Monday, December 3, 2018

Sunset


SUNSET


By William J Bowles

     That day started out like any other. I woke up, showered, ate breakfast, checked all my social media feeds, etc. Then I went down stairs to check the mail, and that's when it started to get interesting.
     I got down to the apartment lobby (though to be fair, calling it a lobby would be a bit generous, but it's fine) just as the mailman dropped a few letters into slot number seven.
     Just as he turned away from it, I unlocked the compartment and retrieved its contents.
     One of the letters caught my attention, and I knew it was going to be a big deal. Not for me. No, this was for Phoebe, my roommate. And it was not the sort of matter to set aside. She'd want to hear about it immediately.

     "Hey Levi. What's up?" Phoebe said when she answered my call. Her voice was calm and cheerful, which was pretty much her emotional resting point.
     "Hey. There's a letter here for you," I said. I was sitting in the kitchen, still looking at the letter that was not for me. The writing on the envelop was elegantly written in an iridescent golden ink. It was beautiful-- both the penmanship and the ink itself.
     “You called me to tell me I had a letter?” she asked. “Just... set it with the rest of the mail and I'll check it when I get back.” She didn't sound irritated. More confused as to why I'd call her over such a matter. So I told her.
     “It's from the House of Eighty Eight.”
     “What?!”
     “The House of Eighty Eight,” I repeated. “You know, that's the--”
     “I know what the House of Eighty Eight is, Levi,” she said. “That was an exclamation, not a question.”
     “Okay.”
     She was quiet for a moment. “Describe the envelop.”
     “Normal paper-y color...” I began.
     “The ink, wise guy!” she shouted, though more impatient than angry. “What ink did they use? Because if you called me about what you know is just another--”
     “It's this trippy golden ink with a sorta rainbow shimmer to it.”
     The line was silent for several seconds, and I almost thought we'd gotten disconnected.
     “Hey, Pheeb? You there?”
     “You're not messing with me, are you?” she asked at last. “Because if you are...”
     “I swear to God! Rainbow-y golden ink. Does that mean--?”
     I could hear her squeal with delight.
     “Oh my god!” she cried out. “Stay right there, Levi! I'm on my way! Don't open it, don't mess with it, don't let anyone into the apartment!”
     “I thought you had a thing, or something,” I said, rather lamely.
     “Forget about the thing. It's a dumb thing and it doesn't matter anymore. I'm on my way!”
     “Hey, Pheeb?”
     “What?” she said, sounding impatient, as if I were physically barring her from returning.
     “Could you stop by the doughnut place and get me an apple fritter?”
     “A pox on your apple fritter,” she declared, and hung up.
     Don't worry. It's a running joke between us.

     The knock came sooner than expected, and I almost thought it was someone else. But I saw her through the window, so I let her in.
     Not the front door. Not the one I use. But the door by the kitchen window. (It wasn't easy to find an apartment with one of those.)
     As she stepped in, a house fly flew over and landed on the window sill next to her. She swung her little purse at it, and it flew away.
     “Sorry, I thought I got rid of them all,” I said. I can can tolerate a fly or two, but I knew they were a huge nuisance to someone who stood just four inches tall.
     “Never mind the fly. Let me see the letter!” she said, her dragonfly wings flittering with excitement.
     I set the envelop on the window sill for her to see.
     She stood over the mark of the House of Eighty Eight and examined it with great care and interest.
     Satisfied, she stepped back and looked up at me. “Open it.”
     I took the envelop and ever so carefully unsealed it and looked inside. Then I turned it upside down and tapped out its contents for Phoebe.
     A tiny, fairy-sized letter floated out.
     “What does it say?” I asked, though I already knew at this point. It was only the one thing she obsessed with most in life.
     “I've been invited to the Goodweather Ball...” she said in a sort of reverent whisper.
     “Awesome. That'll be fun.”
     “But Levi... what do I wear?”
     “Don't you have like, a dress or something?”
     She stared at me, aghast. “Maybe something for a mundane event, like a celebrity funeral or my own wedding. But this is THE Goodweather Ball! Hosted by THE House of Eighty Eight! One does not show up in peasant garb to the Goodweather Ball, Levi! It's a traditional fey event, I have to wear something of traditional fairy-make. There's going to be actual fairy royalty there! I can't go in what I have! What am I going to do?”
     “You... didn't plan for this at all?” I asked. “I mean, you were the one who's been trying to get invited all these years.”
     “Yeah, but I didn't think it'd actually happen!”
     “Okay, don't freak out. We'll get this figured out.”
     She ran her fingers through her hair, pulled on her antennae, and groaned out loud.
     I thought for a moment. “When is it?”
     “'Bout six months from now.”
     “See? Plenty of time. We'll figure it out.”
     She let out a long sigh. “I know. I know.”



     One day, about three months later, I knocked on the door to Phoebe's room. It wasn't so much a room in the same way we humans have rooms. It was only the size of a closet, but it was divided up into numerous smaller rooms. My one room was many times larger than all of hers together, but she effectively had an entire house to herself within the apartment.
     I knocked on the tiny fairy door to her bedroom.
     “Yes?” she asked.
     “Hey, I'm going over to the mall,” I began. “Couple of things I need down there. Wanna come with?”
     “Do we get to pester Linus while he's working?”
     “Well, yeah. That accounts for at least two of the things on my list.”
     “Okay then! Just give me a sec.”
     She stepped out a minute later and saw that I was carrying a package under one arm. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string.
     “What's with the box?” she asked.
     “Oh, this? It's for a friend of mine. Again, one of the things on the list.”

     We took the bus that goes to down town. There was another fairy on the bus, in the small, overhead seating area, and the two of them talked for a while.
     There was also a brownie seated up there, with a clear orange pill bottle as a backpack. I wondered what chore or errand he was doing, but they rarely talk, preferring to keep to themselves. Some times, I wish I knew what was up with those guys.

     At the mall, we strolled about at a leisurely pace. That is to say, I strolled about at a leisurely pace, and she rode on my shoulder. Occasionally she flew here or there, and sometimes had me go one direction or another. But for the most part, she was content to sit or stand on my shoulder and go along where ever I went.
     We stopped by the footwear store and made Linus do things for us. “Do you have these in a size eleven?” “No, no. I meant eleven in fairy sizes.” “Okay cool. Now go see if you have it in nine and a half.” “Nine and a half, human size.” “Oh, I don't want those shoes, I was just curious.”
     Our teasing may seem mean, but as long as he was taking care of us, he didn't have to do anything else. Plus, whenever we did that, we'd swing by at the end of his shift and treat him to ice cream, a fancy pretzel, or some other mall-based treat. Today, we got a couple of doughnuts. I got an apple fritter and let Pheobe take a tiny piece, as the thing itself was about ten times her size.

     We went from shop to shop, mostly just looking around. I did in fact have things to do, which I did. The mall trip wasn't entirely a ruse. Only mostly.
     On the way back to the bus stop, we passed by some of the stores in the fancy shopping center. I stopped, and pretended to be surprised by something.
     “Oh, look at that,” I said.
     “Huh? What?” Phoebe asked.
     “It looks like there's something going on at Glasswing's...”
     I looked over at her, and she eyed me suspiciously.
     “What's going on?” she asked, clearly not buying my weak attempt to feign ignorance.
     “Nothing,” I lied. “It's just that you have that ball to go to, and we find ourselves here at Glasswing's-- a high quality fairy clothing shop...”
     She stared at me, waiting.
     “Why don't we ask if they do traditional style things?”
     “You planned this all out, didn't you?” she asked, trying to look offended, though I could see a smile forming from the corners of her mouth.
     “I cannot confirm, nor deny that remark.”
     “Whatever, let's go look anyway.”

     It was a human sized store, but clearly only for the purpose of big dumb chauffeurs like me to bring their fancy fairy employers. Because little more than the front lobby-- and unlike our apartment, this was a legitimate lobby-- was sized for human locomotion. Everything else was an ant farm of tiny rooms full of elegant little clothes, with pretty little fairy folk walking and flying about.

     A smartly dressed fairy came down to greet us.
     “Hello,” he said. “How might I help you?”
     Phoebe didn't really know what to say. She hadn't planned to come here. But I had.
     “My friend was invited to the Goodweather Ball, and needs something, like, traditional...?”
     The store representative almost gasped, and Phoebe looked a little embarrassed.
     “Oh, what I wouldn't do to attend!” he said, a bit dramatically. “But yes, we do. However... because of the aforementioned ball, we find ourselves limited in supplies.”
     “That's alright,” I said, before Phoebe could reply. “We'll be supplying the materials. At least most of it. We mostly just need someone to make the dress.”
     She turned and stared at me. Up until this point, she thought we were just looking around. Maybe scoping the place out for any possibilities. Or perhaps just to daydream about the fine designer items. She knew I had planned to come by this way, but had no idea how deep my plotting had run.
     “Oh?” he said. “Do you have the materials with you?”
     I nodded, and placed the package I had been carrying with me on the counter. I untied the string and unfolded the paper wrapping. Inside was a wooden box. I gently removed the lid and withdrew the contents. Inside was a carefully prepared, shiny-winged insect pinned to a small board.
     “A... a butterfly?” Phoebe asked.
     “That,” I said, “is a sunset moth.”
     Both fairies walked around to examine it better. At first, its wings seemed to be black and sky-blue striped, but the iridescent blue turned green, orange, and reddish pink at times, as the viewer looked at it at different angles. The body of the moth was covered in orange fur.
     “A fine specimen,” said the employee.
     “Levi...” Phoebe said in wonder, her hands to her mouth. “It's beautiful...!”
     “Think nothing of it,” I said.
     “Well, would you like to have your measurements taken now?” he asked. “I do remind you that we are rather busy, so I can't promise we'll be available to do a custom job later.”
     “Um... yeah,” Phoebe said. “I mean...”
     “I think that's a 'yes',” I told him.
     “Very good,” he said.
     He and an older fairy lady escorted Phoebe off to... wherever it is that they do measuring and such. A small battalion, it seemed, came and took the moth-- board and all-- off to... wherever it is that they do the dress-making.

     We left them our contact information, and Phoebe was called in a couple of times for adjustments and such. I'm not sure of what part she had in its creation or design, if any. But I wasn't invited. Every few weeks or so, she'd just say “I'm off to Glassing's! Be back later!” and dart out her little door by the window.

     The day of the Goodweather Ball, we both went down to Glasswing's together.
     I waited in the lobby for a what seemed like too long a time just to put on a dress.
     Finally, I heard a voice call out from a small open door a little ways away.
     “Levi? Mr. Levi?” asked a well-dressed lady fairy.
     “Ah, that's me,” I replied as I approached.
     “Miss Phoebe is ready. One moment, please.”
     She closed the door. Then, that wall-- door and all-- lifted up like a garage door. In the now opened room were a couple of tailors and assistants whom I hardly noticed. In the middle of the room was Phoebe in her new dress, and she was breathtaking. It was made almost entirely from the moth's wings; black and iridescent blue, that shimmered and changed colors in the light. It was a sleeveless dress with the moth's orange fur as a sort of feathery collar.
     She looked up at me, and blushed shyly. “So... what do you think?”
     “You... you look great! They really did a good job, didn't they?”
     “I know, right?” she agreed. “It's a little weird though. I've never dressed up like this before. I mean... what do I...?”
     “You'll do fine,” I interrupted. “Trust me.”
     “I can't begin to thank you enough for this!”
     “Please, all I did was buy a bug online and trick you into visiting a fancy-pants dress shop. It was nothing.”
     She flew up and landed on my shoulder. “It wasn't nothing to me,” she said, and hugged the side of my neck.
     “Not to interrupt this touching moment,” said the store representative. “But there is still the matter of payment.”
     Phoebe laughed. I did not.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

By The Bridge


BY THE BRIDGE
By William Bowles

     I'm driving through some small town-- nowhere, really; It's not even on the map I have on the seat next to me. It's not my destination, either. Just one of the points along the way. But it's really late, so I'm trying to find a motel.
     Along the way, I come across this big, steel bridge over a river. Parked on the side by the bridge is a car. It's a dull, bluish four-door. No emergency blinkers or anything. It's just sitting there.
As I pass it, I see her. She's standing by the edge, looking down at the icy water below. I can't see her face, but she seems... sad. Empty, somehow.
     I slow down and pull over onto the shoulder. I stop, put on my blinkers, and get out.
     I walk over to where she's standing. I don't know just why, but that's what I do.

     "Hey," is all I say at first.
     She looks over, only mildly surprised. "What do you want?" She's not rude, just a shade suspicious.
     "Mind if I sit here for a minute?"
     She gets a bit defensive. "Oh, you gonna try and talk me out of it? You think I need you to save me? You think I want you to?"
     I feel my shoulders and my posture slacken a bit. "No. I just... I just wanna sit here for a bit. That okay?"
     She gives me a look. I think she's going for skeptical, but I don't know. People can be hard to read sometimes.
     "Oh? So you just don't care, then."
     Now I'm a tad frustrated. But mostly not with her.
     "No, it's just..." I take a breath. "At the moment, there's nothing I'd want more than for you to not go through with... this." I gesture towards the dark, churning river. She rolls her eyes. "But I can't make the choice for you. And I'm not here to try. I just... I just... Look, it's been a rough few days for me, and I just want someone to listen to me. Just for a moment."
     "You think you've had a rough time?" she retorts.
     I laugh. There's no humor in it.
     "You have a point there. It's just, there's two ways this can go, if you let me sit here. One, I get to talk to someone for a bit. And for what it's worth, you get to know that you made someone's day a little bit better before you go. Two, maybe, somehow, you find some reason not to do it. Not for me. Not because I stopped you. But because, maybe you'd have found something better than ending it." I sigh. "I dunno. I mean, if you've made up your mind, what have you got to lose. If nothing else, I'd appreciate the company."
     She hesitates.
     "I'm not trying to do you a favor. I'm asking a favor of you. I just really need this. If it's okay with you."
     She lets out a sigh, and nods.
     I walk forwards and sit with my feet dangling over the edge. She sits, too-- about ten feet away, knees pulled in close to her.

     For a while, there's only silence. Aside from the cold lapping of waves against the rocks and the bridge supports below.

     "So..." she sais. "What's your deal?"
     I absentmindedly pick up a bit of indistinct debris and toss it out into the water. I don't like the feel of it-- seeing it fall down, down to the blackness.
     "I just... I don't know what I'm doing anymore, ya know? It's like..."
     I don't say what it's like. I just trail off.
     She nods. I think she knows what I mean, but suspect she doesn't want to admit it-- like that be me winning a point, somehow. Not sure why I think she thinks that. I just do.
     "I just want someone to listen. Just once. I mean, people hear me. But I don't think they're really interested. Like, they listen out of some sense of obligation, but they're not really invested or whatever. You know what I mean?"
     She nods.
     "I don't know what I'm doing. It's been a long time since I've had any idea what I was doing. I don't know..."
     She nods again.
     "How 'bout you?" I ask. She doesn't respond. She just keeps looking out into the blackness of the world just outside the dull yellow glow of the street lights.
     The conversation isn't about her. I don't know that, but she does.
     "I just want to know that it all worked out, or... something like that. I don't know. I want something-- just one thing-- to work out the way I had hoped. Or if not, at least something else just as well."
     She nods.

     The talk goes on like that for a bit. I say something, she says nothing. I say something else, and she remains quiet, but understanding. Then I run out of things to say. Or rather, things to be said there and then.

     I stand up.
     She stands, as well.
     "I think that's about it," I say. "Thank you for listening to me ramble on."
     She nods. "Yeah."
     I shake my head.
     "No. I don't think you understand. I've needed to be able to talk to someone, just really talk to someone-- open and honest like that for a long time. It really meant a lot to me that you listened. Thank you."
     She says nothing. But it's not the nothing of someone with nothing to say. It's the nothing of someone who doesn't know how to.
     Somehow, she knows what to do. She steps forward and puts her arms around me, and I respond in kind. I didn't even know how much I needed a hug, but as I'd said, I it was a long time since I knew anything.

     After several seconds, she steps back.

     "I'd better get going," I say. I have nowhere to be, but I feel it's time to go.
     She nods.
     "Maybe... I'll see you around some time?"
     She nods, and smiles. Her mouth smiles, that is. Her eyes do not.
     I take a few steps towards my car, and she sits by the edge, her feet hanging over. I want her to come with me. I want to stay with her. But neither will happen. Not tonight, at least.
     I don't like walking away from her, leaving her where she was before I came along. But something's different. There's something different about her. I like to think that maybe she changed her mind. I hate to think that she might still go through with it. More over, I hate to think of her suffering in any way. I just want things to be better for her. I love her. Maybe it's just in the moment, but this night I love her in the way you do when you care about someone else's well being more than your own.
     As I get in my car, I hope she takes this chance to try again-- to keep on going.
     As I turn the keys, I hope and pray that life gets better for her.
     I also secretly wish that she'd come with me and leave behind the bridge and the bluish car and the cold, black night... but that's just for me. That's what I want for me. And while our talk was for me, the leaving was for her. And so I left.

     I don't know if she went through with it or not. I hope she did not, but I don't get to make that choice. It's one of the many things I don't know. But that's alright. I wasn't there to save her life. I'm not even sure if she saved mine. Our pathes crossed for only a moment, and perhaps that crossing changed nothing. No lives were saved. Most likely, none wer in peril to begin with. Not all stories are about losses suffered or losses prevented. Maybe it's enough just to be heard.

     So thank you for hearing me.







Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thinking Man


THINKING MAN
By William Bowles

    I sat on a broken wall with Paellano, trying to get a cigarette lit, talking about the sort of everyday things a soldier misses after a few weeks of active duty. I just about had the damn thing lit when Captain Molisho appeared from around a corner. I dropped the match as we stood at attention, and it fell into the snow and went out.

    "Davoro," Molisho said, in as friendly a tone as a commanding officer can to a common soldier. "Come with me."
    I handed the cigarette to Paellano as I passed him, and followed the captain; the eyes of the other men watched us discreetly as we went.

    "The prisoners know nothing," Molisho explained as we walked through the city ruins. "They are just militia. If even that."
    "They certainly did not fight like trained men," I agreed.
    We came to the plaza where the eight captives stood facing an old cobblestone wall. The soldier with the burned face sat casually, leaning against the statue in the middle of the plaza; the huge 18-pound rifle lay across his lap.
    He nodded at me, and  I returned the gesture, though I could not remember his name.
    Molisho faced me, and nodded towards the prisoners, but I knew what was going on the moment I took in the scene.
    "Why do you want me to do this?" I asked, in as neutral a tone as I could. "He could have done just as well."
    "I know he could," Molisho said. "And that is why I didn't ask him to."
    "I don't understand," I replied.
    "Look. Davoro. I know how you are. How you feel about all these things," he said to me, picking up on my reluctance.
    "Do I not fight obediently?"
    "You do," he said understandingly. "You will fight men with guns who try to kill you, but would you execute prisoners if ordered to?"
    I lifted my rifle and looked down the sights at the eight resistance fighters; unarmed, malnurished men and-- I noticed then-- two teenage boys and a woman. They were broken, inferior, and ultimately useless. If we hadn't captured them, they would have been killed by the next Olastran company they'd have tried to ambush. They knew they were done fore. They waited to die.
    "Do it," Molisho said.
    I hesitated.
    "Is something wrong?" he said. There was a hint of suppressed annoyance. "Do it."
    I did nothing.
    "Did you not hear me?" he asked in irritation. "Put them down."
    "No," I said, lowering the rifle.
    One of the prisoners dared to glance back.
    My commander turned with a wicked glare to me. "Do it now, or you will be tried for insubordination." He pulled back his coat; casually, yet intentionally revealing the pistol holstered at his side. Just in case I wasn't acquainted the front line legal system.
    "No. I won't do it," I said to him with finality.
    It was at that time that he decided that I would die. I was a traitor. I really was. However, as he reached for his gun, a thought came to me, and it went something like this:
    The difference between a man drawing a gun and a man holding a gun is that the man holding a gun gets to shoots first.
    I found the notion intriguing, and decided to test the theory. Turns out I was right.

    The sudden gunshot caught the guard's attention. Looking up, he saw Molisho tumble to the ground like a marionette freed from its strings; the pistol dropping from his hand. The soldier tried to get to his feet, but fumbled the cumbersome rifle.
    "Shit!" Was all he managed to say in his baffled shock.
    I turned the gun at him, but stopped. He got the message and froze as still as I. He stared at me, slack-jawed and saucer-eyed, trying to figure out why in God's name I would murder our commanding officer, especially as he had shown favor in me amongst our battalion.
    "Davoro..." He whispered pleadingly.
    I didn't shoot him though-- the man with the burned face. He was a tainted cog in a tainted machine, but he wasn't the worst of them. And besides-- at that moment, he was as helpless as the prisoners. Sure, he wasn't as innocent, but he was defenseless nonetheless.
    "Stand up," I said. "And keep quiet."
    He did as I said, wisely laying the gun on the ground in front of him.
    The captives were all watching now. I spoke to my old prisoners while keeping an eye on my new one.
    "We better get going now."
    I picked up Molisho's handgun, then went to the burnt faced man and took the heavy rifle. Without another word, we backed away, and snuck off. I never did see him again. Or Paellano. Or any of my company. For this, I am immensely grateful. Some of them were my friends, and I would rather not have to kill them.

    I never did remember that man's name.

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I believe I wrote this around September 2013, but I can't say for sure.

It was inspired by the story of a German soldier in WWII named Josef Schulz, who (according to legend) refused to execute a group of prisoners. Instead, he took off his helmet, put down his gun, and stood with them. Then he died with them. According to legend.
The similarities are clear, but so are the differences.

As always, thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, and your feedback is much appreciated!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Quiet

I'm part of a local writers' club, and sometimes we like to use "prompts" as writing exercises. What is a prompt? Sometimes writers-- especially those in writing clubs-- will sometimes write a short short story (or flash fiction) as an exercise, but as part of the exercise is that everyone participating uses a given prompt, which is a line or two of text, as the opening lines(s) of the story. What happens next is up to the writer. So everyone writes a different story, but with the same first line or lines.
Prompts can also be used when writing solo, but it's more fun with friends.

Often, stories that come from prompts are not as well written or planned as "proper" stories, but it's not about quality, it's just an exercise in writing.
That said, they can be good, too. Hopefully you'll enjoy this story, despite it's length (or lack there of) and the fact that I wrote it in (probably) about a day.

EDIT: I highlighted the prompt phrase in light grey, so any writers can try out the same one. And I included a link to a really good prompt resource at the end of the page.

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"Shh! Hear that?"
"I didn't hear anything."
Josh hesitated. "Jacob, I heard something."
"Don't be a chicken," Jacob scolded.
"I'm not a chicken!"
"Keep it down," Jacob said in a harsh whisper.
"I'm not a chicken," Josh repeated, more quietly.
"Okay, then let's hurry up."
Josh nodded.
They walked down the hallway under the cover of darkness; their steps as silent as a cat's. They knew that one ill step; one errant noise could alert the sleeping residents.
Josh stared at the dim moonlight as it slipped in through the billowing curtains of an open window.
"Come on!" Jacob scolded as Josh stared out the window at the bright full moon. "You can't just stand around. Someone will catch you."
"Okay." Josh muttered in response, only half-listening.
As they proceeded through the house they saw an open door up ahead, so they continued on with twice the effort to sneak by quietly. But just as they came close to the door, a dog came out and approached them quietly. The old greyhound stared at them with dark-chocolate eyes and a curious expression. Though it showed no immediate signs of aggression, they feared it would start barking and wake the household.
Jacob produced a dog treat from his pocket and tossed it to the animal.
Content to eat at its own leisure, the dog forgot about Josh and Jacob entirely. They let out a sigh of relief, and moved on.
Continuing down through the pale halls of the sleeping household, Josh and Jacob came at last to the room they sought. Up on a surface just out of reach was the goal of their mission.
"They're up there," Josh said. "Go get them."
"Huh-uh," Jacob refuted. "You get them."
"Why?" Josh asked.
"'Cause I said so, that's why."
"Uhg. Fine."
Jacob cupped his hands together for Josh to use as a step. With that boost, he managed to reach the ledge and climb up.
And there—there was the jar. The pot, the urn, the container of wonder.
Quietly, and with near-infinite caution, Josh opened the lid. His hand slowly reached towards it and into its dark interior.
The opposite door opened with a creek, and they both knew that it was all over.
The lights came on.
"What are you boys up to?" Their mother said, puzzled yet patient, as she approached.
It was hard to not be intimidated by her as she stood towering over them, regardless of her tiredness and neutral demeanor.
"Uh… we were just getting a drink of water." Jacob said.
Their mother got them each a glass of water as Josh climbed down off the counter.
After drinking the water they hadn't wanted to begin with, they made their way back to their room, empty handed.


"We got caught," Jacob informed Luke and Liam, glumly, as he and Josh came into their room.
"What?" Luke whined. "How'd you get caught?"
"We almost made it, until Mom found us." Jacob said.
As Jacob, Luke, and Liam complained and argued, Josh reached into his pockets and drew out four chocolate chip cookies.
"Anyone want one?" Josh said.
They turned to look at him, staring in amazement at what he held. Josh couldn't help but grin broadly as his brothers came to his side, cheering quietly as they all shared the bounties of the mission.
For once, he was appreciated. For once, he was the hero.



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I'll probably post more writing exercises like this one in the future, as well as some full stories I'd consider actually complete.

I'll also post a good link to some prompts once I find it, for those of you who are interested.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts, questions, observations, etc.

Best wishes!

(I'm basically going to just use whatever random sign-off each time until I find one that really works)

EDIT: Here's a good list of prompts-- a couple of which I have already used.
 http://www.dailywritingtips.com/writing-prompts-101/

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Maintenance


Sorry it's been a while. Here's another short story-- this one wasn't in the Introduction Of Sorts collection, but it was written around that time, so it's also one of my older works.
I did present this during a creative writing class I took recently, and it was well received both by my professor and my classmates. A few of them thought that it was an excerpt from the beginning of a novel or novella length story, rather than a stand-alone short. I think that's a good thing-- it suggests that the events of the tale imply a fuller world and narrative. However, it is just this one short story.
At least, for now.

Anyways, I hope you like it.

I just now realized how useless a thing that is to say. It's not as if I hope you are bored or insulted. Logically, it goes without saying that I want you to enjoy my story. Then again, I sincerely do hope that my little story will bring you some measure of happiness, so I will say it, regardless of the redundancy of it. Logic has little to do with the matter.





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MAINTENANCE
By William Bowles
A frigid wind swept across the snow-choked plains, kicking up a white haze against the deep, crimson sky. The temperature dropped by the hour, and the night grew darker in equal measure, but within the concrete walls of the factory, the evening crew persevered.
“These machines sure require a lot of attention, don’t they?” Simon asked, pulling his fleece hat down over his ears. Though the steel and concrete of the factory walls kept the howling winds at bay, winter's chill always managed to sneak in.
“If it could fix itself they wouldn't have to call us out here, now would they?” Carl retorted.
He scraped off a layer of frost that had built up on the outside of the machine, then began to unscrew a plate to check the wiring within.
“How much do you think a machine like this costs?” Simon asked.
Carl ignored the question. “Hand me the pliers.”
Simon held the tool just out of reach.
“Not until you answer my question,” he teased.
“Quit it, Simon. We’re on the job. Don’t waste my time.”
“How much did this thing cost?” Simon insisted.
Carl sighed. “Ten billion,” he guessed.
Simon whistled. “Wow. That’s a lot of money,” he said, though he had imagined a greater sum. “Really? Ten billion?”
“I don’t know. I'm just guessing,” Carl said, and snatched the pliers from Simon's unresisting hand. “Maybe twenty or thirty. Hell, it could be one billion or a hundred billion for all I know. I just know how much I get paid for repairing it.”
“And how much we get docked if we don’t!” Simon chimed in.
“Yeah. So stop distracting me and let’s make sure this thing is good to go.”
“Okay.”
For a little while, they didn’t speak as they checked wire connections, cleaned out dirt and ice, and replaced components that were damaged or worn. As Carl climbed down into the control chamber, he wished that his coworker would just stay quiet, though past experience told him that that was unlikely.
“What if it overheats again?” Simon asked. “What’d happen?”
Carl sighed. It seemed to him that Simon lacked the ability to keep his mouth closed for more than fifteen consecutive seconds. He counted.
“We were lucky they brought it in soon enough this time. If it had been farther out, they might not have been able to recover it at all.”
“Really?”
“Yes. Really.”
“But what if it does?” Simon asked. “I mean, overheat again.”
A part of Carl wanted to tell his novice coworker to stop asking unnecessary questions, but realized that it was a relevant inquiry. Simon was worried about possible consequences, which was understandable.
“We’ll probably get fired for doing a half-assed job.”
“Oh. Is that all?” he was a bit relieved, having imagined medieval torture.
“Well, actually,” Carl hesitated as he opened the main hatch, “actually, you’d only get a pay cut. I’d get fired.”
“’Cause I’m just a technician and you’re a chief engineer, right? So you’re the one responsible if something goes wrong, right?”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
Simon nodded. “Okay, but what about the machine?”
“Oh, it’d be ruined. One more over-heat and this baby’s done for.” Carl patted the steel hull affectionately. “Especially if it breaks down way out there. Not like last time, when it was so nearby.”
With the hatch open, Carl climbed down the latter into the machine's interior
“Do these things overheat easily?” Through a nearby window, Simon watched the sky as it faded slowly from a deep blue to the cold black of obsidian.
“Only if the main cooling line is faulty.” Carl called out from inside the machine. He removed the damaged line as he spoke, which had become worn out over the past several months. Simon saw the old cooling line tossed out of the hatch and he stepped to the edge of his elevated platform, watching the length of blue-coated tubing tumble down to the ground below. Simon gulped. He had never been fond of heights.
“If there’s even a small flaw in the coating,” Carl called out, his voice accompanied by the mechanical clatter of tool-work, “it will eventually wear out, and that’d be the end of it.”
Simon looked skeptical and opened his mouth, but Carl cut him off as if he could see him.
“Yes, even in this weather. The temperature outside doesn’t do so much to the mechanics inside. Not as much as you’d think. It’s all the friction, burning fuel, and electronics, you see. All that generates a lot of heat.”
Carl then appeared head-first as he climbed up out of the hatch, closing it behind him.
Again, Simon pondered. He contemplated his next question more carefully. For a minute, neither of them said a word. Carl was beginning to hope Simon had finally shut up once and for all, though his hopes were in vain.
“Um… Carl?” Simon asked reluctantly.
“What is it, Simon?”
Almost afraid of the answer, he asked “How many people… will it kill?”
Carl shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. A thousand, perhaps,” he answered casually. “Maybe more. Hand me the welder.”
When he was not given the tool, he looked over at Simon who stood staring back at him; pale as snow.
“A… A thousand…?” he asked weakly.
“Yeah. Give or take,” Carl said. “Maybe ten thousand. If it does its job.”
“But… why?”
“Why? Because of all the rebels in Jadensburg, you dolt. We send this baby in and shoot up a few city blocks… it’ll teach them a lesson.”
“But it isn’t just killing rebels, is it? It’s going to kill innocent people too, isn’t it?”
“Well, there's bound to be some collateral. A machine can’t tell the difference. Besides, it doesn’t have to eliminate the rebel militia. All it needs to do is send a message.”
“A message?” Simon retorted in disbelief.
“Yeah. Something along the lines of ‘this is what happens to traitors.’”
“But they’re not all traitors. Most of the people there are innocent, aren’t they? Just… regular people. Probably didn’t do anything bad at all. Don’t you think that’s wrong?”
“Oh, I know it’s wrong. Everything’s wrong,” Carl said wearily as he cleaned some debris out from the crevices of one of the massive Gatling gun barrels “It’s not a matter of who's right, because no one is. But if I walk away, someone else will do the repairs. Besides, I need money, too. I stopped caring a long time ago. It just made things harder.”
“But… why? They’re just innocent people. They didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just regular people like you and me. Why do we have to kill them?”
Carl turned to him, and shot him an accusing look. “You got a complaint, Simon?”
Overhearing the argument, another worker on a platform some yards away called out “Is everything okay over there?”
Engineers and repairmen on other platforms looked at them, too.
Carl looked at Simon. “Well?”
“No, no. I… I’ve got no complaint,” he said submissively. “Everything's okay over here,”
“Nothing to worry about,” Carl replied to the other engineer, who went back to what he had been doing. The others too soon returned their attention to other things.
“Alright then,” Carl said, calming down, “let’s finish up and get outta here.”
Simon nodded sullenly. “Okay.”
“Hey, lighten up, will ya?”
“I know. It’s just… Have you ever thought of--”
“I try not to,” Carl interrupted. He shook his head, trying to forget about what his actions were going to cause.
Simon kept mostly quiet after that. If he had any further questions, he kept them to himself, which Carl appreciated. The silence gave him time to think without distraction. But his mind wasn’t on the job at hand.
The repair crews checked the giant treads for damage, but they were fine. Simon found a crushed and rusted old bicycle that must have been stuck under the treads for a while, but there was nothing of consequence. One of the rocket launchers needed a replacement igniter; cameras seventeen, nine, and twenty-two needed cleaning; and the paint job needed touching up where a Molotov cocktail had burned it.
By around one o'clock in the morning, the repairs were nearly done. Everyone was exhausted, yet they were all grateful it hadn't taken longer. One by one, teams finished their jobs, lowered their lifts, and vacated the facility. As Carl finished the last of the tasks, he turned to Simon.
“So. Ah… Looks like we’re about done here,” he said, hesitantly. “You go on. I’ll close up.”
“You sure?” Simon asked.
Carl shook his head. “Don't worry about it. We're just about done anyway.”
Simon nodded. He flipped the switch to lower his platform. Once he reached the ground, he stepped down and made his way toward the exit.
Carl looked at the hatch and thought; recent words echoing through his mind.
From the toolbox he produced a pair of pliers, and then paused. He gave himself one last chance to reconsider, but eventually decided to go ahead. He opened the hatch and went down into the tiny maintenance chamber within the machine's interior. With the pliers he stripped a bit of the coating from the main cooling line and left.



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What is the moral of this story? Some of my classmates interpreted it as an anti-war message. While war is generally an ill thing indeed, that is not the purpose of this tale. After all, there is no war involved; it is an internal conflict. "War" implies two sides fighting against each other. The horrors described by Carl are not war, but massacre. If this story is anti-anything, it's murder, corruption, and apathy. If its about anything, its about bravery, and standing up for what's right, no matter the consequences. Or something like that.

Then again, Maintenance is primarily a form of entertainment. I want it to be enjoyed. If it has any positive impact on the world, then that is a greater thing than I could ever have hoped for. Yet this is not a soap box from which I protest this or that. This is meant to be a fun story, first and foremost. I do hope that my stories can inspire some degree of good in the world, but it's not meant to be a message merely in the guise of entertainment.

One of my classmates said that she imagined Carl joining the rebellion and having a story of his own, in which he fights against the tyrannical government, or something like that.
While I was glad the story was able to imply further events in her imagination, that's not really the point of the story. The nature of the rebellion and the government are merely background, intentionally left vague. In fact, who's to say that the rebels are even the good guys? Sure, somebody in the higher-ups ordered a horrific internal strike at a city believed to support the rebellion, but A) that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone in charge feels the same, and B) it doesn't mean that the rebels are any better. They could be just a violent bunch of anarchists are just lashing out at authority for the sake of it. Conflicts are not always that simple. In fact, they rarely are.
I think one reason why she imagined that sort of scenario is because we Americans love us a good rebellion. Everything from Star Wars to the founding of our own nation is centered on the brave and idealistic rebels fighting against an oppressive force that seems impossibly strong. Something about overcoming impossible odds and the overthrow of unjust authority is just so ingrained in our very being that we can connect to it on a subconscious level.
Or something like that.

I get the idea that this isn't going to be the last of my long-winded ramblings.

Anyways, feel free to share your thoughts, interpretations, feelings, questions, observations, etc.

I hope you enjoyed this story.

P.S. I will post the 10th page of the Hero's Dilemma comic soon. Maybe today or tomorrow.
EDIT: It's up now!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Otto

Sun and Mountain may have been the first story I wrote with publication in mind, but Otto was my first story to actually see any kind of publication.
It was published in a local short story magazine and won first place in it's category. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's a fun little story that I'm quite proud of, if I do say so myself. And I hope you will like it as much as my friends and I do.



OTTO
By William Bowles
It was another gray day in Industry City, and as always, the morning found Otto pushing his old steel-mesh supply cart from house to house.
Despite the distances he had to walk each day, he rather enjoyed his job. It was not what you'd call a dream job. Or a nice job. Or even a respectable job. But it was a job. A real, legitimate, occupation. Most others like him would never achieve anything in life, working as servants or manual laborers: slaves in all but name.
When he reached the next house on his route, he approached the front door and pulled the cart up just behind him and to one side. He knocked three times on the door and waited patiently for a reply. It wasn't long before the door opened to reveal a curly-haired, middle aged woman. She looked at Otto with a slightly puzzled expression, but listened nonetheless.
“Evvvning ma’am.” Otto greeted in a friendly tone.
“Good evening....” she said, unsure of how to respond.
“My nammmme is Otto. Are you havinggg agoodday?”
“Yes, I am. Thank you for asking. What can I do for you?”
“It’s nnnot what youcando for me,” Otto said, “it’s what I can do for yooou.”
“Oh?” She looked behind him and saw the cart. “Are you selling something?” It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out his agenda at this point. He gave his regular sales pitch, displaying various trinkets, devices, tools, and parts. It was all mechanical goods. People in Industry City would basically buy three things from mobile venders: mechanical goods, edible goods, and subscriptions to magazines that would never show up.
Although she found nothing she needed, she gave him a tip. According to another of Otto's philosophies, these small donations were, in a way, better than sales. For one, they are given out of good will rather than for personal gain, which cheered up the young salesman on hard days. Secondly, they did not deplete inventory.
Meeting a friendly person always improved Otto’s mood, and gave him the courage to keep going on through rough times. Some days he needed all the support he could get.
When Otto knocked on the next door, the resident seemed to stall as long as he could, no doubt waiting to see if the visitor would leave of his own accord. Finally, however, the door opened. The man was large, unshaven, and not happy at all to see Otto.
“Gooood eveningsir!” Otto said. “Howareyou?”
Otto could already tell the man was uninterested, but he had to ask regardless.
“Nope. Sorry. I don’t buy from robots.” The man said plainly, his apology being nothing more than an empty word, most likely spoken unaware.
“But sir, if you’d jussst...” Otto said in as friendly a voice as he could muster.
“I don’t buy from robots.” The resident said, with finality, and closed the door. It wasn’t even slammed, just closed, as if a full slam was more effort than the mechanical vendor was worth.
Otto was left standing at the door step, dejected and embarassed. This sort of treatment, though unfair, was not uncommon.
Despite his hardships, a robot’s lot was not as bad in those days as it had been in years past. He in particular was better off than most of his kind. Even so, rejection hurt him as much as it would a man of flesh and blood.
The fact that sales had been down didn’t help matters. His inventory was beginning to run low and he hadn’t received any supplies in a long time.

As sales continued to escape him, even he--usually so perky--was beginning to lose confidence. But a ray of light came to him at that time, personified by a familiar face.
Lewis was a distance down the road, and walked quickly towards Otto, waving to catch his attention. He too was a salesman; one of the few that had managed to escape the factory work of common machines. The encounter brought Otto some confidence.
“Hey there, Otto!” Lewis said cheerfully as he approached. He was a V twenty-four: Mk2, a newer model of android than Otto, a V twenty-three. The two were of very similar outward appearance, but the improved twenty-four had an upgraded voice card that was more durable than Otto's, which was already damaged.
“Hello Lllllewisss.” Otto said, his mood already beginning to lighten.
“Are you alright Otto? Something seems to be troubling you.” Lewis inquired. “Have sales been down?”
“Twentyyyyy percentanddropping.”
“Aren’t you due for a re-supply?”
“Prrrobably not.” And then, for optimism sake added “Maybe withinthemonth...”
“My sales are up 12.66 percent this month. Maybe you just need a break. I know you work all day.”
“I’m ok-k-k--- ay.” Otto insisted. His argument was unconvincing.
“You really don’t sound too good.” Lewis said to him. “You remember Bart, right?”
“He raaaan like clockwork.”
“Yes.” Lewis agreed. “And no one has heard from him in months. No doubt he wore himself out and short circuited.”
“You don’t, don’t, donnnnn’tknowthat.”
“Listen to you, Otto. You’re about to blow that old voice card of yours yourself. Let’s take some time off. It’ll do you some good.”
Otto agreed to take a break. To Lewis he seemed reluctant, but in fact he welcomed the change from routine. But Otto was a hard worker, and he only allowed himself rests when necessary. Within the hour, he was back to work.

The next day (as gray as usual), as Otto pushed his old cart along, he came across a house that seemed to be illuminated less by lamps or light fixtures than by sparks. He could hear the buzz of power tools inside as he knocked on the door, and waited for the resident to answer. After a second, the sparks stopped and the lights came back on.
The young man who answered was wearing heavy-duty machining gloves and a welding mask, which he raised after opening the door. When he saw Otto, a smile appeared on his oil-smudged face.
“Hey buddy! What’s going on?” He said, clearly a robot enthusiast. When he saw the cart, he added “You selling stuff?”
Otto nodded.
“Well, let’s see whacha got.” To him, the idea of buying mechanical parts from a robot seemed a novel idea.
The machinist stepped out of his house, approached the cart, and scanned Otto’s inventory with child-like enthusiasm. It wasn’t long before he found something that really caught his eye. He pointed to the parts and shouted out to Otto, an excited grin on his face.
“Are these parts to a V twenty-four?”
“Mk2.” Otto specified.
“Wow!” He exclaimed, picking up an arm here, a battery there. “You got like, the whole guy in here!”
“I have parts for the entire model.” Otto confirmed. “Except for the voice card, I’m afraid.”

- THE END -

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The idea behind this story was to start out giving the readers the least information possible, and then allow them to find out more a little bit at a time. First, Otto's just walking along with a cart full of supplies. Then you learn more and more about him as the story progresses. I hope I was able to do so as well as I would have liked.

In contrast to Sun and Mountain, there isn't any specific lesson here. At least, not that I'm aware of. And certainly not one that was a driving focus or motivating factor in it.
If you think there is, then by all means, enlighten me.


As mentioned before, Otto is part of my short story bundle "An Introduction of Sorts", which is available on Kindle and Kindle apps. It's only a dollar, and because of Kindle's hosting fees, I don't get much at all per sale, but it is nice to be able to see how many people cared enough to purchase it.

Again, I hope you enjoyed this story, and I look forward to posting further pieces here in the future.

Until next time!