In August, I signed up for my first writing class that involved other people on the site, LitReactor. Called Writing the Weird, the class dealt with the ins and outs of a genre called Weird fiction. When I took it, I wasn’t really sure whether it would be useful, but by the time the class was finished, I felt somewhat closer to a home genre-wise. Over the course of 4 weeks, we developed a short story and, since I was already in the midst of working on Unclean, I decided to try and write something I could use in that.
The course blew the story and my brain apart. I ended up with something completely different than when I started – new main characters, new world, etc. Yes, Tim from the original story is still there. The only difference is, he’s no longer the main character.
You can find the short story below. Afterwards, you can read what the instructor – JS Breukellar – had to say about the story. (Spoiler – it was really great!) Let me know what you think. Also, this will give you an idea of what Unclean will be like.
By Rick Rigdon
Shoulda known things were fucked when Roxie didn’t wake during all the ruckus.
My blue heeler mix snores softly on her back from between my legs. As I unzip my sleeping bag to investigate, she stretches and moans, letting me know she’s unhappy with my actions.
“Don’t blame me. I was sleeping, too,” I mutter. I motion toward the flap. “You coming?”
She huffs then snuggles deeper into the bedding.
“Ok, princess – just remember this when you want out at 4 a.m.”
I unzip the tent and crawl out into the October chill. Our impromptu village off exit 173 is dark and quiet. How can anyone sleep through this racket?
The noise is unbearable – a cross between a coyote chewing off its leg to free itself from a trap, fingernails on a blackboard, and the worst case of tinnitus imaginable.
Then, the images bombard my brain: A black and white tv showing Nixon shaking Mao’s hand. A crying girl, tied to a bed. head flailing back and forth as she looks for an escape. A hollow-eyed boy shivering naked in the dark. A naked man, lying bloody and dying by the side of a road. A wrecked Ford Pinto sitting in a yard, its driver dazed, indecisive about what to do next.
I’m on overload with this erratic goulash of disquieting visions, impossible what-if’s, and utter terror, all accompanied by a blaring soundtrack of sobs and “it’s all my faults” playing in Dolby stereo inside my skull. I stagger to the makeshift bench beside my tent.
In God’s name, please make it stop.
I haven’t felt like this since …
“Shit!” Now I’m doubly annoyed. It’s freakin’ soulspeak.
I rise and pace around my campsite. It’s been what – 10…15 years? How did it sneak past my defenses?
That’s a mystery for later. Somewhere, someone nearby in Seattle is in a world of hurt. And for whatever reason, I’ve been tapped to help.
I search the darkness. If I’m experiencing soulspeak, it means he’s probably here also – Ezhno – or Big Bird as l used to call him – not that he’s yellow or cuddly.
“Show yourself,” I whisper-shout.
There, back near our makeshift latrine, the shadows darken. Golden eyes glow as the half-man, half-bird steps into the light.
He nods a curt greeting. “Jesse.”
He towers over me, well over 6 feet. No, nothing unusual here. Just a Dwayne Johnson wannabe covered in black feathers and sporting a huge raven’s head.
“I thought we had a deal, you lousy shapeshif-“
“Get over yourself! Things change. You know we don’t always get to choose who we work with. If we did, do you think I’d pick you?”
I so want to answer, but the intensity of the soulspeak drops a notch. Not a good sign. Against my better judgment, I know we need to investigate. “It sounds bad.”
“Empathy? From you? Seems someone’s having a change of heart. You coming along then?”
I nod, then gulp in preparation.
He reaches out, running his index finger across my forehead. Instantly, we’re psychically connected. I’m inside his body, peering out through his eyes. I glance over at the dweeb standing before me, eyes wide and mouth hanging open – me, in all my glory.
Abruptly, we’re off.
We rocket over Seattle. He’s now a normal raven but flies like he’s been outfitted with grade A boosters. Nearing the Space Needle, he releases a gloating croak. “Kraa, Kraa.” I know he’s showing off, demonstrating he still has it after all these years.
Before I can tell him to tone it down, however, his demeanor darkens.
“His soulspeak’s always been weak, but lately, things feel worse. Another major spell’s coming.”
“Who? You’ve previously worked with this guy?”
A moment of indecision, then he responds. “Yeah, I’ve been with him for years – even longer than you. His name’s Tim.”
That silences me. Ezhno apparently keeps secrets.
We descend toward an older apartment building near Ballard. The soulspeak is barely audible now and the images are just electronic snow.
Ezhno whispers. “Let’s hope we’re not too late.”
We do a flyover of a balcony on the third floor, then land on the railing one apartment up and over.
A man – this Tim – sits smoking outside. His thinning hair, gray and greasy. His oversized sweats and worn-out Joy Division t-shirt stained and filthy. Ezhno’s acute sense of smell picks up a mixture of stale sweat, cigarette smoke and carry-out tikka masala. Plus, Tim’s got a serious case of swamp ass. I want to gag.
He squats over a nicked blue milk crate, its faded text proclaiming Hills Dairy – Where Happy Cows Graze. I watch as his hand mechanically hoists a cigarette to his lips, pauses for a puff, then swings back to his side. Almost immediately the ritual repeats, guided by some private rhythm.
“Well, things aren’t perfect, but not catastrophic either. At least he’s not attempting to climb over the railing.”
“Yet,” Ezhno quips.
When the cigarette’s filter smolders, Tim snubs it out on a saucer overflowing with butts, eyes staring blindly ahead.
I assume he’s finished, but no – he heaves a troubled sigh and retrieves another. The flame briefly illuminates his anguished face, then buries it once more in shadows.
I wait for the routine to restart, but this time it differs. Two short inhalations separated by a brief pause. Then one much longer.
Calmly, he lowers the cigarette to his forearm. I hear the sputter of burning flesh. The arm lifts, then lowers. Again. And again. Each time, the maddening sizzle. Each time, the scent of grilled beef, long left out in the sun.
Ezhno flaps off our overhead perch. My vision momentarily blurs as we dive in with a hellish yawp. Beak meets fingers, nipping everything within reach. Finally, Tim’s grip relinquishes and the cigarette drops to the metal flooring. I watch as it rolls off the balcony to the grass below.
We land at Tim’s feet. Looking out over Ezhno’s ebony beak, I meet Tim’s hollow eyes. No hint of pain, no remorse. Then, a lone tear crawls down his cheek.
# # #
We stand watch as Tim naps. His soulspeak is calmer now but still weak.
“He always like this?”
“No,” Ezhno says.”Sometimes it’s better; sometimes worse. You’re seeing one of his typical down days.”
Before I can ask anything else, Tim startles and snorts awake. He stares down at us. Recognition passes over his face and his eyes briefly soften. However, the reprieve is short-lived and his internal walls lock back into position.
Abruptly, his soulspeak crescendos. It leeches on to Ezhno as if he’ll flee from the horrors just witnessed. Come. Please.
I know Ezhno. He would never turn his back on one of his charges, even if the psychic tether that once held them together is broken. He’d do everything permitted to help someone.
He’s making this journey and it looks like I’m stuck tagging along. I’m ok until I feel Ezhno shudder in anticipation of what we’ll experience. Then, without time to reconsider, we slip into the murky depths of Tim’s pain.
“Be watchful,” Ezhno counsels. “We can’t alleviate anything but maybe we can gain understanding.”
We push through the dying gasps of blistering forearm cells. Past pulsing vermillion barricades erected against more recent abuses. Even further where sirens feebly wail, seemingly unaware the hopes and dreams they were designed to protect now lay scattered in festering ruins.
I want to shriek in terror when I feel Ezhno’s defenses weaken against the onslaught. Swept along with the now booming soulspeak, I feel him throb like the exposed nerves of a cracked tooth or beak.
Eventually, we reach something much older, stronger – even rancid in its nature. It floods the darkness and Ezhno’s helpless to fight the raging current of blue-black pain-sludge. I can only bob along inside my host, nauseous and dizzy from the smell of decay.
We travel seemingly endless miles. I’m no longer sure where we are – it could be deep inside Tim’s psyche or in some lost corner of the Lower World. All I know is I’ve never been here before. From Ezhno’s reaction, neither has he.
The darkness fades and both the soulspeak cacophony and its hungry grip diminish. We surge toward the barren shore. Ezhno shakes loose slimy globs of Tim’s torment. It splatters to the ground, glistening obsidian chunks of psychic carrion.
The landscape is arid, primeval. A suffocating haze chokes the sky, barely lit by an anemic, oblong, brownish sun. A huge mesa looms in front of us; others burst from the otherwise empty wasteland in the distance.
A lone voice calls from above – Tim’s soulspeak in its purest form. I can tell by Ezhno’s hesitation that he’s unsure of himself again. After weighing the danger, he flies to the mesa’s top, me his hapless passenger.
The mesa’s caprock stretches forth, empty except for a decrepit cage with Tim squatting inside.
He clings to the bars, staring out away from us. His aged rust-covered fingers loosen then tighten their hold rhythmically. I can’t tell if he seeks freedom from his prison or protection within it.
Then, I notice the door is slightly ajar.
Before I can comment, Ezhno internally nudges me – apparently it’s safe for us to separate. There’s a brief push, then I’m standing beside the half-man, half-bird again. I guess we’re going for intimidation.
“They’re out there waiting,” Tim quietly observes.
The youthfulness of his voice surprises me. Then I notice he’s no longer the old man from when we arrived. He’s now the naked boy shivering in my soulspeak visions.
I glance at Ezhno but he only shakes his head. I’m not sure what he means – we’re definitely going to have to work on our communication skills.
“Who’s waiting?” I ask.
“My father. Lori. Even Zach. They want to punish me. And I deserve it – I killed them.” Once more, Ezhno shakes his head. This time I recognize the warning. Don’t encourage him.
Finally, Tim turns and looks at us. “And you know what? Soon I’m going to give in – let them punish me – out there.”
Serenity passes over his face and he briefly smiles. Then the sadness returns. “I’m a sinner – putrid, evil. Don’t get too close – I might ruin you, too.”
He turns away, looks out into the distance again.
A greenish fog creeps up over the edge of the mesa from below. The air immediately chills. Tim nods, then whispers.
A bloody man appears outside the cage, jaw half missing from the impact with the Pinto.
A frumpy middle-aged woman materializes, her face marred with the tell-tale signs of meth abuse.
A fierce wind howls. A boy, 13 at most, joins the others, a rope hanging tightly around his neck.
Other names are uttered; other phantoms appear.
Then, all goes quiet.
I expect Tim to cower away from the ghostly crowd. Instead, he rises and pushes the door completely open in welcome.
I gasp as the specters enter. When they’re all in, Tim latches the cage, trapping himself inside.
Faintly, he says, “This may seem bad but it’s not really real. Soon, though, they’ll be free – out there. Then, I’ll have peace.”
After a moment, his screams begin. I look to Ezhno for help. Instead, I see the pained expression of someone who’s fought this battle before in different locales.
I start to charge forward but I’m restrained by his strong arms. “Not now. Not here.”
He turns me around, then touches my forehead again. Soon we’re flying silently into the darkness.
I hate this life.
I hate this work.
It seems, however, I have no choice. It’s going to find me no matter how far I run. I only hope Roxie hasn’t pissed in the tent.
These are the comments I received back from instructor JS Breukelaar. I’m including everything she said – including the craft-specific suggestions – since this is a blog about writing and her comments may be helpful to you also. And I have to say I completely agree with what she said. Some things she pointed out were due to the assignment (Keep it under 2000 words. This piece is 1988 words). Other things were just due to my lack of experience. Needless to say, I was pretty thrilled.
(J.S. Breukelaar is the Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of Collision: Stories, and a finalist for the Aurealis, Ladies of Horror Fiction (LOHF), and Australian Shadows Awards. Her previous novels are Aletheia (an Aurealis Award nominee), and American Monster (Wonderland Award Finalist). Her short fiction has appeared in The Dark Magazine, Tiny Nightmares, Black State, Years Best Horror and Fantasy and elsewhere.)
“Rick, I am deeply impressed with how this all came together in the end. Congratulations on an intricately weird tale of psychic detection, or intervention. The rag-tag buddy vibe sets off the gravity of Tim’s psychological state, and deepens the mystery of how he got there and what it will take to get him out. Roxie is indispensable; time matters; the setting is a morphing, transformative character in itself.
Some strong chemistry between the world-weary Jesse and Ezhno and Jesse’s flat-footed wise cracking is a nice foil for Ezhno’s dead-pan shapeshifting. It’s all good stuff.
Your descriptions—such as the sound of the initial soulspeak – are immersive. I literally clapped my hands over by ears. I winced when Tim put the cig out on his flesh. I heard the feeble wail of the city all around. You really showed your range in this, Rick. As I read it the only variation in my single checks were double checks.
So, the only suggestion I have here is to make it a little more clear what the rules are. Above I suggested that it was some kind of psychic intervention, but I’m honestly not sure. It had a kind of Dirk Gently vibe for me, a kind of Doctor Who with Sidekick vibe. If this is the first chapter, I think we need a stronger indication of why these two work together, what the rules of exchange are, even if they change later. Even in a chapter, and especially in the first one, try and delineate a microcosmic objective-obstacle (conflict), escalation, climax, denouement to build on and complicate and escalate as the novel unfolds. But that’s only possible if you continually conceal/reveal to the reader what the story is, what the stakes are, and how they are rising, albeit weirdly. So for example, when Ezhno first re-appears to Jesse, you have the line, “I search the darkness. If I’m experiencing soulspeak, it means he’s probably here also – Ezhno – or Big Bird as l used to call him – not that he’s yellow or cuddly.” A simple solution would be in revision to insert some reminders/reference to the larger story/conflict that is about to unfold. Thus: “I search the darkness—it’s been a while, and I’m not as sure of myself as I should be. If I’m experiencing soulspeak, it means he’s probably here also – Ezhno – or Big Bird as l used to call him back in our glory days – not that soulwork was ever all that glorious, and not that he was ever yellow or cuddly.”
A simple line or phrase can make a big difference.
So later the line. “Who? You’ve previously worked with this guy?” is a missed opportunity to clarify the rules of engagement. Sometimes it helps to go internally into your POV character: What are Jesse’s feelings about how E has gone on doing his soul work and getting clients without Jesse? Does Jesse feel sidelined? Shamed? Admiring? How does he act on these feelings?
So, yeah, set up the time-sensitive conflict (each chapter should reference it), be candid about the objective, and what are their chances of achieving it and what stands in their way? Remind us of Jesse’s role in Ezhno’s interventionist work, and why he came to pick Jesse up today, why Tim is so important. While it’s all gorgeously dark and weird, the stakes are not all that clear. What is at stake in rescuing Tim? What are the consequences if they don’t? How do they rise and twist vertiginiously as the chapter unfolds?
Finally, your characters have to be slightly different at the end of each chapter than they were at the beginning. So, again, what does Jesse realize at the end that he didn’t at the beginning? How is he changed, presented with a consequential choice by the end that will move the book further up or down that spiral staircase toward either the precipice or the abyss? While you have him say, “I hate this life. I hate this work’ which is terrific, what is the implication of this realization on the story? “This is going to be my last mission, I swear, before the winter sets in. I only hope Roxie hasn’t pissed on the tent.” ? Or what? And don’t worry if it sounds really prosaic when you first write it down. This isn’t going to be the last draft so you can always massage heavy-handed exposition away, but often having a simple declarative sentence to remind the reader of what’s at stake is as helpful to the author as it is to the reader.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Jesse’s repertoire of one-liners, and I am deeply curious as to what it masks—what will it take for him to be lost for words? He is the greatest mystery of all, you’ve created a darkly disingenuous character who is destined to face the truth about himself. You’ve set up some character traits that you can really mess with as you narrate his undoing and transformation over the course of the novel. The world of the story, both psychological and physical, is deeply and convincingly weird. It is coming together really well, Rick, and I hope to see the finished project one day. Good luck with it!”
Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash