View Full Version : Fifteen

18-12-2001, 14:15:33
I awoke with a shock, as if slapped. My head felt as if I’d just been kicked, and for a few seconds I had no idea where I was. As the disorientation passed, leaving me dizzy and sick, I let my head sink back down and began trying to breath deeply to slow my racing heart. The pounding in my chest slowly subsided, replaced by a sticky iron taste in my mouth and a gradual awareness of the aches and pains in my arms, shoulders, and back. The room swam slowly into blurry view around me and I fought to get my arms free from the twisted up sleeping bag in which I was cocooned. I felt like shit.

Shoving the zipper down to let some cooler air into the sweaty fabric, I felt at the lines pushed into my face from the shirt I had been using as a pillow. The clothes that I had slept in all feel like they were on either sideways or backwards, or both simultaneously. I’m getting too old for sleeping on people’s floors. This stupid sleeping bag didn’t provide any cushion at all and my body feels like it got dragged behind a car. Finally summoning the energy to sit up, I look around the room.

Jase is on the couch watching cartoons. Bill and Randy are playing cards over the table opposite me. I lean back on the chair behind me and wait for the new waves of dizziness caused by sitting up to subside. Jase is still huddled under the blanket he’d scored from Lisa last night. He and I had drawn straws for the couch last night and I lost. Bastard. I feel around with my tongue and try to clean some of the slime from my teeth while gazing at the TV. Jase has it tuned to a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. I hate Woody Woodpecker.

Sounds of rattling dishes drift in from the kitchen and it vaguely annoys me that I’m apparently one of the last to wake up. I catch a brief glimpse of Ben as he strolls past the kitchen door, bowl and cereal box in hand. My heart thumps a little, as it always does when I see him, a glimmer of the fight-or-flight response, and I damp it down again, as I always do since coming here. Old habits are the hardest to curb, and they’ll be the end of me if I’m not careful. Ben is still shirtless, wearing just his black jeans, and looks half asleep, but his powerful frame and dark skin make an intimidating figure none the less. The sight of him reminds me that I’m here for a reason and I struggle to get my brain into gear.

Snap, crackle, and popping my sore joints out of the sleeping bag, I shuffle past the TV and down the hall. The apartment has three bedrooms, but with the crowd we’ve got right now it’s pretty tight quarters. The room that Ben and Randy used last night is open and empty, but Mark and Lisa’s door is still shut tight. I can hear mumbles from inside, though. The door to Slim and Lee’s room is open and I catch an unwelcome glimpse of Lee’s hairy ass as he pulls on his shorts. He and Slim are the oldest of our happy little bunch and have been friends forever. In addition to Lee’s butt, my overly observational self notices that there are no sleeping bags or blankets on the floor and the double bed looks pretty evenly rumpled. More stuff I really didn’t want to see or know about.

At the top of the list of things that I don’t want to see, though, is the door to the lone bathroom of this dump closed. I lean my head against the door and thump on it with my fist. Too late, I realize that if you’re going to make something vibrate and bump, putting your head against it is probably not the smartest course of action. Slim’s gravelly voice meanders through the door and tells me to fuck off, making my spirits drop even lower. If last night was any indication, Slim is anything but speedy in the bathroom. My bladder and I give a little sigh and wander back out to the living room. Lee, every bit as powerful as Ben but with an equally powerful beer gut, has just started to pull a shirt down over the tattoos he got while he was still a Marine. They’re old tattoos and the ink has bled and faded into blurry green splotches. The more covered up Lee gets, the happier I am.

In the living room, no one seems to have moved. I notice that Bill is having a beer for breakfast and my stomach gives a little squirm. I didn’t think I drank that much last night, but it was apparently more than I should have. I waver a little bit while making up my mind and then, with a short intake of breath, head into the kitchen.

Keeping my face neutral, I give a dull, “Hey” to Ben and stumble over to the sink. He gives no notice of me and goes on eating his cereal. The basin is full of dirty dishes, but I don’t care and turn the cold tap on, running it over my hands and splashing the frigid water onto my face. It helps to clear the cobwebs some, but the stiffness of my neck and shoulders still makes me feel slow and hazy. Cupping my hand, I suck up some of the water and swish it around my mouth. It occurs to me a moment after I spit that maybe someone won’t like my saliva in the dirty dishes, but it doesn’t bother me for very long. I search the fridge for something to eat, but everything in there is either beer or an unhealthy shade of gray. Grabbing a bowl, I saunter over to the table and dump in some corn flakes. My nerves are jangly and it’s hard to act casual or relaxed. My movements feel forced and clumsy and stupid. Ben doesn’t seem to notice, though, and just keeps on munching. I look down at my bowl and a few synapses manage to close, connecting loose thoughts rattling around my brain. A short visual search of the table top and counter behind me come up empty and I look at Ben’s bowl for final confirmation. Yeah, he’s eating his cereal dry. I was afraid of that.

“No milk?” I ask, mostly rhetorically.

Ben’s eyes lift heavily to meet my own, “Think I’d be fucking eating my fucking cereal fucking dry if there were any fucking milk?”

I purse my lips and nod a little, “Good point.” Ben goes back to crunching away and I prepare myself for the task of trying to swallow crushed glass and sand, which is only slightly more abrasive than dry corn flakes. To take my mind off it, I contemplate Ben surreptitiously as we eat. He intimidates the shit out of me, even though I’ve known plenty of bigger guys, and lots of blacks. I doubt it’s his race that’s getting me, though there’s always a stupid discomfort in the back of my head whenever I’m around a black person. Well, more of an over-awareness of their being black than anything else. I guess its something to do with feeling like I’m supposed to be feeling ancestral guilt over the history of white/black relations, even though I don’t, and I feel guilty about that. I’ve been PC’ed, I suppose.

That thought makes me smile a little and with some solid, albeit sharp edged, food grinding into my belly I’m starting to feel more like myself, too. No, if anything it’s Ben’s reputation that’s got me cowed, which is funny because he’s really not such a bad guy in person. There’s a lot of intelligence and humor under the rough exterior. I feel like I could even get to like him under different circumstances. He just has such an aura of confidence around him that makes me want to earn his respect. Which, of course, makes me try too hard, which leads to me acting dumb, which leads to him not respecting me. Which leads to me sitting here asking myself, why am I so fucked up?

I’m just about finished with my cereal when Slim scuffs into the kitchen, coughing like he’s going to hack up a lung. My brain is still a bit fuzzy, so it’s a few seconds before the gears mesh enough to connect his presence here in the kitchen with the image of a vacant bathroom. My bladder sings.

I’m up out of the chair and out into the living room in a flash, but it’s only just in time to see the back of Lisa’s head as she darts out of her and Mark’s room and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. My bladder whines.

18-12-2001, 14:17:03
“Hey, man, you’re blocking the T.V.” I turn to look at Jase, still in the same position on the couch, and a little flare sparks in the back of my head. An irrational annoyance with all things Jase has built up over my twenty hour stay here in this apartment. The multiple ear, nose, eyebrow, and naval piercings put him in my ‘moron’ category right from the start, even though that’s just unfair stereotyping, and then there’s the fact that he’s almost ten years younger than the rest of us. Well, ten years younger than me, anyway. Bill and Randy are in their mid-twenties, and Lisa’s probably close to his age, but Ben and I are easily a decade ahead of him and Slim and Lee are way older, in their forties. I mean, he’s practically a teenager, what the hell’s he doing here? What’s Ben doing, wasting our time with a twit like this? It doesn’t make any sense.

My cool, logical mind being the paragon of fairness that it is, has sublimated my confusion into dislike. This annoys me because I’m fully aware that this is what I’m doing rather than dealing with my impressions of him rationally, which means I’m jeapordizing myself further, which really pisses me off, which means that I really fucking hate Jase. Does that make any sense?

Jase looks as though he doesn’t care much for me, either, but then maybe that’s just because I’m still standing here in front of the T.V., glaring at him. Bill and Randy have paused in their card game to glance up at me as well, waiting to see what’s gotten into me. “C’mon, man, move.” Jase’s voice is flat and bored.

“I think somebody’s getting nervous.” Bill is still looking questioningly at me. A hot wave of denial surges up into my throat, but then evaporates as I realize he’s probably right. Well, goddamn, who wouldn’t be nervous in my place? It’s just not for the reason’s he thinks. A sudden, burning desire to explain my situation to him wells up behind the denial, a desire to show him all the factors leading to my present emotional state so that he’ll understand and not just stick me in a clichéd ‘nervous’ category with no depth or meaning, but that desire crests and fades almost as quickly with the realization of the futility of even trying. I sigh and head for a chair, hurling myself into it with resignation. Jase changes the channel, passing up Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny to settle on Popeye. God, I fucking hate Popeye.

I slouch there for awhile, staring at the TV without seeing it, trying to get my brain to start putting together some plans, get some ideas going, but it just sinks further into a quiet buzz of grey static. I wonder for about the millionth time, just what the hell am I doing here? Why did I come here, what did I think it was going to be like? This is really stupid. I’m an idiot for getting myself into this and now it’s too late to back out. What the hell was I thinking?

Lee comes into the room, walking like a fat John Wayne, and tosses out a cheerful good morning to us all in his gravelly, too loud voice. Lee’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s honest and loyal to a fault. I’d trust him with my back any day. That is, if I trusted him at all. He heads into the kitchen and starts up a conversation with Ben, who responds with obvious friendship. The two have known each other a long time. I feel like complete slime.

I push myself up out of the chair, suddenly unable to sit still any longer, and head for the hallway, though I don’t have any real destination in mind. I’m saved from having to think of one when I almost collide with Mark as he comes out of his room. This is his apartment and you can tell that he’s just tickled pink about hosting everyone, even though he’s trying to act cool and smooth as though a get together like this is routine stuff for him. “Hey.” he says to me in a low, level voice even though he’s grinning ear to ear. “Sleep okay?”

“Like a freakin’ rock.”

He giggles, like a schoolkid, “Rock on, baby, rock on.” My nervous irritation warps itself into angry annoyance again. He glances at the bathroom door and turns back to me. “Lisa hogging the bathroom?” I flick my eyebrows and twist my lip in a meaningless facial gesture that I use whenever I don’t feel like actually saying ‘whatever’. He grins and nods, “I’ll go see if I can hurry her up.” He knocks on the door as he’s opening it, giving me a wink and a sly grin at the same time. I hear his, “Hey, babe” trail off into her high pitched protest as the door closes behind him. My bladder feels like it’s boiling. I turn and stomp into his room.

The double bed is rumpled and unmade, the headboard against the wall to the left of the door. There’s a short couch against the far wall and a scratched dresser to the left at the foot of the bed. The decorations in the room give voice to the battle of styles taking place as Lisa attempts to exert her sensibilities over Mark’s determined persistence in the trappings of bachelorhood. There is an AC/DC poster over the bed, contrasting with the teddy bears and stuffed animals on the pillows. A lace doily adorns the dresser, though it is littered with what look like engine parts. A pink, flowered blanket vainly tries to cover the scratchy, brown stained fabric of the couch. I think they’ve only been living together for a month or so, that adjustment period is always interesting.

The pressure in my nether regions is turning into sharp pains. I will it away, but a dull throb starts up behind my eyes. I start looking at the pictures sitting on a low shelf to the right of the door to try to take my mind off it. The first one I pick up is of Mark posing shirtless with a huge fish hoisted up on a dock next to a fishing boat. He looks scrawny and dirty, but happy. I put it down and grab another, this one of him with some other guys all toasting the camera with beer mugs in some bar. They all have that bleary, wet, comrades-in-arms look that all guys get when they get drunk together. There are a couple of pictures of him and Lisa together in various places, and one of him with a couple that I suppose are his parents. They look old and worn, the kind of people that worked very hard to get the little that they’ve gotten out of life. There’s a slightly bewildered look in their eyes, an awkwardness to their pose that makes me feel sorry for them, though I don’t know why.

The last picture I pick up is one of Lisa’s, in a little pink frame. It’s a picture of her as a little girl, her hair in pigtails and wearing a frilly little dress. Her big, gap-toothed grin and squinty eyes make her young face look round, full. She’s holding a handful of dandelions, offered out in childish triumph to the camera. I think of her life then, so open, her future unwritten. How all of us start out with blank slates, the world wide open and full of possibilities. How do any of us end up where we are? How did I get here? What events and influences turned this chubby little girl into the rail thin, stringy haired young woman in the other pictures? How did this little girl or the clumsy boy I used to be grow up to be here, with these guys, now? I picture my life as an ever narrowing field of vision, starting out encompassing the entire earth, horizon and sky; and then, with every decision and choice I’ve ever made, inexorably closing down and down into an ever darkening tunnel that ultimately holds only this dingy apartment and these people at its end.

A feeling of utter waste and self-loathing fills me and adds depression to the headache and stabbing pains in my abdomen that already torture me. I put the picture down, noticing but not caring that it falls over as I do so, and head into the corner between the dresser and couch, where the duffle bag with my clothes is stashed with the overnight bags of a few of the others. I step over some of Lisa’s underthings, laying strewn on the greasy rug, and pull mine from the pile. I extract an old fashioned leather shaving kit from it, checking to make sure no one’s tampered with the small luggage padlock I have on the zipper.

Satisfied, I start to put it back , but then hesitate and place it on the dresser instead. Drawing my keys out of my pocket, I undo the lock and pull back the zipper. There is purpose to my actions, but I can honestly say that I have no conscious thought about what I am doing or why. I stare for a few moments at the contents of the kit: my wallet, some photographs, a cell phone, and my gun –a Berretta 9mm, fully loaded and cocked, with the safety on. There are two extra clips for the pistol as well, both fully stocked. I reach my hand into the kit.

18-12-2001, 14:17:37
“You okay, man?”

I jerk my hand out of the kit as if shocked and spin around, my eyes wide and heart pounding, to find Randy standing just inside the door, arms crossed. Adrenaline floods my system as ‘caught!’ flashes through my mind, followed a second or two later by the realization that he’s asked an honest question and is now wondering why it’s taking me so long to answer. I shake my head and control my breathing, annoyed with myself for being so on edge.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You look a little rough.”

I shrug and look at the floor, “Didn’t sleep real good is all. I’m fine.”

“Sure you’re up to this?”

The real answer is ‘no, not at all’, but the implication in his question that I can’t handle it catches on those primal, masculine instincts that are buried inside every man and make us act like macho idiots. I narrow my eyes and glare up at him, pronouncing each word with false but deliberate firmness. “I’m fine.”

Randy gives no response, no sound nor twitch, but a few seconds later turns and exits the room. I sigh and rub my eyes, wondering what the hell I’m doing. I look back at the shaving kit and try to figure out why I got it out, what was I thinking when I opened it. What the hell was I so guilty about when Randy caught me, anyway? What did he catch me at? I honestly don’t know. It scares me a little to think that I might really be loosing it. I reach out to close it up again and put it back, but stop as I hear Randy’s voice coming from the kitchen.

I can’t hear what he’s saying, but Ben’s voice answers with a few clear curses and I can guess. Damn Randy. Stupid meddling fuck. But in the back of my head I know, if it were me in his place, I’d be doing the same thing. I hear chairs scraping and footsteps approaching. I don’t see any point in putting on a show, so I put my hands on my hips and glare at the doorway, waiting for them.

Ben saunters in, all power and poise, with Lee following not too far behind. He walks to the foot of the bed and crosses his arms, facing me. Lee grins at me and sprawls onto the bed, leaning up against the headboard with his thick hands laced behind his head. Ben’s voice is gruff but not unfriendly when he asks, “What’s the problem?”

A million defensive and angry rebuttals fly to my lips, but an instinct tosses them all away, knowing that making excuses or brushing it off is the wrong way to go. I sigh and run my hand through my hair, cocking what I hope is an icy cold glare at Randy as he comes through the door. “No problem, man. I didn’t sleep well, I’m a little anxious, it’s nothing. Really, I’m just a little on edge, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready, I am ready.”

Ben narrows his eyes, looking deep into mine, and suddenly I’m a skinny little kid back on the playground watching yet another round go by without being picked for the team. I feel humiliated and unworthy, and then violently angry at having been made to feel this way. For Christ’s fucking sake, I’m a goddamn grown man! I harden my stare and clench my jaw, looking him straight back in the eye. “I am ready.”

Ben doesn’t move for a second or two, then raises an eyebrow and calls out to Lee without taking his eyes off me. “What’cha think, Boomer? He said he’s fuckin’ ready.”

Lee hasn’t stopped grinning since he plopped onto the bed. My first thought is that it’s part of the act, just him trying to get under my skin and help Ben play the good-cop-bad-cop routine, but Lee doesn’t act. Whatever he feels, he shows, and he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of it. That’s one of the reasons Ben likes him so much. If he’s grinning, it’s because he’s enjoying what’s going on. “Oh, I think he thinks he’s ready, no doubt about that there.” he drawls. I glare at him and he just grins wider. Sick fuck. Ben cocks an eye at him and Lee suddenly softens, realizing that Ben’s looking for something a little more substantial from him. In a quieter voice he goes on, “Yeah, I think he’ll be okay. Just got the first time jitters is all. We all been there.”

“Yeah, but can we afford that, is what I’m sayin’.” Randy pipes in.

The anger that’s been bubbling around my skull all morning along with the searing pain in my groin shove the words out of my mouth before I’ve even realized they were there. “Oh, and I guess you’re just fine and dandy? Not nervous or anything, huh? Just a walk in the park for you and all the other consummate professionals we got lounging around here right now, that what you’re saying? Listen, you wanna hear me say I’m nervous? Okay, I’m nervous. I’m nervous ‘cause I don’t know squat about half a you and because, because everyone keeps askin’ me if I’m nervous.” My brain started to get a little scared, because my mouth was beginning to run away with itself and I was worried it might say a bit too much. At that thought, a million things flooded into my mind and I found that as fast as it had boiled up, my anger was gone again, replaced with a defeated surrender. I was suddenly just sick of posturing, tired of trying to be something I maybe wasn’t. Tired of all the games that people play. What a fucking waste of time. “Ah, the hell with it. What’s the difference? Listen, you don’t think I can hack it, that’s fine. Just say the word, Randy, and I’m outta here. I’ll go and that’ll be the end of it. I can understand your having doubts, I’d have them too in your place, and I’d rather walk away than have you looking over your shoulder at me the whole time. I’m not here because I’ve got something to prove, y’know, I’m here because I was asked. I was asked and I’ll do my part, but not if it’s going to affect you doin’ yours. I won’t be responsible for that. So, that’s it, it’s up to you. Your call.” It felt like I should say more, but I couldn’t think of anything else. In fact, I was somewhat surprised at what I had said. It struck me as smart and crazy all at the same time. I found I was almost holding my breath to see what happened next.

Randy had gone from looking pissed off at the start of my rant to looking confused and worried. Ben had cocked his head at me when I started talking and was now regarding me through those narrowed eyes, looking through me rather than at me. There was something in his expression that I hadn’t seen before, but I couldn’t place it. I had just played a big hand and he was now making up his mind how to respond, I’d forced him to make a decision over me and it would be a final one at that. That sent a chill down my spine, I really was back on that playground again, but with far more serious repercussions awaiting. Lee just continued to lie there on the bed and grin that grin at me. Fucking prick.

It was a measure of how deep into thought Ben was that he actually jumped a little when Mark stuck his head in the doorway and asked brightly, “Hey, what’s goin’ on in here? You guys having a meeting or something?” He grinned at us like this was just the coolest thing in the world: us having a meeting there in his bedroom. Sad thing was, it probably was the coolest thing in his world. Lisa peeked around from behind him with wide eyes, looking like she’d much rather not have a bunch of guys standing over her underwear.

Ben looks at them for a moment or two, then nods his head. “Yeah. Yeah, we’re having a fucking meeting. Fact, we’re all having a fucking meeting, get the rest a those shits in here. We’re having a fucking meeting right the fuck now.”

Mark jumps, happy to oblige, and we hear him clapping his hands and barking like he’s some sergeant rounding up the troops. Lee raises an eyebrow to Ben and they both chuckle a bit. Randy looks worried, maybe feeling a little out of place for having caused the ruckus. Myself, I’m terrified. I have no idea what Ben’s going to say and wonder if I’m about to get my ass handed to me in front of everyone.

Mark and Lisa troop in to sit on the couch next to me, Mark hurrying to get a good seat. Lisa’s still wearing her nightshirt and a pair of sweatpants, her hair combed but still looking disheveled and uncomfortable. Her eyes are windows and there’s no doubt that she’s not liking any part of this. Bill positions himself behind Ben, crossing his arms and looking bored while Slim looks around uncertainly for a few moments before leaning against the bed frame by the door. Jase is the last into the room, shouldering between Randy and Slim to shuffle lazily over to the couch where he flops himself down next to Lisa. She flashes him a look of death and yanks her arm out from under him, pressing closer into Mark to open a gap between her and Jase. Jase doesn’t react at all, just slouches with his hands in his pockets and glares into space with his heavy lidded eyes. While all this is going on, Ben’s eyes never leave mine.

There are a few uncomfortable moments while Ben continues to stare at me, ignoring the assembly. Mark grins around at everyone, looking antsy and probably wondering if he should say something to kick the meeting off, and Slim casts a few nervous glances in my direction. The pain from my bladder has risen to such a pitch that it passes straight out of my awareness, replaced by a sharp tingle that suffuses my entire body. It no longer hurts except in some distant existence that I only vaguely remember as my mind begins to disconnect from the reality forming before me. I’m frozen in Ben’s thousand yard stare, unable and unwilling to look away. The room blurs away as I get the surreal impression that his eyes are expanding to swallow me up

18-12-2001, 14:18:16
Just as Mark starts to open his mouth, Ben turns away from me, breaking the spell and leaving me to blink rapidly, confused and lost. He looks briefly around the room at everyone before glancing back at me, a small ironic grin just barely showing on his face. Everyone is instantly focused on him and I can’t help but be impressed by the man’s presence once more. “Well.” he says, casting his eyes down towards the floor. “Here we are. Just a little while now before zero hour, and we got a few holes startin’ to show. Not good, people, not good.” His deep voice is amazingly smooth and level, he shakes his head a bit. “This here’s a new team, we’re tryin’ something a little different here, right? Lotta uncertainty. Lotta ‘what-ifs’ floatin’ around. That’s normal. Nothin’ wrong with that.

“But what we all gotta remember here, is that the team is the only thing gonna get us through.” Here he turned to look at Randy. “What we all gotta remember is that we gotta pull together if any a this is gonna work. ‘Cause I sure as fuck ain’t gonna go inta this with a bunch a folks who’re too busy pointin’ their damn fingers at each other to do their damn jobs.” Randy’s face hardened and you could see that he wanted to say something back but didn’t dare. For the first time, it occurred to me that I wasn’t in trouble, that Ben actually was okay with me. The relief I felt then was unseemly. It shamed me to realize just how much his opinion had come to mean to me. Ben turned away from Randy to look at Lee. “Boomer, tell me what the fuckin’ point of putting together a fuckin’ team is.”

Lee grinned, appearing for all the world to be totally relaxed and at home, “The fuckin’ point of puttin’ together a fuckin’ team is so’s ya get fuckin’ teamwork, boss.”

“Fuckin’ right. Teamwork, folks. If I didn’t care about teamwork, about puttin’ together all a your various and sundry talents, then I wouldn’t be standin’ here in this fuckin’ hole at all, now would I?” Mark jumped a bit, stung, “What would be the fuckin’ point of goin’ in with a team if I didn’t need the fuckin’ teamwork, huh?” He stood with his feet a little apart, arms folded over his massive chest, to look back at me again. “Some a you feelin’ nervous. Nerves ain’t bad, just as long as we ain’t getting on each other’s. What we all gotta be doin’ here is making a conscious effort to be gettin’ along with one another. We ain’t gotta all be best buddies or nothin’, but we all gotta be ready to do our professional best, to work as, I can’t stress this enough, a fuckin’ team.

“Now, the whole point of gettin’ together last night was to give us all time to mix in a bit, get comfortable with each other. Get to know one another just a bit. Guess we still got some work to do on that there point, huh? Allow me to fill in some gaps.” He turned slowly, pointing to each person as he did so. “Lee here, you all heard enough outta his goddamn, bullshit slingin’, jarhead ass last night. He’s a lyin’, cheatin’, whorin’ sonofabitch that’ll steal ya blind and fuck ya for a cup a coffee.”

Lee laughed, not bothered in the least. “Don’t sugarcoat it, boss, tell ‘em what you really think a me!”

Ben didn’t respond, moving on to point at Slim. “Joe’s a standup guy. Did time with Lee back in ’85. I’d trust him with my back to the ends of the earth. Randy, he’s the best there is at what he does. He may not come across as the nicest guy in the world, but he always comes through.” Randy looked away, a mix of emotions on his face. It surprised me to find that I sympathized with his discomfort.

Ben turned to face Bill, his back to me now, looking like a relief map of some obsidian land. “Bill’s the best damn driver I ever worked with, he’s here ‘cause I wouldn’t count on anyone else. In the getaway, he’s the one gonna get us home again. I got no doubts about that.”

With a half turn, he swept past Jase and waved a hand at Mark and Lisa. “These two I known for just about ever, both good friends from way the fuck back. I seen a lotta the stuff Mark here’s put together on his own, and it’s good. He’s a hell of an idea guy, great at figurin’ out all the angles.” Mark looked about ready to float up off the couch, Lisa just looked uncomfortable as she tried to pull the nightshirt down further over her knees. Ben went on, “All a you know each other, you’ve met before and all know somethin’ about the rest. These two are the fresh blood in our little family.” He pointed a thick finger at Jase and I each. “These are the ones ya might be feelin’ a little uneasy about. I understand that. It’s normal. Right now, they’re feeling the same way about alla you. But lemme tell ya, they wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think they could hack it. Y’all see the kinds a people I keep around me with each other, right? Ya know I don’t just pick out trash. I gots the best. And here’s where that teamwork comes back in again, see? Ya don’t know these guys, but ya know me. And ya gotta know that I’ll do what’s right for the team, ‘cause that’s what I believe in. You may not all know or trust each other, but you can trust me ‘cause you know I won’t let any a you down. Not with my own actions, and not with any of the people I give you to work with.”

“Damn straight!” Lee sang out, like the choir in a church.

This speech made sense to me. It was logical, it was right, and I agreed with it. It made me feel ashamed for my thoughts all morning, for the way I’d been cataloging everyone’s deficiencies. I understood suddenly why Ben was here at the head of this group, in a way that no profile or background check would ever let you know. He was a good leader, not browbeating us really, but just pulling us all back on focus, building us up to each other. I felt a new admiration for him, and deep in my gut I felt a desire to live up to his challenge. I felt stupid and slow and grateful for his understanding. I wanted to make him proud of me.

“Jason I found back in Stiles, conning his way through the juvie courts. This fuckin’ kid is a certified electronics genius! I’ve seen him crack alarms that give pros nightmares without breakin’ a sweat. He may not have the ‘sperience some a you got, but he’s damn good. That’s why he’s here. He’s seen the big stuff and it don’t faze him at all.”

“Fuckin’ A, man.” Jase said without emotion, not moving his eyes from that fuzzy point in space he kept staring at. Alright, he still annoyed me, but I took Ben’s word on him. And then I realized that Ben was looking at me, his hand outstretched towards me and a big grin on his face.

“And this guy, fuck me, man, but this guy is a true piece of fuckin’ work. The things this guy here has seen and done, well, I’d have him at my side any day of any week. Hey, tell ‘em that story you told me the other day, man, y’know the one. Tell ‘em so these fuckin’ loosers get some freakin’ idea of the greatness they’re about to go ridin’ in with.”

18-12-2001, 14:18:41
I grinned. It was a good story, and the details came flowing through my mind with an automated ease. Ben was smiling at me, a genuine smile that made me feel like I was on top of the world. I’d forgotten the pain in my gut, the doubts. The prickly tingle had ignited into a cleansing fire, a burning want to stand tall and proud. All of a sudden, I fit in. I was a part of something. I felt like I’d never felt in my whole entire life. All those fucking playgrounds, all those stupid choices and painful moments I’d seen in my life. All those times of being the odd one out. Here, I was on the fucking team .

It was like a dream, the whole room was looking at me expectantly, even Randy. It felt good. I felt like a door had just been thrown open, and beyond it lay a bright new land. I’d found my place in the world. I stood straighter and grinned shyly at the floor while Lee egged me on. Ben stood back with his arms crossed again and smiled as Mark joined in and started cajoling me to tell my story. Even Lisa smiled up at me. I felt like I was home.

Nodding, I waved a hand at Ben, making placating motions and holding up a finger for some time. I turned to get the pictures out of my kit, can’t tell the story without the pictures. It’s a great story and I love telling it. I dig my hand into my kit and as I do, I happen to look up at my reflection in the mirror over the dresser. I look happy.

I look happy.

And that’s when a cold, hard knot falls through my stomach and straight into hell. I look fucking happy. I’m standing here in this apartment, about to tell my rehearsed story to a bunch of criminals and feeling happy because I’ve finally found a place that I fit in. A family. I’m a goddamn fucking undercover cop about to tell a fabricated story to a group of small time crooks so that I can bust their asses when they try this big fucking job of theirs and I’m fucking happy because they’re making me feel wanted.

A shudder of utter and complete revulsion gushes through me, at myself, at them, at my whole stinking, fucking life. The only time I’ve ever felt like I belonged anywhere and it’s all a lie. The only group of people to accept me unequivocally and I’m a traitor to them. The job I came here to do and I’m all set to throw in with the fucking scum. I’m a fucking failure no matter where you look.

I got out of business because I couldn’t hack the nine to five routine. I got out of being a beat cop because I couldn’t work with a partner. I got out of homicide because I was too unconventional for the procedure guys. You couldn’t isolate me any further than here in deep cover, couldn’t get myself any further away from normal relationships or trust or friendship than here in the big lie. My job is to betray, and I’m fucking good at it. What a piece of fucking useless shit. The tunnel I had envisioned earlier, of my life shrinking to just this apartment, with just these people, closes off, nothing left but blackness. What a fucking waste.

I feel like I’m pitching forward, my mind going numb in utter and complete despair. I see the others still looking at me expectantly in the mirror. It feels like years ago that I’d turned from them, I can’t believe they’re still standing there. There’s a rushing noise in my ears, a pounding hatred in my chest. I feel the world recede, I’m not a part of it anymore. I watch with detached interest as my hand moves from the pictures in my kit, and draw out my gun instead, turning to my left as I do.

Lee is still grinning as I straighten my arm and pull the trigger. One, two. The sounds are muffled and far away, like on television with the sound turned way down. The rounds hit him in the stomach, folding him up like a lawn chair. It happens in slow motion, although my thoughts don’t seem to be slowing down at all. It’s like I’m moving through a different time stream, nobody else seems to have moved yet.

I keep turning left, Slim is next. Three, four and he spins out through the door, his chest spurting slow gobs of thick red. Randy is reaching for something behind him, moving as though he’s pushing through glycerin. I watch the barrel of my gun continue around to point at him, fascinated by the way it seems to be moving of its own volition. I have become an outside observer to my own behavior, watching events unfold from some distant place. This is no longer me, I no longer exist. Five, six and Randy is rebounding from the wall, pictures smashing and scattering beneath him.

Ben is still in the same exact position, legs apart and arms folded, but now with a comically surprised look on his face. His eyes are wide and his mouth makes a little “o” as I center on his forehead. Seven, eight. I absently wonder how the department will look on all this. Cold blooded murder is generally not their preferred method of cracking a case. Ah well, fuck ‘em.

Bill has a gun in his hand, but Ben’s still blocking his line of fire, falling in slow motion through a cloud of blood. I’ve got all the time in the world to sight in through the droplets and find Bill’s head. Nine, ten.

Jase’s eyes have finally opened up, his eyebrows fluttering in an insane fight to climb up his forehead, making the absurd rings and bars pierced through them dance and jingle. He’s desperately trying to yank his hands out of his pockets and stand up at the same time, managing only to hover in a spastic jumble a few inches up off the couch. It’s the first time I’ve actually enjoyed looking at him. Eleven, twelve.

The barrel is sweeping left again, over Lisa. All I see there is a little girl with pigtails. I pause, centered on her scrawny chest, my mind blank but for the image of dandelions for a fraction or two of a second. Something blurs past my head and I realize that Mark is up and swinging at me. He’s panicked and misses, throwing himself off balance and coming between me and Lisa. He’s close enough to me that he knocks into my arm, twisting me away. His foot catches on my knee and I feel myself start to go over into the pile of duffle bags. The room spins slowly past and I see Randy’s blood on the far wall, Lee sprawled spread eagled on the bed. Mark stumbles into the foot of the bed, twisting to face me as his feet go out from under him. His spin practically puts his head against my gun and it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to pull the trigger before I hit the bags. Thirteen.

Then I’m on the floor, my head buried in a mass of tangled clothes and who knows what else. My shoulder hurts where I must have struck the couch on my way down, though I didn’t notice or remember doing so. Time still feels a little funny and there’s a roaring in my ears that drowns out the world. I could care less and it’s only with someone else’s hand that I lift the spilled shirts and underwear off my face. Lisa is just turning from Mark’s body, sitting with it’s ruined face against the bed, her hands covered in blood, too look at me. She’s got Bill’s gun in her hand and she’s crying. I wonder if she still talks to her parents at all.

She’s pointing the gun at me and I see my arm come up, still holding my pistol. I think again of that black tunnel, the one with no end, no future. I think of all the choices that led to here, to this little girl and this clumsy boy pointing guns at each other. Is she shooting? I don’t feel anything and I don’t really care. I can’t believe it matters. What a fucking waste.
Fourteen, fifteen.

18-12-2001, 14:23:17
Cheerful little holiday tale, no?:D

This isn't actually the story I'd been intending to post this week, but that one's been giving me fits. This is just a stress reliever that I banged out over the weekend. The idea came from a very vivid dream I had of the final scene.

My goals with this story were to develop a believable main character with fairly clear and real motives, also to really surprise the reader as the story wound on. You can tell me if I succeeded or not.

Hope you enjoyed it, and I'll post the other story, or at least it's beginning, sometime soon, I hope.

15-04-2002, 18:15:56
Hi Guy-- Where to begin? :)

My kingdom for a way to write on the manuscript and post it for ya. :)

Well, okay--I'll just jump in.

First post, second paragraph: I'm getting too old for sleeping on people's floors.

This is the first line I'd start with for this character's thoughts. This is our first excellent glimpse of him.

At first I was going to say that first person is difficult to write in because it can really slow things down and make them juvenile if not handled well. Your first post exeplifies this. And I worried that it coldn't be handled well with this piece, but I see you warmed up and it carried very well after that. Very well. You slipped excellently into stream of consciousness and I hardly noticed that "I" buffer. You can say that I became 'one' with your character. That's good. (Remember to watch the tense! And consider the past tense versus present. It will still be immediate, but tone down the I while keeping it true.)

Everything else you say through first person in that first post can be condensed (or see notes below about breaking up with flashbacks). It's important, it's vital, it gives us our bearings, but it's not necessary to be given in that way. (I'm thinking specifically of him needing to use the restroom. It's a cool way to step up the tension--but this quickly becomes a secondary motivation for his anxiety because he's got a bigger motivation...I'll get to that--it's also a realistic way to get him through the house. But we don't need to be slowed down and so intimite with this biological need, which is what happens with the use of first person in this case.--you'll lose your reader; it's a weak hook.) Ever read one of those comics that has the character grunting and saying 'urg' in those little bubble captions and describing his own action? Never works. And it tends to draw your piece down as if the audience is juvenile. You have a very strong adult theme, so you want to jack up the tone by cleaining up the initial presentation. And obviously, the story isn't about his need to urinate--or him being sick of partying--so the first motivation will have to be the prime motivation--his inner angst from his childhood/life in conflict with his role as an undercover cop who is happy to finally be accepted by these guys he will betray, that he sees himself as a fuck-up. (You're going to have to build this tension, so we're happy that he's accepted and just as stuck by it as he is--and hopeless--because he has to betray them.)

An idea I have for getting this piece going is to try mixing it up with the character's thoughts and some flashbacks. Leave description in third person. This can be done in a way so that it is minimal and descriptive, but not coming from the author or some other narrative voice, yet not being so personal--not so personally connected to the main character (think Hemingway--he did a lot of first person, but there was a difference between description that gave the reader bearing regarding the character's whereabouts and description that was personal and through the character's eyes that gave bearing to his emotional and mental landscape). Save his personal connections for what counts--which you pretty much have an intuitive connection with--see how the rest of the story flows? It works because of the use of stream of consciousness and I don't think this is anything you planned, so much as it was you passing the warm-up phase and your character took over--he came alive. So let him go, let him have free-reign--get in his brain and let him drive--you just go for the ride.

...Okay, so in the first post the first line that strikes me is: I'm getting too old for sleeping on people's floors.

Next strike, 4th to the last paragraph in post one: I doubt it's his race that's getting me...why am I so fucked up?

All that is great. That's what makes and carries the piece, that's what it flows into. This is the level to strive for.

So what I see that needs to be dealt with in that first segment, is getting the reader into the game without losing the reader in the character's predicament.

I happened to have worked with a character who, when I met him (first started writing him) he was basically waking up after having passed out from drinking too much. Nothing makes a character less sympathetic than one who is stuck in his nausea and biological woes/needs. Obviously, his state is crucial, BUT, there has got to be more to him (even if he is a tragic hero) that will engage the reader.

To tell you the truth, it took me until the end of the second post to realize something else was up--I thought this guy was basically at a point in his life where he wanted to stop partying. He was sick of it and wanted to change. When I saw the gun, I thought, uh-oh. And I was crossing my fingers that you weren't going to have him kill himself because there really wasn't any build up for that, but the placement of the gun was significant and I knew it would be used. Still, especially in reading further, I would say that you need to (in that first post) pump it up with a few flash backs. I thought, when I saw the gun, that you needed better precedent. I wanted to know what had happened before the party and what had motivated him to get there. Some flashbacks in the first post, interspersed between his physical state and priorities, would nicely break up that personal biological description AND the bearing you give us so that it isn't all congested and bottlenecking at the beginning of the piece and will lose the feeling of 'preparation' ie, this is the part where Guy tells us where we are. We would be getting that (without pain) while we get just a clip--a line or two--here and there of some snatch of conversation prior to the party, or some impressions this character has had of the people he is waking up to...so it wouldn't have to be anything that revelas all your cards yet, but it would give us a better idea why he's there, what's going on in his soul...let's see if I explain this better as I go.

By the way--second post as well as rest...you are well into stream of consciousness. Minor touches here and there. This is good. It flows. We are sunk in. It's as if, all right, you feel comfortable that we know where we are with this character so you just let him go. Again, consider if you just let him go from the start--let him have his thoughts even sooner and we will orientate ourselves just fine--try it.

Middle of third post: A million defensive and angry rebuttals fly to my lips...I am ready.

I thought--ready for what? But not in an 'I have to read more' frame of mind, but in an "I missed something' frame of mind. I don't think I need to know what he has to be ready for at that point--if I had had more of his thoughts up front. This bit you are doing with him as a child--his feeing of alienation in everything...that works. In fact, what you may be able to do is give some snippets of his run in with the law--as a law officer, BUT in such a way that we understand it's a conflict with the law, but never realize he's actually an officer until you reveal it as you had at the end. That way the surprise makes sense but is still a surprise and not a shock. What steals the credibility right now--that this guy is a cop--is that he seems so 'young' up front. For the first two and half posts, his real big dilemna could just be that he's a great 28 year old/30 something that is ready to grow up and shed these guys he hangs around. By the middle of the third post I am just getting that this is a gang...or something like that. Their crime to be committed, their purpose, never crystallizes. Just who and what they are...never really forms. I'm not sure you know yet--you could flesh it out just a bit. You have the milieu down, the psychic stagnation--which is why the cop relates so well, his own psyche mirrors it, but they are at once too organized and too clueless to be too credible right now. There would have been 'something else' to the group...some sort of familiarity besides drinking and sex, some sort of 'family' feel, some sort of honor..some sort of pecking order we could see through the character's eyes. Ben is obviously the boss, we should see that in how others speak or don't speak to him.

15-04-2002, 18:16:44
The fourth post I think I'd scrap. I'd save just a pinch here and there. I liked seeing Ben take over. I liked the end of the previous post, your character waiting to be swallowed up by Ben's gaze. (Things like this are also probably what made me doubt he was a cop...because he is in conflict with himself and therefore so easily ruled by others without even a mental opposition--and there's no precedent that he is a cop that has to act that way under the circumstances--right now I believe his character is actually really that weak and that's not really a good character for a cop.) It can very well be true, but I need to know why. Not have you tell me, but give me some of the conflict in his life through snippets of conversations and conflicts he has in his life--so I believe that outwardly he is tough, but inwardly he is that boy.

Because when it gets down to him being happy that Ben is genuinely smiling at him, it doesn't work for me. His stream of consciousness has been so good that I know he's way too smart to care what Ben thinks other than he's successfully been accepted. But if it will matter so much to him personally (psychologically), then I better have all the why up front. This guy has got a raging drama inside him, Guy. He will pester you until you help him tell his story. :)

Also, not sure we need Ben now describing all the characters and their roles (in the third post). To that point, you'd done such a good job, that they were distinct, but I didn't need any more real detail. I think Ben could say as much and we could have the sense of it without having to read it. Does that make sense? It's almost like having him tell us again what we already figured out. Okay we don't know the details like he gives, but they aren't really necessary because the story isn't about them it's about our cop, here. I think you went into the detail to further reveal that this is a gang or team of criminals. You could have him go over 'the plan' again and that would give us an idea of what they are up to. In fact, 'the plan' could be something that motivates the cop from the beginning, something that is part of his mental references perhaps. He could keep thinking of 'the plan' and could they pull it off, would they, how did all these people come to be involved. Then it all takes shape without spelling out: this is a gang. It lets you keep that veil until you slowly draw it away.

Last post: I think the more you give up front (and if the gun isn't upfront in that first post, then a precedent for him having one has to be there) the more powerful the last post will be. (Example, he may have a gun because of the precedent that 1) he is a cop or 2) he is the type that has a certain mood or psyche--this guy is depressed and angry--he'd have a gun or a job with a gun for that reason and not because he wanted to help people.) He basically crosses his own line...which is the real compelling part of this piece and I'd like to see fleshed out. This cop is really up against himself. He's a decent guy who even has second thoughts (the minutest) aboput spitting on dirty dishes. This is too heavy to get ignored. It begs to be developed--not the actual spitting, but the character that would have second thoughts about that. He's obviously NOT one of them, though, ironically, he gets accepted by them...he's the great pretender, no?

So parallel that with his life. You allude to it in the fourth post. Only you know what from his life propels him into this situation. He's basically at a point where that's it. He feels like a fake. Why? He doesn't fit in. Why? He's accepted by people he differentiates himself from, yet the paradox is that he's happy to be accepted--human loneliness--that is a great tug here. It's why all of these people are a part of this group. Mark reflects that. Lisa reflects that. They all do. They are all lonely. They all don't belong. Yet, they all have some human decency, some decent logic and spirit that breaks through. (In fact, one thing I see developed by the development of your character, ironically, is he sympathy that actually increases for everyone else BUT the character. That Mark guy, he's sad. He is so thrilled that they are staying there and it all goes to hell. Lisa thinks she's found her guy. She' strying to make it a home, It goes to hell. This Ben guy, by showing his authority in little ways throughout, instead of in one place, to really build how much the main character wants to be accepted by him, is really sympathetic when the main character betrays him. It all really becomes poetic and sad in a twisted way with the development of your main character who is basically decent, who is just as lonely as these guys, but who holds himself apart, yet when he is accepted he rejects them. And yet, we feel sorry and maybe a bit angry that he does this because we have just seen, through him, the humanity of these guys--eating cereal, watching cartoons, trying to build a relationship with each other, friendships.

The main character makes all this seem twisted, w ego with him, then we realize HE'S twisted. And he's the real murderer..yet he can be sad too because we can realize with him, how stuck he is...he has to betray them. And he does. He'd never shoot himself, and he's actually more selfish and brutal than they are.

Other notes I'd written:

Your character may or may not ever see himself so clearly, but as the writer, you have to, so you can play those strings better, build up that tension with the subtle comparisons. Your character's stream of conscience really works. In fact, there is a hint that he's spent a lot of time with these people...

Would he have really shot them then and there--I can believe this if his inner tension builds enough so that he does this. I can see him at a point where he would recognize himself in them and in protest kill them--then we have the birth of a vigilante.

Or, left as he is, I can see him joining them, but killing them later.

I'd really hate to see him kill himself. Don't think it would work. He's not at that point...he can still think himself out to a higher level, see himself as just like them, yet rise above it with some act like assigning himself as prime judge--yet he will always be lower and irony of ironies...not even fit in with people who did accept him, because they'd never betray each other.

Play around with this.

Your biggest strength is your character's stream of consciousness (from post 2 to the end of story), just pull out more of his past, his inner drive/conflict--use snippets of past conversations from childhood, work, with gang--Not really that much work at all, just a matter of feeling this character out and giving a touch here and there. If you can't feel him, just read those parts where the stream of consciousness really flies and you will be in sync again.

Just keep asking why, he'll provide the answers. This guy has a LOT to say, he may never tell anyone with words, but he's free in his head, let it fly.

15-04-2002, 20:56:52
Now, that's feedback!

Thanks, Dona! Very much appreciated.

All of your points are valid and right on, several of them I've spotted myself since posting this (this was, in essence, the rough draft). The complete lack of backstory was done on purpose, though. This may or may not be to the benefit of the piece, but the effect I was trying to achieve was to recreate in the reader the same feelings that I had when this first popped into my head as a dream. It seems to have worked, as you seem to have been a bit disoriented by it as I was. I wanted the reader to be mislead at the start and to identify into this character as just an everyguy so that the end would be all that more of a surprise. (I even had considered removing any gender references to the main character to further allow the reader to "imprint" themselves upon him, but couldn't think of how to make that work without too much artifice) The gun in the case was meant to be a slap to wake the reader to the fact that there is something really wrong with this setup. Again, it seems to have worked, though perhaps at the price of having a better piece.

You're right about Ben's speech being unnecessary. It was shoehorned in simply to give the character an excuse to reach back into the case. It needs work.

It was an experiment, just to see what would happen. It was fun to write, but more interesting yet to see your reaction to it. Maybe I'll do a revision and e-mail that to you sometime.


Anyone else?

15-04-2002, 21:33:22

Okay, in that case, now that I see what your aim is, I think you CAN go at it with little backstory...so you could leave the gun, cop-thing as a surprise...what would boost it to heighten the tension would just be more of your character psychologically/emotionally...I can't think of the right way to say it...it's something right up there, up front. You've got it right with his 'haze' but I think even without having been drunk that this guy is generally in a haze psychologically and emotionally.

Any sort of back story or flashback, would be completely personal to the character, needn't have any definite hallmarks or characteristics that identify his place or position in life...but adds to his present mental/emotional state, shows his character better.

(You know, this will work on me until I can say it right! I didn't want to 'rewrite' anything because it's your baby and I thought anything I did would add or change that.)

I'm just saying that, the disorientation is good and works for the reader, but can you work it from something physical (without giving up letting us know what'shappening physically) but also immersing us psychologically into his character? That would really just mean, step up the stream of consciousness so it starts immediately in post one.

What was he thinking when he was seeing all that and physically experiencing it?

Maybe, for your sake, go back just before that, to the night before or significant times before it, write it, then move into the part we get, where it starts, and you'll have your character all warmed up and in stream of consciousness already. See what I mean?

That seems to be the boost that will kick it over and spice up those surprises you have coming--make them really get the reader.