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Author Archives: Jay Greenstein

About Jay Greenstein

Before anything else, I’m a storyteller. My skills at writing are subject to opinion, my punctuation has been called interesting, at best—but I am a storyteller. Having finally sold a few novels (Four, to date, the latest to Double Dragon) plus a handful of short stories, I am living proof that if you work at something for long enough you will eventually get it right.

The Ballad of Roland Skye

Roland Skye, unhappy boy. No friends to meet, he owns no toy.
Orphan poor, with face so plain, his life so dark, he knows such pain.

So small and meek, he’s pushed aside. From bigger boys he has to hide.
From jeers and taunts, from trick and fake; his life, his goods, are theirs to take
And take they do, just to annoy. Poor Roland Skye, unhappy boy.

At age sixteen he runs away. To seek success; to find his way.
His hopes are bright, he’ll do his best. He packs his bag and faces west.
He tramps the road in search of love. For tenderness, that soft white dove.
But all’s the same, he’s failure’s toy. Poor Roland Skye, unhappy boy.

At seventeen he turns to crime. He learns to steal. He does some time.
As years go by, he fails at all, till now his back is to the wall.
Too many years all filled with strife. It’s time at last to end the life.

He takes his tears to Harrow hall, and from its top he’ll take his fall.
His feet on stairs seem filled with lead. His hopes and dreams, now finally dead.
His final words on midnight’s bell. “For one good day, I’d deal with Hell.”

Then on his arm—like touch of air—soft fingers fall, so pale, so fair.
He turns to look, and in surprise, is trapped and held by wondrous eyes.
By lips and nails, and hair of flame, as voice of honey speaks his name.

“Your words were heard, oh Roland Skye. And we took pity, he and I.
Your fortunes sad no more will be. For if you wish, I come to thee.
I’ll give you life, though it be late. Forget your past, my name is Fate.

“For seven years I’ll give you aid. Your soul is all we ask in trade.
No man could ask for more than me, but more I’ll give than what you see.

“I’ll guide your life, you’ll have your dream. Success will follow every scheme.
When seven years have passed away, then I will go, but you will stay.
Long life you’ll have, till final roll. Then come to us, we own your soul.”

Stock still and froze was Roland Skye. A teardrop poised on either eye.
For with the tolling of his bell, no one would care, except for Hell.
He takes her arm, this Lady Fate. In pay for years of bitter hate.
For seven years, or just a day: His life, his soul, he’d gladly pay.

And to her word, her deed was true. Her love, his fortune, grew and grew.
The rich he saw, they bowed to him. He soon was given every whim.
The power brokers near and far, paid heed his name, they fed his star.

But all who see him have to note, the scar on face, fresh blood on throat.
It seems that he is unaware of cut and scar, or has no care.

But none could see, not even he, the shell of man he came to be.
For none could know of horrid deed; for none had seen his lady feed.
She blocks the pain of fang and claw, so blood and scar was all they saw.

*

For seven years her word was gold. Her love was his to have and hold.
But seven years did finally go, till now’s the ending of her show.
She sits with him, to say good-by. While he, in vain, tries not to cry.

But words she speaks now give him cheer, as soft she murmurs by his ear:
“Perhaps I might just stay a while. (He never sees the secret smile)
“For surely this is love I feel. (And you my lamb, my favorite meal)

A favor small, that you can do, will bind me always close to you.
Use all the wealth at your command, to draw to us a tiny band.
With skills and art at beck and call, to sunder chain and pierce the wall.

“My master seeks a tiny boon. To walk the Earth, to see the Moon.
For just a glimpse, he’s never seen, of plant and tree and grass of green.
For just a look, for one short hour: you marry me, and keep my power.”

For Roland Skye, there was no wait. He’d kill and more for Lady Fate.
He rushes on to do the deed. To doubts and fear, he pays no heed.
He thunders on, a blinded goat. While drops of blood trail down his throat.

He wastes a fortune, searching wide. For those he seeks will oftime hide.
But find and gather close at last, a band of men, with power vast.
They join his task, o’r records pore. While Fate gives aid, and oftimes…more.

They chant the words, they cast the spells. All locked within their private hells.
She guides their task. She fans their greed. She holds them close, to feed and feed.
They labor hard, their dying long. While she grows great, her power strong.

And on their throat, and breast and brow, the mark of beast is growing now.

*

And now they join to speak the name. To say the words, to fan the flame.
The deed is done on midnight’s bell, as cracks the lock on gates of hell.

Come forth oh fiend, oh succubus. Come tear and kill, come run with us.
Now come you zombie from your grave. The Earth is ours, there’s none to save!
Come fly, and fill the midnight sky. Come help us find the ones to die.

But Roland Skye cries out at last: “Begone, go home, your hour’s past.”
The Lady Fate just laughs at this. “Come close my love for one last kiss.

Oh mortal one, did you believe, we’d take a crumb, and then we’d leave?
Oh foolish man, how could you think, we’d satisfy with just a blink.
The earth is ours, oh slaughter’s lamb. Now see me as I really am!”

He stands transfixed, his eyes a stare. For gone is face and flame soft hair.
A female thing now holds him near. A thing of horror, fangs and fear.

“Come close my love, you’re mine for good. And now we’ll love as demons should.
My failing dear, all else above: I always hurt the one I love.”
The pain she held from him so long, now fills his world, now sings its song.

“You’ll scream my toy, but never die. It’s my wants now you’ll satisfy.
So come and kiss me, I’m in need. Hold tight and scream as now I feed.”

Poor Roland Skye, unhappy boy. Not ever more a search for joy.
For Roland Skye, how sad to tell. Because of him, the Earth is hell.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
1 Comment

Posted by on February 7, 2017 in Poetry

 

On Maintaining an Uncongested Throne

For fun. A defensive strategyThree shots to the pot for the modern toilet.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on June 14, 2016 in Poetry

 

Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 
       As writers, we face a problem: We’re not the reader. This may sound obvious, but it has important ramifications. Our reader is, in many ways, unknowable, because we have no idea of who will end up picking up our work. We do know some things, though:
       Their background probably won’t match ours. Their tastes will be different. Their age group and education will be different to an unknown degree. And, there’s a 50-50 chance that their gender will be different, too. In fact, it’s unlikely that we and a given reader have all that much in common.
       Given that, how can we write anything that will be acceptable to all readers? The answer is, we can’t. It is literally impossible to write anything that will be viewed in the same way by all readers.
       So, do we accept the fact that the majority of people who read our work won’t “get it?” Or is there a way to eliminate those differences? Obviously, there is, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. The trick isn’t to make our work universally accepted no matter the reader’s background. It’s to make all readers the same.
       What we need to do is to make our reader become our protagonist. If we can make them see the situation exactly as the protagonist does; if we give each reader the same set of resources the protagonist will use; if all readers have the same desires, needs, and imperatives as our protagonist, then they will decide on what must be done next in exactly the same way as our hero will—and do that before the protagonist makes that decision—if they read and absorb that before they read the protagonist’s response to the situation—they will become our protagonist and react as that character does.
       Do that and you avoid the impossibility of making the writing universal. Instead you’ll make your readers universal. And with that as our goal, let’s see how we can accomplish that.
 
       We’ve always relied on presenting the facts accurately, concisely, and dispassionately because that’s how we were taught to write. And it works well for book reports. But when writing fiction, instead of eliminating differences in viewpoint it encourages them. Everyone has their own interpretation of your presentation, based on what the words mean to them. Tell the reader, for example, that the protagonist is at peace, and each reader will take a slightly different meaning from the statement. To some, being at peace means there is no stress in their life. For others, that there is no war, or argument. In Islam, peace is based on submission and surrender to Allah. And there are hundreds of other shades of meaning to that one word. So expecting a reader to know our viewpoint is impossible unless we focus on that reader, and are able to interact with them, so as to refine our words to fit their background and preconceptions. But, make the reader know why the character feels they are at peace by making that reader view the protagonist’s world as the protagonists does, and the reader’s interpretation of the word no-longer-matters. They will feel as the character feels, emotionally, because for the moment, they will have superimposed the protagonist’s view on their own.
       Can we do this using the writing techniques we all learn in school? Hell no. Our teachers spent zero time discussing the nuance of point of view. They taught us how to write dispassionately, with accuracy of observation the most important item. Why? Because most people will do their writing in a business setting, where accuracy is critical. We were, remember, learning skills to make us useful to employers. Those book reports we wrote were practice for writing business reports. Those essays, practice for writing papers and letters. No one explained how to use tags, how to structure a scene, or even basics such as the three questions a reader needs answered quickly when entering any scene so as to have context to make sense of it it.
       Converting the reader into our protagonist requires skills that are unlike those used for telling a story in person, or creating a story on the stage or screen. Our medium is different, and has different strengths and weaknesses. Instead of stressing fact and accuracy we stress emotional connection. Instead of presenting things from the narrator’s viewpoint we presented from the protagonist’s. Same story, but a very different approach to presenting it. And that means a very different tool set must be used in the presentation.
       Our goal, remember, isn’t to make the reader know about the terror our protagonist may be feeling. Our goal is to terrorize the reader. We don’t want the reader to learn about the plot. We want them to live it. If you can make a reader put down your work for a moment, to decompress, because the emotional situation is so intense they can’t handle it, you have a winner.
       In the end, we having name for doing this: it’s called point of view. And POV is the single most powerful tool in your repertoire. It is the thing that makes all readers the same.
       John W. Campbell, a noted editor once wrote an article in which he presented a hypothetical situation involving an observer and a climber. It went something like this:

     Observer: “Don’t climb that tree. If you knew what I know, that’s not just a tree, it’s being used as a power pole, so there’s dangerous high-voltage up there.”
     Protagonist: “If you knew what I know…that I’m a trained lineman, doing my job with the proper equipment, you wouldn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know, that your safety gloves are from a shipment that contained defective product, you wouldn’t go.”
     Protagonist: “Ah…but if you knew what I know, that we heard about the defect and have inspected them to remove the bad gloves—and that the gloves I use will be pressure tested just before I put them on, you needn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know…”

       Point of view is critical. In the example above, were the observer made to know the situation as the protagonist does, confusion would be eliminated and the conversation would never occur.
       Obviously, the protagonist could be wrong. He or she could be missing or misinterpreting data, as could the protagonist in our stories. But that’s okay, because both our protagonist and our reader will have the same misunderstanding and make the same mistakes, which drives our plot. And our reader will be just as surprised, shocked, or perhaps pleased to learn of the misunderstanding.
 
       So how do we do that? How do we gain those necessary skills? How can we turn our narrative around and make our reader view our story from the inside out, as against from the outside in? How do we change our own perspective of how to present a story?
       The answer to that is quite simple. We do that by learning all we can about point of view and the other important skills a writer needs. We add to our existing knowledge, just the way we did, grade-by-grade, as we built our current set of of writing skills. And the more we know, the greater the number of viable choices we have when handling a given situation. The more we know, the better we know what a reader will respond to. And, the more we know the better we get at making our reader feel like our protagonist.
       Simple? Absolutely. Easy? Of course not. If it was easy we’d all be rich and famous. Any profession takes time and practice to perfect. So the question isn’t if it’s easy or hard. The question is, is it worth the effort? And that boils down to: should we continue to write using techniques inappropriate to the task, or should we add professional skills to our toolbox? I don’t think you need my help to answer that question.
       But still, that’s a lot of work, especially given that we won’t know if we have the potential to make effective use of those skills, and to be successful, until we own and apply them. And that’s a big if, especially since most of us are not going to have people lining up to buy our work. So in reality: do we want to be a writer badly enough to to invest lots of time, and perhaps a few dollars to become a writer as a publisher views that term?
       That’s a difficult question to answer, other than to say that if someone can talk you out of writing you aren’t meant to be one. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s our curse and our blessing.
       Something to keep in mind when making that decision: writing isn’t a destination. It’s a journey, one that lasts a lifetime. And if every day we write with a little more skill than we did on the previous day, and we live long enough…
       So…now that I’ve discouraged you with the news that you probably won’t get rich from your writing this year, let me make a suggestion as to how to begin your transformation from outside-in to inside-out writing.
       A very good article on creating a strong point of view can be found here. It’s based on the work of Dwight Swain, who is notable for having defined many of the techniques that professional writers use, in a clear and concise way. I’d advise you to read the article, think about it, and when it begins to make sense, check the fiction that made you feel as though you were experiencing it, to see how the author made the technique work for that story. And if it seems like something that would help your writing, pick up a copy of Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It both expands on that technique and will show you many others, equally meaningful. Read it slowly, stopping at every point where a new concept is introduced, to think about and practice that point, so as to make it your own rather than to simply learn that it exists.
       And when you finish the book put it aside for six months. Use what you’ve learned, gaining skill and competence. Then, read it again. This time, knowing where he’s going, and better understanding the concepts being introduced, you’ll learn as much the second time as you did the first.
       Will it make you a published author? Naa. That’s your job. What it will do is give you the tools with which to become one, if-it’s-in-you to do that. And that’s the best we can hope for. Maybe it will turn out to be something interesting, but still, success will still elude you. Could be. Happens to most of us. But still, new writers appear all the time. Why shouldn’t it be you? And as they say, you never know till you try.

       Hang in there, and keep on writing.
       – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
       These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

 

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A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     One of the unique abilities humans have evolved is to mentally put ourselves in someone else’s place. We have the ability to watch someone doing a physical act and literally feel ourselves duplicating the action. It’s not a matter of saying, “I do this, and then that,” we physically fire off the proper neurons, but at a level that doesn’t produce overt movement. We are, in effect, debugging the procedure before we try it ourselves.
     It’s a handy ability, and allows us to learn quickly. And it’s so complete an ability that if the one we’re mirroring in our mind hurts themself we’ll feel that pain. Unpleasant though it might be, pain teaches us to be careful, and that mirrored pain teaches us what to avoid, just as would having made that mistake ourselves.
     So what does that have to do with writing? Everything. That ability to mirror action and emotion is what gives us the way to literally pull our reader into our stories as a participant. Done right, we can terrify our reader with a horror story, and make them afraid to turn out the lights—in spite of the fact they know it’s only a story. It’s why we weep when something terrible happens to our fictional friend, and feel triumph at the climax of the story.
     All the tools—the techniques we use—have one and only one goal, to evoke that empathetic ability that places our reader on the scene.
     Our hero is locked in combat, his sword weaving a protective shell around him. We could list each thrust and parry and leave it at that. But that won’t evoke the empathetic sense because it’s impersonal. Instead, as the fight goes on, we have our hero think, He’s better than I am.
     The character has that realization, but the reader mutters, “Oh shit now what?”
     Sure, our reader knows the protagonist isn’t going to die. If that happened the story would be over. So the question is, how can we avoid death? And with that realization, those thrusts and parries take on new meaning, because while we know things are going bad for the protagonist we need time. We need to stay alive till something presents itself as a solution. Now we focus on the events, while at the same time thinking over the possibilities—exactly-like-the-protagonist, which means we are the protagonist, and living that fight.
     Let’s assume that the reader thinks they know what stratagem can save our protagonist—will at least allow escape if victory is not possible. Now, in addition to fighting the battle we’re shouting to our avatar, trying to remind them of that solution. And when our hero is nicked on the hand we curse, and feel the pain. Done really well, we can cause the reader to have to stop and recover because it gets too real.
     And if in our brilliance we not only cause the reader to be shouting encouragement and advice, we provide a better solution, one the reader feels they should have thought of, we have a reader who saying, “I really like this book.” And what more can we ask for?
     Facts? Who cares? Facts only inform. But mirroring the action in our mind as we read—living the adventure. That entertains.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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All God’s Children

All God’s Children
 
 
 
     Recently, I had a thought that may have world-shaking implications, and change the way we look at genetics, and genetic manipulation, forever.
     For no reason in particular, I began to think about Christian dogma, and the concept that God gave his only son to the world, a child conceived within a human womb, with a bit of human and some divine aspects in his DNA that would allow the child to grow up with an innate sense of right and wrong, plus abilities we would attribute only to a divine being, like being able to revive the dead, to change water to wine, and to walk on water.
     The Bible clearly identifies God as male, and says that the child was his son, not just someone he created, like Adam and Eve, so the implication is quite clear, that God, the one in who’s image mankind was created, had some pretty special DNA to contribute, even were that contribution not made in the usual way.
     Interestingly, the abilities of the human/divine hybrid didn’t manifest immediately, but required the attainment of full maturity for the more magical aspects to be observed—though from childhood he was said to be pious and admirable.
     My first thought was that God sacrificing his only child wasn’t the great thing it had been made out to be, because, after all, being God he could cause another, or a million children of equal capabilities to be born. The “only child” thing, therefore was personal choice, and obviously must serve some purpose other than sacrifice. What did hit me as unique was that it was all accomplished through genetics.
     God took one of Mary’s eggs, and either cloned it, while at the same time, changing the genetic coding so as to produce that magical child, or fertilized that egg with chromosomes of divine origin. Either way, in doing so he changed the history of the world. But of more importance: he left mankind a critical clue that is only now apparent, because now, we have not only the technology to clone, we can change DNA. And that means that with care, diligence, and research, it is entirely possible to recreate that miracle. It is within our grasp to have every single woman on the face of the planet give birth to offspring who can truly be called a child of God, and who will innately know right from wrong.
     Think about the result of that fact, alone. No more wars. No more strife. “Turn the other cheek” will be the rule, without it even having to be taught. And the ability to feed the multitude with only a bit of food will conquer hunger. And that doesn’t touch the effect of being able to raise the dead, and survive a shipwreck by simply walking to shore—or calming the storm with an act of will.
     Assuming that the mutation breeds true, the cloning and genetic manipulation will need be only a one time thing, bringing peace and plenty to the planet in one single generation.
     Any woman would be overjoyed to bear such a child. Right? And what man would not be honored to be raising God’s child?
     Once this amazing opportunity is pointed out to the faithful, I am utterly confident that Christianity, as a whole, will support the necessary research, and help usher in the era of endless perfection.
     Is that cool, or what? Though I do kind of suspect that there might be some who won’t be pleased to read this.
 
 

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Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 

     A large part of Amazon’s business, these days, is with self-publishers. They don’t sell a lot of books per author, but they will usually sell copies to friends, family, and coworkers. And every million self-published writers who moves twenty copies of their book is exactly equal to the one author who sells twenty million copies. There are millions of self-published writers, so that’s a nice source of income. But that being said, Amazon has a way to add to their profit that most writers aren’t aware of.
     Like Smashwords for their electronic book releases, Amazon accepts Microsoft Word files as input for a Kindle release. The only significant difference in the two files is that Smashwords requires an inside picture and a statement that they are publishing it.
     There is one more difference, though, and it’s the one making Amazon all that extra money. Unlike Smashwords, Amazon, if you take their 70% royalties offer, charges $.15 per megabyte transmitted to the customer, so if your file is just a few bytes over 1 meg in size that’s $.30 in addition to their 30% cut of the profit. Sell a million books with that extra $.15 profit and it adds up to $150,000. A nice piece of change.
     That size limit shouldn’t be a problem, because you have to get close to 135k words before you break the one meg file size in a Word file. As an example, an 85k word novel, as a Word .doc document comes in at about .75 meg, and should deliver to the customer for $.15. It should.
     That same novel, with the inside picture included, for Smashwords, weighs in at .77 meg and yields a converted epub file of .619 meg—including that that internal picture. But when Amazon gets their greedy claws on that same file it inflates to a staggering 3.05 meg. That means a $.60 delivery charge. So if you charge $2.95, which many self-pubs do, Amazon gets:
        Their 30% of the profit: $.88
        Their delivery charge: $.60
        Total paid to Amazon: $1.48 which is roughly 50% of the profit.
     That becomes more interesting when you look at most published novels on Amazon, and check their Kindle files. They nearly all have a file size of well under a meg.
     We could assume that the programmers working for Amazon are inept, compared to those at Smashwords, rather than it being a case of Amazon finding a way to chisel a lot of extra profit out of the self-publishers—while claiming to give the author 70% of the price. But it doesn’t matter because there’s a way around it:
  1. Clean up your file and get all the headers, tabs, and other crap out.
  2. Build your table of contents (more on that, below).
  3. Save the file, using Word, as an HTML file. This removes some Microsoft artifacts stored with the file that might get in the way of the conversion—and which might be part of the reason for the bloated Amazon conversion.
  4. Download a copy of Calibre. It’s a free program, though they would like, and deserve, a donation as a thank you.
  5. Reduce your front cover picture to 600 pixels in the long dimension. This will become part of the metadata.
  6. Open Calibre and paste or load that HTML file you created into it.
  7. Highlight your novel and select, Edit Metadata. In the metadata screen that opens, enter your book’s title, the picture you just created, your name, the tags for the novel, and the “sort” data fields: If your title has “The” as its first word, enter the title minus “the” and follow it with the title, a comma, a space, and “The” (or, for novels beginning with “A” it should read something like: Change of Heart, A). Your sort field entry for Author Name, is your last name, followed by a comma, a space, and your first. If you already have the piece published via Kindle, copy the publication date and the ISBN from the existing Kindle page.
  8. Highlight the file and select the Convert Books feature. Be certain that the output file (top right) is listed as MOBI.
  9. At the bottom right press Okay.
     The MOBI file that results is what you send to Amazon in place of your MS Word file, and the final size will be under the 1 meg threshold. And with a $.15 delivery fee and a $2.95 price their share of the profit drops to 34%. And, you make $.40 more per sale.
     As always, though, review the result via Amazon’s reader, and do that before you push the publish button.

° ° °

To build a table of contents for publication, we can’t use Word’s table of contents feature. Instead:
  1. Bookmark each chapter heading. Use a simple name like ch1 for chapter numbers. No spaces in the bookmark name, and don’t bother with capital letters. And while you’re doing that, you might want to center the chapter’s title and make it bold, to set it off. This makes a neater separation on smaller screen readers. Some people go up in size to 13 or 14 point, but that’s personal preference.
  2. Create the table of contents page by setting it off with a manual page break at top and bottom (Typing a Command/Enter on the Mac and Control/Enter on the PC creates a manual page break). Then, as you did with your chapter titles, center the “Table of Contents” title. Again, many also make it 14 point type, bold.
  3. Under the title, type out the chapter numbers and whatever else should be in the TOC, like samples of other books and author notes, using one line per. You can cheat and copy that text as a group from another book and paste it in, to save typing. It will come with the existing hyperlinks, but you’re going to replace that, so it doesn’t matter.
  4. Hyperlink each line in the table to the bookmark for that chapter. Don’t be surprised if, when the hyperlink is added, the paragraph mark at the end of that line vanishes, and must be added back it. It’s another of Word’s charming foibles. When you finish, you can test that the links are proper by hovering over each entry to see that the hyperlink refers to the proper bookmark. You are going to push the button to see it work for yourself, though, both to be certain it works and because it’s fun, which is the reason for the next step.
  5. Push the Add Bookmark button to get you to the bookmark page. While you’re there, find the “Hidden Bookmarks” checkbox and turn it on. If it’s already on, turn it off and back on because there’s a bug in the code and it won’t show bookmarks that have been added since the box was checked unless you turn it off and on again (don’t you just love MS Word? And people wonder why I’m so grumpy). Delete all hidden bookmarks and close the bookmarks window.
  6. You’re ready to go. Just don’t use any hyperlinks now that you’ve cleared the hidden ones or you’ll have to do it again.

 

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Echo

Echo
     The old man lay dying, kept alive by the machines gathered by his bedside. Other than the hiss-click of the oxygen that maintained the spark of life within him there was silence, until the woman arrived. She slipped into a seat by the bed and put her purse on the floor, under it, then waited for the man to wake.
     The room and its furnishings, in spite of the hospital bed, spoke of wealth and power, rather than the aseptic surround of a hospital. But still, that wealth and power would delay his demise by not one day.
     After a time the man woke, and she said, “You don’t look like a John, to me… Wrong face, for that name, I think.”
      He studied her for a moment then shrugged as well as his wasted frame would permit, before saying, “Yeah, like you figured, my name wasn’t always John. I was born Gordon Brown.” There was silence, as he gathered his strength, then a chuckle, and, “Living where everybody had a name like Martello and Catelli meant I got in a lot of fights. But, that was okay. I liked beating the crap out of shitheads. It made me tough, too…ya know?
     The woman nodded a yes, then, “So, why did you change your name to John?”
     “I didn’t. It got changed for me, because of a…” He was silent for a moment, before saying, “I guess you could call it a kind of dream.”
     “Dream?”
     The old man shrugged, again. “I woke up one morning hurting…a lot. It wasn’t just the hangover. That was bad enough. I felt like… Well, it was worse than being kicked in the balls. It was like knives were shoved into them. But when I reached for my crotch my hands couldn’t make it. They were tied to the bed. I could move a little, but not enough to either reach my nuts or untie myself. That’s when I noticed that my legs were tied, too.” He was silent for a moment, before, “All this happens before I open my eyes, mind you. But then, there’s a brand new pain, added to the rest, and that got my eyes open quick, to find a bitch I never saw before, shoving a straight pin right into my balls. I lifted up to look and there must have been dozens of them in there already, like a goddamned pincushion. And when she saw I was looking, she just smiled, and said, “Good morning, honey,” and pulled another pin from one of those pincushions made to look like a tomato.”
     “And used it?”
     “Used it? Hell yes she used it. And that one, I swear, was as hot as if she’d held it in a flame. But bad as that was I could see there was worse to come. There was one pin in there that was as big around as a damn railroad spike.”
     “And she used that one, too?”
     There was silence for the space of ten breaths, before the man on the bed said, “I don’t know, because that’s when I woke up.”
     “Ahhh…so it was just a—”
     “That was no fucking dream, lady. Not…not… I don’t know what in the hell it was, but I can tell you that my balls hurt for more than three days afterward…bad. I even went to see a shrink, ‘cause I was afraid to sleep. Hell, for months afterward, if I saw my mom’s pincushion in her sewing basket, it freaked me out.”
     “But, you got over it.”
     “Yeah. I got over it. The shrink, he made me carry a pincushion with me for a while, and when I got comfortable with that he had me push in a bunch of pins. That worked.” He laughed. “Hell, it better than worked. I’d finally managed to get a job as an enforcer for a loan shark. Then, one day, I was about to break some jerk’s finger, as a reminder to pay on time, when I had a thought. I remembered how the dream freaked me out, so…”
     “You did that to the man, instead of breaking his finger? You stuck pins in his—”
     Weak as it was, there was a smile in the old man’s voice as he said, “I figured, what the hell, ya know? It hurts like hell but it don’t keep you from work, and it’s so damn embarrassing that it’s even better than a whacked shin or a broken finger.”
     “I’ll bet. So…”
     “So I tied the bastard down and used those pins. You should have heard him scream. I left him, tied that way and hurting—for his wife to find when she got home.”
     The old man closed his eyes, wearing a self-satisfied smile, before adding, “It worked so good that I started doing it regular, like a trademark. And that was so crazy it made me stand out, and got me promoted.” Unable to lift his hands to point, he gestured with his head, to indicate the room around them, saying, “And, it got me here, for all the good it’s doing right now. That dream is the reason I ended up running the local family, and it’s why they changed my name.”
     For a time there was silence, as the machines went about their business. Finally, the woman said, “It’s funny, how an event that momentous can travel all the way to the end of a life and then reflect back as an echo, carrying both the way to that end and the ending, itself.”
     “I don’t—”
     “You don’t remember what you said before you had that dream?”
     “Said? I don’t—”
     “You’d just met the top people in the family, and to them, you said, ‘To be like you guys… Hell, I’d sell my soul.’ ”
     “I… You have to be kidd—”
     “Offer made…offer accepted. That dream was a reflection from this end of your life.”
     “… then…then I’m…dead?”
     “As of a few seconds ago, yes.” She smiled, gently. “You don’t recognize me? I thought you would by now. We met, about sixty years ago.” With that she reached into her purse and extracted a pincushion, bristling with pins. She pointed toward the hand that held it, saying, “It never runs out.” Then she gestured in the direction of his lower body, adding, “And there’s always room for one more.”
     “I— Shit!”
     “Yeah, isn’t it?” She extracted a pin and held it up for his inspection. “Welcome to Hell, Johnny Pinball.”
 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s Note:
     One morning I woke with an image in my mind. Someone had a pincushion and was about to use the contents on me. It was not the kind of dream you’re pleased to wake from. But still, I knew there was a story in there, if I could only think of the “why and when” of it.
     Through the day I could feel the details clarifying as my warped mind gnawed at the corners of the image, trying to shape it into something with a useful shape and texture.
     At evening I sat at the keyboard to see what my auto-editor had come up with, and it flowed well, though I still didn’t know how it was to end. That was a puzzle for later, I decided. First came the shaping to see if it read as well as it felt. But apparently the shaping had gone better than I’d hoped for because I finished it, but for editing, in one short sitting. In fact, though, I didn’t know what I would use for the punch line until I found myself typing the last line, and laughing.
 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Short Story

 

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