Oct 04

Sometimes Classic Authors Did Diversity Right

Today I was enchanted as I read this defense of C.S. Lewis. I was surprised to hear that anyone had ever thought The Chronicles of Narnia to be sexist. Indeed, when I was a child, The Chronicles were one of two pieces of pivotal work that showed me a steady stream of strong female characters. I remember getting frustrated only at Aslan’s comment that “women in war” was an ugly thing, but honestly given the time period I didn’t take that much offense.

As it was, I noted that Aslan only said it was ugly, not that Lucy and Susan wouldn’t be good at it. Which was a far cry from most of the crap that was out there at the time. And as an adult, my perspective on war is that it’s pretty much ugly for anyone at all.

I think that we have to be really careful about overanalyzing works of fiction. We have to be careful about looking for racism and sexism that don’t exist. I really want to celebrate authors that worked to do better, even if they didn’t do it perfectly.

I also think we should keep in mind that we’re all swimming around in this toxic cultural soup. None of us is going to get every aspect of this right. What we should be contemplating is whether or not people try. I’m not saying that we can’t offer a critical assessment of a work. That’s vital to a proper understanding of fiction, and part of a rich tradition of literary criticism.

I just think that we need to be careful about being hasty to take offense, or being hasty to assume that something sexist or racist is happening when, in fact, it isn’t.

Human beings are nuanced, and our portrayals are going to be nuanced. We have to be careful not to shove ourselves into one role where the only time we’ll accept a female as “strong” is if she does things exactly as a man would do them. In fact, we need to celebrate all of the different kinds of strength.

As I explained to my daughter very recently: “Certainly, kicking the ass of a bad guy can be a strength. So can keeping it together as you wipe the brow of a sick family member. So can choosing to be a beacon of love and light in a tough world. There is also strength in compassion, in kindness, in nurturing. And we should only ever admire an asskicker if they’re doing it in the defense of someone else, someone weaker then themselves.”

Lewis gave us many female characters who demonstrated many kinds of strength. And we can’t say that you’re failing at diversity if your female characters have negative traits. That’s loony. All of us have negative traits. When I made Peter Corbie a coward I wasn’t saying that all men are cowards. I was making a statemnet about Peter, and Peter alone. When I made Ava emotionally closed off and inaccessible I was making a statement about Ava…not about women or womanhood in general. Sometimes a character is just a character.

And we have a term for characters without flaws. We call them Mary Sue and Gary Stu!

Let’s be zealous in our attempts to use fiction to make a better and more just world, but let’s not be so zealous that we toss good literature out the window because we refuse to recognize the nuance.

BTW, thanks to Thea Van Diepen. She shared the Lewis defense article on Facebook, and gave me this little bit of food for thought today.

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Aug 12

You Go, David Mack

Star Wars writer David Mack has the perfect response to fans who think diversity in SF/Fantasy is either disgusting, or not important, or just intruding on their safe little world where a single group of people (the group they just happen to belong to) gets to arrange things to their liking.

I now intend to seek out and read every single one of Mack’s books. Lose one reader, gain one reader. Actually, since this went viral (and I’m happy to help it continue going viral) I bet he gains many, many more readers. That’s justice.

In fact, Star Wars and its very real commitment to diversity is one reason why I’m on Team Trek when it comes to the age old Trek vs. Star Wars fan debate. Star Wars doesn’t try nearly as hard as Trek always has. I can show my daughter Star Wars and she gets one Princess who gets to hold a blaster…occasionally. When she’s not busy being a damsel.

I can show her Star Trek: Voyager and give her Janeway and B’elanna geeking out over science hardcore. I can give her Deanna Troi, who learns to balance her compassion with her strength until she becomes a true force to be reckoned with. (6th Season Troi. Best Troi). I can give her Uhura, who was ground breaking in so many ways, and continues to hold her own in the series reboot. I know that she’s not stuck feeling the pain I felt as a child, where I would watch show after show after show and not find one person like me (female) who did one thing worthwhile.

I appreciate every writer, game maker, or show writer who understands these issues and makes an effort to be inclusive. They are the heroes in the front lines of a battle designed to turn all of us into better human beings.

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Jul 27

Looking for Something New to Read?

I’m not much of one for “reviewing” the work of other authors. It just makes me uncomfortable.

To me, reviewing something carries the connotation of passing judgment upon it. Meanwhile, I was raised on “if you can’t find anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Frankly, I’m so strapped for time these days that if I don’t really like something, or if it’s bothering me enough that I’d discuss it as a weak point in a review, I’ll just move on to something else.

But back when I was in high school I used to pester my best friend with my “you’ve just got to read this” list. And I’ve realized I’m perfectly happy to do that now, for the entire Internet.

Or at least, whatever small portion of the Internet that winds up on my website.

So here’s something you’ve just got to read. Pip Ballantine’s Phoenix Rising. You can find her books, and her partner’s books, and a mess of short stories here.

As I am working on an epic steampunk novel right now I had it on my list to sit down and read a bit more of the genre. This is the novel I picked up. The characters are charming. I love the Angel of Destruction! Hee. The story is intriguing. She uses a lot of classic tropes, but it just works.

Talk about diversity, too. The male lead and female lead are equally strong and equally matched. They are opposites in nearly every way, though sometimes I think they’re more alike than they’d admit. I also see her bringing in other nationalities, such as an agent from India who we’ve run into in the second book. It all flows naturally. Her books also matter. The adventure is a romp, the banter is high–and the social criticism is eerily relevant.

Get it, read it. You’ll have a blast.

 

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Jul 11

Diversity is Harder than it Looks

I have always believed that people should be judged by the content of their character. I have hated sexism, racism, and any other associated “ism” for as long as I can remember. To me it is just so obvious that what is inside is what counts the most, and that under the surface we’re all the same. Our culture may be different, our training may be different, and the basic worldview programming beneath the skin might be different, but the human spirit never changes.

So you’d think that representing a diverse range of people in my fiction would be a cakewalk. Effortless. Sadly, this has not been the case.

I have learned that in order to do this I have to constantly educate myself. Otherwise, my fiction continues to run on tracks that have been programmed into me at the subconscious level. What’s done this programming? The mass media, in part. Cultural training, too, I’m sure. In the end it doesn’t matter. Some of this programming runs appallingly counter to my own highest and best beliefs, the ideals which I hold so dear, and it can be disturbing when I come face to face with it.

I started Backlash with a white male protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. In this case, that’s exactly who and what he would have been. I added strong, female characters. Ava was certainly strong, and a vital part of the story. Charlotte Corbie was intelligent and compassionate. The story cameo’d a gay man in a strong, compassionate role. I also included a massively fat man in a supporting role. In short, I felt like I was doing pretty good on the diversity front.

You’ll have to click on the spoiler below to figure out what went wrong.

I thought I was doing pretty good overall. Later, however, I learned of a trope called “women in refrigerators.” I can’t tell you how deeply disturbing–and even terrifying–it was to discover that I’d basically used that trope. I’d played it straight. I’d done it without a second thought, without ever realizing what I was doing.

This experience taught me that I have an awful lot of assumptions to dig out of my own head before I could really get to the level of diversity that I wanted to achieve.

In Dig My Grave I didn’t go anywhere with race. I only had so many pages. I had a strong, overweight, female protagonist. Not too overweight of course. I could only challenge my assumptions so far. Emmaline is about as fat as I am, which means she doesn’t need two seats or even a seatbelt extender at an airplane, but she doesn’t really look too hot in a bathing suit. Probably, in my head she was a size or two smaller, because in my head I know there’s some programming lurking around which says you can’t actually be heroic unless you’re attractive too–thanks so much for that one, Hollywood.

I wonder if I will ever be brave enough to create an honest-to-god heroine who might need a seat belt extender. I’d like to, because someone very important to me (someone who likely doesn’t realize her own importance to me because I’m crap at communicating the really emotional stuff to people) was always very large, and I never cared, because the amount of kindness that she showed me and the interest that she took in me transcended all that. Transcends all that, really, every time I see her. My aunt was one of a select few who accepted me unconditionally at a time when I felt awkward, unfit, and judged by many people in my life, and she was a hero in my eyes, and also beautiful in my eyes, and always will be. So I think I owe her that book someday.

The next book was a series of false starts. One was not a false start because of diversity issues: I was trying to make Ava the hero of it in all three cases. But it got increasingly implausible and fell apart. The second book was turning into a beautiful creation that I never wanted anyone to read. At first I thought it was because it might be misinterpreted as racism, but I think I was purging racism from myself, confronting it, coming face to face with it, rooting out all those little ugly programs and tossing them aside. Truthfully the symbolism was racist, and messed up, and I was appalled when I saw it. How had this come from me? But there it was. Perhaps it’s no accident that I set it in the deep south, in my home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Where better to uproot something than the place where those roots began? Still, it was not a fun journey to take. The third book was just implausible again. I might salvage it, or I might not. I’d like to, because I think Ava deserves her own story, but she’s certainly being awfully coy about letting me write it.

I do think the racist manuscript was cathartic, however, because I was able to start playing black and Hispanic role playing characters for the first time in my life. I’d always avoided it in the past out of sheer fear: fear that I’d make a mistake and play an offensive stereotype. I learned it was pretty much like playing any other character, and that I have this whole thing called “the Internet” to give me a window into what being a member of another culture looks like, as told in the words of the people from that culture. Since the “fear of getting it wrong” was what kept members of other races out of my fiction, too, I feel like this was a net positive.

Right now I’m working on The Maker’s Mark, an epic steam fantasy. I have a heroic party that consists of two white females, one black male, one white male, and one Asian male. I have already second guessed myself on a few occasions. Does this or that series of events make some statement about white men? Does this make a statement about black men? Have I turned the Asian man into a walking stereotype? Should I make one of the women a lesbian? I haven’t had any trans characters yet, oh no! I also haven’t had any disabled characters or truly elderly protagonists…but you can only do so much in one book.

There are people who would roll their eyes at the amount of thought and agonizing I put into this, I’m sure. I hear people bitching about our “politically correct” society. That makes me roll my eyes. What most people call “politically correct” I call “common courtesy.” You don’t use hurtful racial slurs. It’s really, really a good thing to be sensitive to the way that your words make people feel. But the “PC sucks” people are probably not the people who will enjoy my fiction. I feel a strong mandate to be inclusive–even if that means being imperfectly inclusive. I feel a mandate to make the world a better place with my fiction. I don’t just want to entertain. I want to challenge scripts, examine our worldview, and in some tiny ways, mitigate injustices. The mainstream may not have caught up with the idea of being inclusive, but I have, and I will. I just now have come to understand that the I can’t do this in a vacuum. It’s not enough to just pick a character and make him black. I have to continually find the scripts about race, gender, class, and privilege that are humming along in the back of my own brain. I need to examine them and keep them only if they stand up to the light of loving kindness. After all, the stories flow from me.

So it makes sense that I’ll have to work on myself, first.

 

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Apr 10

Tried to Write Flash Fiction, Failed

Recently I tried to write flash fiction. I had a notion that I would end up with some nice super-short stories to place on my blog.

The experiment is…not going well. I ended up with at least one “flash” fiction story that is clearly the beginning of a novel. I filed it away for future use. Some of the others might make it into what they’re supposed to be (here’s hoping).

I have a lot of respect for people who can do the short format and do it will, because I’ve never successfully told any story in less than 10,000 words. Perhaps this is not so surprising–back in high school English the word “verbose” was the commentary most often written on my papers.

But that’s okay, because it gives me more time to work on the Epic Steampunk novel that I’m currently working on. It’s actually going pretty gosh darn well, too…

words=34452&target=75000&mood=7

It’s actually the first novel I’ve had fun writing, without agonizing on, in a very long time. After three stabs at a book starring Ava Stark that turned into incomprehensible story mush each time I decided to give my brain a break on Peter’s world and go do something else. Ava is proving quite recalcitrant…I’m wondering if she just doesn’t prefer to have that kind of spotlight.

Which is why it’s been so long since I put out my last book. I wasted a lot of time trying to write a book that apparently I was either not ready to write or which didn’t want to be written. It seems that one should never, ever try to force fiction!

 

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Apr 04

My Love-Hate Relationship with Once Upon a Time

Today I feel like talking about something just a little lighter. You know, I quit writing on this blog before because I’m a very opinionated person, and when family members started calling me because they were angry about stuff that I wrote I shied away from continuing.

I am definitely the dirty hippy in an otherwise mostly conservative family.

But today I don’t want to think about Issues. I want to think about fiction, and what better place to start than one of my basic obsessions: Once Upon a Time?

What I love about this show:

Some time ago, back before I chickened out on blogging in a big way, one of my fellow writers wrote a nice review on Backlash called What Are We Teaching With Our Fiction? Lewina Solwing is the author of The Secret of Flight, a book that I adored because it so completely subverted the “combat myth”–this idea that every problem in the world needs to be solved with violence. In fact, every time her characters resorted to violence they ended up the worse for it. Her story was one in which compassion and understanding for “the enemy” defined heroism. It’s beautifully done, and if anyone is hungry for something different they should check it out.

I actually see some similar themes in Once Upon a Time. By far, the most compelling characters are Regina, the Evil Queen, and Mr. Gold, a.k.a. Rumplestiltskin. They have done terrible things, but they are also redeemable. You don’t see them as horrible monsters to be put down. You cheer like crazy when it looks like Regina might get her happy ending at last–or at least, I do. I want that woman to find true love like whoa, and I cry for her every time her heart twists over her son. I want Belle and Rumple to go off into the sunset. I want Emma to realize she loves Captain Hook so he can get his Happy Ending too. It’s not that they get off the hook for their choices. They don’t. They make their own beds in a lot of cases. But they’re just so very human, and often a lot more easy to identify with than some of the rest of the cast, who fall into the Lawful Stupid trap a little more than I’d like.

Both stories hit on something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time–this notion of “scripts.” A long time ago I read this book by a psychiatrist (I don’t remember whom) who mentioned that our culture, our media, our everything–teaches us scripts for how we think we should react in a situation. How you react in a plane hijacking, for example, will depend largely on the script that you have been taught. You don’t have any other reference for how to act in that situation, so you revert. (I think it was a book about hijacking. Maybe? I read a lot).

Anyway, our fiction teaches more scripts than anything else, and I think the predominant script that’s been taught is usually: bad guy does wrong, hero rides in, hero kills bad guy, order is restored and everyone lives happily ever after.

That’s a terrible script really, even though it’s hard to break out of. Hell, I love stories where you kick the ass of the enemy all over town. The problem is, that’s the same script that sends us to bomb civilians and children in unjust, expensive wars. It literally plugs into the violence and fear in our world. Why is that?

Because in the movies of our lives, we are all the heroes. We never, ever just up and decide we’re the villains. In fact, in Once finally acknowledging their lives as villains were major turning points for Hook, Regina, and Rumple.

I note that Jesus gave us a different script–villain wrongs you, and you forgive, because you’ve done wrong in turn. You pray and show them love, and that love draws people naturally into the redemptive light. Someday I will figure out how to put that script into my fiction without mimicking fundamentalist propaganda. I want, desperately, to figure out how to tell great stories on that script. Once provides me with a good blueprint for that, because that is what Snow, Henry, Charming, and even, to some extent, Emma, are very good at doing.

What drives me crazy about OuAT:

Siiiiiiiiiigh.

The inconsistent characterization is terrible. One minute Snow is a savvy badass bandit. The next, she’s this wide eyed innocent who can’t exercise even basic deductive reasoning. She is the worst culprit for not exercising her survival instincts at all. David/Charming isn’t much better.

Spoiler alert.

I’m sorry. Okay. You know that someone we haven’t identified yet cast this new curse. HMMM. And you know it’s probably the Wicked Witch of Oz. HMMMM. So this unidentified female wearing a GREAT BIG EMERALD GEM shows up and wants to be your midwife. The right answer is: “I’m sorry, until we find this witch I don’t feel comfortable letting anyone into my home or near my baby/wife.” It is NOT “Let me drink your tea, your OJ, and let me let you into my house and become besties.” David almost got it, and then he spaced out and drank the freaking tea. I mean. WHAT?

This is not the first time I have seen characters who are supposed to be savvy and smart adventurers just completely space out.

Also, Did Not Do the Research.

Spoiler alert again.

Emma is a bail bondsperson. Apparently someone with basic skip tracing skills–she’s supposedly good enough at her job to afford a very expensive New York City apartment.

Regina is the Mayor of Storybrooke.

So um…okay. You have this farmhouse. You’re sure it’s the bad guy’s farmhouse. Well, every home in the state is registered at the County Clerk’s Office. It records who holds the deed to that home and the assessed value of that home for tax purposes. Skip tracers use this all the time, either to locate assets or to locate people.

Either one of these women should have been able to think of that. They’d have had the name of that witch in about 30 seconds. They could have done that while standing in the yard on their smart phones or, if the county clerk was not online, with a simple phone call. I know Storybrooke is a special curse town, but there are indications that whenever it’s on the map it keeps records and observes the laws like any other town.

At the very least, there should have been some dialogue like:

Emma: Here, let me check the county clerk’s office. We can find out who owns the house.

Regina: Storybrooke doesn’t really do that since it exists in this kind of bubble. (Or whatever).

Something to at least explain why these women were not using what is otherwise a basic, take-10 knowledge check for either one of their professions. Sure, it’s more exciting to go riffle through her crap and to look for “magic traces,” and I certainly enjoyed the budding Robin Hood romance (I love how Robin chooses to see Regina) but…c’mon.

Of course, maybe I only notice that because I spent a year skip tracing, and it was one of the first things I thought of when they found the house.

Taking lessons back to my own fiction.

There’s really no point to being a critic of someone else’s fiction if you’re not going to take the lessons back to your own. Lesson #1 is of course in different ways that the script can be reversed or subverted without sucking the element of adventure out of your plot.

The second lesson is consistent characterization matters. Either you’re a kung-fu bow bandit who survived a man hunt or you’re a wide-eyed innocent with no survival instincts. You cannot possibly pull off both. Snow can still see the good in everyone while maintaining some basic caution. She can even be polite about it.

The third lesson is that you need to be careful about explaining how heroes solve problems. They could have called a real bondsperson to ask how they’d handle the problem, for example, just to get and write that perspective.

#WickedAlwaysWins is a pretty believable tag when the heroes are fumbling about like they just fell off the turnip truck.

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Mar 26

Why Are there So Many Atheists?

MirrorBill Maher, infamous atheist, made a lot of news this week by calling God a murderer and a sociopath. There are atheists everywhere, so much so that many of the Christians that I know feel threatened by them.

But if we want to know why Maher thinks that way, we have to look in the mirror. If we want to know why there were so many people lining up to cheer him on, we need to look in the mirror even more.

Because we are the reason why so many people are turning away from God. As a movement, Christians have done a great job of misrepresenting God. Frankly, we’ve made God look like someone that no sane person would want to be anywhere near.

Most Christians are more concerned with promoting a culture than they are with sharing love.

Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.”  - Mark 7:13

Fundamentalist Christians speak louder than the rest of the church. And they speak, primarily, on attempting to impose a very particular culture on the nation. They neglect to exercise basic empathy, understanding that the puritanical culture that they are promoting was and is painful and harmful to a great many people.

They spend more time talking about how women should stay in the home and avoid speaking up in church than they do sharing the love of Christ. They shame and harm rape victims who haven’t even reached the age of majority yet. They want to make sure that nobody’s getting up to anything in any private bedroom that might offend them but turn their backs on the poor and the hungry.

They build up their mega-churches so that they can show off to one another. Many promote or tacitly support racism, because the “bygone America” that they want to see restored promoted racism. They are more concerned with whether little boys act in culturally approved ways than whether or not those boys are being being beaten up and tormented in the halls of their schools.

They lack the basic empathy to understand or care that a society which stripped women of their right to vote, or ability to work, and gave them nowhere to go when a man (who is, after all, only a fallen, temporal being) abused them was painful and harmful to the woman. They lack the basic compassion to understand or care that not everyone was created by God to fit into their tiny, pre-approved boxes. They lack the wisdom to note that God loves wonderful variety, ignoring the evidence of their own eyes by approving only tiny little portions of God’s creation.

And so everyone who does not fit into that culture thinks they are hearing what God is about. Then they reject the culture, which is so blind and indifferent to their pain, because there is no love in that blindness or that indifference. And the vast majority of Christians say, “Well, they’re just dirty sinners” and writes them off.

What is more important? The puritanical culture or the love of god?

Christians Who Treat One Another Poorly

“Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” -John 13:35

How much love is the modern Christian movement really showing to anyone at all? It seems to me that you can get bare acceptance if you meet the following criteria: white, middle-to-upper-class, and either male or willing to meekly bow down to the system of patriarchy.

How much love does the church truly show to the poor, when so many fundamentalists are out there demonizing the poor on our streets? How much love does the church show to victims of sexual and physical abuse, when their impulse is to cover it up, or to blame those innocents for not being pure enough, or for not being obedient enough? How much love are we showing to gays and lesbians who are Christians? Remember, even if you think homosexuality is a sin being a sinner does not disqualify you from being a Christian. We all need Christ.

Instead, the modern day church says, “These people are just sinners.” Except…we’re all sinners. The doors are supposed to be wide open to all of us. The love is supposed to be there for all of us. We are supposed to be following the man who said “judge not, lest you be judged.” So…at what point is it our responsibility to offer material help to the hurting? At what point is it our responsibility to, at the very least, not actively cause pain or make it worse for other people?

Atheists see the hypocrisy of the church, and they respond accordingly.

Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. – Matthew 23:28

God’s love is IRRESISTIBLE. We should be emulating it and showing others the way. That love reaches into us and heals us. When we respond to it we don’t need a new law in Congress to be who God wants us to be–we start to change. God works out his salvation in us. So the best thing that we can do is to show the way to that love and to be forces for that love in the world.

Instead of healing a hurting world the modern day church tries to create a cocoon of culture where they don’t have to engage with anything or anybody that offends them.

Instead of doing what is good, the modern day church is content to do what sounds good.

The modern day church outright ignores many of Jesus’ words and actions. And atheists are not stupid. They can see the differences between who we claim to serve and what we actually do.

If you’d like to be a witness to the world, if you’d like more people to love God and turn back to him, then turn back yourself. We must all reject the path of the self-righteous bully, humble ourselves before God, return to His love and then shine that Love out on the world. Then we must get out of Love’s way and let Love make the changes, affect the healing, and create the Kingdom.

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Feb 22

Christianity and Speculation

Thea van Diepan of Expected Aberrations very kindly invited me to be a part of her Christianity and Speculation live chat today. You can view this very lively 2 hour chat right here.

We had tons of fun and I’m looking forward to seeing more chats!

Here are the sites belonging to the other participants:

Mike Duran: http://mikeduran.com/

Stant Litore: http://stantlitore.com/

Emily Casey: http://emilycaseysmusings.blogspot.com/

I am absolutely looking forward to more of Thea’s chats. Heck…I’m thinking maybe I should start hosting some of my own!

And since it has inspired me to start the blog again, I also want to give a shout out to Sue Santore who was so kind to interview me on her Independent Bookworm blog some time ago. I really appreciated it, but didn’t link it here because I had decided to stop blogging over here for a time. I think I’m starting to get some sense of what I’ll do with this space at last though, so I wanted to make sure it was one of the first things I linked up on my site.

 

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Jan 12

Free Chapters: Backlash

1

Ten years ago.

Ash twisted through the air, a sickly, wet snowfall.

The flames were starting to die now, after six grueling hours of assault from the firefighters.  There was nothing left of the neat little suburban home that had once stood here.  It was now a smoldering pile of slag, punctuated by an occasional freakish, defiant flame whipping and twisting up into the air.  Carter listened to his colleagues try to guess what the accelerant had been.  He didn’t envy the lab boys.  They’d have to go through all of that muck, knowing the melted, liquefied bones of the Harris family – Mommy, Daddy, and baby – were somewhere within.

The sole survivor of the conflagration sat shivering beneath an EMT’s blanket some distance away.  Little Peter’s black curls were plastered to his head and slicked tight against his face.  Wide emerald eyes in a pale, sweat slicked, sickly face didn’t appear to be seeing much of anything.  The kid was in shock.  The kid didn’t know anything.  He’d been out on the front lawn.  The house, according to the kid, had simply exploded, without warning, without explanation.

Carter ought to have felt sympathy for the kid, but he was too weirded out.  The kid was sitting on the curb, and not in the back of the ambulance, because as soon as they’d sat him back there things had started breaking.  The monitors had cracked.  Needles had snapped, and the windshield had erupted into an elaborate spider’s web of fractures. All the while the kid had sat there, looking sweaty, clammy, and out of it as he panted like an overworked dog. The kid was creepy.  Some sort of Stephen King crazy creepy.  Carter knew what the accelerant was, even if nobody else did.  The accelerant was that kid, and he hoped they’d stick him in a hospital somewhere far, far away.  He hoped they’d pump him full of drugs and never let him see the gleam of daylight again.  If the social worker was smart, that’s what she’d do.

The kid’s mouth was moving.  Carter stepped closer.  The boy was whispering frantic words in a shivering voice.

“He gets married.  He gets lung cancer.  He’ll win his lawsuit.”  The kid’s hand was twitching, pointing at firefighters, EMTs, reporters, gawkers.  “She gets thrown out of her house.  He loses his license.  She goes to Hawaii.”

The words came in quick, breathy staccato, as if the kid couldn’t stop them.  His eyes were unfocused.  Haunted.  The twitching hand came to point directly at Carter, and Carter stumbled back, sweating.  “His dad finds out he’s gay.”

Carter shivered, feeling ice water slam into his spine.

He grabbed the kid’s shoulders and shook.  “Snap out of it.  Quit it.”  Carter’s voice was a rough rasp, thickened by the smoke from the fire, and by fear.

The kid gasped like he’d been drowning.  He stared at Carter, and his eyes snapped into focus.  They turned wild as they took in the scene, and then he began to cry.  He gave out huge, shaking, earth shattering sobs that made his entire body convulse.  Carter found himself softening.  The only response he could muster was to open his arms.  Maybe it wasn’t his fault.  Maybe he was possessed or something.

The social worker was standing over them.  Carter looked up at her.  “You should get him someone with religion,” he advised.  “Get him a preacher or something.  Maybe then everyone will be safe.”

She didn’t understand, but that didn’t matter.  He’d passed on his suggestion, his warning.  The fire went out at last.

2

Today.

Applause. Soaring, inspirational theme music. Every inch of the “Life Lift” set gleamed.  The Sunday darling of Kansas City, featuring clean cut, dynamic televangelist Peter H. Corbie. Handsome, quick witted, scandal free, radiating trustworthiness from every pore.  Together, he and God were there to lift the self-esteem of everyone within the reach of their long arm.  His 4,000 strong on site congregation, those watching the local television program, and those tuning in on AM 1089, Radio Love Today.

The canned introduction was describing the church’s humble beginnings as Thomas-Gabriel Presbyterian, riffing on how God had blessed the church and allowed it to grow, how God had turned a failing church around and now was using it to touch lives.  The music soared to greater heights of hopefulness and beaming encouragement.

The make-up artist was running out to touch up Peter’s face, one more time before the canned theme finished and the live cameras began to roll.  He was already sweating it off under the bright lights, but he was smiling brightly as usual.  He was filled with the anticipation of the sermon to come, filled with the pleasure of doing his job.  He was used to the heat and the glare by now.  He loved the quality the lights gave to everything, like anything it touched had turned into a pure version of itself, some Platonic ideal out of legend.

The podium, which Peter hardly ever used, was arranged in blue today.  A massive Bible sat on top of it, but Peter never looked at it.  A bleached white cross made a nice, eye-catching shot for the camera to work with at dramatically appropriate moments.

His sermons –- his lines –- were always memorized beforehand. A congregation, either on site or at home, wanted to see someone dynamic. Confident. So Peter tended to spend the entire time charging back and forth across the stage, letting the mike clipped to his sharp designer suit do the job of keeping him audible.  He charged and he smiled.  Always smiling.   Life Lift believed in staying positive.  His smile was a trademark.  It beamed boyishly at the residents of Kansas City from dozens of billboards soaring high above the interstate.  It was crucial.

The service would begin with music from the choir, so Peter relaxed. He had a chair up front for the choir bits. With its plush bright blue cushion and the hand carved mahogany, the thing was reminiscent of a throne, and Peter sat in it as though it was. He had twenty minutes before he had to get up and deliver his sermon, twenty minutes to simply relax and look happy.  Not hard.  He was happy.

Then, the headache started, piercing through his consciousness.  His own private, malevolent, unwelcome visitor, creeping up on him with just five minutes of hymn left to go.

He tried to will it away. This couldn’t be happening. Not here. Not now. The headache began in the center of his forehead and radiated outward. It took over his vision, his perception. It felt like some sort of octopus made of pure agony had latched onto his face and was busy driving its tentacles into his brain from every conceivable direction.

The gleam of the church had become an unbearable glare in a matter of seconds. He could barely make out anything, and could only hope that he wouldn’t miss his cue. He wanted to moan and grab his head, but he couldn’t let that happen. Not on live television, even if it was only a filler for a local station. A major Christian network was talking about picking up Life Lift, for God’s sake. He’d be beamed into millions of homes via Sky Angel. He’d been approved for a book deal. All of this, doomed to evaporate if he couldn’t keep his cool and force the headache, and all that the headache meant, back.

Dear God. Please not now. In Jesus’ name, amen.

When he opened his eyes his vision had cleared just enough for him to catch his cue. Thank God. He plastered on a smile that felt more like a grimace. 57 episodes of practice meant that he could take his excited, life filled joy to the stage, head pain and all. He didn’t think he’d wobbled in any noticeable way on his way up to the stage. The lights were worse up here, and a spike of nausea shot through his gut. He went to the podium. He was feeling unsteady on his feet. He needed the support. He rested his hand flat on the Bible as if this were all planned, as if this were to emphasize a point he was about to make. In reality, he was trying to remember what his sermon was even about, for the words were swimming away like paint in turpentine.

It had been something about the root of bitterness. Something about that.  How to deal with life, when life got hard, or unfair.  Those sorts of sermons were the bread and butter of his ministry.

He’d had the whole thing down that morning. Now he couldn’t remember a single word. Live tapings carried some real disadvantages. He’d have to bear that in mind for another day. Maybe it was time to invest in a teleprompter, and tapings done days before the actual show.  Maybe they’d end up with outtakes, and they could make a tape out of the bloopers, use them in a fundraiser, feed more starving kids in Africa.

He’d have to wing it.

“Do you have a firm foundation?”  He varied up his tone, projected his voice so that it could have hit the back of the room without the aid of the mike.  He packed it full of the expected punch.  There were so many Christian lingo words these days. They were useful things that could be inserted into any conversation to let people know that you were really a Christian, really on top of things, really a true believer. Peter never used them in any real discussion, but for throwing out a sermon on the fly the buzzwords were perfect. If he threw out enough of them, about half the crowd would walk away feeling energized whether he said anything of real substance or not.  The other half would be afraid to admit they’d thought it was all so much fluffy crap, lest someone question their spiritual development.

Peter smiled big and smacked the Bible again as he started to really sweat. The resounding thump made the octopus tighten its grip, but he saw heads snapping up at the boom it made. Without the sound systems it wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic, but the mike carried the sound like a small thunderclap.

He had to make sure they got it, after all, whatever “it” was.  He was Reverend Peter Corbie.  He could keep their attention reciting the phone book if he had to, if he just handled it with confidence.

If he could just keep the room from melting.

That was always how these headaches would end.  The room would melt, the colors would drain away, and something else would be there.  It had started happening a month ago, and up until now it had only happened when he’d been alone.  It had been painful, disturbing, annoying, but always manageable.

Why oh why did this have to happen now?

The pain slammed into the front of his skull like an eighteen wheeler at full speed. His grip tightened on the podium until his knuckles were white. He wet his lips and managed, “Jesus said –- “

But he couldn’t remember what Jesus had said. He couldn’t remember one thing that Jesus had said, at all. The crowd shifted. He was sure that Rob, his producer, was starting to panic by now.

The room did melt.

He called out a name.

 

Detective Hank Rafferty liked catching his buddy Pete on the radio while he was out working, even if religion wasn’t really his thing.  Pete’s sermons were sort of fluffy, and he didn’t really go in for all that power of positive thinking plus faith plus prayer suddenly made the world right and fair and lovely.  He’d seen too much crap to believe that was true.  Thing was though, he liked Pete, and the fact that Pete seemed to believe that rubbish seemed to be part of his charm.

He was only listening with half an ear as he drove though.  He’d been knee deep in a very nasty case for several weeks now, a serial kidnapper, rapist, and killer who was terrorizing the streets and slowly darkening the mood of Kansas City.  The media was calling him the Hallmark Man for his habit of sending roses out to the families of the girls he kidnapped.  He had a potential lead on the source of those roses, and Sunday or no Sunday, he was out following up on it.

He heard Peter thump something hard and smirked as he changed lanes.  Always the showman.  The line about the firm foundation sounded like he was about to go into Standard Operating Crapcedure.  Keeping his eyes on the road in front of him, Hank reached over to change the station.  He wouldn’t feel too disloyal about it, if Pete was just going to spew the standard crap this time.

Then, he heard his own name over the radio.

“Hank!” Peter was screaming his name, right over the radio.  “Hank, look out!  The truck Hank! The truck!”

Hank’s eyes cut sideways, and he cursed as he felt a sudden bolt of fear.  An eighteen wheeler who clearly didn’t see him was drifting into his lane.  It was perilously close to running him right off the road, and the thing wasn’t going slow, either.  He had about three seconds to prevent a nasty accident.  He slammed his hand on the horn and punched the gas.  His plain, unmarked blue sedan shot forward, missing the truck by inches as he pulled out ahead of it. He leaned on his horn a moment longer, feeling little but sheer sweat drenched fury.  He was irritated for his own lapse in attention, pissed at the trucker, and shot so full of adrenaline that he was starting to shake.  The adrenaline was dropping now, leaving him dizzy, so he eased over into the right hand lane, and then, finally, to the shoulder. He leaned back and took a breath until the physical reaction passed.  Then, and only then, did he stop and wonder how exactly the Rev had known he was about to become street pizza, and how he’d come to pass a personal warning to him over the airwaves.

 

Peter tried to claw his way back. The church. He was at the church. The church was what he wanted to see, where he wanted to be. He blinked, and light swam back into view. He thought he made out faces over him. He’d already screwed up. He’d already passed out, right in front of everyone and with the cameras rolling.

The camera lights were all off.  Someone had pled technical difficulties and cut the feed.  Peter sat up and tried to get the dizziness under control enough to get his bearings.  A member of the congregation, one of the doctors, was bent over him.  Someone had stuck a suit jacket under his head, and a wet washcloth over his forehead.

He tried to sit up and a slim, pale hand pushed him back down.  “You’re overworked, Mister.”  That wasn’t the doctor, who was an older man with a grim cast to his face, but Charlotte, bending so close to him that a soft fall of auburn hair was brushing Peter’s arm.  She smelled of ocean breeze shampoo.  He was glad she was here.  Peter didn’t insist that his girlfriend make every service, and she didn’t come to all of them.  Had she been here, or had someone called her?

“I can’t find anything wrong with you,” the Doctor said.  “Your pulse is a little high, and you’re a little warm, but other than that you seem healthy.  Do you remember what happened when you passed out?”

“I got a headache,” Peter said.  “Bad headache.”

“You should go to a hospital.  Get checked out,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Peter said. “No, that’s not necessary.”

“Peter,” Charlotte began, but Peter shot her a firm look.  No hospitals.  This didn’t need to be a bigger deal than it already was.  Already his mind was whirling with issues.  He’d need to meet with Rob and get into issues of pre-taping.  He’d need to maybe consult with a therapist or something.  He had to spin it to be stress related, that was all.  Maybe a massage therapist or acupuncture or something.  He’d get checked out enough, in a private, quiet clinic, to reassure everyone he didn’t have epilepsy or something.  There was the matter of reviewing the footage, quickly, to determine what he had said, what he had yelled.  He knew he’d yelled something, words, not just noises, and God knew how alarming it might have been to anyone else.  He’d need to have an explanation ready for the church committee.  Damage control was what was needed here, and he couldn’t do that from a hospital room.

The Doctor said, “I recommend rest, and a follow up visit.  You’ll want to get home, Reverend.”

“Thank you, Doc,” Peter said, and the Doctor stood.  He’d apparently decided there was little more he could do there.  Peter listened to him pad away on the soft blue carpet.

“I’ve got some bottled water here, Peter, you should drink some,” Charlotte said.  “Slowly.”

She lifted his head like he was a baby, which he tolerated, and gave him some of the water.  He was grateful — his throat was parched, like he’d been yelling at the top of his lungs.  He remembered yelling.  He remembered what he had seen, and yelling about it.  He hoped it would all pass off as a stress episode.

He saw phantom flames licking at the edge of his vision.  His stress levels were rising just thinking about it. Not that, he snarled firmly at his own brain. It burned and flickered, right at the edges of his control.  He knew what it was.  He knew what the visions were.  He knew what other things were in there, just waiting to be unleashed.  He’d spent a lifetime trying to forget, but there was no forgetting.  There was only putting them to sleep, and then having them show up again at unwanted, inconvenient intervals.

He stared up at Charlotte and tucked a long strand of her hair behind her ear.  “What’s the fallout looking like?”

“Your producer’s going crazy; other than that nobody’s said anything,” Charlotte said.  “I don’t think that’s what you should be worried about right now though.  Peter, you seemed really sick just now.”

He opened his mouth to answer her, but a queasy flash rent through his mind, sending him reeling for control.  He closed his eyes.  When he opened them, he saw Charlotte staring in disbelief at a point somewhere behind him.  He turned to look, only to see the giant wooden wall cross was no longer attached to the wall but hovering seven feet above the floor.  He swore, and it dropped to the ground with a heavy crash of finality.

“Peter?”  Charlotte whispered.

He forced himself to his feet and staggered away from her.  Get it under control. Get it together. He wasn’t even angry.  He’d spent many years trying to keep his considerable temper under control, and attempting to manage the flashbacks to the day of the fire that always brought on one of these episodes.  He’d learned to wake himself instantly from nightmares of his drunken father laying into him the day of the fire, so he didn’t start more fires.  He’d been run out of more foster homes than he could have counted because of the things that had lifted into the air around him, before crashing to the ground just as the cross had crashed.  He’d frightened people with his visions, until Pastor Tom Corbie and his wife had taken him in.  They’d been kind and unafraid, though concerned, and he’d learned, for them, how to keep it all in check.  The fact that his control was slipping now was terrifying.  Slipping after nearly thirteen years without a single lapse, and right where his congregation and his girl could see it.

“Rob’s probably trying out a new camera shot,” he lied.  “Something for a new opener.He put wires on that last week.” He hurried away from her and into the men’s bathroom where she could not follow, but not before he saw her walk up to the fallen cross and start checking for wires that he knew she’d never find.

 

3

Beth Olson’s day was taking a turn for the annoying. Her car, an ancient beater of a Honda, had given out some fifteen minutes away from campus. At least she’d made it to work that morning. She couldn’t do without any part of her meager paycheck. She had an extremely important chem lab to get to, and she was already late. She didn’t really want to show up in her Koffee Kart uniform, not where at least three of her sorority sisters would see her, but it couldn’t be helped.

She hadn’t had an umbrella in the car, and the rain was pouring down. She was too exhausted from her walk to campus to run now, so she held her book bag over her head, tucked her chin down and blinked water out of her lashes like some sort of pathetic water rat. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon, but the darkness of the storm made it look much later.

She was cutting across an overgrown, unused field spotted with clumps of trees, which happened to be her most direct route onto campus. A few parking lots bordered it, but walking around to the field would take her far out of her way. She needed every advantage of time she could buy herself, even if it meant her shoes were sinking in nasty, glopping mud with every step. The field felt a little ominous, but Beth figured, at the moment, just about anything would. She just had one street to cross up ahead, and then she’d be on campus proper. She’d feel a lot better then.

There was a sleek SUV idling up the street. Midnight blue with all the trimmings. Whoever was in there was making a cell phone call. It was nice to see someone being considerate about their freaking phones for a change. A lady had nearly run her over when her car had stalled, and had made screaming at her out the window just another part of her cell phone conversation.

The rain got a lot worse as she started to cross the road, and she groaned and hunched her shoulders. It was cold, and it was running down her neck.

She heard the SUV’s automated window go sliding down. “Pardon me, miss, but do you need a lift?”

She took a second look at the driver, who had apparently finished his call. He was an older gentleman. His clothes were pressed to perfection. Expensive. Something about his face reminded her of Patrick Stewart, if Patrick Stewart had hair. Or maybe it was just something in the way the man carried himself. He was wearing tight leather gloves, which looked a little odd emerging from the starched, pressed cuffs of his tailored white shirt. His hand, the one she could see propped up on the steering wheel, looked a little strange regardless of the gloves. It was sort of stiff and bent, like maybe he had arthritis.

She bet the SUV was really warm. Totally comfortable. But she wasn’t about to get into someone’s car, no matter how old or rich or nice he looked.

Leather seats, and a heater. Why couldn’t it have been a woman? She’d have risked it, had it been a woman.

“No thanks,” she said, sighing. “The offer’s nice, really, but it’s not much farther. I’d just mess up your seats anyway. Thank you though. I’m fine.”

When he raised the gun, her mind wouldn’t process it. Not right away. She’d never even seen a gun before except on television. It seemed to fill up her vision until it was the largest thing she could see, eclipsing the SUV, the trees, everything.

“No, my dear,” the man said.

His voice was soft. That made it even scarier. He met her eye and he smiled like he was her grandfather or something. Panic froze her, froze her throat, froze her feet, froze everything.

“I don’t think you’re fine at all. Now get in the car.”

She didn’t, but only because her feet were rooted to the spot. He sighed, as if greatly vexed by the trouble she was putting him through. As if she was actually being really quite unreasonable about all of this.

He lowered the gun, and her mind jump-started. She ran, her adrenaline catching up with the rest of her at last. She screamed for help, even though there was nobody to hear.

She felt something hit her arm, hard enough to feel like she was being punched. Hard enough to spin her around. She twisted her ankle, slipped, and fell on the sidewalk, which was as far as her mad dash had taken her. She touched her shoulder and encountered a dart. She yanked it free and stared at it. It was small, but it was a tranquilizer. She’d never seen one of those off of television, either.

He was out of the car now, giving her a pitying smile as he made his way forward. He was holding a different gun now. The dart gun? She tried to stand up, but her legs felt like lead. So did her arms. Her vision was swimming. Her heart had moved up to her ears and started a mad, horrible pounding.“I never miss,” he said.

The room she woke up in was big. She couldn’t make herself move quickly. The drug was still in her system, and she felt groggy. Nasty. Heavy. She felt something around her throat, touched it, and recoiled. It was some sort of collar. She was wearing that, and a short silk robe in an absolutely god awful shade of red. Nothing else.

She was ready to rewind the day now. Could she have her worst customer on her worst day back? With an engine blow out and rain and maybe a failed exam too? None of that could top this. Could she go back?

The bed was a four poster canopy and it looked antique. She got off of it on unsteady legs, reaching a hand out to touch one of the posts to keep her upright. The room was busy, decorated in warm browns and golds. Victorian. It would have been gorgeous under any other circumstances. A full length mirror caught her reflection. She shuddered. Against such austere colors, the garish robe made her look like a splash of spilled blood.

She padded over to the door. It had one of those old fashioned, really huge keyholes. She dropped to one knee and looked through it. She saw nothing but maroon hall carpet.

She tested the door. It opened! Maybe she could sneak back out before he returned. Maybe he’d expected the tranquilizer to keep her out a bit longer. How long did she have?

She stepped over the threshold and screamed in pain. Fire erupted around her neck. It felt that way, anyway. She fell to the floor and clutched her collar while pain pulsed hard into her neck and shoulders. She scuttled back into the room, wondering what had just happened, laying as still as she could in the hopes that the pain would start to subside. It did, but it took its time about it.

“It’s sort of like a dog fence.”

She heard the voice, soft, feminine, and forlorn, from somewhere below her. She rolled onto her stomach, unable to handle much more movement than that, and saw a patterned wrought iron ventilation grate. She clutched it. “Hello?”

“I’m here,” came the voice through the grate. “I always know when someone’s come, because there’s always that scream. I’m Zoe. Zoe Cunningham.”

“I’m Beth Olson.”

“There’s like, sensors. Under the floor. It makes sort of an electric fence. Everyone tries it once. The screaming? It’s gotten to be like, an introduction.”

What a sick and horrible thought.

“What is this? What’s going on here?”

“What’s going on? He’s crazy. Psycho. Another Paul Bernado. Or Ian Brady. Maybe a Gerald Gallego. He takes us. Does stuff to us. Kills some of us.”

Beth hadn’t heard of any of these names. “Us? How many people are trapped in this house?”

Beth dreaded the answer, but she had to know. How many times had he gotten away with this? How hopeless was it? She had to know.

“Thirteen,” Zoe said. “You make number thirteen.”

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