the blood or the alcohol on their own that carry the power. It is the speaking of the words that convey the intent and the earnestness of the sacrifice.”

“So,” he said, “when I said the thing about the ‘libations,’ that did it?”

“It was more the ‘give me some fucking inspiration’ that caught my attention. Across the gulf of nothingness and oblivion, the desperation was a beacon in the darkness. That and not many of you call out to me or my sisters these days. Pickings are slim.”

“Your sisters,” he asked.

“The others of the nine. Which, at this point, if you don’t know what I am, I’ll never get through to you. In any event, you called out for inspiration, and I answered.”

“I need to write,” he blurted. “I need more of that,” and he jabbed a finger accusingly at the poster soiled with blood and liquor.

“And you can have more of that,” she said, “with my help.”

“Okay,” he said, rising and quickly moving over to his typewriter. “Okay, then let’s begin.”

She shook her head, “We can’t start with that yet. We haven’t come to an agreement.”

He frowned. “But the blood and the… the words?”

“Those merely called me.”

“Do you need more blood?” he asked. “Because I can open up more wounds for you. I would bleed myself until I was an empty husk if it meant I could write again.” He looked around, finding another knife-like piece of glass, picking it up, and holding it to his palm before she held out a hand to him, stopping him.

“I don’t need more blood,” she said, kindly.

“Then what do you need?” he asked. “Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you.”

“I need,” she said, “adoration.”

“You’ll have it,” he said, desperately.

She moved closer to him. “I need you to venerate me.”

“Of course,” he gasped.

“Give yourself to me.”

“I will.”

“Above all else,” she said as she closed the distance to him, pressing close to him, her lips inches from his. He could feel her breath playing gently across them, carrying a slight hint of ambrosia with it.

“Yes,” he said.

“I need you to worship me.”

“I will,” he managed before pressing his lips against hers.

She sank into his body, pulling away from his kiss just enough to whisper, “then a deal is struck.”


To be continued…

What is 26 Stories?

26 Stories

26 Stories is, at its core, about exercising my writing muscles with a dose of accountability. In short, I intend to post some piece of writing (or similar) here every two weeks for at least a year. At the end, there will be twenty-six stories for you to enjoy (or not). Because this makes me think of a building, I’m going to try to shoehorn fit the thematic device of floors of a building. “Stories,” if you will.

Brace yourself, folks, for more “clever” wordplay like that. It’s my jam, what can I say?

This exercise is more about forcing myself to write something—anything—to try and get back into a groove. A rhythm, baby. The somewhat steady pattern and cadence of storytelling.

What will I write? Whatever comes to mind at the time. Short stories. Poetry. Parts of longer works. Short plays. Weird concept pieces. Who the Hell really knows? I might even delve into a few podcast like tales, carried to you on the sweet, dulcimer tones of my own voice.

It’s about a creative jumpstart for the dead battery that is my idiot brain.

Look for the first story in the next few days. And to be honest, it’s going to be a bookend story of sorts that will continue on and off throughout this exercise, in addition to closing it all out with a bang. Or possibly a “splat.”

Obligatory warning: I’m not straying away from any topic, no matter how controversial. Violence. Horror. Sex. Politics. The unholy and truly fucked-up practice of putting pineapples on pizza. I will try my best to provide trigger warnings, but odds are I’ll touch a nerve with someone. Apologies in advance, but I’m not censoring myself; at least, no more than I would normally censor myself.

So, welcome to the building. The neighborhood is a little run down, the alleys are dark, and the stray dogs are a constant problem that Animal Control can never seem to deal with (and the shits they leave that smell like sulfur are pretty off-putting). Some of the tenants may seem a little eccentric, but you might find it’s the overly friendly ones you have to watch out for. I highly recommend not doing your laundry in the basement after dark, and never, ever put your ear to the air ducts, even if you swear you can hear children laughing.

In any event, here are your keys. Oh, and those mewling, slobbering noises that come from behind the landlord’s door? Don’t worry about those. Maintenance issues will be dealt with, usually while you sleep. If you wake, keep your eyes tightly shut, no matter which lost loved one you hear begging you to open them.

Vampire Speed Dating

Starting in 2017, I intend to write more. In an effort to kick start my writing, I asked my Facebook friends to throw out some writing prompts. This is in response to the first, a prompt for “A Vampire Tries Speed Dating,” suggested by David Goodner. It might need a little work, and the heavy reliance in dialogue lends itself to a short play, but for now, here it is.

*****

                Well, this is awkward, Drake thought moments before the woman in the seat across from him voiced her own misgivings aloud, stating, “Well, this is awkward.”  Drake laughed, one of those forced laughs one makes when one would rather be anywhere other than where they were. Meanwhile, she—Debbie, according to her “Hello, my name is…” sticker—was equally aware that the situation was going downhill, and fast.

“Sorry,” she said. “I mean, this whole speed dating thing kinda sucks, doesn’t it?”

Drake cringed, too visibly, and Debbie picked up on it almost immediately. “Did… did I say something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” Drake said, “it’s just that… well, and you wouldn’t know this, so don’t feel bad, but the ‘s-word’ is kind of offensive.”

“’Speed dating?’” Debbie asked.

“’Sucks.’ It’s kind of a slur to my people.”

“Your people,” she asked, not getting it and, Drake knew, not meaning to not get it. It was a common correction to have to make, and he hated to make it when it wasn’t said out of malice.

“Vampires.”

“Vampires?”

“Vampires.”

“Oh… huh.”

“Yeah. Using ‘sucks’ to mean that something is bad or stupid is insulting.”

“Wait… Let me get this straight: you’re a vampire?”

“Yup,” he said, trying not to make it sound like a proud toddler responding to someone accurately guessing his grade level in school.

“Huh. Well,” she continued, “I didn’t know.”

“You couldn’t be expected to, so…”

“What about derivatives of su… er, the ‘s-word?’ Like calling someone a ‘sucker?’”

“Yeah… that’s… that’s like the ‘n-word’ in my culture.”

Debbie’s reaction this time was less confused, and more genuinely concerned. “Oh no… I… I’m really sorry.” Drake usually found that once the comparison to “nigger” was made, most non-vampires seemed to get it. It was about finding a common ground.

“No, no… again, it’s okay. You wouldn’t know.”

“I’ve just… I’ve never known a vampire personally.”

“Most people don’t. There aren’t a lot of people who even know we exist.”

“Still, I should be better about this stuff. I’m a linguist, so-“

“Oh yeah?” Drake was eager to direct the conversation away from his background, his culture’s various touchy points, and from him in general.

“Uh-huh. So you’d think I might know a little bit about linguistic no-no’s like that one. Like, not everyone knows that ‘gypped’ comes from slurs about Gypsies. Same idea.”

“Yeah, I knew some Gypsies, once. They really can get touchy about stuff like that. And about the s-word thing and not knowing about vampires, it really is okay. We aren’t very open about our existence. We don’t like to be out in the light.” He paused, smilingly wryly. “… figuratively and literally.” He paused, waiting for a reaction, having just laid down perhaps the best dad joke in history. Debbie didn’t respond immediately, so like the stumbling dad, Drake continued. “Did… I mean, you probably appreciate how I used ‘literally’ there.” Still seeing no response to the joke, and sensing that the conversation was taking a sudden and unexpected turn back toward awkward, Drake continued nevertheless. “Because, you know, people misuse…”

“Yeah, I get it,” she said.

“Because ‘literally’ is….”

“Uh-huh,” she mumbled, committing to the ultimate show of lost interest by turning to her phone.

“Sorry, sorry.”

She shrugged. “People always try to trigger me with weird linguistic uses and misuses. Turns out when most people meet someone who studies language, everyone is suddenly a grammar Nazi.” She sighed, “but that’s not fair to you.”

“Yeah, no…. that joke sucked, anyway.” He paused, expecting the usual complaints about double standards. “See, I can say ‘sucks’ because it’s the kind of word that has power, you know? It was first used by people who hated and feared us, and then by people who made it a point to hunt us down and kill us. ‘Suckers’ was first used by vampire hunters in Germany during the eleventh century purges. They called us ‘Saugnapfhe.’”

“Again,” Debbie said, “linguist. I get the whole power disparity thing with words. And, I really am sorry,” Debbie said, clearly concerned and remorseful at the unintentional harm she caused. “I should have known, but I didn’t, because vampires aren’t common knowledge.”

Drake took a second to collect himself, drew in a breath, closed his eyes. “No, I’m sorry. It’s just that this is a sore subject, you know?”

“I completely understand.”

“You go for centuries hearing all these words and stereotypes and misunderstandings about vampires—thanks Stoker—and I imagine you wouldn’t get it. But it’s not like vampires are really brought up much in school.”

“Yeah, not at all.”

“Figures. Live-washing of a whole society.”

“Do… I’m sorry if this is sensitive or rude… but do you guys drink, um, human blood?”

“Well… yes.” It was Drake’s turn to feel awkward. Five or six hundred years ago, when he was in his angry young vampire phase, that would have been an insult. Completely true, but still insulting, and one of the worst kinds. Years of reflection, however, had convinced him that because of the embarrassing “vampires killing humans” past, humans weren’t wrong to be mistrustful. “But,” he said, “things have changed. We can get blood from blood banks, now. Oh, and check this out.” Excitedly, he pulled out his phone and started tapping on the screen, oblivious at the moment that Debbie was rapidly losing interest again. “There’s an article in Science Monthly about the ability to synthesize human blood, and how it’s going to be a game changer for health care. Of course, they didn’t mention vampires, but…” as he looked to show her the article on his phone, he realized that she had tuned he own attention to her phone. “Uh, I mean… well, it’s cool to me.”

“I’m sure it is.”

The silence that settled did nothing to lighten the mood, and those types of silence are not wont to do. They sat there for a moment, but hanging in time. Finally Debbie looked up at the clock in the café, despite there being a clock on her phone because it gave her something to do rather than look at her own screen and be reminded of the situation that was at times interesting, and at times uncomfortable. “So, I guess we’ve got another minute of this, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Seems like an awfully long minute at this point.”

“When you’ve been alive for at least a thousand years, a minute isn’t so bad.”

“Well, this one is pretty bad for us lowly thirty-four year olds.”

He laughed. “I guess so. Hey, I’m sorry…”

“We should both stop that, you know.”

“Stop what?”

“Apologizing for everything. We’ve both said ‘sorry’ a lot during this five-minute conversation.”

“Four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, actually.”

“Even worse, then.” She smiled again. “Look, it hasn’t been all bad.” She put away her phone as the final moments of their “speed date” ticked away.

“No? So are we going to exchange numbers or something?”

She laughed, perhaps too loudly, as other speed daters at other tables turned to look at her. “No, definitely not.”

“Oh.” Despite himself, and despite knowing that the short meeting had been a bust, he had experienced a moment of hope.

“It wasn’t all bad,” she continued, “because I learned a lot about your culture. So the next time I meet a vampire, I won’t put my foot in my mouth. So, thanks.”

“Dubious praise.”

Genuine praise. Take it as a compliment. You’re a decent guy, just a little clueless.”

“Fair point.”

From the front of the café, where the overly perky facilitator of the session had been overseeing this experiment in rapid human romantic connection, a cheery voice said “Okay, daters! Wrap it up, and let’s get the next shift going!” People started to stand, some smiling and exchanging numbers with the person across from them, some moving on without hesitations (and in a few cases, quite quickly). Debbie smiled one last time.

“You’ll do fine,” she said. “Next time, though, maybe leave out the ‘vampire’ thing right off the bat. Ease into it. It could be a problem.”

“Good advice. Thanks.” He held out his hand, and she responded with a solid clasp and shake.

“Maybe I’ll see you around?”

Drake shrugged. “Maybe so.”

She moved on to the next table as another woman, eager to meet her potential soul mate, bounced up with too much energy to Drake’s table. Her “Hello, my name is” sticker proclaimed that her name was Louise.

Drake had a good feeling about this one.

*****

                Later that night, as Drake was wiping Louise’s blood off his chin while he considered his options in disposing of her body, it was his-post feeding euphoria that likely kept him from seeing the slight, blond woman—still wearing her “Hello, my name is Debbie” sticker—slip up behind him. He only realized what had happened when the sharp point of the wooden stake protruded from his chest via his back and he stared down at it in shock. He didn’t even have a chance to turn before his body began to age rapidly, the thousand or so years he’d stolen from others being stolen, in turn, from him. As he fell face first into the alley, Debbie let the stake fall down with his body. She reached into her jacket and produced a container of lighter fluid and a well-used Bic lighter.

“I said you were clueless. Shoulda listened.”

Her phone chirped at her, and she pulled it out, glancing down. “Ugh,” she groaned, “I didn’t think that werewolf would text so soon. Girl can’t catch a break.” Deborah Van Helsing shot back a quick reply about meeting somewhere tomorrow evening, when she knew that the moon would be full. Harder to kill, but permanent, she thought. “What the Hell is up with all these damn monsters using speed dating, anyway?” An affirmative reply from the werewolf—eager, too—was the only noise, barely audible over the creschendoing fire of the vampire’s body.

Another Smattering of Theater

So here I am, in a bar (Flying Saucer in Houston, if you’re keeping score), writing another 10ish minute play for one of Cone Man Running’s Spontaneous Smatterings. Normally, I’m stressed as all get out at this point. 9:30, and I would normally not even have the slightest spark of an idea. Fortunately, this is not a normal Smattering. I actually have a genre I can handle (Creature/Monster, and if you think I can’t write something about monsters or creatures, you don’t know me very well). So I’m at least half way into the fist version of my script, which may or may not get scrapped (probably not… I’m digging where I’m going). I’ve got until 8:00 tomorrow to get this handed in. I’m writing with some of my extended Cone Man Running Friends – Conor and Cassandra (who was in my full-length play, The Importance of Eating Earnest), drinking beer, and having a great time.

This is probably the least stressed I’ve been about this. Look for my 2:00 am post where I’ve scrapped my first idea and am feverishly re-writing what I now hate….

Post-Election Actions

In the wake of the results of the 2016 election, I’ve opted to write my Congresscritters (both Federal and State) with the following message.

**********

November 22, 2016

Dear Senator Cornyn, Senator Cruz, Congresswomen Granger, State Senator Hancock, and Representative Krause;

My name is Ben Plopper, and I’m writing this letter to all of you in the face of Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States. As with many of my fellow Americans (the majority of the popular vote, in fact), I have grave concerns regarding the positions Mr. Trump agitated for during his campaign. As I am a life-long Democrat, I realize that I do not agree with many positions that you have championed. I additionally understand that, by the will of the Electoral College, you – as Republicans – will have the ability to achieve your policy positions with greater ease. In a normal election year, while I would have been disappointed, I would accepted that as the normal workings of Democracy; the votes are in, my side didn’t fare so well, and now it’s time to work together to find compromise where possible.

2016 is not a normal election year.

I am also incredibly proud to call myself a Texan. The diversity of this state, its friendliness, wide-open spaces, and room for all manner of races, religions, creeds, etc., has worked its way into my heart since my family moved here in 1988. Even though I’m in the political minority in this state, I still love it.

Mr. Trump’s proposed policies will absolutely hurt that wonderful array of diversity. His divisive stance on immigration flies in the face of an increasingly politically active Hispanic population (estimated to be 39%). More than 50% of the state’s population are our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and female friends, and Mr. Trump has demeaned and belittled them at every opportunity. Our friends and family who are part of the LGBTQ community are scared for their futures and lives. They are justifiably worried that their right to share in the same legal protection that I share with my wife may be taken away, and the gains that they fought and died for will be walked back. Additionally, millions of Texans have benefitted from the ACA, and by being able to worry less about the cost of healthcare, can now turn their attentions to better making Texas economically and socially competitive.

Mr. Trump’s words and actions have indicated to less desirable members of the country that bullying, discrimination, and misogyny, are acceptable. This should never be the case, and we Texans are better than that.

As such, I implore you not to rubber stamp every piece of the president-elect’s policy initiatives or political/judicial appointments merely for party unity and political expediency. Please, instead, scrutinize everything that comes from his office and determine where there may be intentional or inadvertent harm to Americans and Texans alike. If you find harmful legislation, stand up against it, for me and all of your constituents, regardless of whether we voted for you. Yes, many decisions will be made that those of us on the political left don’t agree with but, again, under normal circumstances, that’s the way the pendulum swings as power shifts. Mr. Trump, however, seems to be determined to push policies that will harm all Americans, the economy, and American business. If Texas leaders take a stand against the most odious of his policies, true American values will shine brightly from the Lone Star of this state. We will continue to attract high-tech, forward-thinking businesses, which can only bolster our state’s economy. More importantly, though, is that standing up against discrimination, bullying, misogyny, bigotry, and fear is the right thing to do.

We do not agree on many issues, but still, you represent me and others like me, as Texans. Let’s make Texas an example of positive American values.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Benjamin A. Plopper

Cc
Senator John Cornyn
Senator Ted Cruz
Congresswomen Kay Granger
State Senator Kelly Hancock
State Representative Matt Krause

Ben’s Political / Philosophical Foundation – Part 1

Wow, what an election year, am I right? I don’t know that, in my 40 years of life (22 as a voting American citizen), that I have seen quite the spectacle that 2016 is providing us. Truth be told, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen, and I suspect even my own parents have seen. And one of the more striking things I’ve seen about this election is just how many people are quick to suggest that both presidential nominees are equal, in some ways, in their awfulness.

That, I have to say, is complete and utter bullshit.

I have to lay a foundation, however, before I make this case. See, I am not only voting against Trump (which I most certainly am), but I am voting for Clinton. As a supporter of Bernie Sanders (to the point where I donated a decent amount of money to his campaign), I still am also a supporter of Clinton. I believe that she will, at worst, be a status quo Democratic politician. And this is okay. Is it the liberal utopia where health care, welfare, living wage, etc., is provided for all? No. But it’s damn near closer to that than Trump (or really, any of the potential Republican candidates) would provide. In fact, a Republican-led executive branch, regardless of who leads it, is terrible for the good of the nation as a whole.

I’m getting ahead of myself: I have to establish that foundation first, like I said.

So let’s start at the beginning.

I was initially raised on food stamps.

As a child, while my father was getting his PhD, our family had very little money. It seems that even in the late 1970s, an advanced education made it very difficult to raise a family. Yet while my dad was working toward getting his PhD and my mother was working on a Masters Degree in – I believe – early childhood development, bills were still due. Rent had to be paid. Food had to be provided for three. My sister would eventually have the luxury of growing up in a house with stable income, but I got to be raised in part on the teat of government welfare. I believe that I am fortunate that this beginning both made me realize the value of working hard for one’s American dream, while also making me aware that one can’t always do that without a little help. My parents got help: from the government in terms of food stamps and from friends and family in terms of inexpensive places to live. (And bear in mind, I am also quite aware of how my father and mother – both straight, white Americans – were beneficiaries of privilege in that they could work toward this better future that I was able to thrive in, while many of my fellow Americans of color, LGBT leanings, etc., could not.)

This dual-pronged approach of rugged individualism and relying on a strong social safety net colored my view on society. On one hand, lifting one’s self out of poverty was a great endeavor, worthy of praise. On the other, it was often not something one did on one’s own. Therein, at an early age, did I learn that there is no real divide between going it alone and getting a leg  up from others. It takes a village to raise a child, as they say.

My parents taught me to walk that line in life. That while one should be willing to work hard for what one desires, it’s also okay to ask for help. In return, when possible, you would then help others as they needed it. This is not some Christian parable: my father is an atheist – as I am – and my mother is something between an agnostic and a spiritualist. While specific religions were never pushed in our house, the golden rule very much was the de facto mode of behavior. In essence, show others compassion, based on the very human trait of empathy, in a way that you would want others to show compassion towards you when you are struggling.

So bear in mind that, as I go forward, this basis for treating my fellow human beings very much informs my political and philosophical beliefs today. Behave in such a way as you would want others to behave toward you. Easy as pie, right?

Yeah, well, not so much, as life has shown me…

So, here stands the writer…

Yeah, so I am am so trying to get back to writing (and, interestingly, as soon as I try to post this, I am sneezing as if allergic to writing), and thought I’d post the prologue story to a collection of short stories that I once thought about trying to publish, And am still considering publishing. So, here’s an intro to a future Weird West collection (opinions welcome):

“This isn’t going to work quite like you think it will,” the man in the bowler hat said.  This really came as no surprise to Sam Griffon, who was experiencing a very disconcerting sensation while time was apparently frozen at the second the gallows’ trap started to swing free under his feet.  It was blurry as if in a photo where something had moved during the exposure of the photographic plate, and Samuel Walker Griffon, Sam to most everyone else, and Griff to his innermost circle (who had, to a man, been the ones that tipped the local law off to the small ranch house he’d been holing up in for the past year), scrambled to keep his feet to either side of the opening.  Faces in the crowd stared, locked in place, some leering, some horrified, and many impassive.  In the front row, a juicy gob of Rona Miller’s spit hung in mid air, a near foot from his body.

All in all, this was turning out to be a bad day for the Lieutenant.  First and foremost, he was supposed to be dead, swinging in the hot desert air with his neck broken and shit filling his boots.  Not that he was yearning for that particular fate, mind, but there was little doubt that he deserved it; ask Rona Miller.  Now even that certainty had been robbed from him, and things had taken a strange turn, to say the least.

“Bit unsettling, isn’t it,” the voice of the man in the Bowler was right in his ear now, “how it stopped right at the last moment.  I always had a flair for the dramatic.”

“What the hell’s goin’ on here?” Griffon managed to choke out the question, even as the hemp rope tied around his throat chafed against his skin.

The man smiled, and Griffon knew in his gut that it was the smile of a man who’d been fooling humanity with false sincerity for a long time.  His eyes widened, and he almost slipped and fell through the half open trap, despite the intervention that had, at least temporarily, spared his life.

“Careful,” the man said “I’m giving you a break here.  Won’t do you any good if you get yourself killed on your own.”

“You… you’re…”

The man shook his head.  “Actually, no, I’m not.  Not quite, although you are mostly responsible for this skin.”  He looked down at himself, checking out his own appearance, a dapper man in an expensive suit.  “For a murderer, thief, and a rapist, you have surprisingly impeccable taste.”

“You’re here ‘cause I asked, ain’t you?  Said I’d do ‘bout anything to get out of this, and you’ve come to offer me that anything, ain’t that right?”  The man in the hat took a turn around Griffon, soaking in the view from the gallows that had been expertly constructed in the center of the dusty frontier town.  Griffon, disturbed by the man’s sudden silence, took it in himself, hoping, perhaps, to find some sort of answers in the crumbling facade of the general store, or the all to familiar batwing doors of the saloon.

“Did you ever notice,” the man finally said, “that the gallows are usually built better than the rest of the buildings in a place like this?”

Griffon, not at all interested in the construction trends of gallows, shook his head anyway, rubbing the rope against his neck again.

“It’s true,” he continued.  “The inn, general store, barber shop… all these places are less important to the smooth operation of your standard frontier town than the place where good, honest folks can watch a criminal like yourself die.  Says a lot about human nature, Griff.  Can I call you ‘Griff?’”

“I didn’t do nothing,” Griffon heard himself automatically.  He’d been saying it for so long, now, that he didn’t even think about it until it was out of his mouth and floating away on the still air.

“Yes you did, Griff.  I wouldn’t be here if you were an innocent man.  It isn’t my providence to make deals with the innocent.”  The man took a deep breath.  “Anyway, as I was saying before being interrupted, the gallows are like the old Roman coliseums.  They’re fantastic buildings, to be sure, constructed lovingly by the heads of the empire, with one singular purpose.  Some of those are still around, to this very day, while the rest of Rome lies in ruins.”  The man turned to Griffon and smiled that smile again.  “In the future, magnificent places like those coliseums will be replaced with football stadiums and Starbucks on every street corner.”  The man turned back to Griffon.  “It’s about distraction, Griff.  If the people are more concerned with whether or not they can see criminals hang, or get their grubby hands on trendy but overpriced goods, they stop worrying about what their leaders are doing.  They don’t care who the mayor is fucking, or what business men are raping the land the same way you took that poor girl’s maidenhead.  Entertainment is always the first to go when folks start to question the ways of things.  A man’ll give up many of his rights, Griff, to stay distracted.”

“Look, mister,” Griffon said “I don’t know what a star buck is, or a coliseum, but it would be real kind of you to get this here rope off my neck and let me be on my way, safe and not at all dead-like.”

“Not yet, Griff.  You haven’t made the deal.”

“What deal?”

“Your soul for freedom.  It’s customary, in cases like this, to-”

“Shit, sure… fine.  You can have it.”

The man with the bowler hat was a bit taken aback.  “It never happens that fast.  Are you so anxious to not die that you won’t even hear the terms?”

“Mister, I don’t want to fucking die here with Rona Miller’s spit dripping down my face, an’ my own shit filling my boots.”

“Fair enough,” the man in the hat said, “but I still have to tell you all of the details.  It’s in the rules, as it were.”

Griffon laughed.  “Look, Lucifer or whatever you are, this has got to be the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen, and I seen a lot.  Hell, I done half of what I seen, and I don’t give two shits what’s in your damned infernal contract, I just don’t want to be stuck here while everyone’s bein’ stock still like they’re in some kind of weird photographic portrait is surely taking a toll on my sensibilities.”  The man in the Bowler’s face betrayed, ever so slightly, his growing impatience with the hanged man.

“Do you want to know what I am, Griff?” he asked, the slightest edge working its way into his voice.  “Do you really?”

“Mister, if you were President Grant himself, come to piss on this poor, innocent, ex-Confederate soldier, I’d not care one whip so long as it meant I got to get down off this thing.”

“If I showed you what I was, what I truly was, you’d strain against that rope until you strangled yourself to death, and you’d go with a smile on your face knowing that you got away from me, only I’d have you in the end anyway.  That’s what I am, Griff; inevitability.  Madness given form.”  The man in the neatly pressed suit stepped back, an idea having come to him.  “I’ll tell you what, Griff.  I’m going to give you a peek at what I am, because I think maybe once you see that, you’ll fully grasp the severity of this situation.”  The man walked around to the front of the gallows, standing just off to Griffon’s side.

“I am not,” he said, “Lucifer.  I appear this way because in your mind, based on what your silly beliefs have told you, this is how this game plays out.  You offer your soul to the devil, and he appears.  In your case, I’m a dapper, well spoken man apparently hailing from Boston.  I offer you a contract, and in exchange for your soul, I grant you your life.  Maybe you only have that life for seven years, the length will vary, but eventually, Old Scratch comes a’callin’.  Am I right?”  Griffon nodded slightly.

“The thing is, Griff, the human race has long been making up explanations to suit their needs.  It can be awful scary to hear the skies rumble, and see electricity shoot out from the heavens and fry your fellow caveman.  Try to imagine when the first man felt an earthquake, or witnessed a volcanic eruption.  They didn’t know what was going on, but it was terrifying to behold.  Without an explanation, even a completely manufactured one, early man would have gone insane with terror.  So they opted to assign the best meaning they could to things they couldn’t explain.  The sky rumbled because gods were angry.  The earth opened up because Hell lay beneath the surface and Lucifer occasionally would come to collect his dues.  Hell, Griffon, even the first single-celled organisms that your miserable little race came from had their own set of beliefs, gods, and demons.  That’s how primal the need for rationality is in your kind.

“For all the good it did those fragile early minds, the explanations were still just made up.  Plucked from the air to calm the rest of the herd.  Man got, and still gets, most of it wrong.

“Look at me sideways, Griff.”  Griffon didn’t understand the request, and, after a moment, cocked his head to the side.  The man in the hat, exasperated, shook his head.  “No, Griff, that’s not what I mean.  Don’t cock your head like a damn fool dog.”

“I don’t-” Griffon started, but the man in the hat cut him off.

“Look ahead, at Rona Miller’s tits, and not at me.  You liked them enough to have your way with them, and more than once.”  Griffon did, and as he stared, the man in the hat seemed to vanish from his peripheral vision.  Griff gasped and looked back, and saw the man standing there.

“Where’d you go?”

“It’s just a blind spot in your vision.  It’s the only rational, biological thing to this trick.  I’m still here.  I could explain it, but I don’t think you’d get it.  Look at her again, and forget about me.”  Griffon complied, looking down at the woman’s face.  She was angry, that was certain, but Griffon had done some pretty terrible things to her.  She wasn’t the only one in this town he’d wronged, only maybe he’d wronged her more that most, but Griffon had never been a man to not take what he wanted, and she-

As Giff’s thoughts had wandered, something had crept into his peripheral vision.  He hadn’t noticed it at first, but as he did, he slowly started to grasp the gravity of his situation.  Because it was not fully in his view, he could not see it in great detail, but as it became clearer, he started to imagine-

Horrible things, terrible fish in the depths of the ocean

-that the man in the suit was attached to something large and hideous.  A great, fleshy trunk sprouted from his back and arced almost lazily to the street, where two luminous eyes-

Giant, prehistoric fish, dangling lures before great gaping maws filled with rows of razor sharp teeth-

                                                            -watching him, hungrily eyeing him-

little fishy, tasty fishy

-going to eat him, a pathetic little man-

fish

-that swam too close.

For a moment, Griff almost did what the thing (for he could no longer think of him as a man at all) told him he would.  His muscles tensed, ready to throw himself forward against the rigid rope, ending his terror before his mind shattered and he could no longer escape from the madness.  He would have done so, had he not been absolutely certain that the thing would be waiting for him in death, perhaps an entire abyssal sea of them, and that the only way to avoid that fate would be to make the thing’s deal.

“I told you,” the man said, “that you wouldn’t like what you saw.”  The man’s voice pulled him out of his fear, and he instinctively turned his head towards him.   The vision vanished abruptly, and it was just him, the man, and the frozen crowd of angry faces.

“What… what the hell…”

“It’s of no concern to you.  Like I said, you wouldn’t want to see any more that what I let you see.  Got it?”  Griffon nodded his head quickly.  “Good.  Are you ready to hear the specifics?”  Another nod.  “Fantastic.  After we’re done talking, you can make a more informed decision.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

The crowd cheered as the trap opened and the Confederate soldier’s neck cracked like dry kindling in the morning heat.  Rona Miller’s spit landed on the body and clung there, slowly crawling down the man’s contorted face, her vengeance complete.  The town’s sheriff, a man of small stature but great power, bellowed out that the deed was done, and everyone needed to go back to their businesses or homes.

The two men in the back watched impassively.  One, a man in a neatly pressed suit and bowler hat, put his arm on the shoulder of the other, a man that, had anyone taken notice, would be quickly picked out of the crowd as a stranger.  The two men would be quickly forgotten by anyone that thought about them later, and their thoughts would be followed by an ominous sense of doom, and they would pull their children and spouses closer to them.  They didn’t notice, however, and were equally ignorant to how the stranger reacted with revulsion when the man in the bowler touched him.

“You made the right choice, Griff.  I would have had you anyway, but a soul given freely is more important to me and mine than a soul that’s taken.”

“Couldn’t I have gone to the other place?  Maybe if I’d repented?”

The man in the bowler shook his head.  “You’ve got a lot to learn about a lot of things, Griff.  We’ll start with your ideas of heaven and hell, and work from there.  You’ve got important work to carry out in the meantime.”

“Why me?” he asked.  “What was so special about me?”

“Not a damn thing.  Could’ve been anyone, but it was you.  My kind needs an arm in this world.  My… original Lieutenant, if you will, has become a problem and isn’t reliable anymore.  You’re a reliable man, though, Griff, and you can help us out.  This world’s not ours, yet, though it used to be, and we can’t work in it like we used to.  You were as good as anyone else.  Consider yourself lucky.”  The two turned from town as the body of the soldier was left to swing in the hot desert wind.  They left that town, and the man that used to be Sam Griffon would only come back to it once more, at the end.

Fragment of a Thing I Wrote

Lest anyone think I don’t write from time to time, here’s a piece I am working on about anxiety (something I suffer from) given form. I think I might get back to it, eventually:

—————-

It wasn’t a malicious voice that whispered in his ear each day, but it was a compelling one. He did its bidding as sure as if it were the voice of God, though God seldom seemed interested in the mundanity of his life, such as it were.

He put on a strong façade for the world, to be sure. They couldn’t know the voice was there, commanding him, directing him. For them, he was the person they needed. A loving husband. A doting father. A hard worker. All of these faces, and more, he was adept at putting on and wearing as if they were his own, but they were not. They were the faces of others that he had observed over time and managed to mimic. If anyone had taken the time to scrutinize his faces, they would have seen the lines where the latex masks delineated between fiction and reality. No one ever looked that hard, however, and if they happened to see that something was amiss, they quickly forgot it. It was, after all, easier to ignore the possibility that their friend/father/husband/employee was smiling falsely, listening to the whispers in his ear than to the voices of the rest of the world.

It’s too much work to try, it said often—its most common refrain—slithering deep into the foundation of his subconscious, so much so that he was no longer certain if the voice was his, or something external. Perhaps, he often though, I’m losing my mind. He was right, of course, but not for the reasons that he believed he was. There was a blight upon his soul—though he didn’t believe in such things—eating away at the edges of his perception until the world was ragged at the periphery. It was a slow change, and while he’d always known it was there, always heard the voice, it acted upon him so slowly that the change was imperceptible even as it was causing catastrophic damage to his psyche.

The voice, and the Thing at the end of it, was slowly killing him.

Worse still, under all the masks that suggested otherwise, he wasn’t sure how much he cared.

 

*             *             *             *

 

He didn’t remember when he started hearing the voice. And lest you think this is some sort of metaphor, know that in time he didn’t for a moment believe that it was anything but an outside entity. His was not a delusion but a statement of fact. It is more difficult to dismiss ones senses of sight and touch than it is to accept the potential that madness might be pressing in and directing actions, no matter how banal and pointless those actions might be.

He saw it sometimes, when the natural blind spot in his vision was oriented at just the right way and at just the right times. As best as he could tell (because as soon as he looked directly where he saw it, the Thing would vanish from his sight, but he still felt its weight), it was a misshapen, pale, mostly hairless creature. He best descried it (to himself… to describe it to others would suggest that he wasn’t in his right mind, which—as stated—he most certainly was) as the pulsing, squamous, aborted fetus of an albino. Not the most elegant descriptions, but the part where it was the premature ejecta of unwanted human life was spot on. He knew, instinctively, that it was a part of him. It was something deep within his psyche given form, which was as close to the Thing being symbolic of his own failings as he would allow it to go. While it might have started as something more symbol than object, it had formed into something that he knew was its own, separate entity. It was tied to him, for certain, but it was no longer his. It was his child, birthed from his ID or his ego or some other psychological bullshit, let loose into the world. Only, it chose to stay with him. To torment him with the incessant whispers. The easy choices (watch Netflix. Play video games. Ignore the child and the wife). To remind him that he wasn’t good enough to be a father or a husband. That at any time, his boss would find out that he wasn’t, in fact, productive or qualified to do his job.

That someone would yank the masks off and reveal the truth below. Because if he was the father of a scaly pale fetus Thing, what did that say about his own true face?

His first memories of the voice happened at a young age. He didn’t remember when it started, likely because to remember the Thing being birthed from his own body (mind?) would be too traumatic. He remembered its birth no more than he remembered his own, and for much the same reasons. But he knew that it wasn’t always there. Or if it was, it took some time to begin speaking. His smiles as a child were too genuine. The masks were occasional; the normal faces he learned to put on at early ages to adjust and that he could take off when we were finished with them and the danger had passed. Before he left the masks on all the time, he was happy. This he remembered.

(Unless the Thing whispered to his memories, too, changing them. It would be insidious if it were true. Perhaps if he’d always been miserable beneath the veneer of normalcy, he would feel that there was a common baseline to life. Instead, memories of happier times served only to remind him that the Thing was there on his shoulder now.)

It may have been the first year he didn’t make a B or higher on his report card and he’d felt certain that he had unforgivably failed his parents.