The Cloud Conspiracy


Window, Rain Drops, Glass, Wet, Weather, Person, Female

The rain is heavy this morning, like a herd of waterlogged elephants tap-dancing on the streets above. The dull whoosh is comforting in its monotony; nights like tonight I can lose myself in the sound and almost forget how shitty the world has become.

Almost.

There’s a pile of rags in the corner with a soiled derby sitting on top and a filthy hand in a fingerless glove sticking out the side. The pile shifts once in a while to the sound of wet coughs from deep in a phlegmy chest. Sounds like the late stages of Darkflu. No Vitamin D for years can do terrible things to a guy. Poor bastard. Came down here to die like a dog.

And what am I doing here?

Paying for a new roof, I remind myself.

#

It had been storming for nearly six weeks when she came through my door.

“Mr. Stratis?”

Her umbrella was bright pink, the same pink as her overcoat and her spike heels. Not everybody had adjusted to the fashion that the weather required, but not everybody was this broad.

“Who’s asking?” I kicked my feet off the desk and leaned toward her, focusing on her instead of the syncopated drip-drip-drip that seemed to echo from every surface of my tiny office.

She threaded her way through the rain pails punctuating the floor with the subtlest swishing of her hips. She had the grace not to look up at the sagging plasterboard of the ceiling, pitted and peaked like the inverted Appalachians over our heads, dribbling a dozen interminable streams of water down around our heads.

“Gail,” she said, finally folding back her rain hood. While the constant rain made just about everybody else look positively drowned after stepping outside for more than a moment, the same couldn’t be said for her. The rain hadn’t drenched her so much as kissed her, leaving tiny luminous beads floating in her lashes and her bangs.”Waters.”

I snickered. The rain never stops, and neither do the terrible puns. “What’s your real name, miss Waters?”

“I’m sure you don’t need my real name.” she reached into her purse and produced a stack of only slightly damp bills, her perfect pink nails clicking on the desk.

Five thousand. “You have my attention.”

“My brother has fallen in with some climate deniers,” Gail said. “I need you to find him.”

I look out the window to make sure I haven’t missed something. Still the same lifeless grey squall it’s been for months. “Dunno how to break it to you, but if your brother thinks this climate-change shit is a fraud after all this, you may be better off without him.”

Without a word, she placed another stack of bills on the desk. The roof sprang a new leak, and grimy water trickled down on the faces of Benjamin. “It looks as if you could use a new roof, Mr. Stratis. Consider this a down payment.”

#

It’s dead down here, as dead as the skies. The subways closed three weeks ago when the tunnels flooded out. They say they’ll reopen, but who knows? The rain sure isn’t going anywhere.

Still, it’s a perfect spot for a secluded meetup with a prospective member of your nutty cult. (That would be me.) No prying eyes except for some teenage graffiti artists and the poor sap over there dying from a lack of sunlight.

Footsteps. Tiny splashes on the concrete. A faint shadow growing and spreading by the stairwell.

Son of a bitch, it’s him. I had hoped to infiltrate their ranks and find Gail’s brother that way; I hadn’t expected them to send him to meet me. But there he is, crossing the empty platform and glancing nervously over his shoulder.

#

“Pardon me for asking,” I examined the photograph, angling it into the dim light from the window, “but if he ran off, what makes you think he wants to be found? I mean, say I find him and he doesn’t want to come back. What then?”

“My brother is many things, but a revolutionary?” She laughed mirthlessly. “He’s a frightened child. But through him, the deniers would have access to our family’s money. We can’t have him handing over our grandfather’s life savings to a pack of shysters who think there’s a government conspiracy to manipulate weather patterns for political gain.”

Political ideology isn’t my forte. I prefer to face my opponents head-on. I said nothing, and she continued.

“Rest assured that we have the means to deal with him.” Her lips took on an unpleasant twist, like a wolf scenting fresh meat. “Just find him.”

#

His hair is a little shorter, his jaw a little leaner, but there’s no mistaking Mr. Weathers (not his name): that gangly, too-tall frame, the casual set of his shoulders. He even has Gail’s eyes. They’re bright blue, like the sky we’ve all but forgotten, and earnest, like a kid stomping in puddles and scooping up frogs in wonder.

He sees me and freezes, then calls out a little nervously: “Cloudy out there, isn’t it?”

It took some digging and more than a few greased palms, but I had learned the coded response: “But the sun will rise tomorrow.”

He eyes me appraisingly, then breaks out in a skeleton grin and walks over. I extend my hand in greeting, and he shakes it: warm, firm, confident.

“Glad to have you with us,” he says, clasping his other hand on my shoulder. “Follow me.”

He leads me across town by way of some back roads and alleys even I didn’t know about, finally stopping at an enormous abandoned greenhouse: some inner-city vegetarian initiative. Shut down when the rains started. Now it’s all broken glass and dead brown leaves strewn everywhere.

“Hell of a place,” I mutter.

“It’s important to root in fertile soil,” he says.

Goddamned hippy.

He leads me inside, past rows of dead plant husks, stopping in front of a couple of shriveled cacti set in a knee-high brick planter. He kneels and pushes aside a handful of gravel, revealing a button set in the dirt. He gestures toward it with that same too-trusting smile.

I mask my sigh with what I hope passes for an excited grin and kneel to push the button. The display slides backward with a clunk and a bang that I feel in my bones. A secret stairway yawns open at our feet.

I look back at him, but something’s wrong. His youthful, honest face has gone slack, like he’s trying to read a road sign printed in German. Scarlet blooms on his breast. He crumples like a punctured hot-air balloon and gurgles his last breath on my shoe.

I whirl, and there’s the pile of rags from the subway. Standing. Gun pointed right at me.

All of a sudden, the clouds part, and sunlight streams down through the greenhouse like the fiery hand of God. I feel my skin wake up, and I swear the plants I thought were dead shuffle and skitter toward the light.

The next bullet is for me: I fall, draped across the cactus display, gasping and grunting at the hot spike of pain in my chest.

Measured footsteps approach, wetly clicking in time with my slowing heartbeat. In the sunlight, I can see the shooter’s face, shrouded in rags and smeared with soot and grime. Gail. She raises a radio and monotones: “I have them. And the sun is breaking through here. Bring the device.”

I scoot backwards, the pooled rainwater soaking my lower half. (Or is that my blood?) I raise a hand to defend myself. My clawing fingers block out half of her filthy face. “I just wanted a new roof.”

She shakes her head, almost sadly. “Can’t have you spreading rumors.”

 

**********************

This week’s Flash Fiction comes to you courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s random genre mash-up. My genres: Cli-Fi (Climate Change Fiction) and Noir.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: The Fickle Finger of Fate


We are all touched.

The fickle finger of fate bestows on us through random chance a series of affinities, of likes and dislikes, of urges, of callings. I’m going to wager that, if you’re reading this, you’re called in some way to write, to tell stories. And that’s magical.

Michelangelo, Abstract, Boy, Child, Adult, Background

Not everybody has such a calling. Most people don’t. Everybody thinks they can write a novel, or a screenplay, or a memoir about their “amazing” life, but they can’t. Or, more importantly, they won’t. Writing is a lot of work, after all, and pretty thankless work at that (and that’s coming from a high school English teacher … I’m an authority on thankless work). And without the spark, without the calling, without the need in your bones to work at your writing, to learn how to tell a story, to sit in front of the screen for hours and days and months on end, writing becomes as impossible as flying a manned mission to Jupiter.

The calling makes it sufferable. The calling makes it possible to grind out the time in solitude, knowing that writing is not just something we do to pass the time; it’s an investment, if not in future windfalls and book deals and legions of adoring fans, then in the self. The writer is at peace when he writes; perhaps not outwardly (because some writers certainly do suffer with their product, and I’m no exception), but some small piece of the writer’s soul is only quiet when he practices his craft. Some ever-screaming facet of the self will only cease its torment when it’s given rein and allowed to stretch its legs once in a while.

Problem is, we don’t want to believe the calling. It’s all too easy to think I shouldn’t be doing this, or this is a waste of my time, or somebody else could do this so much better than me. And the subproblem is that on some level, those doubts are true. There are probably more immediately productive things we could be doing. It may, in fact, be a waste of our time. There are almost certainly others doing what we’re doing better than we’re doing it. That’s how the Howler Monkey of Doubt works — it takes something that’s true in one way and screeches at us until we believe it’s true in all ways.

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But the fact is, we should be doing this. There are seven billion people in the world, and they need to hear our stories — that’s why we invented language, after all. This isn’t a waste of our time — on the contrary, writing makes us better people. We learn more thoroughly what we truly think about things, we exorcise the demons of doubt and exercise our grey matter. And, sure, okay, somebody else might be better at doing what we do than we are — but that’s true for all disciplines, and it only changes if we work at what we do.

The truth is that the world needs storytellers, even if we think it’s saturated with them. If we have stories to tell, the world has audiences waiting to hear them — my crappy little middle-of-nowhere blog is a perfect example. Here I do nothing but blather on about whatever’s in my head, and somehow I’ve attracted almost 400 followers, and I even have some who read my work (and I even laugh at calling it “work”) almost every day. This makes me confident that when my novel is finished, though the likelihood is that it will land with a whimper rather than a mushroom cloud, it will find readers. It’ll find fans. The story I’m telling is the perfect one for somebody out there; for somebody, it’s exactly the story they need to hear.

Fate’s fickle finger touches us all differently. (Yeah, that sounded wrong.)

To embrace what the finger gives us (did it again) is to embrace who we are.

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This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Misty Morning Run


Life is stressful. At work, there are always papers to grade, meetings to attend, procedures to follow, and then, of course, there are the students. At home, there’s dinner to make (on the nights I’m there to make it), there’s kids to play with and read to and put to bed, dishes to wash, messes to clean up. (Sidenote: my wife is awesome. I don’t know how single parents do it.)

Then there’s the book; much as I love it, the work is exhausting. I mean, I always knew that writing would be hard, but there’s really no explaining how hard it is if you haven’t tried it. The hours, they pile up like bones at a hot-wing eating competition. I run laps in my head like a hamster on its wheel trying to make the story behave, and some days it feels like swimming upstream toward the maw of a grizzly bear.

Grizzly, Bear, Dangerous, Animal, Wild Life, Canada

(So close!)

But that’s why running is awesome.

Running is the reset button. Running is the vacation inside my own head. Running is taking the phone off its cradle (as if we even know what that means anymore). Running is … well, really it’s just putting one foot in front of the other for a while, maybe until you get tired or until you work up a decent sweat, but it certainly feels like more than that when you’re in the midst of it. Doesn’t matter how tired I am, or how stressed, or how sore I am; the run rejuvenates and invigorates the body and soothes the mind. There’s something meditative, transcendent even, in the repetitive motion, in the regularity of breath, in the pat-pat-pat of your soles on the pavement.

And somehow, the effect can be magnified by the surroundings; be it a breezy beach at low tide or a dusty trail through the endless green of the woods or, as was the case this morning, a starless, sleepy fog hanging low over the city, masking buildings and trees in the near distance.

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It does something to me, feeling that mist curling around the treetops, swallowing up vehicles as they sped into the grey. Like some enormous, malevolent thing hanging over everything, waiting to engulf it all like the maw of some Eldritch horror.

I’m hardly a photographer (just look at that ugly corner of the building, the lonely light fixture lurking at the side of the frame, ick), but just look at that spidery tree, frozen in the fog, its dendritic fingers dewy and grasping. Like an alien abduction in reverse.

…We don’t get a lot of fog in Atlanta.

Good morning for a run.


Fear for the Future: Evolution Edition


While discussing current events (specifically the primaries) with my students today, things took a shocking turn.

Students were asking me about Trump, because they’re nervous about what his presidency might mean for the country, and for them personally. Now, I’m really careful to remain as objective as possible, but I also think it’s important to be honest. So I told them why I don’t think Trump could be elected, even if he wins the primary. (I don’t believe he can appeal to moderates, and I think he’ll anger enough Republicans along the way to ensure victory for the democratic candidate, whoever that may be.)

All fine and good. Then another student asked if there were any black candidates in the race. I mentioned Carson, but also pointed out that I don’t think he can win. Naturally, they asked why. And I spoke about how, for better or for worse, the Republicans have amassed behind the three frontrunners, and anybody else — Bush, Carson, Fiorina, et al — are basically muddying the waters at this point.

“But is Carson a good candidate?”

“I don’t know enough to say for sure.”

“Would you vote for him?”

“Probably not.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for one, he doesn’t believe in evolution.”

Silence in the classroom for a moment. Then: “What, you mean like that stuff they teach in science class? That we come from monkeys?”

“Well, that’s oversimplifying a little. We didn’t come from monkeys. But yes, evolution like you learned in science class.”

“Oh. I don’t believe in that either.”

My turn to be silent. A handful of students begin to nod their heads in agreement.

Me: “You guys don’t believe in evolution?”

About a third of the students are shaking their heads at me.

“Darwin? Natural selection?”

Now several talk at once. “That didn’t happen,” or “We didn’t come from monkeys,” or “I believe in God.”

I paused. I’m not a science teacher, so it’s not really my job to go straightening them out on the finer points of evolution. Further, I’m not about to stand up in front of a classroom full of young, impressionable minds, and begin hammering away at their religious beliefs. I like having a job too much to go getting tangled in that debate.

Luckily, another student asked a question and pulled us onto another (less sensitive) topic, for which I was thankful. Not because I don’t want to have difficult discussions in my classroom, but because I really didn’t know how to proceed. I want to foster critical thinking, but I don’t want to offend. And I don’t see critical thinking behind “that didn’t happen” and “I believe in God.” Belief, in that sense, is the absence of critical thought. It stopped me cold. Even some of the smartest students — and when I say “smart,” I’m saying “capable of independent, out-of-the-box thought” — were nodding along in agreement with the roadblock that was thrown down.

This frightens me. I teach a class which has, as some of its primary concerns, the structure of argument, the support of said argument with evidence, and the thoughtful communication of said argument. And this — their knee-jerk, casual and offhand dismissal of a well-researched, scientifically documented theory — well. It frightens me.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: The Anchor


So, you’re a writer.

And you have this project.

It’s a project that you’ve had for months, or maybe even years. It’s a project you return to time and time again, when inspiration for other work deserts you or when a bolt from the blue strikes and you just have to, have to, go work on that project again. Maybe it’s your first project, maybe it’s your latest one, maybe it’s a project you started and forgot about and go back to every few months. When your mind goes blank, inevitably your thoughts turn to that one project, and even if you’re not actively working on it, your brain is always bent toward it.

This project is the anchor.

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Like a security blanket, you need this project. It comforts you in times of need, it fills you with nostalgia; even just opening the file (or turning the pages, or unrolling the parchment you scribed it onto, you insane purist) makes you smile. Like a true anchor, this project keeps you moored. Keeps you grounded. Keeps you from getting off course, keeps you true to yourself — or at least true to the self you were when you started the project. Without the anchor project, you wouldn’t be the writer that you are, you wouldn’t write the way you do.

The anchor project is a good thing.

But the anchor project can’t stay forever.

Like a security blanket, it works wonders for you for a while, but eventually, you start to outgrow it. People stare if you’re still dragging it around in public. It gets threadbare and worn-out, and not even functional for its original purpose beyond a point. Like a true anchor, well, it keeps you from drifting off during the storm, but it also keeps you from letting down the sails and exploring the ocean.

Comes a time when you have to cut the anchor loose, when you have to accept the fact that you’ve outgrown it and move on. When you have to drop the anchor and sail out into the wild blue. When you realize that the anchor is not the project that needs your time, your effort, your constant thought anymore.

Accidentally Inspired has been my anchor project since I was in college, which is to say, for about fifteen years. The idea was born in a scriptwriting class in 2002, I expanded it into a full-length play by 2004, when it actually saw production with my old high school. Then I mothballed it for almost a decade, though I always hung onto the idea of turning it into a novel, and there it nested in the depths of my brain, ripening on the vine.

Well, I’ve followed through on that seed of an idea, finally. I wrote the novel. I’ve revised and edited it through several iterations. I’m working on one last edit now.

And somewhere along the road in this last edit, I realized it’s time to cut this anchor loose.

I love this project. I always will. but the longer I keep reworking it, the more I’m neglecting other stories I want to tell, the more I give in to the fear of putting it out there and letting it walk on its own, like a wobbly-kneed colt.

I’ve got about one more month left in this phase of the work, and then it’s time to pull up roots and let this puppy go.

Bittersweet, to be sure, but the time is right. It’s time to move on.

Am I alone in this, or is there an anchor holding you back, too?

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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