Smoke Break

Smoke-2

A kettle boiling water into dry hell―Kyle’s first thought as he stepped out of the air conditioned building. Pools of heat wavered visibly on the rooftops of mini vans and cars parked in the asphalt lot as Kyle cussed himself for wearing a suit and tie. But the radio had said rain today, just like it had yesterday, when the temperature had soared to an energy-sucking ninety-five. He loosened his tie and undid the top two buttons of his shirt. He took a package of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, opened it and thumbed out a cigarette, thinking that maybe after this pack he’d try quitting again. Yeah, quit the damned things for good and stay inside all day in the office rooms filled with computers and cool air. Pocketing the pack with one hand, he reached into his pants pocket with the other and took out his lighter. Sweat popped out of his underarms as he fired his cigarette and put the lighter back in his pocket. God, it was only mid morning. What would it be like in the afternoon? He took a deep drag, his first cigarette of the day, and felt his head spin into a nicotine high.

He blew out a long stream of bluish smoke that traveled straight ahead, dissolving into the air without even a slight movement upward. No wind to cool down the scorching heat. Sweat dribbled from the pores in his forehead. He wiped it away with the palm of his hand and then dried his palm on the inside of his jacket. He took another long haul on the cigarette, wondering why the hell they couldn’t put aside just one small air conditioned room for smokers, a room with vents to pump the circuit-destroying smoke outside into this godawful hot day.

Beside him stood a three foot high air conditioning box churning out a strained humming sound, the diamond mesh grill on top ripped open by a snow plow during the winter. Kyle looked at the splayed metal and thought that maybe the heat wasn’t so bad after all, not after the skin-numbing temperatures of a winter that had seemed to freeze and storm forever. The problem with weather, either too cold or too hot, but at least you didn’t have to shovel driveways in the heat.

As he lifted the cigarette to his lips, he noticed movement inside the darkness of the air conditioning unit. He blinked. Probably just heat waves under the torn metal. But it moved again, and not like any heat wave. Must be the nicotine high, playing tricks on his eyes. He stared at the hole in the unit. The metal was ripped right down the six foot length of the gray metal box with a round gouge in the middle where diamond-shaped mesh curled up and away from the hole like grisly lips. Another movement, something long and dark, it looked like. Something solid.

Kyle wiped sweat from his forehead again, wiped his palm inside his jacket again, stepped closer to the, felt air even hotter than outside blast into his face. Just as he was about to step back, he saw it again. Something long and dark, black, shiny black. He blinked his eyes again, wiped sweat from his brows, and stepped away from the unit. Yeah, just the nicotine high, and the heat, the godawful heat, and him wearing a suit, his shirt soaked under his arms and across his back.

He looked at his black Honda, parked thirty feet away, heat waves dancing on the hood where the protective coating peeled and flaked in white streaks. From parking under a pine tree, the autobody guy had told him. Have to strip it down to the undercoat and repaint. Too late to fix the protective coating. Bloody pine trees. Cost a fortune to have it painted.

And then he heard a faint thump in the direction of the air conditioning unit. He looked, saw nothing. Must be the motor stressing out on the heat. Or maybe it was his head stressing. And then another movement, something definitely long, slender, black, moving from one side of the gouge to the other. Something loose in there? Blowing around in the exhaust? But the movement seemed too slow, too deliberate. What the hell was it?

He took another drag on his cigarette, exhaled the smoke before inhaling it fully, walked right up to the unit and looked into the hole.

There it was.

A twig? Too small. A branch? No. A thick, black spine, leading to what looked like a joint, and then tapering to another joint, and tapering into a smaller spine. No, not a branch, not wood, but something definitely familiar. Where had he seen that shape before?

He bent forward cautiously. The long black spine moved slowly back and forth. Gotta be something caught in there, moving with the exhaust. And then another one appeared from the left side of the hole, exactly like the first, long and shiny black, three spines tapering down through two joints. And they both stretched straight forward and stopped, forming two parallel spines about six inches apart, each at least three feet long.

Where the hell had he seen those before? Still bent forward, peering into the torn grill, He stepped back. Something too deliberate in the movement of those things, something too familiar that wasn’t invoking any pleasant memories, something sinister in the way they just lay there side by side, so intent on remaining still.

And then he heard it.

Not from outside, but inside, inside his head, like something effervescent bubbling into his awareness, the bubbles bursting into words strung together with no tone, no pitch, no base or treble. Just the meaning of the words.

“What are you?”

Kyle jumped back, almost losing his balance, the cigarette dropping through his fingers, burning them as it passed through.

“Shit!”

Regaining his balance, he looked around, eyes popped wildly, shaking his hand as though he could shake the burning away. No one was there. Just hundreds of empty cars boiling under the blistering sun, and beyond the parking lot, the city fuming in a smoggy haze. Gotta be the heat, the nicotine high. Sweat stung his eyes. He wiped them with both hands, felt the pinching hurt in his fingers begin to loosen into a throb, then waved his hand in a futile attempt to cool the burning fingers. He looked back at the hole in the grill.

The spines were gone.

Too creepy. Too much heat. He stepped quickly to the door, opened it and walked into the cool of the building.

***

You could almost bounce off the wall of heat and sear your brows in the process. It took Kyle’s breath away. The metal door thumped closed behind him as he reached into his shirt pocket for his cigarette pack. His mind bristled with flashing screens from hours of research on the Internet, the muscles in his right palm throbbing from using the mouse. Have to fill out a requisition for one of those ergonomic models. His burned fingers had stopped throbbing. Lighting his cigarette, he glanced briefly at the air conditioning unit, still humming its strained monotonous tune.

Christ!

Two long black spines stretched out in the hole. Damn, what are those things? Time to get to the bottom of this. Ignoring the alarms firing in his head and stomach, he marched directly to the unit, bent forward and gazed at the spines laying motionless, side by side on top of the fan box. He dropped his cigarette onto the butt-cluttered cement, crushed it with his heel and moved his hand slowly toward them.

Just as his hand reached the opening in the grill, the spines moved. And something in the grillwork right under his head moved. What the hell was that? His hand froze. His body froze. He watched as a dark mass of material roiled under the rusted mesh, moving with slow, fluid motion. The spines curled under at their joints and disappeared, the dark mass gliding forward to replace them. Kyle’s eyes widened, their lids the only part of his body that wasn’t paralyzed solid. The mass in the unit was round and translucent black with a coat of short shimmering hair. It must have been as big as a medium-size dog, or more like a large beach balloon, but bloated in the center and tapering to a point at one end. It turned smoothly around and the end facing Kyle lifted.

First, he saw a flat, crusty section attached to the bloated black beach ball. Sprouting out from the bottom of this, he saw eight of the long spines. The crusted shell rose to reveal four liquid black eyes forming a square under a shell-like brow. Beside the square of eyes, two more larger sapphire blue eyes bulged menacingly. Below the eyes, two hairy black appendages like swollen, droopy lips sucked in and out. Each appendage had two reddish black fangs that curved inward, almost touching each other as the appendages sucked slowly in and out.

Goddam, a spider.

Kyle broke through the spell and jumped backwards. He heard the flat dead-like words bubbling in his mind again.

“What are you?”

Everything in Kyle’s body was moving now, especially his sweat glands, his shirt and pants starting to drench. His heart thumped hard enough to make his head spin. And the words intruded into his mind again, floating somewhere between conscious and unconscious, sanity and insanity.

“What are you?”

And that’s when Kyle realized that the words came from the spider.

The realization came in layers: a spider, a giant spider, a giant spider somehow throwing words into his brain, a giant spider asking him what he was. Mustering his senses like melting tar in the sweltering heat, Kyle broke through the barrier of impossibility and whispered: “What?”

“No need to talk out loud. Just think it.”

Whispering again: “What?”

“Just direct your meaning to me. Just think your words.”

Kyle thought: “How ..”

“That’s it. Just like that.”

“But …”

“Yes?”

Kyle stared into the eyes, four black and two blue, all six of them vibrating with inner life, seeming to float around in their hairy sockets, surrounded by the monstrous body with the black fangs moving slowly in and out like breathing.

“What the hell are you?”

“I think I asked you that first, only somewhat more politely.”

What kind of craziness? The thing was talking to him. He was talking back to it. The damn thing had to be real, but the damn thing couldn’t be real. He reached for this cigarettes, the outside of the pack was moist with sweat. He opened the pack and fumbled out a cigarette, hands shaking. Returning the pack to his shirt pocket, he groped in his pants for this lighter. Craziness! Maybe some kind of Internet surfing-induced hypnosis? Too many screens flashing by on his monitor, like the dividing line on a dark night, inducing highway hypnosis? He lit his cigarette with difficulty, lip muscles shaking as much as his hands. Sweat stung his eyes. He wiped it away with the lighter hand, left his wet hand on his cheek still holding the lighter, took a long drag on his cigarette, his eyes transfixed by the six eyes moving around but knowing they were focused on him, and he heard more words.

“No, Kyle, you’re not crazy.”

Kyle’s jaw dropped. “You know my name.”

“It’s in your mind. But what are you?”

“No way, you first.”

The spider’s head lifted up slightly, the eyes now all definitely focused directly on Kyle. “I’m me.”

Kyle pondered this a moment, still shaking from head to toes. “Fine. That’s what I am too … me.”

“But, what are you when you say me?”

Some of Kyle’s shaking began to loosen up in the rhetoric. This is not the way a spider talks. Not to mention that spiders don’t talk. And spiders don’t get this big. But there it was, a big spider, a giant black spider in the air conditioning unit. And it talked. “OK, I’ll bite. I’m a person, a human being.”

“What’s a human?”

“Oh no, you next, what the hell are you?”

“No, Kyle. Let’s focus on one thing at a time, take this step by step.”

Some kind of goddam analytic psychologist spider? What the hell was going on here? “Look, I don’t even know if you exist! Why should I answer questions from something that might just be a figment of my stressed-out mind?”

“How do you know that you exist?”

Kyle thought a moment. He knew the answer to that one, knew it from first year Philosophy. He took another puff on his cigarette. It came to him: “I think; therefore, I am.”

“Well, Kyle, I think too. Therefore, I am. And you’ve been reading my thoughts. Therefore, you know that I think; therefore, you know that I am. What’s a human?”

Kyle blew out cigarette smoke in a rush, the long blue stream racing through the windless air right into the face of the spider. The spider recoiled.

“Hey, watch that stuff! It burns my eyes!”

Kyle’s eyebrows lifted. The shaking in his body stopped abruptly, the spider not so menacing now in its vulnerability to the smoke. “Sorry.”

The spider shifted back into a relaxed crouch on top of the fan box, its movements smoothly fluid and silent, almost graceful. “Apology accepted. So what is a human?”

He thought. Images came to mind, images of people working, playing, doing a million different things, but how to describe human? Surely the spider could see that he was a smooth-skinned biped with hair on his head. Start with apes? Describe evolution? Opposable thumbs? The ability to think abstract thoughts? He took another drag on his cigarette and blew it out, this time away from the spider. He replied: “Look, I’m going to have to think about this. It’s kind of a complex thing. And I have to get back to work. Can we talk about this tomorrow morning?”

“You’ll come back?”

“Yes, I’ll come back. I come out here every day, twice, for a smoke break.”

“You’ll tell me what human is?”

“I’ll tell you what human is.”

“Will you bring others?”

Kyle thought about this. Tell Ernie and Jim when he got back upstairs? No. What if he was just imagining this? They’d think he was nuts, and maybe he was. Best to keep this to himself, for the time being. “No, I’ll come alone.”

“Good. I don’t like crowds.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m not sure. I just know it.”

Kyle dropped his cigarette and crushed it out. “Tomorrow, then.”

“And you’ll tell me what human is. I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

More like six of them. Gotta be going crazy. Find out tomorrow, if it’s still there. Kyle opened the door and walked into the building as the spider glided back into the darkness of the air conditioning unit.

***

Almost like God had waved a wand over the sky and the earth, the weather had changed overnight, cooling down under a slate gray cloud cover. A soothing breeze brushed against Kyle’s face as he stepped out of the building, cigarette and lighter in hand. He ignored the breeze, the sky, the parked cars, and looked straight at the air conditioning unit. And there it was, crouched as yesterday on top of the fan box. So it hadn’t just been the heat, or Internet hypnosis. And any further doubt was shattered when the deadpan words invaded his mind.

“Good morning, Kyle.”

It was still unnerving. “Good morning. Sleep well?”

“As well as can be in here. Not much space to stretch out.”

“Ever think of moving to the suburbs?” Kyle lit his cigarette.

“What is suburbs?”

“Oh, just a place with more room, bigger air conditioners.” Putting his lighter back in his pocket, he stepped closer to the unit. “Just joking. Didn’t sleep much last night. Thought maybe I was going crazy or something.”

“I suppose I would have that effect. I don’t socialize much.”

What the hell was this thing saying? How would it even know to say these things? Kyle scratched his head, stared into the lidless, unblinking array of eyes. “You seem to have a good vocabulary for a spider.”

“Is that what I am? A spider?”

Kyle thought a moment. “I’m not sure. It’s what you look like. But different, bigger.”

“Then, that’s what I am. A spider. Have you had enough time to prepare your explanation of humans?”

Kyle sighed deeply. Between bouts of wondering about his sanity, he’d thought about being human, what it meant. He had his answer ready. “Yeah, I think I can describe humans.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Yeah, sure, where?”

“Just a manner of speaking. Please, tell me about humans.”

Pausing his thoughts for a moment, Kyle took another long drag and blew the smoke out, away from the spider. Today the smoke arced upwards in the light breeze, disintegrating quickly into the surrounding air. “OK. But, keep in mind, I’m not the world’s biggest expert on this kind of thing. Took some philosophy in college, read a few books, but mostly, this is just from living my life as a human.”

“Knowledge by experience is good.”

Kyle thought about this a moment. Where does it come up with these remarks? Got a library in that damned air conditioning unit? TV? “We weren’t always the way we are.”

“Nothing is.”

“Look, can we do away with the running commentary? This is hard enough as it is.”

“Sorry, Kyle. Please continue.”

The spider’s mass moved backwards gently, as though relaxing, the eyes still seeming to move, but not move, the black fangs breathing in and out from their hairy appendages.

“We started off as fish, turned into apes, evolved from apes into humans. It took millions of years but, during that time, our brains evolved into something that set us off from all other animals on earth, and maybe all life forms in the universe. We developed the ability to think, to solve problems, to think in the abstract.” Damn, none of this was coming out right. Why hadn’t he written it down the night before? It all seemed so apparent then. “What I mean is, we have the ability to change the world around us so that we enhance our ability to survive.” Kyle paused again, puffed on his cigarette.

“That’s it?”

“Well, that’s enough, isn’t it?”

“I can do all that. With the exception of fish and apes, I must be human.”

“But you can’t change the world around you.”

The spider waved one of its long, spindly legs over the inside of the unit. “Made some changes in here.”

“Oh yeah, like what?”

“Would you like to stick your head in and take a look around?”

Kyle shuddered. Duck his head into the unit right under those two chomping fangs? Not likely. “Think I’ll pass on that.”

“You’re still nervous. Is that a human trait? To be nervous?”

“Only when we feel threatened, or when we’re in a situation where everything is uncertain, or improbable. Like when we’re talking to giant spiders that can’t possibly exist, and we think maybe we’ve gone over the deep end.”

“Would you like to touch me? Maybe that will convince you that I’m real.”

Kyle’s stomach tightened at the suggestion. “Thanks, but …”

“Right. Nervous.”

“No offense meant.”

“None taken. But is that really all there is to being human? It took you the whole night to come up with that?”

Kyle puffed on his cigarette, getting smoke in his eyes. He rubbed them with his free hand. “Well, no, it’s a lot more than that. I told you I wasn’t an expert on this. I’ll have to give it some more thought. I have to get back to work. Meet you here this afternoon?”

“You’ll come back?”

“Of course I will. Didn’t we already go over this yesterday?”

“That’s right. I hope I didn’t sound insecure. You’ll come alone?”

“Covered that ground too.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

Kyle flicked his cigarette onto the pavement. In the distance beyond the parking lot, the tall buildings of the city appeared as gray as the sky, floating in their sea of exhaust and smoke. “Catch ya later.”

“Catch you later, Kyle.”

He opened the door and walked into the building. The spider remained on the fan box.

***

Mid afternoon, and the clouds were beginning to open up with a miserly sliver of blue sky here, a sprinkle of sun beams there. So what happened to the rain the radio promised? Kyle walked to the air conditioning unit. No giant spider. Nothing in there. He bent forward. “Hello, Mr. Spider!”

“Hello, Kyle.” The words rippling across his cerebral landscape like tiny bubbles bursting with meaning before taking any particular form.

Kyle watched as two long, black legs speared over the fan box and shifted to the left, the unimaginable black beach ball sliding in from the right. The spider perched on the box and lifted its head, all this in one elegant, fluid motion. The eyes focused on Kyle, but moving still, taking in the back of the building and the area around Kyle. The fangs moving in and out, in and out, slowly, like labored breathing.

“Before we get into this human thing… ” Kyle put a cigarette in this mouth, lit it. “…I have a question for you.”

The spider crouched motionless, only the fangs and their appendages moving, slowly, in and out. “The floor is all yours, Kyle.”

Where the hell did it learn that? “I’ve been wondering about this all morning.”

“Applying abstract thought?”

“Hey! The commentary …”

“Sorry. Please, continue.”

Another puff on his cigarette. Gotta give these damned things up. Maybe not a good time now, though. “Where do you come from?”

Silence. The fangs moving in and out. The legs spread out over the sides of the fan box, motionless. The lustrous, black body, motionless.

“Hello.”

“Yes, Kyle.”

“Oh, OK, just wondering if you heard the question. Where do you come from?”

“Here.”

He puffed again on his cigarette, eyes squinting with puzzlement. “Here?”

“Where I am.”

Kyle thought about this a moment, shrugged. “Oh yeah, well, that makes sense. Been anywhere else?”

“No, just here.”

“I see what you mean about your social life.”

“I get by. But enough talk about me. Let’s talk about this human thing.”

Suddenly, the spider’s eyes seemed to go wild, gyrating in their sockets, the appendages froze. In one quick movement, the spider was gone. Hearing something behind him, Kyle turned in time to see a red Dodge Caravan pulling out of a parking spot about fifty feet away from him. The driver, a man with short dark hair and a black suit, eyed Kyle as the mini van pulled out slowly and then drove to the far exit. All I need now. People watching me talking to an air conditioning unit. When Kyle looked back at the unit, the spider was there.

“A little on the shy side?”

“I enjoy my privacy.”

“Then, why are you talking to me?”

“Why not?”

Kyle expelled a long, forceful sigh. “Have you ever heard about semantics?”

“No. Are they a human thing?”

“Yesterday morning, I would have said yes. You seem to be an exception, though.”

“Thank you, Kyle. I’ve never been called exceptional before.”

“Have you been called anything before?”

“Not that I can think of. But again, enough chatter about me. What about this human thing?”

Kyle flicked an ash off his cigarette, took another puff. Blew the smoke out. “OK then, back to the human thing. I suppose the best way to put it is … we’re the caretakers of everything around us.”

“You clean things up?”

“No. Well, yes. In a manner of speaking. We have the ability to look around us and see the way things are. Then, we apply abstract thought and see the way things could be. Then, we apply creativity to abstract thought and this gives us a vision of how to turn the way things are into the way they could be.”

The four black eyes in the center, though motionless, seemed almost to be spinning with movement deep inside.

“Why?”

“What?”

“Why change things from what they are to what they could be?”

“Well, to make them better.”

“I see. Could you give me an example?”

Kyle thought about this a moment, snapped his fingers. The spider jerked back. Kyle jerked back, regained his composure quickly. “Let me guess. Sensitive to sound?”

“Right on the money.”

“Sorry about that. Something we humans do sometimes when we get an idea.”

The spider moved forward slightly, relaxing back onto the fan box. “Apology accepted. What was your idea?”

“Rivers.”

“Rivers?”

“A body of water that flows through the land. If I want to drive my car from one side of the river to the other, my car will sink and I’ll drown. That’s the way things are.”

“I see. Not a happy prospect. But why do you want to get to the other side?”

“That’s not important. Maybe just for the sheer hell of it. Maybe I left something there and I want to get it back.”

“So you’ve been there before?”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Well, you must have crossed the river without drowning. Why not do the same again?”

Kyle threw his arms up. The spider backed up again. “I haven’t been across the river!”

“Then how did …”

“It’s not important!” He tossed his cigarette down, and in the same movement, brought his hand up to his shirt pocket, took out another cigarette and lit it. The spider moved forward and relaxed. Kyle blew out a stream of smoke. “Let’s say I’m just curious about what’s on the other side of the river.”

“I can live with that.”

He glared at the spider. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “Now, I want to change the way things are. So I apply some abstract thought and realize that I could drive across the river … if I had a way to do that.”

“How would you do that?”

“That’s what I’m coming to.” Another puff on the cigarette. “That’s the first step in being human. I accept that there is a way to cross the river. We’ve just gone from the way things are to the way things could be. And now we add a little creativity to the situation.”

The spider’s legs moved. Kyle asked: “What?”

“Oh, nothing. Just getting ready for the revelation.”

Smart ass spider. What the hell, talking to a giant spider. Well, this argument has the logic, even if the situation doesn’t have any. “The creativity is what allows me to put two and two together.”

“You use it to add?”

“In a way, yes. I use it to add up the things around me. For instance, I see trees. It occurs to me that, if I cut the trees down, and attach enough of them together, I can build a road out of wood that will span the river, what we call a bridge. Then, I can drive across the bridge without losing my car and without drowning.”

Again the spider’s eyes seemed to roll about without moving, the in and out movement of the fangs quickening slightly. “Amazing.”

Kyle’s eyebrows lifted as he puffed again on his cigarette, looked almost mockingly at the spider. “The human mind is amazing. Probably the most amazing and complex thing in the whole universe. It makes us special, gives us the ability to be the caretakers of everything around us.”

“The trees might not agree with that.”

“The trees?”

“Wouldn’t they die when you cut them down to make your bridge?”

“Of course they would. But they’re only trees!”

“But they’re alive.”

“But they don’t think.”

“I see; therefore, they don’t exist. Pretty shaky bridge.”

“No, they do exist, but they don’t think.”

“But you said…”    “I know what I said, but that doesn’t apply to trees, or rocks, or anything that can’t think enough to ask if it can think.”

Silence.

Kyle lifted the cigarette to his lips, puffed slowly.

“Well, I’m glad I can think.”

“What?”

“It would appear to make me safe from the caretaker’s creativity.”

“I have to get back to work.”

***

A light breeze cooled the morning air under a blue sky studded with random puffs of cloud. Kyle watched the spider mount its perch on top of the fan box, repulsed by the horror of a creature so deadly grown so large, but mesmerized by the fluid beauty of its movement, fascinated by the anomaly it posed in everything he knew for certain.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

And the words came like hooded specters drifting through his mind. “Cool during the night, but nice now.”

An image of the spider shivering in the night-cooled metal of the unit dropped into Kyle’s mind and he almost felt sorry for it. He took the cigarettes from his jacket pocket, stared into the translucent eyes, his focus moving from one to the other, wondering how he looked through them. “I worked out a plan.”

“Plans are good. They give direction, establish order in chaos.”

“Exactly. Now, to continue…” Kyle lit his cigarette, took a deep drag, blew the smoke out slowly. “…I think the best way to handle this is to just let you ask questions and I’ll answer.” A horn honked loudly from the street beyond the parking lot. Kyle noticed that it didn’t seem to have an effect on the spider. “Horns don’t bother you?”

“I get used to them, and the sirens. You humans live in a busy world.”

“Not much going on in your air conditioning unit, I guess.”

“Just the usual things.”

Kyle decided to let that one go, took another drag on his cigarette, stared into the eyes smoldering with spider consciousness. “So, any questions?”

“Just one. How does it feel to be human?”

Damn, where was that covered in first year Philosophy? Psych 101 maybe? Kyle thought, dragged fitfully on his cigarette. He caught his fingers in mid snap, just as the answer came to him. “It’s kind of like a feeling of being in control, of nothing being impossible.”

“That must be a powerful feeling. Can you explain it?” The spider shifted its weight slightly to the left. Must get uncomfortable supporting all that weight on those spindly legs.

“Let me think now.”

“Take your time, Kyle.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Sorry.”

“OK, here’s the way it works. As humans, we can control the world around us. Remember the bridge across the river?    “How could I forget? A beautiful example.”

Kyle wondered. Smart ass, or sincere? He shrugged it off. “Well, that bridge would have actually been constructed out of metal.”

“Good news for the trees.”

“I’m sure they’re all breathing a sigh of relief. But it would have been constructed by people we call engineers, using something we call engineering. Engineering applies things like technology and science to control the world around us, to build things, to change the world into something that makes it better and safer for humans to live in.”

“Just humans?”

Well, no, for all living things.”

“Except the ones that don’t think.”

“I’m not going to get into that.” Kyle puffed on his cigarette. Damned spider with a one track mind.

“I’m sorry, Kyle. Sometimes I become fixated on details and miss the larger picture.”

God, where does it get these things? Graduated from Arachnid U? “Fine. Let’s look at the larger picture, then. But first, any questions…that don’t have anything to do with trees?”

The spider crouched forward, eyes seeming to blaze with movement under their surface sheen. “Just a small clarification.”

“Shoot.”

“Engineering is what makes it possible for humans to control the world?”    “Engineering is one of the things. Like I said, it uses science and technology. These are really the things that make it possible for us to control the world.”

“How?”

Kyle sighed loudly. “I was getting to that. It works like this…science allows us to understand how the world works. Technology allows us to take what we learn from science and make the world do what we want it to do.”

“Could … “

A raised finger to shush the spider. “For example, science shows us how atoms work, and technology allows us to use the way atoms work so that we can build power stations to keep us warm in the winter and bombs to protect us from our enemies.”

“You protect yourselves with atoms?”

“No, we protect ourselves with the things that atoms do.”

“And what do atoms do?”

“They make large fires that destroy cities and make them uninhabitable for years.”

“And this is how you use atoms to keep yourselves warm in the winter?”

“In a way, but on a smaller scale. That’s where control comes in. We control the fire so that it heats buildings without burning them.”

“And using them as bombs means not controlling them?”

“No, it means controlling them so that they’re out of control somewhere else, away from us, in our enemies’ cities.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to just eat your enemies?”

“That’s what a spider would do. Spiders don’t have science and technology.”

“But spiders would be able to live in their enemies’ cities after eating their enemies.”

Frustrated, Kyle looked at his watch. “Gotta get back to work. Let’s try this again this afternoon.”

“You seem to be angry.”

“Not angry, just a little…I don’t know what. But, this discussion doesn’t seem to be going anywhere constructive. Let’s just try again later.”

“You’ll come back?”    Kyle frowned.

“You’re right, Kyle, we’ve covered that ground. You’ll come alone?”

Kyle cocked his head to one side, remained silent.

“Right, alone. I’ll see you this afternoon. Have a good morning, Kyle.”

Walking away from the spider, Kyle felt his mind stewing in frustration and possibly a hint of anger. Getting flustered and boggled by a spider? Maybe start smoking at the front of the building? No, can’t do that. Not now.

***

The day was still breezy, the sky spotted with puffs of cloud as Kyle stepped out of the building. In the distance, high rises sparkled above the haze of smog. Kyle took a few steps toward the air conditioning unit, saw the black mass of the spider hunched in the darkness as his hand reached for his cigarettes. “New plan. I’m going to sum it all up, and we’ll leave it at that.”

“Is it wise to switch plans unilaterally?”

No longer phased by the spider’s retorts, he shrugged as he lit his cigarette. “Do it all the time. Called adapting on the fly.”

“You change plans on flies?”

“Just a manner of speaking.” Pocketing his lighter, a thought occurred to him. “By the way, you must eat a lot of flies.”

“Not really. Never acquired the taste.”

“Then, what exactly do you eat? I mean…” waving his hand over the direction of the spider’s body, “…you have to be eating a lot of something.”

“Oh, this and that. I try to keep my diet balanced. Tell me about your new plan, Kyle, your summing up of it all.”

He held a deep drag of smoke in his lungs for a few seconds, then blew the smoke out slowly, a bluish white plume rolling through the air from his mouth. “First of all, let’s forget about the allusion to caretakers. We’ve done a lousy job of taking care of things.”

“Admitting the mistake is the first step toward correcting the mistake.”

Kyle thought for a moment, puffing on his cigarette. “How do you know these things?”

Shifting its weight slightly to one side, the spider lifted its appendages, the fangs moving in and out slowly, and then crouched backwards a few inches. “I have thoughts about these things.”

Kyle waited, dragged on his cigarette. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Kyle shrugged. “OK, then, so … we’ve polluted the world, screwed up the weather, murdered millions in senseless wars, used science and technology to make money for a few while ignoring the suffering of the millions we exploited to make the money, and we’ve created nuclear and biological weapons that might eventually kill us all off.”

“Why?”

Kyle looked at the spider, smiling the smile of a victory won, nodded his head. “I knew you were going to ask that.”

“Then, you have your answer prepared.” The spider crouched forward.

“I have.” Another puff on his cigarette. “It’s because we know things are going to work out in the end. We know that our science and technology will save us in the end, because they are, after all, an extension of ourselves. What you said about admitting the mistake being the first step to correcting the mistake. You’re right.”

“Thank you, Kyle, it’s…”

“It’s the way we do things, throughout our history. We make mistakes, we learn, we go on. And what gives us the will to go on is a thing we call hope.”

“Hope?”

“We have hope in the future, belief that things will work out.”

“And that’s it?”

Exasperated, Kyle blew a long plume of smoke in the direction of the spider. The spider backed up. “Hey!”

Kyle waved his hand in front of him, an effort, too late, to stop the barrage of smoke. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that. A little frustrated, I guess. What do you mean by: ‘That’s it?’”

The spider moved forward slowly to the top of the fan box. “Apology accepted. I meant, that your hope seems to put the future on a shaky foundation.”

“How’s that?”

“Shouldn’t you be doing something other than hoping?”

“We are doing something. We have people working on these things.”

“Who?”

“The scientists and the technologists.”

“The people who made the mistakes?”

“Well, yes, they’re the ones who understand the mistakes, and how to correct them.”

“And if they don’t?”

“They will.”

“How do you know?”

“Because that’s in the nature of humans. Nothing’s impossible for us.”

“So, the rest of you sit around and hope while the people who make the mistakes correct them.” “No, we keep track of what they do, form groups to protest and watch over the things we don’t like, pass legislation, write letters to the editor, post angry letters to news groups, promote dialogues, demonstrate.”

“Does it work?”

Kyle threw his cigarette on the ground, crushed it with his heel. “I have to get back to work.”

“You seem angry.”

“I’m not angry.”

“Flustered?”

“No, just a little drained.”

“You’ll come back…”

“I’ll be back tomorrow. Alone.”

“Sleep well tonight.”

“You too.”

***

Lighting his first cigarette of the day, Kyle looked over the puddles left by the early morning rain in the parking lot, the radio finally right. Yeah, predict it till it happens. Must be a lot of hand shaking at the station, maybe a few medals passed out, letters of commendation, promotions in the weather department, and predictions that, maybe, today we’ll have sun. To the west, small puffs of cloud trailed in the wake of the heavy cumulous clouds fading into the east. The spider looked dry and relaxed, legs spread over the sides of the fan box. Kyle’s hair was disheveled; his eyes, bloodshot.

“You look terrible this morning, Kyle.”

“Thanks.” Kyle pocketed his lighter, blew smoke through his nostrils. “New plan.”

“Didn’t like the way the last one was going?”

“It was going nowhere.”

“Time to change the fly.”

Kyle pursed his lips and opened his mouth with a pop. “Something like that. Here’s the way it works. Each of us humans do our own thing. We have scientists and technologists to do the science and technology things, accountants and financial experts to do the business things, laborers and clerks and salespeople to do their things. We specialize in our own areas and we all work together to make the world a place that makes sense. But, each of the things we do takes time and ability, just enough time to keep each of us busy with our own thing. So we have to rely on the people who are doing other things to do them right. And if they don’t do them right, we have to raise hell until they do them right. We can’t just start doing them ourselves.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“It is.”

“Sounds too complicated.”

The spider froze, Kyle dragged on his cigarette, eyes on the ground as a blue Cavalier drove past them, splashing through the puddles. The woman behind the wheel ignored Kyle as she drove by.

“What do you mean by ‘too complicated’?”

“Sounds like a lot of potential for things to get out of control.”

“Sometimes they do. But, we get them back into control and go on.”

“Can you give me an example?”

Another long puff, and then inspiration following on the heels of nicotine ingestion. “OK. Money markets depend on thousands of variables and the cooperation of just about everybody who works in the markets. Sometimes some of the variables go haywire and people stop cooperating. The market collapses. But, then, people start cooperating again and the market rebuilds and comes back stronger than ever.”

“Until some of the variables go haywire again.”

He flicked his cigarette into a puddle where it fizzled out in a puff of smoke, and reached for his pack in the same movement. “You’re making me smoke a lot more.”

The spider slid forward a few inches, the huge black beach ball body rippling with the movement. “Why do you light those things and blow out the smoke?”

Kyle thought a moment. How to describe why he smokes? How to describe why he does something he wants to quit doing. “They make me feel better.”

“Then they must be good for you.”

“No. They’re bad for me. They ruin my lungs and heart with thousands of deadly gases, make my breath stink, stain my teeth and harden the capillaries in my brain. They make it hard for me to walk up stairs without losing my breath.”

“And that makes you feel better?”

Bloodshot eyes rolling, head cocked to one side, smoke rushing out of his nostrils. “No! That makes me feel really bad. But smoking them makes me feel relaxed, like everything is OK.”

“Even though everything isn’t OK. Even though they’re killing you?”

“I don’t think about that part.”

Silence from the spider as it shifted its body again, the luminescent eyes motionless in their sockets, but turbulent with whatever fluids washing about under their surfaces. “Is this a hope thing, Kyle?”

“A what?”

“You hope that you won’t die from them?”

That’s gotta be it! Somewhere, somehow, this thing has read a book about psychology. “That’s right! I hope I won’t die. And, if I do get sick, doctors who specialize in making people well again will make me unsick. But, that’s not the point. I can’t just stop smoking.”

“Why? It seems like the right thing to do, especially for a being with such a well-developed mind that it controls the earth.”

“Controlling the earth is one thing. Quitting smoking is another. Smoking is an addiction.”

More shifting from the spider, the eyes compelling in their motionless movement. “Can you explain addiction?”

More smoke exhaled through nostrils, the bluish white plume rolling over Kyle’s jacket and shirt, dispersing into the air about him. “It’s when we want to stop doing something, but we can’t because we depend on it for a sense of well-being. A sense of well-being that we get from the thing we’re addicted to.”

“Then, why did you start to depend on it in the first place?”

Shrugging, arms upraised, eyes brimming with anger, Kyle began to reply, dismissed the thought before it formed, puffed on his cigarette again, staring into the deep wells of blue and green surrounded by fine hair, sunlight bristling along their short lengths. Only six of them? For a second there appeared to be hundreds, all focusing through the bone of his skull, deep into this brain. Shaking his head, he snapped the mood. “My friends smoked. It was the thing to do.”

“Your friends were killing themselves, so you joined them?”

“It’s called peer pressure. It’s a human thing.”

“Can I forward a suggestion, Kyle.”

“Be my guest.”

“Wouldn’t it have been better to have persuaded your friends to quit?”

“They were already addicted. And, besides, it was the thing to do. They wouldn’t have listened.”

“Sounds like the caretakers should learn to take care of themselves before taking care of the world around them.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“You needn’t get angry with me, Kyle. Just making an observation.”

Kyle sighed, flicked his second cigarette into a puddle, lit another. The spider watched. “OK. Point taken. We’re not perfect, but we try. We try to better ourselves; we try to better the world. Sometimes we make mistakes. Then, we correct them. Then we make more mistakes and we correct them. We get better as we go along. Things get better.”

“Convince me, Kyle.”

“What?”

“Convince me that you can make things better.”

Interest perked, Kyle stared deeply into the eyes, shifting his vision from one to another, wondering which of them was focused on him. All of them? How does it process input from six sources? The same way humans process from two? “OK. I’ll bite. How do I convince you?”

“Throw down that cigarette. Stop smoking now. Prove that just one caretaker can take care of himself.”

An exasperated sigh, another puff of smoke exhaled roughly. “That’s not going to prove anything. It won’t make a spot of difference on the rest of the world.”

“But it’s a start. It’s one of the caretakers correcting a mistake, making this thing you call hope something real. Just throw down the cigarette.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I just can’t. I want to smoke. No, I don’t want to smoke. I want to quit. But I can’t quit.”

“Why?”

“I’m not ready.”

“When will you be ready?”

“When things are better.”

“When will things be better?”

“When I quit smoking.”

“Kyle …”

“No! That’s not what I meant! It’s more complicated than that.”

“Kyle…”

“I’m getting confused. I’ve been under a lot of stress at work. I’m talking to a giant spider, answering questions that there’s no way it can be asking. Having doubts from something that lives in an air conditioning unit.” He stepped closer to the unit, bent down toward the spider, bringing his face inches from the terrible eyes. “It’s just too damned complicated for a spider to understand.”

“You’re right, Kyle. Not only does it seem complicated … it seems senseless. You aspire to control the world, but you can’t control yourself. It all sounds pretty fucked up to me.” The words bristled with the fury of thousands of bubbles popping soundlessly through Kyle’s mind.

“What would you know about it? You’re just a spider!” His own words burst through the air, flaring in a noiseless play of color in the hundreds of eyes spinning in the sockets under the bony brow.

“But I have one uncomplicated thought.”

Kyle pushed his face into the face of the spider, nose almost touching the coat of fine hairs below the eyes. “And what the hell might that be?”

“I’m hungry.”

The panic too late, as hundreds of eyes seemed to bore into his brain, the sting of fangs piercing both sides of his neck simultaneously, a sense of being lifted off his feet, a feeling of skin ripping against the barbed metal of the grill, and then numbness, all feeling dissipating into quiet terror, the words flowing dead-like through the remnants of his fleeing consciousness. “And when I’m hungry, I do something about it.”

***

Blistering heat. Too cold inside with the air conditioning turned up so you have to practically wear a sweater while you work, and then outside for a smoke and come back covered in sweat and freeze even worse. No wonder people get colds all summer long. Crystal struck a match, lit her cigarette, staring at the air conditioning unit. Must’ve been my imagination this morning. Maybe a trick of the heat. Too much pressure at work. Maybe coming down with something. That’s it! Coming down with that cold everybody’s getting. Viruses spreading like plague through the air conditioning. And then, from somewhere inside her head, like something effervescent bubbling into her awareness, the bubbles bursting into words strung together with no tone, no pitch, no base or treble. Just the meaning of the words: “What are you?”

(NOTE: This story was originally published as a standalone ebook by Echelon Press between 10 and 15 years ago. It’s based on a true story, of course.)

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Active Story Research: Making It Real by Doing It Real

I was sitting in a coffee shop one night working furiously on a short story for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies (The editor, J, had mentioned that, if I didn’t have the story to him pronto, bad things would start happening to me.) when I felt someone nudge my shoulder. I quickly grabbed my Saint Christopher’s cross to ward off evil editors before turning to see who it was. It wasn’t J.

It was a pimply faced middle aged wide eyed short paunchy balding man wearing the ugliest sweater I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil your appetite by describing the sweater. He asked if I were Biff Mitchell. I said no, but he just ignored me and waved two crumpled sheets of paper in my face.

“I need you to tell me what’s wrong with this.” He sounded pissed off and disappointed at the same time. I thought for a moment on whether or not I should take the paper out of his hand and shove it up his nose, but I don’t do things like that anymore, so I took the sheets and looked at them.

“There’s something wrong, but I don’t know what it is.” His eyes looked like they were almost ready to burst into tears. “Ashley, my sister, read it and laughed.” I think he called her a fucking bitch, but I’m not going to use that kind of language here. I told him to calm down and I started reading. He moved to the empty chair on the other side of the table as though he was going to sit, but I told not to sit down, that it would ruin my focus. I read the first page.

Surprisingly, the writing wasn’t bad. In fact, it was good enough that I continued reading into the second page. And that’s when I almost started to laugh.

He described the cockpit of a Formula 1 racing car going full out as smooth as a bar of soap sliding across ice. Now, I’m not going to get into a critique of the imagery, but I will take issue with the description itself. I’ve never driven a Formula 1 racer myself, but I once saw a video clip of the inside of one going full out…and it was anything but smooth. In fact, it was bumpy as hell and it seemed to me to be a miracle that any car could hold together under that kind of stress. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve had my Accent up to 100 miles an hour and it was plenty shaky.

His sister obviously saw the same video clip. In his case, a simple search through YouTube might have given him a little more insight, but, obviously, he just used his imagination and figured that a car built for those speeds would probably drive smoothly at those speeds. His research obviously sucked.

Good research is one of the key ingredients in a well-written novel. Lack of it shows, not just in terms of inaccuracies, but in terms of convincing descriptions of settings, procedures, operations, cultures and everyday rituals…just to name a few aspects of convincing fictional world-building.

Sometimes, it’s not enough to scour the web for information, or even to read books. Sometimes you have to get up off your ass and do things. I know this because I’ve done it.

Heavy Load

In my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance) I got up off my ass and plopped it down in a laundromat pretty much every evening and a few weekend days for about a month. I took a notebook with me and recorded every sensation I could imagine as I sat on hard plastic chairs, leaned against washers and dryers and strolled around the laundromat examining everything in minute detail. I noticed lint balls in corners, gum under the folding tables, pint bottles of vodka and rum in the trash cans. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of buttons clicking in the dryers, water gushing into the washers. I felt the rumble of machines and noted the smell of detergents and clothes. I watched a woman reach orgasm with her thighs pressed against a washer. I noticed there wasn’t a lot of conversation, even between couples and friends on a night out to restore their wardrobes to wearable condition.

I studied the people in the laundromat, the students, single mothers with kids attached, elderly couples, middle aged career men and women and a strange array of people who, like me, seemed to be there for more than just the suds and duds. Some people actually go to the laundromat to meet people, chill out or just read. There were three people who frequented the place to read books. Never saw any of them show up with laundry. Just books.

I drew maps at the laundromat, recording the movements and paths of my characters as they moved through the fictional laundromat in my novel. I drew on the regulars for minor characters and incidents in the novel. For that month I steeped myself so deeply in that laundromat that I dreamed about it. At work, I could close my eyes and read the signs on the walls and hear the tick tick tick of small buttons in the dryers. I could smell the bleach.

I didn’t use all the material from that month, but it’s like gold mining: you collect a few billion pounds muck and harvest an ounce of gold. If you’re lucky. In the end, I had all the material I needed to make the laundromat in my novel real and I had enough character studies to populate my laundromat with real people.

Active research can take you in new directions, add substance to your writing and give you new ideas.

RealityWars-510

For instance, my last novel, The Reality Wars, was set 2000 years in the future and the central action took place in what I initially envisioned as a futuristic triathlon. So, after six weeks of training, and one month after my 58th birthday, I participated in an Olympic level triathlon: 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike ride, 10 kilometer run. I survived, but just barely. Best of all, I finished, but just barely.

There was a particular character I wanted but couldn’t quite see in my mind. I had a vague picture of someone sleek, muscular and blue, with a sleek blue helmet. Or maybe someone dressed in black. But I knew it was someone bad. Evil. Nasty. Someone out to not just beat the protagonist, but out to do her harm. As I trained for the triathlon, I started to get a more complete image of this evil someone. Suddenly, one day when I was being chased around Killarney Lake by the biggest horse fly in the world (did my best running time ever that day), the evil one came to me. She was a woman and she had red eyes. She was running right beside me as I ran from that damned horse fly.

Other things came to me as well. Things like events that might constitute a triathlon 2000 years in the future. In fact, I pretty much scrapped the idea of a triathlon and opted for a series of deadly games played in the real world and in cyberspace.

None of this would have come to me if I hadn’t put myself into the situation I started writing about. I probably would have kept with the idea of a standard swim/bike/run triathlon and not even thought of the much more interesting series of games that were to be called The Reality Wars. And I would never have had one of the novel’s most compelling characters, the beautiful but evil Loac.

Oh…BTW…below is a picture of me finishing the triathlon…alive. Sort of. Proof positive that anyone can be a lunatic.

Tri9

I wrote a novella called Ladies of the Fountain that was published in Twisted Tails VII: Irreverence.

71sOsqSADXL

In the story, three sculpted women holding up a fountain in a park area come to life and spread havoc through a small city after a very lonely man wishes for them to come to life and be his women. The fountain actually exists in Freddie Beach, where the story is set.

One Saturday morning, I walked to the fountain, looked around, made notes and took pictures. Then, I walked down the street, making notes and taking pictures of all the spots where things were going to happen in the novella.

When I started the actual writing, I had my notes (which included descriptions of smells, sounds and impressions) and a few dozen photographs to draw on as I wrote. In effect, I had almost lived the story before writing it.

And now things get a little weird.

murderbycoffee

I plotted a series of murders in coffee shops throughout the downtown core of Freddie Beach. These were for a novella called Boston Jonson in Murder by Coffee.

There were three coffee shops and one coffee house. (There’s a difference. Just ask Molly.) I sat in the exact locations where the victims were found and then in the locations where the witnesses were seated. While I was sitting in the victims’ seats, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize what it would be like to have just been murdered. I tried to visualize what it must have been like for each of the victims in those few seconds before they died, knowing that they were just about to die. I tried to get into their heads in those few seconds after they died, you know, those seconds where the recently deceased’s soul hovers over their former body and wonders, “WTF?”

I put myself in their heads that morning when they were getting ready for work, not knowing that this would be the last time they would ever get ready for work, that this would be their last day on earth. And, of course, I made notes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t use any of this material. All that weirdness for nothing. Well, not completely nothing; everything you do to get into any part of a story you’re about to write puts you just that much closer to the story and to making everything in it real.

Now, the locations where the witnesses sat were much more productive. None of them actually witnessed the murders taking place (or, at least, they weren’t aware of the murders happening) but they saw the victims in their last moments. Some of them saw the victims at other times and were able to give the sleuth, Boston Jonson, information for his investigation. I imagined seeing the victims and how I felt about them. I put myself in their shoes as they were being questioned. I answered the questions, either truthfully or not truthfully. I became the witnesses and, as I did, I came up with ideas about how the murders were committed and who might have been behind them (something I didn’t have a clue about until I was well into the story). And, of course, I made notes.

I know this seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to write a novel. I mean, it’s not exactly the ideal of sitting in a coffee shop with your laptop and spewing out sentence after sentence of brilliant prose, all of it culminating in a novel that will knock the socks off the entire literary world and have movie producers pounding at your door. But, it just might lead you into a few brilliant sentences that’ll knock your own socks off.