More Dreamworld, or Scary Stuff for a Sunday

This continues the story begun with this post. It was about as scary as I could devise for today. Happy Halloween!

I grabbed a towel, wiped myself fast and wrapped the dingy thing around me as the doorbell wheezed for the fifth time. I leaped out of the bathroom and barreled dripping down the hall to the front door.

Stop. Started the wrong way first, but I recognized the kitchen door up ahead before I actually got there, turned right around and went half-naked and still damp to the door. I didn’t even hesitate opening it. Bad guys or robbers, mayhemming murderers—on a day like this it just didn’t seem to matter very much. Let them take me off. It’ll be a relief.

Two guys were there. Suits. Nice suits. Armani maybe. Better suits than I owned. Better suits than I remembered ever talking to before. Good ties too. Not too shiny: real silk probably.

Both looked good as well. Healthy. Tanned but not cancerously so. They seemed athletic without flaunting it. Either one could probably beat the crap out of me with one hand tied behind his back and drinking an iced cappuccino at the same time.

Just one of those days.

“Yeah?”

“Mr. Bronson?” Number one didn’t even move his lips as he asked.

“Yeah.”

“You want to speak with us.”

“I do?”

“You do.” Number two echoed with no inflection whatsoever. Suddenly I felt as naked as I was.

“You gotta be selling something.”

“Not exactly.” Number one smiled.

“And I don’t think I’m buying.” I started to pull on the door.

“Then I assume you haven’t had time for breakfast yet?” Number two inquired mildly, his face unexpressive.

“I just got outta the shower. Couldn’t you tell?” Moving the door some more.

Number one just kept smiling. “You probably want to visit your kitchen then.”

“Maybe after you’ve gone.” And I tried to completely shut the door.

But number two simply pushed on inside. It wasn’t any effort for him at all. And his friend followed. All three of us were just cozy together there in my little hallway.

“Maybe right now, Bronson.”

Number one shut the door completely. I felt claustrophobic.

It was a hold-up. I knew it. You shouldn’t think about things: it makes them come true.

“What do you think you’re doing?” It sounded lame even as I said it.

Number two started pushing me down my own hall, backward, toward the kitchen. He thumped my bare chest with both hands, repeatedly, to make me move. He was pushing at a pretty good rate. I stumbled over my own feet, and fell flat on my rump.

Number one, trailing behind, laughed. “Clumsy little runt, isn’t he?”

Number two kicked me. Hard. Right in my gut. I couldn’t even breathe, he slammed me so hard. And he never even grimaced; his face stayed blank and unconcerned. “Get up, f——face.”

I just sat there, hurt, trying for air like a landed trout, a pathetic excuse for a man in a green bath towel. I wasn’t moving fast enough for old number two. He kicked again. Harder.

“Get up.”

I was gasping, the wind totally knocked out of me, vision swimming. I couldn’t move.

So he kicked me again. Really hard. He was smiling now. I think I felt something crack in my lower chest. A rib? I couldn’t breathe worse than ever, and my gut was a swollen bag of hot pain.

“Stop stalling.”

My sight went dark as I sagged completely supine on the hallway linoleum.

“Oh, no, you don’t. Dipstick. You’re staying with us.”

Hands grabbed me, hauled me upright, roughly, against the wall. Hands I didn’t even see slapped my face about a dozen times, rapidly. I sobbed out loud. My belly and ribs hurt like hell. Whitehot pain with every strangled breath.

“Go ahead and cry. But you’re staying here, buddy boy.” And he shoved me on toward the kitchen. Seven eight nine staggering-backwards steps and I smashed into the door frame.

“God! What a jerk.” Number one’s voice chuckled.

“We really sure he’s the one we’re after?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s the one.”

“Hard to believe. —Come on, douchebag. Let’s take a good look in your kitchen.” He grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me and shoved me right through the swinging door. I fell down inside, and even half-conscious I saw it.

The kitchen was a shambles. Literally: a slaughterhouse.

Everything was blood.

“My my. What have we here?” Number one was still laughing. This was real funny.

“What have you been doing in here, Bronson?” Even number two found it humorous.

There was a body in the chair at the table right in front of me. She was naked. Lying flat on my back, I was looking right up at her. She was ripped open, and I could smell her intestines, a warmish toilet odor—excrement. A blonde, she was looking at me, her mouth hanging obscenely open. But she was dead. It was her blood that was all over the place. All around my head.

“Looks like you’ve been a bad, bad boy, Bronson.”

And number two kicked me once more. In the crotch.

I vomited. The pain, the hideous kitchen, terror and shock all collapsed into me.

“Nice job, Richie.”

“Goddamn. The wad puked on my shoe.” His name was Richie. For some reason I focused on that. He just kicked me again. Right in the nuts. Again. “You puked on my shoe!”

I knew then I was going to die. I really couldn’t breathe any more.

Richie still couldn’t get over it. “The little rat’s rear puked on my goddam shoe, Travis.”

Now I knew both of their names. Travis and Richie. Realizing that made it hurt a little less. Realizing that they didn’t care if I knew their names scared me. And the blonde was still somewhere behind me, sitting dead and gory in my kitchen chair.

My crotch felt warm. Bleeding? No… not quite so bad. Travis looked at me, noticing it himself. Worse.

“He’s peed his pants, Richie. Look at him. He peed his goddan pants!”

“Would have if he had any pants.”

“Peed his little towel then. What a jerk.”

“Guess he’ll need another shower now.”

“Guess he will, Richie.”

“Gonna take another shower now, Georgie-boy? Now that you’ve gone and wet yer little self.” He kicked me. There. “Come on, creep. Talk to us.”

Travis had moved around above my head. Now he kicked me in the back and neck. “Come on, Bronson. React. You miserable cocksucker.”

Everything hurt. More than hurt—red stinging pain made my body feel jagged. I couldn’t see straight; the two goons and the kitchen looked blurry. Where was the dead girl now? Still in her chair, jerk. The dead don’t move. Then I realized I was crying.

I was terrified. They were going to kill me. I didn’t know why. Two strangers walked into my house on a rotten morning, before I’d even had breakfast, and they were going to kill me. Torture me first. And for how long?

Now it was more than just tears in my eyes. I sucked in an agonizing breath and sobbed. Out loud. I sobbed in sheer pain and fear.

My neck and shoulder exploded. “What a wuss. The little baby’s cryin’, Rich.”

Richie took a swing at my crotch again. “Don’t cry for me, Argentina. You spineless little crap factory.”

Another kick from each of them and the whole world seemed to turn into fire. Things popped inside of me, cold, and then it seemed warmth was oozing through me. They were sending me to join the blonde. Sheer agony bloomed through my whole being. I really felt I was dying…

…And the alarm shrilled…

Anguish. Rolling waves of mindbending distress. Stabs of torture and wild throbs filled my being. Everything felt hot and cold all at once and all together. Everything was torment. Redness going black…

I cleaned up Travis and Ritchieʼs dialog a little, and at this level it doesnʼt even seem to do any harm (maybe make them just a touch less dangerous).

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.


Whaddaya Think?

One of my stories, that could never fully appear here for reasons of language, concerns a mild-mannered, weak guy who has troubling waking up in the morning. Some really bad guys show up after a few thousand words or more, and theyʼre so bad their language is the problem. However, the story starts okay, so I thought I would see what you might think of the opening…

Right now it doesnʼt really have a title, although at one time I called it “Where Is Your Head This Morning?” I think you can see why itʼs essentially untitled at the moment from that. On the other hand, this guy is really, really having one of those mornings…

When I awoke, I felt as though I had lived through lifetimes. I often feel like that when I wake up. Today was one of the bad ones. I dreamed I’d awakened five or six times since the alarm first went off more than an hour ago, and every arousing–showering–coffee drinking–driving had been interrupted by the re-ringing of the alarm and my fumblefingered punching of the sleep delay, only to drift off into awakening again and endure another variation on my morning routine.

Only now I was awake for real and down to under forty minutes to get to work. 7:22. Ain’t life grand?

Forty minutes was impossible. It took forty minutes to drive to the office. Well, to the parking lot and then walk to the office. I’d never make it. How could I possibly have overslept that long? I must have conked the snooze button twenty or thirty times; or else it was giving me a heck of a lot longer than six minutes between ringings. What to do now? I’d just have to call in. I couldn’t show up an hour or more late. Not without some kind of explanation.

Some mornings, life just isn’t fair.

Most mornings, come to think of it.

Can’t wait for the shower: Lunging up from the bed, I reached for the telephone. It felt funny in my hand, too light. I stabbed my finger at the dial, but three buttons each hit just wrong beeped at me. Buttons? Beeping?

I felt confused for a half-second. I must be exhausted. Dial phones? Did I think I was ten all over again?

The brain is a funny thing. Take care of it, give it plenty of mental exercise and also plenty of rest—and it keeps you up on everything and solves your problems for you. Wear it down through tedium and too little sleep—as I had done lately—and it plays petty little tricks on you.

I punched up the office number. The line droned once, twice, popped and clicked:

“Richardson and Fielding.”

“What?!”

“Richardson and Fielding, Attorneys at Law. How can I help you?”

“I— I’m sorry. Wrong number.” I hung up, embarrassed. What the hell—? I was sure I punched in the right number. 876–5549. I tried it again.

“Richardson and Fielding.” I clapped down the receiver again. Damnation!

What was I thinking of? 867–5549… That was our old number in Michigan, when I was a kid. Well, with a 3 for the 8, and the 67 reversed. Where was I getting these notions?

I dialed the right number. 876–5032.

“Vex and Blight, Realtors.”

“Hi, Stace. It’s George.”

“Georgie? What’s up, bud?”

What’s up, Stace? Everything but me. Yeah, Stace, I overslept by two hours, and I won’t be in for another hour. —Sounds real good, Georgie-boy, real good…

“George!?“

“Yeah, Stacy. It’s me.”

“You feeling all right?”

“Feeling all right?”

“Yeah. You sound kind of strange…”

“Uh…” What the hell. “No. I don’t. I don’t feel all right, Stacy.”

“I thought so, George. You sick?”

Took the words right out of my mouth, kid. “Sicker’n a dog.”

“Staying home today, then?”

You got it. “Yeah.” What the hell? I didn’t have anything major on today. Did I?

“All right, George. I’ll tell them.”

“Thanks, Stace.”

“Don’t worry about a thing. You just rest. Get better.”

“Yeah, right. Thanks.”

“Goodbye, George. —And, uh, George, you really must be out of it.”

“You can tell?” Got her fooled.

“Silly, I’m Sara.” Click.

Sara? Who’s Sara? The receptionist’s name is… —Sara, idiot.

And you thought you were fibbing. Dweeb. Where is your head this morning? Where is it any morning? Same place. Ozone land. Wrapped in wool or something.

I shoved my hands against my skull, rotating the heels against the dry heat of my forehead, pushing hard.

“Geezuss—”

I could feel the ice of my fingertips. What the—? That got me out of the bed, in a hurry. Straight across to the bathroom door—

Don’t you mean closet?

“Geezuss—?”

Bathroom’s down the hall, dork. Got your whole life upside over this morning? Must have. Would have sworn my bathroom’s just off the bed… Not here, not ever. What am I thinking?

While racing down the hall, rip open the bathroom door, and look into—the shower. Left side, braindead. Shower’s on the right, blue-green curtain. Toilet in front. Sink’s left.

I looked left.

And the face in the medicine chest mirror gleamed with a baldness I had never imagined. And I knew was not my own.

“Kee–raisss…—t.” Something was very wrong here.

What? Afraid to recognize yourself? Living in the past or what?

I’ve been bald for years. A decade. More. I was twenty-two and in Minneapolis with Karen and Guy, sitting in a booth in a Country Kitchen—it was Bloomington; we’d driven up after work and couldn’t find a motel, it was the fair weekend. We had finally paid too much for two Holiday Inn rooms just off I-35 and then gone to find something to eat at about one—and in the booth, as we finally got our food, they both started giggling like junior high schoolgirls when I leaned down to pick some crumb or something off my lap. They couldn’t help it. Mr. Hair was thinning out, right at the crown. Right where I always can feel—

No. That’s not right.

I was holding my skull again. I looked up. Same face.

Same face as always. Hairless skulltop gleaming fleshblue through the darkness of fingers. Glaring eyes between the palms expressing fear of everything. Dirty brown fingernails.

What’s with me?

I am not bald! …Am I?

Like I said, some mornings life just isn’t fair. Most mornings. …I must have been enjoying some pretty hairy dream not too long before the alarm first went off… Hard to forget your fleshy pate’s been your morning wake-up since… 1998—no matter how much hair, no matter how cut and combed, you have tried to part across the gap.

It just seemed so unreal, though, staring at myself. I had felt so sure. Not wishing, not nostalgic, just that’s the way it is, matter-of-fact… Better men than you have had trouble facing it, otherwise all the rug shops would have gone out of business back in George Washington’s day. And you only have to think of Harry Vex’s unhairy head buried in that medium brown Astroturf® to realize it.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m just joining Vex in a midlife panic. Nothing like two hard jabs to the lower ribs at once. Bald, that’s all it is. You’re bald, you’ve been bald, you’re still bald, and you’re going to keep getting balder. Accept it.

I still felt funny, splashing some water in my face, stripping off my yellow—no, blue-green—PJs, showering in the oddly tiny bathstall. I felt myself standing at a distance as if everything remained unfamiliar. I was a stranger in my own apartment, in my own body even—clunking into everything, finding the soap dish only after a search, having forgotten that I’d never used Head and Shoulders. Everything seemed inexplicably irregular.

I didn’t even recognize the doorbell’s asthmatic whimper when, predictably perhaps, it sounded just two-thirds of the way through the shower. This is the kind of crap I should expect, especially on a day like this.

After yesterdayʼs photo caption, maybe you can tell why this bit of this story seemed to rise to the top of my own unhairy head. And, yes, if you might be wondering, there is a big dose of me in this fictitious character, not just no hair. His long-ago moment of recognition about his evolving baldness is taken pretty closely from my own introduction to the joke of my genetic heritage. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. I, however, have never awakened convinced that I wasnʼt me. I wonder, now, what it might be like to wake up and have hair… Or wake up as some other bald guy.

Kind of makes me wonder what it would be like to wake up one morning and find yourself Picasso — bit of time travel necessary or itʼd be a hideously messy corpse nightmare…

Say itʼs 1950…

Okay, back to the actual story at hand.

I have been thinking about this one a lot lately, rather than stories you are more familiar with. That explains its sudden appearance today. (That and sheer desperation to get something posted that didnʼt take any work last evening.)

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

One Twelfth of Heaven

…with partial apologies to Melissa Scott, a real writer, for the title of this post…

Here, after our recent digression back into Mantorville for Dave a week ago, is another dose of Stars in Heaven for Colleen, who was kind enough to comment favorably a couple of times while I was not actually live and present on the blog recently.

Galactic Nebula NGC 7635

“Come on, boy. Wake up!” Rimmon’s voice, somewhere distant. Who’s he talking to?

“Unca Rim…?”

“Yeah, boy. It’s me. It’s Rim..”

“What happened?”

“You puked, kidboy.” —Like Aunt Sarai, that. “Now you’re lyin’ in it, and you should get up.”

The boy reeled to his feet, the world sloshing all awry around him, and promptly fell down again.

“Not like that, kidboy. Come on, you gotta get up. Now. It’s important.”

He tried again, rising a bit more slowly, and this time things seemed to move a little more fluidly, keeping pace with his head, remaining level.

Uncle Rimmon had a wet rag in his hand and quickly wiped the boy’s face and upper body. Very quickly. The boy tried to help, taking the rag and working on his vomit-stained clothing and flesh.

“Good boy. That’s the way.”

They were alone. Not just Daniel, but Ghorf and Jism gone as well. “Where is everybody?” He remembered, he thought, yes… Daniel had lipped Ghorf and then run for it. Was he making his big Escape?

“They’re gone, kidboy. Doncha remember? Chasin’ Daniel. —You remember…”

Ghorf must’ve taken off after his son. Yes… Ghorf’d hit him and then run. “So Jism went after Unca Ghorf?”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“Whu— where’d they go?”

“Dunno, kidboy. That’s what I need you for. Somebody’s gotta stay here. ‘N’ that’s gotta be me. Too much stardust to trust to a li’l— …You gotta find ‘em.”

“But I don’t know where to go.”

“They went that way, kid. That’s all I know. You go that way, too.”

Uncle Rim looked serious, really serious. That was not usual for him. The boy had only known this new uncle for a day, but Daniel had told stories. And Uncle Rimmon was always the good guy, the unGhorf, the laughing one in those stories. And that’s just how he had been this past day. But not now. Now something that the boy thought looked a little like fear sparkled in the city man’s eyes.

“Go now, kidboy. Before they get any farther off.”

So he went. The boy, unsteadily on his feet, turned and took steps away into the hurrying masses of people, all of them so much larger than he was, all hurrying, rushing, bumping him immediately as he cleared the boothside. Someone could scent the puke and even pushed the boy to avoid the filth.

He wanted to stop as he staggered from one set of legs into another. Big adult voices snarling at him, the clumsy one, in the way, watch where you’re going, what’s the stink, eh.

He tried right away to turn around and go back, but there were too many legs already, too many people: he’d come too far already; and the booth was out of sight, and he wasn’t even sure in which direction. And Uncle Rimmon’s peculiar look haunted him vividly, those eyes. So he turned again, hoping it was still in the right direction and kept on. And he knew he had no idea where he was going. Unless he could guess Daniel’s plan…

I had intended to continue with more brand-new material about Daniel and his Escape, but time did not permit (and now I think I like jumping back and forth at this point between the two boysʼ points of view anyway).

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Stars One One

Here is a brand-new portion of the Stars in Heaven story, with a shift in point of view, so all italics I am afraid…

The brief repetition at the start is meant to remind us of where we began.

Today was the day. Daniel had decided: he’d had enough. So today would be the Escape. There would be no turning back…

Daniel was running as quickly as his legs could carry him down the alleyway. At the second intersection he turned left and ran harder, taking the next right and the following left. He had pushed through people rudely and carelessly: his one aim to get out of sight instantly and lose whatever pursuit had developed.

He knew Ghorf would be after him in an instant. He felt himself wishing it had been Ghorf he had kicked rather than the boy. It would have been so sweet. But all in the past now, all behind him…

Orionʼs Horsehead Nebula (again) — oriented as seen in the sky and much less enhanced for color. If you check back and look closely in one previous photo, this is the third time I have featured this astronomical sight.

But the kid had puked all over his leg. Daniel couldn’t stand that. Especially today. This day he needed to be his best, not puked on and stinking like barf. But it was too late to fix that now. It had begun, his Escape.

His wet leg worked with his left to hurry Daniel along. He could smell the kidʼs vomit as he moved, thinking vaguely, as he dodged among people who sometimes recoiled, leaving him some space, smelling the stench themselves, that this was not a good start.

But it was too late to stop. No turning back. He had heard and overheard the phrase when he accompanied his father on the long journeys to town to sell the stars. Once they were underway, after a certain distance, there was no turning back. He had come to that place for himself, in his own life. He had made the break. He had run. Now there was no turning back.

Ghorf would kill him for that confrontation just now if the old man were ever to find or catch him. No turning back.

And he dodged and turned his erratic way through the tangled routes among the thousand booths in If-naryadh’iq squared, listening keenly for outraged noise worse than what he stirred up himself. Ghorf would be after him, even without knowing where Daniel was headed, even oblivious of what Daniel had taken. After that contretemps, the old, fat ogre would be on his tail as quickly as his piggy mind sorted out the details to realize the youth was gone.

But Ghorf was old and fat, while Daniel was young. His father might be stronger, but Daniel has desperation and his dreams to wing his feet. He gloated on that thought, reaching inside his shirt for the little bag, to ensure himself that his treasure was there, safe and with him.

And he collided powerfully with a large woman bending into a booth. He had tried to place his route between her and the kiosk, but something had drawn her interest and hawklike she had moved with amazing rapidity right in his way.

As he tried to wriggle out from beneath her bulk, a huge, moist hand clamped hard on his neck, the thumb all the way up under his ear into the joint of his jaw.

“In a hurry to leave, little thief?” her raucous, city-accented voice wailed from above.

“ — No thief!” Daniel managed to gasp, as she hauled him up into her view.

“What, lad? Pretty convenient accident for one whoʼs no thief.”

“And Iʼm in a hurry.”

“Clearly. And from the country, too. But not in such haste you wonʼt linger,” and she pinioned him against the booth, trapped by her massive, encompassing torso, releasing her grip on his neck and head, “while I make sure you havenʼt…” Her body shifted as she did something he couldnʼt see with his face buried in her bosom. “ — No you havenʼt. All still here.” She sounded only vaguely relieved.

She sniffed and then stepped back further, evidently scenting the still-wet puke on his leg.

“Iʼm no thief. It was just an accident.” Daniel exploded as she stepped back, effectively freeing him.

“But exactly the kind of accident little pickpockets practice to distract someone like me from her purse. Canʼt be too careful these days.” She had a huge lopsided nose squashed in the middle of lumpily shapeless face. But her eyes were large and not menacing, blue. “Go along, boy. If you are in such a hurry you canʼt avoid an obstacle as big as me, you are donʼt have time to be ogling my pert charms.”

And he didnʼt: he could hear exactly the sounds of indignation he had been dreading.

“S — sorry, maʼam!” he coughed with rural good manners as he dashed away, aware she moved immediately into her desired position against the booth.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

“Stars” Ten

So I weakened from my stand a week ago… Here is another dose of the science fiction story Stars in Heaven, which includes some relatively strong language (maybe).

Star Cluster

It would be nice to sleep now. He felt almost as if he were there, asleep, almost at home. Aunt Sarai’s voice seemed to tremble in his ears. But she wasn’t here. She wasn’t. Just Ghorf. And distant Daniel, restive now, and Rimmon and Jiz.

He lifted his heavy eyelids and looked again at the numberless legs and feet churning dustily by. Some were gray, brown, green, blue-shoed, black-shod, red-legged. He couldn’t keep track. Too many legs and twice as many feet. …Maybe not. —Too many anyhow.

Daniel kept looking at the sky. He wanted something to happen. He looked at his uncles, who ignored him, and then finally at his father. Ghorf was staring into the square, oblivious, as usual, to everything but himself.

“Getting late, inn’it?” Daniel was trying subtlety.

“What do you care, kid?” Jism snarled. Ghorf just kept staring away, though a dim sound rumbled in his chest. Daniel seemed poised but frustrated. He waited, but no one else said anything.

“How long we gonna stay here?” Daniel persisted, making his plea considerably more obvious.

Ghorf glared at his son with a nasty grimace. “As long as I say, Daniel. As long as I say.”

“But it’s time we were going… Inn’it?”

“Like I said, Daniel. What’s it matter to you?” Ghorf’s face was taking on its ugly look; that redness made the boy feel queasy. “We got stuff to sell.”

“And none of it’s gone anywhere yet,” Jism contributed, still testy. His acerbic voice twisted around the boy’s head like fumes from day-old empty ale bottles.

“Yeah. So shut yer face and keep still. We’ll go when I say. When I say.”

“Leave him be, Ghorf. This’s gotta be boring for a kid.”

“Shove it, Rim. He’s mine and he’ll mind. And keep his big mouth shut.”

“Like freck I will.” Daniel released what he’d been holding—not all of it, just what had been building up today.

“Huh!? Whadja say, kid?” Ghorf looked purple in an instant.

“You heard me.” Daniel’s face, too, looked nasty. The father and son were glaring at each other like contorted mirrorimages, both filled with a parallel rage. An explosion was coming. Rimmon backed away a step or two, but Jism leaned his knifeface toward the fight.

Ghorf rose to his feet, rumbling, bearlike, his little pigeyes redder than ever. Daniel got up, too, not retreating, glaring directly at his old man. This was it. This was the moment toward which his entire life had been constructed. The tension held yet, poised, nearly in balance.

Ghorf took one step toward his son, his arms swaying, right hand fisted.

Crouched by the boothside, the boy felt sick. Suddenly all his weariness seemed to condense, focus into his stomach and his eyes, the back of his throat. He felt sick. He felt it twisting inside and then rising from his stomach. No longer tired. Sleepiness evaporated in the abrupt biliously acidic feeling that sprouted low and then erupted from beneath his heart.

He vomited. Green and purple smoky liquid spattered the gray-brown dirt beyond his knees, speckling Daniel’s left foot. It smelled like sour wine (like Jism’s voice sounded), like fried vermin for Saturday night supper (When had he had that last? Three months back?) and oat cakes and battery acid all mixed up with snot and other things. He saw, smelled and retched again.

Ghorf reacted first. “Whuh the freck—? Whuddaya doin’, ya mealy brat?”

“Pukin’, seems to me.”

“Lid it, Jiz.”

“Lid yerself, Rim.”

“What’s yer problem?“

“Make the kid stop!” Ghorf’s hand darted at the boy, grabbing his hair.

“Think this’ll bring in business?” Rimmon sneered.

“Let him go, Ghorf. He’s not well.” Jism was defending him? Another hand smacked the hand in his hair; he felt stunned as he was released. Vaguely, he realized that Jism and Ghorf were faced off, glaring at each other, over him. He could feel the heat from their bodies. Daniel stepped closer, beside Jism.

Rimmon was fretting. “Oh, this is good. Business’ll flood in if we’re fighting.”

“It’s yer wife’s slop he’s upchuckin’ there. —Not that I blame him none.” Did Ghorf want everyone against him, all together?

Rimmon held quiet and still. Would he fight, too? The sultry air seemed filled with static electricity, but it was only antagonism, sparking out from everywhere, focused at Ghorf still looming over the boy’s wretched head. The big man was breathing heavily; he’d eaten garlic for breakfast as well. Daniel’s left foot was twisting in the dirt.

The boy felt no better. His gut still coiled, cramped and congealed. And it came again.

All over Daniel’s leg.

“That freckin’ does it! I’m outta here.” Daniel landed a kick with that filthy foot hard in the boy’s gut—once, again; the world looked green; he felt it coming one more time—and Daniel was gone, leaping away and opening a doorway of sunlight and air.

“Daniel!” Ghorf sputtered. “Get back here, boy!”

He spewed once more.

“Ah, shiva! Someone shove a rag in that kid’s mouth.” Ghorf smashed the boy’s head aside with a solid fist and took off himself, chasing Daniel. The boy flopped down in the dirt, into his own vomit, things he saw wrenching sideways, Ghorf’s sandals slapping puffs of dust as he thudded out of sight, sideways. Other feet, too… The dazzling sunlight seemed to dim a bit with each footfall—not-so-bright, faded now, turning to late afternoon, grayer, dimmer yet, going dark, black…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

The Nine of Stars

Nope. Not a new suit in the deck of cards (not even the Tarot deck), although I was pleased to be able to invent a title that suggested just such a novel card. This is just the next piece of the opening chapter/short story from Stars in Heaven. Hey. Itʼs Sunday, and I seem to have fallen into a trap. I will even be generous today and offer nearly a thousand words. Enjoy. I hope.

Reading right to left (like Hebrew or — Rightists gasp! — Arabic), itʼs angry Moose and Squirrel, Dahlink!

Just thinking about the long trek to the city could make him entirely exhausted, although he had slept very well and for a long time each night since their arrival.

Uncle Rimmon’s house lent itself to sleep at night at least. That had surprised him. It was so noisy. Everywhere. But somehow at night, jammed amidst all these people, above you below you all around you, lying on the floor in Uncle Rim’s three-room flat between Daniel and Jism (who snored), believing you’d never fall asleep, wishing for the dream silence of home (once Ghorf had drunk himself unconscious)… suddenly it was morning and you had slept the whole night through, no wakening whatsoever.

Still he felt so tired now, and the things his eyes beheld seemed to be wavering and pulsing in the immense heat.

The journey took forever. Day after day after day, walking the dusty roads away from home, trailing along after Daniel and the two men and the three horses, Ghorf in no mood for rest talk. After about a week they even took lunch while walking. He felt as though he could still touch the fruit juice sticky on his chin and chest, trying so hard to stick his head far forward and bite as he trotted along.

“Move it, ya damn brat. Serve you right to be left out here lost, wouldn’t it?” And a thwack from Ghorf’s big walking stick. “Now keep up!” As if stumbling in pain, his arm or back absolutely useless from the shock, could help him keep up. And don’t beg to ride. The horses were along to carry the stars, not worthless whiners who didn’t know when they had it good. Thought he hurt, did he? Ghorf would show him what real pain was all about, he would. Would he like that, would he?

No matter what in his life, the boy realized of a sudden, there was always a shadow. Not Daniel, though he had been truly terrifying in the past. But Ghorf. Even Daniel’s behavior—first the poundings, then this new thing, this Escape—derived actually from Ghorf, from Daniel’s own turmoil with his father and his ways. The boy wasn’t the only one to suffer from Ghorf’s savagery. Strange as it seemed to realize, he understood now that Daniel suffered too. Ghorf beat him, his own son, just as freely as he battered the boy. Daniel just passed on what he had received, and so the boy took double clubbings. Unlike Daniel he had no one to transfer it onto.

Ghorf. Always Ghorf. His very name the sound of gagging bloody phlegm in your throat.

Ghorf’s nagging, croaking, sneering voice lancing your concentration as you picked stars, worse than thinking of the dust. The dust was always there, omnipresent, but you might just get used to being alone on your own out there in the brilliance of potential death, when suddenly his irritating nonsense filled your helmet and your head. Him sitting back on the veranda, sucking down beers. Ghorf never picked stars—”done enough o’ that when I was a boykid. Your turns now. So get to it! And damn-don’t miss none, neither.”

And your days and nights, daydreams and nightmares for these last six weeks, slogging along the dusty roads to the city. Long days, hard days, waking well before sunrise, choking down cold scraps of last night’s greasy supper—rancid meat you carried most of the way from home, rockhard blackbeans barely cooked, and rice of course—even while you were chasing down the horses and packing up bedrolls and repacking the burdens and making sure the fires were completely out and everything else while Ghorf sat on what Daniel always called his fatass, giving orders.

Whacking you with sticks he’d found, whaling on you when he felt really pissed. Leaving long darkblue welts that slowly turned greenblue then yellowgreen over the long weeks. Chopping right through your skin. “Won’t work, willya? Then bleed fer it, bratkid.”

And Daniel: “Coulda been worse, kid. Coulda been me. Glad you’re along this year. Damn glad.”

But they both got their share. And then some. More than their shares. More than anyone could have ever deserved in a whole long lifetime, in a spacer’s lifetime even. Ghorf seemed almost to feed on their pain, gaining strength from every unjust beating. He was like some dynamic force of nature, bigger and more awesomely powerful than anything the boy’s little mind could conceive. Stronger and more terrifying than he had any need to be.

It had been Ghorf, all along Ghorf that had made Daniel seem so much less consequential. Daniel’s daily torment was a kind of attention, which is why its absence this last year left a longing, that dim, strange yearning of some kind. With Ghorf, inattention was a blessing.

Perhaps it was Ghorf’s neglect since they had arrived that made Uncle Rim’s place seem restful…

From here on, the exposition is pretty much concluded and things start to happen (which may mean this is the last of these posts, too — sorry, Colleen).

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Eighth Stars

Orionʼs “Belt”

As has become my habit now, hereʼs another installment from Stars in Heaven.

I want to include a long section, following what appeared last Sunday and preceding this little chunk, about the trek from the boyʼs home (actually I guess it would be the home to most of the characters — the boy, Daniel, Ghorf, Jism [and Aunt Sarai, but sheʼs not on the journey, so only a recollection in the boyʼs thoughts]) to the city, which amusingly I just realized I have never named. I fell in love with If-naryadh’iq square, but I never named the city.

The square, by the way, owes itself to several places (the main one in Marrakesh, of which many details about the fictional square parallel) that Janet and I visited on our 1984 trip to Morocco (ironically/coincidentally, during Ramadan, as we now are also). Anyway.

I want to write (but havenʼt yet written) about the long journey — first the uncles and the two boys hiking for a while, then the caravanserai where they attach themselves to one of the regular caravans to the city. The first portion, the walk, is mostly tedium, but I have several incidents in mind for the caravanserai. The actual caravan journey is still pretty vague to me (which along with the uninteresting aspect of the foot journey may explain why I havenʼt gotten around to writing any of this). Regardless, I wanted to indicate that, although I wrote the next section (and the next and the next after that) as one big hunk of evolving narrative, my plan is that this comes quite a distance after what you (may) have read so far.

The whole travel narrative remains in the boyʼs thoughts, as has just about everything so far.

You can tell me if you think itʼs necessary…

Ghorf was sure they were late and would arrive only after the harvest fair was over and all the offworld trade departed with their portion of this year’s stars. Ghorf, yapping and hollering, whining through supper and again at breakfast and full volume all along the hot dusty roads. Ghorf, kicking your backside long before dawn in the days before they joined the caravan, “to get you going, bratkid, are-you-gonna-sleep-all-day?” Ghorf and Jism bickering, shouting, all along the trail:

“We’re right on schedule, cuz. Cut the crap, huh?”

“We were with the caravan long before this last year.”

“We were not. And you know it, Ghorf.”

And they trudged on, as weary as the little boy in Aunt Sarai’s stories. The little boy, who didn’t listen to his kindly step-aunt when she told him what not to do, who always ended up in some terrible calamity that taught him the lesson of his life. She told good stories, Aunt Sarai. He missed them on the journey, even when he was telling himself he was like that little boy, condemned to wander the big world’s vast deserts in search of happiness.

But unlike the little boy in the stories, he would never find it. Never ever, never never never. The rhythm of the words, remembered, rocked in his mind, echoing inside of his skull. His head felt large and heavy on his neck. His eyes seemed slow and tired.

Orion is my favorite constellation, mostly because I figured out to see it for myself and I can actually see it (the constellation will be rising into  clear evening viewing above the horizon by late October and remain very visible in the southern sky through the winter). I laugh to realize that the mythological Orion was a mighty hunter, ironically for my favorite star image.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Pleiades

Okay, Colleen, you get your wish. Hereʼs more from Stars in Heaven

The Pleiades

If the spines could slice your skin “like butter, kidboy, just like,” then the powder of their making flayed your lungs like a living fire.

Picking stars, however, was beautiful. Each star was a genuine gob of pure light, ecstatic color. The blossom of the unique, glasslike gorgeous plant which glorified and plagued their lives. Quintessence of pain. The light was fragile, and plucking each from the shaggy glassware stem was delicate and focused work lest you burst that frail, diaphanous bursting beauty. Utter care and concentration extended your extraordinarily clumsy, engauntleted paw to gently caress the almost insubstantial effulgence, finger its dainty base beneath the warmth fluttering within your palm, and pressing barely upon that point alone, extract the star.

If you were good, you had light’s pure beauty cradled in your gentle grip, ready to place in your collection bag among the others. Less skill and less care, and you had a ruptured star blasting brilliance and oily illuminate and ooze all over yourself, or worse, the powder of the stem crushed and blowing, feathery light, all around—dust of a substance too dangerously edgy to breathe. Thus the respirator.

You stirred up dust with every movement, the starstalks were so thick and so fragile this time of year, all of the energy of the things going into the stars themselves. But dust was as sharp and as deadly as the edges of the stems. One breath and you were bleeding to death inside. Aunt Agatha had gone that way.

He’d been little, just two or three, but he remembered vividly. She’d been hot at the far end of the field and thought she was far enough from the starstems themselves for just one breath of fresh air. She was wrong. She had died, coughing blood, over a long and savage week, and nobody could save her; she’d shredded her lungs. Jism, who’d ever been sour, Daniel asserted, turned nasty and vicious once she was gone. In his own way another victim of the stardust.

Hell. What he had always taken for beauty in his heart, he knew in his head was suffering and death. So he had been told by everyone he knew, so now he told himself from his own experience. The stars were lovely, but the stars would kill you if you gave them any chance, no matter how small.

Stars were life, and stars were death, as evenhanded as the stars in heaven themselves. That’s what he had heard everyone repeat since before he could understand what they had been saying. The stars were life, and the stars were death. The same as the stars in heaven themselves. Just as lovely and just as horrible.

But the horrors of the starfield when you were working were little or nothing, he believed that he now realized, to the miseries of the road. These many weeks, interminable day after day, always walking—almost running after the first fortnight.

In case I made you doubtful, the Pleiades are often called the Seven Sisters (and this is the seventh installment of Stars in Heaven). This section is short because from here it goes into quite different material, as the Boy recollects their journey on the road to sell their stars.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

A Sixth of “Stars”

I hadnʼt intended to go ahead with the story so soon, especially as interest seems perhaps to be waning (like the current moonphase), but hereʼs a little more of Stars in Heaven for a Sunday…

When they had started, he had believed that the very task of walking was the worst. Well, not right away, not at the very first. Initially, he had felt a kind of freedom, of pure joy at walking away from home, at going somewhere, at moving but not in the heavy extra skin, the armor, through the starfield—his only opportunity for activity in the previous three months. The harvest had been hell: he had heard Jism and Ghorf and Daniel all say that for years.

The harvest was hell this year. Boy, what a hellish harvest. Helluva harvest, huh? That was pure hell. But he hadn’t understood until it was his turn to join them. He hadn’t comprehended that they had been meaning just exactly what they had said. The harvest was hell. Absolutely and completely. Hell. Hotter than any experience he had ever suffered previously in his hot and miserable existence. Longer and harder and more physically exhausting than any drudgery and beating or chores he had endured before. Up hours before sunrise, only resting during the very hottest tiny wedge of the endless day, and laboring until well after the stars themselves were dancing and churning clearly and brilliantly into the night. Oceans of sweat had filled the outrageous outfit, and yet his arms and legs were bruised and slashed even within the terrible uniform. He now understood why you wanted to be a good boy. He understood hell.

He had been in those fields, in hell, maybe just for three weeks and one day, but he had been there. Yet he had almost yearned for it later. Now, here in this hot place, the sun beating somehow like hidden thunder (but how?) on everything and everyone, but most particularly it seemed on him, the boy thought of the long arduous days in the fields, collecting stars.

The only relief had been the slightly cool jet of air from the respirator across the back of his skull into the helmet…

The attire was peculiar but important. Around home most of the time everybody wore just some kind of pants and a shirt. Except Aunt Sarai. She had her dresses, “cooler,” she always said, “than that get-up you menfolks have to wear. Lets the breezes blow where they may.” But for the harvest, you had to go into the fields themselves, and there was no natural thing as hazardous as a field of stars. The stalks were light as air but hard and sharp as glass or steel (Aunt Sarai used a starflower stem as the blade in her allpurpose kitchen knife: “Ain’t nothin’ to compare, punkun boy”); she could cut anything with that knife. The slightest brush against a starstalk could lay your skin open to the bone—severing muscles and tendons in an instant. That’s how old man Rissvaldt had lost his arm, eye and ear and most of the fingers on his other hand.

No one in his right mind went into a starfield unless enclosed in the protective armor. Helmet, respirator, shoulder pads, arm guards, breastplate, buckler, thigh guards, and the immense boots and gauntlets. Cover all that with the microthin shell skin and you were off to pick stars. Effectively, but definitely not completely, you were encased. Enclosed enough to make it seem as if your eyes and skin were melting within the greygreen contrabulation, but never enveloped sufficiently to avoid at least five or seven nicks or cuts each day.

The thinskin was intended to cover everything, and it was almost impossible to slice or puncture it (“same stuff as some of them satellites, they say”), but nothing was as tough as starstuff and the microshell worked like an oven, even though it was supposed to “breathe” and respire like real skin. In other words, you just had to open it here and there or pull off a glove once in a while or lower a boot while you were out there, to cool off, at least a little.

And then you’d get cut. Didn’t matter how clever you thought you were being or where you were, you’d get cut. Even well outside the starfield: the dust. Each grain of starstuff was a tiny knife, and during the harvest the dust carried on the wind. You hoped for a calm season, even with the dreadful heat.

Worst of all was the helmet and the respirator. You couldn’t remove the helmet, not ever. Your good things were in your head (Ghorf always laughed at that, though the boy never understood why). Your helmet had to stay in place no matter what, no matter how, no matter when. You kept it on even while showering off in the deep night when you were finally quits for that day. And the respirator was even more important. Because of the dust. You had to shun the horrible dust.

I have been writing something other than blog posts lately. So perhaps “Mantorville” fans will get something to whet their curiosity some day soon, too.

I hope the new widget putting the longer writing — fiction and essays — right up on the sidebar is worthwhile.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Worthwhile Writing

For no good reason, during a free five minutes on Sunday, I started writing about some of my favorite writers (which could be an excellent theme for a continuing  series of posts here). I am confident I have not done my initial choice any justice whatsoever. But I wrote the following thousand words on her writing Monday morning, so here is the not-quite-an-essay anyway…

There arenʼt many contemporary writers to whom I have taken strongly. For some reason I got interested in Neal Stephensonʼs Baroque Cycle (which may deserve its own post[s] sometime) at the very time those three books came out, acquiring them in the expensive hardcover editions (each a First, now that I think about it). In the mid-Nineties I finally paid attention to John Varley, spending a few years assembling a complete collection of his writing (just in time for him to get really active in prose fiction again with his antiHeinleinian Mars trilogy, Mammoth and then that fine short story collection that I still peruse for the great writing and memories). He has become a favorite, and especially after encountering, briefly, the movie of his Millennium (a rotten flick, as he says), I think I need to write about him soon. But the writer who amazed and overwhelmed me the most since I turned thirty, perhaps, was one whose name I had seen on the covers and contents pages of Asimovʼs Science Fiction while I subscribed to that, but who I ignored originally (at least for a year or two) — Kage Baker.

The lady in question, Kage Baker. Click the photo for the source and a wonderfully intimate memorial.

What a perfect name, simple yet utterly memorable. (Yet I think it was that odd first name that put me off for years as well, that and the fact I just didnʼt read very many new authors.) Her pathetically brief Wikipedia biography (go on back, click the link) gives her active writing time as 1997-2010, so I must not have ignored her quite as long as I had remembered. Once I finally tried one of her stories (I think in a Yearʼs Best anthology from Gardner Dozois), I was hooked. It was, of course, a Company story.

Immortal time-traveling cyborgs heisting all the lost wealth of the past?! Irresistible.

Yes, it sounded corny to me at first, too. (Still, it is the greatest one-line summary for a science fiction series ever.) So I dredged out the old Asimovʼs I had saved and searched for the roughly ten stories I hadnʼt previously read. And Science Fiction Book Club (in those days still publishing science fiction and not just vampires, comics crap and Star Wars® knock-offs — hard to believe how little I notice to buy from them in the last several years) started publishing omnibus volumes of her Company novels, almost at the very same time, so I grabbed up the first two (comprising four novels I had ignored until then), and they were more amazing than the short stories. The first, In the Garden of Iden, had a genuine lived-in Renaissance feel (and the section in Spain when Mendoza was first recruited, equally vivid). That book itself was like a time-travel device for me. The second, Sky Coyote, was completely different, but it featured native Americans and good anthropology, so I remained hooked and reading (and I was starting to like Joseph a lot; little did I know just what an army of charming Baker cyborgs I had embarked on knowing). The third novel, Mendoza in Hollywood, seeemed  tougher-going, slower, but it had its own rewards and interests, including an astonishing tour-de-force describing the lost, uncut version of D.W. Griffithʼs Intolerance ( a movie I hadnʼt really heard about or cared about, but which is now almost as real to my mind as Metropolis, which I have actually seen — and which Baker believed was overblown with portentous symbolism and inferior to Modern Times, which Iʼve also seen and enjoyed). I am not really much of a Hollywood buff, but Baker has been converting me and piquing my interest in Southern California places and history.

And, of course, there are four more novels (go ahead: click their links back on this page).

Baker had been selling short stories that appeared not to be Company-related to Asimovʼs, featuring a character of the 24th century, Alec Checkerfield, in a hideously PC dystopian future London, and she surprised me by turning all of that into the new twist on the Company, almost unbelievably — thus four more novels, each more incredible than the last, and each more mindblowing (I have come to think that was part of her point), building to a fantastic step-now-into-the-new-reality superhuman sci fi trope.

There were even more (and better) short stories, mostly novellas, which appeared through this millennium, some holding a bleak darkness within them. And then the nonCompany stuff — fantasy of a quite new kind (The Anvil of the World remains unique, a novel take on fantasy regardless of the reviewerʼs blarp on that link), kidsʼ stuff, pirates… All enthralling, detailed, amusing and so candidly well written I humbly should just slit my wrists and depart now instead of trying to peck out another word. Or better, I should be inspired to attempt anything in the shadow of her unbelievably fine work.

I tried by actually loaning out my treasured SFBC omnibus volumes to convert my sister Margaret (who returned the favor with Catherine Asaro — and I still have to really get gong with her stuff — and Lois McMaster Bujold — whose Vorkosigan stuff really does grab me, and therefore whose name belonged back in the first paragraph and whose writing I have been searching out in much the same way I tracked down Varley and Baker), but I am unsure of the result. (She returned my Baker books, but I still have about twenty of her paperbacks in a bag, only about half of them read.) Now I am trying to convert the couple dozen of you who read this blog.

However, Ms. Baker died on January 31, as I noted sadly upon discovering the fact, so except for a few more stories and books (most of which I already have my pre-ordering hands upon, thanks to some references I discovered via the excellent DeWitt public library site), all her work there will ever be is already out. Unfortunately, with the state of modern publishing and mega worldwide bookstore chains, youʼll have to hope your local library stocked up as the books appeared or else haunt the used bookstores well (or eBay or used resellers from the mega worldwidesʼ online stores) because her books just arenʼt in those stores now. And thatʼs a real pity. Although gone from this reality, Kage Baker remains the new great thing in science fiction…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.