Micro Story: John Roskan

I’ve had a crazy-busy weekend thus far and pushed my body too hard. My back and legs are sore and I’m quite tired. For this post I’ve just written a micro-story, a small piece of fiction inspired by several real events.


John Roskan

The first thing that I noticed, that anybody notices, about John Roskan was his involuntarily shoulder twitch. It was off-putting, especially when you first met him. You were simultaneously curious and worried about being rude. Once you could pry your eyes and attention off his shoulder he quickly impressed you with his brilliance as an engineer.

John really knew his trade, and he spoke maths more fluently than any other language. If there was ever a problem in your calculations, John would be the one to ask. I’d be lying if I said we were friends, we didn’t talk about anything other than work, but I respected him as a colleague. To be honest, even though his office was just down the hall, I’d never really thought about him much.

Until he disappeared.

What do you do when a colleague inexplicably vanishes? One day he’s in the office, working away; taking client calls and berating the interns lacklustre grasp of math. The next day, he just doesn’t come in. Or the following. Or the one after that, or any day since.

He didn’t have recreational leave planned, there’s no “get well soon” card circulated or farewell drinks. There’s no announcement from management about the Senior Project Engineer’s absence. He’s just gone and other are assigned his work and clients without an explanation.

I innocently asked around if colleagues know the story and no one knows anything. Anything. There isn’t even rumours circulating. Then I asked management.

My manager, who I’ve known for years, hardens like concrete at the question. “It isn’t my business.” I’m told in no uncertain terms. And the manager hasn’t softened in the week since. I’m pretty sure he’s told other managers, because all of a sudden every manager in the firm seems to know my name.

I keep my head down and just do my work. I’m not sure what John did, but I know now I should never have asked about him.

One day soon, I may be the one not turning up to work.

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Audience-driven Short Story: Guardian (1)

The Experiment: An Audience-driven Short Story

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure genre? The reader would reach frequent decision points and choose what the point-of-view character did. These decisions altered the story line and possibly the eventual conclusion.

In a similar vein I’m going to try to write an audience-driven story. Periodically (weekly? fortnightly?) I’ll add a slab of text to the story and then present a choice for the readers. Based on votes (or suggestions they propose), I’ll then write the next installment of the story.

Obviously given the timeframe involved and my other writing projects, I can’t promise a highly polished story. (I also reserve the right to ignore suggestions if they’re obviously designed to ruin the story).

This might work out or it might fail, only time will tell. One thing is for sure: audience participation is required.


Guardian (Installment 1)

(Please note: this story is a work of fiction).

I’ve always had exceptional hearing, and ears appropriately sized for the task. I’m not sure if there is a hearing-equivalent of 20/20 vision, but if there is I’d ace it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not super-human, just well above the average. My ears got me into trouble a lot as a kid, with nicknames like Dumbo, Wingnut and Radar.

After I left childhood I thought my ears wouldn’t cause me any more trouble. When I heard the faint cry I should have let it be drowned out by the other ambient street noise, like it was for the dozens of other people around me.

The noise drew me into the alley between the shops. Just a few steps: I’m no fool. I wasn’t going to leave the safety of the road and all its witnesses. It was early afternoon and the alley was well lit, covered only by a few shadows at the back. I heard the cry again. My heart sunk. It was unmistakably a human cry so I couldn’t ignore it. I looked back to the street and the passers-by.

“Did you hear that?” I asked back toward the street. A young woman looked up from her phone. She shook her head but I doubt she even really heard me. Her electronic-possession reasserted itself and her attention returned to the phone as she walked off zombie-like.

There was another cry, a sad whimper. No one else seemed to hear it. Or maybe they just didn’t want to. But I’d heard it and had to investigate. The alley was empty except for two commercial bins on both walls part-way down. The cry must have come from behind a bin. I had no intention of putting myself in danger. Reality, however doesn’t consider intentions.

“Hello,” I called, hoping they’d show themselves, “is anyone down there? Do you need help?”

No movement. Nothing.

I hoped it was an abandoned baby or child and not some thug with an iPhone recording. No sooner had the thought occurred that I felt bad – why would I wish a child abandoned? I patted my pocket, annoyed to remember I’d left my phone at work.

I had to go down there.

I tried to loosen my shoulders and ready myself for anything even as my legs stiffened involuntarily. I tried to walk softly down the alley, one cautious step at a time. I glanced over my shoulder to reassure myself the people were still there, only a dozen or so metres away. If something bad did happen, they’d help me right? That’s what I told myself, but I knew in this day and age it was a 50/50 bet.

I looked around for a weapon, but there was none. My two flailing fists were all I had. They would flail if required…but given I’d never been in a fight, it was doubtful how effectively.

I was near the bins now, hoping that there was no one waiting inside of them ready to spring out on me. I heard the cry again and was relieved to see a child’s auburn-covered head behind the bin.

“Hi,” I said in a gentle tone as I walked around the bin, “what’s wrong?”

“Oh, crap!” I called out in surprise. Lying at the little girl’s feet was a huge African man, slumped against the wall. He was holding a wound in his chest, and there was a pool of blood growing around him. His face was covered in sweat, fixed in a grimace of pain and stubbornness.

“I’ll get help,” I promised.

“No,” the man said in a tired baritone voice, “just look after the girl.”

“Someone call 000, I need an ambulance. A man’s been stabbed,” I yelled at a passer-by. The rude woman pretended not to hear, but her pace increased.

“Look after the g–” he tried to say.

“You look after the girl,” I retorted, “we’ll get you help and you’ll be fine. She’s your daughter,” I said, before realising the only way this Caucasian child belonged to the dark African man was adoption.

“You can’t help me. Medicine won’t help–” the man grunted.

I tried to reassure him, like I’d seen them do in movies. “Don’t be silly, you’re not that far gone–”

“– me. I’m an Angel.”

It took a few seconds for what he’d said to register. And then a few more before I had any idea of how to respond.


What happens next? Post a comment below or send me an email to vote.

guardian-option1


Help over the fenceWant a beta-reader? I’ve been helped in my development process by other beta readers and now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Each month I’ll read a chapter of someone’s story and comment on it. To be eligible, just comment on one of my posts with “*Review*” in the comment and you’re in the running.

When Nightmares Wake

I’ll save my thoughts and analysis for a follow-up post, but here is my promised writing exercise When Nightmares Wake, a full-strength Fantasy piece.

I am moderately pleased by it (but it remains in the shadow of the short story The Captive [slice-of-life genre] or the novelette Escape from Hell [faith-based genre]).

When Nightmares Wake

Great Lord Tarius’ eyelids flickered as awareness trickled back into his mind. Dulled by the stupor of sleep an awareness of danger seeped in, as though it was of no consequence.

Continue reading

The Importance of Good Sleep

My dad likes to tell people how he once fell asleep three times in a single TV ad break. He says that he can do it because he has “a clear conscience and a pure heart.” It’s funny how every attribute he has is always linked to a positive aspect… I would suspect him of lying, except that he can’t – because having ones eyes close together is “a sign of honesty”, apparently.

I’ve never been a fantastic sleeper. Some people, like my beautiful wife, wake up feeling completely refreshed on a regular basis. If I’m lucky I have that feeling maybe twice a year. Lately, however, I’ve been going through a season of appalling sleep – or rather lack thereof – with about 2-3 hours of good sleep a night. After a few nights of that, you start to get desperate and don’t care if a little extra nap means a ridiculously early rise.

That, and then getting sick, and being busy at work means my writing has been almost non-existent. However the realization of how much we take for granted the restorative nature of sleep has given me an idea for a short story (fantasy) I’m calling ‘When Nightmares Wake’.

Clap

This is the first (rough) draft of a new short story (~1100 words). The idea for this story came to me as I was listening to some guitar music. The ending is a bit weaker than I was hoping for, but I hope you’ll enjoy it.


After gaining the top marks in my Mechanical Engineering degree it was hardly what I’d planned: six months later to be unofficially working in a small café two hours-a-day as a guitarist. I had tried employment at a few of the local engineering companies, but the state was dying, gradually crawling into its own shallow grave. Employment wasn’t in the toilet, it was already past the s-bend and halfway down the drain. Jealously I read the Facebook updates of the other graduates I knew; most had already secured jobs interstate. Depressingly, that included mediocre students who spent considerably more time studying empty pint glasses than lecture notes.

‘Just move’ they encouraged me as though it were my decision to stay; as though dropping everything and starting anew elsewhere was as easy as changing a shirt. Maybe it was for some, but not for everyone.

It had been two years since my father had died, taken twenty years before his number should have been called. One day he had taken the short drive to the local shops for his daily newspaper and had never returned. Mum had stayed home that day, but it was as though she had left shortly after: more than Dad’s car had been wrecked that day. I haven’t decided about whether there is an afterlife, but it was as though Mum’s soul went searching for Dad’s for a long time, leaving the hollow shell of her body behind.

After the first year Mum began to show signs of recovery. With painstaking slowness her life began to return to normal. ‘A new normal’ she called it, ‘for things would never be normal again’. Where the grief had crushed her, she had slowly begun to fill again a brief smile as welcome as a rainbow. Like an empty balloon she had slowly begun to inflate. In time she said there would be joy, but for now it was enough that there were days without constant sadness.

And so as an only child, it rested on me to look after Mum. I couldn’t think of leaving her alone, and she wouldn’t leave the state where Dad was buried. And so we were at an impasse where my responsibility trumped opportunity. I was too highly educated for most jobs and all the interviews I had were full of positive feedback but noticeably absent job offers. And so I found myself scraping together whatever income I could find while I looked for something better, hope gradually diminishing.

It could be worse at least I enjoy playing I thought to myself as I pulled my acoustic guitar out of its case and began arranging my musical cheat sheets at my feet. Dad had taught me to play when I was a teenager, and so playing the guitar helped me to feel close to him. I wondered if he listened to me play from beyond, critiquing or simply tapping his foot. Playing the guitar had been a hobby or a way to woo the girls, but now it provided the extra cash I needed badly. I was a pretty good guitarist but a long way from professional, and I never sung in public: people have been stoned for less. I started my first set plucking out the older favourites of Eric Clapton.

It seemed like a pretty poor choice, starting out with a sad tuned song, but I wasn’t quite in the mood for upbeat yet. I played from muscle memory, my fingers flowing through the motion of the melody as I allowed the music to wash over me. ‘You have to feel the music’ Dad would always say. ‘It isn’t a set of instructions to be mindlessly followed, but a thing of beauty to be experienced and embraced.’

As I approached the last chords of the song I inwardly squirmed at the expected applause. Most people in the café were too busy talking, eating or feverishly interacting on their smart phones to notice the music was anything more than a sound track. The smaller the applause the more chance that the café owner would decide that I was an extraneous overhead. From the audiences perspective my presence was incidental, from my perspective this job was vital, balancing both my finances and my sanity.

The first song finished and there was a smattering of clapping, most was almost incidental, except for a loud clap from across the room. I looked up to see who had shown appreciation for my efforts. He was an elderly gentleman dressed in a brown suit that looked a little baggy on his thin frame. He may have had a strong chin in his youth but the blowtorch of time had melted and multiplied it, each chin a little lower than the last. He clapped loudly after my next song and I rewarded him with a thumbs up in gratitude. He clapped after each and every song.

“What’s his story?” I asked Rosa the waitress while on my break between sets, motioning to the gentleman in brown.

“Oh that’s Tom… or Ted or could have been Tim.” Rosa replied and then continued. “I don’t remember their names very well: he’s double-shot cappuccino. He’s been coming in every day for years, always in at 8am, always that table. You could set your watch by him. He gets the one cappuccino and sits there sipping it until 10am and then leaves. Nice guy, very friendly but quiet.”

My second set passed much the same as the first, largely ignored except for my new friend who clapped me enthusiastically after each song. If I hadn’t had a job interview after the set I would have gone over and said a thank you to him. It’s amazing the difference that a clap can do for a performer’s frame of mind: it made me enjoy playing knowing that someone was appreciating it.

Over the next few months my new friend was there every day as Rosa had said. He was my main supporter and his predictable presence always brought a smile to my face. I kept meaning to go over and thank him or maybe buy him another coffee, but I never got around to it and always thought I’d do it the following day.

And then one day he wasn’t there. I thought he might have been sick or something, but each day his absence grew. I asked Rosa about him, and she didn’t know either. Every day I went in I hoped to see him, but never did. I couldn’t help feeling regret that I never made the effort to go over and thank him. He always made the small gesture of thanks in his clap. A small thing, incidental to an observer, but to me it had meant a lot. If I had my time again I would have thanked him. He gave me applause but his example also taught me that gratitude could go a long way in another person’s life: he had taught me the importance of clapping for others.


 

The Dangers of ‘Conviction’

One of my current writing projects that has been simmering away in the background is the short story Conviction that I am planning to write and blog-through the entire writing experience.

Conviction, as I explained will be based on the Islamic State and the persecution of the populations in the areas they control. So not some light-and-fluffy reading material.

There is an immense responsibility that I feel in writing this story, one that I find quite daunting and scary. I’m not writing click-bait by any means, trying to use sensationalism to my advantage; quite the opposite. What worries me is,

how can I try to faithfully render something so emotive and so sickeningly steeped in human suffering?

I don’t want to trivialize the subject by air-brushing it just because I’m incapable of writing it well. I am convicted of the need to write the story – even though part of me would rather not. To not write it would be even more disrespectful; we have enough vapid journalists already. I’d rather raise it to consciousness and do so poorly than to ignore it. I don’t write this story for fun or entertainment value. It is not a story I look particularly forward to writing.

The truth is more horrid than most people, especially in the West, can conceive. I haven’t watched the IS propaganda videos and I’m not inclined to. To do so would be good research, but I don’t particularly want those images in my head.

I have written quite violent scenes in my novelette Escape from Hell and my first novel Vengeance Will Come but these are fictional violence in fictional settings. What I will be describing in Conviction is too real to be comfortable.

There is so much in the story to consider. So much humanity and so many angles to be explored. Though I don’t plan it to be a long story I think it is going to take a long time to write.

I’m aware of the irony… I sit at a computer feeling uncomfortable because of what I am contemplating; others’ are currently undergoing the reality: that is why the story must be written.

Writing ‘Conviction’

This is a short story I have been wanting to write for a few months but have been prevented from doing it because of attempts to complete Vengeance Will Come.

I need a little break from that personal tome so today I begin the preparations for Conviction. I thought it might be interesting to share the writing of this story together in a series of blog posts. Note a huge spoiler warning that if you read these blog posts, you will be getting countless spoilers to the final story.

Conviction: a firmly held belief or opinion.

A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble. (Mahatma Gandhi)

Where did the idea for Conviction come from?

The inspiration of Conviction comes the news headlines over the last few months: I wanted to write about the Islamic State (IS) and the persecution of the populations in the areas they control. Finally I want to juxtapose that against the Western church as a challenge.

As an author, putting my own viewpoints across – be they political or religious – is a potentially dangerous thing. Conventional wisdom would say not to do it under the guise that the reader doesn’t want to be “preached at”, or that I might be alienating a large body of readers.

I understand this response, and I too feel resistant when I read something which I don’t agree with. But do you know what – I don’t often read something I disagree with. Sure, I may start something but if I don’t like the way it is pushing, I just stop reading. And the reader is always free to do that too.

I hope that if I am upfront about the purpose of the writing, then the reader can make an informed decision, and respect that I gave them that information in advance.

I want to write this story because I feel that we are so isolated, and paradoxically also desensitized to the ongoing suffering. I also feel that those Christians enduring the persecution have much that they can teach to the Western church, which understands so little of standing up for their faith under persecution.

Writing Goal

Normally I like to try choose a writing goal for a short story, i.e. something that I particularly want to practice in my writing. For example in The Captive I wanted to experiment with a “gotcha” or surprise to the reader. And in the subsequent short story Alone I paralleled The Captive from another viewpoint, while still revealing more storyline from an alternate perspective.

My goal for this is to follow the writing process through diligently. I could easily bang out a few thousand words on my keyboard right now and get a reasonably decent story, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to spend some time researching and outlining so that the end result will be better.

Next up in the Conviction journey: Setting