Narration and Perspective

Hello everyone. How was your holiday season? Hectic? Restful? Nonexistent?

I’m back with a little bit of jabber about that crazy novel idea I had. It’s still in the works. I haven’t forgotten it, but the holidays and my new job sort of pushed it to the back burner. I’ve had a lot of ideas and a lot of time to really think about the plot and the characters, and I’ve decided that my New Year’s Resolution (pardon the cliche) is to get started on that novel. No more putting it off or procrastinating or worrying. Write it!

In that vein, I was talking to a friend recently about perspectives in literature: namely, first, second, and first person perspectives. What started the conversation was my recent introduction to the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher (worth checking out if you enjoy that genre!)

I mentioned to her that first person narration (the perspective in the books) was not my favorite. It doesn’t ultimately make me like or dislike the novel any more or less, but it does lend a certain feel to the novel as a whole. If you’re a writer of any kind or even just an avid reader, you know how important the tone or feel of a novel can be. The narration and perspective of the novel lends a great deal of that tone. It’s downright important to pick the right one.

First person perspective is pretty common in literature, though more so in non-fiction than in fiction I would wager. It is the perspective that comes straight from the main character’s mouth; that is, the book is written in terms of “I” and “my”. The main character narrates his/her own story as if they were telling it to you over coffee. This is a wonderful tool for story telling and if used correctly can lend a degree of personality and attitude to the story. It gives the author a chance to let the character’s personality shine through the narration of the novel instead of simply his or her words. However, it can also come across as pompous, as if the character is bragging about him or herself. The sentence, “I am very astute like that,” sounds like the character is bragging, where as the same sentence rewritten in third-person style does not. Another limitation of this perspective is that the narrator, being the main character, cannot be omniscient. The story will be limited to the thoughts and internal dialogue of the main character, and will not be able to follow events or actions taking place in areas where the main character is not. This can work just fine for a story in which you only want the reader to know what the characters knows.

Second person perspective is a foul, loathsome approach to literature best reserved for mass-produced “choose your own story” crap than any serious novel. It is the perspective as told from your point of view, so that the entire story is written in terms of “you did this” and “you did that” as if you, personally, were part of the narrative. It’s popular among books aimed at tweens and doesn’t hold up under finer literary scrutiny, most likely because telling the story from “your” perspective gets very annoying very quickly. “You take a step down the dark hallway.” No, no I didn’t. I don’t want to. I want to turn around and go back. “You brush the hair off your face and reach for the doorknob.” But I’m bald. And I don’t want to open that door. “The door creaks open and what you see inside causes you to faint!” What did I see? Why did I faint? I’m not a pansy. See what I mean?

Third person perspective is the most common and involves a story told by a narrator who is not a character in the book. The book is written in terms of “he” and “she”.  That narrator can be literally anyone else: it can be an observer who saw the events happen but did not partake, it can be a deity watching from on high, it can be no one in particular…and the real strength of the third person narrator is that you, the author, can decide if they are omniscient (all-knowing) or limited. Omniscient narrators know the thoughts, motives, pasts and internal dialogues of all the characters and can use them to effect the story or inform the reader. A limited narrator knows intimately the thoughts of one character (the main character, usually) but nothing about the others. A great example of this was the Harry Potter books, in which the narrator was able to convey all of Harry’s thoughts and feelings but the feelings and thoughts of Ron, Hermione, and others were not accessible unless spoken out loud by the characters themselves.

Obviously each of these three has its own advantages and disadvantages. Second person, while my very least favorite, has seen popularity among books such as those written by R.L. Stein. First person is good for really getting inside one character’s mind while third person is good for stories with lots of characters and events that do not all revolve around the main character.

Finally there is an alternating perspective in which the book’s main character changes periodically. In one chapter you may read from the perspective of Bob, and in the next chapter you read from the perspective of Bill. If you read the Animorphs books (my great childhood love) they did this very frequently. Each book was from the point of view of a different character. While the Harry Potter books were almost always told from Harry’s point of view using a third person limited perspective, sometimes they deviated and told a brief scene or two from the point of view of another character. Such as when the old caretaker stumbles upon Lord Voldemort in an old house in the English countryside.

The vast majority of my stories have been written in third person. A select few were in first person, when I felt that the narration would hit home better if told from the mouth of the main character. It’s a good tool for getting the reader into the character’s mind. But for the purposes of my novel, it doesn’t work. There are too many characters having too many important thoughts. There’s too much going on away from the main character that needs to be witnessed by the reader. And beneath it all, I just cant shake the feeling that a first person narration can get a little braggy sometimes. My main protagonist isn’t a bragger.

So the novel will be written in a third person omniscient perspective with periods of alternating viewpoints. As for anything else I write? Well, that’s still up in the air.

Tune in later this week for a short story written in first person perspective!

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20 Down

On Monday I weighed myself and got a wonderful holiday surprise: I had lost the final few pounds I needed to hit my weight loss goal. I’m 20 pounds lighter and quite proud of myself.

Of course, there is still a long way to go. Twenty pounds is the tip of the iceberg, but at least I’m chipping away at it.

When this all started back in March, it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The weight was coming off so slowly that I was getting discouraged. But with the addition of Weight Watchers to my daily routine, I’m seeing a steady loss of weight and learning to curb my problem eating habits. It’s a relief.

My next goal is to have lost thirty pounds, which feels very attainable to me. I should see it by the end of January. Quite the positive way to start off a new year!

 

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Penny For Your Soul

Here is the second installment in my attempt to practice writing short stories. It is quite a bit less depressing than The Paperclip, I assure you.

I spent a great deal of time writing and rewriting this story. I revised and deleted several false starts before I got going on something that felt right. The prompt seemed like such a sure thing but in practice it was a bit harder to come up with something I actually liked.

At first I wanted to write a story about a nasty, immoral salesman who sells souls in hell and somehow does a better job there than he did in life and ends up winning the company sales competition. I wanted to build up the protagonist to be highly unsavory so that when he wins everything, the reader feels angry. Ultimately I decided not to do this, but I still think it would have been fun.

Instead I chose to write a story about a nasty, immoral salesman who sells souls in hell and gets his comeuppance for all the lying and swindling he did in life. It’s a bit more satisfying and I think that this ending is more dramatic than the others I had considered.

I’d like to preface this story by pointing out that I am not a religious person and this is not meant to be a religious story. If you feel the need to be offended by the use of hell in a fictional story, you’re probably browsing the wrong blog. If you would like to draw a deeper, more religious meaning from the story, you are welcome to do so.

I am a big fan of demon lore in all religions and cultures. It’s fascinating stuff. Every culture on earth has some idea about the afterlife for people who did bad things and every culture has its own demonology, even if the word “demon” is nowhere to be found. I enjoy reading about these things and also creating my own, which you’ll see a bit in the story.

The idea of hell that I present in this story is a little bit based off of Dante’s work. I read The Inferno in college and loved it and the image of hell painted by that book has stuck with me ever since. I think it would be a lot of fun to write my own book based on demons and hell and create my own world the way Dante did.

This one is a bit longer than the last at 5.3 pages long, but I think it moves quickly enough.

Anyway, without further ado, here you go.

My prompt was: “Write about a door-to-door salesman who sells souls to demons in hell.”

                                                     Penny For Your Soul

The sound of leather shoe soles on volcanic rock sidewalk brought with it a man dressed in a sharp grey suit and black tie. He carried a garish crocodile skin briefcase and strode with the kind of cocky self-importance usually reserved for fighter pilots and corrupt politicians. His dark hair was slicked back and when he adjusted the knot of his tie, there glittered an ugly gold ring on his pinkie finger. His name was Gerald Brown and he was a salesman in the employ of Penny For Your Soul, the largest brokerage firm of lost and damned souls in Hell.

Hell was supposed to be some sort of punishment for sinners, but Gerald was quite in his element here. In life he had been an insurance salesman and rest assured he had abused this position mightily. His favorite scheme was suckering old widows into signing for life insurance they couldn’t afford without reading to them the fine print. He was, as a rule, very fond of the combination of fine print and elderly eyes.

So when he died suddenly in a car accident, Gerald was whisked away to join the ranks of PFYS’s sales force and he thrived there. He was surrounded by dead people and his boss was literally a demon lord, but nothing is perfect.

This week was the annual PFYS competition. The week’s top seller got the corner office for the rest of the year, and was a little bit less likely to end up drowning in a pit full of fire and brimstone (it’s the little things, you know.) There was no bonus, no raise, and no promotion. When you’re dead and living in hell, you find you don’t need a lot of cash. But the competition was fierce every year regardless of the rewards, because not a single PFYS employee had been selected for their morality or their laid-back attitude.

Gerald Brown was walking down a residential street in one of the higher circles of hell. The pit might house the worst of the worst but the upper levels were not unlike a run-of-the-mill suburb. The key difference was that these hellish homes were owned by demon families, not human ones. Demon families loved souls about as much as American families love expensive cars. They were a status symbol and everyone wanted them.

His suitcase felt a little heavy for his liking as Gerald approached the doorway of a home in the Gluttony District. Number 8 was a modest dwelling built of volcanic rock with tiny windows and no front yard to speak of. Demons as a rule did not tend to garden very much. He cleared his throat and ran his tongue over his teeth to check them for food. All clear. He rapped sharply at the door.

From inside came a scuffling sound like heavy chairs being drawn over a hard floor and the wheezing, labored breathing of something quite large. A living human might have panicked at such noises but Gerald stood upon the stoop with a greasy smile in place, a mask he had worn well for so many years. The door creaked open and a monstrously fat demon gave him the once-over with watery, squinty yellow eyes. “Eh?”

“So sorry to have disturbed you,” Gerald began, noticing the half eaten leg of roast lamb in the demon’s pudgy hand. “My name is Gerald Brown and I work for PFYS. Are you familiar with PFYS?”

The demon’s eyes narrowed further, disappearing behind fat rolls that would make a Shar Pei jealous. “No. What is that?” But before Gerald could launch into a long-winded explanation of his company’s services, a voice from within the dark house called out asking who was at the door and the fat demon bellowed back, “Some stupid salesman, mom!” and flung spittle everywhere in the process.

“As I was saying,” Gerald continued as he wiped a fleck of chewed lamb off his lapel, “PFYS is Penny For Your Soul, Hell’s most successful soul dealership. If you have a moment this evening I would like to discuss our many reasonable options for purchasing souls. Would your mother like to join us?”

“Nah,” wheezed the fat demon. “She ain’t getting’ off the couch. Why would I want a soul?” He looked suspicious.

“Souls are a very valuable commodity in Hell.” Gerald got the feeling this whole spiel was a bit above the demon, so he dumbed it down. “Owning souls is a wise investment especially in today’s world. I have with me some very fine samples if you would like to take a look.” The fat demon glanced at his briefcase and rubbed its fifth chin thoughtfully.

“Can I eat it?”

“I’m afraid not.” Gerald began to explain what souls were when the fat demon stuffed a bite of lamb into its lopsided mouth and spoke without swallowing.

“If I can’t eat it, what’s the point? Souls are dumb.” And it slammed the door in Gerald’s face. Undeterred, Gerald went back to the sidewalk and picked flecks of lamb off his jacket. He checked his watch and sighed. He had made only one sale in the span of almost five hours beating on people’s doors. That was what he got, he supposed, trying to sell something inedible in the Gluttony District.

Three hours later he had made no more progress, despite adequate deployment of various underhanded sales tactics. He even went so far as to tell one dim-witted demon that souls were in short supply because of a global peace treaty. It had almost worked, too, but the oven timer beeped and the demon lost all interest in discussing business as it gobbled down an entire pot roast.

Gerald returned home, which was a fancy word that did little to change the fact that he lived in a tiny one room closet in a tenant housing facility somewhere down in the dregs of Hell’s sewer. It smelled awful and the constant rush of damned souls through the river Styx was loud enough to keep him up at night. And if the river backed up there was always the danger of souls overflowing into your living room. As he got ready for bed, Gerald hatched a rather devious scheme. Forget selling to Gluttons and Wraths and Sloths. Lesser demons had smaller purses, didn’t they? No, he’d skip right over them and go to the top, to the very wealthiest clientele: the arch demons.

Strictly speaking, he was not allowed to do this. Senior representatives of the company dealt with these elite monsters. Lowly salesmen sold to lowly demons and that was the status quo. But Gerald didn’t like being lowly. He was as greedy in death as he had been in life and he wanted to win this competition. He wanted the corner office.

The next morning he stood in front of a cracked, dingy old mirror on his wall and adjusted his tie. He had to look utterly flawless to pull this off. Even a stray thread on his jacket could break the deal with an arch demon. He grinned at his reflection and winked, saying, “Who’s going to win that competition? That’s right, Jerry. You. You got this. Show me that snake-oil smile.” And he gave himself another despicable grin before grabbing his suitcase and setting out.

He climbed out of the depths of Hell’s darkest pits and struggled through the morning commute of pedestrian traffic. Demons had daily lives not unlike humans and on this morning he passed by a meat market, a clothing shop and two brothels, each advertising their own unique entertainment. Instead of heading into the Sin Quarter, he bypassed that lousy mess altogether and made a purposeful beeline towards the palatial world of the demonic elite. Great black spires of polished obsidian pierced the dark cavern above, the roof of which was so high it disappeared and became a black sky. Hell’s elite lived in estates that rivaled Catholic cathedrals but their inhabitants were the furthest thing from holy.

Keeping this in mind, Gerald moved with a sense of purpose and belonging. If they sensed he did not belong, or that he was nervous, he may very well end up dead. Again. It was bad enough the first time; he didn’t want to know how it felt the second. He came to the first house and rang the bell at the front gate. After a few moments a voice answered and he identified himself: “Gerald Brown, representing PFYS for all your soul needs –“

“Go away!”

And so, on to the next estate. And the next. And just as he began to feel discouraged he reminded himself of that corner office and kept slogging through the rejections. After being threatened with beheading, physically ejected from a home, and run off with a sickle, he found himself standing before the wrought iron gates of an ominous obsidian mansion. He rang the bell and identified himself and after a moment of waiting he was walking up the drive and into the foyer of the dark mansion.

“The lord will see you in the study,” said the butler, a thin demon with a hangdog face and missing teeth. Gerald took a seat in the study and the butler left. He did not normally allow himself to feel nervous, preferring instead an air of self-assuredness, but this room made his mouth dry and his palms sweat. It was dark and forbidding and the flames in the grate sparked black and blue under the mantle. He could have sworn they took the shape of little evil skulls as they flickered.

He took a long look around the room as he waited and it was then that he noticed a portrait pinned to the wall of a winged demon with red eyes and grey skin and a pointed goatee and he felt his heart wedge its self in his throat. The gold filigree scroll beneath the painting confirmed his fears: this was the manor of Azazel, lord of lies, and heir to the throne of Hell. Before he could run away screaming, the study door opened and he turned around to come face to face with the demon himself.

“You are not Scott Ramsley.” The demon’s voice was deep and smooth and irritated and Gerald had nowhere to run. He shook his head slowly.

“No. My name is Gerald Brown. I represent-“

“I know whom you represent. But I have always bought my souls through Ramsley. Why are you here?”

Gerald took a deep breath and tried not to let on that he was nervous. Nervous men didn’t sell souls. He would have to be quick and smooth to out-lie the lord of deceit. “Ramsley is a rather poor salesman, my lord. I thought I might be a better representative.” All he could do was pray that Azazel didn’t smell his deceit, but when you are in Hell prayers often go unheard.

“I see.” The demon stroked his pointed goatee and stood with his back to the fire, silhouetted like some great unholy tyrant with eyes agleam in ruby red. “And what do you have to offer me that Ramsley did not?”

Begging for his big break, Gerald set his briefcase upon a twisted black stone table and popped it open. Inside were small silk satchels full of souls. Each one was the size and shape of a marble and inside they swirled with something the consistency of smoke. They were beautiful, if you tried not to think about the fact that they were human souls condemned to Hell. The demon approached the table and picked one up and held it to the firelight. It gleamed like a jewel but he seemed unimpressed, as if Gerald had handed him a mere hunk of stone.

“This is the best you bring me?” he asked, and Gerald leaped to oil their negotiations further.

“There are mere trinkets, my lord. Just a taste, I assure you. I can bring you whichever soul you desire. Quantity is not your game, I daresay. But quality? My hands have personally brokered the sale and trade of many a fine soul, I guarantee you. Manson, Dahmer, Gacy…name your desires, sir, and I can make them reality.” He was in over his head and he knew it. But did Azazel? The demon looked almost disinterested.

“Ramsley brought me Bin Laden’s soul several months back. After such a capture I doubt anything you can offer would peak my interest. You are playing a game that is out of your league, little corporate clown. I will have my butler show you the door.” And he moved to signal the butler, no doubt waiting just out of sight, when Gerald heard himself blurt out a few choice words he immediately wished he had not:

“What about Hitler’s soul?”

Oh he regretted that the moment Azazel turned back to regard him with those burning, wretched eyes. The demon looked upon him and there was a terrible hunger in his eyes. It made Gerald uncomfortable, like he had sat upon hot coals.

“Adolf…” purred the demon, a sound like gravel and ice. “Did I hear you correctly…?”

Gerald had no choice but to nod. If he backed out now the lord of deceit would know he had been lying, and he did not dare think of where his soul might end up should that pass. Instead he played his part, and smiled like the slippery slug he was. “You did indeed. I happen to know who has it…and that they are willing to negotiate its sale.” His palms were sweating so profusely he had to wipe them discretely on his trousers to avoid detection. He had struck a chord with this demon and if this went according to plan he would be sitting in the corner office by tomorrow morning. His boss would be sick with outrage at the Little Salesman Who Could and his coworkers would be green with envy.

“Are you certain?” asked the demon, and Gerald nodded sincerely.

“Of course, my lord.” And he waited what felt like a lifetime as Azazel considered this deal. Then, the demon nodded and snapped his fingers and the skinny butler appeared at his side.

“Bring me my contract,” he instructed, and within moments the butler had done so and the lord of lies ran his fingers over a document written upon a length of tanned human hide. “I know you have your contracts, salesman, but so do I. And it is mine we shall be signing first. It is just your usual business contract…you agree to bring me the soul of Adolf Hitler and I shall agree to conduct further business dealings with you. Ramsley will not be pleased…”

Gerald was quick to reply, “He ought to have done a better job, then.” To which the demon purred, “Oh yes…” and produced a handsome pen made of white bone and inked with blood. He scrawled his signature upon the document and slid it across the table to Gerald, who, in his greed, did not even read it.

“I will begin the acquisition of the soul as soon as possible, my lord,” he promised, signing his name upon the dotted line as he had done thousands upon thousands of times before. As soon as he had done so, the demon lord snatched the document away and rolled it up tightly, handing it to the butler who left the room with it. And then the demon began to smirk, cold and sinister, at the salesman in his study.

“Will you?”

“Of course, my lord.” But Gerald did not like that look. He fidgeted for the first time. “That is what I said I would do.”

“Perhaps you ought to have read your side of the contract a bit more closely.” The demon grinned and every last one of his needle sharp teeth caught the gleam of the fire. “You will not be retrieving me any soul of Hitler, because that soul is not currently on the market.”

Gerald’s mouth felt like cotton and all the blood drained from his face. Despite the warmth of the fire he felt freezing cold. “No, no, that isn’t right, my lord. I assure you I know who possesses the soul and they have told me personally that they aim to sell it –“

Liar,” hissed the demon. Gerald drew back into his seat as Azazel drew close, placing a clawed hand on either side of the chair so that they were face to hideous face. “Don’t you dare attempt to sell snake oil to a serpent, boy!”

“I – I don’t understand –“

“The soul of Adolf Hitler is not up for sale because I own it! You tried to lie to the greatest deceiver and now your soul will join his in my collection!” The demon’s grin was atrocious. “As per our agreement…”

“No…” Gerald fumbled for words. His greatest scheme was crumbling all around him and he was feeling around blindly for a way out. “You misunderstood, my lord, I didn’t mean…” He was cut off by chilling, dark laughter.

“Look at you squirm. This is one contract you can’t wriggle your way free from, little salesman. Perhaps you ought to have read the fine print.” Azazel grabbed the man by the arms and hauled him from his seat as easily as if he weighed nothing at all, and grinned at him like a madman. “Somehow, I get the feeling this is quite a fitting punishment. Say hello to Adolf for me.” And he dragged the man kicking and screaming to the fireplace and threw him in. The grate opened up like a jagged maw of stone and iron and swallowed him down into the abyss of the lord’s private soul collection. The fire blazed orange and white for a moment and a dazzling pyrotechnic display of skulls erupted from the flames, but it died down and smoldered contentedly as a beast might after supper.

Gerald fell into blackness and came to rest among the collection he had just joined, forever entombed in darkness. He had tried to swindle the greatest liar ever known in Hell or upon earth and he had paid the ultimate price. He had set out to sell a record amount of souls, and had ended up selling his own. In a way, he supposed he had made the biggest sale of the year. He had traded his own soul for every soul in his briefcase. Somewhere above him in the study, the demon lord sat down to examine the souls left behind on the table, gleefully counting them out.

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A Christmas List

Everyone has one. When I was a kid, my Christmas list was miles long. I wanted everything. Every toy, book or accessory ever marketed to children was included upon this list, along with a few choice items that I didn’t realize weren’t even real. One year I wished for a “pocket duplicator”. You know, a device that I could use to make duplicates of any object I wanted, and was small enough to fit in my pocket. Why has no one invented this yet?

As I got older, those lists began to dwindle, to the point where, when asked by family what I want for Christmas, I usually get a blank, deer-in-the-headlights look and mumble, “Uh…I dunno…”

So in a whimsical return to traditions past, I am going to list a few things I want for Christmas this year. Warning: not all of them are sane.

  • Some sort of comment moderating system that flags horrific, racist, or just plain nasty internet comments, tracks down their creator, and kicks their stupid, ignorant face in.
  • Free education and fee health care without all of the stupid political strings attached.
  • A ban on anything and everything ABC Family.
  • If you post one of those “omg share this” misinformation posts on Facebook, a big boot comes out of your monitor and BAM, right in the face.
  • A “no soliciting” sign on my front door that, when it detects a solicitor about to knock anyway, yells profanities at them until they retreat.
  • A magical oven that has presets for pie and cake and cookies and everything else. All you do is push a button and it magically creates and bakes the goodie of your choice while you sit on your butt watching TV.
  • A realistic solution to my annoying invisible blonde eyebrows. Like a genetic cheat code or something that permanently changes their color. Get on it, science.
  • If you use the words “YOLO, Belieber, Miley Cyrus, or swag” in a sentence, you are barred from speaking again for 24 hours.
  • Hovercrafts for everyone! No more rush hour traffic jams or parking tickets.
  • A dog. Is that too much to ask?
  • Computers that solve their own problems.
  • No more automated answering systems when you call a company. I shouldn’t have to talk to a robot to get my stuff sorted out.
  • I’d like to have a chat with every clothing designer on the planet so that they understand that not all women are 5 feet tall, and just because you have a larger waist doesn’t mean your legs are tree trunks.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

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The Paperclip

I said I was going to practice my writing skills by posting some short stories and today I make good on my word. This is a story I wrote a few days ago by using this website’s wonderful prompts. If you are in need of some inspiration to get the creative words flowing, I recommend that website as a source of wacky, weird, wild writing prompts. Check it out!

I’m not going to ramble much in order to introduce this story, but I wanted to preface it with a few things: first, it is one of the saddest things I have ever written. It’s not a pick-me-up, feel-good story. Second, Cocoa is a black girl. I didn’t mention it specifically in the story because it didn’t matter, but she is, and I hope as a character she sends a positive message regardless of your race. Third, this is about the length of story you can expect from me. In a word processing program, it comes out to about three and a third pages. I’ll try to keep them short and (bitter)sweet. Fourth, I have not written a story in a very long time. Picking this style of writing back up is a learning process for me. And finally, I have added a new page to the navigation bar at the top of my blog. If you’d like to browse my short stories without sifting through all my blog posts, click on the link that says “Short Stories”. I’ll be linking them there in order as I post them. Enjoy!

My prompt was: “Write a story using these three things: a paper clip, a hospital, an exotic dancer.”

                                                         The Paperclip

No one expects their life to conspire against them, but life has a way of doing just that. One minute you’re living some semblance of the American dream and the next…well, the next you’re sitting in a hospital room trying to wrap your mind around three words that should never be strung together in a sentence: inoperable brain tumor.

It felt like a dream, if Stephen King was directing it. A very surreal dream. Maybe King was collaborating with Salvador Dali. I began a regimen of treatments but nothing worked. I knew they wouldn’t work. My life became one long, slow revolving door of hospital stays, awful treatments, and grim hopelessness.

I had no one to share this misery with and I suppose that was for the best. No family, no close friends. As the weeks dragged into months and on into a year my condition began to deteriorate. I watched my reflection in the mirror wither and die. I was thirty-eight but I looked twice that. I became too weak to leave the hospital after each treatment so I was afforded a bed in a room on the third floor, and it was in this room that the last few weeks of my life took place. It was in this room that I met her.

Her name was Cocoa. Somehow I doubt that was her real name. But it suited her and I never pressed the matter. Maybe I didn’t really want to know her that well. She had a bed across from mine and in a ward suitable for four, we two were alone. Empty beds on either side of us reminded me that life was finite and hospitals only delayed the inevitable.

Cocoa was an exotic dancer. She told me this the moment we met. It was an odd way to start a conversation but it broke the ice like a wrecking ball and from then on out I knew she was the type of girl who said everything that came to mind. No filters, no shame. In other words, my exact opposite. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old but she had been diagnosed with some sort of lymphoma a year ago. Life, it seemed, spared neither the young nor the beautiful.

She was the sort of girl who smiled at life even when it scowled back at her. She was weak and she was fading, but she was still smiling. She talked about “tomorrow” as if there would be one, about “next year” as if it were a given. For her I hoped it was.

Through all of the treatments and all of the chemo and all of the needles and drugs and wires and tubes, we forged a sort of strange friendship. She talked a lot despite her exhaustion and her illness and that was alright because I rarely needed to speak at all. She had the rare ability to carry both sides of a conversation all on her own.

Two weeks after I had been admitted, she was sitting upright in her bed reading a magazine and I was staring out the window. This passed for fun in a hospital room for dying people. Cocoa looked over. “You awake? You didn’t die on me did you?”

“Not yet.” My voice sounded hoarse and soft. It wasn’t my voice anymore.

“Something interesting beyond that window?” She put down her magazine and leaned forward out of bed so she could see it too.

“No.”

“What’s the matter with you?” I heard her shuffle aside her magazines and shift in bed but I didn’t look over to see what she was doing until I heard the creak of the bed frame and the sound of bare feet on the tile floor.

“Cocoa, Jesus Christ, get back in bed. What are you doing?” I was afraid she would fall. She was so weak that she had to hold on to her I.V. stand to walk. She shuffled over to my bed and sat down, breathless from the journey of about ten feet. I sat up.

“Don’t fuss over me,” she scolded. “That’s what my mother does. Now why you over here staring out the window like some sorta dead man?” She gave me attitude and I could see in her the ornery young lady who had once danced for a living.

“I don’t feel well,” I replied, but it was a cop-out. No one in a hospital “feels well”. She gave me a dour look and if she wasn’t holding on to her I.V. stand I could just imagine her hands on her hips. Cancer had taken a lot from her but it had yet to take her sass.

“Yeah, you look like crap. What else is new?”

“Thanks, Cocoa.” I closed my eyes and ran my hands over my face. It wasn’t the face I remembered. It was thin and sunken and my skin was like tissue paper. I pressed my fingertips into my eyes until bright colors popped in the darkness behind my lids. I muttered, “I don’t feel human anymore.”

There was silence on the other side of my hands. I expected a witty rebuttal but instead I felt her slight weight lift from the edge of my bed and heard the squeaking of her I.V. wheels as she crossed the room again. I let my hands fall into my lap and watched her as she grabbed her patient chart and pulled something off of it, and then shuffled back to my bedside and sat. She held something up in her hand for me to see. “Know what this is?”

“It’s a paperclip,” I replied, confused.

“Yeah. A paperclip.” She began to unfold it, bending it all out of shape until it looked more like a lightning bolt than a paper clip. “Now what is it?”

“It’s…a bolt of lightning?”

“No, moron. It’s still a damn paperclip.” She looked at me like I had lost my mind and I wondered if the meds were getting to her. Then she explained. “Just because I bent it all apart doesn’t change what it is. It’s all funny lookin’ right now because I did something to it I wasn’t supposed to. And yeah, fine, it doesn’t function like a paperclip anymore, but that’s alright. It’s still a paperclip. And you can always bend it back.”

I stared at her. In her own strange way she made a lot of sense, and I didn’t know what to say. I had spent months being contorted into this wraith I had become. So many long months of torture trying to shrink the tumor in my brain before it pressed on something vital and killed me. I had spent weeks lying in a hospital bed alone feeling nauseas and sore and exhausted and dizzy and hopeless. I was a bent up old paperclip. And maybe someday, someone would come along and bend me back.

“Thanks, Cocoa,” I whispered, and this time it was genuine.

“You’re still human,” she replied. I watched as she bent the paperclip again in her hands, and it wasn’t until she was done that I saw what form it took now. She handed it to me in the shape of a heart, pressed it into my palm and smiled. “Maybe you won’t be in the same shape when they’re done with you here, but you’re still human.” She got up off my bed and straightened her pajamas. “Now you can go back to staring out the window.”

She went back to her bed and I laid back down in mine, turning over the little paperclip heart in my hands. Maybe she was right. I hoped she was right. For both of us.

The next morning the paperclip heart had left an indentation in my palm where I had slept all night holding it. I sat up and looked across the room to Cocoa’s bed but the curtains were drawn and I didn’t want to wake her. I sat there staring out the window, eating breakfast, playing with my paperclip. It was after noon when I got up to use the restroom. As I passed by Cocoa’s bed, I looked through the gap in the curtains and it was empty. Apparently she had another treatment today. I hoped it went well.

Hours passed and Cocoa didn’t return. I grew restless. Finally, at dinner time, I accosted the orderly who brought me my tray. “Where’s Cocoa?” I demanded.

“You want a cup of hot chocolate?”

“No! For the love of – where is Cocoa?”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I don’t know.” And the boy left, leaving me sitting angrily in bed with a bowl of soup steaming in the tray in front of me. I took one bit of chicken and rice soup and decided to rebel. I pushed the tray away and hauled myself out of bed, using the I.V. stand for support. I shuffled my way across the room and out into the hallway, rolling doggedly towards the nurse’s station at the end. “Excuse me,” I began, but a large nurse in luridly yellow scrubs interrupted.

“Mr. Thompson, what on earth are you doing? You shouldn’t be up wandering the halls!” She came out from behind the station to usher me back to my room but I planted my feet and held on to the I.V. stand firmly.

“I want to know where Cocoa went.”

“Who?” She looked perplexed.

“Cocoa!” I repeated, feeling a lot like I was speaking a foreign language. “The young lady who shared that room with me. Where is she?”

“Oh. Marsha Sanders, you mean?”

“I never asked her real name…” I felt myself blush. Of course Cocoa wasn’t her legal name.

“ Oh, honey…” By the way her tone changed, I felt my heart sink down into the region of my navel. Suddenly my grip on the I.V. stand was slicked with sweat. “No one told you?”

“Told me…told me what…?” The world began to spin. She didn’t need to finish her sentence. I wish she hadn’t.

“Honey, Marsha did this morning, just after her treatment. I’m so sorry.”

I sat down on a chair in the hallway, clutching the I.V. stand as if it were my only anchor in a rapidly dissolving world. The nurse was speaking to me but I didn’t comprehend what she said. I just nodded along with the rhythm of her words. I felt the world slip away and slid a hand into my pajama pocket and clutched the thin paperclip heart she had given me.

A month later I found myself standing in the autumn serenity of a silent graveyard. The trees were turning orange and yellow and the grass was strewn with leaves. I was standing without the aid of an I.V. stand, without the pain of a needle in my hand, without the exhaustion that comes with being deathly ill.

I looked down at a glossy granite headstone marked “Marsha Sands” and felt the prickle of a cold breeze on my neck. In my left pocket I felt the familiar curve of the paperclip heart and squeezed it gently in my palm. Two weeks ago, the doctors discovered that my tumor was shrinking. Two weeks ago, I started to feel human again. Two hours ago, I walked out of the hospital instead of leaving in a body bag.

I bent down and set the little paperclip heart up against the cold stone just beneath her name. I didn’t need it anymore. I never got to say thank you, but I hope she understood. She had been right. I had been bent out of shape and unrecognizable, but I was still human, and she had bent me back.

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A Tumblin’ We Will Go

I did it. I created a Tumblr website.

You know me, always one step behind the curve when it comes to this social media thing. If you are a Tumblr person yourself (Tumblrite? Tumbler? Tumblogger?) feel free to follow me! I have added a little link over on the sidebar to your right, too. If you aren’t a Tumblr person (seriously, what do they call themselves?) you can still bookmark the page the old fashioned way and check it once in a while for updates.

Speaking of, I have made it my mission to post one haiku poem on my Tumblr page every day. Haiku poems, if you aren’t familiar with the style, are a concise little poetry method of Japanese origin, often centering around nature and emotions. In traditional Japanese style, they adhere to a strict 5-7-5 count for the sounds of the words. These sounds translate roughly to English as syllables. But any haiku enthusiast knows that this translation is very lose and that the essence of the poem is more important than its syllabic count.

Anyway. One haiku every day. It’s not too much to ask of myself. Hopefully you will find them enjoyable. And coming up soon I am going to post a short story I wrote today. It just needs some cleaning up before I can feel good about showing it off.

Enjoy your December, folks. It’s getting cold here!

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A Chip Off the Old Writer’s Block

In preparation for my big attempt to write a novel, I’m gonna be sharing a bit of my writing here on this blog. If you’re not a fan of short stories (and I do mean short), feel free to skip them. I won’t be offended, I promise!

All other content will continue as normal, including dream diaries once I get back into having dreams that won’t completely freak people out, and recipe posts that I have planned, random ramblings, etc. Why not toss something new into the mix, right?

To facilitate these short stories, I’m gonna use a variety of writing prompt generators. And to give credit where it is due, I will link to the prompt I used with every story I post. All of these stories will be collected on a separate page of my blog, so you can go there to view them all. Once I figure out how to do that, that is.

A bit of background: I write a lot. I never stopped writing. I switched from writing stories to writing stuff with a friend, and now I want to swing the other way again. When I think about writing a formal novel versus more informal personal writing back and forth with a friend, I start to feel all clammed up. So I’m hoping these prompts and the short stories they generate will help to loosen my mind up a bit.

The first of these short stories will be coming along soon (I think), so stick around. I plan to post about one per week, more if I am feeling insanely wordy.

PS: I was thinking of starting a tumblr account for the express purpose of posting a daily haiku. I love haiku. I love them to bits. If and when I get that going, I’ll be sure to post about it here so you can read my poetry or avoid it like swine flu. Either way 🙂

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