The Enemy of My Enemy – writing in someone else’s world

Office-Cast-1024x786[1] So I applied for this.

It’s a writing fellowship program in television from ABC. Like all things requiring application, I had to punch out a few essays about me, and what I’m like, and why I’d like to write for TV, and what I bring to writing TV that’s special that no one else can.

I also had to crank out a script – an episode of a TV show that was in production in 2009. It’s an exercise in proving you can operate as a writer on a TV show, matching tone and characters in a world of someone else’s devising. The end result was quite an interesting exercise.

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The exploration of a stranger’s land

The city of Ann Arbor was the strangest place Demetri had ever been.

Its streets were always littered with pedestrians, every time he came down here. It always struck him as strange, seeing so many people visiting shops, eating outside, or simply just walking. The suburbs had no such abundance of foot traffic, even on the warmest summer days.

People simply didn’t walk around there.

And people here seemed to have no desire to avoid being splattered on the grille of his car, Demetri thought bitterly, slamming the breaks to let a group of children race across the busy main street.

He cruised slowly down the main drag, catching a stoplight every one hundred feet or so. Traffic was painfully slow, made worse by shoppers with no regard for the vehicles as they stepped hastily off the curbs, dodging slowing cars without even looking up. Demetri frowned, irritated, as he struggled just to go a few feet.

But it was hard not to be fascinated with the many people surrounding him. Set just south of most of the major suburbs, Ann Arbor was a bastion of culture and counter-culture. It attracted most of the state’s various weird people. Mohawks and heavily dyed hair were common, as were tattoos that dappled skin with graffiti-like images and piercings that prickled faces.

Ann Arbor drew the artists, the hipsters; those of alternative lifestyle.

It also drew young professionals in swarms, gravitating to the university and local tech companies and other office drone occupations. And it drew the pompous, self-important and mostly moneyed student populations from across the state, as U-M was The Best School in the State. They were the same jackasses who packed the football stadium every fall Saturday, along with the innumerable idiots who lived in Michigan and had no tie whatever to the school, but latched onto the football program because it often won.

Rounding out the demographics were the flocking suburbanites who arrived for the shopping and the “atmosphere,” and who consistently treated everyone around them as if they were made of lower-grade material and therefore not worth any sort of effort in courtesy.

It was an insane, difficult-to-fathom cross-section of humanity.

He guided the car through downtown and toward the sprawling campus that had become part of the city the way a vine curls and snags its way around a tree. It was early in the day, and even clear of the shops and restaurants, there was a nauseating number of people just milling around. Demetri got the distinct impression of being trapped in a giant horizontal ant farm.

It took him a while driving, between the pedestrians and his own poor navigation, but Demetri finally came upon his destination: Angell Hall, seat of the university’s English department. Another twenty minutes passed before he located a visitor parking lot with an empty slip. His face red with frustration, Demetri disembarked from the car, walking at a fast clip in the direction of the building, now some blocks away.

Nothing about this place seemed remotely related to his father. It was a foreign land and Demetri was an alien among them, and they all seemed to know it. As he passed students bustling on their way to classes in every direction, he felt no connection to any of them.

He felt nothing of Mark Karminov here.

Still, Demetri had to know. The red backpack, discovered among his father’s things and filled with secret documents about his Mark’s past clung tightly to his shoulders, but with each step, the pack felt heavier. The weight of years was held there, and of deceit. His feet carried him forward with an indescribable need, but each step that drew him closers made Demetri aware of a welling fear: undefined, amorphous – mutating.

He stuck to the sidewalks, stepping quickly out of the path of the horde, slaloming around people in the milieu. After a few minutes walking, he reached State Street. Angell Hall reared before him, the brick structure perfectly at home set among the reddening trees.

When the traffic cleared, Demetri crossed the street quickly and headed into the building. His reconnaissance on the Internet during the weekend had told him where he’d need to be: fourth floor, where the faculty offices resided.

Professor Louis Feldman would be in his office, available to speak with students, for the next hour and a half. Demetri figured he’d be able to get a few minutes with the man sometime during that period.

Excitement flooded Demetri. He took the stairs two at a time, bounding past the stream of people descending the stairs to depart for their next destinations. His heart picked up with the exertion, but there was something else with the anticipation. An anxiety was growing in his stomach, and Demetri was keenly aware of it.

He was on his way to unlock secrets – for better or worse.

Feldman’s office was set among a bank of closed wooden doors with thin, frosted windows in them. Demetri found it easy enough. Drawing a deep breath to prepare himself, he rapped the wood hard three times and stepped back.

A moment passed before the door opened slowly. A small old man in wearing a blue sweater over a white dress shirt and light blue tie looked out at him from behind thick glasses. Demetri was taller than the man by a head. His wide round eyes were made more stunning by the amplification the lenses gave them. The old man almost looked like a cartoon character – Demetri was reminded of Elmer Fudd.

“Yes?” he asked, eyes piercing Demetri.

“Professor Feldman?” Demetri replied, involuntarily letting his lack of confidence play in his voice.

“Obviously,” the little man returned briskly. “What can I help you with, young man?”

“Ah, my name is Demetri Karminov and I’d like to talk to you about a former student, if you have a few minutes.”

Feldman’s brow scrunched over his eyes, narrowing his round face.

“About what, exactly?”

“My father – he was a student here,” Demetri explained. “In 1979, I think. I was wondering if you might remember him.”

Feldman waved a hand to dismiss him.

“I’ve had a lot of students. It’s possible your father was among them. I certainly wouldn’t remember him. It’s a matter of volume. My brain’s just not that big.”

He moved to close the door and head back into the office. Demetri stepped toward him, his mouth moving quickly.

“Please, Professor – my dad, he – he died. Whatever you might be able to tell me, even just about your class – it’d be really helpful.”

To Demetri’s surprise, Feldman sighed audibly.

“All right,” he muttered, but the annoyance was clear in his voice. “I’m with a student right now. You’ll have to wait.”

He pulled the door shut hard in Demetri’s face. It echoed through the innocuous white hallway, ringing in Demetri’s ears. He stared at the blank wood for a few long moments. He had no idea what to think.

After a second, he meandered over to a small set of uncomfortable chairs set against the wall on the other side of the hallway. They were upholstered in some kind of itchy plastic and he quickly became uncomfortable. Demetri struggled to take his eyes off Feldman’s closed door. He felt the fear again.

There was no sign of life coming from the heavy door, so at length Demetri swung the backpack into his lap and unzipped it. As carefully as he could manage, he removed the blue notebook, the one in which he’d discovered Feldman’s name. The one that had belonged to his father.

Demetri had found the notebook a few days earlier, but beyond reading the inside cover and discovering that it contained Dad’s work for a class he’d taken with Feldman, he hadn’t read it. The cover mentioned THR 225 – a class designation that Demetri hadn’t been able to find in the University of Michigan’s online course catalog. Of course, the designators had probably all changed in the last twenty five years. It had been incredibly lucky that he’d discovered Feldman was still a teacher in the university’s English department.

He let his finger drag over the pages, making the yellow papers flutter slightly. It was a tome of secrets, filled with the penmanship of Mark Karminov. Demetri had no idea what he might find inside. It could be nothing but class notes; it could be a window into more dimensions of his father he hadn’t known existed.

But something kept those pages from spreading before him. It was that fear, which rocked inside him like liquid, flowing up along his insides and then abating, making it difficult to make a solid decision.

Already Demetri was thirsty to know more about his father. He was blowing off his own college classes just to be in Ann Arbor today. Speaking with Feldman about Mark could potentially teach him a great deal about the man that Demetri had never known.

But despite himself, Demetri still couldn’t quite convince himself that he wanted to know. The notebooks and pictures and documents he’d found already indicted his father as a liar – he’d lied to his children for years about his college career. Demetri had never known his father to do that, for any reason.

For years, Dad had talked about his struggle and the value of schooling, because he said he’d never experienced it. What else would Demetri find out about Mark Karminov, three years after his death, that would remake the man Demetri had known all his life – but now was coming to realize, he may never have known at all?

The door bucked open and a young blonde woman hoisted a bag with one hand while digging tiny earbuds into her ears with the other. Her eyes never fluttered to Demetri as she turned and walked off toward the staircase down the hall.

Feldman appeared at the threshold a second later.

“Karminov, right?” he asked. “Come on, I’ve only got a few minutes before my next appointment.”

He disappeared back through the door. Demetri slipped the notebook into his bag and then followed, tentatively, stepping through the door into the tiny office beyond.

It could have been a supply closet, the room was so small. It housed a desk that was awash with papers and books; standing on them were a few plastic semblances of order, little racks meant to organize and trays that held their own distinct stacks of pages. A tornado would have left a tidier space.

In front of the desk was an orange leather chair on wheels, into which Feldman quickly dropped. He leaned back, propping his short legs up on a stack of textbooks that stood beside a disaster imitating a bookcase. Across from Feldman’s chair was another, non-reclining, non-rolling orange chair. It was the only other piece of furniture in the room, which was maybe six feet across and twelve feet deep.

Demetri took the chair, lowering himself down with slow, careful movements. He was afraid moving too fast could send the mess scattering in a tempest.

“All right then, Mr. Karminov,” Feldman said, catching his eyes but otherwise not moving. “You believe your father was my student. What year, what class, what name?”

Demetri leaned up, pulling the notebook from the bag after a bit of a nervous struggle.

“His name was Mark Karminov, and I think he was in your class, ah, THR 225. In 1979, I think, but I’m not really sure.”

“Not sure?” Feldman returned, running lightly scratching fingers over the crown of his bald head. “Why wouldn’t you be sure?”

Demetri frowned, a little hesitant. He hadn’t intended to be the one answering questions.

“He actually never told me he attended college,” he replied, the words coming slowly. He leaned forward and pushed the notebook toward Feldman. “I found this in a box. I guess I just wanted to know more about him.”

Feldman was quiet for a moment. After a second of Demetri straining, he kicked his feet off the stack of books and leaned out to take the notebook. He flipped open the cover and read the words there.

“Interesting,” was all the old man said as he leafed through the pages.

“It was your class, wasn’t it?”

“Oh yes,” Feldman returned, not raising his eyes from the notebook. “Theater 225. Playwriting. I haven’t taught that class in about twenty years.”

A grin spread over Demetri’s face involuntarily. The word – the clue – played through his mind over and over again.

Playwriting.

“Sorry to say I don’t remember your dad, though,” continued Feldman, closing the notebook.

Then his eyes rose, drilling into Demetri. “How is it you didn’t know your father was a student here?”

He didn’t answer right away, considering what he should tell the old man. Demetri realized what he was feeling: embarrassment. Embarrassment at the fact he was about to tell a stranger how little he knew about his own father.

But as Feldman looked at him, studying his face, Demetri couldn’t find a lie that sounded plausible enough to be acceptable. He didn’t think he could just decline to answer, either, since he still had questions.

“He told me he never went to school,” Demetri admitted, his voice coming out small and slow.

Feldman studied Demetri’s face, and he felt the intensity of his scrutiny that reminded him of the way his father used to look at him. Mark could always see when Demetri was holding something back – Feldman’s stare was the same.

“Actually, it seems like he lied to me, because he was a student in your class. But he died before I found out about it.”

Feldman scratched his bald spot again, frowning.

“Do you know why he would do that?” Asked the professor. His eyes burned into Demetri’s, who looked away. Up to now, he’d been avoiding asking himself that very question. The young man looked away and offered no response.

The professor shifted in the chair, leaning forward and placing his feet on the ground.

“That’s a tough one, huh,” he said, his voice low, conspiratorial. “What do sons ever really know of their fathers.”

Demetri said nothing. His face burned, but he wasn’t sure if the reaction was borne of embarrassment, or if it was a manifestation of anger boiling just below the surface.

Anger at his father.

“I can tell you a little about the class,” Feldman continued. The tone his voice sounded like he was searching for something he could give Demetri, something that might make up for what he’d just inadvertently taken from the young man.

“I’d appreciate it,” replied Demetri.

“Theater 225 was my first playwriting class. I had my students read several plays, but we spent the majority of our time talking about structure, and toward the end I had the students write a three-act piece of their own.

“You read the notes in the notebook you showed me, I presume?”

Demetri shook his head.

“Your father’s notes for the class are in that notebook,” Feldman told him as he leaned toward Demetri, who was also leaning in, fascinated. “His notes about his play are in there as well, and I think I saw a few rough scenes in there as well.”

The notebook seemed to grow heavier, more substantial, in Demetri’s hands. Suddenly its worth was clear to him, and his grip tightened on it involuntarily.

“I know you said you didn’t remember my dad,” Demetri started, “but I have a photo of him from when he was younger. Would you mind taking a look at it?”

Feldman reached his hand out to accept the photo, and Demetri pulled the one of his father standing beside his Corvette, “Cecilia,” and gave it to the older man. Feldman studied it for a few long moments, and Demetri could tell he was exhausting his memory. He couldn’t help but smile – the man genuinely seemed like he wanted to help.

At length, he handed the photo back.

“I’m sorry,” Feldman said sadly. “To be truthful, William Shakespeare could have been in that class and I doubt I’d remember it. I’ve got no distinct memories of it at all.”

Demetri nodded. He tucked the items back in the backpack carefully.

“Demetri,” the old man began, his voice carefully measured. “I believe the investigation you’re undertaking could end up being somewhat profound. This is new territory you’re entering, and it’s a part of himself your father never shared with you.”

Feldman stood and walked over to the bookshelf. As he did so, he stopped beside Demetri and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t know if you’ve considered this: There might be a reason you never knew this part of him,” Feldman said.

He lifted the hand and turned back to the shelf. Demetri was quiet for a moment, lost in thought.

“Look, Demetri,” Dad said, indicating where his thumb was touching the safety button on the side of the .357. “The thing’s got a kick, so be careful. Don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to fire.”

Mark had taken Demetri to a firing range a few miles from their house when he was about twelve.

“I want you to learn everything there is to know about this gun,” Dad told Demetri that morning at breakfast. He’d strode up to the table while the boy was shoveling eggs in his mouth. Demetri’s eyes went wide as Mark unsnapped the latches on the plastic case and flipped the lid, spinning it to present its contents.

His older sister Karina’s face, half-stuffed with Fruit Loops, had screwed up into a scowl.

“I wouldn’t trust Deemo with a gun, Daddy,” she stated. “He still hits me with sticks whenever we’re outside. He acts like a five-year-old.”

“It’s time he grows up,” Mark laughed. He turned his attention back to Demetri, and the boy felt that scrutiny – the look that told him his father was trusting him with something important, and he better not screw it up. Disappointing Dad was one of Demetri’s deepest fears. He sat up straighter without realizing it.

“I’m taking you because I need to know I can trust you to live here with this in the house, Deemo,” Dad told him. “This is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever seen in your life – but it’s most dangerous in the hands of an ignorant person. I need you to understand: this is a tool, and mishandled, it can and will kill you or someone you care about.”

Demetri swallowed hard and nodded vigorously.

“Wrap your fingers around it tightly here, and your other hand goes around your fist to steady your aim,” Mark explained, standing behind Demetri as they looked down the range, his face close to the boy’s ear, his hands guiding Demetri’s carefully. “Don’t touch the trigger. You don’t need to worry about it yet. First, learn how to use it. The trigger is the least important part of firing a gun.”

Stepping back, Dad kicked Demetri’s ankle lightly.

“Spread your feet and plant them firm. Square up your shoulders. You want to lean into a little. When it kicks, you can’t drop it. You want your body to absorb the force. You have to think about every single thing your body does when you handle a gun – it’s that dangerous.

“You have to pay more attention to this than you ever have to anything in your life.”

Demetri nodded, making the necessary adjustments. He followed his father’s instructions, looking down the sight carefully, picking the tiniest mark on the target at the far end of the range.

“Pulling the trigger is going to make the whole gun move if you’re not careful,” Mark told him. “Try to squeeze with both your finger and your thumb at the same time so the force is equal.

“Okay, Deemo – finger on the trigger,” said Dad. His voice had become quiet – anticipatory. There was excitement in it. “Deep breath. Hold it.” There were only two people in the world. Demetri was alone with his father, they were a secret society of two, and Dad was passing what could have been the most important knowledge in the world to Demetri.

He held his breath.

“And. Fire.”

Demetri looked up at Feldman, exhaling in a long, tentative release.

“My dad never did anything by accident,” he told the professor as the other man was peering into the shelf, searching for something. “If he didn’t tell me – if he lied to me about it – he had a really good reason.

“But I still need to know.”

Feldman nodded, not turning around.

“Our fathers are men of great mystery,” he replied, finally pulling a few books down. “I don’t think we ever really know them, even if we’d like to. We only ever know what kind of men they make of us.”

He pulled four books free of the shelf and handed them to Demetri. The Michiganensian, the first read. Class of 1981. The other three books were similar: Michiganensians all, from different years: 1980, 1979, 1978.

“I think I’d make the same choice,” Feldman said, grinning at Demetri. As the young man inspected the books – yearbooks, he realized after a second – the professor laid a business card on top of the stack.

“I’ve written my home number on the back,” explained Feldman. “I realize with an undertaking of this sort, you may need…tactical support. Feel free to give me a call or send me an e-mail.”

He offered Demetri a hand.

“Now, if you’d be so kind as to get the hell out of here, I’ve got things to do other than help young people make personal journeys of growth and discovery.” The old man smiled warmly.

Demetri got to his feet, packing the books into his pack quickly. He snapped up Feldman’s hand and shook it vigorously.

“Thank you so much,” he said. “You have no idea how helpful this has been.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Karminov. Keep in touch and let me know if I can help you in any way.”

He turned back to his desk as Demetri backed out the door, unable to control his grin.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” Feldman called after him as Demetri reached the hallway. “Theater 215 – when I taught it, it was a course for theater majors.”

#

He made a quick trip back to his car and collected the laptop Karina had given him. With the computer bag swung over his shoulder and the pack tight and heavy on his back, Demetri walked back downtown. The storefronts belched people through open doors and signs blistered from their facades, declaring the presence of food and clothing and books and amenities.

He located a coffee shop and bee-lined for it, jogging absently through the street and ignoring the blaring horn as a car screeched hard just in front of him. He hit the glass door of the shop a second later and stepped out of the harsh fall sunlight.

The storefront windows cast the mellowing sun into the café, but inside was much dimmer and his eyes strained a little at the adjustment. He found a table and headed over, dropping into a seat as if gravity was suddenly crushing him. The backpack slipped from his shoulders and found purchase on the tile floor beneath him.

He couldn’t move fast enough. Demetri caught his face reflecting in the glossy wood of the little table as he pulled the yearbooks from the backpack, and the notebooks, and the photographs. The eyes reflecting back at him from the polished tan grain were alight with a fiery purpose as he laid out all of the objects before him carefully.

When it was all laid before him, Demetri paused. The small arrangement of information covered the table, and a tidal wave realization crashed over him as he perceived that the dark portion of his father was growing. Professor Feldman had helped cast more light into the shadows, but that had just helped to show that the expanse was cavernous.

What Demetri couldn’t understand was why his father had chosen to keep these things from him. He ran his fingers over the notebook, across the photographs, and felt a thick, heavy pain in his chest.

Whatever pact of knowledge father and son had had, this huge portion of Mark Karminov hadn’t been a part of it. Mark hadn’t wanted Demetri to know about this. He’d lied to protect it. He’d wanted to keep his son out of here.

Demetri’s fingers tightened unbidden into fists. It took him a few deep breaths to force them to relax. He struggled not to feel somehow betrayed. He told himself there might be a good reason.

But whatever that reason had been, it died with his father, Demetri thought. And he wouldn’t let this, too, disappear beneath the ground, the way his father had disappeared.

His thumb pressed a plastic button and the computer leapt into glowing life after a few seconds. It warmed up and he connected it to the coffee shop’s Internet absently with one hand while spreading the photos so he could look at all of them with the other.

Next he let the notebook fall open before him. Before he started reading, he typed quickly the address to his e-mail account.

A new message stood bold among the various other correspondence. Demetri clicked it open, letting his other hand glide over the notebook paper that was growing rough and hard with age.

This is a tool, Demetri heard his father’s voice say. And mishandled, it can and will kill someone you care about.

The e-mail was short – only two lines. Demetri recognized the name in the header: Abigail Tinsley, one of his professors.

“You missed the unit test today,” the message read. “Contact me with a VERY good excuse and we’ll talk about making it up.”

He stared at the text. Then Demetri guided the cursor to the top of the screen and let it fall on the little gray button marked “Delete.”

He found himself grinning at the incredible satisfaction the tiny plastic click of the mouse gave him.

There was a test waiting for him back at school in Lansing. There was an education waiting there. It had been important to Dad that Demetri do well there.

But as he sat in the coffee shop in Ann Arbor, hours away from that world, Demetri realized that whether he did well there only mattered to him because of Mark Karminov.

There were other things to learn.

He leaned back in the chair and began reading the notes his father had written down that had been meant to help Mark become a playwrite.

Setting Detroit, post-zombie

joe louis A project I was struggling with for the last few months is my latest entry to Wrath of the Damned. The story, “The Desert Stretched Before Him,” came out okay, but it took a long time to write and it ended up being long – like 9,500 words long.

If you haven’t read it and you care to, or you like me at all, jump over and give it a go before continuing here. The rest of this post contains spoilers about the story.

The writing of the story itself was intriguing for me. The theme comes mostly from when I read “Dune Messiah,” the sequel to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece “Dune,” way back in high school. “Messiah” is set on Dune, the desert planet that’s central to the entire space-faring society described in the novels, and concerns greatly the somewhat-nomadic desert tribes of people who live there.

At the conclusion of the novel, the leader of the tribe is blinded while warding off an attack from whoever happens to be fighting them that week (it literally could be anyone). Rendered a burden on his people, he takes a weapon and heads out into the desert – to die. That always resonated with me.

I wanted to apply that idea – that a person would put the needs of his group ahead of his own, and accept a death on his feet fighting rather than slowly wasting away as a burden – to a Wrath story. Zombie fiction sometimes deals with the “infected,” a person who is bitten and, as we all know but characters rarely do, is on their way to becoming more than just dead, but a very real threat to remaining survivors. This lack of knowledge consistently leads to carnage, but it’s cliché and predictable.

Instead, my character, Brad, heads out into his own desert, rather than risk the lives of his people.

But there are no such deserts in the Midwest, and specifically none in Michigan, and one of the things I (usually) strive for with Wrath is an authentic feeling, and that often requires real places. Besides that, at the end of the world where there are no people, everyplace can be a desert.

So the story was set in an urban area I could get behind – Detroit. Specifically, the survivors hole up at Joe Louis Arena. The only problem: My real geographic experience with Detroit is limited.

I hate to admit it, but I’m a suburban guy. I’m not happy about it. My time in Michigan has been almost completely suburban, apart from a short stint in a Detroit neighborhood when I was really little and a summer spent working in Grand Rapids. (Full disclosure: My apartment was in Kentwood, a GR suburb. Lame.) And while I did live for almost a year in a real urban setting, that real urban setting was Chicago.

Therefore, I took to the Internet. With the help of Google Earth, I was able to map with extreme accuracy the path of the main character through Downtown Detroit from Joe Louis to (somewhat meanderingly) Hart Plaza. It worked pretty well and I was able to establish the area in the story to a degree that made me pretty happy.

Here’s a Google Earth video I made of the path, complete with markers noting where some of the major plot points occurred. I think you might need the Google Earth app in order for it to work, though.

In creating the path and researching Downtown for the sake of the story, I was reminded of a similar process James Joyce engaged in during the writing of Dubliners. Not to compare myself to Joyce in any way – his process used letters in the mail and friends in the city to verify his information and was much, much more arduous; not to mention I’m writing horror fiction about zombies, and he’s James Joyce.

But there are parallels in the process. Joyce was relentless in his correspondence to make sure that he recreated the city in literature as it appeared in reality, to the chagrin of his publishers and their lawyers. And he had to do so from overseas, removed from the city he was trying to capture, which adds to it this voyeuristic longing to see the place, to be part of it, to know it and make others know it.

Okay, so imagine some low-level semblance of Joyce’s need to immortalize Dublin about a hundred years ago. That’s kind of how I felt.

And of course, there’s an interesting element in thinking about Detroit devoid of life. The city’s on this cusp right now – failing, emptying of people, and in urban decay as it has been for years; but also ready to be reborn, with a recent election of a new city council, various programs attempting to pull it back up, a recent Superbowl and a lot of national attention recently. Two very different ways to look at the city – and despite being a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested frozen nightmare for Brad, Detroit isn’t necessarily cast that way in the story, at least visually, and the whole thing is spiritual and ultimately positive.

“Desert” is, after all, a desolate vision quest for a doomed man in a doomed city. But neither are, necessarily, beyond saving.

So back to the techno-savvy way of walking through a city. It’s definitely strange to do things this way. The ability to virtually wander around Detroit for the purposes of fiction was convenient, but as to authenticity, I feel a little weird about it.

But I did end up in Detroit not long after for, conveniently enough, a hockey game. We walked from near the Renaissance Center to the Joe, past Cobo and Hart Plaza, so I got the lay of the land first-hand, even though it was dark. And I got the layout of Joe Louis, which was very cool on account of I hadn’t been there in a while and the interior pictures on Google were lacking.

It’s a far cry from Joyce’s postal reconnaissance and I feel kind of bad about it being so easy. But I enjoy the fact that I, like Joyce, have been able to find some process in which to make a city into something more than a setting at least in this one story – with a little (or a lot of) help.

Second Wind

As he reached the end of the driveway, it started raining, and Tom nearly turned around and headed back inside.

He stood at the mailbox for about three minutes, if it was that long. It could have been an hour that he stared at the cold black-painted tin, the red plastic flag aimed skyward as if to exclaim something he couldn’t read or hear. Impulsively, he opened the box, but it was empty.

The red plastic flag seemed to glow in the diminishing sunlight. Demanding to be noticed.

Tom set one foot, tied tight into a brand-new gray cross-trainer, against the dirt road ahead of him, and started running.

It hurt. A lot. He used to get shin splints when he would play soccer in middle school and they seared with a vengeance now. Despite the rain, he could feel himself go to sweating almost instantaneously. Tom’s extra weight bounced around his waist and chest and he felt like a leper under the bright halogen scrutiny of each passing car.

Pavement and puddles slapped under the fresh shoes with the sound of meat dropping to the cutting board, and he got the distinct impression of the sound echoing his body’s struggle, its unwillingness to participate. He ignored it and counteracted the feeling by dialing up the volume on the mp3 player he carried in his left hand.

Tom found himself wheezing and he struggled to focus his mind on something – anything – that would keep his attention off his own sorry excuse for a body. He cycled through any thoughts he could come up with: school, television shows, recent movies, new albums, moments with friends; but of course Tom’s thoughts eventually settled on Tuesday night at the Library Pub.

It was bustling and crowded for the nightly drink specials and because it was one of the only places the newly graduated or still-enthralled students could go drink while they were away from college. Tom, of course, had never left town, unlike most of the kids he’d gone to high school with. His grades and his family’s finances hadn’t been enough to send him to the illustrious state university along with every single person who’d graduated with him.

He hated it here, but it was Demetri’s birthday and he’d insisted. Tom didn’t see those guys much anymore – really only when they happened to be home for a holiday or he could muster enough gas money to make the two-hour trip out to one of their parties – so he’d gone, grudgingly, knowing full well that it would be like lunch in the school cafeteria, only more irritating.

Tom had been the last to arrive. He’d purposely let an extra forty minutes pass before heading out to the bar, which was only a half-mile down the street from his parents’ house anyway.

At first he’d drifted through the smoky bar, which was alternately themed with pool tables and shelves of books, as if the owners couldn’t make up their minds as to atmosphere. The whole place was lit green by jade-shaded plastic fluorescents, giving it harsh white glare over tables like a prison and a soft glow that made it difficult to get around anywhere else.

He sat down heavily beside Jason at a shiny wooden table that caught the light and bounced it into Tom’s eyes as if off stainless steel. The other guys were through a beer or two each. Tom wished Demitri a happy birthday, giving him a handshake over the table, squinting through the light. Jason clapped him on the back.

“Starting to wonder if you were gonna show up,” he called over the music.

Tom just gave a thin-lipped smile.

Across the round table, Hugh leaned so he was closer to the center. He was midway through a story.

“So this girl is gorgeous,” he said, looking from face to face. “I mean, I would have gone for her.”

He shot a glance back at Daphne beside him and gave her a grin. She returned it with a little punch on his thigh.

“She was pretty hot. So I figure, I’ll put Marcus onto her, she seems nice and he could stand to get laid,” Hugh continued. “So I bring him a couple drinks from the kitchen – this girl is into screwdrivers, and I mean into screwdrivers – and send him over.”

“Is Marcus coming out tonight?” Tom asks, interrupting. Marcus was his preferred Sommerville brother. Hugh was a little more…hard to handle.

Hugh shrugged. “I thought so, but who knows, maybe he’s banging his babysitter.

“Anyway,” Hugh said, stretching the word to indicate his annoyance at the delay, “He goes over with these screwdrivers and offers one to her, and she gives him this big smile, and I think, ‘Well done, me.’”

Hugh paused to look around at his audience. Tom waited for their eyes to meet and Hugh to move on before releasing the heavy sigh that was building in his chest.

His feet were pounding pavement somewhere, his shirt soaking with sweat, and he was already sick of this scene. Tom had turned out for the birthday festivities, and he had known going in that he’d have fun with the guys like always, but somehow he already felt distant.

The sky grew bloated, purple and gray, the air around him going thick and hazy with darkness and moisture. Tom’s muscles burned from head to foot, front to back. He could feel tension building in his shoulders and tried to relax his hands. He could feel impacts welling up in his knees. The word “atrophy” tracked through Tom’s mind.

Ahead he saw some bike-riding silhouettes. High school kids, he guessed from their sideways hats and low pants. They were meandering on the upcoming chunk of sidewalk.

Tom adjusted his stride and stepped down off the curb onto the street to avoid them.

“So I look over a little later, and this girl and Marcus are gone,” Hugh nearly bellowed over the drowning tide of full-bar conversation and what passed among their generation for music. Tom looked back toward the door, scanning it for a second, before turning back to the story. He caught Daphne’s eye, watching him, as he brought his attention back to Hugh.

“I ask around and people are saying they saw them out on the porch. So I put my head up to the window on top of the door – and there’s this hot chick, standing there with two cups in her hand, and there’s my jackass brother, bent over the railing and puking into the bushes.”

Jason and Demetri laughed heartily. Tom cracked a smile, but really, most of Hugh’s were generally the same. And all spoke to an experience – a college experience – of which Tom had little or no understanding. These stories brought up images of “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Animal House” for him. That was about as far as the recognition extended.

“So what happened to him?” Jason asked. Tom heard thick enthusiasm in his voice.

“No one is really sure,” Hugh replied, chuckling. “It was his second drink of the night. He just hauled off and started puking for no reason.

“Although, looking back – and don’t tell Marcus this, he’ll kick my ass – but I think that orange juice might have been there when we moved in.”

Jason, Demetri and Hugh laughed again. Tom caught Daphne’s eyes – she’d heard it before and grinned only for Hugh’s benefit.

Tom smiled too, a little, and asked, “What happened with the girl?”

Hugh almost gagged on the beer he’d been pouring back from the thick glass bar mug as Tom asked the question. Now he slammed it down and looked toward the other man, his face alight.

“I almost forgot! She took him home!”

“You’re kidding,” Demetri said, leaning up toward the table, suddenly captivated.

Hugh struggled to breathe, drink and speak at the same time.

“No,” he returned, wiping beer foam from his thin face and thinner brown beard and mustache. “No, I’m serious. She thought he was cute, they talked for the rest of the night and she took him home. I mean, it ended as soon as he mentioned he had a kid. He seemed pretty into her thou
gh. You know, for, like, that couple days.”

Now it was Daphne who leaned in, brilliant green eyes piercing Tom. “Speaking of girls,” she muttered in a low, mischievous tone. “Did you ever ask out Caitlin?”

Tom blushed and immediately hated the feeling. He leaned back and folded his arms over his chest.

“I’ve talked to her some,” he returned.

“So no,” Hugh said, laughing.

“You know, she’s coming out tonight,” Demetri said. “Or at least, she was supposed to.”

Tom involuntarily looked back at the door, right in front of everyone looking at him, and when he turned back he felt their stupid gazes, screaming “Ah ha!” as if he’d been holding back something incriminating they’d just now discovered.

“There you go,” Hugh piped, his eyes lighting up. “Perfect opportunity.”

Tom sighed loud. “Please don’t start giving me advice.”

A headlight flared and Tom spat out a deep coughed as he passed the high schoolers. His lungs burned right along with his calves. As he went by, he met eyes with one of the students. The stare felt cold – contemptuous, he thought. He felt his face twist in confused reaction.

But they were gone within a few seconds and he wasn’t sure what he’d seen, and he worked to convince himself that it had been, in fact, nothing. Tom preferred to give people the benefit of the doubt – to assume they were generally good.

Even though his experience didn’t really bare that out.

He couldn’t shake the inclination he’d gotten from the instant he saw the kid’s face, though. The boy was tall and thin, lanky with bones protruding in weird places in his face and elbows, like his skin was stretched too thin over a skeleton cobbled together from leftover parts, and his creator had been short on muscle and fat that day. He’d only seen the kid’s eyes for a millisecond, and they were obscured partially by a sweatshirt’s hood and growing purple darkness, but it been more of a feeling – a shockwave, a jolt of something awful and icy that leapt free of dark blue eyes and was carried down the wire of the boy’s stare.

As he thought about it, Tom realized what he was feeling, and it was familiar. He was feeling the coursing sting he always got when someone eyed him, when their gaze turned down off his eyes to his chin, his chest, his gut.

Despite his attempts to put the feeling away and write it off, something in Tom knew what he’d seen in the kid.

After all, people who run are running from something. A thing that chases them. A monster that threatens to swallow their identity and to make them into something they despair at being. They run from themselves – they’re fat alter-egos.

What nerve Tom had – the thought grew in his mind and he couldn’t shake it – that he, a fat guy, should try to rise above his station when the monster had already taken him. Too late, fatty, the high schooler had shot at him with all the power and accuracy of lightning. Know your place.

“I don’t know if I like her that much,” Tom lied. “We’ll see.”

The other men at the table laughed. Daphne was silent and Tom felt her watching him. It was a feeling he despised.

“Liar,” Hugh cracked between chuckles. Tom said nothing and the issue fell away as Hugh launched into another story. It turned out to be another long tale of college partying, and after a few moments, Tom realized he’d heard it. He excused himself to head to the bar for another drink.

Tom crossed the room carefully. He kept his eyes forward, refusing to fall into the trap presented by looking around the place and potentially meeting eyes with someone he knew. His face was obscured by green-hued dark and he aimed to keep it that way as he dodged wooden tables, which went from polished and classy like a library to covered in scrawled names and cheap witticisms, a classic bar attempt at community borne at low cost by sharpies and pocket knives.

It was strange, the difference between high school and now. It was as if, by graduating, everyone had come out of some tragedy together. The people he’d never known, people he’d never liked, they all talked to him as though they were old friends.

Tom hated the charade of it, and he couldn’t handle the small talk. What are you doing now, the inevitable question would arise between him and Person X, and he’d be forced to explain his meandering through community college, unsure of what to study or where he was headed. He also couldn’t handle the equally inevitable “Oh,” which inexorably carried a tone that said very clearly, “Oh – is that it?”

He reached the bar and took a seat in an empty stool while he waited. The bartender, a pretty woman in her early twenties who was wearing a tight black shirt that seemed to beg for tips, was scurrying around and he recognized that he would be last on the list of people to be served.

Tom stared down at the scarred wood and at his fingers laced over one another there. He was losing himself in thought, waiting for the bartender to look his way, when someone slapped the bar beside him loudly.

“Tom Carter,” a voice erupted and Tom felt his shoulders drop. He turned to see the flaring eyes set in a young, chiseled face. The guy was grinning widely, his thick neck stemming out of a sort of pinkish-purple polo shirt. Recognition came instantly.

“How the hell you doing, man?”

Tom smiled half-heartedly.

“All right, Brett. How’re you?”

“I’m great, man, just great,” Brett returned, jamming a hand toward Tom. His grip was vice-like and excessive, Tom thought. “Jesus, I haven’t seen you in, like, two or three years.”

“Yeah, not since high school,” Tom agreed. He looked for the bartender, but she was busy with a group of three guys that were clearly hitting on her, far at the other end of the bar. No escape offered there.

“So what’re you doing now?” Brett asked, still grinning. Tom recognized that the polo shirt was about a size too small – a calculation to show off Brett’s chest, which was far more defined and toned than Tom remembered.

“Same old stuff, going to school,” Tom replied in a short burst. He eyed the other man slowly. Brett had been popular in high school and always treated Tom like a piece of garbage. Of course, though, now that they were out, everyone in Tom’s senior class had been his best friend, he thought.

“That’s awesome,” Brett returned with glowing enthusiasm. “Man, I’m loving college. I’m studying fitness now. It’s awesome.”

Tom nodded along as Brett spewed practiced facts. He was annoyed at Brett’s presumption that he could be a dick for years and now pretend that it had never happened. Then again, Tom thought bitterly, there wasn’t much to do about it now.

“What’s your major?” Brett asked.

He could have said, “I’m between things,” or “I don’t have one,” or “I have no idea what I want to do with my life.” Instead, Tom intoned matter-of-factly, “Graphic design.”

It was a go-to response he used with people who didn’t matter. Brett nodded fast, his head bobbing up and down.

“That’s awesome,” he said fast. “That’s really cool, dude. Hey man, you been working out? You look good.”

Tom involuntarily smirked. Working out? He’d gained twenty pounds since he’d been out of high school. He hadn’t worked out in months.

But he lied again. This time it was involuntary, and Tom wondered to himself if he actually did look better. Lately he’d been trying to eat better, he reminded himself. “Yeah, once in a while.”

“Looking good, man,” Brett said. He was talking fast. “I’ve been doing this new workout program, Power Cross it’s called. There’s a whole six-day-a-week program, a diet program and a vitamin regimen. It’s awesome.”

“Awesome,” responded Tom quietly, holding
the irony in check.

He reached the end of the street, the drab rough setting for glowing, mirror-like reflective puddles and splashing raindrops, and Tom actually was feeling pretty good, despite those stupid high school guys. He’d gone further than he thought he could, and he’d only walked once so far.

Checking the street for oncoming traffic, he jogged across to the other side and doubled back toward home. There weren’t many people out anymore, which he preferred. Tom really dreaded an audience as he jogged, so much that it was often an excuse to keep him inside.

It still sucked. The blasts of pavement against his feet seemed to ripple up his body and make his spine hurt, his shoulders throb, and he could feel a headache starting. Still, he had too much reason not to stop. Tom gritted his teeth and his hands balled up tight as he went, but he was determined to make it back home.

“You know, I think a guy like you could really benefit from this vitamin regimen I know of,” Brett told him. He was giving Tom his full attention now, looking him right in the eyes, no longer concerned about waiting for the bartender to drop by.

Tom raised an eyebrow. Vitamins?

“They’re really great. I’ve read a lot about the way they amp up your metabolism, especially for heavier guys,” continued Brett, not missing a beat. “Especially if you’re working out. The whole thing comes with an appetite suppressant, a metabolic regulator – they’ll really help you, especially if you’re doing a sort of sedentary job, like working on a computer all day,”

He couldn’t even say anything as Brett rattled through his speech. Tom realized immediately what was happening – he was receiving a pitch.

Brett went to his shirt pocket and drew out a business card. He slid it toward Tom.

“Gimme a call sometime, man, or come in and I’ll hook you up. We can do a whole BMI-metabolism workup, complimentary.”

The card was in Tom’s hand and he stared at it, disbelief flooding his features.

“You want to sell me vitamins?”

He was almost home now.

His lungs were going crazy and Tom’s pace had been reduced pretty substantially by this point, but he was still moving, and that was a victory, he figured.

The sun had nearly disappeared and the sky had turned to black silhouettes stabbing high into deep blue. A few people were still out, but not many. Across the street up ahead, Tom recognized the same group of bike-riding high school kids plodding down the sidewalk. He kept his eyes straight ahead.

As he was passing them again, Tom felt the pavement below him pick up about two inches. His toe caught the lip and he pitched forward, the world careening around him in a blue-gray swirl. His mp3 player flew violently from his hand, followed by his headphones, as he threw his arms in front of his face and landed on the pavement with a scraping roll.

His hands burned and he could feel pebbles embedded in the skin. Tom was on his stomach and rolled a little. Blood trickled from scrapes on his knees and elbow. By some miracle, he thought, wincing, he hadn’t landed on his face.

Across the street, Tom distinctly heard laughter.

“I just figured, here’s a guy who I can help reach his goals,” Brett said, and now the facade was so obvious that it actually nauseated Tom.

Tom blinked.  He looked over the card – Brent Bauer, Independent Sales Associate, it read – and then down at himself. Was he really so fucking pathetic that this guy, who hadn’t talked to him in years, had looked at him and thought, “Here’s a jackass who must be so unhappy with himself that I can sell him in a bar?”

His eyes went to his hands. They were bloody and hurt, but what he was really feeling, vibrating through his skull and rattling his eyes, was the laughter. With a grimace, Tom rolled to his back.

The kids were still  there across the street, occasionally shouting taunts at him. Tom couldn’t really hear over the blood thumping in his ears from the adrenaline that had accompanied the fall. He got to a sitting position and looked to his right.

A tall man was standing there with a cigarette in a tan Marine uniform. His arms were crossed and he was looking straight at Tom. For a second, he expected the man to offer to help him up, and he couldn’t decide if it would be kind or humiliating. The other man said nothing, though, and Tom didn’t move.

After a second, the Marine took a puff on the cigarette and then re-crossed his arms.

“On your feet, son,” the Marine muttered, his voice gravely and guttural, but even and devoid of emotion. “Have some pride.”

A couple of long seconds passed while Tom let the words sink in. Then he brushed his palms clean of any bits of pavement and hauled himself up to his feet.

“Nothing broken,” the Marine said, and Tom recognized that he wasn’t asking. The man dragged his cigarette for a long moment, tossed it, and cocked his head back toward the building behind him. Tom followed the motion and read the sign that identified the building as a recruiting station. “Full disclosure,” said the Marine.

He stepped forward, stuck a hand in his pocket, and withdrew a card. He pushed it toward Tom, who took it with a slow, stinging hand.

“Give me a call – or don’t,” the recruiter muttered again. Then, as he turned toward the building, “Keep your head up.”

Tom crushed the business card in his hand, feeling the anger seething through his fingers. Brett’s face screwed up into confusion as Tom dropped the card on the bar.

He shot the confused salesman a grin. “Fuck you, Brett.” Then Tom stood up and left the bar. His plunged his hands into his pockets and kept his gaze down, slaloming through the tables and people until he reached his seat.

Hugh had everyone laughing as Tom dropped into his chair. Jason turned to him and said, “Where’s your drink?”

Tom shrugged.

“Was that Brett Bauer up there at the bar?” Demitri asked, and they all turned toward Tom. He frowned and nodded.

From Hugh: “What’d that asshole want?”

“Just shooting the shit,” Tom returned, looking at his hands. “Thinks because we went to the same high school we’re best friends.”

“What is that,” Hugh said, shaking his head. “Like nobody remembers what a jerk he was.”

“Yeah,” Tom replied.

“Did you tell him to fuck off?”

Tom watched the recruiter go in and looked down at the card. Hold your head up. Tom wiped his knees and picked up his stuff from the sidewalk.

They were still laughing and calling things at him from across the street as Tom put the ear buds back in. He ratcheted up the volume until he couldn’t even hear his own thoughts. It was a nice feeling.

Pain flared in his knees as Tom’s shoes splashed across the wet pavement. The pain felt good. Running felt good.

He sucked air into his aching lungs and found belonging in the gathering dark.

Ground Zero

WTC When they got to the hospital, Demetri’s father had been there for nearly three hours.

What struck Demetri most was the hallways. There seemed to be no end to the network of blank white hallways, each prickled with dozens of doors, all bustling to different degrees with doctors struggling to get to wherever they were going.

His mother was leading them and Demetri had logged more than once how steely she seemed in the face of crisis. His older sister, on the other hand, couldn’t stop crying.

For Demetri, some sort of autopilot had kicked on inside him, and he found himself following the various instructions given him with a robotic silence. He noted and compiled details about what was going on around him.

Among these was the readout on each of the several digital clocks they’d passed already. In the hospital lobby: 8:33 a.m. After waiting, walking, waiting again, through three hallways of identical sterile intensity, they reached the section of the hospital where his father was.

In this hallway (which was marked by a yellow stripe running along the top to indicate the intensive care unit): 8:42 a.m.

And the first thing he noticed when the nurse opened the door before them into his father’s room was the black and red digital wall clock: 8:48 a.m.

A dark-haired doctor wearing a lab coat had followed them in and was explaining things to Demetri’s mother, who stared at his father, unmoving in the extremely white hospital bed.

“The paramedics said your husband’s accident was pretty bad, Mrs. Karminov, but it seems most of his injuries could have been a lot worse.”

Demetri made an automatic mental note of his nametag: Dr. Alexander Murphy, M.D. Below that it said “General Practitioner,” and the name of the hospital, “Good Samaritan,” and beside that the logo, a red medical cross with a white hand reaching down to another hand over top.

He was aware that he still hadn’t been able to look at his father straight on.

“You said he was in surgery a little while ago,” Demetri’s mother said in a sort of monotone. Demetri logged that, too, as well as the number of times his sister sobbed between breaths – which was five, then two, then four, then five again, in a fairly regular pattern.

“We dealt with some internal bleeding in his abdomen. We’ve got the bleeding under control now,” Murphy told her. He was almost whispering, as if his voice might somehow cut through the drugs Demetri’s father had been filled with and wake him from his sleep.

Or maybe the whispers were for the benefit of Demetri and his sister.

“Is he going – to be all right?” Karina sobbed toward Murphy.

Demetri watched as the doctor frowned and his mother continued to stare at his father. Murphy sucked in a deep breath and Demetri could tell how new he was to this – he was pretty young.

“The bleeding was pretty bad … well, I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re going to keep him down here in intensive care for at least a few more hours. But I think your dad is going to be okay.”

Karina cried harder. Murphy excused himself. His mother stood frozen in place, staring at the broken form of her husband. Demetri checked the clock: 8:59 a.m.

His father breathed deeply and there was the faintest tinny whistle of air through plastic.

Just more than sixteen minutes passed before they all really settled down. Demetri realized that his feet hurt and he made his way to a black chair with thin silver legs on which he could see a label – IKEA ALEXANDER – and a price tag – $49. It was wholly uncomfortable.

Karina was seated at this side of the bed for that time, crying and talking quietly to their father, but Demetri couldn’t hear what was being said.

His mother was sitting at a small table in the corner of the room, her head in her hands.

At length, she looked up at him. He had automatically glanced at the clock again (9:27 a.m.), and knew how this would look to his mother.

“Are you okay, Demetri?” She sounded more annoyed than concerned.

He frowned, stalling, but a good answer didn’t come to mind.

“I was just thinking … for some reason, I was thinking that I’m missing a test right now.”

They stared at each other for a second, then Demetri looked away at the floor. His gaze for the first time went to his father, who still hadn’t moved, and Demetri felt like he’d put him there. The bruises on his father’s face formed a pattern that resembled a dog howling at the moon, like a constellation, and he logged it and then found himself disgusted with the involuntary response. He looked back at the floor and said nothing.

The silence snapped and Demetri jumped as his mother started laughing. It was impossibly loud in the tiny room. Looking at him, through bursts of it, his mother said, “I’m supposed to be in a closing and you’re missing a test.”

It was the most frightening sound Demetri had ever heard.

Ten seconds passed and Demetri got to his feet. He walked to the bed first, where his father lay quietly, and looked at him. Karina had her crying down to a consistent whimper now. She’d moved to another of the chairs (IKEA ALEXANDER, $49) and was huddled up with her knees against her chest.

Demetri watched him breathe for three long minutes. His father’s chest rose and fell in labored bursts, as though he needed to marshal strength each time he inhaled, and when his will gave out, his lungs emptied. There were a few places where stitches stood pointed from his skin like alien barbed wire, adding to the bruise constellation to make it a grotesque hodgepodge of images and flesh.

It was the tubes that led into his father’s nose and throat to keep him in oxygen that finally were too much for Demetri. He tasted bile and his stomach heaved slightly. He quickly left the room – his family said nothing to stop him. The red clock readout 9:33.

The blank sterility of the hallway helped him steady himself. He’d never seen a place so clean. After thirty-four seconds, his stomach stopped its periodic lurching. But he couldn’t go back in, so he plunged his hands into his pockets and headed down the hall.

Around the corner was a lounge of some kind, with wooden chairs and tables spread throughout. Demetri entered slowly, looking at the floor (which was waxed beige tile in the hallway but checkered blue and red carpet in the lounge), but it was a few moments before he realized that everyone who was in the room – a mix of patients, family members and hospital staff, eighteen of them – was standing in its center, grouped around a white ceiling support post, their heads raised upward toward it.

Their eyes were fixed on a mounted television set.

As he got closer, he could hear a newscaster. The reporter’s voice was shaking and he sounded out of breath. Demetri could see the streets of a city, filled with people who were staring upward. The newsman was standing beside them, looking up. The camera tilted upward to reveal the World Trade Center, the towers billowing smoke violently against the nearly cloudless blue sky.

“Once again,” he was saying, “two airplanes have crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack.”

As he spoke, a video started to play that had a note reading “Recorded Earlier” and showed a jetliner that streaked through the frame and collided with the other tower. There was a massive explosion and the camera shook.

Demetri’s small crowd came alive with gasps and whispers. “Dear God,” someone nearby muttered.

< p>He backpedaled, running into someone behind him. Apologizing reflexively, Demetri turned to see the small group he’d joined had at least doubled in size. The lounge was barely big enough to accommodate them all. Someone stepped forward and turned up the volume on the TV.

“We don’t have any word on casualties in the towers, but New York authorities have called all available emergency response personnel to active duty ,” the anchor was saying.

Demetri dropped into a chair, still watching. He could tell that people were barely breathing in the lounge – he himself had caught his breath stalled in his lungs more than once already.

The red digital clock on the wall read 9:51.

He found himself tuning out the commentary as he watched the structures burn. Small things dropped off the buildings, plummeting to the city below. At first he thought they were bits of the buildings themselves, but after just under forty seconds, he realized what he was really looking at.

They were jumpers; people were throwing themselves from the building.

As Demetri watched, unable to look away, he started to become aware of something behind him. It was some sort of high-pitched, muffled noise, coming from the hallway.

Slowly, he came to realize it was screaming.

Demetri spun in time to see Karina burst through the door to the lounge. The group of patients, family members and hospital personnel – more than a few of them doctors and nurses – turned to see her as she came in.

She was screaming.

“My dad! My dad needs help!”

Three full seconds passed before two doctors and a handful of nurses broke from the crowd and rushed out the door. Karina, her face wracked with horror and pain, stared at Demetri for a second, then two.

Finally, she blurted, “Where the hell were you?”

She whirled and disappeared down the hall. Bewildered, Demetri’s feet carried him away before his mind caught up to the command.

He reached the room a few seconds later. Doctors were huddled around the bed and alarms and bells were screaming. Demetri’s mother was in the chair next to the bed, one hand on her head, her gaze bent toward the floor. She didn’t move or look toward the bed.

A nurse pushed Karina and Demetri out of the room, saying something he didn’t comprehend, and the door closed hard in front of them. Karina sobbed and moved away, but Demetri pressed his face against the window in the door and watched.

All he could see were hunched, white-and-blue clad figures, the edge of the bed, and the frozen form of his mother.

He turned away. Down the hall, the group of people turned toward the television in the lounge was spilling out into the hallway. Patients, family, doctors and nurses were all standing on tiptoes, trying to see over one another. There was dead silence.

“I can’t believe this,” Demetri muttered. He looked down at his feet. The hall spun around him. He couldn’t turn back to the hospital room, where he could feel the life bleeding out of his father. He started back down the hall toward the lounge, captivated – but Karina’s hand caught his.

“Stay,” she muttered. “Dad needs us to stay here.”

“Something’s happening,” he returned, pulling gently on her hand. Leading her to the lounge. “Something huge is happening.”

Karina pulled back. They stood, she facing the door, he the lounge. At once, there was a collective gasp from the group and murmurs shuddered through the people there. The door to their father’s room kicked open and there was commotion beyond. And crying.

They waited in the hall and a lot of time passed without anyone coming to talk to them, but Demetri knew. He already knew.

The first of the World Trade Center towers fell, and his father died, and all around Demetri, the world collapsed.

Cracking Open Fingers to Release Truth, Whether It's In There or Not

He stared at the blank page and it reflected his mind.

Not that he had nothing to say. On the contrary, he felt he had plenty to say, so much so that all the bits of it were piling against the floodgates that ran to his fingers, coagulating against one another and preventing any from being projected out into the void.

And while all those things were there, fluttering just behind his eyes and bouncing off one another like moths crowding toward an incandescent, false moon, he couldn’t seem to find a shape for them. They were formless hunks of half-formed ideas that he felt sure he could make into something if only he could figure out that first word.

So Hugh Summerville picked one at random.

Burma. It popped in there at once. People were fighting for democracy in Myanmar, he’d read just a few seconds earlier during one of his many forays into the void, excursions he made every time his attention wavered.

Burma. Democracy in Burma. Burmese pythons. Burmese mountain dogs. Dogs fighting pythons. Hugh didn’t even like dogs (or pythons), not really, because he found them to be too much like children, except harder to wrangle, impossible to reason with, and constantly begging for food.

Misbehaving dogs drove Hugh crazy. It was an attitude he’d inherited from his mother, who always would yell at the family dogs (why there had been two Hugh had no idea) regardless of what they were doing, and most the time when they were doing nothing at all.

He hated the fact that he’d been so influenced by his parents’ opinions. His dumb parents, Hugh corrected himself, rapping on the delete key. They knew nothing of the world in which Hugh lived, he was sure. They were often closed-minded. They disagreed with him on a number of political and religious fronts. Once, his mother had been so offended that Hugh said he considered himself an atheist that he’d thought she might disown him then and there.

Not that Hugh had had much in the way of a religious upbringing. But suddenly it was incredibly important, and his lack of faith incredibly disappointing. He refused to talk about it ever again.

He considered deleting the document up to now and replacing it with a discussion of religion and parents, but really, he had nothing to say on the matter. His parents irritated him, and so did religion. End of story.

He considered next a long dissertation on his politics, the stupidly hard-to-explain cross between laissez-faire and social protection that even he couldn’t really wrap his head around. Health care yes, government control no. Security yes, government wiretaps no. Strong dealing with foreign aggressors yes, preemptive war no. Part-time state legislature. Better road care. Free market. Regulations against jokers in the energy industry.

The philosophy was wrought with contradictions, Hugh was the first to admit that. No reason in inviting criticism from the fat Internet geeks he knew who would probably be the first, last and only people to read what he had to say. Not that had had anything to say at on the front that hadn’t been said, and said better, by someone else anyway.

Annoyed, he shut the laptop. He wandered the room for a few seconds, then returned, determined to force himself to be interesting, to pour his thoughts out into the void, to prove to himself that he was both worthwhile and had something worth sharing with others.

But he didn’t.

Burma.

The screen shimmered dark and light, the text going gray and blurry before his eyes. It was a convoluted, nonsensical mess, but so was his mind.

Fuck it, Hugh thought. No one read what he had to write anyway. If a tree falls in the woods, alone and cold and desperate to leave an impression before it rots away and disappears, at least it makes a sound to itself.

Therefore, writing without having anything to write was just fine. After all, everyone else did.

Hugh tapped “publish” and went for a smoke.