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.

Dead space and dying stars

I started this blog as a lament of how badly I’m performing as a writer, but about a quarter of the way through the original draft, I got inspired and banged out a “Millennium Men” story.

So I guess I’ll post the first draft, as-yet untitled. Note that I haven’t read it over yet and won’t for probably another few days.

Meanwhile, I really have been failing as a writer. Just not failing as hard as I usually do.

For one, I’ve been totally uninspired by the “Wrath of the Damned” Twitter account. Something about where we ended up just doesn’t do it for me. I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet.

UPDATE: Actually, about a quarter of the way through this second draft of this blog, I started work on the “Wrath” twitter again. Laziness is preventing me from starting over for a third draft. So just deal with it.

Anyway. So I was feeling bad about creation lately. I still feel like I need to be doing more, and spending less time doing things like watching the new “Battlestar Galactica” blu-ray set. And even though I have gotten some new stuff going lately, it doesn’t make me feel any better about what I’m doing. The general feeling that something is wrong persists.

Basically, it’s been a painful couple of weeks in the creativity department.

My thoughts on friendship have been spiraling, which puts kinks in projects like “Millennium Men.” A group of 10 of us spent four days camping in West Virginia, along with white water rafting, and the experience was illuminating, hilarious, and troubling.

I was disappointed to learn new things about my friend Matt in particular. Matt when drunk can be an unpredictable person, but there were some serious falling-out moments that took place during the trip. He managed to alienate most everyone there.

Things are a bit strained because of these developments, but whatever. I haven’t spoken with anyone who was on the trip with me in about a week except for Nick. No one else has made much of an effort in my direction and I’m okay with taking a little space from them. But the whole situation harkens back to the idea that my friends and I are largely pulling in different directions. We might be outgrowing one another.

That kinks things up for me when I’m trying to write a novel about friendship and camaraderie when I don’t actually feel a lot of that. I guess partially that’s the point.

Anyway. The light of a few friendships might be dimming. What’s weirder is my lack of real problem with the development. A lot of it feels inevitable.

Some of it feels necessary.

The old complex I used to have about losing people is almost entirely gone. I feel like my life is streamlining down to a handful of people I really care about. Shedding skin, losing vestigial relationships, filling dead space with things that really matter.

I lost myself in another city five hours away. The guy that returned from Chicago isn’t the same one that started out there.

That’s for the better in all cases. Specifically, the maintenance of life I used to do no longer satisfies me, if it ever did. That applies to people too. Only the most important people in my life, I’m finding, deserve my time and effort.

That’ll do. Maybe next time I’ll post an outline.

Oh, that’s right. I’m writing an outline for “Millennium Men.” That’s significant because I never do that. Starting to get serious about the business of writing.

Destruction and creation

I can’t seem to shake this sneaking, nagging desire to sell off all my junk.

The more I think about it, the more the boxes of random stuff I moved back from Chicago six months ago just annoy me. What’s really in there? Let’s run it down:

1. Toys
2. DVDs
3. Books
4. More toys
5. Video games

These things include my extensive collection of Mighty Muggs, a few action figures, some bobbleheads, and other knicknacks and odds and ends that looked fun scattered around my apartment.

After packing them all up, I realize how little I need of that stuff anymore.

The reality of it is, that stuff was a crutch for my identity. Movie memorabilia and old action figures no longer define me. I don’t need them (all).

I am somewhat loathe to part with my fairly huge DVD collection. I might salvage some or all of that. But my 50-inch TV, my $600 surround sound system, my numerous video game systems collecting dust, my three-foot replica “Gears of War” Lancer rifle — I just don’t feel the same attachment to them that I once did.

For one, they’re a pain to move, and what I’m really feeling right now is a need to go. The trip to NYC reawakened in me the notion that I don’t belong here and have never belonged here. Plus living with my parents (and by circumstances, Caitlin) isn’t awful, it’s just not independent enough.

I’ve always felt a need to go elsewhere. It didn’t work out with Chicago, but there were mitigating factors involved there that made that situation ultimately fail on every level.

Really, I had no reason to be there. I didn’t know anyone there. I didn’t explore the city. I didn’t fulfill myself. I watched movies and did my job quietly in my living room. And while I was sitting around, unhappy and lost, large portions of the rest of my life were disintigrating. I wrote next to nothing in that city, and I realize now how soul-crushing that was.

In retrospect, I was unhappy a lot in Chicago, but I came through that fire much better off. Now I’m looking for a place where I can feel more at home. And I can’t be lugging needless material bullshit with me across this country.

The old life, the old me, is coming apart. I feel it every day. The things I wanted I don’t want anymore. The things that mattered don’t matter anymore. Whole new things matter now — most of all, forging ahead in the career that I really have always wanted. It’s not journalism, despite what I told myself as I trudged through my degree and various jobs out of college.

It’s time to declare total war on my life. I think the ceasefire will come when I relocate.

At the same time as I’m deciding that large portions of my life require destroying, creation is on my mind. I’ve spent more time blogging and writing in the last few months (mostly because Caitlin is an incredible inspiration) than in a long while. A lot of ideas are buzzing in my head.

The “Wrath of the Damned” project, for example, is going swimmingly. The @wrathofdamned Twitter account is a lot of fun, if not always the brainiest of literary exercises, but it’s like having a new prompt every day. I just finished what I’m thinking may be a final edit on “Defense of Self,” a new story for the “Wrath” blog, that I think is my current favorite of the pieces I’ve written.

“Millennium Men” is slow-going, but on my mind. When I finish the final edit of “Defense,” I’ll go back to work on the novel relentlessly. I have four or five stories just floating around in my head. And I keep thinking about buying notecards and poster board to create a moving, workable storyboard/outline that I can use to finally nail down exactly what I need to work on for the story.

Other writing projects include a pilot for a television show and a humorous time travel textbook I’m working on with Nick Hurwitch. We’re about to start a third draft of the script and this week, which includes a visit from Nick, will also include work on the time travel book to figure out how to pitch it to a publishing company, hopefully.

There’s more. My brain’s buzzing. I’ve finally discovered the software to run my webcam as a regular camera, and so now I’m bending my brainstorming muscle toward coming up with something to make out of all that technology.

On a more personal level, spending time with Caitlin constantly leaves me wanting to spend more time with her. We’ve talked about moving in together when her lease ends in the next six weeks or so. Really, the life I want to create, I think, is in Los Angeles. To work as a writer, and especially in film, that’s the place to go. Not to mention that the many projects I’m working on with Nick would be far easier to finish while in the same place.

But L.A. isn’t an option without Caitlin — what I want to create includes her, or doesn’t exist at all. We’ve talked about it and she’s willing to go. I haven’t worked out the logistics of the situation just yet, but that’s where I want to end up — provided she’ll go with me.

More than anything, of all the stuff that’s running through my mind, finding a way to make sure Caitlin is a part of my life is my biggest concern. Nothing else matters.

Out with the old, in with the new, I guess. I’ve never been this excited about the new.

Research trip: NYC

Halfway to New York, and I’m in the car working and now blogging. As I’m nearly to my destination and the purpose of this trip is directly related to my future as a writer and novelist, I feel like I should explain the trip’s significance.

I’ve already spoken about the trip’s conception, in a vague way. Allow me now to give that situation context.

I started about a year ago working on a series of short stories that eventually will compose a novel. The working title for the whole project is “Millennium Men.” It concerns a number of topics of great interest to me, and many feelings and conceptions about growing up as an American Midwesterner man at the turn of the century that I hold close to my heart.

The largest and most important of these is the effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on me as a resident of Michigan, as an American, and as a young adult at the time. Ever since the tenth grade, when I sat in physics class, watching the event unfold on the class room TV, I’ve felt this sort of strange dichotomy about 9/11.

On the one hand, I feel a great deal about the national tragedy. In a very real sense, it’s still a fresh wound for me. But on a personal, individual-people-who-died-in-the-buildings sort of way. And NOT on a larger, I’m-an-American-and-we-all-grieve-together scale. I’ve never felt “connected” to the tragedy.

In “Millennium Men,” the climax of the story, and the experience of the main characters, has to do with coming of age in a climate where everyone is shaped by a series of events to which the characters feel no strong connections. They (and I) are actually shaped more by the ABSENCE of connection — to the tragedy, to the country, and to each other.

The characters in the novel travel to NYC to deal with how they feel about being American men, and their time at the WTC site is a key moment to the story I want to tell.

So I have to experience that myself, and get my own head on straight about the tragedy, before I can write about it.

That’s tomorrow. I honestly don’t know what to expect.

How I found a real use for twitter

I’m fascinated by this Twitter stuff.

Tonight Nick Hurwitch and I worked pretty extensively on the “Wrath of the Damned” multi-author Twitter story, which consists of an on-going short story created by whoever happens to sign on and add to it. Caveat: We don’t tell each other what we’re doing until it’s up. Therefore, the story goes all over the place in a really organic, interesting way. (That’s @wrathofdamned if you’re interested.)

It’s a different sort of writing, that’s for damn sure. For one, the 140-character limit means you get right to the point. No screwing around. It minces things like description and complete sentences, but it also means a really pure story — find the best way to convey your thought or abandon it.

And not knowing what the other authors are going to contribute is extremely interesting because it means making up a new story at pretty much every turn. I had more than one good idea for what the story would become at key moments. Then Nick stepped in. Now we have something wholly new — like a dead main character. It’s really quite exhilarating, from a writing standpoint.

Just wandering around reading Twitter is a lesson for a writer, though, really. Snapshots of people’s days, of their lives, of their thoughts — you get quite a bit of information. It’s also a good way to see what is not interesting, at all. It’s almost better to follow boring people than interesting ones. I’ve learned some new stuff about authenticity, to be sure.

It’s kind of stark when you see reality condensed into tiny bites, especially when you read something profound. Fabricating that experience makes it all the sweeter once you’ve found the real thing.

Oh, also, I can get tidbits from Oprah.