THE NIGHTMARE An interactive fiction. Copyright (c) 1984 by J.A.Schmehl You are in a hallway. There are three doors here.
>Examine doors The left door is all black except for a glowing eye which is watching you. The right door is green and has a frowning emoticon sloppily carved into it’s surface. The carving drips blood. The center door is blue and is decorated with a painting of white fluffy clouds and a yellow sun.
>Open center door It is locked.
>Unlock center door You need a key to do that.
>Find key I don’t see that here.
>Open left door It is locked.
>Open right door You open the door. You are sucked into the center of a whirling cyclone. You can’t see or hear anything beyond dust and wind. There is a monster here.
>Kill Monster What would you like to kill the monster with? There is a monster here.
>Sword I don’t see that here. There is a monster here.
>Use magic spell to put monster to sleep You have no magic spells. The monster is swinging a club at you.
>Wake up I do not understand that command. The monster has hit you with the club. (LIFE -50)
>Wake up!!!! I do not understand that command. The monster has hit you with the club (LIFE -75)
>WAKE UP! I do not understand that command. You are dead. Thank you for playing.
My brain is tired, but my mouth is not, it just rambles along, making sounds, reacting to the things my ears hear. There really isn’t any need for the impulse from the ear to pass through the brain on the way to the mouth. It takes a shortcut. I become a mockingbird, repeating your ideas back to you. Why not? It makes you happy.
I honestly have no thoughts. Just feelings. And feelings without words to describe them are meaningless. Might as well not exist at all.
I have a mirror next to my desk. I use it while I am writing to help capture my feelings. Without it I would not be able to interpret feelings into words. My face is an open book you tell me. And yes, I see what you mean. I stare at the reflection there and I see someone struggling with reality.
I have just read a very good book, one which has shifted something in my brain, the way only a really good book can. I read a short story on the very same day that I finished the good book, and it increased the shift. I love this feeling, although it is kind of sad, and very hard to put into words.
Both stories twisted what is ‘real’ into something different. But neither story took the shape of traditional ‘fantasy’ writing.
They were beautiful like a fairytale without the tacked on moral platitudes.
I want to write that way. I want to write something so seamless. To move a reader from what is now to what is possible (or not so possible) without discernible effort or deliberate manipulation.
So I float on a bed of nothingness while my brain takes a break, retreating from the mundane, entering the wonderous.
If I ever get my fiction published, I will dedicate my first book to my seventh grade teacher. This is what the dedication will say:
To Mrs. Weigel, who gave me an award for a story I didn’t write.
Yeah, that story of mine that you gushed over, that earned me the only A+ I got that year, it wasn’t mine. Oh, I didn’t copy it word for word, but the story came from the back of a puzzle box.
Every year my mom bought a new 1000 piece puzzle for us to complete over the annual two week shore vacation. Something to do on rainy days I guess. A part of the down-the-shore experience that she had inherited from her parents. That summer the puzzle had been of a deep, dark jungle: palm trees and parrots and tropical fruit. On the back of the box there was a story about the picture. I must have read it a dozen times over the course of that puzzle’s existence on the foldout table under the bay window that faced the ocean.
The story told of a Hawaiian style shirt that came alive at night while its owner slept. I think the parrot might have flown around the guy’s bedroom and lost a feather or something. I don’t actually remember it now.
But I knew the story well back then. Well enough that when you handed out the mimeographed coloring book page of a jungle scene and told us to “Demonstrate your knowledge of the First Person Narrative” by writing a story about the picture (and color the picture for extra credit) I knew exactly what story to tell.
I wonder now if you made such a big deal over the story because it was the only decent thing I had ever done in your class and you felt like it was a good opportunity to let me shine. You were everyone’s favorite teacher. You were kind and affectionate and you were always fair. I wonder now if you felt a little sorry for me, so much smaller than the other kids, smart, but totally uninterested in spelling, the rules of composition or memorizing poetry. I never really excelled at anything in your class.
You made such a fuss over that story that two things clicked in my brain. First, that making up stories and writing them down can garner praise. And second, that someday I was going to write a story for real and show it to you in order to feel like I actually deserved that praise.
Well, it took me thirty odd years, and I don’t even know if you are still alive, but here it is, a real story, just for you. I hope you like it as much as you liked the other one.
If you should ever stumble across this blog, Mrs. Weigel, I hope you read some of the fiction I have posted here. All of it is a 100% my own creation, and all of it is for you.
It starts like this:
To whom it may concern. (Except nobody uses the word ‘Whom’ anymore. Either you use it wrong and you sound like an idiot, or you use it correctly and everyone who reads the sentence spends a minute saying it out loud to themselves wondering if it is correct. Better to avoid it all together.)
Instead, it starts like this:
To the person reading this letter, Please, don’t stop reading until you get to the end. And I’m going to warn you now, the end is a long way off.
First, I need to explain to you what sort of Book this is. Which I can not do. Instead, I will show you why I can’t explain what sort of Book this is.
The Book will start with a bit of fiction:
“Is This An Emergency?” (Just read it – it is only 678 words. Should take you about two and a half minutes.)
See, that is most definitely fiction, right? That would never happen in real life. In reality the ‘good mother’ would have called 911, maybe waited for the police to show up and then she would have made sure to never go to that park with her kids EVER AGAIN. Then she might have told a friend about the disgusting mess she saw in the ‘bad mother’s’ house and that friend might have told me the story. Then I might have written it down with a different ending to make myself (and hopefully you) feel something.
You might be thinking that this book is ‘fiction,’ or specifically, ‘short story anthology.’ And it is, except not all of it is really fiction.
Because the next section of the book has this to say:
Which is not fiction. Mostly. I didn’t have a tape recorder with me. And she isn’t really the ‘friend of a friend,’ unless that mutual friend is actually my not-quite-ex-husband with whom she is now living. (see, you are saying that word out loud right now, testing.)
You might say, well, Jill, you just can’t include those two bits together in the same book. A book needs a theme, a plot, something to carry it from beginning to end. Oh, really? Are there rules for this sort of thing? Is that how authors get read these days, by following the rules?
Alright, if you insist, here’s a theme for you:
Empathy. Or rather, a lack of empathy. It is missing, fading away, disappearing. We need to get it back.
The ‘good mother’ in the fictional story, (And by the way, the story I told of it being partly real? That was fiction too.) she resists the urge to distance herself from another human being. She gets involved in someone else’s problem. And you cried a little, didn’t you, when she did that. Because it is the best side of us, and you recognize that, and you want it. You crave it. But we don’t act like that in real life. We are afraid of being sucked in too far. Her empathy is what makes the story fictional.
The ignorant woman in the suicide story has no empathy for suicidal people, and she is proud of that lack. She will not allow herself to feel trapped inside sadness, because she is afraid to feel. (In real life she smokes a lot of pot, which is just another way to avoid feeling too much.) She is not alone. I see more and more people doing all they can to distance themselves from their own, but especially other people’s, emotions. Her lack of empathy, her fear of feeling another’s pain, is what makes the story non-fictional.
And in The Book I will expound upon this theme, and point out that it is the very screen you are reading these words upon that is creating this distance between us. You cannot see my face and I can not see yours. Therefore, you do not exist. Therefore, I don’t have to acknowledge your feelings because they are not real to me. And even when we meet, I know it will only last a minute or two, with more screens between us. And soon I will retreat into my nest, my cubbyhole, my comfy nook. And you will disappear into memory.
The Book will be all of that and more. But having a theme doesn’t help to explain what sort of Book this is. It does not explain which shelf (virtual, of course) to put The Book on. This will be a problem with no easy solution.
The Book is me writing, and then me writing about my writing. It is all so meta. Modern, cool, unique. Just like me. And it never ends or runs out. I will always just keep writing and then write about my writing. It is what I do. What I have always done, and what I will do, forever. No, not forever, not really. I will die, after all. And so will you.
Do you want more while we last? Good. Just give me money. I figured out I need only $66.67 a day to feed myself, keep the elements at bay, keep this computer running, and pay the government enough to keep the infrastructure that we all take for granted going. I will leave it up to you to figure out how much to charge so that I get the $66.67, after your profit, of course. I believe in profit.
I want to convince you, yes you, to read this book. I don’t care if you’ve never read a book in the fantasy genre before, and I don’t care if you think it is a kids book just because it has a princess on the cover. You have to read this book because this book will teach you about love.
I have read this book about twenty times in the twenty five years since I first bought it. I’m not kidding. No, it doesn’t change every time, and no I’m not really finding new things every time I read it. The story isn’t that complicated. I keep going back to this story and the people in this book for the same reason I travel long distances to see my family. I miss them. I just want to hang out with them for a few days, to live inside their world, to watch them struggle and deal with each other and life and love and death and sorrow and joy.
This book is the first of four books in the series, A Man of His Word. Well, actually there are eight books. The second group of four books take place about sixteen years after the events in the first four. I don’t even need to talk about the rest of the series, because I know that if you read the first one, you wont be able to stop.
I wrote about Dave Duncan and Love in an earlier post, but I want to reiterate, I’ve never encountered an author so well versed in the varieties of the love we humans express for each other.
So what makes this book so great? I have no idea. When I figure that out, I will apply it to my own writing and I will become a best selling author. I believe the only reason Dave Duncan isn’t better known, is because he has stayed inside the fantasy/sci-fi genre his whole writing career. I read his books over and over, and I still can’t figure out his secret for creating incredibly real people. I mean people who you know so well by the end of the book, you feel like you’ve known them forever. His language isn’t fancy, the plot isn’t all that dramatic, the setting isn’t mind blowing. It is all very simple really.
Maybe that is the secret. That if you pare down all the fluff around the story, and just concentrate on the core – the people – you have the energy and time to make living, breathing characters. Keep it simple, and let the characters tell the story. Maybe.
All I know is when I am feeling lonely, all I need to do is pick up this book to feel like I am surrounded by friends.
Patrick gave his mother’s unresponsive hand another squeeze before letting go. He stood up and walked over to the window. The view of the park was something even he could admire and he thought again what a shame it was that his mother couldn’t see it. She’d worked hard for a long time to save up the money to pay for this place, it was unfair that she went into a coma before being able to appreciate what her hard work paid for.
With his back to her, he started his carefully rehearsed speech. “Mom, I have something to tell you.”
He turned back to glance at her face and to the machines that monitored her heart and lungs. No change. “You have a grand-daughter, her name is Lilly and she is 36 years old and she has two kids and she lives in the city.” The words came out in a rush, as if now that he’d finally decided to tell her, after almost four decades of keeping the secret, he had to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Was that a change in her heart rhythm? The doctor said there was no reason to assume she wasn’t aware of what was going on around her. He watched the monitors for a moment longer. No, nothing had changed.
He turned back to the window.
“Do you remember that time I called home from school and said I crashed into a professor’s car and needed to get it fixed? You and Dad sent me two thousand dollars? Well…”
Patrick cleared his throat and realized telling his mother about an unknown grand-daughter wasn’t as hard as telling her about the lie.
“Well, there wasn’t any car accident. I gave the money to this girl I was seeing. She was a really sweet girl, mom, smart and funny. We were friends for a long time before… The point is she ended up pregnant. And I gave her the money to pay for an abortion. She said she’d take care of it.”
Many years later – a little older and wiser, he’d realized that two thousand dollars was too much for an abortion, but the girl hadn’t come back to school the next semester. In fact, he’d never heard from her again.
“I guess she lied to me like I lied to you.”
He watched through the window as a breeze picked up some early fall leaves, swirled them in a mini tornado then disappeared.
“Anyway, she took the money and moved to the city. She raised Lilly all by herself for a few years but eventually she got married. Lilly grew up calling that guy ‘dad.’ She says he was a good dad, but a little while ago she decided to find me.”
Lilly tracked him down to the law firm in the city where he’d worked since graduating. She didn’t call ahead, she just showed up one day. He’d known almost immediately who she was. She looked just like her mother. But it was his own lopsided grin he saw on her face that clinched it for him.
“She didn’t ask me for anything, she just wanted to meet me and to see what kind of guy I was.”
Patrick paused for a moment. The park was almost empty this early on a weekday morning, but he could now see a woman walking along the path towards the front door of the nursing home. The woman led two kids, a boy and a girl, by the hands. The girl had red hair like his. Her name was Patty.
“She wanted to know if I could handle being a grandfather, since I missed out on being a dad.”
He’d never married. His college sweetheart left without saying goodbye and took his heart with her.
A joyful sound came from the heart monitor. As he turned back towards the bed, he watched his mother move her hand on her own for the first time in weeks.
“Doctor!” Patrick yelled.
The attendant burst into the room. He scanned the equipment then pulled out a stethoscope and listened to the old woman’s chest.
“What’s happening?” Patrick asked.
The man took off the stethoscope and pulled out a flashlight.
“Well, I think… maybe,” he said, flashing the light across his patients eyes. Patrick’s mother blinked slowly, once, twice. “Yes. Good. It looks like your mother is waking up.”
The hero dies before he saves the girl and the magic drum.
Terror strikes an old woman’s heart, and she fails to overcome.
An evil wizard attacks a village, a promising youth runs away,
but he never meets the wizened hermit, nor returns to save the day.
I did not intend to rhyme,
it just came out that way.
But I’m not afraid to tell you,
it’s been that sort of day.
But now I did the same rhyme twice and so the spell is broken.
So finally I am back to tellin’ the reason I was sulkin’.
Yeah, I just rhymed ‘broken’ with ‘sulking,’ please, someone shoot me.
This is why I don’t write poetry.
I don’t believe in ‘disorders’ or ‘conditions.’ If it isn’t proven via strict scientific method, it just don’t exist in my philosophy. But – I do admit there is something about dark, short days like the ones we have now in Philly, that just kill any inklings of creativity I might think I have. (As the bad rhymes above must surely prove.)
I feel like a day in which I don’t create something is a day wasted. I’ve done the math (ok – actually I went to this web site: http://7is7.com/otto/countdown.html) and if I live to see the tricentennial (for you non-Americans, that is the 300th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, or July 4, 2076) which is my plan, I only have 23,213 days left.
Now, according to Wikipedia’s list of the world’s most prolific writers, A Spanish writer named Corín Tellado wrote 4000 novellas, or about 120,000,000 words (if her novella’s were 30,000 words long.) After her, the next highest is the English author, Charles Hamilton who wrote 100,000,000 words in his lifetime.
If I am going to beat those two fine writers, I need to write 5169 words a day, every day, for the rest of my life. Take that, NaNoWriMo’s of the world! My biggest obstacle though is that I like to write really short stories, a thousand words long at the most.
What all this math boils down to is this: I need to write five stories a day. And a short, gloomy day like today, when I can’t think a single creative thought, is not helping me at all.
I seem to have no problem doing math though… Maybe I’ve missed my calling! Oh no! Is it too late to start over?
A few months ago, Robbie’s 2nd grade class had added a class photo and a picture of the last Space Shuttle to his school’s time capsule. Today, as he stood near his grandfather’s grave, watching the people throwing mementos on the coffin, Robbie thought it was just the same. Except no one was going to dig it up in fifty years and ooh and ahh over all the old stuff.
Robbie thought long and hard about what to throw in for his grandfather. Mom said it should be something special that would remind Grandpa of Robbie. Just like the teacher had said, the picture of the last Space Shuttle was something that made this year special.
Grandpa liked playing cards, usually War because there was no way to cheat. He liked puzzles, the ones with millions of pieces. But throwing a deck of cards or a box of puzzle pieces didn’t seem right. They weren’t special enough.
The thing Grandpa loved most was his trains. In the basement of his old house, Grandpa had a huge oval table with a hole cut in the middle to stand in. A model town covered the table with a train track running through it. There were tiny trees and fake grass and little houses and stores and even streets with cars that could get stuck at the railroad crossings.
Every Sunday they went over to Grandpa’s house for eggs and bacon after church. As soon as he was excused, Robbie ran downstairs to see if he could find the new thing Grandpa had added to the table. Mom always warned him not to break anything but he knew it was ok because Grandpa liked fixing things.
The basement smelled funny and the lights that hung from the ceiling made a funny sound. Sometimes one of the long bulbs would start flashing on and off. Grandpa would just tap it softly with his finger to ‘calm it down,’ and it would stop. When he was little, Robbie asked Mom if Grandpa had magic in his hands, because they could fix anything. Mom just laughed and said that Grandpa was Clever and that was better than magic.
Sometimes the new thing on the train table would be easy to find. A new house or a new train car. But sometimes the new thing was really hard to find. Once it had been a tiny gray cat walking along the sidewalk. Grandpa, amazed at how fast Robbie spotted the cat, had told Mom that she should be proud to have such a Clever boy.
At the grave, it was Robbie’s turn. In his hand he held the most special thing in the world. It was a tiny model school-house, Robbie’s first addition to the train table. It wasn’t finished. Grandpa went into the hospital right after the Sunday that they started working on it. This morning, when they were all at Grandpa’s house before the funeral, Robbie sneaked downstairs to see if he could add the white paint for the windows and doors, but the paint had dried up.
Robbie uncurled his fingers and looked down at the little half-painted structure laying in the palm of his hand. This really wasn’t like the school’s time capsule, he thought, because Grandpa was the only one who would ever see the things they put in the grave. And even though the model was the most special thing in the world, it seemed wrong to throw it in like this.
He looked up at Mom and whispered, “I want to finish it.” Mom nodded and wrapped her hand around his, closing both around the unfinished memory.
Jen marches into the seemingly empty kitchen and eyes the house plant. It hangs neglected, yellowed, wilted, from a hook in the ceiling. Jen crosses the room, snatches the shears from the knife block then turns to attack the plant.
“A house full of people, and no one takes care of the plants.” She says to herself.
She starts cutting, removing dead leaves and stiff vines.
“Ten people in this house,” she says, her voice rising with every snip of the shears. “Six adults and four children, and not a single person remembers to water the damn plants.”
Brown and yellow leaves flutter to the floor.
“OK, you can’t expect the shit-storm to handle watering duties, but there is no excuse for anyone else.”
“Shit-storm” she says again, enjoying the sound of her new nickname for her sister’s baby.
“Shit-storm!” She yells.
The denuded houseplant hangs quietly. The cuttings form a pile at her feet.
She steps back, away from her work, slapping the shears onto the kitchen table.
She hears a gasp.
Bending down, she sees her nephew, her brother’s middle child, crouching under the table, a toy car clutched in his little hand. He looks up at her through wide eyes under a tangle of too-long hair.
“You need a hair cut, kid.” She tells him.
He scoots away from her, eyes growing even wider.
She laughs, “No, no, not now, not by me. Don’t worry, kiddo.”
Smiling, she puts the shears away, gathers up the cuttings and takes them out the back door.