A Deluge of Nothing

When I still lived at home, I naturally spent most of my time in the basement, far away from human eyes. In order to give the place a personal touch, I put a plethora of video game posters on the walls. For the benefit of my occasional guests, I also installed a crappy, $5 analog clock on the wally by the window. I never checked it because I always wore a digital watch.

The clock tended to be fast by at least 5 minutes (or maybe 15), even a few days after setting it. After a while, the battery started to die, so it got further and further off, until one day, it stopped keeping time altogether. The second hand had started twitching instead of making a complete rotation. It would move from the 43 second mark to the 44 second mark and immediately drop back down, over and over again. I thought it was far more interesting than a regular clock, so I just let it tick endlessly. I called it The Futility Clock.

Right now, I’m having a hard time telling whether or not I’m making progress or just twitching in place. I have a million different potential opportunities, but whenever I take a tentative step in a given direction, nothing changes. When I decided to write the novel, it was because I needed to focus my effort on one thing. Now I have to focus a little on everything to find out what works out and what fails. I’m trying sci-fi conventions, opinion letters, political essays, blog posts, short stories, children’s stories, poems, twitter and facebook updates, reddit discussions, and of course, dozens of emails.

I used to send emails to people all the time. Amazingly enough, they’d reply! My brother and I played correspondence chess via email. I even won a game once. Now, email has become the incarcerated uncle of the internet. It came from a different time and has a lot of flaws, but it’s still part of the family and everyone has to visit it once in a while. I’ve given out a lot of business cards, but I never get any phone calls. I was convinced that I had to be missing some important phone calls, so I exchanged my 4-year-old flip phone for a brand-new flip phone to be sure. It made no difference.

When you start out as a writer, your biggest concern is whether or not you’re good enough. It’s a meaningless concern, because those who lack confidence will always have some doubt, and those who are overconfident will never have any doubt. Ideally, writers should strike a balance: confident enough to sell themselves but modest enough to accept and utilize criticism. I’m always trying to find the balance, and whenever I receive a critical response, I try to make the best of it. I’m always prepared for responses, but at this point, my concerns are less about insecurity and more about ontology. Am I real enough to warrant a response? Do I even exist? Time will tell.

My goal as a writer is to communicate ideas, so nothing is more discouraging than shouting into a silent void. All I get back is a deluge of nothing. How long can my voice hold up? How many different things can I shout? I rarely quote Jesus, but here I go: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and answers the door, I will come in.”

One day, I looked up and saw that The Futility Clock was running normally again. The time was still way off, so I knew no one had changed the battery, but the second hand was going all the way around.

Downfall

(I entered this short story in a competition for DemiCon 25 and it won second place! The other entries are available here.)

Greg was buffing the lobby floor when the new volunteer showed up, 20 minutes early. The volunteer was a small, slight man wearing a 3-piece suit and matching overcoat. He walked with an air of confidence that betrayed his unimposing appearance.

Greg turned off the floor buffer and went to greet him.

“Hello there! My name is Greg; I’m the lead Patient Care Assistant in the long-term care wing.”

“An orderly?”

“Something like that. You must be Mr. Maclaren.”

“Dr. Maclaren. You can call me Paul.”

“Oh, you’re a doctor. What kind?”

“Internal medicine.”

“I see. Well, this is a purely non-medical position, Paul. You’ll just be interacting with the patients on a personal level, one-on-one. The director mentioned that you’re interested in dealing with one resident in particular?”

“Yes, the anonymous patient.”

Greg perked up. “Oh? That’s excellent. He never gets any visitors.” He looked around to see if anyone was watching, even though the lobby was completely empty. “But we’ll have to talk about it first. Let’s go to my office.”

“Lead the way.”

Paul followed Greg into a cramped side office that doubled as a utility closet. Greg shut the door behind them and sat down on the metal folding chair next to the card table that functioned as a desk. Paul sat stiffly on one of the two metal chairs on the opposite side.

Greg cleared his throat and spoke. “The patient you want to work with isn’t actually anonymous. In fact, we know exactly who he is.” He looked around again. When he was satisfied that no one was hiding between the mop and a rack of industrial chemicals, he continued. “It’s Magna Man.”

“The superhero?”

“Yeah. He ended up here after a traumatic brain injury.”

Paul raised an eyebrow. “I thought Magna Man was supposed to be invincible.”

“So did he, until he hit the pavement going Mach 10. Headfirst. After that, his thoughts got a little jumbled.”

“I see.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a long story. It all started with that accident. He landed in the middle of Times Square during a routine battle with some fusion-powered robotic weapon crafted by Professor Whatshisface. You know, the bad guy.”

“Dr. Megalo.”

“Right. Despite his head injury, Magna Man managed to destroy the weapon and fly away.”

“They said on the news that he had finally decided to leave the planet for good.”

“That was a cover-up. A couple of hours after he flew off, some teenagers found him at a nature park in Albany. He was stumbling around and knocking over trees, so they called the police. The army dispatched a helicopter and flew him out to Fort Drum.”

“Did they find out what was wrong with him?”

“No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The doctors didn’t have any way to take tissue samples and none of the medical scans could penetrate his skull. X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasound were all totally useless. No one had any idea what was going on inside his head. The doctors didn’t know what oral medications would work, if any, so they just tried to keep him comfortable and well-fed. Once his condition deteriorated even more, they announced that he had left the planet. Then, after a few more days, he stabilized and began to recover. I guess they don’t call him superhuman for nothing.”

“I take it there were repercussions from the injury?”

“Big time. When he woke up, he was extremely confused and couldn’t even speak. He had lost a lot of his motor coordination and didn’t seem to understand people when they talked to him. No one was sure what to do, and things had gotten dangerous.”

“Because of his super strength?”

“Right. They didn’t have to worry about it when he was unconscious, but once he could move around, he started breaking things and hurting people.”

Greg backtracked when he saw the look on Paul’s face. “I mean, it wasn’t intentional, and none of the injuries were too serious.” He sighed. “Well, one of the nurses became paraplegic, and one of the doctors lost his right arm past the elbow.” He shrugged. “The army knew they needed help, so they tried to calm him down and brought him here in a heavily armored van. We’re used to dealing with traumatic brain injuries, so we made some progress with him. After a few rough weeks, he started to relax and get along. He’s been here for about six months now.”

“How bad is he? Will he ever get back to fighting crime?”

“I doubt it. He’s functioning at a very basic level, but we haven’t seen much evidence of higher brain activity. He still can’t speak. The good news is, he’s fairly docile, and he gets along with the staff and other residents. He also seems to be more aware of his strength, so there haven’t been as many accidents lately.”

“I see. Is he mostly self-sufficient? Can he take care of himself?”

“For the most part. He feeds himself and he’s toilet trained.”

“That’s good to know. I was afraid he might be wearing a diaper or something.”

Greg looked sheepish. “He does wear special undergarments, just in case.” He cleared his throat. “It’s not usually a problem, though.”

“Right. So what does he do with his time?”

“The staff conducts several activities with the residents: arts and crafts, stories, group meals, and special events. He watches a lot of TV.”

“I can imagine.”

“Anyway, I’m really glad you’re here. All the other patients have friends and families who visit, but obviously, Joe doesn’t. We only call him ‘Joe’ because it’s one syllable and he responds to it. We’re not sure who he really was. After all, his identity was a secret, and nobody ever came looking for him.”

“That doesn’t give you many options for eventually releasing him.”

“Yeah. As far as we know, we’re taking care of him indefinitely. The army decided to pay him a monthly stipend for services rendered, and we put that towards his expenses. We write off the rest as a charitable donation.” Greg stood up. “I guess that’s everything you need to know. Are you still willing to work with him?”

Paul got up and nodded. “I think it will be an eye-opening experience.”

“Good! I’ll introduce you. You can take this chance to get to know one another, and if you’re willing to keep working with him, we can arrange for regular visits.”

Greg led the way out of the office closet and walked down to an open door at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door frame and went in. Paul followed him inside.

Joe’s room was spacious but spartan. He had a small bed, a coffee table, two easy chairs, and a wide-screen plasma television. The other walls were adorned with a few poorly colored drawing pages and several large holes in the drywall.

Joe was sitting in one of the chairs. The media always said Magna Man was 6’5” and weighed more than 300 pounds, but in person, he seemed even bigger. Despite his size, he wasn’t at all intimidating, in part due to his vacant smile and the plaid flannel pajamas he wore.

Greg turned off the TV and said, “Good afternoon, Joe,” speaking slowly and distinctly.

Joe looked at him and smiled.

“This is Paul,” Greg continued. “He’s going to be coming by once in a while to hang out with you.” He turned to Paul. “I don’t want him to get too overwhelmed, so I’m going to leave you two alone for a bit. Are you comfortable with that?”

“I’ll be fine,” Paul said.

As Greg walked out, he said, “I promise that you’ll be perfectly safe, but I’ll be waiting in the lobby if you need me.”

Paul made sure he was gone, then sat on the easy chair across from Joe.

“Hey there, Max,” he said. “I suppose I should call you Joe, since that’s what they’re doing. You probably don’t remember me, but my name is Dr. Megalo.” He looked around. “I’ve known you were in here for a couple of months now.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think when I found out. When I first heard you had left the planet, I considered it a victory. Humans would be free to act however we liked without you pushing your morality on us.” He sighed. “The problem was, it didn’t fit the profile. You’d never abandoned anything before, especially not after such a minor scuffle. I had to be sure, so I looked into it. Once I realized the military was involved, I started searching their records. Oddly enough, it was a so-called ‘accounting error’ that led me to this facility. And here you are.”

Joe had stopped trying to listen and started staring off toward the door.

Paul stood up and looked back to make sure no one was there, then took a flashlight out of his coat. “You know, I never understood how you wore a costume without any pockets,” he said. “Now, let’s have a look at you.”

He walked over and shined the light into each of Joe’s eyes. “Irregular pupillary response,” he said. “Unequal pupil size.” He snapped his fingers on either side of Joe’s head. “Left ear less responsive. Could be tinnitus.” He held up his index finger. “Can you touch my finger?” Joe reached for his finger and missed, then tried again and touched it. “Good. Can you touch your nose?” Joe managed to touch his nose on the third try. “Good. I certainly don’t want to test your strength or reflexes, but your muscle tone looks good.”

Paul sat back down. “Well, a human with your symptoms would likely have suffered from severe cerebral hypoxia or a cerebral hemorrhage, probably both.” He shook his head. “Even though you look completely human, your physiology still baffles me.”

Joe nodded politely, but clearly didn’t understand.

“You might be surprised to find out that I collected samples of all your bodily fluids last year. Saliva, mucus, tears, urine, feces, earwax. Even semen.” He chuckled. “That was an interesting mission.”

Joe smiled at the laughter.

“I thought those tissue samples would help me understand you, but they were useless. Your DNA is completely alien. I had nothing to compare it with. I could have asked for help, but it would have taken a team of scientists years to figure it all out, and I had to work alone, for obvious reasons. Everyone thought you were invincible, but it turns out an indestructible brain can be damaged by bouncing around in an indestructible skull. I wish I could take credit, but it was a complete accident.”

Paul stood up and took a few more items out of his pockets, including an oxygen mask, a plastic hose, and a small gas canister. Joe watched, transfixed.

“No, my plan was a bit more sophisticated,” Paul said. “It hit me after I thought about all the times I saw you catching your breath after one of my machines struck you. You might have been impossible to hurt, but you gasped for air just like any human would. I was still trying to figure out the details when you had your little accident.”

Paul attached the plastic hose to the mask and the gas canister.

“This is argon gas, Joe. It’s completely odorless and tasteless, but it’s heavier than air, so it will sink into whatever your body uses for breathing and displace all the oxygen. You won’t notice anything; you’ll just fall unconscious and asphyxiate. You probably would have objected to this in the old days, but now I doubt you’ll have anything to say. Besides, it’ll put you out of your misery.”

He finished securing the hose and took a second oxygen mask out of his coat.

“If you’re nervous about the mask, I brought an extra one for me. It won’t have any argon, but at least you won’t be alone.”

He put on his own mask first, then Joe’s. Joe smiled at the game they seemed to be playing. Paul reached for the canister of argon, but before he could pick it up, Joe took a tiny silver robot out of his shirt pocket and handed it over. Paul looked at the toy and froze.

“This is the Violator Mark II.” He looked at Joe, who was still smiling beneath the mask. “They make toys based on my machines?”

He sat back down and took his mask off. Joe mirrored his actions, taking off his own mask.

“They think it’s just a game,” Paul said. “They must think I’m some kind of cartoon character.” He held up the robot. “This machine took nine months to construct. The original version took six months.” He shook his head. “You destroyed it in 25 seconds.” He sighed. “This one was just supposed to subdue you. I only decided to kill you after you threw a school bus at it. There were kids in that bus, Max.”

Paul dropped the toy on the ground. Joe frowned.

“I suppose if the toy companies knew what I looked like, they’d make a little version of me, wearing a cape, rubbing my hands, and twirling a handlebar mustache.” Paul stood up and started putting the equipment back in his coat pockets. “I don’t need to kill you, Joe. I already put you in here.”

He started to walk out, but Joe picked up the toy and stumbled across the room after him. Paul turned back. Joe handed him the toy with a concerned look on his face. Paul sighed and put the toy in his coat pocket. Joe smiled broadly and grabbed him in a bear hug, managing not to use too much of his superhuman strength. After he let go, he walked over to the TV, turned it on, and sat down. He waved goodbye as Paul left.

Paul tried to get out of the lobby as quickly as possible, but Greg noticed him anyway. He stopped buffing the floors and walked over.

“What did you think?” Greg said. “Are you going to come back?”

Paul looked at him. “I think so,” he said, “but I’m not ready just yet.”

“I understand. Call us again if you change your mind.”

Paul nodded and walked out. Greg turned on the floor buffer yet again and whistled Magna Man’s theme song as he worked.

Fatherhood

(I entered this poem in a competition at WillyCon 2014 and it won second place! The other entries are listed here.)

 

Fatherhood

At approximately 7:20 PM

January 7, 2014,

my wife’s uterus unleashed

a monstrous abomination.

 

The creature made a sound

like a caged orangutan

and refused to stop,

even when I severed its lifeline.

 

It had become self-sufficient,

but still couldn’t position

its absurdly large head

without assistance.

 

Against my better judgement,

I allowed it into my home,

where it continues to plague

my entire existence.

 

At erratic intervals it craves

an alarming viscous fluid

that secretes from my wife’s breasts

throughout the day.

 

Its feces accumulate

in a bag around its waist

and must be discarded

or it never stops wailing.

 

Unless I manage to find

an appropriate means of escape,

I may be in real danger.

It keeps getting bigger.

Sisyphus and Tantalus

(I wrote these short stories as an assignment for a Classical Mythology course. We were supposed to write our own versions of two Greek myths.)

Sisyphus

I know. You want to ask the obvious question. “Why does that huge rock have to be at the top of the hill?” I understand it. It’s a significant question. I’m a bit tired of thinking about it. It doesn’t really matter. I want it up there. I don’t think about whys and wherefores.

It starts in my gut. Almost like a hook, pulling me forward. I have a primal desire to push it. I want the rock at the top of the hill more than anything else. You could offer me anything and I’d turn it down so I could push the rock. As a matter of experiment, I did try once to fight that urge. It goes from the stomach to the heart and the head. It even becomes sexual in a way. All of my being wants to work, to push the rock. There is nothing else in all of existence. I don’t look around anyway. Just at the rock. And the god damned hill.

So I start pushing. It should feel good, fulfilling that desire. The primal need to push. I always think it might just feel good. Just a bit. It never does. It starts to hurt almost immediately. Right in the gut, just like that urge. Strain. Stress. Difficulty. Push, push, push. It does start moving up the hill. Breaking the inertia is the most important step. Of course, it doesn’t get any easier, just more kinetic.

Once I’m on a roll, I can really get started. I can satisfy my fundamental need to work hard. I have to take pride in something, after all. I sweat the whole time, dripping. All over my arms, torso, legs, the ground. Everywhere. Push, push, push. I think the hill is set up just to keep me from gaining any momentum. I get it going, but I can never let up. If I do, it might end up at the bottom of the hill. Far from where I want it to be. I need it at the top.

It goes and goes, up the hill. I work and work, up the hill. I don’t really know how far it is. It takes a while, though. A long time. I keep pushing.

I do get close to the top. I mean, I work at it. I take it seriously. It gets close. Really close. I don’t know why it can’t go any farther. I mean, there’s some reason, I’m sure. Just like me being here. There’s a reason. I don’t really think about it, though.

I was a king once. I still have a crown. On my head, I mean. I had everything. Wealth, a beautiful wife, banquets, children. Occasionally I had famous, wealthy, powerful guests. I killed them. It was never out in the open. I made it look like an accident. I was very clever. The cleverest. Now I don’t think much. Just in bursts. It’s a push. Just like everything. Like the rock. The rock. The rock.

I’m getting close now. Pushing. It’s so close I can smell it. Imagine. A rock on top of a great hill. A pillar of strength. A testament to hard work. A rock. On a hill. It’s so close.

I remember killing my father. It was just a push, really. Off of a tall tower. Mine. I had many high places in my palace. This was the highest. He was very old. Useless, really. I talked him in to going up there. It was supposed to be a serious talk. A heart-to-heart. I didn’t say much before I killed him. I sat him down. Said whatever he needed to hear. Got close. Pushed. He went right over.

The rock starts to slip. My strength is failing. It always does at this point. Right at the top, I mean. Close. Not close enough. I fall over. Collapse on the hill, panting and gasping for air. The rock starts to roll. I know better than to try and stop it. It moves too fast. I can see it rolling. I’m crushed. My goal, gone. My satisfaction, gone. I never get it there. I want to so badly.

It hurts just like the first time. I see it rolling, rolling. I don’t get any rest, though. I try to relax, but I have to watch. I can’t look away. As soon as it gets to the bottom, it stops. On a dime. I look for just a second. Then I’m there. With the rock. I try to take a deep breath, if I can. I usually can’t. Then I feel something in my gut. And I look at the rock. And I start pushing.

Tantalus

I never really liked root beer. Now I think about it all the time. The glass mug in front of me is a perfect example of the root beer ideal. It has never stopped bubbling in all the years I have seen it. It has a perfect head of foam and looks perfectly chilled. The glass has white frost all over it.

Like I said, I really don’t care for root beer that much. I mean, I drank it from time to time, but I never made a big deal out of it. I don’t know who chose root beer for me. It sits on a table at eye level. I really don’t look at the table very often, though.

I’m tied up, of course. Chains. They’re pretty strong, but I don’t notice them most of the time. A small blessing. It’s just to keep me from moving. I gave up on that a long time ago, anyway. See, if the chains don’t loosen and the chair doesn’t even scrape along the ground, why should I even try except for my own amusement?

Root beer, mug, table, chains, a chair, and me. Everything else is just white. I mean, there’s nothing to look at. My head is pointed right at the mug and there’s really no moving it. Closing my eyes does nothing; I still see exactly the same thing. Just root beer. Still bubbling.

If anyone ever tells you there’s a limit to how thirsty you can get, he’s lying. I thought for years that I would plateau, that my need for some kind of food or drink would just taper off. How long can you go without, anyway?

My throat just gets worse and worse. I cough up blood every now and then, but it doesn’t really affect me much after I get it out. Between pain, thirst, hunger, and no sleep, I can see why they call this torment.

Of course, the best food I ever ate was from the king’s banquet. I only dined there a few times, but it was wonderful. I think. I really can’t remember anymore. I wanted to take something for my daughter. I knew she never got to eat anything special. I know it was a chocolate treat of some kind…I can’t remember what it looked like. I really can’t remember any of it.

But I wasn’t supposed to do that. The king was very upset with me. He knew exactly what to do, I suppose. He’s done a lot of things like this before. A lot. I can’t even remember if Sasha got the treat I stole for her. I really hope so. Otherwise, why am I here? Why did it matter so much? Who cares so much about food and drink? I don’t care at all about them anymore.

But I would love to drink some root beer.

My Bonfire of Vanity Publishing

Now that my self-published book has been out for nearly a month, I might as well explain the process to my literally dozens of readers.

First of all, I didn’t spend a whole lot of money to publish the book. I’m not that vain. I did the editing and formatting myself with input from people who read the book in advance. I bought a custom ISBN for $10 and commissioned a digital painting for the cover for $500. Besides those upfront costs, the process was free. I bought a physical proof copy to verify the layout, and if I want to buy copies for myself, I can purchase them at a discount. The copies that other people buy are printed on demand at no cost to me.

Between my extremely meticulous (some might say nitpicky) formatting and the professional cover, I think the book looks legitimate. If you saw it in a store, you wouldn’t know it was self-published unless you knew what to look for. The e-book was free to publish as well, but the format is a little bit different. The two versions are connected on amazon.com, which makes it easier to consolidate reviews and offer combo deals, etc.

I’ve criticized self-published authors in the past and those criticisms aren’t without merit. If you want your book to be taken seriously, you have to be confident and professional, no matter what. For authors who intend to self-publish, I’d offer this advice: get an editor. Nothing makes you look less professional than poorly-edited, poorly-formatted text. It always looks bad. I’m a professional copy editor who once earned no less than $25 a day to do that job. As for my book, there is one minor typo on the first page and there are a least a couple of others throughout the book. I obviously left those in to keep myself humble.

The distribution process for my book is still ongoing, but I’m hoping to get it stocked in local bookstores. The KU Audio-Reader program is going to broadcast an audio recording of my book to visually-impaired listeners in the Midwest. I’m trying to establish a presence online and at some upcoming science-fiction conventions. I’m trying to meet and connect with people, and I hope that the more I get connected, the more copies of my book I’ll sell.

In the meantime, I’m going back to work writing future projects. I’m currently working on an illustrated children’s book, a few short stories for competitions, and another novel called The Remnants. I’ll keep posting updates and links as I work on things.

Shackles

(This is a 440-word short story I wrote as an exercise. It had to be about a woman who rents a house and finds something in the closet.)

Mark was unpacking bedsheets when Debbie emerged from the bedroom closet with a puzzled look on her face.

“You’ll never guess what I found in there,” she said.

“You’re right, I won’t,” he said. “What did you find?”

“Come see for yourself.”

He stood up and followed her into the closet. She pointed to a steel plate that had been bolted into the drywall behind a clothes rack. There were two solid steel chains hanging from the plate. At the end of each chain was a steel wrist shackle.

“Did you notice these when we toured the house?” she said.

“No. You really can’t see them from outside the closet. I guess we didn’t spend much time looking around in here.”

He examined the shackles up close. They were sturdy and well-maintained. The entire construction was solid and all the metal had been polished to a mirror shine. The whole thing could easily have held 500 pounds without budging.

“Do you think someone actually used these things?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, casually tugging on one of the chains. “This is a lot of work to put into something you aren’t going to use.”

“So it must have been a kink, right? Like, a sex thing?”

“I doubt it. These shackles are solid steel. They would be extremely uncomfortable, and besides, you wouldn’t need something this strong just for kinky sex.” He shook his head. “No, I think someone was locked up in here.”

She stared at him. “You think someone was stuck in this closet against their will?”

He shrugged. “I can’t imagine any other reason to have shackles like these.”

“Wow.” She looked back at the shackles. “You know, we don’t know anything about the guy who lived here before us. Who knows how long he could have had someone trapped in here?”

“It might not even have been him. There are plenty of sick people out there, and dozens of residents lived here before he did. These shackles could have been here for years. Maybe everyone just ignored them.”

“It’s possible,” she said. “Anyway, I’m going to go call the landlord. I’m not comfortable living in this place, and there’s no telling what else we might find around here. After that, we should call the police. This might help them with an ongoing investigation.”

Before Debbie could leave the closet, Mark grabbed her in a stranglehold and lifted her off the ground. She struggled for a few seconds, then fell unconscious. He dragged her back inside and sat her against the wall.

“This is awesome,” he muttered to himself. “Now I don’t have to buy any shackles.”

The Witness

(I wrote this short story and presented it to a critique group in Lawrence. This is a revised version based on the feedback I got.)

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:15. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

After the door swung shut behind him, the ward stayed completely silent. The patients never made much noise, but the on-call nurse was gone. He looked in a couple of rooms, and all he heard was the sound of the life-support machines.

Abby’s room was the farthest from the desk. Now that she had spent 3 weeks in the coma ward, Jeremy had settled into a routine of making short visits in the morning. Abby would never have wanted him to spend days on end watching her sleep, and the longer he watched, the more it hurt. It was much easier to look at her surroundings instead.

When he entered the room, he noticed all of the familiar faces: the IV drip, the uncomfortable chair, the heart monitor, and the miscolored floor tile that ruined the pattern. He looked at Abby’s face last.

She looked young, and not just because she had lost so much weight. Her mouth was holding back a smile like she was trying to keep a secret. When her eyes weren’t taped shut, she seemed paralyzed with naive wonder. Right now, her secret was whether or not she would ever wake up.

Instead of starting his usual cleaning routine, he stared at her. He wanted to refill the already-full jug of water, open the blinds, and throw away the wilted flowers. For some reason, he just continued to stare.

“This isn’t right,” he said to himself.

He thought about the time they had visited her mother in a similar hospital room. She had always been a quiet woman, but her brain tumor made her talk constantly. She mostly talked about her dreams. When she was asleep, she got to be a normal person in a bizarre world, instead of being an insane person in a perfectly ordinary world. As soon as she started rambling, Abby would get flustered and start to cry. Jeremy really listened. Whenever he wanted to know how the story ended, Abby’s mother would inevitably get confused and stop.

So he had to end the stories himself. It was never quite as satisfying.

The best dream was about her marriage to Satan. She spent most of the time explaining the black roses, the blood-red cake, and the snake-shaped wedding ring. She wondered why the father of the groom had even shown up, because he clearly didn’t fit in with Satan’s other guests. Eventually, she talked about her vows, which she had written herself. They mostly involved forgiveness and understanding, but she could not think of a single reason to say “I do.”

Abby interrupted. “Are you saying Dad is like Satan? You are so happy together. You love each other!” She ran from the room, and her distracted mother started talking about the difference between drupes and berries. Abby’s father went after her. Jeremy was lost in his own thoughts.

He finally realized what had happened when he heard them arguing from the hallway.

“Daddy, I don’t want to see this anymore. Why can’t it just be over?”

“I never wanted to put you through this, Abigail. Your mother is already gone. The woman in there is all that’s left. Even though she looks and sounds the same, there’s nobody home. ”

She sighed. “It just gets harder and harder. I want to keep the good memories without adding all of these terrible ones.”

Before Jeremy could hear anything else, his mother-in-law shouted what she thought was his name. “Jeffrey! Come here!” He walked to the side of bed. She leaned over to him, and with a puzzled look, she said, “which one of them caught the bouquet?”

Before they left, he told Abby that he thought her mother might have stayed married to Satan. She refused to speak to him for the rest of the day. Her version must have ended differently.

His mother-in-law died the next day. Abby and her father were very relieved, but Jeremy thought that interacting with a crazy person hurt less than losing one. On the other hand, Abby finally started talking to him again.

Now she might be silent forever. Visiting Abby was more difficult than visiting her mother, and the silence was so much worse. Abby had always known how much he loved to talk with her. Whenever she was angry, she would sit silently as his pressured speech got more and more desperate for a response. Eventually, he would storm out of the room. He could always hear her sigh when he finally walked away.

She was much more beautiful when she spoke. She could be silly or sexy, angry or comforting, passionate or perfectly reasonable. She only had one kind of silence.

He took out a vial from his jacket pocket. He couldn’t remember where it had come from. He looked at the label, which read “potassium chloride for injection.” He got the syringe from his other pocket and watched as he started to draw the poison from the vial. “This shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

He walked toward the side of the bed and traced the IV line from the pole to her wrist. “I would never do this,” he told himself. His hand seemed to move on its own as he slid the needle into the hose and pushed the plunger.

After he watched the poison go in, he tried to think of a way to save her, but he remained immobile as the cardiac monitor slowed and ultimately flatlined. She didn’t move once.

He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He wanted to touch her, but all he could do was watch. His body mechanically turned away to go get help.

In the doorway, he saw the stoic face of his father-in-law.

“Just look what you did to my Abigail,” he said. He calmly walked toward her body. “You killed her.” He sighed.

“No.” Jeremy mumbled. “I didn’t do this. You were the one who poisoned her. I saw you do it.”

As he tried to move toward the bed, his heart began to race. He thought about holding his wife, and started seeing bursts of light. Just before he could finally move, he was overwhelmed with light, and in a flash, the world vanished around him.

Jeremy was left standing in an empty white room, completely paralyzed. His father-in-law was pacing nearby. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “You’re still attached to the idea that I killed my own daughter.”

“Because it’s the truth.”

“No. It’s a memory. Whether or not it’s true is beside the point. Now you have a new memory. It’s perfectly reasonable, and eventually, you’ll see for yourself that it’s better for everyone.”

“How did you get me to do this?”

“I’m running an important investigation. It’s my job to make sure we get extremely accurate testimony from murderers like you. Every time you relive this memory, we can extract more and more detail.”

“I know this isn’t what really happened. I’m absolutely sure of it.”

“Are you? Well, next time you’ll be a little less sure. After you kill her a few hundred times more, you’ll doubt the veracity of that one little old memory. Maybe you’ll even start to feel some guilt.”

“Why did they let you do this to me?”

“I insisted! No one knows this technology as well as I do, and I owe it to Abigail to determine the truth. When I found her, I was devastated. Naturally there was some confusion about which of us arrived first. However, my version of events was much more realistic. Once you see that, you’ll be able to corroborate my story in court.”

“I’ll never do that. I loved her. Don’t you understand? She would have gotten better eventually. She was improving!”

“She was breathing. Now she isn’t.”

Before Jeremy could respond, his body finally unfroze. His muscles relaxed and he fell to the ground. Before he slipped unconscious, he saw a faint smile on his father-in-law’s face.

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:16. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

Last Gasp

(This is a 750-word short story I wrote as an exercise. The first sentence had to be: “I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes.”)

I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes, so my timing would have to be perfect. First I’d collapse on the floor loud enough for the guard to hear, then I’d hold perfectly still. When the prison doctor showed up, I needed to seem completely lifeless, so for the last six months, I’d practiced slowing my heart rate down to less than 40 beats per minute.

The doctor was notoriously squeamish about dead bodies, so he only did the bare minimum to verify a prisoner’s death. He’d just lightly touch their wrist to check their pulse and hold a compact mirror near their face to see if it fogged up. After a minute or so, he’d scurry off to fill out the paperwork. I heard he even threw up once.

Once the doctor signed my death certificate, the guard would toss my body on a gurney and move me to the morgue. After that, my buddy in the morgue had it all planned out. As soon as I got carted in, he’d arrange for a hearse to come and pick me up.

“I laughed at my cousin when he bought a used hearse,” he said. “Now we’re both laughing all the way to the bank.”

My wife paid him off with the last six thousand bucks in our savings account. He and his cousin insisted on getting the entire payment in advance.

“Escaped prisoners aren’t exactly trustworthy,” he said.

The plan was ambitious and a bit dangerous, but it would be worth it in the end. A death certificate meant a blank slate, and after all, what was the penalty if I got caught? Another consecutive life sentence? A bit less stew in the chow line? There was no harm in trying.

I woke up early on a Monday morning and took a dump. I pulled up my pants when I finished, but instead of flushing, I just turned on the sink and dropped to the floor, making as much noise as possible. The guard walked over, banged on the bars and shouted my name, but I kept my eyes closed and stayed silent. After a few seconds, he called for the doctor.

During a medical crisis, the guards weren’t allowed to open the cell or touch the inmate until the doctor showed up. While the guard watched, I took shallow breaths and focused on lowering my heart rate. After another couple of minutes, the doctor arrived.

“Mornin’, Doc,” the guard said as he unlocked the cell door.

“Good morning,” the doctor said. He sounded tired and a bit nervous. “Was the inmate like this when you arrived?”

“Yeah, he hasn’t budged.” They crowded into my cell. “Looks like he just took a shit.”

“I imagine he did. You’d be surprised how easily the heart can give out.”

I took one last shallow breath before the guard kicked me face up. The doctor knelt down by my side, took out his mirror and held it in front of my face. He touched my wrist but didn’t press down. I could feel him staring even though my eyes were closed.

I tried to count the seconds but kept getting distracted by the guard’s whistling. I figured about a minute had gone by when the doctor removed his hand. He was still holding the mirror in place, so I kept my heart rate down, just to be safe.

After another 45 seconds, my lungs were burning, but the doctor wouldn’t move the damned mirror. I couldn’t tell why he was taking so long until I realized he was panting for breath himself.

“Doc, are you okay?” the guard said. “You look a little pale.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry, I just, um, thought of something I need to take care of in the office.”

I was starting to see spots when the doctor finally took away the mirror, stood up, and said, “He’s as dead as a doornail.” He sounded queasy, but didn’t retch.

“Alright, Doc, I’ll call the morgue crew to come get him.”

The doctor left. I was relieved, but for some reason, I couldn’t start breathing again. My lungs were frozen, my chest felt tight, and my heart began to flutter. Panic set in. I needed to let the doctor know I was still alive, but I couldn’t even move.

The second before I blacked out, the doctor walked back in and whispered to the guard, “Make sure you break his neck, just in case.”

“I always do, Doc.”

The Button

Today marks the 5-year anniversary of my most serious suicide attempt. On February 1, 2009, I poisoned myself with hydrogen cyanide gas. I don’t have much to say about it that I haven’t already said, but I will mention a few things to commemorate the occasion.

First of all, I’m not depressed anymore. Many of the persistent problems I thought would never end have finally ended.

One benefit of not being depressed is my ability to handle day-to-day problems without getting overwhelmed.For me, it takes time to process anything emotional. It’s sort of like bailing water out of a canoe. After a certain amount of time, you can get it all out. If there’s a little water, it won’t take long. If there’s a lot of water, it can take a while.

Depression is like having a hole in the canoe. Until you fix the hole, bailing out water will never stop you from sinking, no matter how much time you spend on it. In other words, in the absence of depression, my emotional problems are surmountable.

Second, I no longer want to die. Oddly enough, this is distinct from depression. There are depressed people who want to live, and there are non-depressed people who want to die. One of the many things I said when I was first committed to a mental institution was this: “Not having a reason to die isn’t the same as having a reason to live.”

It’s hard to explain suicide to people who aren’t suicidal, but I usually start by describing “the button.” The button is instant, painless death. Furthermore, it guarantees that all the people who rely on you will be okay. When you push the button, all of your problems immediately die with you.

Some people would push the button no matter what. I was one of them. Some people would push the button on bad days and leave it alone on good days. Most people only have a few overwhelming moments when they might push the button. Some people would never push the button.

The hardest part of my recovery was getting past the point where I was just “okay” to a point where I wouldn’t push the button. I was rarely “suicidal enough” to develop and execute a true plan, but between ages 11 and 23, I would have pushed the button. I just didn’t have a reason to live.

Finally, I learned from the experience. When I was depressed, I thought improvement meant that I had to become a different person. Once I was no longer depressed, I realized that improvement meant becoming the person I had started out as. I wasn’t starting on a new road, but the same one I had been on before depression forced me to detour.

Having said that, a detour that lasted half my life (so far) definitely had an effect. I’m not afraid of death anymore. I’m more cynical than I used to be. I’m more aware of my bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder. I learned the art of getting by and the true meaning of the word “subsist.” I lost a lot of memories from 2009 and 2010. Are those all negative things? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Depression is a part of my life I can never forget. I have to use it.

February 1, 2009 was Super Bowl Sunday. When I was at the hospital, everyone asked if there was a reason I chose that day. I told them it was a coincidence. It happened to be the weekend after I had gotten all my supplies together, but there was one other thing. Super Bowl Sunday is a meaningless, obligation-free holiday. There is no pressure to get organized or take things seriously. You just try to have fun.

Most of the people I knew didn’t have any fun that day. Now that five years have passed, I hope it will be better for everyone. There’s no need to worry about me.