Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Theme Story - Superstitions

Mack crept slowly through the doorway, squeezing between the unfinished stone surface of the door and the doorframe and entering the great hall. And that it was a great hall was unmistakable – soaring columns at regular intervals along either wall led off into the distance, carved with exquisite detail in direct contrast to the unfinished rock wall that gave entry to this room. Though he could not see the ceiling in the murky, flickering light thrown off by the line of braziers down the sides of the room, the echoes of his footsteps as he crossed the polished marble floor told him that it certainly lay far above him.

He looked about warily as he moved, expecting an attack at any moment, but saw nothing save a free-standing mirror in the center of the great hall. It glowed with a green light, casting a sickly pall that seemed to negate the effects of the flames – cold where the firelight was warm, static where the firelight flickered, chilling where the firelight was comforting. Mack saw himself in the mirror as he approached, his steps showing more confidence than he felt. The light gave his jovial features a grim cast, his bright red beard looking almost black underneath an unearthly pale face.

“So you have finally come.”

The voice seemed to come from everywhere, assaulting Mack at his very core as it battered his ears. He looked quickly about, but could see no source for the sound in the room. A flicker of movement caught his eye, and he turned back towards the mirror. His reflection seemed darker somehow, as though something blocked the light approaching him. Mack squinted, and was able to discern a ghostly shape in the shadow. As he watched, the shadow in the mirror solidified. Darkness gave way to light as features emerged – a head took shape, a hawkish nose growing out of its center, and a dark body became ornate robes with glowing embroidery.

Before long Mack was face-to-face with a figure that was not there, seeing only a reflection in the free-standing mirror that should not be. A tall, pale man looked back at him. His robes rippled in black and green, with embroidery along the collars that glowed with the same unearthly green light as emanated from the mirror. Dark eyes looked out over a long nose, but no hair framed the eyelids, brow, or head. Most disturbing was the complete absence of a mouth – between the hooked nose and the strong chin lay flesh without blemish – a solid sheet of white that jarred Mack's sense of reality.

“I have watched your progress through my domain.” The voice continued to beat at Mack, gravelly and rasping. “You are the first person to reach my chamber in twenty years.”

Mack peered around him, looking for both the origin of the voice with no source and the body casting the impossible reflection, but saw only the sickly light of the mirror fighting back the firelight from the surrounding hall. He turned back to the mirror. “Who are you?”

The voice chuckled. “Seems as though I should be asking you that question. You are the invader here, after all.” The reflection heaved a sigh, then the voice continued. “When this land was young, and your people were emerging from their caves across the oceans, I was worshiped as a god. When you had taken your first stumbling steps, I had been here for a thousand years. Ten thousand.”

Mack shook himself free of the aural assault. “You're the Destroyer.”

The figure nodded, though it had not been a question. “Where there is good in this land, I bring evil. Where there is light, I make darkness. Where there is peace, I bring war.”

Mack pulled a stone from the pouch on his belt, sliding it into his sling. The weight felt odd, heavier than a stone should be at that size, but he only noticed this in passing. “Not anymore. Show yourself, Destroyer.”

The mouthless figure looked at him intently. In his mind's eye, Mack saw an evil grin but the smooth patch of skin on the creature's face remained unchained. “But I already have.”

Mack whirled about, looking for the source of the reflection, but an empty hall met his gaze. He turned back to the mirror. “You lie. I command again – show yourself, coward!”

The figure raised a white hand, nailless finger extended towards him. “You command nothing here.”

The Destroyer made a jabbing motion, and Mack flew backwards. He landed in a heap on the marbled floor, sliding to a halt. Pain emanated from his chest as though he had been hit with a battering ram. He scrambled to his feet and looked around, readying himself for the next blow, but still saw nothing to defend against.

The Destroyer laughed, the sound beating against Mack's sanity. “I am sad to say that your journey is at an end, today.”

Its hand swept to the left, and Mack went sliding with it, crashing into a column. He stood, only to be knocked from his feet again at another gesture of the creature. The blows began to come more frequently, tossing him about as though he were a rag doll. Mack took bruises from the columns and floor, bouncing off of them as he was sent careening around the space. He did his best to absorb the impacts, but could not keep up with the sheer volume.

Seconds stretched into minutes as he was dashed into the columns and floor, until suddenly the motion ceased. Mack spat blood as he rose to a knee, breathing heavily and wincing at the pain of cracked ribs. He rose and slowly approached the mirror again, watching the Destroyer's reflection warily.

The figure in the mirror laughed again. “Oh, what fun you have brought me.”

Mack wiped a hand across his face, clearing his vision and some of the pain. “That is not all that I bring you, beast.”

The Destroyer cocked its head. “You have a tribute?”

Mack nodded. “And per the old code, you must allow me to make my offering.”

The figure waved a dismissive hand. “Do not speak to me of my obligations, mortal. Present me with your gift, and then we shall return to your lesson.”

Mack smiled slowly and began to swing his sling in a circle. He opened his mouth and spoke the words he had been given. “I have journeyed far, with this piece of a star. Fought battles grand within your sickly land. Now I strike the killing blow at the beast that does not show, creating fortunes poor as I close the door.” As he completed the verse he released the end of his sling and the special stone flew outward. Time slowed as it crossed the distance to the mirror, the small crystals on the star stone glowing with a red light.

The Destroyer's eyes opened wide as the stone reached the surface of the mirror and, with a loud noise, bounced off the surface. It hit the ground just in front of the mirror, rolling to a stop at Mack's feet. The laughter came again, and the voice assaulted him once more. “It seems as though your gift has been rejected.”

Mack smiled. “Has it?”

The Destroyer began to raise a hand again, but a thunderous noise interrupted his motion. A great crack appeared in the surface of the mirror, cutting across the middle of the creature's body. The Destroyer shook itself as though it had been struck, but before it could recover another peal of thunder came, and another crack, quartering the visage. Mack heard a scream begin in his head, an anguished howl scrabbling at his mind, but the sound was silenced as the mirror shattered into a thousand pieces. The shards sparkled in the firelight as they fell to the ground, the unearthly green light extinguished. As the last piece struck the ground, a tremendous wind arose in the hall. It howled through the columns and echoed under the vaulted ceiling, sweeping the darkness before it as it traversed the room.

A single ray of light stabbed down from the ceiling at the far end of the hall, then another, and still another as they marched toward Mack from the distance. The light reached him and he shielded his eyes against the sudden glare, feeling the room heave beneath him. His eyes adjusted after a moment as the rumbling died down and the wind faded, and he opened them to gaze upon a transformed hall. Gone were the murky firelight and shadows. In their place polished and ornate stone glittered in sunlight, coming in through great square openings in the vaulted ceiling.

Mack basked in the warmth for a moment, reveling in the satisfaction of his victory. He took a step forward, and promptly placed his foot directly on the star stone. The stone skidded out from beneath him, taking his balance with it as he crashed awkwardly to the ground. Mack shook himself and rubbed at his hip, which had taken the brunt of the fall. He looked back at the shattered mirror, and winced. Seven years was a long time, but he was ready to face the bad luck. He put a hand down to help himself up, and winced again as a piece of the mirror penetrated his skin. He just hoped he would survive the ordeal.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Theme Story - Fingers Crossed

“Keep your fingers crossed.”

Those were the last words she had spoken, over a month ago. Steve had considered going to the police – several times, in fact - but with the way things were playing out in the streets he suspected that the cops had better things to do that track down a wayward wife. Steve figured that she had found a spot on a boat, and taken her chances on her own.  She certainly hadn’t returned with any of the supplies they had so desperately needed. Steve idly wondered whether the furtive whispers he’d overheard were true. Stacy was still a comely woman, though she was pushing forty. He tried to think the best of her, but the worst of times seem to bring out the worst in humanity.

Steve walked into the kitchen and grunted at the meager remains. True, Stacy’s departure had left him and Evan just barely enough to get by on, but they were down to their last couple pounds of rice, only a bag or two of dehydrated beans remained sitting on the counter, sagging as though in defeat. He walked past the counter to the window bringing the only light into the galley kitchen, watching the pandemonium as best he could.

The water had crested the docks yesterday. Steve did a quick bit of mental arithmetic and realized that if the water continued to rise this quickly that his tiny apartment would be beneath the surface in just over a week. He could already see makeshift boats in the streets, people doing anything they can in their desperation to get to safety. They wouldn’t make it far, of course – the last of the real boats had left over a month ago, back before the planes had stopped flying – but that kind of logic was lost on a person desperate enough to take two doors lashed together out to sea.

He heard a small shuffle behind him in the two-bedroom apartment, but didn’t move from his perch. The footsteps trailed across his hearing as they moved over the hardwood, registering but failing to penetrate Steve’s thoughtful despair. It wasn’t until the tiny tug he felt on his pants that he looked down to see Evan, bright and chipper with the energy and innocence only a five year old can show.

“Is mommy coming today?”

Steve shook his head. “Not today, buddy. She’s still out.”

“She must be bringing back a lot of food,” Evan concluded with a child’s confidence. “I hope she hurries. I want that pizza.”

“Me too, buddy,” Steve agreed absently. He watched as two boats in the street below collided, sending their respective loads to the asphalt below as the owners took out their shared frustration on each other. He turned away before the inevitable escalation, not wanting to see yet another killing in the street. Steve dropped down to his knees, putting on a smile and looking Evan in the eye. “What say we play a game of checkers before breakfast?”

Evan’s eyes lit up as he giggled with anticipatory glee. “Yes! I’ll be black this time!”

Steve smiled and nodded. “Sounds good to me. Go get the board, buddy.”

Evan raced off as Steve straightened up, taking one last look out the window. “Good luck, Stacy,” he whispered, “wherever you are.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Theme Story - Message in a Bottle

(Prompt this week: you are stranded on a deserted island with only a bottle, a pen, and a piece of paper)

John Jacobsen
200 Palm Tree Lane
Some Deserted Island, The Ocean

To whom it may concern,

I have spent the better part of a year trying to figure out exactly what to put here. At first I thought that putting everything I could remember about my location would be beneficial, but seeing as I was asleep during the flight that went down I realized I had nothing to add. I then thought that I would put a note to whomever might find this, asking them to care for my loved ones and contact my family, but that’s a gamble at best. I suppose you can consider this a cry for help, and if I knew what date it was I’d put this on the letter so that some scientist somewhere could use some estimate of the ocean currents to deduce the range that my little home lies from the nearest land mass, but ultimately I’m writing this under the guise of a single realization.

I’m never getting off this island.

They say hope springs eternal, and that the last thing you should lose is faith. I can’t say they’re wrong, and maybe I have hit rock bottom. All I know is that I am stuck here, and you are… wherever you are, and that we will probably never meet. And to be honest, I don’t see a lot of difference. Here I am driven mad by routine, forced into action by the basic right to live, dealing with conditions that I would prefer never to have seen in the first place. There, you likely are the same – driven to action by a need for shelter and food, finding solace only in the few spare moments the overlords of circumstance see fit to allow you to pursue the things that truly hold meaning for you. Here I am surrounded by wildlife unable to comprehend my motives or, sometimes, my very existence. There, you are surrounded by the self-centered, possibly aware of your motives but more likely resistant to them, your existence seen as a nuisance at best.

I don’t know where I am, but over the past year I’ve slowly come to the realization that I honestly don’t care. Same shit, different day. At least this time I get to spend my leisure moments relaxing on a beach.

Send help if you can. If not, no big loss.

John Jacobsen.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Writing Prompt/Theme Story - First Sentence and Time Travel

(This time I combined the theme post with my writing prompt. Not sure if I like the result or not - I'll let you be the judge)

The air was calm. The water was still. The insects in the surrounding jungle had stopped making a sound. It was like everything had just stopped all at once.  Jason looked around, mouth agape at the sudden silence – the deafening cacophony of nature, which had been his constant companion for the past two months, had never once abated. He took another step into the clearing, and tentative sounds emerged once more. Each step towards the obelisk in the center raised the decibel level, until by the twentieth step the sound was back in full force. Vague discomfort faded, and Jason stood examining the object in the center of the clearing.

It stood in the exact center of a perfect circle cut in the vegetation. Vines, trees, and undergrowth abruptly gave way to waving Kentucky bluegrass, itself an oddity in the rainforest. The obelisk stood in the center of the tranquil sea, its alabaster body covered in complex carvings and symbols. The flow of the symbols tugged at Jason, hinting at a meaning beyond his grasp – a word on the tip of his tongue just begging to be heard. Jason moved closer to the obelisk, examining the carvings. Smooth lines festooned the surface, showing no evidence of tool work common among ancient relics in the area. The sunlight reflecting off the surface was unbroken, marred by neither crease nor gouge. The craftsmanship rivaled the greatest of modern fabrication techniques, the perfection bespeaking exquisite care and skill on the part of the craftsman.

Jason reached a tentative hand out to the object. His fingers lightly brushed the surface before he jerked them back, shaking feeling back into them. His arm hairs stood on end, static electricity coursing through him as he reached forward again. This time, there was no shock – his fingers connected solidly with the object. What appeared smooth at a glance felt pebbled as he ran his finger down the side, exploring the texture. His wandering finger found one of the designs – an odd spiral that folded back on itself three times. He began to idly trace the design, his finger moving of its own volition along the curves of the engraving.

The sounds surrounding him began to die out again, but this time a low pervasive hum began to rise in their place. Jason’s eyes widened at the change, but his finger continued to walk the curved path, increasing in speed with the volume of the basso rumble. It came from everywhere at once, shaking Jason’s bones, causing his teeth to chatter uncontrollably, but his finger continued to push onward. His arms visibly shook with effort as he tried to pull away, but he was unable to stop the progression.

At the halfway point in the design the hum became a high-pitched whine. The ear-piercing shriek appeared out of nowhere, starting as abruptly as the basso rumble had stopped. The greenery of the clearing faded as his finger moved, occluded by a white glow originating from the obelisk itself. The intensity grew as he moved down the spiral, becoming blinding while still allowing perfect sight. The world faded into a white light, the obelisk only making itself known through the pebbled texture under Jason’s finger.

Jason’s finger finished its traversal, and everything stopped at once. All the jungle sounds, the whine, the light – all ceased to exist. He blinked his eyes, seeing the obelisk as an after-image against his eyelids in the green and purple of photo-negatives. He opened his eyes to look around, but was met with only darkness. There was no breeze, no odors, no light, no sound – the entire world had ceased to exist. Time dilated as Jason stood in the nothingness. His finger hadn’t moved, but he could no longer feel the obelisk. Minutes passed like seconds, and seconds passed like hours. With no feedback, no frame of reference, an eternity whipped by in an eye blink.

A sudden buzzing caught Jason’s ear. There was a bright flash, and then a rising glow. Bars of light, floating in empty space as they increased in illumination, pierced the blackness. After a few moments details appeared, the soft white light reflecting off matte gray as his surroundings came into focus. Jason blinked a few times, clearing the afterimages as his eyes adjusted to the new light. The obelisk was gone, as was the grass. Unmarked gray lined the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room he found himself in, broken only by the bars of light along the floor of the chamber.

Realizing he was still holding his finger out he snatched it back to his side. He checked the finger, but saw no damage imparted by the strange object. His breathing quickened as he looked around, all signs of the world he knew gone. Jason moved about the room, running his fingers along the unbroken walls, but the only variation in the perfect octagonal enclosure was the light emerging from the floor.


Jason jumped at the sudden sound. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere, deafening, permeating his very being. He clapped hands over his ears in shock, but the sound had left before he completed the maneuver. The silence rang in his ears, stretching as no further information came. Jason swallowed, and spoke to the room.


His voice sounded tentative, the sound small in the acoustically dead space. He waited for a response, but none came. He had just opened his mouth to try again when the voice invaded his body once more.


“I, uh, I don’t have any…” Jason’s voice trailed off as he stumbled over the words. “Who… who are you?”

Once again the silence stretched out, and Jason stood silently. After another pause, the booming voice returned.


The words hit him with a solid force, the meaning both plain and confusing. Jason looked around at the walls, seeing neither speaker nor microphone.

“Uh hey, what’s going on here?” His voice had a bit more strength behind it, but the complete lack of ambient noise made it continue to sound thin. “Where am I? Who are you?”

He waited expectantly, but no reply came. After several minutes, he began to pace the room. He ran his hand along the gray walls, but found nothing. Each edge of the octagon appeared to be six paces long. He bent down to examine the light source, but could detect neither power connection nor method of generation. He stood up and struck at the wall, balled fist bouncing harmlessly off the hard material. He shook his hand and cursed, checking the bones tenderly but finding no damage. After another moment, he returned to the center of the room and sat down.

“Who are you?”

The voice startled Jason, and he turned around to look at the source. A dark figure stood outlined in the center of one of the walls, bathed from behind in bright light. The voice was feminine, but the shape could have been anything – amorphous, columnar, indiscernible. Jason squinted, trying to discern details.

The figure shifted slightly. “Can you understand me?”

Jason nodded. “Yes, I can.”

“Good.” The figure stepped into the room, revealing a woman’s head over flowing purple and maroon robes. The robes obscured the woman’s figure, the lack of lines and smooth complexion of her face bespeaking youthful vigor. “Who are you?”

Jason stared at the woman. “I’m, uh, Jason MacIntyre.”

The woman frowned. “I don’t know of anyone by that name authorized to use this facility.”


The woman ignored his question. “How did you get here, Jason MacIntyre?”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t know. I found this carved pillar in a forest clearing, and now here I am.”

“Hmm.” The woman cocked her head, as though listening to something, then abruptly focused on Jason again. “Please come with me, Jason MacIntyre.”

“What? Where are we going?” The woman either ignored him or didn’t hear him as she turned and stepped back into the light. After a moment’s indecision, Jason got to his feet and followed her. She walked confidently down the brightly-lit corridor, white and featureless walls glowing with a daytime intensity. Jason caught up to the woman. “Excuse me, miss. Where are we?”

“All will be made clear soon enough, Jason MacIntyre.” The woman’s voice lacked inflection and emotion, sounding as mechanical as an electronic answering service. Jason shrugged and continued to follow the woman.

The hallway abruptly ended, leaving the pair standing in a corner. As Jason opened his mouth to ask another question, the woman raised a hand against the wall before them. A circle flashed green around the woman’s hand and the wall simply faded, revealing a small room beyond. Along the far wall was a man sitting at a desk, staring into space. The desk was made of some featureless gray material, similar to the walls in the earlier octagonal room. The woman gestured, and Jason stepped across the threshold. He turned to look at the woman for instruction, but the wall had already reappeared behind him. Jason stepped forward, putting a hand to the wall in wonder, feeling nothing but solid material beneath his hands.

“It won’t work for you, at least not yet.” Jason turned to look at the man behind the desk, who had lost his unfocused look as he eyed Jason appraisingly. He indicated a small chair opposite the desk. “Please have a seat, Mr. MacIntyre.”

Jason moved over to the chair, examining it suspiciously. He reached out a hesitant hand, but felt nothing out of the ordinary. After a moment’s hesitation, he sat down and looked at the man across the desk. “Who are you?”

“You can call me Frank.” The man smiled. “And you are Jason MacIntrye.” Jason nodded. “I bet you’re wondering what’s going on.”

“You could say that again.”

“Well, unfortunately I wish I could tell you that. Your arrival has caused a lot of concern.”

“Arrival?” Jason looked confused.

Frank nodded. “The octagonal room – that’s our arrival area. It’s been closed off for nearly twenty years. I’m guessing some technician forgot to disconnect the power.”

Jason stared blankly. “Ok, wait. What’s going on here?”

“This is going to be a bit hard to take.” Frank sighed. “Mr. MacIntyre, you’ve travelled approximately six hundred years into your future.”

“Wait. What?”

“The device you found was one of our early experiments in time travel. By activating it, you activated a recall beam that pulled you from your time into ours.”

“Time travel? Recall beam? All of that’s impossible!”

Frank chuckled. “I’m sure it seems that way to you, but I assure you it is both possible and feasible.”

“But what about Einstein, and all that relativity stuff?”

“Ideas of science evolve, Mr. MacIntyre. A few thousand years ago, people were convinced that Aristotle’s four elements were all that composed the cosmos. Not all that long before your time, people were convinced that it was bad blood that caused disease. Let’s just say our understanding of physics has changed in the intervening time.”

Jason exhaled deeply. “Huh. So, six hundred years?”

Frank nodded. “Give or take.”

“Where am I, then?”

“You are in a small research facility near what you would have known as Des Moines, Iowa.”

“Would have known? Was there some sort of massive war or something?”

Frank chuckled. “Several, actually, but really we’ve simply evolved past our need for physical delimiters of space.”

“Physical delimiters?”

“Locale designations, addresses, and so on. Those hold very little meaning these days.”

“So how do you know where you are?”

Frank shrugged. “Call it something like GPS. With the advent of quantum teleportation, we simply refer to everything by coordinates. It’s easier and produces a more accurate description of location.”

Jason frowned. “Teleportation? Like Star Trek?”

“Star Trek?”

“Never mind.” Jason looked around at the room, then back at Frank. “Seems kind of sparse. Does no one decorate in the future?”

Frank chuckled. “Oh we do. We just have different ways of seeing it.”

“Different ways?”

“For lack of a better way to put it, every person has a computer built into their brain that constantly affects what they see.”

“Computer built….”

Frank waved a hand. “Look, we could spend years talking about the things you’ve missed. But in the end, right now we have two questions to focus on.”

Jason cocked his head. “And those are?”

“How did you get here, and how in the hell will we ever get you back.”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writing Prompt - First Sentence 4

The briefcase was heavy in his hand and the gun tucked into his waistband felt awkward. He moved quickly down the street, walking briskly but trying hard to appear as if nothing was amiss. Only the sweat on his forehead spoke to the tension he felt, the beads of moisture born of the intense adrenaline rush boiling inside of him. He concentrated, forcing himself to appear relaxed and only barely managing the feat.

The faint jingle of the briefcase rose with each awkward step, and each time he was certain a passerby had heard, and that they knew. They knew what he’d done, what he’d taken with the gun leaning awkwardly out of his blue jeans. Any moment he expected to hear the shouts, the pounding feet of pursuit, the sirens of the inevitable as he was hunted down, hauled in, harangued and hanged.

He closed his eyes to calm himself, but the silent scream of the clerk appeared to torture him immediately. He stumbled, earning a loud jingle from the briefcase as a couple passerby gave him an odd look. Pausing, he adjusted his shirt before continuing with the same forcibly-restrained gait. The jingling grew louder in his mind as he neared his destination, placing his hand on the door handle. He pulled, and had a moment of panic when the door held fast before he realized that he had not yet unlocked it. He pulled out his key with shaking hands and inserted it into the lock on the fifth try, turning it quickly and pulling at the door. He ducked inside and sprinted up the stairs, suddenly safe from the prying eyes of the outside world.

He rounded a corner on the third floor landing and, after some more fumbling, slammed the apartment door shut behind him. With a heavy sigh he leaned back against the shut portal, sliding down the varnished wooden surface until he hit the ground with a thump, legs splayed out carelessly in front of himself. He’d done it! He’d gotten away with it! He listened closely but heard no sirens, no telltale pounding of feet, or angry demands to search the premises.

Part one done, he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He took another deep breath, quieting his quivering body a bit further, and cleared his throat. Would they answer? What would happen now? How was he supposed to guarantee his safety? These questions haunting his mind, he dialed the number he had been given and put the receiver to his ear. He heard the click on the other end of the line, and spoke into the silence.

“It’s done. Now give me back my son.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing Prompt - First Sentence 3

The classroom was silent as the students worked on the test. That is, until Amber came crashing through the door.

“They’ve all left! All of them!”

She looked around frantically, trying to connect her harried gaze with a single confused classmate, but seeing nothing but blank stares she threw her hands up and ran back out into the hallway. Muffled shouts came in through the closed door, the same voice stringently screaming garbled words in the same meter, the same silence answering. After a minute or so the voice became inaudible as Amber presumably moved down the hallway out of earshot. The students looked at each other in confusion, but after a few more moments of silence they returned to their tests.

Jimmy sighed, trying to put his thoughts back on the problem at hand. Mr. Mooney will kill us if we get out of our desks. He started reading about a train leaving Cleveland at 6 PM, but his thoughts kept wandering back to Amber’s outburst. What does she mean, anyway. They’ve all left? Isn’t that what happens during final exams? Jimmy frowned in thought before angrily dismissing the distraction. Bah, they’re on break, and they’ll be back with their red markers if this test isn’t finished by then.

The time passed quietly, and Jimmy found himself engrossed in his test once again. Coming to the last of the five pages of word problems, he hurriedly scrawled down his answers. Time must be getting short – it feels like it’s been too long already! He finished scribbling the answer to the last problem, then put his pencil down and looked up with a sigh of relief. No Mr. Mooney, must have just made it! He looked around, and saw a few of his classmates looking back at him, confusion on their faces. He looked confused as well, up until he saw the clock and the reason for their confusion registered. 12:37?! Class ended 12 minutes ago! Where was the bell? Jimmy cautiously stood up from his desk.

“Sit down! He could be back any moment!”

The hurried whisper came from Mike, his best friend, sitting next to him.

“He’s twelve minutes late already,” Jimmy whispered back.

Mike nodded. “Exactly my point! He’s going to be pissed when he gets back as it is!”

Jimmy started to sit back down before a thought struck him. “When has he ever been late before?”

Mike started to answer, but stopped as the same thought struck him. He shook himself after a moment of silence. “So what do you think we should do.”

Jimmy shrugged. “Hell if I know, but I’m gonna take a look.”

Jimmy made his way across the room, and a few of the more curious students rose to follow him as he peered out into the hallway. Absolute silence. What’s going on here? He stepped into the empty corridor and looked both directions. It was completely empty – Amber had apparently moved on. He stepped out into the hallway and walked slowly, peering into the other classrooms as he passed. Each narrow window presented the same scene – students slowly looking up from their desks, glancing about curiously.

What had started as a trickle behind Jimmy became a flood as his truancy was noticed. He headed towards the front entrance, the quiet halls devoid of monitors, guards, teachers, administrators – really any leadership whatsoever., just unsupervised students, looking confused and concerned as one. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as he neared the front hall of the building. What if Amber was telling the truth? What if they really were gone?

Jimmy came to a halt in front of the heavy doors leading outside, hundreds of footsteps clattering to a stop behind him. The idle chatter and whispering that had filled the throng fell silent, and the students stood still. Expectant. Curious. What should I do, Jimmy mused, if I leave the school grounds I could be in serious trouble. But if I don’t, then I’ll never know what’s going on. He waffled back and forth for a moment before placing his hand on the doorknob. With a deep breath and a silent prayer, he stepped into the bright afternoon light.

He stepped onto the front porch of the school, and nearly walked right into Amber. She had sat down at the top of the steps leading towards the street, arms wrapped about her knees as she gently rocked back and forth. He could hear her quietly whispering as she moved.

“All gone. All gone. All gone.”

He was about to kneel down and check on her when a thought struck him. Where are all the sounds? This close to the city, you could count on traffic whipping by every day. Rarely fifteen minutes would go by without the silence being broken by a horn, or a siren, or a screech of tires, but the only sound Jimmy could hear was the quiet whispering of Amber. Even the wind seemed silent. The streets lie empty, disused, passing before silent hulking homes. The finest houses in the county, with their tree-lined streets, lay silent. No lawnmowers, no children at play, no comings and goings from the busy adults who populated their world.

Jimmy jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see Mike staring at the scene in wonder. Mike cleared his throat, swallowing repeatedly before speaking in a breaking voice.

“What, uh, do we do?”

Jimmy opened his mouth to answer, but before he could get a word in Amber jumped up and screamed.

“I’m going home! They can’t all be gone! I’ll find them!”

With a sob she burst to her feet and dashed off down the sidewalk. Jimmy had a hand out, as if reaching to stop her, but let it fall without thinking. He turned back to Mike.

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Maybe we should head home, too.”

“No way,” a voice in the back piped up. “I ain’t getting’ detention for this crap.”

“Me neither,” a girl agreed.

“But there’s no one here to give detention!” A third voice, somewhat shrill, arose to Jimmy’s left.

Jimmy thought for a moment before turning to a nearby student. “Hey Carl, you live near here, right?”

A mousy-looking kid stepped forward, adjusting his glasses. “Yeah, around the corner. Why?”

“Do any of your parents stay home during the day?”

“Yeah, my dad works from home.”

Jimmy looked around at the gathered throng. “Ok, so let’s send Carl home to see if he can get his father to come help us. In the meantime, let’s wait here in case the teachers come back.”

Jimmy didn’t know if he was more surprised that Carl nodded assent, or that there were no dissenting voices from the crowd. He turned back to Carl. “Head on home, and if your father is there bring him back with you.”

Carl nodded. “And what if he isn’t?”

Jimmy shrugged. “We’ll have to deal with that when it happens.”

Carl nodded again, and took off into the distance. Jimmy watched him go, wondering what he would find.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Theme Story - If anyone asks, tell them I'm fine.

Sarah balled up the note and threw it against the wall in disgust. He’d been talking about it for so long, but she never actually believed he’d carry through. Leaving his entire life behind, with the burden to clean up resting on her shoulders… The words “conceited” and “inconsiderate” bounced around in her head, looking for a home.

“So he finally did it, huh.” The voice startled Sarah out of her angry reverie. She cast a glance over her shoulder at Amanda and gave a silent nod, not trusting her voice. Amanda shrugged. “Figures. I never had him pegged for the fatherly type, anyway.” She stepped over to Sarah and put a hand on her shoulder. “You ok?”

Sarah shrugged. “Not really.” She sighed heavily. “I guess I should have expected this.”

“How so?”

“All the signs were there.” Sarah began to tick items off on her fingers. “Obsessive reliance on family support, inability to hold a steady job, never finished college, spent way too much time at the bar…” She stared at her fingers, standing silently on her quivering palm, and let her arm drop. “You see what I mean.”

Amanda moved around her and dropped onto the couch. “So what are you gonna do now?”

“Cry. Scream. Wallow.” Sarah’s shoulders slumped. “Seems appropriate, anyway.”

Amanda nodded. “Anything I can do?”

“If anyone asks, tell them I’m fine.” Sarah shrugged. “Outside of that, well, slap the jackass if you happen to run into him”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Writing Prompt - First Sentence 2

(continuing on the writing prompts kick. The sentence given as a prompt is in bold below)

It was the perfect guy’s night out until she showed up. She marched directly for our table, her displeasure evident in her forceful stride. I sighed heavily and stood. With a brief apology to my friends I stepped forwards into the coming storm, diverting her to a nearby wall and a semblance of privacy.

As she came to a halt, her arms snapped into an angry fold on her chest. “So this is why you couldn’t go out with me tonight?” She bit off the words as she spoke, the syllabus cracking like pebbles thrown against a wall.

“Look, Ashley…”

“Don’t you ‘Look, Ashley’ me!” An arm shut out to mirror her interruption physically. “What’s the problem? Am I not attractive enough for you?”

“Of course not…”

“Well then what’s the problem?”

I sighed as I looked at her, arms crossed beneath ample breasts, toe tapping rapidly at the end of her long and shapely legs. “Ashley, I turned you down because of exactly what you’re doing right now.”

She scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Exactly what I’m doing. You mean catching you out in your bullshit.”

“No, I mean your attitude.”

“My attitude.”

“Yeah. Look,” I took a deep breath before continuing. “You are beautiful, and any guy would be lucky to have you. But you’re too forceful.”

Ashley’s eyes narrowed at this. “What the hell do you mean, ‘forceful’?”

I sighed. “You push too hard. We’ve only spoken twice-“

“Three times!” She interrupted.

I waved my hand absently at the interruption. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve talked three times. You asked me out, I said no, and now you’re here trying to… I don’t know. What is your end goal here?”

“My end goal?”

“Yeah, your end goal. What are you trying to accomplish?”

Ashley paused for a moment, before glaring at me again. “I’m trying to show you what an asshole you are!”

“And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I turned you down, so I must be an asshole.”

“Damn straight!”

“Ashley…” I paused, at a loss for how to continue. “Listen. How exactly am I being an asshole?”

She pointed an accusing finger at me. “You lied to me!”

“Oh, I did? How exactly did I lie?”

She scoffed and gestured at the room around her. “You going to tell me that this place, that those friends of yours over there –“ she gestured at my three friends, who were alternately torn between staring intently into their mugs and watching with brazen smiles “-have more to offer than I do?”

I shrugged. “Well, since you want to put it that way, yes they do.”

“Bullshit. Name three things they have that I don’t.”

I was starting to get pissed at this point, but did my best to maintain my reasonable tone. “Well, for one, they aren’t so full of themselves because of how they look.”

“No shit. I bet they’re jealous of you for even being able to talk to me.”

“That’s another one,” I continued. “They’re not constantly throwing their perceived superiority in my face.”


“That’s right. Looks aren’t everything, Ashley.”

“You know what?” She put a finger under my chin, and leaned forwards, her eyes alight with indignation. “I don’t even give a shit about the third one. Go back to your pals over there, faggot. I’m going to go find a real man, one who appreciates me for what I offer.”

I shrugged. “Do what you need to do, I guess.”

She scoffed again before pivoting on a heel and storming off. I exhaled, heading slowly back to the table before slumping into my chair. I looked over at the guy to my left, staring intently into his beer. “You know, John, your sister’s kind of a bitch.”

The other two guys laughed while leaned back, taking a healthy swig of my beer. I felt my pocket buzz, but chose not to check it. I only hoped John had bought the act.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Prompts - First Sentence 1

(I've been looking for some writing prompts I can use to fill time on the train between work and teaching, and ended up purchasing this ebook from Amazon.com. It's broken into 18 chapters or so, and claims to have 1,001 writing prompts. I figured it'd be a worthwhile exercise to build my scene writing skills, so here's the first - I hope you all enjoy it. This story comes from a section where the first sentence is provided for you - the first sentence is in bold below.)

When her cell phone rang she groaned, because she couldn’t believe that he was calling her again. She stared at the phone, torn between answering it and ignoring it completely, while the strains of her ringtone – “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito – filled the apartment.  With a sigh, she thumbed the “accept” button and put the phone to her ear.

“Yeah, Joe, what is it? No, you didn’t leave your toothbrush here. I can be so certain because it was the last thing I put into the box before I left it on the porch. Of course I remember, because I knew that would be the thing you would ask about. I’m not being unreasonable. Well, what did you expect? Right, understanding for the man who slept with my sister. Uh huh. Right. Yeah, I’m sure you had absolutely no say in the matter. No, stop – you know what? I’m done with this. I’m hanging up. Don’t call me again.”

She ended the call and, in a fit of anger, threw the device across the room. It bounced off the carpet a couple times before landing on the other wall, leaning at an obtuse angle against the white-painted molding. It took a Herculean effort to not look up at the empty rectangles and ovals, the negative space in the smoke-laden paint signifying the destruction of happy memories. Seven years of happiness, ruined within a week. Sure they had fought sometimes, and lately they’d been going through a dry spell, but how could he do that to her? With the one person he knew would hurt her the most?

She sighed and poured herself another glass of wine, absent-mindedly swirling it in the glass as she wallowed. It was bad enough that she had put up with his smoking for so long. Now she was going to have to paint the walls to get rid of the evidence of a life gone wrong. Figures that even after he was gone, the bastard was still making work for her.

She took a few deep breaths, then a healthy sip of wine. As she swallowed she heard her phone again, the vibration of the ringer amplified by its position against the wall. She glared at the phone, and decided that she was done pandering. She was done dealing with the asshole that had never showed her consideration. She sipped her wine and watched the phone until it stopped flashing, falling quiet. She was done with that part of her life.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Video Game Review - Mass Effect 3

I recently finished Mass Effect 3, and I am left conflicted. On the one hand I've greatly enjoyed the series, and feel that the content team has created a very rich universe with a detailed and interesting history to learn about. That being said, I had a few issues that I wanted to get up on my soapbox about:

  • First, a pet peeve: Decimate (v) - to reduce by ONE TENTH. See the first two definitions here. I get that people are trying to change the meaning of the word because they don't understand it, but this shit should have been caught during the "peer review" process Bioware is so proud of (the same one that failed them on the ending, according to reports). Just because a word sounds cool, that doesn't mean it's OK to completely bastardize its definition, regardless of what the unwashed masses have come to believe that the word means! Looking for a cool synonym for destroyed? Why not try demolished, or annihilated, or eliminated, or ravaged., or any of the actual synonyms for destroyed?
  • That being said, there were some truly moving moments in the game's story. There were also some areas in which the dialog sounded like it was written by a 14-year-old Call of Duty fanboy. The sad part is that the quality of the rest of the writing makes the inferior text stand out, tearing at my eyes with horrible use of invective. I swear at one point I saw Shepard say something along the lines of "Git 'er done!" I know the game was delayed for six months, but that doesn't mean you give up on quality control completely!
  • Finally, another pet peeve of mine: if I'm playing a game with achievements, why not give me those awards when I actually, I don't know... achieve something?! Kill 100 enemies with Incinerate? Cool, that's actually something worth striving for. However, doling out gamer points like breadcrumbs as you advance through the story doing things you have to do anyway only calls attention to the fact that your game's gameplay sequences serve as nothing more than interstitials between cutscenes. The time spent designing these bogus achievements (things along the lines of "Completed story mission 1, completed story mission 2, completed...") could have been used to design achievements that actually add something to the game. It would have given me something to do while muddling through your combat system (which made the mistake of trying to be one of the standard brown shooters that are so popular with the kiddies lately), which could only have added to the gameplay. Instead, as a result, the entire experience just comes out flat.
  • Along those same lines - maybe it's the way I play, but I only found the gameplay exciting once - right at the end of the game. All the rest of the time was "hide, shoot, hide, shoot, move, shoot, yawm." That being said, I do like the new movement options as opposed to prior games in the series, and I feel that the combat system has come a long way.
Some of these are kinda nit-picky. I'll admit to that. Like I said - I did overall enjoy the game, but it was definitely not gaming perfection. What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Theme Story - A Kickstarter Campaign

(The theme this week was to create a Kickstarter campaign for an ancient invention. Here's my attempt)

Have you had ENOUGH of filthy gutter water?

We’ve all been there. You’ve spent a little too much time in the vomitorium, and now you got some on your best toga. What’s worse is your friend Maximus has been wandering behind you for the past half an hour, holding his nose and making loud comments about the freshness of your air. You go to rinse, change, and refresh, but all that remains in your drawing room is a ewer of sewer filth, containing all the poisons the plebians have left in the street. By Caesar, how can a citizen be expected to survive in such appalling conditions?

The solution, fellow Roman, is written in the soaring arches and stout columns of your palisade. We are going to build an Aqueduct – an ingenious method of transporting clean water from the hills outside of our glorious city right to the fountain in your plaza! No more will your hired servant be forced to stand in line with the other slaves and laborers. Imagine a public bath, with sparkling clean water delivered from the coolest mountain springs. Surely Saturnalia will be a much more pleasing experience for all once everyone has bathed in the waters of the gods!

Our Goal

We want to raise MMM Denari to build a prototype, which we will present to the Forum in the hopes of obtaining Senatorial and Imperial backing. The funding will be used for construction materials, engineering, testing, and for suitable honoraria.

Who we are

We are a guild of local stonemasons who are tired of bathing in the same filth as the mudslingers in the hovels down the road. We seek to honor the gods by bringing their gift to the wealthy masses.

Why we need your help

As you know, with our campaigns against the Goths many of the public funds for research have dried up. Your help will supplement this lack, allowing us to make progress for the glory of Rome and the Empire.

What do you get?

Obviously you want something in return for your investment! For those of you looking for something more than clean water, here are your incentives:

·      Donate V Denari or more, and earn a free ticket to the Coliseum. See the great mock naval battles, or relive our victory over Carthage as reenacted by the very Carthaginians we conquered!
·      Donate L Denari or more, and you can own your very own slave used in construction of the aqueduct, pending senatorial and imperial approval!
·      Donate CCL Denari and receive your very own lion! These exotic beasts make great guard animals, and are wonderful with children and vestal virgins.
·      Donate  D Denari, and your own name will be inscribed into one of the arch keystones! Be remembered for eternity!
·      Donate M Denari or more, and you will have your very own signature span of the finished product! Imagine having a private fountain filled with clear mountain water – take solace in the private luxury while knowing that your donation helped to further the empire!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ranting - On form factors

I'm a big fan of e-readers. And by e-reader, I don't mean your Kindle Fire or Nook Color - I'm talking about actual, e-ink-based readers whose sole purpose is to replace the hundreds of pounds of books on my shelf with a single device. Things like the Sony Reader (my first e-reader was a PRS 350), or the Kindle Paperwhite (my newest reader, a gift from my lovely wife and son). These devices are intended to display text, and that is pretty much their only goal. In my opinion, they meet this goal in an absolutely stellar way. I can carry enough entertainment around in my pocket for years worth of idle-time, and the design goals of the e-ink display make sure that I don't end up with a headache for my troubles.

That's why I'm troubled when I see so many people opting for tablets as their reader of choice. With e-reader sales declining, far too many people are choosing an inefficient and incorrect medium to consume their text-based media. For me, the advantages of e-ink over a tablet are as follows:
  • Reduced eye strain. An LCD is basically a bright light shining at your face. An e-ink reader relies upon ambient light, much like a piece of paper.
  • Increased battery life. An LCD takes a hell of a lot of power compared to e-ink, and a lot of it is due to the frequency of the screen's refresh. The more often a screen has to change, the more power it consumes. E-ink displays change only when you switch pages, resulting in batteries that last for weeks. LCD screens change dozens of times a second, resulting in much greater battery usage.
  • Reduced glare and contrast ratio improvements. LCD is a light-based medium, emitting light in order to generate the images we see. This means that if you shine a bright light back at it (say, something like the sun) then the image becomes much more challenging to discern. This is not a problem with e-ink readers, as they rely upon the reflection of light off of their surface - just like a piece of paper. This also results in a far higher contrast ratio - the difference between dark and light areas on the screen. This higher contrast ratio on e-readers allows the eye to do the same tasks with less energy, resulting in the reduced eye strain mentioned above.
The problem I see is that people want one device that does everything they could ask for - a Swiss army knife of entertainment. This results in millions of misguided individuals using their LCD tablets as a repository for their books and reading material, resulting in headaches and unnecessary power usage.

The issue is all about form factor. The central fallacy that lies behind these choices of gadget is that one form factor can fit every need. You see this confusion all over the place. One example is Microsoft's Windows 8 - a desktop OS heavily designed for touch. Touch interfaces can be excellent for some uses, but with the popularity of the iPad and smartphones far too many people think that a touch interface is the panacea for all computer applications. Touch is imprecise, it lacks sufficient tactile feedback for button presses and such, and requires a flexible display to compensate for the lack of resolution available. Furthermore, it often requires additional software running on a device to handle the input. Instead of a device driver generating interrupt requests, you're filtering the input through an application subject to the whims of an OS.

Human experience, at least in America, seems to be far too focused on fads. A new technology, or product, appears and instantly trumps anything even remotely related to it, regardless of the superior technology. VHS over Betamax. Touch-screen keyboards over physical keys. I suspect that tablet computers are quickly doing this to e-readers, and it makes me sad as both a tech guy and as a reader. I'm not looking forward to the forthcoming headaches once all devices carry a brightly-glowing LCD. I stare at a computer monitor too long as it is.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Theme Story - Finding the Theme

(The theme was late for this week, so I decided to be a smartass :) )

A blast of cold air caught the attention of patrons near the door as the man entered. He stood tall at 6’3”, a hulking frame wrapped in black leather and jeans. A few patrons glanced up from their libations, but their gazes quickly snapped back down. This was the kind of place where the curious didn’t last too long. A jukebox thumped weakly on a wall in the back as the man stepped towards the bar, his boots thumping in time with the forgotten country-western number.

The man approached the bar, pulling out a rickety stool and mounting it in a smooth motion that bespoke practice. The bartender, wiping a dirty glass mug with a dirtier rag, raised an eyebrow in the dim light.

“Beer,” the stranger said, his voice gravelly and deep.

“What kind?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

The bartender shrugged and stepped away for a moment, returning with a pale yellow swill in a water-spotted glass. The man took a sip, a sneer crossing his face as the failed pilsner hit his taste buds, then eyed the bartender as he set the mug back down on the bar. The bartender looked back at him, not wanting to back down in his own place, but a hint of fear was clearly visible in his eyes.

The man leaned forward and spoke in a quieter voice. “I’m lookin’ for something.”

“Lotsa folk are looking for something around here. Some of ‘em even found it.” The bartender shrugged. “Makes no business to me.”

“But you know this something,” the stranger asserted. “I have it on good word that you are a man that can find these kinds of things.”

The bartender quirked an eyebrow, his hands ceasing their incessant wiping. “And what kind of thing would that be?”

The stranger leaned forward. “I’m lookin’ for a theme.”

The bartender twitched in surprise, the glass in his hands falling to the ground with a loud crash. The few curious souls in the run-down tavern cast a wayward glance over, and the bartender continued speaking in a much quieter tone. “Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no theme, sir. And even if I did…”

“Bullshit,” the man interrupted. “You know exactly where I can find a theme, and I intend to have one before I leave here.”

The bartender was visibly trembling now, looking around at the other patrons for support, but they all stared intently into their beverages. With a visible tremble in his hand, the bartender bent over and began to clean up the shattered glass. He addressed his comments to the floor as he spoke, out of view of the rest of the bar. “Now, I don’t know what you heard, but I got out of that business a long time ago.”

“Not my problem,” the gravelly voice argued from above.

“Now, now, that don’t mean I don’t have anything for ya.” The bartender stood, eyeing the man across the thin wooden bar top. “Happens to be I might know of someone who can point you in the right direction, if given the proper motivation.”

“Motivation, eh?” The stranger smirked as he slid a few folded bills across the bar. The bartender looked furtively about before palming the cash, and slid a piece of paper back towards the stranger. As he started to pull his hand back, the stranger’s came down atop his. The bar creaked as the man applied pressure, trapping the bartender’s hand with a painful grip. “I swear, if you’re screwing with me I’m gonna come right back here and rip your lyin’ tongue outta your head.”

The bartender shrugged. “As I said, I’ve been outta the game for a while. This is all I know now.” The bartender looked down, sweat beading on his forehead. “Can I have my hand back now?” The stranger held on for another second, glaring a threat at the bartender, before releasing the hand from the bar. The bartender shook some blood back into his fingers as he eyed the stranger. “Now kindly finish your beer and go.”

The man picked up the mug, draining the contents in a single pull, and stood up. Tossing another few dollars on the bar, the man headed for the door. As he stepped back into the cold, he glanced down at the scribbled drawing the bartender had handed him, and a smile crept slowly across his face.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Theme Story - Road Trip

I sat back, watching the waves slide slowly up and down the beach. The sunrise cast a surreal purple glow over the water. I thought it was odd that there seemed to be very little break in the water itself. Near the shore the waves crested, white breakers charging forward out of the sea, but out in the water the turmoil was completely masked, replaced with simple undulating motion.

I sighed as I stared out into the night. I'd finally made it. Three thousand miles and as many dollars in gas and repairs, just to feel another ocean on my face. A different ocean, one not laden with history. A flash of my old life popped up; a flash that I violently pushed down. That part of me was done. This was my fresh start.

The breeze picked up, and I shivered in the wind. I had expected southern California to be warm, but the weather here so far wasn't that far a cry from the oil-slicked Jersey beaches, covered in oompa-loompa tans and bleached blonde hair. It had been nice watching the snow melt on the way, though. If nothing else, I would hold that new memory dear.

I still didn't know why I'd chosen to drive. I walked through the train station every day. That 9:56 train from Cherry Hill could take me to Pennsylvania, then Chicago, LA, and San Diego. The train was a known quantity. Hell, I'd spent an eighth of every day over the past seven years on trains. Maybe that was the reason.

Out of reflex I pulled my phone from my pocket, and had my thumb on the button before I was able to stop myself. Looking at those messages meant looking back into the abyss, and once that abyss started staring back I'd end up right back where I started. Lonely, bored, disconnected. Stuck. That way lie danger. They'd just have to get along without me. I wasn't even sure they realized that I'd left.

I stood up and walked down the beach, stopping with the soles of my shoes breaking the crawling surf. I reached back into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I thumbed the button, and the first message popped up.

From Sarah: Where are you???

I pulled my arm back and threw, the plastic square sailing out into the night. My old life was consumed by the ocean, a small ripple swallowed up by the rolling waves. I chose the car because I wanted to begin anew. Time to get started.