The Screaming Comet

Chuck’s challenge this week is another Random Title challenge, which is always so much fun.

My title was “Screaming Comet,” for which I had a couple of ideas right away but none of them seemed to fit. I pondered on it for a few days before finally arriving at this one, which was at least influenced in its inception by Stephen King’s short story, The Jaunt.

I don’t know what it is with me and kids, but they’re having a run of bad luck in my stories of late. Nonetheless, I actually quite enjoy the idea behind this one and the society I started to build for it, even if … well. I guess I’ll just let you read it.

Here’s “The Screaming Comet,” at 1499 words.

 

The Screaming Comet

“…reaches over two thousand miles per hour before it leaves the tracks and turns skyward…”

A pencil jabs Brian in between the shoulder blades, and he spins around from his doodle to see his friend Jessica looking at him with big deer eyes. “My Gran is going on the Comet tomorrow,” she says, “isn’t your grandpa going, too?”

Brian nods proudly. “He doesn’t have to go for another three years, but my Grandma went last year, and he says he’s ready.” He puffs his chest out as much as is possible in the confine of his Edu-enforcer. “He’s showing me the train.”

“…achieving a top speed of over twenty-five thousand miles per hour as it delivers our Elders on their final voyage…”

Jessica stifles a snort. “Big deal. I saw the train last year.”

“And perhaps Mister Roberts can tell us,” Miss Remnand asks pointedly, as every head in the class snaps around to stare at Brian, “why the train is called The Screaming Comet?”

Brian whirls in his seat and his face darkens. He knows it’s something to do with the speed…

Eddie Verner shouts out, “Miss Remnand, I heard it was because everybody inside starts screaming as they go into orbit.”

“Nonsense, Eddie. Nobody would be able to hear anybody inside the train doing anything. No, the sound is a combination of the train breaking the sound barrier and the friction on the tracks…”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Brian silently thanks Eddie for saving him, even if Eddie is an idiot. The Comet carries people to the Great Beyond; nobody would scream because of that.

**********

Final departure will commence in t-minus twenty minutes.

As his grandfather points out the features of the train, Brian runs a few steps ahead, running his hand over the shiny vinyl seats, pressing his face to the big panoramic windows, staring at the sparkling array of digital displays and the wide-mouthed air vents that dot the aisles.

“Here we are,” Grandpa says, pointing to the aisle seat just a few rows from the back.

Brian plops into the seat, buckles the belt and starts kicking his legs. “Aw, why couldn’t they give you a window?”

The old man laughs, mirthless and empty. “Some of us just aren’t so lucky.”

Packs of people mill about, mostly silver-haired men and women moving quietly to their seats, a few adults giving hugs or listening as the elders whisper in their ears, a handful of kids like him moving about the car in wonderment. “Grandpa,” Brian says, his voice hushed, “Eddie Verner says they call it The Screaming Comet because the Elders scream when it leaves the station.”

Grandpa’s face creases with concern, and he sits next to the boy, squeezing his shoulder and mussing his hair. “Don’t listen to your friend. The Comet is the best gift our old world has ever given to people like me.”

“It looks really cool. I want to ride it someday.”

“Not for a long time, son.”

Brian nods to himself. “And Eddie’s not my friend. He’s stupid.”

**********

On the loading dock, a commotion has broken out — pushing and shoving and shouting — at the center of which is a gaunt, bald and wild-eyed Elder. His family can’t be found, and he’s waving an old knife around at anybody who gets  close. It’s only moments, though, before a tiny dart sprouts from the side of his neck and he collapses, drooling and babbling. A contingent of white-clad attendants shoulders through the crowd and ushers him onto the train.

*********

…no cause for alarm. All non-passengers, please exit the train at this time.

It’s orderly, but it’s chaos as the aisles jam with people evacuating the train at the announcement and the appearance of the drooling, nonsensical man being hauled into a seat. The attendants buckle him in as a sudden crowd of people surges past, seeking the exits.

Grandpa kneels next to Brian, his faraway, mist-veiled eyes piercing through the boy. “I love you, grandson. You take care.” And Brian feels himself yanked into a bone-crushing embrace. He thinks he hears the old man sobbing at his shoulder, but the moment Grandpa releases him, his wrinkled hands spin Brian around and point him toward the front of the train. In a heartbeat, Brian is lost in the close press of people emptying off the train. Grandpa dabs at his eyes and straps in.

*********

The initial stir has ceased, but now a general unease has settled over the loading dock, a foul miasma that the onlookers are breathing in. Nervous chatter breaks out here and there, then voices raised in argument, and the attendants as one cock their heads at the directive streaming in through their earpieces. They share a nod and then, as the last people debark the train, seal the doors. It’s seven minutes ahead of schedule, but they’re sending The Comet off early.

**********

The face of Grandpa’s dearly departed wife floats to the surface of his memory as a leaf across a pond. He steals a glance across the woman next to him — smiling in her sleep, hands clutching a weathered picture — and spies the onlookers. Some look angry, others anguished at being held back from the train by the outstretched arms, and in some cases, batons, of the attendants. Not supposed to be this way. Old fool on the dock ruined this nice moment for all of them. The thrusters begin to fire, one after another, at first sounding far away up by the engine, then growing closer and louder, until all is a dull roar muffled by the tin walls of the Comet, like a kidnapping victim screaming in a trunk.

It’s at that moment that Brian peeks his head out from underneath the seat in front of him. Sure he’s seeing things, Grandpa blinks his eyes again and again, until the boy speaks and dispels all hope that he was an illusion: “I’m stowing away, Grandpa!”

The elders are slow to react, and it’s hard to hear over the roar of the engines, but first Grandpa’s seatmate wakes up, then the pair across the aisle, and in moments the traincar is alive with shouting and protesting: “A kid… just a boy… where’d he come from… open the doors…” it all bleeds together in a growing torrent of disbelief and panic.

**********

The crowd on the docks is unruly now, some of them with tears streaming down their faces, some pointing furiously at the train. One attendant takes his eyes off the crowd for a moment and steals a glance at the Comet — sure enough, the Elders in there are pressed against the glass, banging on the windows and shouting soundlessly. Rare for it to go this way, and a shame, too. Better when they go with dignity, but it looks like it’ll be a Screaming Comet this year.

Then the locks disengage, the train lifts up on its hover-rails, and in the space of a breath the Comet winks away into the distance, a sound like shearing metal and a thousand voices in pain dissipating on the dock as it disappears.

*********

Brian watches, his eyes the size of bowling balls at the window as the houses fade to dots, the cities turn into a formless blur. The entire landscape resolves itself into one huge patch of green and blue as the Comet streaks into the upper atmosphere. The Elders, all their sound and fury spent and useless, sink back into their seats, some of them grasping Grandpa’s shoulder with heavy hands before they do. Some are crying. None of them will look at Brian.

Brian pulls himself away from the luminescent panorama and stares at the Elders. “Why are they crying?”

The words seem to tangle in Grandpa’s throat. “Because you’re not supposed to be here.”

“But I wanted to go to the Great Beyond with you.”

Grandpa wants to explain to the boy. But the sun is shrinking over the radiant blue curve of the earth. It won’t be long now. He chokes back tears and flashes the biggest smile he can manage at Brian. “Then let’s go together. Have you ever seen anything like that?” And he smiles and laughs with his grandson as the sun disappears from view, the last sunset they’ll ever see. And it’s such a marvelous sight, this final gift to the Elders, with the inky black of space behind and the infinity of sprawling starscapes ahead, that the Elders forget their rage and fury that Brian has to take this journey with them and they smile silently. The cabin fills with the boy’s innocent laughter as the vents release the numbing gas, and the passengers of the Screaming Comet drift off to sleep.

In the seconds that follow, the hatches on the Comet open and its contents are ejected into the void to begin their final journey into the Great Beyond, while the Comet begins its balletic descent back to the Earth.


Running from the Hard Stuff

I don’t do running posts here so much anymore. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing (probably an indifferent thing ultimately), but every time I find myself writing about running I find myself wondering how much can really be said.

It’s a run. You put one foot in front of the other until you’ve had enough or until you can’t any longer, and um… that’s pretty much it.

That said, even given the understanding (and it is my constant position) that every run is a good run, yesterday’s was a bit better than average. It’s been a long time since I had a run without any pain — ball-of-the-foot pain, ankle pain, bottom-of-the-heel pain, back-of-the-heel pain — and as a result I’ve approached every run for the past three weeks (following a month off) with a fair amount of trepidation. Fear that my feet are still jacked up and will therefore screw up the run, fear that I’ll do further damage to my feet and screw up any future runs, fear that while taking it easy to avoid exacerbating my existing injuries I’ll stumble into some other entirely new injury.

But, see, there I go, taking a thing that’s incredibly specific and realizing that it’s a lot bigger than I thought. Running in fear of injury has me going slower than ever and heading out on shorter distances than I’ve run since I got started two and a half years ago. And yes, I’ve been successful in avoiding injury that way, but I also feel as if I’m not accomplishing much, either. Rather like a tightrope walker doing practice runs on a line just a foot off the ground. Sure, they’re good for fundamentals and building confidence, but sooner or later you have to go and climb the building again, man.

With that in mind, and after a quick little jaunt on Saturday with no ill effects, I set out for a five mile stint yesterday and allowed myself to go as fast as I liked, rather than reigning myself in like I’ve done for the last three weeks. I wasn’t setting speed records or anything, but I got my pace under ten minutes per mile, which is about a full minute per mile ahead of my pace on any other run I’ve had of late, and about the fastest I’ve gone since all my injuries started. Five miles later, the feet are tight and sore, but not showing any pangs of injury, and here a day later, they’re still showing all clear. That’s room for hope that my injuries may finally be on the ropes.

But where was I? Right. Jumping to conclusions and making metaphors out of molehills. Because I wonder if, not unlike the way I’ve been babying my injury of late, I’ve not been babying my edit of late as well. Shying away from the hard work. Giving myself overlarge pats on the back for accomplishments that really aren’t so grand. Simply pacing back and forth on a line one foot off the ground. I tell myself that I’ve got lots of time ahead, what with the holidays coming up, to make progress on the edit, and I’ve been using that as an excuse to let the hard work at hand slide. I tell myself that I cleared a ridiculously high hurdle and earned a bit of a step back from banging my head against the wall, and now I feel my momentum slipping away. Taking the easy way out.

Back when I started the first draft of the novel, I set what I thought was an ambitious goal for finishing the thing, and I shattered it into thousands of sparkling shards, finishing almost a month ahead of schedule. Then I set a deadline for my first edit, not knowing what the process would be or whether the goal was reasonable at all, and it looks like I’m not even almost going to make that goal. Now, to be fair, the beast has shifted and changed form and whereas I thought I was facing down a steaming, stomping minotaur, I’m actually battling a winged harpy that screeches and attacks from all angles, so I’m not mad at myself for taking more time than I thought I might. Still, if I’m honest, it’s sliding on me. The Grinch’s sleigh sliding inevitably down the mountainside as he clings hopelessly to the rails.

Well, the run can often be instructive, and this weekend’s run is telling me that it’s time to stop handicapping myself, stop shying away from the thing that’s difficult and do it because it’s difficult. My feet are healed (or at least healing) and ready to carry me back to longer distances and faster paces. As for the edit, I think I’ve enjoyed my tiny victory enough; it’s time to face the harpy and buckle back down to work.


Step Back

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the work. It’s so easy to forget the forest for all the trees all around you. It’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day sharknado that pops up right in front of you and forget about the big picture.

Is it a human shortcoming?

As a writer, it’s so easy for me to be blinded to my goals on a big scale when things are going wrong in the now. I’ve struggled for the last two weeks, writing and re-writing a handful of scenes in my novel, becoming more and more myopic and less and less able to think on the large scale. I felt as though this one scene was a wrecking ball smashing the novel as a whole to rubble, that this one hangup was one crashed biker causing a monumental pileup as all the other bikers come scorching around the curve. Feet stuck in a quagmire. The whole house on fire.

But the quagmire is not so much a bottomless pit of quicksand as a little mudhole. The house isn’t on fire, it’s just the spaghetti I was overcooking. (How I managed to set spaghetti on fire in this metaphor is hardly the point.) We’re talking about a mammoth manuscript of almost a hundred thousand words, and I was allowing myself to think the whole thing was scrap metal over a troublesome patch of three thousand. But one dubious passage can no more derail the work than an untied shoelace can stop a marathon runner. Sure, it’s annoying. Sure, it must be dealt with before it’s allowed to do further damage. But it’s fixable. It’s recoverable. All that’s needed is to step back and remember what’s at stake and what’s positive about the rest of the work.

But it’s not just true as a writer. I feel this myopia as a runner. I’ve been dealing with injuries a lot lately, and it’s so, so easy to get tunnel vision over the injuries and imagine that my routine and my ability as a runner has been and will continue to be stymied by these injuries. And, sure, I’ve had a loss of fitness and definitely a loss of confidence over the setbacks. But even after taking a month off to get my feet right, I’ve been able to bounce back and start pushing my distance up again pretty quickly. It would be easy to focus on the negative, and that’s what I’ve done in recent weeks: that I’m not able to go out as fast as before or nearly as far as before. But I take a step back and it quickly becomes apparent that despite the setback, I’m bouncing back quicker than I really had any hope of doing while I was laid up.

And, no surprise, I feel it as a dad. I get overwhelmed by the sprouts, and I feel like all I’m doing is putting out fires and telling them “no” and telling them what they shouldn’t do. Before you know it, I’m in a funk because I’m exhausted from all the screaming and reprimanding and the cleaning and the slaving. But a little step back — a little shift in perspective — reminds me that they’re growing up pretty good. They love to laugh and to show off what they know. They’re both incredibly smart. And, my shortcomings as a parent notwithstanding, they seem to be fairly well-adjusted. They’re gonna be fine.

I’m a bit of a literature and film geek, and The Hobbit is somewhat front-of-mind at the moment. There’s a salient moment toward the middle of the text where Bilbo and the dwarves are lost in an evil forest; have been for weeks, doggedly following a path, not knowing how long it is or where it leads or even if they’ve made a wrong turn and are losing all their progress. Their eyes are down and it’s darkness all around them. They’re frustrated. They’re snippy. They’re turning on each other, ready to call the whole adventure off and go home. Then they have the bright idea for Bilbo to climb a tree and get some perspective on where they really stand. So he does, and his head breaks through the impenetrable canopy — the film captures this moment really beautifully — and he sees daylight for the first time in weeks. Feels the sun on his face again. Breathes clean air again. And from his new vantage point, he can see, in the not-so-distant distance, the looming peak of the Lonely Mountain, their ultimate goal, which they’ve made surprising progress toward despite their squabbling and doubt.

Birds!

Birds!

Of course, when he descends, he finds that his comrades have been captured by and are about to become dinner for a gaggle of giant talking spiders, but I think it’s safe to say that’s beside the point.

Much gets said, in this country and, heck, on this blarg, about the intrinsic value of sticktoitiveness. The usefulness, the inevitable necessity of keeping your head down and getting the work done. And there is value in that. A lot of value, even. Because if we have our heads in the clouds too often, if we spend too much time dwelling on the lofty goals and the dreams, well, then… that’s time not spent getting the work done. But nose-to-the-grindstone can’t be the only posture we exercise. As in all things, balance is key.

Point is, the easy road is to become so lost in what you’re doing that you forget about the big picture. And if you lose sight of the big picture, then giving up doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But giving up is a big deal. It’s the biggest of deals. Because when you give up, you essentially set fire to all the time and all the effort that you put into getting as far as you got. And if there’s one thing we don’t get back in this life, it’s time.

So whatever you’re working on — your novel, your schoolwork, your health, your parenting — remind yourself that, every now and then, it’s okay — necessary, even — to take that step back. Take that breath of fresh air. See and appreciate the forest despite all the freaking trees.

The work is important, but it’s no good if you don’t know where the winds are blowing the boat.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Frickin’ Laser Beams

The future is here.

I remember playing video games as a kid (okay, who am I kidding; I remember playing them as recently as last week) and in just about every game, especially in the height of the Nintendo era, there was a hierarchy of weaponry. Peashooter, rapid-fire peashooter, short-range death-spraying flamethrower, some mystical weapon that sprayed bullets in a ninety-degree arc from the barrel of the gun somehow, and then at the top of the pile was the frickin’ laser beam.

This was before rocket launchers or sniper rifles could be realistically worked into games (because you know, the laser beams and spreader guns were totally realistic) and became the top of the heap like they are today. The laser beam was king. As soon as you got the laser beam you essentially became death incarnate, indiscriminately spewing fiery destruction in whatever direction you chose, melting the faces off any hapless henchman unfortunate enough to wander into your general vicinity. The holder of the laser beam could stroll to victory over a veritable heap of enemies’ corpses, charred to a smoldering crisp. Never mind whether the weapon was believable or not — I always went for the weapon, not simply because it laid waste to the enemy with effortless indifference, but because it was so much fun, not just to wield, but also to say. LASERS. Some games spelled it with a “Z”, which was even more aweZome. LAZER GUNS, pew pew!

And, of course, there was Star Wars. Oh, the Star Wars! Star Wars did for Laser guns what… well, what Star Wars did for the lightsaber, for that matter. The awesomeness of wielding a one-handed laser blaster was matched only by deflecting said laser blasts with a deft lightsaber dance. (God, I don’t know if my children will ever be able to understand how awesome it was having serious video games and unbelievable special effects for the first time literally ever.) And part of the magic of these impossible weapons was that they were just that: impossible. Sure, we have “lasers” in the real world, but in a practical sense, all they’ve been is tricky little optical games and, recently, some sort of pseudo-scientific surgical tool. Hardly the godlike power to incinerate your foe from miles away.

Until now.

One of my students today showed me this article from CNN. It’s a goldfingered LASER BEAM mounted on a boat, and that sucker is, much like the Death Star, fully fargoing operational. It flings not a bolt of neon-colored plasma a la Star Wars or any of the multitude of video games I played as a kid, but rather an invisible bolt of lightning that incinerates its target at the speed of light. Seriously. Its targets simply burst into flame or straight-up evaporate under the onslaught of… what? Photons? Higgs-Bosons? Tiny leprechaun arsonists? It’s the kind of destructive force that would make somebody on the business end of the weapon feel as if god’s judgment had suddenly struck down from the heavens.

And the best part? It is controlled — and this is a quote from the article — by a “video-game-like controller.” Imagine it. All those hours I spent as a kid parked in front of the Nintendo could have been training me to fire a deathly real, honest-to-goodness, death-from-above laser beam. If I had only joined the Navy.

Of course, a weapon like this calls to mind all sorts of ethical arguments, and one only wonders where the technology will go from here. Sure, the gun is enormous now, mounted to the deck of a battleship and requiring its own hangar to house it, but in a decade? Twenty years? How far away is a literal real-life iteration of a Ghostbusters-esque proton pack that laces the enemy with a maelstrom of positronic energy that simply causes all of its molecular bonds to scatter like so many roaches when you turn on the light in the kitchen?

But for the time being, let’s just bask in the sheer amazing innovative drive of science. Don’t F with ‘Murica.


Not Okay

WordPress is loaded with nifty little features. I can sort my posts by subject or keyword, I can see which posts get the most traffic, I can see who leaves the most comments, I can see who’s binge-eating ice cream while they read. Okay, maybe not — but the technology must be in the works.

I can also see the search terms people enter to end up at the site.

Some of them make good sense and tell me I’ve written posts that may actually have been useful to people: “how to write a graduation speech”, for example. Or posts which might have provided some advice or peace of mind: “vasectomy” or “should adults read YA lit”. Then there are the searches that just make me scratch my head: “dead bird on porch meaning” (I had just written a nifty short story about birds dropping out of the sky), for example, or “time drowning a groundhog” (seriously, what the fargo), or, my personal favorite, “I’m talking and I can’t shut up” (methinks the blarg might have a new tagline). Lots of searches related to writing — getting started writing, writing a first novel, etc.; and toddlers, naturally.

But by far the most searched family of terms that lands people on my site is enema-related.

Let’s start off very clear. The post that gathers all this traffic is this one, in which I talked about how I wasn’t going to talk about the time I gave my son an enema, because some things are best left unimagined. It’s one of my shortest because, unlike some times when I say I’m not going to talk about things as a springboard to talking about those very things, I really didn’t say anything about it, except perhaps to mention the amount of poop involved, which was extensive. But seeing the searches accumulate made me chuckle, because I pictured poor terrified parents — much like I was — faced with the prospect of giving their son or daughter an enema and searching in a cold, nervous sweat through the internet for guidance that wouldn’t make them vomit.

But I saw another search today which has thrown those other searches into another, darker, altogether more sinister light: “stories 10 year old boy enema stories.” And I read it, and I leaned my head to the side in thought, and I read it again, and then I wanted to throw up, because I can’t imagine a scenario where it’s not a pedophile on the other end of the wire, fantasizing about doing some really weird really sicko sharknado to a kid to get his jollies. I was really upset. Almost took down that post because I don’t even want a whisper of a hint of the foul odor of a degenerate like that fogging up the air around here.

But then it occurred to me that maybe I got in the way of said pedophile, and maybe I ruined his, uh, browsing with my drivel. And that made me happy. Still disgusted, but somewhat happy (we need a word for that. Something like “disgustiflappied”).

I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I’m still really uncomfortable with the thought that a search like that could land you at my site, even though all I post here is harmless diversion, and the closest thing to pornography at this site is a post about the time I ate a steak in the bathroom (life gets weird when you have a toddler, okay?).

I guess I can’t control what people search for or what the internet gods serve up when you search for it. But if you’re here for stories about kids getting enemas… well… I don’t know what to say. They’re here, but they’re not what you’re looking for.

Ew.

And if that other filth is what you’re here looking for, I hope an avalanche of toddler poop washes over you. Unless that’s what you’re into, in which case I hope you get stung in the face by legions of bees.


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