Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

_________________________________________________________________

Interested in other writer’s notebooks and want to support the site?

Check out Thomas Wolfe’s Notebooks on Amazon:

Joy Williams: Microfiction isn’t Easy Fiction

Few writers have mastered even one form of story-telling let alone three. With Joy Williams it all depends on how you classify. She doesn’t write plays or scripts. It’s all prose. Everything happens on the page. So what options could there be? Novel? Check. She’s written four, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and another is being republished in a new edition next year. Short story? Definite check. She’s been in the New Yorker, so…

But if you are a frequenter of fiction writing on the internet, you probably know of one other form that has been in vogue since the collapsing of the average attention span. Flash fiction or microfiction—basically really short short stories, usually under 1,000 words. Microfiction lends itself to internet writing because, as it seems common sense would tell you, shorter fiction requires less time on the part of the reader, therefore writing them should require less time on the part of the writer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a testament to the difficulty of shortness. Each story in this collection is about one or two pages long, but they weren’t written with internet-length or disposibility in mind. They are like mini-novels with only the most essential detail included, boiled down to their most bare form.

My favorite story in Ninety-Nine Stories of God is called DRESSER:

Our mother was an alcoholic, though she’d stopped drinking twelve years before, but once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. She’d had all those cakes. She moved around a lot, but wherever she was when the anniversary rolled around she’d get a cake.

Now she was dying. She’d stopped eating and was skin and bones, lying on a bed in her house, a house she’d said more than once she’d bequeathed to me. The house was the last thing I wanted.

I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation, one’s mother dying only once.

Our mother’s eyes were dark, black almost. Earlier that morning the skin on her arms was bleeding, but then it stopped.

She’d been quiet for hours, but then she said in a surprisingly strong voice, “Where is the refuge for my bewildered heart?”

It made me shudder. It was beautiful.

“Guide me, Good Shepherd,” she said, “Walk with me.”

My sister had to leave the room. I could hear her crying into the telephone. Who on earth could she be calling, I wondered, and why, at this moment? We know nothing about one another really, though we’re only a year apart.

Then our mother said in that same strong voice, like a singer’s voice:

“Tony, I’d like a martini. Make me a martini, honey.”

But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I felt she’d regret it. I felt it just wasn’t right.

I cannot stand Joy Williams for being able to write this story using only 247 words. I am so jealous. I couldn’t write a story 1/3 this impactful with 5,000 words.

She leaves out all the right things. For instance the narrator says her mother’s house is the last thing she wants, but she never says what she does want, and Joy Williams is a genius for never telling us.

Also notice in the 3rd paragraph the tense switches to present and then back to past before the sentence ends. “I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation…” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer do that before.

____________

Interested in Joy Williams and want to support the site?

Check out Ninety-Nine Stories of God on Amazon

My Secret Life in Used Bookstores

Still-Life-Books-in-Hilo-Hawaii-768x768.jpg

 

1.

Sometimes I go to the bookstore if the day is getting long at work. Does my boss know this? No, but he wouldn’t mind if he did know. I get my work done. But I keep these visits to myself is because it’s nice to have something to keep to myself; I pick up my keys slowly so those around me can’t hear jingling, which is always a tell that someone is leaving, and go through a side entrance. Usually it’s anywhere between 10-11AM, when the sun is just right in the sky, about the same time as the quiet period before the lunch rush, when people are going to dentist appointments.

This time of day and situation is important because it matches the idealized version I have in my head of this trip to the bookstore. In the ideal version the sun is out, the air has a slight chill, the store isn’t crowded, and I am able to browse the shelves at leisure. It’s important also that I am only barely conscious of being away from work which gives it the energy of playing hookie.

http-%2F%2Fmashable.com%2Fwp-content%2Fgallery%2Fbookstores-vs-amazon%2Ftumblr_ni8lp9bwpj1skswjlo1_500.gif

2.

A good face to have when browsing at the bookstore is somewhere between contemplative and pissed off, to ward off any overly-friendly employees who may otherwise be tempted to ask if there is anything they can help you find. No, dammit. I am here to look. And here’s another important point. Much is made on the internet and elsewhere about the beautiful smell of used books, which is true: used books do smell good. But for goodness sake, don’t put your face so close to something someone could have been handling while sitting on the toilet. Even if you buy a used book and it sits in your house for a while, be wary. You have to buy a book new and then earn the smell to experience it without the uncertainty of people’s disgusting habits. This also goes for running one’s fingers along the spines on the shelves which I am always tempted to do. A used bookstore’s shelves have a nicely irregular pattern to them, without the calculated stocking of bestsellers and shiny new releases. The result is something like a literary genealogy of the area surrounding the store. Imagine everything people have read in this town. But one must remember that these books are not necessarily loved books. Indeed, they weren’t kept and instead were sold for pennies on the dollar.

The used bookstore is not only a good metaphor for the declining value of books but also a nice economic mitigation.

giphy.gif

3.

This next part is something I’ve always felt but have never had the words to express. And still don’t. So here goes:

Whenever I think about this ideal trip to the bookstore, or am actually on the trip, I also have an associated thought of watching documentaries in high school, PBS documentaries, which were shown in lieu of class. A substitute teacher would put one on. Or sometimes we watched them on the last day of class, as a formality, because final exams were already over and the teacher had nothing to teach—but we still had to be there. I would lay my head on my desk and fall asleep. The fluorescent lights would be shut off and the blinds drawn while outside the sun was shining on the baseball field and summer was waiting.

I still don’t quite understand why I think of this while I sneak off to bookstores. But a scene like this is usually in my mind while driving, or browsing. These seem like two totally unrelated moments in life. Maybe something having to do with the vague ‘educational’ feeling of bookstores brings back memories of school, of these anti-climactic endings to school, and the PBS documentaries which accompanied them.

But I have a hunch it’s something deeper.

pretty-book-bench-nature-water-outdoors-animated-gif

4.

This last point I want to make is about the sense of duty when browsing at the used bookstore. Excavating underappreciated works and reviving them. This is a powerful tonic for Today’s Age. It can do really big things for you. And this gets more to the point I was trying to make above, and book lovers often make this mistake. They want to make books popular by fetishizing them. Smelling them. Touching them. Taking pictures on Instagram with them in which they sit pensively by a latte and an open window. This is harmless stuff, but largely misses the point and will ultimately fail as an effort to revive the popularity of the book.

You don’t really have to do any of this. The best advertisement for the books you read, in fact, is you. Being an interesting person isn’t as hard as its made out to be. The hardest part is coming up with words to talk about what’s going on in your head. And so much is going on, I guarantee. Good books will help you learn how to say it. That’s all you really need.

read-and-smile-gif.gif

 

5.

Every once in a while I actually buy a book. It has to be a good one. And I’ll take it back to work with me, going back in the side entrance, and back to my desk. If I run into my boss he’ll give me a knowing nodding/smiling look. He knows. He has to know.

At my desk I put my keys down gently so as not to alert my surrounding colleagues of my absence. Why do they need to know? I can’t explain it to them. I set down the keys, noiselessly, and, if I have the time before lunch, I may even begin reading my new book. This also has to be quiet because believe it or not you can hear pages turning in an office. It’s an unmistakable sound amidst keyboard-typing and mouse-clicking. Phth, I turn the pages, quietly setting the book free while it quietly sets me free.