Snippet: Another of THOSE Moments…

I’ve written more than once about that one moment.  That moment in the story when the hero makes an irrevocable choice. That moment when the reader screams at the hero to do the opposite of what he actually does. That (final) moment when all of the shit can be averted. That moment when the writer either ratchets up the tension, or gives up on the story entirely.

A brief warning for those readers I’ve gained since I last wrote about these two: Connor and Oz are the protagonists of my sci-fi stories. Everything I create in my sci-fi universe comes through their lens. Beyond that, however — way, way beyond that — Oz is, of all the characters I’ve ever created in any story, far-and-away my favorite.  Connor is fun, but Oz is…well…important to me…

Anyway, that one moment for Connor:

Connor entered The Beat and paused a moment to let the music wash over him.  It was a recording this time.  An old one, from when Vin and Marie were young and stupid, as Marie had once put it.  Oz was at one of the tables, a strange look on his face.

Great, something was wrong.  Connor didn’t want something wrong.  Connor didn’t need something wrong.  He needed everything to be perfect.  Things had gone well with Nat so far, but failure was still a very real possibility and he didn’t think he would like the consequences of that.  His last shift working cargo had shown him just how strong were the demons of his past, and he knew the only way to quiet them was to win the revenge he sought.

A wave for Oz, then, and a grin, and Connor stepped over to greet Marie at the bar.  He leaned across the bar and answered her hello with a kiss on the cheek and a smile.

She looked at Fadi, at the end of the bar, and said with mock-severity, “You see what I have to put up with?  These ikiryo always want to take advantage of me.”  Then, to Connor, “Oz already ordered lunch for you two.  He’s worried about something, but he won’t say what.”

Connor nodded.  “Thanks, Marie.”  He turned to Fadi and held his hand out.  Their shake was brief but strong.  “Thanks again, Captain.  Miko’s givin’ me more jobs, and I owe you.  You doin’ another cargo run soon?”

“I leave tonight.  Be back in a week or so.  You did good last time, so I told your boss he’d get the work again,” Fadi answered with a nod.

Connor’s large smile held genuine gratitude and warmth, a rarity with a stranger.  “That’s all I can ask.  Thanks again, boss.”

Marie had put a bottle on the counter and Connor took it with him when he stepped over to take the seat across from Oz.  He poured a drink for each of them, then said, “Glad you had some time, bozu.  Been a couple days since we talked much.”

Oz’s smile held all of the warmth they shared, but also a touch of stress, and of worry.  “Between the docks and the girl, you’ve been going pretty steady for the last few days.  How’re things?”

Connor gave a little shrug.  “With Nat?  Good.  She sends a message or screens me a couple times a day.  I’d say she’s pretty well hooked.”

“How about work?  Both kinds of work, I mean.”

There was definitely something on Oz’s mind.  His expression, his eyes, his words…they all said he was dancing around something he wasn’t sure how to approach.  Connor’s feeling of wrongness grew stronger.  He considered his words for a moment before he answered.  “I haven’t boosted a damn thing, and I’ve let every fuckin’ kamo slide past.  Been a good little angel, just like we talked about.”

Oz’s stare was penetrating, but there was a touch of fear deep in his dark eyes.  “Spog…Miko screened me.  He’s kinda worried about you.  Said you’re pretty wound up at work, that you’re distracted and out of it.  I guess Moran talked to him, checking on you.  Miko likes you, so he just shined the aho on, but he was worried.  So, tell me again, how’s work?”

Connor took a long a drink, picked at his rice for a few moments.  He looked up finally and said, “It’s fine, bozu.  Why would anything be wrong?  Nat is reacting just like we talked about, and the mappo and jaao por ain’t fuckin’ with me, so what could be wrong?”

Shit, the last thing Connor needed was Oz getting worried about him.  Everything was under control.  Nat was coming tonight — that thought brought a gulp and a surge of stress — and he didn’t have time for this.

Oz shook his head.  “You haven’t had a real night’s sleep in a week, and you look like it.  Spog…Connor…you talk in your sleep.  You always have.  I know you’re dreaming about your dad again, and about the Riot.”  He reached out and touched Connor’s hand…gently, slowly, almost hesitantly.  “Tell me about it.”

Connor looked away, considered the question.  In all their years of friendship, only three subjects had been off limits, never to be discussed.  His dad’s death was one of those.  He didn’t want to talk about it.  Hell, he didn’t want to even think about it.  The past was gone, why dredge it back up?

Bozu…I’ve got it, I’m fine.  It’s just stress.  I’ve got Nat coming tonight, and I’m gonna break it to her that I’m not Devon.  That’s got me imagining all kinds of kuso, but everything’s okay.  Donmai, Oz.”

“Bullshit.  For four years you’ve buried it away, but it’s still there.  The anger and the guilt.  It’s all coming back again, isn’t it?”

Oz’s stare was direct and knowing.  Far too knowing.  Connor couldn’t look away from his friend, couldn’t find a place to hide from that stare.  Why did it all have to crash down now?  First the dreams…then the memories…and now Oz was at him, too?  Shit.

Oz continued, pressed harder.  “Spog, I’ve never had a goddamned family.  You know that better than anyone.  You’re it, you’re all I have.  I can’t watch you tear yourself up like this.  I want to help, and I have an idea.”

Connor’s tongue was firmly tied.  He finally tore his eyes away from Oz’s, managed to look down at his lunch.  A drink, then, and more picking at food that tasted like ashes.  His gaze was locked firmly on his lunch when he answered.  “Help?  How?  I don’t have time for this, bozu.  I’m okay.  We’re better off talkin’ about this date than some fuckin’ dreams that don’t mean shit.  I gotta get ready for tonight.”

“You’re not okay.  You’re not even close.  You’ve boxed it all away, Connor, but you have to deal with it.  I know it’s weird for me to say something like this, but you can’t just bury all this shit.  Let’s go to the Memorial.  In four years, you’ve never been, and I think it will help.  You’re dad’s dead, Spog.  You told me about it that first night, but haven’t said a word since.”  Again he touched Connor’s hand, gripped it this time.  “Let’s go, right now…please.”

The Memorial…the one place Dockside had given itself to mourn the dead.  The Riot had bred grief and pain, but Docksiders seldom gave in to such emotions.  Resentment and rage were no problem, but seldom were there tears.

Oz was right, Connor had never been to the Memorial.  He’d never wanted to wake the oh-so-carefully-buried demons.  In the end, he’d always been too afraid, even if he would never admit that.

Shit, life had been so much simpler when Connor had just been scamming takies so he could eat that night.  When did things get so complicated?  Was Oz right?  Would it help?  Maybe…but the last thing Connor needed was the emotional shitstorm the Memorial would bring.  He just didn’t have the time.

He was shaking his head before the words were ready.  “I can’t, bozu.  Even if I wanted to, I can’t.  Not now.  I really do have to get ready for tonight.  Nat’s coming, and I need to make sure everything goes perfect.”

With Nat, he knew what he was doing.  With Nat, he was in control.  Connor very badly needed to be in control just then.

Oz’s expression didn’t change, but Connor knew his friend.  Yet another thing Oz had been right about: they were each other’s only family.  Each, without the other, was alone…and alone was worse.

There was hurt in Oz’s eyes, hurt Connor wasn’t prepared to deal with.  No change in his voice, no change in his face, but Oz’s eyes held all of the secret emotions that were another of those things they didn’t talk about.

Shit, this was not what Connor needed.  Oz was breaking the rules.  For four years they had lived in balance.  Friendship and brotherhood, a unique kind of love, even, if one that meant something different to each.  Why change now?  What was going on?

A moment of that stare, then Oz found his own drink fascinating.  He swirled his glass with all the focus of someone disarming a bomb.  “Spog, at least talk to me about it.  It’s getting to you, and everyone can see it.  Even Marie sees it…why do you think she set up that cargo job for you?”  He looked up, then, appeal in his eyes.  “We can reschedule that date.  It’s probably better to string her along, anyway.  Make sure she’s well and truly hooked.  Let’s go get wasted.”

Hottoku, Oz.  Enough,” Connor said.  He didn’t have time for this.  “Some other time, not today.”  He reached out, touched Oz’s arm.  It was stiff, the muscles locked, but nothing showed on that thin, handsome face.  “I appreciate it, bozu, I really do.  Just…not now, huh?  I got too much to do.”

Why was Oz suddenly so fragile?  That shook Connor.  It was Oz who was the strong one.  Oz who kept him going when things got to be too much.  If Oz broke down, Connor didn’t know what he would do.  Probably be right back at the edge of death…just like the day they met.

Connor had an image, then, of being cold and alone, of death’s footsteps echoing on the deck.  He shuddered and almost changed his mind, but the moment passed.  He had to get ready.

He stood and put a hand on Oz’s shoulder, squeezed gently.  His voice was quiet, “We’ll go out in a couple days, I promise.  Somewhere peaceful, bozu.”  It was no question this time, it was back to a promise…and a wish.

Oz was quiet, still swirling his drink.  “Jaa ne, Spog.”

Musical Addendum

A friend of mine just got on me to expand the repertoire of songs I use on these posts.

Oh, she understands the soundtrack I use when I’m writing, but she also knows my library is a whole hell of a lot larger than the videos I link here…

Fine. I’m still going to keep with the writing theme, however. In fact, the two additional songs I’m throwing on this post both come from the “soundtrack” for Connor and Oz.

One friendly reminder, by the way: I love dissonance. I love finding the parallels and truths in things that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. The two songs I am linking here are firmly in that dissonant camp of having nothing to do with each other. When you look deeper, however…

A song about being on the biggest stage of your life, about stepping up and putting everything into that one chance. {Edit — a friend once told me that when he stepped on the ice for the first shift of his NHL career, this song was going through his head}:

And, to be as dissonant as possible, the alternative soundtrack to the final scene of Somewhere Peaceful to Die (because, well, what could be more dissonant than innocent kids singing Oz into death?):

Broken

So I was out writing the other day.

Nothing new in that, except that I was writing a couple of hours before I was to host a bonfire in the staff RV park.

In an RV park, by the way, there is no privacy.  Even in a Yellowstone park — especially in a Yellowstone park, for folks who travel thousands of miles to work seasonally — there is no privacy…

It’s a small village, really, this place.  Everyone knows everyone else’s business…everyone wants to know everyone else’s business…

In the set-up for the bonfire, as my writing finished and I was trying to come down, someone asked me about my stories…

More specifically, they asked me why I write the kinds of things I do.

Now, normally, I dissemble on questions like that.  Normally, I let the stories stand for themselves, and challenge folks to read between the lines to understand the what and why.

Normally…but not when I’m coming down from a writing session.  Not when I’m living a story in my head…and in my memory.

So, in the absence of something else to write, here is the answer I gave to those other Yellowstone workers:

I went to my first real funeral at 17.

He was one of my best friends, and he died because he loved another of our friends — a guy — and he couldn’t deal with that “failure”.

Our society — our “perfect” society, our “lovely” society of forgiveness and tolerance and freedom — told him that he was flawed and broken.  It — WE — told him that he was worthless, that he had no future…that he had no hope.

So he hung himself.

And I went to his funeral.

I have been to many funerals since, three of those for the suicides of friends.

Every single one of those suicides resonates with me.  Every single one of those hurts.  Just as every single one has its own story, and its own meaning — but they all come back to Mike’s funeral, to be honest.  They all come back to when I was seventeen, and just didn’t understand.

“Why do you cry when you write your stories?” I get asked.  “Why do you care so much about your characters?”

Because they are me.  Because Oz IS Mike in a very real way…because the story IS about my own life, and my own friends…

Look, I’m writing this post in response to a bunch of questions from folks who just don’t know…

Those folks don’t know me, not really.  In most respects, they don’t even know the same world I do.  They are folks who have never lacked for comfort, who have never lacked for influence or a voice.  They are folks who never can understand why a rope — or a knife — in the dark of night can sometimes seem like the best answer of all…

”What’s your story about?” I get asked…all the time.

Usually, I give the 30-second “elevator answer” to that question, the marketing and sales answer.

Usually, but not always.

What’s it about?

Really?

When you get right down to it, the whole 300,000-word trilogy comes down to one image: one broken kid holding the body of another, far more broken, kid.

That’s it.

Welcome to my life.

 

Unintentional Snippeting, The Final Scene

I’m not a Halloween guy.  I never have been.  Even as a kid, I wasn’t one of those folks who put hours and hours of thought and effort into a costume.  Nope, instead I was one of those guys who just threw together whatever I could at the last minute…

That hasn’t really changed.

One of the few times of late that I’ve done something for Halloween was last year’s 0.5K* Zombie Doughnut Crawl at the brewery.  Halloween just doesn’t matter to me, other than as a milestone on the trip to that holiday I really do get into: Christmas.

*Yes, you read that right, half a kilometer!

At any rate, today is Halloween and damn if I can be bothered to write a…you know…Halloween post.  It would probably help if I wrote horror or suspense stuff, but I don’t.  I write sci-fi and fantasy. So, unless you want a Halloween story about elves battling invading aliens, we’ll just skip the story idea for today…

It’s been a while since I did a post focused on writing, so I’ll jump back to that.  Plus, I can cheat and make this a music post, too…and I do love to cheat!

I’ve talked more than once about how music affects my writing.  Here is a recent post about how what I listen to helps to create the “soundtrack” for a particular scene.  What I haven’t delved too deeply into is how music impacts the creation of the story itself, how it can help to inspire not just the story, but also the characters and tone.

It’s hard to explain, so I’ll go back to my old “standby” of using my work-in-progress series as a concrete example…

I didn’t start off with a soundtrack, of course.  I started off with a couple of characters, and a setting, and that was about it.  I knew the boys’ backstories, and their current situation, but not much more.  It was those two characters, by the way, who forced me to keep working on the story.  I fell in love with them, and I couldn’t step away, no matter how much I “wanted” to work on another story at the time.

I need three things in order to start really planning and writing a story: characters I believe in, something to say, and the final scene.  Look, I know just how weird it sounds, but until I have that final scene, I don’t have the beginning of the story…and I certainly don’t have the tone or feeling of it.  For me, that final scene helps to make everything real.

I was stuck, then.  I had two stories — one I “wanted” to write, and one demanding to be written — but I couldn’t make progress on either.  I couldn’t make progress until…

…until…

…until I found the “soundtrack.”  Until I found that one key song that encapsulates what the story is.  It was quite by accident, by the way, that I found that one song…the one that led me to my final scene, and to what eventually became Somewhere Peaceful to Die:

Ah, hell…I wasn’t gonna do this, but when have I ever really stuck with my “plan” for a post?  Err…never, to be honest.  A bit of unplanned snippeting for you: the final scene to Somewhere Peaceful, written roughly nine months before I got the story to the point where it actually needed a final scene:

It was a heavy hatch, rusted and decrepit.  Just like the rest of Dockside.  Outside the compartment, there in the lowest levels, the air was fetid and foul.  The slime farm was considered one of the worst places you could go Dockside.  No one went there if they could at all avoid it, even the workers whose domain it was.  It was the perfect place for two boys, two ikiryo, to use as their hideaway.

The stench of mold and rot was overpowering.  The hatch was old, dating all the way back to the days when Dockside had just been cargo-cans full of the equipment and belongings to colonize a new star system.  That hatch squealed in rusty protest at Connor’s frantic efforts, resisted any movement.

Nothing, however, would slow him down.

He wasn’t sure he believed Sonthi, or the note.  He didn’t want to believe.  Oz was the strongest person he’d ever known; he kept Connor going, not the other way around.  Never alone, that had been their promise to each other.  And Connor had failed that.  Spin it however he wanted, color it with whatever guise of doing right he could fool himself into, he still had left Oz to face the consequences alone.

Connor’s arms surged and the seals popped.  He would not fail, not this time.

Inside was a tangled forest of massive tanks, convoluted piping and heaving pumps.  All were bubbling and gurgling as the life-giving algae — Dockside’s main air filter — was cultivated and cared for inside.  It was all automated, of course, all monitored from afar.  No one wanted to work down there.

The slime tanks made it hard to see, and the piping created a chaos of background noise that almost drowned thought itself.  Just a step inside and Connor was lost in that maze-like tangle.  He knew the compartment’s layout — he and Oz would come here to laugh and drink, come for the closest thing either had to privacy, and to quiet — but still he could barely see, could barely move.

A look around and he shuddered with dread.  There was barely any light.  The vast compartment was all shadows and shapes.  Kazuo’s goons could be inches away and he would never know…until they put a bullet into his head.

His breath was ragged and heaving.  He slowed: step, listen…step, listen.  He couldn’t hear shit, and could see even less, but he tried anyway.

Was that a sound?  A breath?

He pushed his head around a three-foot-wide pipe and looked.  There was a shadow huddled at the base of one of the massive tanks.  A small shadow.

Oz.

“Oh fuck…” Connor moaned.

Hard-won caution was lost.  Thought and concern were lost.  A single glance and he knew, that was his brother laying there on the ground.  Alone.

He sprinted through the cramped compartment, blind to everything but that small shadow.  He moved as fast as he could.  In a blink, he slammed to his knees and was turning that body onto its back.

The first thing that registered was the blood.  The blood was everywhere.

Oz’s face was pale, and his body almost cold.  Connor screamed in wordless rage and pain.

Those eyes opened — the eyes so often the source of the strength and comfort Connor needed when life was at its worst — and a blood-soaked hand reached up to touch his face.

A knife on the ground, covered in blood.  A fucking knife.  Oz hadn’t wanted a clean death, Connor realized.  He’d wanted to suffer, to pay the price for everything he’d done.

A dull clatter as Connor threw that knife away.  He tore off his shirt and gathered his friend into his arms, tried futilely to stop the flow from Oz’s wrists.  He could feel his brother’s life ebbing away.  A stifled sob and he managed to speak through the block in his throat, “What the fuck are you doing in here alone, bozu?  This ain’t what we always talked about.”

Oz was so cold, so pale.  Connor couldn’t stop the sob.  “Fuck…please hold on, Oz…don’t leave me.”

Oz pulled one hand free from Connor’s efforts, reached to touch his face again.  The stream of blood from his wrist was slowing.  “Spog?  No, Spog…go…get out, run…they’ll find you.”  The tears on Oz’s face were washing away the blood.

As small as he was, Oz had always been vibrantly alive, always full of energy and life.  What Connor held in his arms was cold and lethargic, barely recognizable as his friend.  “Alone is worse…” he whispered, choked.  “I’m sorry I’m late.”

“I’m sorry,” Oz said, his voice barely a whisper.  Too much blood had fled, too much life had ebbed.  “I fucked you over and you never knew.  I’m sorry.”

“I knew, Oz.  I knew…and I don’t give a damn.  Please hold on.  Who’s gonna keep me from fucking up if you leave?  Don’t go away…please.  We were gonna get off this shit heap, we were gonna find that peaceful place together.  I can’t do it alone, bozu.”

The body was so light in his arms, the face so grey.  Connor knew his friend had no time left.  The light in those eyes was already flickering, fading away.  With every faltering heartbeat he became more the ghost people named him than ever he had been in life.

Oz’s voice was almost inaudible.  “I’ll hold…I’ll hold as long as I have to, just as long as you promise we’ll be okay.”

“You dumb son of a bitch!  We’re okay…of course we’re alright.”  Connor could barely manage the words as he held his friend ever more tightly.  “Nothing you can do will fuck that up.”

Oz shuddered and grabbed at Connor’s shoulder even as his eyes closed.  “I fucked up…I’m sorry,” he mumbled.  “You never saw how fucked up I was.  You always thought I was just like you.  I’m sorry.”

“Just stay with me, Oz.  I don’t give a damn what you did, or what happened.  If you go, I got nothin’.  Don’t leave!”

“Go…run…get out.  They know where I am, you idiot,” Oz’s voice was the ghost of a whisper.  Then, even softer, fading, “Promise we’re alright, Connor.  Oh shit, why is it so dark?”

The hatch behind was still half-open.  Even over the pipes and pumps, Connor could hear noise, could hear the price he would pay coming nearer.

Connor tightened his arms and held Oz to him.  He stroked his friend’s hair and whispered, “We’re alright, goddammit.”  His shirt was already blood-soaked, had done nothing to help.  The flow of life from Oz’s wrists had slowed to the barest trickle.  He was almost gone.  “You’re scaring the shit out of me, Oz.  Please stay with me.”

“I love you, Connor.  It’s getting light again…so damned cold…I’m sorry I fucked up again…I didn’t want to die alone…oh, shit…”

The commotion was close now.

Connor held tight, offered what comfort he could.  Through the tears, “You moron, you fucking moron…you’re not alone…”

That slight body was still.  The blood stopped.

The hollow echo of boots on the metal deck.

Connor moaned, aware of nothing but pain and loss.  He rocked slowly back and forth with Oz’s body cradled close, remembering a friendship beyond thought and word.  It dominated everything in his mind, a friendship like no other from the day they had met.  The day when Oz had saved him from the life of pain and degradation that Oz himself had never escaped.  Through times both the best and worst, Oz had been his only family.

Connor screamed.

Voices barking…shouts…the squeal of the hatch.  He had no idea what was happening, and he didn’t give a damn.  His best friend, his brother, was dead.

The echo of boots…then a hand grabbed Connor’s shoulder, the grip painful and harsh.

By the way — on the topic of soundtracks — I have one in my head, as I’ve mentioned, for the scenes I write.  Weirdly, the soundtrack for the scene above is NOT “Ghosts That We Knew”, it is a song called “Be Still”: