“Better Times” (short, ~2500 words)

I love it when a dream gives you inspiration. The words often come so naturally. I dreamt the idea of the Hall of Memories, and this story came of it as soon as I woke up.


 

Better Times

Hammond stretched in the uncomfortable chair and closed his eyes to check the time. Only ten minutes into the service. Why did he agree to this? She was the mother of his son, yes, but they hadn’t had any need to talk, to even acknowledge each other existed, since Robert’s high school graduation. If it hadn’t been for Robert, the last time he talked to that woman would have been over twenty years ago. Even so, ten years came and went since their son’s graduation. He had more ties with the synthetic voice behind the kiosk at the recharge station than he did with Emily.

But Robert insisted. “She was your wife, Dad. And my mother. You could at least acknowledge that.”

He did acknowledge it. He said he was sorry for Robert’s loss and put on a sympathetic face. What more did the kid expect from him? Robert knew they hated each other by the time they split.

He glanced over at his son and saw tears brimming. Couldn’t hold it against the kid, even if he was weeping over the woman who tried to ruin Hammond’s life. Two years in family courts. The house and cars sold off and the money split between them. Child support payments that cut his paychecks in half. And the rumors. Vicious, petty, lies she spread amongst her friends. How long did it take before people stopped believing he raped his own wife? Or beat her? Two things he never did, and never would do. That didn’t stop people he once viewed as friends from believing her, though.

He shook his head. Yes, the divorce was his fault. He’s the one who strayed. But she played her own role in the events. She became more focused on her friends, on social obligations, than her own husband. The last time they had sex was over a year before the divorce started – not from a lack of trying on his part, either. That she felt betrayed when he went elsewhere for it just went to show the depth of her own self-absorption as far as he was concerned.

Robert elbowed him.

“Dad,” he hissed.

Hammond broke from his reverie and noticed everyone standing. He did the same.

“At the conclusion of the benediction, Emily’s family would like to invite all her friends and family to visit the Hall of Memories. For those of you new to the Hall of Memories experience, we must warn you that you may encounter memories that you have a particular emotional connection with. These memories can sometimes trigger strong responses in those who encounter them. To avoid this, we ask you do not touch the exhibits.”

Hammond raised an eyebrow at his son.

“Your mom did that memory thing?”

Robert nodded.

“I can’t imagine doing that.”

“I think it’s a great idea, Dad. It lets your family keep your most cherished moments.”

“It lets people see things you might not want them to see.”

Robert rolled his eyes.

“She gets to choose which memories get saved, Dad. It isn’t like they just ripped her thoughts from her head and put them on display.”

“It’s still creepy.”

Hammond followed Robert into the next room of the large church. The Hall of Memories was based on relatively new technology. Hammond didn’t follow it too closely, but he knew what they said on the news about it. Using technology developed to help restore the memory of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, the company Forever Ours began offering a service where clients could have their most cherished memories recorded for posterity. The original intention was for these memories to be given to loved ones so they could then experience them as a way of holding on to those they lost. It quickly became vogue amongst the wealthy elite, especially those with egos as large as their bank accounts – like Emily – to put these memories on display at memorial services in what became known as the “Hall of Memories”.

Hammond had not witnessed this ceremony, so he didn’t know if the Hall of Memories at this church was normal or not. The room itself was a large, circular affair that reminded him of a sanitized gymnasium. It was all white, festooned with flower-laden planters along the walls. Natural light shone down through a glass ceiling. Spread out in a semi-circle around the room were pedestals, Hammond guessed at least two dozen, each with something sitting upon it and a small placard explaining the memory.

The first one they came upon was blue baby shoes. The placard read, “The birth of my son.” Hammond let a bittersweet smile cross his lips before moving on.

They circled the room, looking at the various memories. They were exactly what Hammond expected. “My sixteenth birthday”, “When mom died”, etc. Each memory was a simple pedestal with something physical on it that represented that memory. The various mourners would sometimes pause and touch the item, their face going slack for a few seconds before a wistful smile returned. Usually an attendant in suit and tie would quietly whisper something to the person – reminding them to not touch, he surmised.

Janine, Emily’s sister, stood next to the one labeled, “When mom died.” Hammond recognized the item on display – his former mother-in-law’s wedding ring. Janine ran her finger lightly over the ring. Her face gained that same blank expression. Then it twisted into a frown of grief with fresh tears.

“Are they really seeing her memories?” He whispered to Robert.

Robert nodded.

“And you’ve done this already?”

Robert shook his head, “Not with all of them. It’s really intense.”

“What ones?”

Robert looked uncomfortable.

“My birth and first steps.”

“Oh.”

“Dad,” Robert turned.

“Yeah?”

“There’s one here with your name on it. That’s all she did to describe it. I don’t think anyone has used it yet. Well, Aunt Janine probably did – she’s nosy. But she hasn’t said anything.”

Hammond sighed.

“What one?”

“Over there, by the back of the exhibit.”

Hammond’s feet plodded towards the pedestal. Robert was correct. It simply said, “Hammond” on the placard. Beside it was a box of generic, store-brand macaroni and cheese and an egg carton.

“What the hell is this?” He growled.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think I should…you know.”

“Whatever.”

Hammond stared at the pedestal. His mind worked. Macaroni and cheese? Eggs? It made no sense to him. What the hell kind of twisted message was Emily trying to send him from beyond the grave? Couldn’t that woman just leave him be?

“Dad?”

“What?”

“Are you going to…you know?”

“Why?”

“It was important to her. That’s why it’s here.”

“I doubt I’d want to see any memory your mother kept of me, son. No offense.”

“I think she wanted you to see it.”

“Yeah? That doesn’t exactly sell it to me. She also wanted me to die horribly, as I recall.”

“Dad…” There was exasperation in his son’s voice.

“Fine. Just keep your Aunt away from me. I don’t need her involved in this.”

“I will. It will only be a second, anyway. It will probably feel longer, though.”

Hammond glanced over his shoulder at Emily’s sister. Janine was watching him with an expression he couldn’t quite define. Normally, her face showed open hostility towards him. But this time the expression was…curiosity? Maybe even pity?

Christ. What the hell kind of a memory did Emily leave for him to suffer through?

“So I just, like, touch the pedestal or something?”

“Yeah. The memory chip transfers from touch. It’s different for different people. The greater your personal connection to that memory, the more intense the experience is – the easier the transfer is.”

“Right.” Hammond exhaled and reached out. His hand rested on the rough cardboard of the egg carton.

“Nothing’s happening…”

– – – – –

“Jesus Christ, Neenee, let it go. He’s my husband, not yours.”

“He’s not much of a husband, Em,” the voice on the other end of the phone replied. “He’s what? A dishwasher? With no college degree. And you’re pregnant now. How the hell is he going to support you? You guys can barely pay rent.”

“That’s none of your business. We’re fine!”

“Fine? Mom said that last month you had to borrow money for gas and food.”

Emily grimaced. She could feel the baby moving around.

“Ugh. Neenee, it’s not your problem or your business. I need to go. The baby is kicking and I need to lay down.”

“Whatever. Look, I’m not trying to – well, just call me if you need anything.”

Emily slammed the phone down on the kitchen counter and braced herself. Boy, could that kid kick when he wanted to. Stubborn, just like his father. Janine was right, though. She didn’t know how they were going to survive on Hammond’s minimum wage job down at the diner. They could barely afford the rent on the one-bedroom. Food was a luxury. How were they going to get diapers? Pay the medical bills? For Christ’s sake, Robert was due in a month and they still hadn’t managed to find the money to get him a crib.

She needed a break. She sat down on the nearest chair, one of the four mismatched chairs they picked up at a thrift shop for their kitchen table. She rested her hand on the table, the familiar wobble of the unstable thing an unwelcome reminder of their situation. The tears started before she knew she was upset.

She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how they would make it. She didn’t know what kind of a life they were giving Robert. She didn’t know why she was crying. Her stomach growled.

The phone rang. She took a shuddering breath and answered it.

“Hello?”

“Hey, babe, it’s me. John wants me to work a double today. I’ll be late.”

“O-o-okay.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Just pregnant stuff.”

“How’s he doing?”

She laughed, a gasping sound, “I think he was Bruce Lee in a past life.”

“That’s my boy!” The pride in his voice carried through the phone line. She smiled.

“Alright. I need to get back to work.”

Her eyes darted around the kitchen.

“Honey?”

“Yeah, babe?”

“Can you bring home something for dinner. We’re out of…well, everything.”

“Okay. Maybe I can snag something from here. Or I’ll stop at the store on the way home and pick something up with whatever I get tipped out with.”

“Okay. That’d be great.”

“I love you, babe. So much.”

A fresh river of tears ran down her face.

“I love you too.”

She held the receiver to her ear for a while after the line went dead, staring at the empty kitchen in the tiny apartment in a city that didn’t care she existed. She lumbered to her feet, the boy rolling around inside her belly, and walked to the ratty couch through a veil of tears. She wanted to watch TV but the cable was cut off months before. Instead, she popped a tape in the VCR and reclined on the couch.

It was dark when the sound of the deadbolt turning woke her up. She could smell Hammond before she saw him – the stink of someone who washed dishes for twelve hours was quite noticeable, especially to the heightened senses of a woman in her third trimester.

“Babe, I’m home.” He called out.

She forced herself to her feet and, in spite of the pungent odor and an intense pressure on a full bladder, walked to greet him with a hug and a kiss.

“I brought home something for dinner.” He said when they broke the kiss.

“I have to pee.” She replied, disengaging from his arms and making her way as fast as she could down the narrow hallway to the even more narrow bathroom.

“I’ll get dinner started,” he called after her. Her stomach was rumbling and she had an intense desire to eat something pickled, but at the moment all she cared about was relieving the pressure.

“Okay.”

When she came back out she found him at the stove. A pot was boiling and beside it a frying pan warmed.

“What are we having?”

He pointed at the counter. A box of store brand macaroni and cheese, a quart of milk, and a dozen eggs sat on the counter.

“Macaroni and cheese and eggs?”

“A feast fit for kings,” he joked.

Her heart sunk. They wouldn’t be able to survive like this.

“Honey…” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“How are we going to take care of a baby if we can’t even feed ourselves real food?”

He turned slowly.

“We will.”

“How?”

Fresh tears formed in her eyes.

“We will, babe. Whatever it takes.”

He stared at her, his intense blue eyes locking with hers. She could almost believe anything he said when he said it like that. Almost.

“I promise,” he added. “I love you. I will take care of you.”

“Okay,” she whispered. She wanted to say more, but thought better of it. Instead, she sat down at the wobbly table and watched as her husband prepared their feast.

A few minutes later he was plating up runny macaroni and cheese and rubbery eggs. He was a dishwasher, after all, not a cook. She wasn’t going to criticize. He sat a plate in front of her and another at the chair opposite hers. She grabbed her fork.

“Uh uh,” he chided, a smile on his face.

“What?”

He reached into the bag on the counter and produced a single tea light candle and a single bottle of strawberry wine cooler.

She laughed.

“Mon chéri,” he smirked. “Tonight, we dine by candlelight on the finest pasta ninety-nine cents can buy and sip the best strawberry wine cooler fortified with only the purest of injected alcohol and artificial flavors.”

With that, he poured the wine cooler into two plastic drinking cups, placed the lit tea light between them on the table, and turned off the kitchen lights.

“Bon appétit.”

She laughed and took a bite of her meal, all the while staring in wonder at the flickering light playing on the face of the man she loved.

“We’ll be fine.” He said again.

“I know,” she replied. And she believed it.

– – – – –

Hammond staggered back from the display.

“Dad?”

He stared at the box and carton.

“Dad? Are you okay?”

He turned and looked at his son.

“What?”

“Are you okay? You’re crying.”

Hammond quickly wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Yeah. I guess. That was…intense, like you said.”

“What was it?”

Hammond shook his head.

“Better times, I guess.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.”

Why had she held onto that memory? Before he got his degree, before they could afford to buy a house and cars, before their life got good – before they were successful. A few years…five, at the most…after that memory, Emily and Hammond were living in a house that was worth more than the combined estates of their parents. Robert never wanted for anything. They had new friends, new toys, a new life – a better life than they ever imagined.

So why that memory?

New Fiction: Far Away From Home

As I work on other stuff, I still enjoy writing shorts. I started, on a lark, another short series related to the game “Star Citizen”.

Here is Part 1: “Elke Fnjor”

Elke Fnjor

Outside the viewport, the white glow of Kilian split the nebula in half and sent rainbow rays through the surrounding gas cloud. It was one of the most beautiful things she had seen in her short life. She closed her eyes and imagined she could feel the warmth of the rays across the millions of kilometers and through the thick shielding protecting Naval Station MacArthur. Where she grew up, on the edges of Empire space, to glimpse the wan local star through a rare break in the omnipresent cloud layer was considered an omen of good fortune. Not that it mattered much now. Home hadn’t been a fixed location in a long time.

“Elke,” Leslie hissed. “What are you doing?”

She turned to face the row of seats and her roommate.

“Just enjoying the sun, Les.”

“We see it all the time.”

“Yeah, but not in a window as big as I am.”

“Whatever. Get back over here. I don’t want to lose our place because you were daydreaming.”

Elke rolled her eyes and rejoined her roommate. Leslie and Elke were paired on day one of cadet training, and became instant friends. Both were the same age, nineteen when they enrolled, and both didn’t quite fit in with the other cadets. It was no secret the UEE attracted a certain personality, especially in women, when it came to prospective pilots. “Tomboy” would have been the phrase Elke’s grandmother used. Elke just viewed them as women acting how they thought men should act. And looked. Short hair was common. No jewelry. Not that Elke had much use for jewelry, either, but she did like her blonde hair long. Even if it meant putting it up for uniform regulations. Leslie kept her brunette mane shorter – just above the collar. Either way, neither fit in with the look of most of the women cadets.

And that went for their personalities, as well. Leslie was the reserved one – she answered the questions put to her by the instructors quietly, with shaken confidence, even though she was almost always correct. In over a year together Elke had yet to see Leslie initiate a relationship – guy or girl or other – it didn’t matter, every date Elke’s friend went on was initiated by the other person.

Elke, in contrast, was brash – even too forward, some might say. Not in the way her classmates were. Elke personally thought it was all an act for most of them. Telling sexual jokes, gruff laughter and rough physical contact. It seemed to her they were acting how they thought the men thought they should act to fit in. Elke also let her emotions sit on the surface – something frowned upon in the pilot candidate school. A pilot was expected to have complete control over his or her emotions, especially in battle.

But expectations rarely meet with reality. And the reality was, in the simulators, Elke was as cold as a comet at aphelion. Her instructors never failed to give her the highest marks in any scenario. Except the one. But that wasn’t her fault, even if they didn’t think so. Her wing leader didn’t listen to her, and they almost lost the entire wing because of it. If Elke hadn’t broke formation, against orders, when she did, the entire simulation would have been a failure. But, instead of praise, she was marked down for not being a “team player.”

It was a stupid way to grade, anyway. Everything was pass or fail – there was no middle ground.

“Flight Cadet Fin- Fan- uh…” The lieutenant behind the desk at the end of the lobby stammered.

“Fan-your, sir,” Elke offered, standing to attention. “Flight Cadet El-ka Fan-your.”

“Right. Fnjor. Jesus, what kind of a name is that?”

Elke shrugged.

“Old Earth stuff, I guess, sir.”

“Okay. You and Flight Cadet Nicholson, uh, Leslie, are up next. Scan in and post at the door.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The lieutenant glared through the glas in front of him. Elke hid her smirk. Few liked the “Old Navy” phrases, but they were technically correct, even in this century. She only said them because she knew they annoyed so many of her instructors and there was nothing they could do about it. Be an overt ass, and they’d nail you. But be a smartass and the most they could do was frown upon it.

“Shut up!” Leslie hissed.

Elke rolled her eyes again. She was doing that a lot this morning.

The door slid open.

“Go in, Cadets. And good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.”

They walked into the simulator room. It was a simple affair, four pods in front of a large screen. A man and woman, both in instructor uniforms, stood by two of the pods.

“Alright, ladies, here’s the down and dirty,” the man, a lieutenant commander, addressed them. “You passed your written and oral exams. You’ve both demonstrated competence in single-seat and crew-served combat simulations. This is your final test. It is a pass or fail test; there is no grading scale. Furthermore, you will not know the pass conditions until after the simulation is completed. Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, sir,” Elke waited for the man to acknowledge her. “What ships will we be flying?”

“You find that out when you get in the simulator. Anything else?”

“How long will the test be?”

“Until you pass or fail.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Alright. Get in your pods.”

Elke climbed into the nearest simulation pod. She reclined back. The woman, a lieutenant, leaned in to make sure she was properly in the harness and then gave a thumbs up. Elke responded in kind. The woman disappeared from view just before the hatch closed. She was plunged into darkness.

After an interminable pause, the disorientation of the simulation activating replaced the empty void. She exhaled and inhaled several times, as they had been taught, and blinked rapidly – to adjust to the direct neural input.

The scene before her warped with static while her brain fought the new input. Then it stabilized. She no longer felt the sensation of reclining. Instead, she stood on deck plating in a ship. Before her, to what she recognized as the bow of the ship, was a massive canopy – covering many several-meter sheets of glass – and taking up the entire bow. The view outside was of the inside of a nebula or gas giant – clouded, viscous.

“Where are we?”

She turned and saw Leslie’s avatar.

Elke grinned, “Let’s find out.”

“The Shifting Sands” and “The Duel” Free on Kindle Now!

First of all, if you do not have a Kindle, do not fear! You do have a Kindle-enabled device. You are using it right now.

If you have a Windows or Mac PC, an Android, Blackberry, or iOS phone, you can download the free Kindle app for your device of choice – or for all of them. Then you can get the books that way. Also, as a bonus for Amazon Prime members, you get free books every month simply for being in Prime. Don’t miss out on that opportunity!

kindlesnip

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“The Shifting Sands” free starting tonight – plus: “Redeemer” update!

As I said in yesterday’s post, I have completed uploading the revised edition of “The Shifting Sands” complete with new cover and the first ever print edition of the book. To celebrate this, the Kindle edition of “The Shifting Sands” will be available free on Amazon for the next two days, starting at midnight tonight.

After that, starting Monday, the Kindle edition of “Firedancer” will be free, and then “Snake Charmer”.

The sci-fi short “The Duel” will also be free this weekend along with “The Shifting Sands” because why not?

Now, onto some progress reports on the final installation of “The Serpent’s Song” series:

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“The Operators” (~500 words)

This is just something I tossed off for fun in reference to kids who think video games or airsoft is analogous to the real military.

Al Taqqadum was sunny that day. That might not sound surprising to you, but it was a refreshing change from the three-day sandstorm we just experienced. The sand got into everything. Our clothes, our hair, orifices we didn’t know we had. My M4 had sand in cracks Colt didn’t know they designed into the damned thing. I just finished cleaning it for the third time and cursed my luck for the fourth time – more sand. Oh well, too late now. We had a patrol to get to and I still needed to go over my truck.

My PMCS was interrupted by a commotion behind me. My fellow soldiers had stopped what they were doing and a veritable din of awe-inspired muttering arose. I turned to see what the big deal was.

There they were, strutting down the dirt path that passed for a road, heads held high. Their steely eyes passed over us as if we weren’t there. It was a fitting tribute, honestly. Compared to them, we were ants.

I had heard of these people before – the ones we just called “Them” or, when we were being really specific, “The Operators”. Today was the first day I spotted one, let alone an entire squad of them. They were easy to pick out. Their gear was immaculate. None of that military-issue stuff. No, this came from a catalog – or maybe a sporting goods store. Their headsets blended in with their forest-green camo paint. An odd choice for the desert, but who was I to argue with professionals?

One of them stopped and looked at me as they passed. Oh shit, I thought, he caught me staring.

He brushed a speck of dust from his weapon and looked me up and down.

“Teh fuk r u lookin at, n00b?” He demanded, his jowls flapping majestically around the words.

“N-n-nothing, sir.” I sputtered.

“Fucking faggit. Wat do u mean, nothing? That’s not what ur mom said last nite, lol, fag!”

“Of course, sir.”

He spat on my face. I didn’t move or flinch – I didn’t want him to have any confirmation that I was the worthless soldier he suspected. It ran down my cheek. I could smell Mountain Dew and morning breath. The smell of death.

Without another word, he turned to catch up with his squad. Fortunately for him they had become winded from the walk and were taking a breather a few feet away.

“Lulz, u rekt that fag!” One of them wheezed.

“Fuckin ezmode newbs.” Another echoed, both of his chins bouncing in agreement.

My squad leader ordered us to mount up. I jumped in the turret of my truck and prepared for another grueling day on patrol. But this day, I knew, things would be different. There was a new spring in my step. I could do it, I thought. I really could.

I wish I could find those airsoft warriors and their Call of Duty squadmates and thank them for the confidence they gave me. Just witnessing their majesty was enough to give me the morale boost I needed to survive that war.

But such is not my fate. I don’t deserve to see such prime examples of the human ideal. I didn’t deserve it that day, either, but I was blessed nonetheless.

Falling Leaf (Short Story, 1,800 words)

My friend Joe made a simple Facebook status update about a girl walking into the cafe he was at with a leaf stuck to her shoe.  She removed it and tossed it outside, only for the wind to blow it back in.  He made a comment about it being poetic – and I saw a story in it.  Interesting how inspiration can frame a story.  This is the finished product.

Falling Leaf

by Aric Catron

The alarm began softly. It built to a crescendo. Normally, when she woke up, she would catch it before it reached full volume. Today, however, she was awake before the alarm – had been awake for some time – staring at the digital numbers as they ticked away. She didn’t feel any desire to stop the sound as it grew to headache levels. She was content to look at the numbers and wonder.

Two days. Only two days. It seemed longer – a lifetime, another world, or even a dream. It was now Saturday, and Susan gave her Thursday and Friday off. So, it really was two days.

She reached over and fumbled at the alarm. The room plunged into silence. Only her breathing. She stared at the ceiling. There was a small spider web on one of the light fixtures. She should clean that sometime. Not today, though. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe she’d feel up to it tomorrow. Today, like yesterday, she didn’t feel up to much of anything. However, she agreed, so she had to get up.

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“Snake Charmer” is free; I’m featured on other sites, and more!

Well, life has been very busy for me lately.  As you may have read in my previous update, I have had sick children – to include a broken leg – a wife in a car accident, and issues with the Veteran’s Administration clogging up my time and stressing me out.  As such, I was not writing at a level I wanted.

Things are starting to smooth out, however, and I hope soon to be back at full steam.  I’m still writing, but not doing my usual several-thousand words a day.  No, for those of you wondering, I have not started on “Redeemer: Book III of The Serpent’s Song” yet, beyond outlining.  You will know the day I start it, I assure you.  And, as with “Snake Charmer”, you will see regular updates on my progress.

Speaking of The Serpent’s Song series, “Firedancer” was free on Amazon last weekend and did pretty good.  “The Duel” was free the weekend before that, and did equally well.  This weekend it will be “Snake Charmer” – free from Friday through Sunday on Kindle.

Some of you may remember that my musing on writing action using Iceberg theory became a featured article on the “Eat, Sleep, Write” Podcast website.  Well, in the intervening weeks, Adam, the editor over there, asked if I had any fiction he could put up.  As it happened, I did – part of “Competition” I have yet to release anywhere else.  So I now have some fiction as well as a lesson featured on “Eat, Sleep, Write”.  You can find it here.  For those of you who have followed the previous sections of “Competition” (“Reggie” and “Collared“, respectively) this segment, “Alice” falls between those two to complete the narrative as far as I have released it.

I also put out some more work in my fan-fiction piece, “Transitions”, set in the universe of the up-coming game, “Star Citizen.”

So, all in all, I’ve managed to be fairly productive despite the real world interfering.  And I hope to push myself back into full-time writing ASAP.