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The Baby and the Crystal Cube
© 2017 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Description: In The Baby and the Crystal Cube, two lucid dreamers meet in recurring dreams, fall in love, and conceive a dream baby; but the unreality of the dream world leads them to distrust each other—with nightmarish results.
THE BABY AND THE CRYSTAL CUBE
The sun’s about to set, but it’s been like that for months—or minutes, depending on how you’re counting. Time passes differently when you dream, and you can live a lifetime in the span of a few waking seconds.
I’m counting on that for my baby, so she has time to grow. She swims in a sea of amniotic dream fluid the size of a basketball inside me. I try as hard as I can to make the sun set and rise faster.
The back porch of my dream cabin is a perfect place to watch the sunset. The swing my husband hung there rocks my unborn daughter and me back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm like a cradle.
I know she’ll be beautiful. She already is. I talked to her. But she’s sleeping now, inside me. The second trimester was exhausting, and I’m afraid of getting tired and falling awake.
The swing. It’s making me drift off. I stop it and stand, and the sun moves again. Down, I tell it. Down. When it resists the order, when brute force makes it push against me even harder, a wave of my hand turns the horizon into a bowl, ready to receive the sun. Inviting it. Enticing it.
The sun cannot resist sinking into that terrestrial womb. The last ray of its surrender glints on the ruby-red cube perched quietly on the porch railing. A tiny version of the sun crawls along the cube’s edge, arming itself with hundreds of spikes of light before terminating at the point and vanishing.
I won’t hold the cube. Not again.
I wouldn’t dream of it.
The first morning of the lucid dreaming study, Drake scowled at me from across the round table and said, “Castaneda was full of shit. It’s pure fiction.”
“But the technique has potential. Look at your hands when you get lucid, to maintain it. I’m not arguing about his—”
He didn’t let me finish. “The method is no better than any other. It’s worse than some.”
I’d like to tell you we met somewhere romantic, but Professor Delnin’s laboratory was more like a 24-hour business meeting in an operating room. We were the patients: me, Drake, and half a dozen other lucid dreamers. The idea was to see if we could achieve co-lucidity; that is, becoming lucid as a group in dreams we shared.
We were all graduate students hoping to earn a few bucks over the summer. Being lab rats for a week sounded like a good idea. Sleeping on the job was a requirement.
So were the interminable meetings.
“Drake,” the professor interjected. With one finger, he pushed his thick-lensed glasses back up the bridge of his nose to be framed by his bushy, salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “Aimee’s presented one idea. Did you have another suggestion?”
The professor made nine of us in the room. We students slept in his machine the night before to calibrate his measurements and make sure everyone was comfortable. He had sat on a platform full of computers, monitoring us. We slept in a circle around him, in a ring of eight capsules wired back to the consoles in the middle like tentacles leading to a central brain.
We called the set-up the octopus, and the nickname was more than visually accurate. Each of us was like a distributed brain on a network, resembling how neurons distribute throughout the tentacles of the sea’s most famous cephalopod.
“Forget it,” said Drake. “It doesn’t matter. We can all agree to look at our hands, or we can all agree to do anything as a focal point to get lucid. But it’s not what we do. It’s where we do it.”
“You’re right,” the old man realized. “Every meeting needs a location.”
“And every location on a network,” said Drake, “needs an address.”
Drake annoyed me, but he was right, and he had a terrific jawline. I suggested the address for our group experiment. “Let’s make it memorable: 221B Baker Street. London.”
Remember when I said Drake and I didn’t meet anywhere romantic? I meant the first time we met. London was much more romantic.
“Aimee? Is that you?” The disheveled beggar who shuffled toward me on the sidewalk would have been more regally robed in thrown-out dish rags than the smelly scraps shrouding his face. But I recognized the voice.
“Drake?” I placed my hand on the beggar’s shoulder and sought his eyes. “Drake, what are you doing like that?”
The beggar raised his face to mine, and the cloth fell away. The face was wood, and utterly devoid of features, like the poseable figurines artists use to model people.
I gasped and withdrew my hand. The puppet man stumbled away, as if also frightened. He waved me off with one fingerless hand, like a flipper on his wrist.
Laughter and the rapid clicking of leather-soled shoes on cobblestone approached from behind. “Not him,” said Drake. “Me!” He ran to my side and bent over, placing his hands on his thighs for support while he caught his breath. “Why would I dream I look like that?”
His tailored suit adorned him in stately black and white, from collar to toe. I said, “You look like you’re on your way to a wedding.”
“It was the most Victorian thing I could imagine on short notice. You don’t like it?”
Down the street, the wooden beggar fumbled the lid on a rubbish bin. The lid clattered along the cobblestones to the horizon. The bin tipped over and spilled all over the stranger’s feet. It spewed more waste than it could possibly have the volume to contain.
With a pang of nausea, I averted my eyes. They fell on the sign on the door whose stoop we occupied. “Look at that,” I said. “We did it. 221B!”
“I told you.” Drake smiled that self-assured smile of his I would later come to hate him for. “Let’s go inside and check it out!”
“What about the others? Shouldn’t we wait for them?”
“Those deadbeats? It’d be a miracle if any of them get lucid at all.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
Sherlock wasn’t home, so we snooped through papers he’d left strewn about his room. Then we dreamed our way through London. We rode the giant Ferris wheel that didn’t exist in Holmes’ day. We took a horse-drawn carriage across the Thames and jumped off the Tower Bridge to see if we could fly together. The Queen’s Guard kicked us off the tour group at Buckingham Palace for singing Sex Pistols at the top of our lungs, and it was probably the best week of my life.
Then we woke up.
The morning meeting with Professor Delnin might as well have lasted a week, too. He wanted to talk about everything. Why did only two of us meet up? Why not all eight? Did anyone else get lucid without making the rendezvous? What happened in London? Were we sure it was a whole week?
Across the round table from me, Drake’s face sagged. He slumped over his little paper cup of black coffee and couldn’t muster the energy to sip. The steam fogged his glasses and his hair looked oily. Pointy flakes of dry skin hung trapped in the greasy spaces where his scalp poked through thinning hair.
The lab had bathrooms where early risers could freshen up before the meetings, take a shower, and brush their teeth. I hadn’t done any of that or even put on makeup. After a week of seeing a perfect complexion in mirrors all over London and none of those blemishes I can never get rid of, and not a hint of those dark, baggy circles under my eyes—I just didn’t have the energy to try that morning.
Someone should have put that in the meeting notes, but it never came up. Delnin wrote page after page of notes, and none of them contained the four words every lucid dreamer needs to understand before diving in headfirst to do what we did.
Reality is a disappointment.
Later that night, asleep in the octopus, Drake and I took a three-month cruise around the world. We visited countries that don’t exist, drove on roads no human ever built, and caught a bunch of bands you’ll never hear of in Europe.
We shared a cabin, which gave us privacy from the other passengers and the crew. But when we wanted the run of the ship, I just dreamed those people away. We didn’t need them. It was our dream, not theirs.
The first time he was inside me was in our cabin, and it happened so quickly I can’t remember how we started. We didn’t make it onto the navy-blue sheets and striped pillows on the bed. We did it standing up against the tiny refrigerator like our lives depended on it and we couldn’t be bothered to get our clothes off. But suddenly, I was scared and naked.
“Drake, wait. Wait!” He did, which meant a lot to me. “This is out of control.”
He stepped away, just far enough to give me space so I could face him. “Aimee! Wow. What are we doing?”
I slapped my open palm onto his chest with a sharp smack and left it there. “As if you don’t know!”
He laughed with me. We sat next to each other on the bed. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“You totally meant to.”
He coughed. “I did totally mean to. Do we have any more cigarettes on this boat?”
“They’re not good for you.”
“Aren’t they? It’s just a dream, Aimee. Nothing here can really hurt you. Right?” He kicked his feet lazily back and forth over the side of the bed like a kid.
I rested a hand on his. “But it is real here. We’ve become conscious inside the unconscious. We think and feel. We’re aware. What isn’t real about it?”
He sat still for a moment and pondered. “Maybe instead of real, we should say ‘waking’ versus dreaming.”
“Then promise me you won’t start waking smoking.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because,” I said, stretching out on the bed to reach under the pillow, “you are going to love these.” A pack of cigarettes materialized in my hand, and I drew it out. The pack bore a blue hammer logo, matching the color of our décor, and the name of the brand I dreamed up for him.
He did not need his glasses to see it. “Coffin Nails!” He laughed so hard he couldn’t catch the pack when I threw it at him, and it bounced off his chest onto the floor. “You’re getting good at that. Making things.” He got up and bent over to pick the pack off the floor. His body had become increasingly supple and firm as our dream voyage progressed.
“Thank you! But you’re on your own for a light.”
“That’s just mean.” He pulled out a single cigarette, flipped it over, and slid it back inside. He closed the pack. “Maybe I can find a light on deck.”
“Good luck. I’m scared to make fire. I don’t know if I could control it. Things happen here, and my emotions get all distorted. Jacked up. Extreme. I can’t even tell if anything makes sense.”
He laid down beside me, propping his head on one arm. “I know what you mean. Feelings get distorted just like space does. Or time. Or even objects.”
“Or identity. Haven’t you ever dreamed you were someone else—some kind of character? Or watched your own dream from a third-person perspective?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s all another layer of distortion.”
But I felt like I knew who I was so long as he was there with me, and that feeling drew me closer to him. “There must be a thousand rooms on this ship, Drake. It couldn’t possibly be constructed in the waking world the way we experience it here.”
“And it changes daily. Or hourly. Aimee.” He took my hand and kissed my fingers lightly. “I’m sorry we got carried away. But I’m not sorry.”
That earned him a playful smack on his bottom. I climbed on top of him and pinned him down. “I guess it’s the ultimate form of safe sex, isn’t it?”
Though I held his arms, he managed a shrug. “What’s the worst that can happen? We can’t get STIs from a dream. There’s no pregnancy scare. No complications. It’s at least as safe as smoking your imaginary Coffin Nails.”
“Did you just compare sex with me to smoking?”
He wasn’t threatened by my scowl. “I think it’s amazing how you make things, and what I want you to make next is love to me.”
For the next two months, that’s exactly what we did.
It’s how I got pregnant.
Delnin’s meeting dragged itself like a wounded animal across the morning’s highway. After months of living on the ultimate cruise ship, the routine at the round table felt like a transfer to a penal colony. It didn’t help that Drake and I were disheveled, bleary-eyed, and generally about as useless as a pair of umbrellas in a tornado.
We did not repeat our mistake of the previous day, which was honesty and forthrightness that took up the entire morning. Instead, we stuck to a simple version we agreed on before waking.
“We did meet,” Drake told the professor, “and we walked on a beach. We picked shells out of the sand and threw them back at the water. Then we were running through the surf like a couple of kids, and that’s the last I remember.”
Delnin rapidly scribbled notes in a bland notebook. Its monotonous pages matched the dull color of Drake’s coffee cup and the blasé acoustic ceiling tiles, the boring whiteboard with faded scraps of things once written and half-erased into ghosts of dreams you can’t quite remember. I felt like I was about to puke.
The professor wanted to know all the details about the beach, and the shells we threw. I rubbed my eyes while slurring out details that sounded vaguely dreamy.
The other students must have hated us, getting all the attention for co-lucidity while they reported a mundane parade of archetypes, fantasies, and cigar-shaped objects.
One of them reported she made something out of nothing in her dream. I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up. I wanted to go back to sleep.
When I arrived at 221B that night, Drake wasn’t there. I sat on the front steps in a white dress that would have turned heads at a Renaissance Fair. I’d filled it with an overflowing mass of cleavage I simply didn’t own in waking, and topped it off with a hairstyle that was physically impossible. A massive bun gathered in curls on the back of my head and spilled in meter-long rivulets twisting in the sullen London breeze.
The city was too dreary. I drew my hand across the horizon and cleared the clouds completely. They revealed a sun which shone with a brightness and clarity rarely seen in England’s green and pleasant land of soul-crushing drizzle.
There. Sunny London. Just right.
Terrible shrieks pulled me to my feet. Lifting my skirts and ruffles, I ran toward the din. The cobblestone street led to a shipyard where anachronistic oil tankers sat alongside wooden docks like sentries. I cursed them for neglecting their duties.
The screaming continued. With the irrational certainty of the dreaming mind, I knew it came from inside a foreboding warehouse whose windows stared blankly over the displaced sea like the eyes of dead men. The building loomed, a black colossus in my suddenly sunny London, and I vowed to remove its blight from my paradise.
With a wave of my hand, the oaken crossbar and the chains securing it exploded, taking the massive double doors with them. Splinters shot through the air around me like the arrows of a million archers. All of them missed their target.
Advancing unscathed through the debris, I called out, “Drake! Drake! Where are you?”
“Aimeeeeee,” came the reply—a forlorn distortion of the vowels in my name, like a wind howling down icy fjords in a frozen hell. He screamed again, and this time the blood in my veins turned to steel and rage as if I were a mother bear in chains watching her cubs hacked to pieces in front of her.
Worse, the shriek came from everywhere at once. Drake’s voice was not in a single location, but distributed throughout the entire structure. “Drake! Tell me what happened! Retrace your steps!”
A silence more miserable than his caterwauling confronted me. A single door glowed with a sickly, greenish light—the door to the men’s toilet, judging from the sign before the light became too blinding to penetrate with eyes alone.
Pushing through the luminescence which beat on me like a cyclone, I forced my way into the room. Human filth and excrement caked its walls. All the sinks and toilets had been ripped from their bases to reveal mangled, rusted pipes. They teemed with giant roaches and deformed beetles from the diary of a psychotic entomologist.
The far wall exposed a gaping hole leading into some place dark and indistinct, and it terrified me. Drake was in there. I swallowed my fear and drowned it in a pool of black water deep inside me where no light shined at all, and I stepped in.
Drake’s smell hung in the air. Not his dream scent, the one like sandalwood and spicy musk, but the other one he had at morning meetings. I didn’t like it, but it grounded me. My emotions were getting out of control.
Blowing things up. Fjords from hell. Drowning in black pools. This wasn’t me. This was the dream cranking the volume up to eleven on my feelings.
“Fuck you, dreamland. Where’s Drake?” When I received no answer, I summoned a ball of fire into the palm of my left hand and held it before me, above eye level, like a torch.
Yes, I was afraid it would get out of control. Or burn me. But into the darkness I pressed, and if it did not want me there, then too bad for it. This was my dream. It belonged to me.
My improvised torch revealed a narrowing passage. The walls refused to behave. They bent into octagonal hallways where I met door after endless door. Through them I persevered into increasingly narrow and angular spaces. I stooped, then crouched, then crawled on my hands and knees.
The corridors forced me onto my stomach, making me worry about the baby inside me. I was just beginning to show. I dragged myself along by my elbows.
What kind of hell was I in, and how could this maze possibly fit inside the warehouse? It went on for hours. Or kilometers. What was the difference? Time was space, and space was a dimension of time. They obeyed no rules. Not any sane ones.
Drake’s intermittent shouts devolved into pathetic sobbing that made me wish for more screaming. I wanted to raise my fist and smash it into the terrifying crawlspace, but I lacked room to raise my arm more than a few centimeters. It was a claustrophobe’s nightmare.
“Shit.” I ended my struggle into the impenetrable passageways. “That’s exactly what it is. Think, Aimee. This isn’t just your dream. This is Drake’s nightmare, and all you’re doing is getting trapped inside it.”
Emotions were the problem. I wasn’t really limited by the confinement. I only faced the feeling of being trapped. Restrained. Afraid.
“I’ll show you fear, you goddamn warehouse.” I clenched my fist and gave no thought to the fact that I could barely wiggle it in the enclosure. I focused on the fear I endured for months the night before: the fear of letting loose with fire, the fear of being out of control, the fear of making something I could never unmake or force to stop.
I focused on the ball of fire in my hand, and I feared its awesome power with all my heart.
It grew from a torchlight to a blazing inferno, to a roaring volcano, then a supernova. Nothing of London survived its wrath. It wiped the stars from the sky and the blackness from the places between the stars.
It left nothing but an infinite plain surrounded by a stark, white light.
“Lover,” I said. “Come to me.”
In the center of that edgeless ivory expanse, Drake curled in a ball with his hands over his face.
I rushed to his side. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. It’s just a dream.”
He unwound from his fetal position and surveyed the glowing blankness around us. He placed his hand on my cheek as if he couldn’t believe I was real. “Aimee! I was trapped. I was in these tunnels that kept getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t—”
I threw my arms around him. “Drake, I love you so much.” I think he believed it.
Sadly, so did I.
After the morning meeting with Professor Delnin, I went to Drake’s apartment for the first time. It was a sparse little studio you’d expect from a broke graduate student: a mattress on the floor, posters framed on the wall (not tacked up, thankfully), mismatched dinnerware strewn upon the furniture in clusters around cups with parched, brown layers at the bottom—coffee rapidly returning to its solid form.
It didn’t matter. After a week in London, a quarter year on a worldwide cruise, and the aftermath of the warehouse incident, I needed him inside me for real—or, I should say, for waking.
He locked the door behind us, tossed his keys on the table of his kitchen/living-room combo, and my hands were under his shirt pulling him to me.
We ended up on his twin mattress with the two pillows that were too skinny and the comforter that smelled musty, and I couldn’t get wet. Drake had a half-empty bottle of lube for me, but I swore I’d smack him if he fumbled the penetration one more time.
I got on top. “Let me do this.” I meant it to be confident. But it came out critical, as if I’d appended my words with you incompetent fuck.
A cloud passed over Drake’s face, and he could not meet my eyes. Then he wasn’t hard anymore, and I rolled off him in frustration.
Instead of spooning with me, he turned away and curled up on his side.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just go to sleep.”
That solved everything. For a few hours.
At the end of the week, we left the old professor slightly wiser than when we’d met him, but not nearly as wise as if we had been honest about our final night in the study: our honeymoon.
I don’t want to make it sound like we got dream married just because the sex was amazing, but let’s be honest. We got married because the dream sex was absolutely amazing.
In the dream, whatever awkwardness we felt at Drake’s apartment disappeared. I had an orgasm with an intensity I never believed possible. His arms encircled me, and his scruffy cheek pressed to mine and scratched it. He said, “I love you so much, Aimee.”
He was inside me, and my baby was inside me, too. My dreaming body had become the nexus of an entirely new kind of family, one that lived and breathed in a realm of ideals and emotions. I never felt so close to anyone in my life.
My husband tensed, trembled, and emptied himself into me again, and I whispered, “Drake, we’re a family now.”
The sun was made of lava and poured through pixelated caverns in the sky. I dreamed I was a canyon, and Drake was the river flowing through me. We were the earth, and we were one.
All three of us.
Shackles bind my arms to chains that lead to iron rings set in a stone wall. Its clammy surface drips with a fungal slime. Between this wall and the one across from me lie two meters of bare stone floor. Three meters up, metal bars cross each other in a grid to let light though the single window for a few hours a day. It used to be that I could see the treetops of a distant forest, but Drake tore them all down last week in one of his tirades across the countryside.
To my right, another wall. To my left, a prison door of metal bars. Even if I had a key, I couldn’t reach it. Beyond it stands another slimy wall that fades quickly into darkness down a corridor I can’t see.
The hinges creak on the door at the end of the hall. Leaden footsteps pound with the weight of elephants. They come closer until he stands on the other side of the bars. He carries a tray of food, a cream-colored slop that drips off the edge.
I greet my husband. “Drake, you sadistic fuck! Let me out of here!”
The monster throws the tray to the floor outside the cell. He roars at me and beats his chest. He looks nothing like the man I loved.
His face resembles a gorilla’s, and black hair covers his body in a dense mat. He must weigh 150 kilos by now. But there’s something childish about his misshapen eyes, and his aggressive display irks me like a two-year-old’s tantrum.
I scream, “Look at what you’ve done to yourself! You can’t even hold on to your identity anymore!”
He grips the bars on the door in a rage, like he’s trying to tear them out of the wall. The bolts creak where the bars meet stone. I know he can tear them off. I’ve seen him do worse. He just needs some encouragement.
“Then you throw my food all over the goddamn floor, you fucking idiot! No wonder I can’t love you!”
The bars bend in his hands. He bellows so hard I can feel his rancid breath on my face. It smells like cigarettes.
“That’s right, you incompetent moron! You can’t even run a dungeon properly! You are useless!”
The building trembles, and the bars strain against their housings.
“Stupid and weak and useless!”
The ropes of ape-like muscles swell in his arms, and the entire door rips free, taking chunks of the wall with it. I turn my face away to shield my eyes. His grip encloses my head like a ball of five hairy pythons. He almost snaps my neck.
The honeymoon is definitely over.
Things started to go wrong the day the study ended.
After we finished our exit interviews, I spent the night at Drake’s. I dreamed about my baby. She grew inside me like a new organ, like an unfolding flower—someone who was me, and yet not me. Of all the things I’d made in the dreaming, she was the most wonderful.
But even without the professor to torment us, the next morning felt heavier than a bourbon hangover. Drake avoided my eyes during our desultory caffeine ritual.
“What’s wrong,” I asked, “besides the usual?”
He glanced up from his mug then looked into it again, as if consulting a crystal ball for an answer. He mumbled, “I can’t believe you said that last night.”
“You remember. In the dream. You said our sex life was terrible.”
“What? I didn’t say that. Where were we?”
“Come on, now.”
“Fine, don’t tell me.”
“We were having dinner with my parents. And you told them what it was like in bed. It was so embarrassing! Why would you—”
“Drake, we didn’t have dinner with your parents. What are you talking about?”
“How can you just deny it?”
“Because it isn’t true!” I got up to sit beside him on his couch, but he looked away from me and studied the opposite wall. So, I stood by the coffee maker next to the sink and thought for a minute.
“Listen, Drake. How do you know for sure it was me? Don’t you dream about other people all the time?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how do you know this me at your dinner party was the lucid me, and not just some dream image you conjured up like everything else?”
He set his mug on the low table in front of the couch and placed his forehead in both hands. “Aimee, that is so fucked up.”
“But you have to admit, it’s at least possible. And, I should think, a lot more possible than my lying to you. After all we’ve been through?”
Later, we tried waking sex again. I couldn’t get off. Instead of bringing us closer, it just upset him more. If I had thought about it for a couple days, things might have ended differently.
But we just went to sleep as usual. It made everything better before. Why wouldn’t it work again?
I hadn’t considered Drake’s insecurity was a kind of fear. When people are scared and insecure, they try to make themselves feel better by seizing control of a situation.
And the situation was me.
That night, we spent a week building a cabin where we could watch sunsets from the porch, swing with our baby, and rock ourselves until we fell awake. That probably sounds ideal, but it turned into a house of horrors.
Like the time I walked into the baby’s room and it was full of maggots and animal corpses. We had just painted it!
For weeks, I had found these nightmare rooms. When I slammed their doors, the hallways began twisting into Drake’s claustrophobic mazes. I could fix most of the damage, but perpetually rebuilding became a chore. What’s the point of having a dream life if all you do is bend halls back into shape after your neurotic husband’s nightmares mess them up for the millionth time?
The maggot-ridden baby room was the last straw. I confronted him in our living room. “Drake, you’ve got to get a grip. This phobia you have is wrecking the cabin. It’s all wrong all the time!”
“And that’s my fault? This is your dream, too, Aimee. Your rooms full of nightmares. A baby crib full of death? That’s you dreaming that!”
“I would never—”
“Bullshit! You’re terrified something’s going to hurt her, or that you’re about to fuck it all up.”
He might have been right. He might have been wrong. But he was definitely grabbing my arm, and I didn’t like it. “Get your hands off me.”
“Why? Are you scared?”
Fear ran through my bones like a cold electric current. My powerlessness angered me. My wife was a complete bitch.
Wait. I am the wife.
I slapped his face. “Let me go!”
He hit me back with a closed fist. “You like it rough?” He shoved me backwards until the wall stopped us, and his body pressed against mine. “Is that what gets you off?!”
I pushed back, but he was heavier than before. Bigger. Hairier. “Damn you!”
Drake answered not with a curse but a savage roar. His body and his face changed, transforming into something stronger and more brutish, like a Cro-Magnon devolving into his primate ancestors.
He pinned me to the wall and tore at my clothes, and I feared for my baby.
I felt what Drake felt: frightened by a loss of control, and angry. With impossible strength, I pushed him away. He flew backwards like a missile into the wall. It caved at the impact like a moon crater, and a chunk of the ceiling the size of a semi-truck fell on him.
The house groaned. It pulsed all around me, like a beating heart. Deep in its labyrinthine rooms, nightmares blossomed and bore terrifying fruit. As the dust settled on my buried husband, I shut my eyes and turned my attention to the cabin.
Every door on every room slammed shut and locked at my command. Behind their wooden portals stormed a menagerie of demons, corpses, soldiers with their eyes torn out stripping the skin from babies, angry mobs hanging their scapegoats with barbed wire instead of rope, mothers drowning their children in boiling water, fathers beating their daughters with baseball bats.
With an involuntary shudder, I opened my eyes. My daughter would suffer no such fate.
The pile of rubble stirred. A malevolent beast howled his thirst for vengeance. The broken beams and rafters tumbled from the pile.
Drake was still alive, but he no longer resembled the man I married. Shaking off the debris that crumbled away and thundered on the floor, he rose to his feet to face me.
Breathing laboriously, he found the clarity to speak words instead of grunts. “You,” he said. “I’ll show you.” He picked up a rafter from the floor and swung it about, destroying everything in his reach.
My dream cabin started coming down around my ears. Dropping to one knee, I crouched and covered my head. It was no good. I had to get out.
I should have forced myself to wake up. But any judgment of my actions must consider this was not merely my dream. It was ours.
Just like in the warehouse, emotion gipped me, a collaborative emotion growing out of the co-lucidity. Drake’s frustration and my fear, the suspicion I was to blame for all this, they fed off each other. They made a feedback loop, intensifying our feelings until rationality evaporated.
From my crouch, I gathered my strength and shot like a bullet through the ceiling and into the sky.
The thing Drake had become burst from the cabin a moment later in a wild frenzy. He began demolishing the dreamland, uprooting trees, throwing boulders, and pounding mountains with his huge, hairy fists.
He was so bent on destruction he forgot about me. I took a deep breath and descended to the ground beside him. “Drake, you maniac! Stop!”
My proximity did nothing to quell his anger. When I tried to place a hand on his shoulder, he hurled me away. I tumbled across a field of Venus flytraps and tombstones.
I needed to get away from him, get space to clear my mind and focus. His emotions overflowing onto mine weren’t helping anything. They only locked us tighter into the unreasoning dream.
And that was the key. I couldn’t overcome the dream. It was too powerful. I needed to accept the troubling emotions it brought me. Brute force was not the answer, but receptivity.
Receptivity, and separation. I rose to my feet and shouted, “What do you want, Drake? Do you want me to be your slave? Your prisoner? Fine!”
I did what he could not, and let go of my fear of imprisonment. I choose my jail and summoned it into existence: a sturdy stone fortress with bars on the windows and locks on the doors. It rose all around me from the ground, wall by wall, turret by turret, until it towered overhead.
Drake accepted its reality. It fit his paranoid fantasy, and his belief I was to blame for his feelings of inadequacy. After all, the guilty deserve to be punished.
I made myself a dungeon, and decorated accordingly. As my husband lost himself in a month-long rampage across the landscape, I meditated, gathered my thoughts and feelings, and put them back in order.
I needed to wake up, but not as badly as Drake. His monstrous form and boundless hate made him feel powerful, so much more than in the waking. He could lose himself in it. Maybe he already had. But he was my husband, and I couldn’t ignore the possibility he might never wake up voluntarily.
When I was ready to confront him, I called out for food. “Drake, I’m starving! You’re murdering me! Is that what you want? How can I love you if I die?”
Then we dreamed he brought me food, and I taunted him. He tore the door off, and nearly tore my head off, too.
Better for him if he had.
I called up the fire into my right hand and pressed it against his face. “Wake up, Drake!”
The stench of burning hair would have sickened me if Drake didn’t do much worse, thrashing my body back and forth about the stone cell like a child beating the walls with a doll. Then the fire grew, and it covered me.
Drake’s flesh seared. He flung me away. My skull struck the wall. My ears rang, and his bellowing did not help. Pushing off the stones, as the flames cascaded upward from my skin and snapped in the air, I had words with the father of my child. His were incoherent, bestial things. Mine were, “Wake the fuck up!”
Even a monster could burn. He backed away.
“That’s right, you sick bastard. Wake up!”
The heat blistered his shrieking face, and I pressed the advantage. I struck him again. The flames grew white hot until his hideous, primitive form disintegrated to reveal the naked man inside.
I woke with a start, already in motion, flinging off the smelly comforter and pouncing on Drake. He put his arms over his face to block my swinging fists. I pummeled him anyway. “You son of a bitch!”
He shouted my name and a string of curses. “Stop! Stop! What is wrong with you?”
“Beating me up and threatening me? Wrecking my cabin? Ripping my goddamn head off?!”
“What are you talking about?”
If he had so much as raised a hand against me, I would have bashed his brain with a desk lamp. But he didn’t fight back. I relented.
“Aimee, what the hell?” He kept his arms over his face.
“Months I put up with your shit!” Exasperated, I got to my feet.
From his mattress on the floor, he asked, “What happened?”
I told him, and didn’t finish half of it before he denied it.
“This is the same thing that happened yesterday,” he interrupted. “Just like when I thought it was you at the dinner party.”
That caught me off-guard. I settled onto the floor next to his mattress and studied his eyes and lips.
“You can’t seriously believe I would do stuff like that to you.” He turned away as if I’d hurt more than his face. “Or be some kind of monster.”
“Drake.” His bare shoulder begged for my touch, but I drew my hand away. “I can’t deal with this before coffee.”
Disappointment awaited me in the kitchen. “You’re out of coffee!”
Drake groped the floor near his alarm clock to find his glasses, peeled himself off the mattress, and drifted into the kitchen like a dead animal floating on the open sea. “I’ll go get some. Store should be open.” He grabbed a grey hoodie and pulled a pack of cigarettes from its pocket. He slapped the top of the box half-heartedly against an open palm.
I’d never seen him with a waking pack of cigs before. “I’ll go with you.”
He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “No, I’ll just go,” he huffed. “I’m not useless.”
The door slammed behind him with the force of a petulant child throwing his toys.
I’m not useless. The phrase stopped me colder than the slamming door. Useless.
I peeked through the blinds on the living-room window. Off-white slats parted to reveal Drake’s car, two stories down in the parking lot, crawling past the apartments and slithering onto the main street.
Why would he choose that exact phrase? The same words I yelled at him in the dungeon? The same insult I yelled at him in a dream he said he never joined me in? I hadn’t even told him about the dungeon before he interrupted—
I set Drake’s alarm clock for five minutes later. It wasn’t much time, but once I fell asleep, I could gain weeks to do what I needed. Not just for myself, but for my baby—my daughter, now into her second trimester in the dreaming. It wasn’t safe for her there with that maniac around.
I fell to sleep and got to work.
Drake returned 27 minutes later, smelling like an ashtray.
The stink made me heave. I kissed him on the cheek. “What do you say we get drunk? I’ll buy.”
Men don’t mind running errands if there’s booze in it for them. I sent him back out with a pair of 20s from my purse. He returned with a liter of vodka and a 12-pack of beer.
We drank until he passed out.
I became lucid at 221B. “Drake! Where are you?”
He emerged from the door of an eye-glass shop at the far end of the street. He walked toward me, instead of flying. Were his powers in the dream devolving? Or just his self-image?
I pulled down the front of my Ren Fair blouse. “See anything you like?”
He tried to touch me, but I pulled away. “You’re not going to lose your temper, are you?”
“Don’t toy with me, Aimee. Come here.”
“Maybe I don’t like being ordered around.”
He replied with a growl that rumbled through the streets all the way to the anachronistic shipyard. His fingers curled into fists.
“That’s what I thought.” For the last time, I turned the brass knob at 221B and flung open the door. “Come and get me. If you’re man enough.” His roar rang in my ears, and the clatter of my shoes up the wooden steps to Holmes’ room was matched by the stomping of huge, hairy feet behind me.
He was already growing larger when he hit the doorway into the detective’s study. His massive bulk rammed the wood frame. The force cracked the plaster on the walls, but they held.
Drake squeezed through the entrance to Holmes’ room in a rage, and nothing was safe from his swinging, simian fists. He knocked over a table, shattering its kerosene lamp on the floor, scattering vials and beakers and notebooks from Holmes’ experiments. Drake ripped the bookshelves down from the wall. They crushed the books that tumbled out of them.
From the next room, I called, “I’m not impressed!” I dashed out the back door. It led up another flight of stairs.
Drake charged through the room behind me and forced his way into the stairwell. Its narrow ascent frustrated him even more. The steps went up for half a kilometer, where they angled off to some unseen destination.
“It’s getting tight in here, monkey boy. Why don’t you go back the way you came?”
His fear of the enclosure overcame his rage, and the monster twisted his head around to peer over his shoulder.
I waved my hand in a circle and drew it into a fist. The staircase behind him sealed shut.
“Aimeeeee,” he shouted, and charged.
I abandoned running and flew up the stairwell faster than he could climb. At the turning point, a door led into an even narrower tunnel with uneven, reflective sides, an octagonal tube of mirrors. My image appeared on a thousand surfaces.
Drake huffed outside the door, flexing his gorilla nostrils and breathing heavily. “You can’t trap me here,” he said. “I can just wake up.”
“Can you? Why don’t you try?”
The twisted grimace on that ape-like face would have been comical if not for the storm of fear and frustration that blew up in his eyes.
“Go ahead, big man. Wake up!”
He smashed his fist into the wall, which did not crack. “What did you do?!”
“Arrr!” He beat the unyielding wall again. “What did you do?!”
“Drugged the shit out of you while we were drinking. You couldn’t wake up now if the goddamn house was on fire. Get the picture?”
He screamed, “I’ll kill you!” Into the tunnel he pursued me.
The maze I led him through almost got me lost, too—even though I’d built it. It took weeks in the dreaming, during my five-minute nap. In that time, I pondered a question the philosophy majors had beaten like a dead horse for centuries: could an all-powerful being create a rock so heavy she couldn’t move it?
They would have been jealous of my having a world where I could do original research on the topic. For my proof of concept, I created a dream substance so durable I couldn’t break it.
I built Drake’s nightmare from it.
He chased me through kilometers of twisting corridors which grew smaller as they receded behind him until, at last, he was wedged in tight. Immobilized. He seethed.
Being smaller, I was ahead of him by a meter—close enough to smell the hate-filled terror in his sweat, but not close enough to touch. I pressed my back to the wall of the dead end I’d led him to. “This is where I get out.”
His unearthly throat poured out a stream of pre-linguistic curses from a species of brutes.
“It’s too bad it had to be like this, Drake. But I have my daughter to think about. Good-bye.” The wall behind me swung open like a hatch. I leapt into damp London air and slammed the hatch closed. Lifting my arms, I summoned four sheets of ruby-red crystal down from the grey sky. Each was 20 meters high and just as wide.
They dropped vertically like guillotine blades, with a resounding thunder, enclosing the property on Baker Street on all four sides. A fifth sheet of crystal dropped horizontally to cover the top. Drake, in the heat of the chase into the building, had failed to notice the entire foundation had been replaced with a similar sheet of crystal.
There it was, my proof of concept: unbreakable dream crystal. I traced lines in the air with my index finger, and all along the cube’s edges flared a radiance with the intensity of an enormous arc welder. The cube sealed at the seams. I couldn’t break the stuff, but I could bond it to itself. And I could resize it.
The cube shrank until it was small enough to hold in my hand. I can’t imagine the effect on Drake as his enclosure grew ever tighter, taking him with it. But perhaps it wasn’t complete torture. Just as time inside a dream can be longer than the time which passes in waking, objects in dreams can hold more volume inside than they appear to on the outside.
Either way, my baby and I were safe. I plucked the cube from the ground and flew back to my cabin. There, I repaired all of Drake’s destruction and architectural distortions before watching the sunset.
A whisper flowed from inside me. “Mama.”
Holding my belly, I considered attempting to dream about giving birth right then, but my daughter wasn’t some inanimate object to be manipulated. Like her lucidly dreaming parents, she was a consciousness inside the unconscious.
But I could exert control over the dream. That’s when I started speeding up time until I was too exhausted to do it anymore, and I fell awake.
Drake curled like a fetus on his inadequate mattress, drugged out of his mind. Maybe if we’d taken the time to get to know each other in the waking, outside of the Delnin study and his bachelor hovel, he would have known my purse held a travelling pharmacy.
Mom’s sleeping pills I stole so she wouldn’t accidentally overdose. Anti-depressants I bought from a girl in political science lecture. Hydrocodone I didn’t take when I got a tooth pulled. Liquid morphine I took from Gramma’s medicine cabinet when she was on hospice.
Drake looked so peaceful. I was tempted to make my own chemical cocktail for the road. Then I considered suffocating him with his pillow.
Instead, I walked out. I wanted to have my baby. I wanted to meet my daughter and hold her close. I wanted to go the hell back to sleep.
I left Drake’s door unlocked, in case the pillow idea sounded better a few hours later.
Never See the Night © 2017 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Description: An interplanetary biologist locks himself in a fortified research lab with an alien octopus, stranding his teammates outside in the path of a ferocious hurricane on a water-covered world. The animal already killed one of them, and the scientist-commandos must get inside to confront it, or die in the storm. But the octopus has plans of its own, because it just discovered a new species, too: humans.
NEVER SEE THE NIGHT
“We’re trapped on this rock until we can figure out how to get back in there.” Lieutenant Aoto wiped saltwater spray from his faceplate. Waves splashed the rocky plateau from 500 meters below. A single human-made structure populated the planet labeled Gelnikov 14 on official charts—a fortified research lab Aoto and his two corporals could no longer enter.
Aoto’s team was one of many exploring potentially habitable planets in the sector. Hundreds of scientist-commandos traveled in one carrier ship to a given sector, then dispersed into small units to examine as many worlds as possible. If any held special promise, researchers on less-promising worlds combined forces and worked together.
But during preliminary explorations, each team was isolated. Signals took days to travel from planet to planet or back to the main carrier, and then there was travel time to consider.
Braxton smashed his gloved palm against the card reader to the left of the hexagonal door frame. Nothing happened. “How’s he defeating our blasted keys? There’s no point in having a mag-stripe in your glove if the damn thing won’t work!”
Sarafina scowled as Braxton repeated the entry method she had already abandoned. “He’d have to tamper with the code to defeat all the redundancies in the security system. But he’s not that smart.”
Braxton scoffed. “I thought he was a bloody genius.”
“In his field,” said Sarafina. “And his field isn’t hacking encrypted systems.”
“You should know, Sara. Weren’t you his little thing back at the Academy?”
“Ram it, Brax. That was a long time ago.”
“Fine. I’ll get rammed. We’re all dead anyway when the storm hits.”
Aoto frowned inside his helmet. “How long do we have?”
The station sat like a fortress overlooking a kingdom where every horizon was the sea. Two moons hung above it, low and heavy in the sky, their craters visible to the naked eye. They were simply too big for this planet, and the team had calculated their orbits would decay and bring them crashing into the worldwide ocean within a few hundred million years. As the twin moons orbited Gelnikov 14, their competing gravities gave birth to tidal forces that periodically swept the planet with cyclonic winds and waves as big as mountains.
The impregnable research lab could withstand the severe climates of almost any planet. The ship which delivered the team to this oceanic tombstone had bolted the station into the rock with metal rods a meter in diameter and twenty meters deep. That same ship would return one month from its date of departure, after depositing similar stations on other worlds.
Braxton consulted his chart. “We’ve got about thirty minutes. Then hold onto your skivvies, because you, me, and the lovely Corporal Sarafina are all getting blown right into the drink. We’ll be up to our bollocks in brine and done for. You saw the last one.”
The previous hurricane tore every last pebble and mote of dust from the few ragged peaks jutting out of the extra-solar Panthalassa. Nothing survived more than two weeks on those islands—not barnacles, not even bacteria. Only the sea held life. Only the sea, and the station.
“I did see,” said Aoto, “and that’s why we’re getting back in that lab. And if you have any more cheerful descriptions about this team dying, you can ram them. That’s an order.”
“Sir.” Braxton glared, but he shut up.
“As much as I hate to agree,” said Sarafina, “he’s right about the storm. We get in, or else.”
“I wasn’t bloody wrong,” said Braxton.
“Listen, you two.” Aoto frowned. “Hisako’s dead. But we’re still alive. Now quit your pissing contest and think of something!”
The first thing Sarafina thought of was Hisako’s mutilated body lying in a pool of her own blood and half-eaten organs. Then Sarafina thought of the animal that killed her friend, and the man who locked himself inside the station with it.
It was true she had gone to the Academy with Cedric. It was also true he was not smart enough to code the kind of virus he would need to defeat the security system controlling entry to the station. “We don’t have any explosives at all?”
Aoto pulled a standard-issue plasma rifle from its housing on his back. He considered recommending to Central that regulation field gear should include demolition supplies. “Besides our rifles, we’re not geared for anything but a routine reading and instrument calibration. Even if we could blow a hole in the door, we’d destroy the only thing that can keep us alive.”
“If we could tamp the charge, we could minimize the—”
“I have a lovely bedsheet,” Braxton interrupted. “We can tack it up over your huge ramming hole in the door when the hurricane comes to kill us! Sod it!”
Aoto ignored the outburst. “Sara, what could have gotten into him? What can he possibly be thinking?”
“Maybe he isn’t,” she said. “Maybe that animal is thinking for him. Haven’t you noticed how weird he’s been acting around it since we reeled it in?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Look at the blood trail on the ground! Hisako came from inside the station, already wounded. Look at her! She’s been torn apart by something wild. Not a weapon.” By his silence, Sarafina knew Aoto understood. “Lieutenant, if he’s cracked the security protocol, he’s either the luckiest gambler alive, or he had help. And I sure as hell don’t think either of you is using him to commit suicide.”
Braxton said, “Hisako, maybe?”
“Never,” said Aoto.
“Nah, I guess not.” Braxton shrugged. “She never seemed like the type who would even break the rules, let alone ram her whole crew on a piss-poor planet like this hole.”
“She wouldn’t break the rules,” Aoto agreed, “but she’d damn well be prepared for anything.”
“Anything except getting eaten.”
“You are a pig,” said Sarafina.
“And pigs can’t swim, mate. So unless you’re in the mood for a wee dip—”
Aoto raised his voice. “She would have been prepared. She would have had her own key.”
Sarafina said, “You’re right, Lieutenant. Even her redundancies had redundancies. She always had a back door.”
“We need to find it.” A shadow descended over the faceplate on Aoto’s helmet, blocking his eyes and then his entire face from view. “Fast.”
Cedric wasn’t thinking about Hisako’s corpse. He had liked her. It wasn’t that. She was a fine addition to the crew, and one of the most expert microbiologists he ever served with. She also specialized in coding, and her skills were legendary among even the youngest cadets at the Academy. No one knew more about the station’s computer protocols than she did.
But Cedric’s thoughts simply did not wander near the red pool of blood waiting in his memory. For a dozen minutes, his train of thought ran along tracks which offered no window into the plight of his teammates locked outside, either.
The station, too, would soon be windowless when it sealed against the hurricane. Even the narrow blades of sunlight cutting through transparent, shatterproof slits would soon be blocked out. Every last gasket, vent, and portal would lock down to withstand anything short of a meteoric collision.
Cedric had no doubt the station could survive a cataclysm, even if the entire structure broke off with a chunk of the island still bolted to the bottom. Being tossed about by currents and wind would make him physically ill, but he could strap himself to a soft seat or a mattress and ride it out.
After all, he had the octopus.
“What do you suppose his end game is?” Braxton held what remained of Hisako, cradling her from behind with his elbows in her armpits. As he held the corpse, Sarafina pulled open straps and fasteners on Hisako’s survival suit.
She yanked off the boots. “Whatever it is, he’s had a quarter hour to think about it. Maybe he’s even sorted what to do when Central comes to retrieve us. Which won’t be for a week until after the storm blows over.”
“I wouldn’t fly a carrier through her either,” said Aoto. “We’re on our own.” Two weeks ago, Aoto photographed a storm with a drone secured to the station’s roof. The drone did not survive.
But its pictures reminded him of Jupiter’s atmosphere, only seen from underneath. Murky, swirling chaos blossomed into hypnotic clouds the size of continents, and dark. They held nothing of the dying sunlight exposing every detail of Hisako’s broken body, the cavity torn from her stomach to her sternum, and what little remained inside it.
Braxton turned his face away. “Aye, the old bird is a sight. This is worse than dissection lab.”
“Maybe it isn’t his end game,” suggested Sarafina. She tugged at a leg of Hisako’s suit. “Can you at least get her glove off, Braxton? For Saturn’s sake. There you go, ‘mate’.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” said Aoto. “If what you say is right, and that animal is somehow controlling him, then it’s not his game at all. It’s that thing’s.”
“Bloody octopus,” said Braxton. “You should have let me scuttle it when we had the chance. I told you it weren’t good for food anyway. That blasted thing’s more toxic than Granny’s meat pie.”
“Neurotoxins!” Aoto clapped his hands together loudly. “That’s it! He’s been poisoned by contact with the animal. This isn’t a plan. This is madness.”
“Crazy or controlled,” said Sarafina, “he’s in the captain’s chair now. And we’d better be prepared to end it.”
“Agreed, Corporal. Sickens me to say it, but—wait! What’s that inside her glove?”
“Look at what your first mate of cheerful imagery turned up.” Braxton pulled a flexible plastic card out of the glove. A meager remnant of sunlight sparkled on its sleek surface. “It’s our backstage pass to the one safe place to bunk on this toilet for the next week.”
Sarafina snatched it from him. “At least you’re good for something.”
“Good work,” said Aoto. “I told you she was always prepared.”
“Sir, what do we do when we get in?”
“We take him down,” said Aoto.
“Aye. And jettison his little buddy right into the squall.”
The octopus had achieved many things humans knew nothing about these past few hundred million years, including its ascension to the throne of the planet’s apex predator. This had come easily once the species evolved its neural network.
The vaunted intelligence of Earth’s octopuses paled in comparison to this extra-solar beast’s. The brain cells distributed through its body and tentacles had become so sensitive that, like all members of its species, it could read its prey’s mind.
The octopuses learned from every thinking creature they consumed. Though most animals on Gelnikov 14 had not developed any form of culture, their minds held memories of where they had been born, where they fed, where they spawned, and details of environments the octopuses had never explored.
The eight-armed predators absorbed all this knowledge until they possessed an uncanny understanding of their planet’s inhabitants and geography. Though their telepathy was useless over distances larger than a meter beyond their tentacles’ reach, individual octopuses learned on their own, and then shared everything when they met each other.
If researchers such as Lieutenant Aoto’s crew had studied the phenomenon, they would have projected this learning curve into the development of Gelnikov’s first global culture. The dawn of octopus civilization loomed on the watery horizon.
But civilization required abstractions the octopuses’ environment had never pressured them to discover: mathematics, the scientific method, microbiology and medicine, and astronomy. The species possessed the raw intelligence to grasp these concepts, but it had never encountered them.
Cedric’s hands moved so quickly they made a blur above the touchscreen. His fingers pounded the surface like ten jackhammers, tapping so fast they created a constant hum instead of a staccato rhythm. The characters on the screen meant nothing to him. They looked like something Hisako would come up with, but that was all.
The code elicited responses from the machine.
Disable status updates to Central?
Disable external access override?
Disable external life support systems?
His mind rebelled at touching one more time to execute the command. In a brief window of four seconds, he became aware of his true surroundings. He was not writing poetry at all, as he fervently believed. A shiver ran through his body, and a single bead of sweat fell from the tip of his nose.
He said, “I can’t.” Then he remembered, but his four seconds were up.
The memory sank below the surface of his consciousness. He executed the code, and nothing remained in his mind of the treachery he committed nineteen minutes ago.
While everyone else was suiting up in the other room, Cedric had walked back and asked Hisako to help him with a data file about their specimens, animals they brought up from the sea in traps suspended from cables reaching down the island’s ragged sides.
With a sigh, she followed him out through the station’s main room and then to the doorway leading to the specimen lab.
When the meadow appeared before her, Hisako’s mammalian brain felt disoriented. She looked over her shoulder, expecting to see the room she had just walked through, but the meadow stretched to the horizon in every direction.
She remembered she was late for class. Abandoning her backwards gaze, she took the path that opened at her feet, a walkway through waist-high grasses and wildflowers. They waved back and forth in the gentle afternoon breeze like tentacles floating in sunlit water.
At the end of the path, her podium waited.
The octopus gripped her tightly in its tentacles and gnawed a hole in her skull to expose her brain. Blood sprayed from the wound until the webbing between the tentacles covered it. Suckers probed the mass of electrified fat and sought its knowledge.
The mammal went into shock and was rapidly dying. The octopus set its beak to work on the soft area below Hisako’s ribs and, in seconds, tore a gaping hole in her abdomen. A tentacle slithered into the spurting injury and worked its way up to the mammal’s heart. Hisako. That’s what the mammal called itself. The tentacle wrapped around the heart and squeezed it rhythmically. The blood flow would continue a few moments longer.
“Good morning, cadets.” Hisako tapped the top of her podium. In response, a monitor lit up behind her. Two meters tall and twice as wide, it imposed a glowing white pane on the otherwise uninterrupted meadow. The incongruity of its presence left Hisako untroubled. She only had eyes for her students.
“Good morning, Professor.” Thirty-seven voices answered in unison, and their various pitches harmonized like a sumptuous choir. Each voice belonged to an octopus, and each octopus occupied a desk just like the ones in classrooms at the Academy. Tentacles spilled out of the human-sized seats, and the animals’ sucker-covered skin swirled with royal purple and magenta in ever-shifting patterns. Microscopic nodules in the skin rippled with changing pigments, creating hypnotic patterns like streaks of ivory lightning caught in a kaleidoscope of flesh.
Hisako realized she was staring, and she cleared her throat. “Today’s lesson is critical to the security of our research laboratories.” With a stylus, she wrote security on the podium’s surface. The word appeared on the monitor behind her, in giant red letters. She underlined them.
It did not seem odd to her when each of the thirty-seven students magically produced a similar stylus at the end of a tentacle and wrote the word on its own desktop. She only wished all her classes would be so attentive.
“I’m so happy you’re all here,” she said, and a bright pink blush filled her cheeks. “Today, I will teach you how to write a virus to override the security controls at a research station. I’ll explain as we go. Let’s start with the first line of code.”
Thirty-seven styluses followed hers, copying every character and comment in perfect detail.
Hisako’s heart swelled with pride. It beat stronger than ever before, pumping an erotic warmth into her limbs until her breath became rapid. She wanted nothing more than for all her students to succeed. Hisako loved them, and she couldn’t find the words to express how deeply she loved them—only machine language, and symbols, and everything about software she spent a lifetime learning and inventing.
Then the code was complete, and there was no more Hisako in the classroom or anywhere else.
The octopus located her liver and brought the rich, fatty organ to its mouth. The cephalopod next devoured her heart, savoring the protein and iron in the meat. Then it craved submersion in water again, and the creature slid away from the corpse and back to its open tank, leaving a gelatinous trail of slime and blood behind it.
In a thought that resembled Hisako’s mathematical, analytical attitude, the octopus decided it needed to simplify the variables. Controlling all the large, mammalian brains in the station at once presented an insurmountable challenge. The humans were not so simple as fish and crustaceans. They could resist, and their thoughts demonstrated a glorious complexity unlike anything the octopus had ever encountered, save in another of its kind.
To Cedric, it left the chore of dragging the mutilated body out the front door. At the creature’s command, Cedric shouted, “Something’s wrong with Hisako! Come quickly!”
His three comrades rushed into the room to find Cedric by the open door.
The breach of protocol irked Aoto. “She went out by herself?”
“Something’s got her out there! It’s killing her!” Cedric waved them to the door, and in their rush to see what alarmed him, they ran right past the scarlet smears on the floor.
Aoto saw the body first. The horror drew him to a sudden stop outside the station. “My god,” he shouted. “Hisako!”
Sarafina and Braxton nearly ran him over.
“I’ll get the med kit!” Sarafina spun on her heels to bolt back through the door.
It slammed in her face.
“Ram it!” She pounded her gloved fist on the silent steel barrier. “Cedric! Cedric! Open the bloody door!”
But Cedric did not. He was too busy typing faster than he would have thought humanly possible, if he had any thoughts of his own left inside him.
“Be ready for anything,” said Sarafina. “Just take him down fast.” She held Hisako’s backup key in her left hand, not close enough to activate the security panel on the door, but close. Her right arm held her plasma rifle so she could fire from the hip. “On three.”
Her teammates stood side-by-side in the door frame. Each held a rifle.
Braxton said, “That’s my sexy Sara, talkin’ all bad-ass.”
“Ram it, Brax. You son of a—”
He raised his left palm to her. “Bitch, I’m not hittin’ on ya.” He tipped his helmet. “I’m just sayin’ good-bye.”
“Shut up and count,” Aoto commanded. “This isn’t a joke.” He nodded to Sarafina. “On three.” He brought the butt of his plasma rifle up to his shoulder. “One.”
“Two,” said Sarafina, in unison with him. She held the keycard centimeters from the panel. “Three!”
The card slammed onto the reader. The door slid open in a flash, and the rifles fired.
Aoto’s shot hit Cedric in the lower arm. The lieutenant advanced, covering Cedric with his rifle. The wound looked awful, but not immediately fatal. Yet Cedric crumpled on the floor and made no sound.
“Get in there and kill it!” Aoto kept his rifle trained on Cedric, who didn’t move a muscle. Blood soaked his once-white lab coat, and its color spread in a pool on the floor.
With Hisako’s key, Sarafina opened the specimen lab’s door. She charged inside, with Braxton close behind her. The muzzle of her rifle found the octopus tank.
Both she and Braxton did an immediate about-face, thinking the creature was behind them.
Just above Braxton’s head, eight purple and magenta tentacles crackled with their strange, pigmentary lightning. The foul-tempered scientist never saw them.
Instead, he saw his lieutenant transformed into a terrible creature with countless arms sprouting from him and tearing Braxton’s father to pieces. Braxton screamed and blasted Aoto twice.
The first bolt severed Aoto’s leg at the hip. The second blew a hole in his torso and splattered his lungs and intestines across the far wall.
Braxton whipped around to finish off the monstrosity he saw in place of Sarafina, but she shot him first. The bolt caught him in the shoulder and smacked him to the side. He bounced off the wall and landed face-first in a pile of gore that used to be Aoto.
He rolled onto his back and took aim. Sarafina, from the doorway to the specimen room, pulverized Braxton with half a dozen plasma bursts. His body became a red blur as chunks of bone and gristle pelted the walls.
From its hiding place, the octopus dropped on Sarafina.
The corporal had such lovely hair. She always had, ever since she was a girl. It seemed like a good time to brush her long, beautiful hair. She stood before a full-length mirror, in a cabin where she spent her childhood summers, and the dark wood of the interior matched the mirror’s frame. An indistinct white light shone through a single window, revealing no detail of the landscape beyond.
She removed her helmet and dropped it on the floor. It clunked twice and rolled away lopsidedly. A brush appeared in her hand, and she groomed herself, daydreaming about the kinds of boys she would like to meet someday, and worlds she might like to explore.
The beak that chewed into her skull had evolved to make short work of giant clams, so the mammal’s endoskeleton offered little sport. But as human blood filled its beak, and its skin contacted the brain inside the white, crunchy bone, the octopus found much which delighted it.
Sarafina’s reflection in the mirror turned purple, and bands of magenta played along her arms—all eight of them, each holding a soft, wonderful brush. “I’ll tell you a secret,” she said. “But only because we’re such good friends. Promise not to tell?”
The octopus promised, and Sarafina told it all about the humans who would return to the station after the storm. And the humans on the other carriers, and other stations, on other worlds flung all across the galaxy.
All of them full of food.
Then she died.
Cedric lived quite a bit longer. When the storm hit, a mere seven minutes after his crew’s ill-fated break-in, Cedric was sawing off his arm just above the elbow. Aoto’s plasma bolt had turned his bone to fragments, like ivory shrapnel embedded in several pounds of ground meat. The limb was beyond saving, and blood loss would surely kill him.
But the octopus wanted him alive.
Cedric sawed through the carnage at the end of his arm while whistling a cheerful melody. He covered the stump with adhesive bandages that bonded to each other chemically, and to his skin. The blood stopped in seconds. Cedric drank two pints of the sugar-water that passed for juice in the station’s larder.
He fell asleep sitting up while the storm sang him a lullaby composed of thunder and torment, a week-long crescendo of elemental assault on his steel fortress. A few days into it, he sawed off his right foot and fed it to the octopus—just like he had the arm.
The rest of the time, Cedric sat at the console, slurping sustenance from shiny bags of liquid food and reading the encyclopedia. The octopus was always near, touching him, draping itself around him like a colorful overcoat, secreting its neurotoxic venom and thinking with his thoughts. Cedric understood most of what he read, skipped the chapters on topology and theoretical physics he couldn’t comprehend, and assimilated new material into what he already knew. It made learning easy for his molluscan master.
The storm exhausted its fury until only a steady drizzle remained. In a moment of clarity, when the creature was soaking in its tank, Cedric remembered the carrier and its scheduled return. Warn them. The thought possessed him with manic urgency. He scrambled for the console, stepping in dried blood and stumbling on the stump where his right foot used to be and, much to his surprise, no longer was.
His face struck the edge of the console and knocked out his two front teeth. He cried and cursed and frantically pulled himself up.
But as the screen glowed at his touch, he resumed whistling his simple melody, and the warning he intended to type with his one remaining hand came out completely wrong.
love is a lie
death is ecstasy
my eternal enemy
your seas have no horizon
your moons are scarred
from burning in the light
the craters of their eyes
will never see the night
Then Cedric’s mother called to him, and he turned to her. She reminded him he needed to dress warmly before going outside.
He did as he was told.
The drizzle made the steep rock sides of the island slippery, and Cedric had no hope of a graceful descent. Still, he gripped a metal cable in his single hand. Lying on his belly to put no weight on his amputated ankle, he slid over the edge of the plateau.
Hand-over-hand descent would have been possible for someone in peak athletic condition, but this luxury eluded Cedric. His grip slowly slid down the cable, which burned his hand until it blistered. The blisters popped open, and a thick, oozing liquid mixed with his blood to leave a dark red trail.
The octopus rode him the whole way.
It had only days to find others of its kind and gather them to the island, to show them the cages and explain where they led, to a gathering of food that built weapons and spacecraft with access to the entire galaxy, libraries full of knowledge, and technology ripe for the plunder—all operated by animals an octopus could easily control, one at a time.
Metal tore through muscle and tendon until Cedric’s hand failed him, and he could grasp no longer. The scientist fell from the rocky wall, plummeting hundreds of meters through the sullen spray. But he was not afraid of drowning. He was not afraid of anything.
After all, he had the octopus.
Revised March 2019 based on workshop feedback.
you make life sound so simple
as if we could feast on angels’ corpses
dragging tomorrow over us
like a blanket
as if we could inhale
the first breath of stars
and claim their color as our own
to you this all makes sense
the way a song splashes on stones
bathed in light
rocks never see
how water holds a person aloft
when she dreams of drowning
you come here all the time
to this windowless shelter full of holes
this expanse that ceases
at your fingertips
you call it home
and it answers you
in silence and thunder
While organizing my writing files today, I found my collection of blackout poems from a few years ago. Some were eventually combined or otherwise transformed into poems I published in Anything Sounds Like a Symphony. If you’re looking for off-beat inspiration for your own poetry adventures, give this method a shot. I didn’t invent it. It came to me through a friend of Austin Kleon, who made a name for himself doing this to pages of newspapers and launched a successful series of books including Newspaper Blackout and the New York Times Bestseller Steal Like an Artist.
I didn’t use newspapers, but a stack of National Geographic and old Playboy magazines, and odds and ends like an issue of Seattle’s Stranger.
You can do it with anything! In a writing course I took last January from Joanne Fedler, we did a similar exercise with our own material. We started with free-writing based on our recent dreams, just filling the pages with anything that came to mind, and then we highlighted only the most captivating words or short phrases. We used those as prompts for additional writing, like new starting points, but my highlighted pages resembled a blackout poem. Anyway, here’s the lot of them, from the archives.
some objects crave stories
like the restaurant receipt you find
in a used book of poems
or the face carved in palm tree bark
on your walk home
from the bus stop
the lavender tops of a mountain ridge
silhouetted against the soft peach of sunset
demand a history
the truth of their geology moving in slow centuries
collides every night with astronomy
to tell a different tale
embrace the miniscule
in their honest inconsequence
they are undiscovered fragments of giants
waiting for you to weld them with words
unique narrations tying threads together
symbols find meaning
only when married
to other symbols
at dawn the trees awake
with your name on their lips
unfurling your syllables on every leaf
tributaries of sap
running clearly to the edges
like resonant waves from a bell
a microcellular song
carried to thirsting branches
to reach above the horizon
and reunite this earth with heaven
like the trees you create the air i breathe
and shelter for the birds
flying from my heart
in every direction
nestled in your boughs
where last night
stars danced and descended
to converse with shadows
and show them
what gave birth
gathered and mortared
immune to the sky-cracking blast
but not the pickaxe
not the jackhammer
water you endured
always more water
deluge of the desert
borderless within its hour
forgotten in the desiccated day
receding into memory
until people forget to pray
for what will quench them
thirst they slake with other means
dehydrating like meat in the sun
cooking like heroin in a spoon
all to be extinguished
men work to destroy
what men have built
then rebuild it
unlike ants who always construct
you take days to crumble
resisting the hands of strangers
glorious rebel of stone
they will cart you away for burial
then dig you up again
to deduce your purpose
what did any of it mean
sullen edifice guarding nothing
beneath a conspiracy of pillars
and a swarm of false fires
factories where noise is born
where chaotic life is forged
into merciless order of steel
and unforgiving plastics
what did it mean to you
solid barrier protecting specters
intangible ideas of property
profit and pavement
how they burned to break you
without considering how you destroyed them
as they deconstructed you
how you eroded those who carved you
sending them to be sequestered
unearthed later like artifacts
discovered and debated
accidents of birth have separated us
but they did not last for long
i loved you before we met
and always after you leave
how could we be apart
when the sunrise bears your signature
birds carve your name below the clouds
and no one can count your colors
you are this morning and the following onslaught
the shade and the respite
the darkness and the forgetting
you are the memory
the thread that sews me to tomorrow
the fullness and the emptiness
and all that comes between
how could i not love your light
reflecting for the first time
from buildings i never noticed
until this morning
you are the quiet space between passing cars
the silent animation in the palm trees
the slowly vanishing shadows
of the city’s slumber
what would i care for this minute
if it did not carry your name
in every crevice and every peak
and all the undiscovered spaces
i am but a speck
a mote of dust
a whisper daring to dream it is alive
and achieving nothing
but in your arms
i am everything
you drank away
everything i ever owned
it burned a hole inside you
until nothing was left
but unpaid bills
stains on the furniture
pages full of imaginary heroes
you son of a bitch
i threw them out
you writers are all the same
in love with any life but this one
even when you slept beside me
you thought of someone else
that night we hid from rain
under cover of a metal carport
lightning crackled overhead
and the warning drizzle became an onslaught
i only felt safe with you
it didn’t matter how long we hid
so long as we stayed together
your sense of adventure inspired me
your intractable desire to hunt
your constant presence at my side
to hell with the storm
for thinking it trapped us
we were never cornered
that parking lot belonged to us
we hunted across its asphalt expanse
exterminating the small things
locusts moths and lengths of string
property lines and contracts we did not recognize
agreements of strangers we did not recognize
we owned our hunting ground
for as long as we survived
hours passed beneath our metal canopy
before the clouds relented
we acknowledged their awesome power
no different from ours
forces of nature
embodiments of will
we gloried in the surrounding chaos
knowing we were its equals
i have never forgotten your eyes
your nearness at night
how you touched your face to mine
saying everything without language
but i have often wished
to live as you lived
to demand this earth obey me
and answer to my whim
to remain indomitable
when hope evaporated
to rule everything
—for Ellie Kitty, who loved to take me on walks at 3 a.m., whatever the weather.
I’ve been asked to present at a gathering of storytellers later this month, and I don’t really know what to share. But wondering about it prompted me to collect my thoughts about stories: what they are, what they mean, and why we create them.
Fiction can convey a psychological or emotional truth which is lost in a mere recitation of facts. By taking the senselessness of life and shaping it into a narrative which makes sense, which has internal order and cohesion life’s random events do not, stories do more than present facts. Stories tell us what those facts mean—to the author, to the reader, to each other, and our societies.
Stories bring us comfort beyond simple entertainment or fantasy fulfillment. Stories take us to a place where humans control the timing and sequence of events, determine who populates the world where those events take place, and decide what is the point of everything. Stories are a place where life does not happen to us, but where we happen to life.
The power to shape action, character, the environment, and history itself does more than relieve the suffering life inflicts upon us in careless, random fashion. This power also inspires us. It suggests we can impose our will upon the realities we confront. It makes us wonder if we are not so powerless as we often feel. Stories fan a spark of belief that we have power over our destinies, that we might shape our lives like heroes and conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Storytelling is not limited to fiction. We make stories of our own lives, and the lives of others. We take observations, perceptions, and perspectives, and we turn them into tales we believe to be true or real. But these tales are as subjective as fiction, open to multiple interpretations, and completely dependent on who tells the story. Two different observers can disagree on the facts of an event or character, and what meaning we draw from interpreting those facts tells as much about ourselves as it does about anything objective.
We could propose that all stories are fictions—whether based on actual events or fantasies—for every story is a creation of the storyteller. Every story has a bias, an agenda with roots in the storyteller’s culture, time, environment, and uniquely personal experience. Understanding stories in this way reveals that humans do not have one truth, but many truths—and perhaps as many lies, for not all agendas are honest.
As storytellers, we should consider our subjectivity. What is the truth we want readers to perceive, and why do we want that? What ends do our stories serve? If we are to be honest with our readers and listeners, we must first be honest with ourselves and understand our own intent. We make our stories most compelling when we use them to present multiple perspectives or arguments and let readers draw their own conclusions— even when we want them to draw a specific one.
Is the power to create stories what makes us uniquely human? Even that proposition serves an agenda: a belief that humans are different from other animals and set apart. Does the honeybee tell a story about finding nectar when she dances for the hive? Does the lioness tell a story when she teaches her cubs to hunt? Do chimpanzees have a story when they bury their dead? Does the crow know a story when she stays behind the flock to be at the side of a sick or wounded crow? Maybe we are wrong to label all animal behaviors as instinct, to dismiss the transmission of information within a community or from generation to generation as merely the result of some internal pre-programming.
Maybe if we look deeper and with more compassion, we will find stories everywhere, even in our inhuman companions who share this world with us. Maybe we will discover we simply don’t speak the language of those stories, or they are told in ways so alien to our way of thinking that we fail to recognize them for what they are.
Maybe stories are everywhere, surrounding us with truths we have yet to consider, and we only need to learn how to listen.
An hour-long reading of fifty original poems selected from Anything Sounds Like a Symphony, Animal Inside You, and Never See the Night, along with two previously uncollected poems. Narrated by the author. This audiobook is now available on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. Plus, the text comes in a Kindle edition so you can read along!
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? The bad news: I’ve made every single amateur writing mistake that can be made. The good news? Thanks to local workshops and critique groups, I’ve improved. Now that I know to check for my shortcomings in the revision stage, I hardly ever hear about them when workshopping new material. But invariably, when I’m having problems with a scene and take it to workshop, a few things I constantly struggle with pop up.
Why is it so hard to see flaws in our own writing? As writers, we feel about our words on the page as we would feel about our babies. We love them, we work hard for them, and they come from within us. We’re emotionally attached to our creations, even the flawed ones. Being objectively critical about them is tough, even though that’s exactly what we need to do if we want to take our writing to a higher level.
If you’ve ever attended one of my workshops, you know I mark up pages maybe more than anyone else in the city of Phoenix, and I have strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t. But you may not realize I am harder on my own material than I am on anyone else’s. My own markups of my first, second, third, and fourth drafts are absolutely ruthless. Even brutal. Two years of workshopping have made me look at my drafts and anticipate what my fellow authors would say about them, and mark them accordingly.
I take every bit of feedback about my work completely seriously. I will go back and revise something I wrote five years ago if I realize it suffers from problems uncovered in a workshop on a current piece. I write down every snippet of verbal feedback people give me. I learn from it, work to clarify and perfect my prose, and apply it to future works. In workshops, I’m not on a mission to have my ego stroked about how nice my writing is. I’m on a mission to root out everything keeping it from being awesome, and relentlessly exterminate all those things.
Maybe people in my groups wish I wasn’t so hard on their manuscripts. But I’m only doing what I wish someone had done for me twenty-seven years ago when I started out. It would have eliminated years of struggle. Then again, maybe seventeen-year-old me would have thought current me was an overbearing, hypercritical jerk, and struggled anyway.
It’s hard to say. When I was twenty-three, an editor of a local music magazine asked me to rewrite a band review I submitted. I responded with a scathing letter about how he didn’t understand music, art, writing, or anything else. See? I told you I’ve made every amateur mistake, didn’t I? Never do this to an editor. I realize now he was right, and the piece I submitted would have been greatly improved had I taken his advice.
While my academic writing is consistently graded at 95–100% by my professors, poetry and fiction are areas of perpetual growth for me. Hell, before I publish my academic works, I still go back and edit them for things my professors and I missed. Yes, I am that intense.
Fiction has been especially difficult, because I have long been the worst storyteller on the planet. Having only started fiction in July 2014, I have had more struggles than you would believe, and I still go back to my earlier works to revise them maybe once or twice a month. I mentioned I was intense about this, right?
Maybe it’s because I see perfection not as a noun, but a verb. No perfect state of being exists, but we constantly work to perfect our art. Perfection is a process, not a final state. I think of it like sharpening a blade: a continual effort to achieve the perfect cutting edge. The process is how we learn, grow, and improve.
I promised you a list of mistakes I’ve made which have been uncovered and vastly improved by workshopping, so here it is.
1. I turned action scenes into bullet lists. In my earliest fiction, I used short, declarative sentences to communicate the immediacy of action scenes. While this is essentially correct, I screwed it up by using the same subject for sentence after sentence. “She did this. She did that. She did something else. She did more stuff.” I learned I needed to vary my subjects and be more descriptive so action would not read like a soul-crushingly dull bullet list.
2. I overused the word “then” to the point where it was dull and amateurish. “Then this happened, then this, then some other stuff.” I learned most sequential action doesn’t need this word to be clear.
3. My “then” problem is symptomatic of a larger problem: overusing transitional words, mostly conjunctions such as “and” and “but”. It most likely results from a common author problem of thinking aloud about what comes next in the first draft, and failing to fully exterminate that mental chatter during revision. Once the story is on the page, the reader doesn’t need all these cues that events transpire.
4. No matter how much research I’ve done on weapons and space technology, it doesn’t prevent me from getting factual and scientific details wrong. Unlike deleting “then”, this one is tougher. Fixing this requires researching stuff I don’t realize I need to research! Fortunately, I have people in workshops who helpfully point out obviously wrong facts.
5. I often summarize or explain events that previously happened, whether prior to the story or just prior to the action described in a sentence. When I do this, I add “had” to my verbs so often it pulls readers out of the flow. Usually, using a simpler verb form communicates just as much information; for example, “destroyed” as opposed to “had destroyed” usually works. (Yes, other verb tenses have meaningful uses. But simpler is usually better and more exciting to read.)
6. My earliest fiction over-relied on verbal shortcuts for things I had not clearly visualized. Usually, they manifested in vague descriptions of action I didn’t have a clue how to show the reader. Feedback made me look for these in the revision stage, to decide if I took a shortcut because the narrator did not have a clue, as opposed to summarizing because the details were mundane or unnecessary. I internalized the feedback question, “What does that look like?” I also experimented with non-specific descriptions. For example, “His IQ was 27” conveys specific information, but “He was dumber than a box of rocks” conveys the meaning more entertainingly. The former is good for academic writing, but I prefer the latter in fiction.
7. Seeing my repetitive phrases or words is remarkably difficult, even when I read and revise my drafts half a dozen times. All writers have pet words they overuse without realizing it, and I’m no exception.
8. In fiction, my current mission is to exterminate useless words to achieve maximally crisp language. Some people love stories so much they don’t mind if the prose style kind of sucks, so long as they like the plot and characters. But I can’t get into a story at all if the prose is dull, amateurish, overly verbose, or lost in a fog of passive verbs. So, even when I’m writing about ridiculous characters, I’m on a mission to make the prose style absolutely ripping. But no matter how tight I think I’ve made the prose on a scene I take to workshop, people always find words, phrases, and whole sentences I could cut. Sometimes entire paragraphs.
9. I skimped on setting. Real estate workers have a saying: “location, location, location.” In my earliest fiction, I focused on action at the expense of describing location. My scenes were like comic book panels with figures but no backgrounds. By observing how my fellow authors approached scene construction, I learned the importance of what filmmakers call the “establishing shot”. This made me think more deeply about how locations influence action, and the resulting rewrites more effectively brought characters to life by showing how they interacted with their environments. I also realized the value of drawing a map of a location to fix in my mind the space where events happen. It doesn’t need to be brilliant cartography; even a simple sketch will do.
Before I started workshopping locally and built a new workshop from the ashes of another group which died off, I thought I was pretty awesome at writing. But two years of workshopping revealed to me just how far I had to go, and instructed me on how to improve. I understand how critique can be disheartening to novice writers who don’t realize how much room they have to grow, because I was one of them. In many ways, I still am. We must always consider that criticism without encouragement amounts to tearing people down instead of building them up.
Fortunately, my workshop group consists of people who genuinely care about each other’s progress. Our core members share a vision of helping each other produce the best works we possibly can. I’ve learned a lot from them, and their feedback has been inexpressibly valuable to my growth as a writer.
Two years ago, I felt something was holding me back from achieving the artistic level I wanted to as a writer. By connecting with other authors and being completely open to everything they told me, I grew at a pace that would have been impossible on my own. My only regret is that I did not start sooner. But to paraphrase an old proverb, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”
A huge thank you goes to the local workshop groups without whom I would have never achieved the quality of writing I aimed at for many years. Your support, encouragement, and honest critique has made a world of difference.
I didn’t set out to make this Kindle book. My mission was only to create an hour-long audiobook version of 50 original poems that work well when read aloud. But when I went to set it up on Audible, I realized I forgot one important thing, something so important that I need to revise my article on Ten Things I Learned from Making My First Audiobook. To create an audiobook on Audible, you need to have either the print or ebook version already listed on Amazon.
Oops! Fortunately, it was pretty easy, since all but two of the poems previously appeared in Kindle books. Mostly it was a copy-and-paste job from earlier files, and a little re-formatting. Plus, I needed to take my audiobook cover, which was formatted at 2400×2400 pixels, and recreate it in Kindle-friendly dimensions. Since I had saved the original source file with all the image elements and text in separate layers, it took only minor brain surgery to reshape it.
Kindle got their version listed on Amazon in less than 24 hours after I uploaded files, which is pretty amazing. Then I could carry on with the audiobook setup. But the event reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my oldest and most commercially successful artist friends last week. He ran into all sorts of unexpected technological problems with a current project, and he encountered major frustrations with contractors he’d enlisted to do some of the work.
After a little venting and commiserating, we realized no one tells you something very important when you decide to create art: you will need to be a hell of a lot more things than an artist, and learn about many more things than only what you need to know to create in your chosen medium.
You’ll need to learn how to manage projects involving other people. You’ll need to learn marketing principles if you ever hope to get your work in front of other people. You’ll need to learn tools and technologies to create and sell your work. You’ll need to become a researcher.
We agreed the research aspect is especially universal, whether you write fiction or build mosaics, and even if you work entirely solo in a cave and don’t need to learn project management. You’ll research software, practical techniques and theory, ways other people have already tackled your subject, vendors who might supply you, how to ship art to other countries, potential online platforms to sell your art, and a million things that make a comprehensive list impossible to compile.
My friend does a ton of research to create physical objects, and you would not believe the multitude of things I’ve researched to write fiction. From Asian gangs in San Francisco in the 1990s, to gambling and horse racing in the American colonies in the 1700s; from how gunpowder works, to the mathematics of gravity; from the history of launching animals into space, to octopus biology—sometimes you set out to write a simple scene and learn nothing is quite so simple as you assumed.
Maybe the worst advice I ever hear given to new writers is, “Write what you know.” What we know is such a tiny fraction of all possible knowledge and experience. Writing what you currently know, or only making art you currently know how to do, is a surefire way to make sure you never grow. Better advice is summed up in the title of the short but insightful book, Writing to Learn. If I stuck to what I knew at age 20 in 1993, I’d still be stapling together photocopied pages of hand-written poems. I wouldn’t have a clue about why gunpowder works in a vacuum. I wouldn’t know a thing about the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order that lies at the heart of recent headlines about net neutrality.
And I wouldn’t know a thing about using audio and graphics software to produce this collection of 50 poems, which was the original point of this post. Am I now the expert on all things? Absolutely not. But I learned a hell of a lot and vastly expanded my skills and knowledge, so much so that people now come to me for consultation on producing their own works. Do I have room to grow and improve? Undoubtedly. There are so many things I am not as good at as I want to be. But with every project I tackle, from painting mountains to doing a book cover to writing a poem, I’m on a mission to learn and improve.
Sometimes it’s painful to look at earlier works and see how many things I could have done better. But that’s a good thing, because it means I learned something along the way. At age 44, if I had any one piece of advice to give younger artists and writers and musicians, it would be this: put your ego aside and be open to criticism, and be willing to learn and improve, because your journey as an artist never ends. The horizon is forever receding, and the only way to keep up with it is to keep learning.
Why Minimalism? A Personal Reflection.
A year and a half ago, while workshopping poems for my collection Anything Sounds Like A Symphony, I received game-changing advice. For reasons I can’t remember, I had been capitalizing the first letter of every line. But two folks told me that since my free verse closely resembles prose, I should punctuate and capitalize it as such.
I take workshop feedback very seriously, so I reformatted all my poems. It also made me realize much of my poetry from 2012–2016 read like bullet lists. Maybe it was my training in technical writing that led to that. I don’t know. But the feedback helped me rewrite and improve a body of work I was mostly happy with, but which had problems I couldn’t quite resolve. Symphony was a better work because of it.
When I was done, and Symphony was published, I had this inescapable feeling I could go even further. The experience made me wonder just how much punctuation and capitalization was necessary to convey meaning.
As an editor and a writer who produces essays on public policy, I need to be the master of grammar, punctuation, and all the formal mechanics of writing. The things I work on professionally and academically need to be technically perfect, and that is no small task.
But just how much technicality is required to convey meaning, emotion, and imagery? This question made me reevaluate my approach to poetry. What if I could get rid of all the mechanics and focus only on words? Is that even possible?
I gave it a shot to see how much of the mechanics could be removed during the Poetry of the Planets group project earlier this year. Using nothing but line breaks and spaces between stanzas, could I make meaning absolutely clear? Could I toss out capitalization and punctuation altogether?
It turns out: I could. But it wasn’t instantaneous, and my first few efforts required a period or two for clarity. Also, I granted an exemption to apostrophes to show possessive words and contractions.
As possibilities became realities, I worked to construct lines which never needed periods. It became a poetic mission, the kind of artistically satisfying personal obsession that makes you terribly boring at social gatherings. “I’m working on exterminating punctuation to reveal the beauty of words. Let me show you.” Right. Good luck with that line at the next office or holiday party.
Oddly enough, it worked. I put the new poems in front of workshop groups which included amateurs and academics and everything in between, and they drew the exact interpretation I wanted. They unequivocally got the meaning. The only exceptions were when I had made narrative errors, not mechanical omissions. Those exceptions forced me to rewrite poems until people drew my desired interpretations.
I also discovered a weird thing about line breaks. Without a period to stop a sentence, I could create double meanings depending on where people assumed the sentence began or ended. The first confirmation of this effect happened when author Judy Cullen sent me a beautiful reading of my poem, Jupiter.
The poem has two ambiguities in it. The first happens at the line, “love me for an hour then leave / traces of your orbit…”. Judy read this without a pause between “leave” and “traces”. Read with a pause, it says, “Love me for an hour and then leave,” as in, “Let’s get it on and then you go away.” It’s a cold line, read that way.
But if you extend it without a pause, as Judy did, it’s a line encouraging your lover to love you then leave traces of themselves, which is an intimacy the former reading stops cold. I wrote it that way to set up multiple possibilities between coldness and intimacy—something standard punctuation never accomplished.
The poem’s second ambiguity happens in the line, “until all they know is mystery like a fool / i would keep you to myself”. When Judy read it, you can tell by her pacing that she chose the first meaning: they know only mystery, like fools. But a second possible interpretation exists. You could end the sentence after “mystery”, and read the next part as “Like a fool, I would keep you to myself…”
Which interpretation is correct?
Like the first ambiguity, both ways of looking at it are right. As the author, I can tell you the correct interpretation is to simultaneously hold both interpretations in your mind, despite the contradictions. In the first case, both the coldness and intimacy are intended; in the second case, both the foolishness of others and the foolishness of the narrator are intended.
Those simultaneous but contradictory meanings were never available to me in more conventional forms. Stripping out punctuation between sentences made it possible to mean two things at once.
In most poems, I want the reader to reach a definitive meaning. But having the option to reach two possibilities, either of which is correct, and both of which are more correct when taken together—that was simply impossible in my previous style.
I respect poets who work in forms with guidelines about meter, rhyme, structure, and other formalities. In nearly three decades of composing poems, I’ve dabbled in countless formalisms. But my current minimalist approach to free verse has unlocked a freedom of expression I felt was inaccessible before.
This is not a minimalist manifesto, nor an insistence that my current approach is right or wrong. All wordsmiths need to find solutions to their own unique concerns about language. I would not produce fiction, essays, or technical manuals using this philosophy.
But when I need to unleash myself from the mechanical constraints governing my non-poetic work, and delve into the potential beauty of the spoken word, throwing convention to the wind and relying only on line and stanza breaks opens a whole new world of possibilities.
My short story Never See the Night is now available as an audiobook on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. It’s science fiction with a double-shot of action and horror, and the grisly scenes with the telepathic space octopus are not for the faint-hearted.
I’ve had positive response to my article Ten Things I Learned from Making My First Audiobook, and my workshop group made good suggestions that have now been incorporated into it. If you’re wondering if you can produce your own audiobook, I encourage you to read the article, then give it a shot!
My biggest lesson from Never See the Night came not from producing the audiobook but from writing the original story. It taught me that having a cool idea is easy, but plotting is hard. Maybe that’s not news to you, but I only started writing fiction three years ago. So, when I first had the idea for this story and drafted the opening scenes, I got stalled immediately. Several things about the original draft made my desired plot points completely unworkable.
The draft ended up on the shelf for an entire year. Now and then I would come back to it, try something different, and realize that didn’t work either. It was so frustrating!
Oddly, that frustration helped me identify with the characters. They struggle to solve problems, and their efforts are repeatedly thwarted. My feeling of being “locked out” of this story put me in the same position as the characters who are locked out of the lab. Their struggle became mine. In the end, I think it’s a better story for it, with deeper characterization than I had in the early drafts. Despite the challenging hours that went into plotting, the story became less about the plot and more about the people.
The people and, of course, the octopus.
An interplanetary biologist locks himself in a fortified research lab with an alien octopus, stranding his teammates outside in the path of a ferocious hurricane on a water-covered world. The animal already killed one of them, and the scientist-commandos must get inside to confront it, or die in the storm.
But the octopus has plans of its own, because it just discovered a new species, too: humans.
This short story is accompanied by five recent poems from the Poetry of the Planets project.
the moon burns for the ocean
when no one else can see the sun
he cares nothing for what her tides erode
with violent patience
nor the animals lost
in her limitless depth
he only wants her
they hold each other
across unchartable distance
but never pulled apart
This poem appears in the collection Inner Planets: 50 Poems by Matthew Howard. Available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook.
Animal Inside You: Poems of Chaos and Euphoria collects 31 free-verse poems in a Kindle edition for $2.99 (free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers). Available in paperback April 2017. Now available for Nook Book and iBooks.