Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Blog
July 29, 2015
Every job has a crappy side. Every single one. Sometimes one person’s crappy part of the job is another person’s great part. I loved editing when I worked in radio, especially trimming and rearranging material so that it fit into a sound piece. I rediscovered that love last month as I did some audio work for WMG. I’m sure I’ll be doing more of it.
But most of the radio folks I worked with hated the technical side of broadcasting. These folks wanted to be on the air, talking or playing music or interviewing someone. I wanted to make sure everything sounded right. It worked out.
As I developed into a professional writer, I realized that writing had crap work associated with it as well. I wrote my first short stories and articles on typewriters, and knew I could never write a novel because I would have to retype everything into clean copy. I didn’t have the attention span for that—and at the time, I couldn’t afford to hire a typist.
It took the advent of the personal computer (yes, I’m old) to enable me to write novels. I didn’t have to type and retype. I could resave the file and monkey to my heart’s content.
The crap work for me came in several areas that weren’t putting words on paper. The first was filing. I developed a system for computerized filing and using my calendar to keep track—concurrent filing, if you will—so that I knew where to find important information at the touch of a finger.
But filing old paper manuscripts, letters, and contracts—well, I used the Andy Warhol method of filing. Warhol put everything in boxes, including a daily box of ephemera that either he or his heirs now call “time capsules.” That’s a polite way of labeling those boxes. I remember reading an article published shortly after his death in which one of the heirs estimated that Warhol had left 8,000 cubic feet of material behind.
Um, okay. I won’t leave that much. But there are boxes. Occasionally I hire someone to file the actual paper for me. Because I’ll never get to it. I’ve proven that over the past thirty-five years.
I had to do other parts of the writing job over the years. When I made my living writing nonfiction, I had to write query letters to get work. I hated writing query letters with a deep and passionate intensity but, because of my radio news training, I was very, very, very good at writing them. I could boil down an article idea into a pithy and fascinating letter in about fifteen minutes.
Then I had to write up those letters, send them to the right editors, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and hope someone would hire me to get the work done. Often, I got so much work from those letters that I would remain busy for an entire quarter of a year or more.
As a result, I only had to send out query letters once a month. I designated a query writing day, and I powered those things out. I once sold an essay to a local weekly newspaper about trudging to the post office with my query letters after a blizzard made it impossible to drive. (My editor back then? The now well known comic creator, Mike Baron, in the days when he was trying to break into comics. Did I know what he did at the time? No, I didn’t.)
As time went on, and I left nonfiction writing, I still had to do a lot of mailing work. I would mail short story manuscripts to short fiction magazines. I’d have to set aside a once-per-week mailing day because I had made it a game to get it done. I never wanted a returned manuscript to sit on my desk for longer than a week.
I no longer need mailing days, even though I still sell short fiction regularly. Now I turn a rejected manuscript (yes, I get rejected all the dang time) around in about fifteen minutes. I hear from the editor who didn’t feel the love, and I send the manuscript off electronically to the next editor on my list. Easy-peasy. Again, nothing sits on my virtual desk very long.
As my fiction writing career blossomed, another crap-ass job showed itself, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get around it.
I had to write proposals for novels I wanted to sell. It didn’t matter if the editors had read the entire finished manuscript. They still wanted a proposal, so they had something to present to the sales force.
Look, I’ve worked in publishing for thirty years now, and I’ve done every job related to writing/editing/management possible (except acting as agent), so I understand why it’s best for the writer to do a book proposal, even on a finished book. Editors can write up the salient points of the book, but generally, the editor read the book weeks or months before, and can’t remember much. And, if the majority of editors could write well, they’d be writers, not editors. Very few editors I worked with could write excellent sales copy. And the editors who did generally came from the sales force, not from prestigious university with a newly minted English degree.
I hate writing proposals. I hate it with a burning passion. I just sold a project on proposal earlier this year, and I tried mightily to avoid the writing of that proposal. I verbally pitched the project and got a verbal acceptance. I still had to write the proposal. I’ve had that happen a hundred times in my career, and every single time, I’ve had to write a back-up proposal.
Every single time.
I’d rather be writing fresh stuff or finishing the proposed manuscript or digging my eyes out of my head with a spoon. Okay, never mind that last. I’d probably write a proposal before I’d dig my eyes out with a spoon.
Last week, I mentioned that I’d had a bunch of realizations about the way the writing profession has changed since the advent of indie. I dealt with one of those ways in last week’s blog—the ability to rebrand everything as the need arose, rather than stick with old dated covers.
But I had a few other realizations as well, which I’ll be discussing over the next few weeks. And one of them was this:
I spent months of my writing life writing proposals. I find loose proposals in my virtual filing system all the time. I would write novel proposals like I used to write query letters for nonfiction: I’d write proposal after proposal for project after project hoping one of the proposals would stick.
For every project I sold, I probably wrote ten proposals that would ultimately have been rejected. I wanted to write all of these books, and most of the proposals are still in my computer, waiting for the moment when they rise to the top of my consciousness.
Those proposals I just mentioned don’t count the proposals I did for media tie-in books back in the day. I’d get hired to write a tie-in novel of some kind, and then have to write proposal after proposal until the representative of the licensor decided she liked one of the ideas. That didn’t always guarantee a successful project either. In early 2000, I wrote two entire novels for one licensor. The property was a mid-range television program with a control-freak show runner who wanted to approve everything. The idiot show runner knew but didn’t understand that my contract limited me to three revisions, after which I got to both keep my advance and leave the project.
I wrote the first novel based entirely on the proposal—and a good novel it was, too. The show runner read it, decided she hated the idea she had approved and brainstormed with me on the phone and in detailed e-mails. She demanded a different book with a kernel of the same idea.
I wrote the second book, and she did the same thing again. When it came time for the third “revision,” I told the New York editor who had initially commissioned the work that I would only write a detailed outline and if the show runner didn’t like it, too bad. The New York editor and I decided that the detailed outline would be the third revision.
I got paid. The New York editor went to her boss, explaining the problem. The contract with the licensor and the idiot show runner got canceled. The New York publisher lost money, but they wrote it off.
I was out time, and all the hair that I pulled from my skull, not to mention the holes in my tongue from biting it. (This, by the way, was why I never accepted screenwriting gigs that friends got for me in Hollywood; I hate all that writing for no real reason except to let some tinpot dictator feel like she can bounce the writer around like a puppet on a string.) I did make a lot of money on the deal—this was back when you could get paid anywhere from 20 to 40K for a tie-in novel for a TV show with a great fan base and mediocre ratings.
Still, that was the project that made me quit writing tie-ins. If I hadn’t, someone would be dead now, and it wouldn’t be me.
It wasn’t until last week when I actually calculated all the time I spent just writing proposals for projects that never happened. I probably spent six months of my writing life writing things that no one except a handful of editors (or idiot show runners) would ever see.
And that doesn’t count the time spent writing letters, tweaking the proposal so that someone in the sales force or higher up the licensing channel would “like it better.” Nor does it count the phone calls, the meetings, the bullshit business lunches in uber fancy restaurants, and the three full days I spent with the representative of a major licensor, hammering out a bible for a series of books that never ever happened.
I didn’t get paid for that one, because as the deal was being finalized, a writers organization used my name without my permission to lambast that licensor, and the deal (which had a finished contract but no signatures) vanished overnight. I became persona non grata with the company. And I wasn’t even a member of that writers organization. (sigh)
Anyway. All that writing. All that lost time. All those vanished projects.
I calculated the time spent on all of that after two writer friends who still work in traditional publishing were talking about the difficulty they were having getting novels approved in their own series. The editors weren’t responding, the agents were agitating for new and different proposals—or maybe even a new series that could be sold to someone else—and I listened, feeling fairly smug that I’m not doing such things any longer.
The conversation shifted from attempting to sell new projects traditionally to all the promotion a traditional publisher demands of its writers. These days, that promotion includes an active website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, Instagram, blog tours, and podcast interviews all over the web. Some traditionally published writers even send their own advance reading copies to bloggers that their publisher didn’t want to approach.
After that conversation, I went home to an afternoon filled with everything but writing. I was in the middle of repairing this website from the damage a ham-handed employee had done. I needed to write three newsletters that evening. I had write and schedule some blog and social media posts, and I had to write ad copy for projects I was editing as well as projects I had finished writing months ago.
An entire day, spent on promotion, something I try hard to avoid. Promotion, though, is necessary in 2015, as long as it’s not too intrusive. Casual readers and fans need to know when a new book comes out. Not the constant blaring of Buy This! Buy This! but the small notification of Hey! In case you were waiting, this book is now available.
As I thought of all that writing I wasn’t doing because of promoting my own projects, I had been feeling sorry for myself.
And then I flashed back on that conversation with friends who were trying to sell to a traditional publishing house and who weren’t getting anything back from that house. The house expected those writers to do what indie writers do, and get paid less for it.
My realization? Pretty simple, really.
I would rather write what I want to write, and spend one full day per month (in total time) promoting the current projects than write something that someone else has to approve and then lose weeks doing some promotion that I know is utterly worthless just to placate someone at my publisher.
The thing about trying to sell a project and then waiting for approval that I didn’t mention is this: Often I’d pitch something I completely loved, an idea I felt was the strongest I’d had in years, only to have that project approved six to twelve months later. By then I had moved on to other enthusiasms, and I wasn’t that interested in the approved project any more.
I’d still write it. I’d do my very best. But I would have rather written it when I was so excited about it that it was the only thing I could think about.
I’m currently writing a book that has been leaking out of my fingers all year. Now that I’m focused on it, I’m writing a thousand words every half hour, which is double my usual rate. I’m not even thinking about that as I write. And I’m at the beginning of the project, when my pace is usually the slowest.
But I had a secondary realization with this project. I couldn’t start it until I had a marketing plan for this book and the others in the series. For this book, a mystery, the marketing plan will not be release the books one right after each other. I have something else in mind entirely.
I’m not sharing the plan with anyone yet, in case the book goes in a direction I don’t expect. But I know I’m deeply invested in this new world of publishing now that I’m coming up with a book and the proper way to publish it, given all the options in this modern world.
I still say that writing the next book is the best promotion possible for the book you’ve just released. I was silently bitching to myself about all the new tasks I had to do when I released a book or a project—the newsletters, the websites, the tweets and announcements and approval of cover/ad copy.
I found my whiny self buying back into the wouldn’t it be nice to have someone else do all that for me like they used to do in traditional publishing myth. And then I had my wake-up call, courtesy of those traditionally published friends.
Not only would have I had to do all the newsletters, websites, tweets and announcements if I were traditionally published through New York, I would also have to write proposal after proposal until some project, not even the project I necessarily wanted to write next, was accepted.
Suddenly all this time I’d been spending redesigning websites and writing newsletters seemed pretty trivial. I had forgotten all the frustration of writing a proposal in my own series only to have my editor say that “it wasn’t right for the characters” or writing two entire novels that no one except some crazy low-level employee of some faceless licensor would ever read.
The new world of publishing has been around long enough that I’m beginning to forget what it was like in the old world. I’m taking parts of the new world for granted. And I’m bitching about that standard thing everyone who works bitches about—the crap-ass part of the job.
I’ll never love paper filing. That is truly the crappiest part of writing for me. (And I’ll never do it. I’ll either keep up my Andy Warhol ways or hire someone when I have a few dollars to waste on organization.)
But I actually do love coming up with new marketing schemes, and figuring out the best way to promote this new project or breathe life into that old project.
I know I’ll write other book proposals. Every now and then, some project needs to go to a company with a different outlook or a different reach than the companies I currently work with. I’ll bitch about those proposals, but I’ll do a good job.
I also know I’ll never write a novel for some licensor again. I also know I’ll write novels that won’t work and I’ll shelve halfway through until I figure out what I’m actually trying to do. The book I’m working on now is my sixth attempt at this project, and it finally feels like I’m getting it right.
Until this month, however, I hadn’t really realized how much time I’m saving by getting out of the proposal/approval grind of Big Traditional Publishers. I knew I was saving myself some headaches, many of which I’ve discussed on this blog in the past—headaches like being orphaned when you turn in a book or having book four of a seven-book series go out of print for no apparent reason (while all the other books stay in print).
But I hadn’t thought about the wasted energy in trying to sell books before they were written. I hadn’t done that math.
I have now. And yet again, it confirms what I’ve realized for a couple of years now.
This is the best time to be a writer. We have so many choices. We have so much freedom.
I sometimes feel like someone who spent her entire life living in a dark dank basement, allowed to go outside only on every third Sunday of every fifth month. Now I live in the sunshine, and I forget what it was like to leave the basement. Yeah, back then, it felt great to hit the fresh air after breathing mold-infested dampness day in and day out. But it feels better to have sunshine on your face each and every day—so much sunshine, in fact, that you begin to take it for granted.
Heh. Have I said how much I like this new world of publishing? Because I do.
This blog is part of the new world for me. I took a hiatus because I needed to. When I decided to come back, no one stood in front of me, arms crossed, informing me that a blog was so five years ago and they wouldn’t support it.
You readers support the blog with your tweets and shares and comments and the occasional donation. I appreciate all of it. I love the way your generosity feeds not only this blog, but so many other artists these days.
I’ll have more on that in the future as well.
Right now, though, I’m putting up the donate button. If you feel you’ve gotten anything from the blog in the past few weeks, please leave a tip on the way out.
“Business Musings: The Crappy Parts of the Job,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Garsya
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July 28, 2015
You can now preorder all of the Interim Fates novels…on three ebook sites: Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo. If you want the books from another site (I’m looking at you, Barnes & Noble), then you’ll have to wait until the release date. The trade paper editions will also be available on the release date.
If you want a reminder when the books come out, please sign up for the Kristine Grayson newsletter (over there, on the right), or watch this space.
Tiffany Tumbles: Book One of the Interim Fates.
Release date: August 18, 2015
Recently fired from her job as an Interim Fate, one of the most powerful people in the world, Tiffany VanDerHoven must move in with her mother in Eugene, Oregon. Tiffany finds living without magic hard enough, but high school? Not even movies or TV prepared her for that.
Tiffany has tumbled into “the real world,” and it baffles her.
To make matters worse, she can’t talk to her sisters Crystal and Brittany (the other two Interim Fates)—except for an hour or so, on the weekend, under strict parental supervision. Parental, meaning their mothers’ supervision. Because none of the girls can talk to their father, the Greek God Zeus, who started this entire mess when he wanted his daughters to use their Fateness to get rid of true love.
Tiffany needs to face her future, but first she must decide what kind of future she wants. One with her crazy magical Greek God family? One in the “real world”? Or can she discover the strength to straddle both worlds?
Whatever Tiffany decides will impact not just her own fate but her sisters’ fates, too.
Crystal Caves: Book Two of the Interim Fates
Release date: September 15, 2015
Crystal’s mother calls her “The Unexpected Consequence of a Momentary Lapse of Judgment.” Her half-brothers call her “The Unwelcome Visitor” because they didn’t even know she existed until a few months before. Her stepfather doesn’t even speak to her.
Crystal’s beloved sisters, Tiffany and Brittany, decided to move in with their mothers after their father, Zeus, tried to use the girls to destroy true love. Crystal did what she always does—she did what her sisters wanted. Her sisters have loving mothers. Crystal doesn’t.
Even though she lives in a beautiful Central Park penthouse and has a credit card with no limit, she misses her magic. More than that, she misses her sisters.
She doesn’t fit in. And she can’t go home to Mount Olympus. She can’t even contact the Fates. Should she ask Zeus for help? Or should she gut it out in “the real world” with no love?
She knows what her sisters want her to do. She knows what her parents want her to do. Now, for the first time in her life, she needs to figure out what she wants to do, regardless of the consequences.
Brittany Bends: Book Three of the Interim Fates
Release date: October 13, 2015
Brittany misses her sisters—and her magic. After being fired from her job as Interim Fate—which she only had because her dad, Zeus (yeah, the Zeus), tried to get rid of true love—Brittany finds herself living with her mom and stepfather in someplace called Superior, Wisconsin. Oh, and her eight half and step siblings live there, too.
Eleven people, one house, and a whole lotta new things to learn about. Things like snow and sunburn and, well, being mortal.
But that might prove harder than she thinks. Because Zeus wants his daughters back. Three of them, anyway. The three former Interim Fates: Tiffany, Crystal, and Brittany.
Tiffany and Crystal already made their choices. Now Brittany must decide whether she will fight for what she really wants—if she can even figure that out—or bend to the will of her powerful father and the allure of magic.
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July 27, 2015
Percentages. Chances. Opportunities. Before Bryan marries Jess, he needs to know what kind of children they’ll have. Fortunately, tests exist for that. The results have arrived, and now they must choose: babies, percentages, or each other?
“Results,” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Do it now, do it later. Do it when you’re twenty-five, do it when you’re forty-five. Each choice involves risk. Each choice involves an element of chance. That’s what her parents fail to understand. They don’t realize that the world she faces is different from the one they knew.
Jess stands, feet apart, in the subway car. It’s half full, but all the seats are taken, and she holds the metal bar. She loves this antique method of travel in a city that hasn’t updated itself in any real way for nearly a hundred years. New York, she heard a colleague say, is becoming America’s first European city, a lot of people in a small space, history crammed against the future, land buried so deep no one remembers what grass looks like.
She loves it here. The past mingling with the future. Making the present bright.
Her parents, stuck in Des Moines, surrounded by grass, just don’t understand.
She leans her head against the metal bar. It’s cool against her scalp. The clickity-clack of the cars along the old track is somehow comforting.
She should have called her folks last night. They paged her three separate times after the test. But she wanted to wait until she had results, until she had something new to say instead of going over the same old arguments. She’s twenty-five, old enough to make her own choices. Old enough to make her own mistakes.
Her parents thought the testing was mistake number one. It certainly was expensive enough, but the doctor said he advised it for any couple about to get married. If they’re genetically incompatible, he’d said, they have the choice of terminating the relationship, planning for an expensive future, or tying tubes—practicing irreversible infertility, as one of her friends called it.
Options. That’s what her parents don’t get. It’s all about options.
Her stomach flutters. She wonders why tests are always a production, why now, in the days of instant communication, results must wait a day, a week, sometimes a month. The doctor said that while communication might be instantaneous, science is not. She wonders if that’s true, but doesn’t really know.
The train stops at Times Square. She gets off, walks away from the smell of exhaust, a smell that will remain on her clothing all day. As she emerges from the tunnel, the city assaults her: sunlight thin as it trickles between the buildings, cars honking, people yelling, a jackhammer rat-a-tat-tatting two blocks away.
Her mother asks, How can you raise a child there? There are no lawns, no quiet places, and Jess says, There are plays and museums and concerts. And her mother says, How’re you going to afford that, honey?
A little boy on a leash stops in front of Jess, and she nearly topples over him. He’s blond and curly-haired, with enormous blue eyes that twinkle as he investigates a spot of gum on the sidewalk. New Yorkers form a path around him, like a river diverted by a stone, but she glances over her shoulder as she passes, sees the young man who is his caretaker, a black-haired, blue-eyed man, who does not have the look of wealth. A nanny perhaps? Or a lucky man, a man whose genetic code needed no tampering at all.
She wants to turn around, go to the man, ask, Did you choose the right options or did you wait and see what nature would provide? Did you trust the process? As if there is still a process to trust.
She lets herself into a side door, an unmarked rusted metal door that has been on Broadway since time immemorial. She goes through back hallways that lead to the box office of a theater whose name has changed ten times in the last five years, each name with the claim of authenticity.
At the end of her hallway, the box office. Hot and squalid, air-conditioning fifty years old and inefficient. She puts on small headphones so that she can hear her phone conversations without interrupting anyone else. She actually works on an ancient keyboard, the office computer plugged into a dozen services from the venerable TicketMaster to the brand new E-SEAT. It is her job to take the calls requiring her to deny someone’s pleasure, helping the angry, the frustrated, or the very wealthy find the right ticket to the right show and then, promptly at 5, go to the box office itself and do the same thing in person, hand out tickets ordered by mail, soothe the customers who arrive on the wrong night, and press a small button beneath the shelf to get the manager who will discreetly lead those who get angry onto the street.
The job pays very little and she only has it because human beings still expect to find, beyond e-mail and the digitized voices, a human face, a real person which, as her parents used to say, is becoming increasingly rare.
Her fiancé Bryan’s job is marginally better. He is a short-order cook in a restaurant near the George Washington Bridge. He gets home as she’s leaving for work. They only have evenings together.
She puts on her headphones, hands shaking, the day already seeming longer than it should. Results, she knows, could come today, tomorrow, or next week.
What are you going to do with them? Her father asked. What if there’s nothing catastrophic? What if you’re somewhat compatible? Then what will you decide? Will you base your entire future on a set of numbers, on percentages that have no meaning?
She had no answer for him when he first asked the question, and she has none now. She goes through her morning’s backlog, checks to see if she must return calls, and finds no personal messages. Then she deliberately fills her mind with times for this season’s remake of Fiddler on the Roof, the latest Oscar Wilde revival, the newest—and probably last—play by Mamet, the one that deals, unsurprisingly, with the indignities of manly old age.
By the time the call comes, she has put the test out of her mind and is surprised to hear Bryan’s voice. He knows that personal calls are forbidden, so he speaks fast:
“The results are in. Meet you at our special place at one.”
“How bad are they?” she asks, voice breathless. She hasn’t realized until now how shallowly she’s been breathing, how much she has invested in this single moment, in knowing what the future will bring.
But he does not answer her. In deference to her work—and how much they need her paycheck—he has already hung up.
She takes another deep breath, feels the air go in and out of her lungs. Only once before has she been this conscious of her body, and that was when the lab tech pricked her finger—painless, the woman had promised, but a prick was a prick, sharp and sudden and a little bit invasive. Jess watched the blood well, a dark, rich red, and she wondered what secrets it would reveal.
Now she’ll know.
Bryan already knows.
And he is going to make her wait two hours before he tells.
Their place is Washington Square Park. She used to work in the neighborhood, and went there for lunch, sometimes a dog or a knish from a vendor, sometimes a sandwich bought from a nearby deli, sometimes a banana brought from home. What she ate then wasn’t important, it was the brief moment outdoors, even if it meant sitting in a park more concrete than grass with trees that were spindly because of the dirt in the air.
Bryan worked nearby too, and they sometimes sat on the same bench. They never talked, not until some tourist—coincidentally from Iowa, like they both were—couldn’t figure out how to use her new camera and desperately wanted a picture to e-mail to her uncle Syd.
They still laugh about that. Technology, Bryan says, is what brought us together.
Technology, Jess always adds, that most people don’t understand.
Now they are facing another side of technology. One she is sure will tell her if the life she wants is something she can have.
She almost splurges and takes a cab, but at the last moment, she remembers how many more expenses there could be. The subway is old. It creaks and groans and her friend Joan swears it’ll one day just fall apart, but it gets Jess to the park with time to spare.
She does not buy lunch. She knows she will not be able to eat. She sits on their bench and waits for Bryan who is uncharacteristically late.
He has chosen this place for its symmetry. Symmetry is important to Bryan. It is, in his mind, an element of perfection. Only she cannot guess exactly what the symmetry is.
Are they here because they will decide what their child will be? Or are they here because they will commiserate together, knowing that to bring a child into this world will either be too costly or too dreadful?
She does not like the waiting. Fortunately she told her boss she might be late. He knows that this is an important moment for her, and he understands.
The park is full of children: in strollers, in parents’ arms, running around the benches. These are not the perfect children she usually sees. They have bad skin, mismatched features, eyes that are slightly crossed. They are not perfect. There is no intelligence in their faces.
These are the children of the poor, the desperate, those who will not listen to their doctors or cannot afford one. Those who believe that they must go through with a pregnancy no matter what. Those who cannot afford in-the-womb enhancements. These are the children who will be, in the-not-too-distant future, A Burden On Society.
Maybe that is why Bryan chose this place. To remind her about the costs of making the wrong choice.
She sees him emerge from the subway, head down. He is balding ever so slightly, just a lighter spot at the crown of his head. He used to joke before they got the test that he will make certain none of his children will go bald.
He hasn’t made that joke in weeks.
He makes his way to the bench without a second glance at the children. When he reaches the bench, he does not touch her.
Instead, he hands her his palmtop. On it is an e-mail already opened. She skips the salutation and the signature, reads the body instead.
Percentages fill her brain. She glances at the high ones first, expecting something awful—a high chance of spina bifida or Alzheimer’s disease. Instead she sees none of that. The high percentages are silly: 97 percent chance of child having blond hair; 96 percent chance of child having brown eyes; 98 percent chance of child being tall.
It is in the middle percentages that the problems strike: 47 percent chance of having an IQ above 120; 36 percent chance of having artistic talent, acting talent, musical talent; 24 percent chance of having strong athletic ability.
Mediocre. The test results show that their child will be mediocre. At best.
She scrolls through the e-mail, searches for anything positive, anything that will negate this bizarre news. She sees instead the layman’s explanation of how the figures are arrived at. Her IQ, lower than Bryan’s, brings down the total score. His physical abilities mismatch with hers; her talents do not go with his. They are genetically incompatible. Already they are, before her first pregnancy, failures as parents.
She does not raise her head. She doesn’t want to see the children playing across from her, screaming, laughing, not knowing that, in some indefinable future moment, their poverty will catch up with them and hold them back.
Their parents’ decision to bring them into the world will make them Burdens that no one else can measure.
What you don’t understand, honey, her father said when she told him of the test, is that there is more to children than statistics.
I remember your first real smile, her mother added. Whenever I’m sad, I think of that.
Sometimes, her father said, the best accomplishments are small ones.
Bryan takes the palmtop from her hand. He puts a finger under her chin, looks into her eyes. His are brown, just like hers. They both have blue-eyed great-grandparents, hence the small percentage chance of a blue-eyed child.
“Maybe we should just go home,” she says. “Forget the museums and the parks. Our parents will love a grandchild, any grandchild—”
He puts his finger over her lips. His skin smells of lemon polish and garlic.
“It won’t work,” he says softly. “We aren’t the right choices for each other. You need someone who’ll add to your scores. So do I.”
She inclines her head back so that his finger no longer touches her mouth. “Let’s think about it.”
“No. I want a child I can be proud of. I don’t want—” he grimaces at the baby in the stroller beyond, the baby with ears too big for his tiny face “—something I’ll always regret.”
Besides, her father said. Statistics are just that, statistics. They’re not proof. What if they’re wrong?
They can’t be wrong, Daddy.
All right, he says, but sometimes people beat the odds.
“Maybe we should try,” she says.
He puts the palmtop in his pocket. “I was afraid of this. I was worried that you wouldn’t believe the results. We can’t afford a lot of enhancements, Jess. We have to go with our combinations. Maybe if we were rich—”
“We can wait,” she says. “You’ll get a better job. So will I. Then we can try.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t you remember what the doctor said? Your eggs will deteriorate with time. We’ll have to have more enhancements rather than less.”
Her eggs and his sperm. Deterioration isn’t just a female thing. But she doesn’t say that. She knows him too well. He has made up his mind, and has done it without her.
“You can do what you’ve always wanted,” he says. “You can act now instead of work the box office. You can become someone.”
Someone who can pay for a child who will be perfect. A child she wants to share with Bryan who will, by then, be gone.
“It’s all about chances,” she says. “Risk. Maybe we should just do it the old-fashioned way. Our parents did.”
He nods, but doesn’t look at her. She flushes. Suddenly she realizes how he read the report. The failures are not his. They are hers. The way her body combines with his will produce a result he will be ashamed of. Whenever he looks in his child’s brown eyes, he will always see this report. A 47 percent chance of IQ above 120. And if the child is not as intelligent as Bryan wants, he will blame her.
He will always blame her.
No matter how many museums she goes to, or how often their child smiles. No matter how much simple joy that young life will bring them, Bryan will always see the failure.
He gets up, kisses her on her crown where she—and all the people she has descended from—have a full shock of hair, and makes his way through the crowd.
She sits on their bench, knowing now what the symmetry he sought was. It is over. Sure, they will divide possessions, figure out who inherits the apartment, maybe even sleep together for old times sake. But the future, the bright shining future, is gone.
She sits on the bench for the rest of the hour, watching the children, searching for their parents. Women sit on other benches, occasionally look toward the playing children, smile, and continue their conversations. The smiles are warm ones, contented ones, as if the children’s high spirits are infectious.
What would their results have looked like? A 98 percent chance of brown hair? A 75 percent chance of gray eyes?
Nowhere on that form was an area for percentage chance of bringing joy. Nowhere was there a space for all the years of laughter, now denied.
She has choices of her own to make. All of them involving risk. All of them involving a world that has changed even beyond her understanding.
This morning she thought it irresponsible to have a child without knowing the risks. But she hadn’t known the greatest risk of all. The risk of believing the statistics, reading too much into the numbers.
Perfection is not possible.
Would Bryan have been satisfied with a 53 percent chance of an IQ above 120? She never thought to ask.
Until an hour ago, she hadn’t even known the answer for herself.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, March, 2000
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Nobeastsofierce/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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July 22, 2015
I’ve had a fascinating week, filled with realizations and surprises on the business side of things. I just made notes for three future blog posts, so I won’t try to cram all those realizations here. And I still haven’t found the time to read the music industry study in depth, like I mentioned I would last week, but I plan to, along with the copyright controversy that blew up right after it all.
Every week, Dean and I meet with the publisher of WMG Publishing, Allyson Longueira. Allyson has a long background in graphic design, as well as in publishing. She started in newspapers, but she’s worked in book publishing for several years now, and has a firm grasp, not just on where the industry is, but where it’s going.
She mentioned at last week’s meeting that she’s having some serious trouble with a rebranding project scheduled for this week.
A little background: we could easily call July Rebranding Month. With the help of comic book writer, Lee Allred, Allyson and Dean redesigned the covers for Dean’s Poker Boy series. I’ll let them premiere that when they’re ready, but suffice to say, these covers are brilliant.
I can’t wait to show them to you.
I won’t say they were easy to rebrand, but, conceptually, they weren’t hard. We knew we wanted to do something different for Poker Boy, something that suggested superhero. And the design the three of them came up with isn’t something that can be done in two hours by someone who lacks design experience. It requires a lot of work and finesse, and tweaking of programs and things I don’t entirely understand, because I’m not in any way shape or form a designer.
But I do understand branding and cover design. In fact, I discuss them at length in my book Discoverability. Those chapters are also free here on the website. (The entire book is free, but out of order here on the site, since I wrote the book out of order.)
And one thing we had talked about for more than a year now has been a redesign of my Kristine Grayson books. We decided we needed a redesign because the initial design was looking tired. The books had to be updated on the interior as well, since they were among the first ever published by WMG, and the standards of the company have changed.
If anything, the redesign—and rebrand—were long overdue.
Allyson knew immediately what look she was going for with that series. WMG is marketing the books as YA fantasy, because the protagonists are teens, dealing with young adult issues. But in many way, those books are just straight fantasy novels—unlike the other Kristine Grayson books, which are romances as well as fantasy novels. (I’ve scattered Allyson’s new Interim Fates covers at the beginning of this piece.)
The Grayson romances have had a series of different covers from different publishers. From the comic to the weird to the magical covers, none of them captured the essence of the books, which is romance.
When the first Grayson novel hit print fifteen years ago, the book was part of a brand-new subgenre called paranormal romance. Paranormals in the year 2000 were often lighthearted, and always focused on something magical. The books might have vampires or werewolves, but they might also have witches and ghosts.
They also had pretty clear covers. The lighthearted ones had comic covers, like mine. The darker ones had something a little magical on the cover, along with a romantic pose. Or they might show a rather spooky landscape. But their paranormal element was clear, as was the romantic element.
In the last decade, the line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance got blurred. One writer described the difference on a panel at a science fiction convention I was at by saying this, “The only difference is that a paranormal romance has a happy ending.”
Not quite true—a paranormal romance has to be focused on the romance first, the paranormal elements second—but true-ish, especially since so much urban fantasy also features a romance. In urban fantasy, though, the fantasy (and urban settings) are more important than any romance and, indeed, sometimes the twists and teases of a romance novel get spread throughout an urban fantasy series.
But in marketing—and that’s what we’re discussing here—the covers started to blur. Many of them had those strong muscular women in tank tops, showing their tattooed backs to the reader, while holding a sword or a gun or a stave. Sometimes, in the distance, a wolf howled from a rooftop. Sometimes a bat swooped between buildings. But those women became the focal point.
Then, four years ago, Fifty Shades of Gray became the hottest thing on the market (pun intended) and erotica got mixed in with both genres. Both urban fantasy and paranormal romance always had subgenres within the subgenres that swung toward erotica, but in the last four years, erotica has become a larger and larger share of those markets.
And the covers got even blurrier.
So…back to my story. Allyson had set aside this week to rebrand Kristine Grayson’s adult romance novels. These novels are sweet romances (little or no sex), with a lot of banter (think the banter from 1940s films like His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story) and a totally magically weird (and funny) plotline. Voice heavy, character focused, and strange.
Nothing like the scary-gothic-vampire-love stuff that has branded so much of paranormal romance.
We had conversations about this all spring, because genres change, and definitions change, and we weren’t sure what, exactly, to call the Graysons any more. We left the decision until the beginning of this month, just because we had other projects (like the Retrieval Artist and Poker Boy and, and, and…)
Then Allyson drops a bomb at last week’s meeting. She can’t figure out how to brand the Grayson romances. She can’t find any good genre examples in the real world.
Allyson saying she can’t figure out how to brand a cover is like Kobe Bryant saying he can’t figure out how to shoot a basketball. It’s stunning and startling. Clearly the problem here isn’t Allyson: she knows her business, like Kobe knows his. She’s an amazing designer, and she knows how to brand things.
She asked for help figuring out what we can do. We did some searching on online retail sites last week, starting with Amazon, and I’ll be honest: at that moment, I understood why Amazon changed the Kindle Unlimited rules.
I am a romance reader and I saw nothing I wanted to read. Moreover, much of what I saw were serialized books, chopped up to take advantage of the K.U. algorithm that existed before July 1. So, I figured this was an Amazon issue, and went to the most traditional publishing friendly website I could think of which was Barnes & Noble. There I looked at the paperback romances, not the ebook ones, thinking that I would see traditionally published books.
And found very little that screamed “Romance.” Not under the paranormal label. Either the books looked like they were urban fantasy (and boy, am I sick of that back to the camera wearing a tank top, showing off the tattoos and weapons pose). Or I saw books that looked like—I don’t know—a cookbook or a travelogue, something that showed a lovely garden or a house blurred against a brown background.
Every now and then, I catch myself thinking about publishing like its 1999. And, in my head, I’m not-so-subconsciously blaming indies for the bad covers. Because there are a lot of self-produced bad covers. Dean and Allyson teach an online covers workshop for WMG, trying to help writers improve their covers.
But this Barnes & Noble thing: it tings at me. There aren’t a lot of indies with paperback versions of their books. (Although, happily, there are more now than there were.)
Over the weekend, I headed to traditional publishers’ websites and look at their paranormal romance covers only to discover…that the damn books are branded like urban fantasy or like an E.L. James knockoff or like a cookbook or travelogue.
The indies, bless them, have been copying the traditional covers. Or maybe traditional copied indie—which is very possible, given the massive, massive success of indie published romance titles.
All of this points out a huge problem in the paranormal romance genre. There’s nothing that screams modern paranormal romance. Believe me when I tell you that readers look for such things.
I can tell you when I look at the cover of a historical romance what type of historical I’m looking at. If the woman’s in a flowing gown, holding a fan, chances are I’m looking at a Regency.
If her gown is coarser, and her hair is down, and she’s standing outside, then I’m probably looking at a medieval romance. Romantic suspense has become large titles with large author names and active colors—red, dark blue, orange—to mimic thriller covers.
But paranormal romance? It has gotten lost in the urban fantasy/erotica craze.
A few authors have ventured out. Kristen Painter and Michele Bardsley went for cartoon covers—very ten years ago, but with witty titles. Galen Foley’s Paladin’s Prize caught my eye because the cover is reminiscent of 1980s fantasy covers—sweeping, romantic artwork, not photographs—and when I first looked at the cover, I wondered how old the book was.
But it stood out from all the buff heroes and the bronzed heroines. And in fact, it —of all the books I looked at this past week—was one of the few that whispered Buy me right now!
I became concerned about genre branding as I went through all of this, so I scanned other genres outside of romance. Science fiction, fantasy (not urban), mystery, thriller, and found real obvious genre branding, and branding by author.
It’s clear what type of book the reader is going to get from the covers.
Not so in paranormal romance. The genre seems to have fallen apart.
The bulk of the reason for that is traditional publishing. About two years ago, it decreed that urban fantasy novels don’t sell. I couldn’t figure out why—especially when indie urban fantasy books and stories sell like crazy.
But as I looked at this genre branding stuff, I began to understand. To sell at the numbers that sustain a traditional publisher’s bank account, urban fantasies have to reach stratospheric heights not possible in a crowded market. The books have been purchased and published into this branding mess.
Is the book urban fantasy, with an ongoing mythology, lots of scary magic, and creatures that might or might not be friendly? With a strong female character and lots of combat? Like Ilona Andrews writes novels? Or something written by Patricia Briggs? Remember, in urban fantasy, the magic takes precedence.
Or is the book erotica with werewolves? Books that are about the sexual experience instead of the magical one? Because in erotica, the sexual contact is the most important thing. The rest is window-dressing.
Or is the book an actual paranormal romance? Does the couple meet cute, then run into obstacles, only to have a happily ever after? Some paranormals have great world-building, and some use the magical environment as window-dressing. Some do put the sexual relationship front and center, but combine it with the romance for that happy-ever-after.
Readers can’t judge a book by its cover, and so readers, like me, are stepping back. After my genre-branding experience, I looked at the paper books on my to-be-read stack, and saw only five romances. Believe me, that’s down from my usual reading. And all of those five books are from favorite authors. Four are regency (including one indie [waves at Anthea Lawson]), and one is contemporary. I’m always looking for good romantic suspense, but I haven’t found much of that lately. And I completely stopped reading paranormals, except by indie friends, about two years ago.
I hadn’t realized it until I looked at that table. And I felt sad.
I remember twenty-five years ago when the same thing happened to the horror genre. All the books started to get the garish covers pioneered on John Saul books—black background with one creepy image (maybe a broken doll) and a two-word title such as The Lake or The Babysitter. The titles became so ubiquitous that Kevin J. Anderson started calling all of the books in that subgenre The Barfing, and from that moment on, I couldn’t look at those books without giggling.
That genre imploded, and while horror didn’t go away, the marketing category went away for some time. Just like paranormal romance seems to be going away as a unique category of romance.
All of that realization is great for nonfiction blogging and not-so-good for helping Allyson figure out covers for my Grayson novels.
At that meeting last week, Dean and Allyson discussed a fallback design, something romantic that suggested the Interim Fates’ series covers, but which branded the books in three ways:
Way the first: the covers had to be romantic. They needed a couple, not a woman by herself or a man by himself.
Way the second: the covers needed a suggestion of magic. Maybe a little fairy dust, maybe a magic wand, maybe some kind of something. (This’s where cover design gets into mystical arty talk, at least for me.)
Way the third: the books had to look like part of a series, and they had to brand to WMG’s Grayson design. They needed something to suggest the Interim Fates, but to be different from them. They needed something to suggest that the books were tied together, but one book (Completely Smitten) isn’t part of a series that WMG is publishing in full, so it needed to look slightly different.
Allyson and I e-mailed a lot on Monday about covers, and then we spoke the phone on Tuesday, after she nearly worked herself blind trying to find the right art to blend into the design concept she had come up with. She says she went through more that 1,000 images, trying to find the right ones.
I believe it.
Here’s what she came up with. I think the covers are truly creative and spectacular. There’s a reason she’s won a lot of awards as a graphic designer, and for the first time, she’s really had free reign. She’s not trying to fit into a genre brand. She’s truly creating her own brand.
(And wait until you see Poker Boy. Yowza.)
Anyway, I think these covers tick all the boxes we wanted ticked. They are clearly related to the Interim Fates covers. The romance covers brand to series. They brand to each other. They scream romance. And they have magical elements.
Allyson also did something I didn’t expect. These books deal with Greek mythology. The Fates are part of Greek myth, and they’re at the center of these books. So she put in columns that suggest Greece. Truly well done.
I have no idea how well these covers will sell. I hope they sell well. I certainly like them better than any Grayson cover I’ve had before. (Note: the books with the new covers won’t be available until next week.)
We put a lot of time and attention into the redesign of Grayson. It sounds like Allyson did it in a week, but that doesn’t count the decision to rebrand, the discussion of how we want to use the branding on future books, what we want to do with the various series, and how everything relates.
There will be new promotion on the Grayson titles as well, starting in the fall. The whole promotion thing led to another realization which I will discuss in future weeks. It’s time to put some of the plans I mentioned in Discoverability to use on Grayson.
The first was the importance of finding the proper brand. We’ve done that—as best we can, considering several of the Grayson novels are still in print traditionally. We’ll see how this all works.
One last thing on branding. In Discoverability, I mention that you’ll need to update your covers every five years or so. The first WMG romance title was Completely Smitten in 2011. So we’re right on schedule for the redesign.
If the redesign sells well, then five years from now there might not be any reason to do another redesign. Or there might be, if trends go far afield from where we are.
It’s our job as writers and publishers to keep abreast of cover trends so that we can let readers know what our books are at a glance. That’s difficult—especially in a genre in flux, like paranormal romance—but speaking as a reader first, it’s essential.
The thing I love the most about the publishing industry these days is that it is changing quickly. That means there’s always something to learn, and always something that surprises me. The lack of branding on paranormal romances surprised me. The solution Allyson came up with pleased me.
And all of it lead to some thoughts that you’ll see over the next few weeks, as this blog continues.
So many of you support the blog with sharing on social media and by commenting here. Thank you! And thanks to all of you who support the blog financially. That enables me to spend the hours every week that I could be working on something else writing nonfiction and thinking about the industry. Thanks for that as well.
“Business Musings: The Branding Surprise,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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July 20, 2015
Gavin spends his morning reading the email of his ex-girlfriend, Stella. Thanks to a restraining order, he can’t approach her. So, the email has to do. Until it stops. Until Stella disappears from the world.
Gavin thinks he knows what happened to her, but how can he help her? Should he risk everything, including his freedom, for the woman who accused him of stalking?
“E-Male,” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Every morning, Gavin got up, fixed himself a mocha grande with sprinkles, and padded barefoot to his computer. He kept the computer in the second bedroom of his rent-controlled apartment. The bedroom was the size of a closet, but he didn’t need much. Besides, the apartment itself was big, considering most places in Manhattan were the size of a shoebox, and he paid one-quarter what the square footage was worth. He’d been here since he was a student, only then he’d had to share with three other people.
Now he had the place to himself—him and the cat—and he preferred it that way. He had his routines and his rituals, and he valued all of them. They got him to work by noon, and that was saying something for a man who had been self-employed most of his adult life.
He would set the mocha on the second shelf of the desk and log on, careful to check his firewalls and his virus protection first. Then he’d download his e-mail, with its insistent spam (BIG BREASTS—THIRTY DAYS!) and even more insistent business matters (Need the drawings for the Peterson account Friday. Have any prelims yet? Don’t want to be surprised). Sometimes, he’d find a letter from his sister, filled with news about his niece (first grade and liking it), his nephew (coasting through the second grade) and her husband, who had the uncommon good sense to stay home to raise the baby.
Gavin would answer what he could, delete what he couldn’t, and then he’d go to his morning treat: Stella’s e-mail.
Stella, his almost-wife.
Stella, his now-ex-girlfriend.
Stella, who hated him almost as much as he hated her.
Stella’s e-mail was rich in metaphor, lacking in love. But Stella had never been rich in love. Stella preferred lust. Good, old-fashioned, I-want-you-baby-in-the-worst-way lust.
Not hers, naturally.
And he rarely got a chance to use that lust—in a constructive manner at any rate. Or, at least, that was what Stella had told the judge when she got the restraining order.
Gavin seems to think he owns me, she had said. He watches me all the time. I’m afraid of him, Judge.
Gavin clenched a fist and then made himself relax it slowly. She was such an actress. Such a bad actress. But the judge had fallen for it.
Men always fell for her, always lusted after her.
Even that judge.
When Gavin looked at Stella’s e-mail, his memories of that lust would come back. Stella had a wide variety of correspondents, most of them male, and most of them elderly pretending to be younger.
The slang always gave them away. They wrote, “Hey baby,” or “You look like one cool chick.” They wrote in full sentences with capital letters and real punctuation, instead of e-mail shorthand. It seemed strange to see someone type out “in my humble opinion,” instead of using imho.
Gavin wondered if Stella was bright enough to catch these subtle clues, or if she thought all these men writing to her were young and handsome and interesting. Unlike him, as she had told him often enough.
“Yeah? So what am I?” he had asked, later realizing such a question had been the beginning of the end.
She had actually thought about the answer. Then thought about it some more, and then revisited it, like a hole in her tooth, something she couldn’t ignore.
First she’d said, “You’re okay in bed.”
Then she’d revised it. “You’re an artist.”
Finally she ended with, “And you’ve got money.”
The okay in bed had bothered him. He was fucking great in bed. Every woman except Stella had told him that. He saw to them first, and then he took care of himself. What more could a woman want? But Stella hadn’t been that enthusiastic about sex in the first place.
She loved teasing. She loved being the object of lust. But she hated the fluids, the time, the sheer physicality of sex.
He’d thought about e-mailing that to her admirers. Sure, her picture on her website was hot. He’d taken it after a moment of passion, and yeah—artist that he was—the stuff he’d photoshopped out was barely noticeable. You thought you saw a nipple, an attractive nipple, unless you looked closely. Then you’d realize you saw the suggestion of a nipple, not a real nipple at all.
The real nipple was disappointing. Large and bulbous and clearly a tool for child-feeding, not for male entertainment. It made her entire breast look like the end of a baby’s bottle instead of something a man wanted to wrap his hand around.
Whenever he took naked pictures of her—and he took a lot more than she realized—he always had to deal with the nipple problem. He’d become an expert at the nipple problem by the time he designed her website. She hadn’t even noticed how he’d tucked in her waist to make it look just a bit smaller, or brought the color from the blanket over her hips to hide what little hair she had just so they wouldn’t get in trouble from her webhosting service (which actually defined pornographic pictures as ones that showed everything, as opposed to artistic photos which did not).
Of course, all these idiots who e-mailed her read her blog and thought they knew her. Her blog was ninety percent fantasy and ten percent reality, and that ten percent only showed up when she was pissed off.
Any guy who was paying attention would know she was a real piece of work, a woman with a lot of issues and even more hang-ups, and one beaut of a temper.
But guys didn’t think of that when a woman described how she liked to spend her evenings alone, just her, Mr. Buzzer, and a package of microwave popcorn. All the guys figured they could make her give up the buzzer.
He was here to tell them that they were wrong.
That’s what he initially thought he’d do, e-mail every Joe Asshole who e-mailed her, warning him away in creative and untraceable e-mails. Instead, Gavin got caught up reading her made-up blog, comparing it to the e-mails she sent and received, and wondering if she really felt better about her life now that he wasn’t in it.
To his friends, he said he didn’t miss her. His work certainly didn’t suffer. He had his commissions, mostly for ad agencies and websites and magazines, and he had two gallery shows this year in Boston, which was the next best thing to New York.
Anyway he wasn’t really without her. He had her cat—well, the cat she’d abandoned to him, even though she still used said cat’s name as her password—and sometimes, in the middle of the night, he could pretend that little ball of warmth against the middle of his back was Stella.
He had her words, too, and not the ones she’d sent him in anger the day she left (he kept those e-mails as well, downloaded and backed up, just in case). He had her sent mail, which he read religiously, and her unsent mail—her drafts folder—which he only opened on Sunday.
He loved unsent. Drafts were written in anger, and Stella excelled at anger. Once he’d found a letter that verged on pornographic, and he wondered if she’d meant it for him until he’d found the name “Tom” halfway down the page. In no way could Gavin be made into Tom, not even when you squinted and blurred the letters together.
There were five Toms in her e-mail list, but none of them had that particular e-mail address, an address she had never sent anything to before or since. Gavin could’ve traced it, he supposed, but he saw no need since she’d never sent the letter.
She might’ve fantasized about this Tom, but she never consummated the fantasy, and that was enough for Gavin.
Lately, though, her e-mail had become a little staid. Almost boring. At first, he attributed it to the fact they’d been broken up for more than a year. She’d never been much of a rocket scientist. She hadn’t even graduated from college, preferring to pad her résumé so that the four years she spent at an elite school looked like a complete education.
Over the past two weeks, she stopped corresponding with most of her men. Her letters took on a terse note, as if she were too busy to be bothered to write anything.
Then he realized that she hadn’t used the e-mail account for nearly three days. No sent mail, no unsent drafts. She hadn’t even responded to the real letters—the ones from family members whom he’d met once and hated—and that was unusual. In the past, she would let the men hang for days, letting them think maybe they’d screwed up by sending such a needy letter to a woman they’d never met, but she never, ever (not even when he’d begged) ignored her family.
That was the first sign that something was wrong. The second was subtler. A man whose handle was jondoe61 had disappeared from her regular e-mail. Gavin had to dig deep into her files to realize that Stella had actively blocked jondoe.
It had to take something incredible to make Stella block anyone. She didn’t even block spammers most of the time. She had blocked Gavin, of course, but that had been on the advice of her attorney.
And Gavin had known how to get around it.
Blocking jondoe61 got Gavin’s curiosity up. What had it taken for Stella to decide this guy had to stay away from her, even if it was only in e-mail?
First Gavin checked the junk file, but the web mail provider that Stella used actually had an efficient junk filter. The junk went into the junk folder, then got permanently deleted after seven days.
Stella had blocked jondoe61 nearly sixteen days before. So Gavin couldn’t find what had provoked her, and he certainly couldn’t remember. All of her mail from men he didn’t know seemed vaguely pornographic to him. He blamed her for this—no one should be that explicit in her blogs without expecting some kind of nasty e-mail in return.
But Stella had never had an off-switch. She didn’t seem to realize that things she said, and, by extension, things she wrote, had repercussions. She coveted the lust, although she did want it couched in romantic terms (“you’re so beautiful” instead of “I want to fuck your lovely ass”).
If men were savvy, they understood that she didn’t want honesty. She wanted poetry. But she also seemed to understand that you had to read a lot of raunchy e-mail to get to the pretty ones.
And she never blamed herself for the content. If men wrote her nasty letters, it was because men wrote nasty letters, not because she talked about sex toys and orgasms in her nightly online ramblings.
Gavin sighed, sipped his now cold mocha grande, and realized he’d wasted half a morning on Stella’s e-mail. She hadn’t logged on, either—which would have chased him out of there in a heartbeat—and he’d lost track of the time.
If he wasn’t careful, he would lose the entire day. He couldn’t afford that.
Well, he could, but it wouldn’t be a good precedent to set for himself. A man who was self-employed had to have an asshole for a boss or he’d get nothing done.
At least, that was what Gavin told the cat. The cat, who had been licking her back leg when he spoke, showed her disagreement by sticking out her pink tongue and keeping her leg raised in a sort of feline-finger gesture.
However, cats knew nothing about employment, the little freeloaders, so he decided to ignore her and get to work.
He had a commission to finish.
He actually forgot about Stella until the next morning. He made his mocha grande with extra sprinkles, padded barefoot to the computer, and logged on, thinking about his half-finished painting instead of the mystery of jondoe61. Only by habit did Gavin go to Stella’s e-mail—and discovered that she hadn’t written a thing all week.
He scanned through her sent mail, wondering if she was on to him. Maybe she had realized he’d been reading everything, and as a result, she hadn’t saved copies of the sent mail. But he diddled with the e-mail himself, sending mail to one of the spammers as a test, and the mail he sent in Stella’s name and with her account showed up in the sent mail just like it was supposed to.
He deleted the test e-mail and remembered jondoe61.
Stella kept her answered mail. She was too lazy to delete a letter after she had responded. Gavin scrolled down through nearly 1000 messages, searching for jondoe61. When Gavin finally found an e-mail from jondoe61, he clicked on it then reset the e-mail program’s perimeters so that all of jondoe’s letters grouped together.
After reading six of them, he pushed aside the mocha grande, wondering if he could ever drink one again. He knew that both breakfast and lunch would be out of the question.
Gavin wouldn’t have blocked jondoe61. Gavin would have reported him to the e-mail provider and maybe to the police.
This man was sick, his letters so twisted and perverted that Gavin doubted he’d ever get the images out of his head. jondoe61 described what he wanted to do to women and when Stella answered him—
“Babe, what were you thinking?” Gavin whispered, knowing she hadn’t been thinking at all, just answering her mail like she always did—
jondoe61 told her that he hadn’t just contemplated these things, he had actually done them, and he could prove it to her. One little meeting, and she’d never think about Mr. Buzzer again.
Gavin’s nauseous stomach clenched. Only great self-control and an unwillingness to believe that Stella was dumb enough to meet this creep kept him at the computer.
She had blocked the guy, Gavin reminded himself. She hadn’t met with him. She’d blocked him.
And that, in Stella’s mind, was worse that going to the police. Denying the man the comfort of her presence was the severest punishment she could conceive of. Gavin knew that too. He also knew the lengths she would take to punish a man, a man who only wanted a little time with her.
Really, was a little time too much to ask?
His fists were clenched again. He had to work at opening them. He took three deep breaths like that court-appointed counselor ordered him to do, and then he made himself concentrate.
He checked the junk file. Five letters from jondoe61 mixed with the Viagra offers and the Nigerian scam artists. Five letters, all of which grew progressively angrier as Stella refused to respond.
Five letters sent on the same day.
The day Stella had last accessed her e-mail.
This was Thursday.
Gavin made himself breathe three times again. She had probably just changed her e-mail address. He would have to do a search and find the new one.
But changing her e-mail address wasn’t like Stella. She hadn’t changed her real address in more than a decade. She had kept the same telephone number her whole adult life, and asked for a variation of it when she had gotten her cell phone.
When Gavin’s lawyer had told her moving with no forwarding would solve all of her problems, Stella had looked at him as if he had just suggested she jump in front of a moving bus.
Gavin sprang out of his chair, startling the cat. She looked up at him with green expressionless eyes. He told himself that he spent way too much time alone, that isolated people made shit up.
But he couldn’t shut off his brain.
So he picked up the phone, and dialed Stella’s work number from memory. The receptionist who answered was someone new who didn’t recognize his name and therefore was willing to tell him that Stella hadn’t shown up all week.
“She called in sick on Tuesday,” the receptionist said. “Frankly, I’ve never heard her sound so bad.”
He didn’t like that. He also didn’t like the fact that the answering machine picked up on her landline and her cell’s voicemail was clogged. He went back to the computer and looked at the stupid letters from her annoying family.
They were wondering why she hadn’t answered her phone either and how come she’d missed some baby shower and why the heck she suddenly got so rude.
He went back to the sent mail, and when it told him nothing, he broke into her work account. That took some doing. Even though the company kept its e-mail on its corporate website, the webmail portion wasn’t as sophisticated as the main web providers. He had to keep his fingers crossed, hoping some anti-spyware software wouldn’t find him, and then he had to use the password cracking program that he’d downloaded months ago to access the entire system.
Once he was in, getting to Stella’s e-mail wasn’t hard. And dumb bitch that she was, she used the cat’s name as her password at work as well. When he found her, he’d tell her to be more original.
Then he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to talk to her, and thought maybe he’d send her an anonymous e-mail just to piss her off.
When he found her.
Which he hadn’t, so far.
What he had found was a letter to everyone in her personal address book telling them that she had a major project at work and asking them to refrain from contacting her until she contacted them. She misspelled refrain, and that wasn’t like her. She always spell-checked, saying that a correctly done e-mail was like dressing properly for a party.
Gavin’s hands were shaking as he examined the other major e-mail she’d sent late Monday.
Hideous flu. Doc says it’s extremely contagious. Should be back on my feet in a week or so. Staying off e-mail till the dizziness goes away. Sorry—
She hadn’t even signed it, and that was the tip-off. Stella had an automatic sig line in her work e-mail that gave her mailing address, her e-mail address, her cell, business phone, and fax number, as well as announcing to each and every person she had contact with that she had been promoted to Executive Office Assistant, which sounded like a glorified secretary to him, but she was pretty damn proud of it.
He scanned through the rest of the mails.
Nothing sent or received that had the slightest bit of interest. Nothing about her illness except a few queries from higher-ups trying to find out when she planned to return.
No answer to those either.
Gavin didn’t like this. At all.
And there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t go to her apartment because of the restraining order—the damn neighbor called the cops when he was on the stoop the last time—and he couldn’t call her family because they’d just hang up on him.
He couldn’t go to the cops because they’d want to know why he was spying on her. They’d pick him up for violating the restraining order.
Damn Stella. If she hadn’t been trying to punish him so hard, he could help her now. She had shut down all his options.
He had no way to prove that she was missing.
Except his gut.
And the ugly tone of the letters from jondoe61.
That was what Gavin kept going back to. jondoe61. The stuff he’d said in his e-mails was beyond disgusting. No one should imagine those things, let alone inflict those images on naïve and somewhat innocent women like Stella. Hell, she couldn’t take Gavin’s anger or his explanations that yelling and throwing were reasonable responses to adverse stimuli.
He’d “scared” her, poor baby, and she’d fled.
No wonder she’d blocked jondoe61. The asshole had raised the stakes considerably, and he hadn’t even met Stella.
Or had he?
Gavin went back to jondoe’s original e-mails. They sounded a bit too familiar, like things a man might say to a woman he met, not one whose blog he read every night.
Not that Gavin knew the difference between an in-person stalker and an online one. Not really. He wasn’t even sure if online stalking was illegal.
Except for him, of course, and only when it concerned Stella. He was barred from contacting her, and in that court order someone had the brains to add “through all forms of communication in existence or to be developed in the future.” Meaning, his stupid overpriced lawyer said, no e-mail and no chat rooms and no texting.
Gavin was just guessing about jondoe61. But his guesses were based on his knowledge of Stella, and the things she’d tolerate.
She would never tolerate jondoe61.
Since Gavin couldn’t check up on her—at least not any farther without breaking a court order—he decided to check on jondoe61.
It took Gavin three hours and two newly downloaded hacker programs to get to the site without paying for it—which should have been a tip-off to him, but wasn’t, dammit, not until he was in—and what he saw made him glad he hadn’t eaten all day.
The man’s website was a study in perversion. Women in states of bondage, women glassy-eyed and black and blue, women looking sad and resigned…and dead, if you came right down to it. Gavin didn’t think anyone could pose that kind of dead, the pasty-skinned empty-eyed version of dead that never showed up on television crime dramas.
He studied the photographs, not because he was perverse (he most decidedly wasn’t) but to see if they were photoshopped. He had a good eye for photo doctoring—he’d done enough of it himself—so he knew he would be able to spot when someone else did it, and he didn’t see any of it here.
What he did find, almost accidentally, was that a lot of the photos were of the same group of women. If you clicked in the center of one of the early photos, the link led you to other photos of her.
They had a sequence: scared woman, bound woman, terrified woman, glassy-eyed woman, and empty-eyed woman.
He found dozens of these sequences, all of them posed—if that was the right word—in the same place, all of them with different women, all of them clearly taken over a period of time. How long, he couldn’t tell. When, he couldn’t tell either.
But it was definitely a period of time because the woman’s hair went from pretty and clean to tangled and greasy. Her face went from well-scrubbed to scratched to sallow. Her eyes went from emotional to vacant.
Gavin looked away.
He wanted to take a shower. He wanted to toss his computer out the window.
Hell, he wanted to burn it—and the inside of his mind.
Instead, he sat back down and found the part of the website that he knew had to be there. The special members-only part, the section for members who paid extra.
Two more hacker software downloads and one frozen screen later, he found it. It was labeled In Progress.
And damned if it didn’t have a photo of Stella inside.
Gavin had dialed 9 and 1 before he set the phone down. How stupid was he? He had a restraining order, for crissakes. Cops always suspected guys with restraining orders of illegal activity.
Hell, he’d called Stella to explain that the night he got the order, and then found himself hauled to jail the next day for a violation. His lawyer had played for the judge’s sympathy—and since Stella wasn’t there, had gotten it with a simple (and true) argument: Gavin’s never been subject to such treatment before. He has no idea what the order means. Besides, he hasn’t threatened Stella McAllister in any way. He has never physically harmed her. She’s just trying to make his life miserable. And, Judge, it looks like she’s succeeding.
Gavin had gotten off with a night in jail and a warning that next time, he’d get a lot more time and a hefty fine.
He couldn’t afford either.
Then there were the other matters that the police would frown on: He had just downloaded four different hacker programs and illegally penetrated a for-profit website; he had downloaded what looked like snuff photographs, the worst kind of porn, and to top it off, what set him on this journey was his own illegal hacking of his ex-girlfriend’s e-mail.
He had broken he didn’t know how many laws, and he didn’t have any reason to except simple curiosity. That he’d stumbled on something bad was purely accidental, and proving that it had been accidental stumbling might be dicey at best.
But Jesus, he couldn’t let anything happen to Stella. He didn’t love her, not any more, but she was an okay person. He didn’t wish anything bad on her.
He had to tell someone.
He just wasn’t sure how.
He made himself think it through. The key, for him, was to save her without getting caught. That meant that someone else had to do all the heavy lifting. He could hire a private detective, but how the hell would he know the guy was competent or would protect him from the cops or would even do anything besides collect money and sit on his ass?
He didn’t. So that was out. Just like calling the cops directly. Or calling her stupid family.
One of the benefits of living in New York was that everything was close. The spy store always creeped him out when he went in it, but he went in it all the same. They sold devices that altered a person’s voice over the phone. He could make himself sound like a five-year-old if he wanted to.
Instead, he chose to sound like an older woman. He bought the stupid device, then read the dumb manual, then stopped at one of the few remaining pay phones on the island.
He made sure he was wearing a pair of gloves (thank God it was cold enough that this didn’t look unusual) and before he went anywhere near the phone, he tugged a ballcap low over his face, making sure he didn’t look at any buildings or traffic lights or banks, so no automatic cameras could get a clear shot of his face.
Then he plugged in some newly acquired quarters (which he had touched only with his gloves) and dialed her mother’s number from memory.
(It scared him that he had that number memorized too. How pussy-whipped had he been in this relationship? Jeez, maybe he’d been the one lucky to escape with his dignity intact.)
When her mother answered, he said in his old lady voice, “Stella hasn’t been to work in nearly a week. She’s not home sick like they think. She’s disappeared.”
Then he hung up. He used the same phone, and the same voice, to leave a similar message on her boss’s voicemail.
But he didn’t call 911. Instead, he called the regular police line and asked if they had an e-mail address, something they used for disturbing photographs.
“What do you mean, ma’am?” the person answering the phone asked.
“I’ve seen a naughty website,” he said, “and I do believe there are children on it.”
“Can you give me the URL?” the person asked.
“The what?” he asked, just for verisimilitude.
“The web address?”
“Oh, no. It’s on my son’s computer. When I’m babysitting my niece the next time, I’ll just e-mail you.”
“Ma’am, who is your son?”
“Who do I send it to?” he asked as if he hadn’t heard the previous question.
“We have a computer crimes division, but, ma’am, it might be easier if we just visited your son and—”
Gavin hung up. Quietly, quickly. He stuck the device in his coat pocket and, keeping his head down, walked to the nearest deli, ordered a hamburger to eat in, and a cake to go.
Then he went into his favorite bookstore, and chatted up the pretty clerk like he usually did in the afternoon. She was petite and red-headed, nothing like Stella. He initially thought that was the attraction, but then he realized that the clerk incited the same kind of lust that Stella had, a long time ago.
Only with this woman, he never let on. He’d learned that lesson. Better to fantasize.
So he visited her as a treat for doing a good deed, bought the latest New Yorker, and went home, his heart pounding. He felt like he had done something wrong.
But he always felt like that after he talked to the pretty clerk. He blamed Stella for that too. She had made him ashamed of his own lust.
She had also made him worry that other women wouldn’t be interested in it, when they had been in the past. In the past, redheads had found him as attractive as he had found them. They’d enjoyed each moment with him, whether it was in the darkness of their own bedroom or a quickie in an alley after they’d gotten off work.
He’d tried to go slower with Stella and look where that had gotten him. Making anonymous phone calls and being afraid to ask the pretty clerk for a cup of coffee.
If he hadn’t been so upset, he might have gone to his bedroom and worked off some of the tension. But he didn’t have time. He had to finish what he’d started.
He had to execute the next part of his plan from his home computer and he prayed his skills were up to it. If not, the cops would come after him anyway.
He needed to send the URL for the jondoe61 website to the police computer crime unit.
He’d thought and thought about that all the way home, and finally he decided to have Stella do it.
He sent an e-mail from her personal account, backdated the damn thing to the day she disappeared, and added this cryptic note: If anything happens to me, check out the man who runs this website. He’s been threatening me.
As a last minute thing, he decided to attach all of jondoe61’s letters. Then he sent the mail to the police, ccing her mother and her employer.
When he finished, he paced for another hour, knowing he wasn’t done, but he wasn’t sure what was left.
Finally he realized what was making him so damn nervous.
He had to trust someone else. He had to hope he’d done enough to save her before the scratched-face stage. Or the glassy-eye stage. Or, God forbid, the empty-eye stage.
He had to trust.
And he’d never done that before.
He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t check on anything. He couldn’t even break into Stella’s e-mail any more, not without raising suspicions.
And those images from jondoe61’s site kept haunting him. Gavin wanted them to go away.
He wished he could scrub out his mind.
Then he realized he had to scrub his computer. Deleting stuff wasn’t enough. Putting things in the trash didn’t clean it off the hard drive, and doing a disk cleanup didn’t do it either.
He had to make the information impossible to access. He had to make it go away.
Finally he settled for moving his important files to another hard drive. Then he switched drives. Once the new drive (which was really an old drive he hadn’t gotten rid of yet) was up and running, he took the drive with all the incriminating material, and set all of his kitchen magnets on top of it. Then he poured coffee into it while it was plugged in. The resulting electrical surge popped two breakers in his apartment’s circuit box, but fortunately didn’t cut the power anywhere else in the building.
In his closet, he set the stained and ruined hard drive, which no longer powered up (and God, he hoped the information on it was long gone).
Then he prepared for the worst.
The worst happened two days later when the police finally visited him. Two rather bored looking detectives, neither of which resembled the handsome and ambitious detectives on television, came inside and asked him when he last saw Stella.
Gavin could honestly say that he hadn’t been near her since the restraining order, and why, he wanted to know, were they looking into this?
Because she was missing, one of them said as if he didn’t care.
Gavin wanted to tell him to care. Gavin wanted to say that Stella had probably progressed from scared woman to terrified woman. But he didn’t say anything. He answered the questions, let some of his peevishness show because peevish was how he’d feel if Stella had gone on an extended vacation without telling anyone.
The detectives made some cursory notes, told him everything was routine, reminded him to stay away from her, and left.
And he didn’t hear anything for another two days.
In the end, he heard only because he’d been living with New York 1 as if it were the last television station in town. NY1 broke every damn story in the city, and they would love a kidnapping if they knew about it.
The story came across at 9:21 p.m. as breaking news. The police had found an executive secretary, held captive for days in a website designer’s warehouse. The designer had found her through her blog, traced her address through her webserver, and stalked her. He kidnapped her, sent dismissive e-mail to her friends and family, forced her to call her employer, and set about turning her into one of the horrible before-and-after montages he created for his site.
The story had to sound bizarre to the layperson—what website designer would need a warehouse?—but it soon became clear that this guy and his little circle of friends photographed their grisly pastimes, used their captives until the captives lost their usefulness, and then murdered them.
The cops even found a nearby dumping ground.
Stella was alive, but she’d never be the same. Gavin could tell that from the few glimpses of her he got on NY1 and in the papers. The Daily News had a tearful shot covering its front page.
Stella never used to cry like that.
He nearly sent condolences, but he couldn’t. He had to stay uninvolved. A mystery tip had led the police to the designer, a tip, they thought, from a subscriber who had finally gotten fed up with the website. The paying customers were all being investigated.
Gavin hoped to hell that the cops weren’t as good at digging through computer records as he was. He hoped that they wouldn’t notice the site had been hacked about the time of Stella’s disappearance. He hoped that he had wiped all traces of his own e-mail address from the website itself.
But he wasn’t sure he had.
He and the cat lived in fear for weeks, fear that turned into a nagging worry for a few months, and then into relief after a year.
A year. And he got no thanks because he couldn’t take credit.
He couldn’t even check Stella’s e-mail any more without fear of being caught.
His mornings were ruined. He needed a new routine.
He finally found one when he realized the pretty bookstore clerk used her own name as part of her e-mail address on a web-based mail server. Her password was, of all things, “password,” and her e-mail wasn’t as interesting as Stella’s, probably because he had no real vested interest in the clerk, but it gave him something to do while he sipped his mocha grande.
And he could think about her, both at home in his private lustful moments and when he visited every afternoon, careful only to say hello. Because if he said more, she’d know he knew too much about her.
Not that he thought he knew too much. He wanted to know a lot more. Where did she live? What did her bedroom look like? Did she close her eyes when she kissed a man or did she like to watch him?
He liked it when they watched.
But he couldn’t tell her that. He couldn’t tell her anything. He didn’t want her to stop him.
For, in addition to performing a private service for his own momentary entertainment, he was also performing a public service. He was guarding her against creeps and stalkers and people who wanted to hurt her.
Because they were out there. They were all over the place.
And he was a silent superhero, keeping a vigilant eye on her life.
Just in case she needed him.
Like Stella had.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Two of the Deadliest, edited by Elizabeth George, Harper, 2009
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Tiero/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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July 17, 2015
The various holidays have ended, although tourists still clog the roads in my little beach town, and now I can let you know about a few deals that have started up.
First, the ebook of the very first Retrieval Artist novel, The Disappeared, has a permanent low price—$2.99. So, if you wanted to try the series after hearing all the hype about it earlier this year, now you can for a very reasonable price.
In case you’re waffling, here are a few quotes about the book:
“Rusch has created an entertaining blend of mystery and sf, a solid police drama that asks hard questions about what justice between cultures, and even species, really is.” —Booklist
“It feels like a popular TV series crossed with a
“The Disappeared is a very readable, very thought-provoking novel that lives up to every expectation we have of Rusch and her considerable talents. Buy and enjoy.” —Analog
The other big deal—and it really is a big deal—is this:
Keith Brooke asked me to participated in a Storybundle. The books in this bundle are amazing. Three of the books are exclusive to the bundle. They’ve never been available in ebook before, and you can’t get them anywhere else.
One of those books, Little Sisters of the Apocalypse, by the marvelous Kit Reed, is one of my very favorite stories of hers. That’s worth the price of the bundle all by itself. (You can set your own price, but you must pay a minimum of $12 to get all nine books.)
The other books include the award-winning Ragthorn by Garry Kilworth and the late Rob Holdstock, John Grant’s The Far-Enough Window, and Keith Brooke’s Lord of Stone.
My contribution to the bundle, Façade, comes from a trio of dark fantasy novels that I wrote for Dell in the 1990s. I wrote Façade one hot May in Eugene, Oregon, but set the book where I live now, on the Oregon Coast. Or my made-up version of the Oregon Coast, a town called Seavy Village. I’ve set a lot of other stories in Seavy Village, so the setting will be familiar to some of you.
As with all Storybundles, this bundle will be available for three weeks only, and then it’s gone. I have no idea what’ll happen to the exclusives after the bundle goes down, so you really do have to act quickly to get all 9 books.
As for The Disappeared, well, it’ll stay at $2.99 for some time.
I’d say get both the bundle and The Disappeared. You’ll spend $15 or so, and you’ll have ten books, instead of one trade paperback or discounted hardcover. Not bad for a few minutes spent clicking away. And you can take all ten novels to the beach on your phone or your tablet or your preferred e-reader. You won’t even get sunscreen on the pages. How wonderful is that?
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July 15, 2015
I know some of you are going to ask me what I think of the latest Authors United letter, the one they’ve just submitted to the United States Department of Justice. For those of you who don’t know, Authors United—a group of New York Times bestsellers—have chosen to speak for all of us…in demanding that the DOJ stop Amazon’s monopolistic practices, because Amazon is ruining the book business.
There’s so many things wrong with the Authors United letter that it makes my brain hurt. Writer Joe Konrath has fisked the letter on his blog, putting a lot of time and effort into debunking almost everything in the letter. Writer Joe Konrath. Bestselling writer Joe Konrath—in case you missed the point.
I’m not going to replicate Joe’s work. He’s fighting The Stupid, so the rest of us don’t have to.
I’m also not going to defend Authors United. I really wish those folks, some of whom were writers I respected (note the tense), would learn the business of publishing, rather than listen to their agents and publishers, who have a different set of concerns than the writers themselves.
Double sigh, as I remind myself to take my fingers off the keyboard until I can refrain from joining the melee….
Back now, calmer.
Here’s what I wish: I wish that writers had business sense. I wish that they would then use their collective multimillion dollar clout to fight the real war, the one that the music industry is slowly turning its attention to.
I’m pretty sure that no writer besides me noticed this headline on National Public Radio’s website on Tuesday: Is Transparency The Music Industry’s Next Battle?
My answer to that question would be a resounding yes. And after that, perhaps someone can tackle transparency in the traditional publishing industry.
Transparency. What does that mean? It is actually a financial term, with a specific meaning. Financial transparency means that a company must make information as clear and accessible as possible for its investors and business partners. There are a million explanations of financial transparency on the web, but my favorite comes from the Investopedia, which has this sentence in the middle of its four-paragraph explanation of the term:
Transparency helps to prevent the corruption that inevitably occurs when a select few have access to important information, allowing them to use it for personal gain.
So, when artists in the music industry are asking for transparency, they want to be able to track the royalties and other income that artists are due, in an easy and explainable way.
Because of the way that the music industry evolved, it’s hard to achieve easy and explainable. The music industry is infinitely more complex than the publishing industry. A November 24, 2014 article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker succinctly explained this complexity better than I could:
Spotify is only one of many streaming sites. There are competing services like Rhapsody (which recently bought a rebranded, fully licensed Napster), Rdio, and Google Play Music, but there are also thousands of other sites where songs are streamed. Labels, publishers, and performing-rights societies struggle with dozens of different technologies to monitor this welter of outlets. And with any given stream of a song there is a myriad of copyrights—performing and mechanical rights apply to both the recording and the composition—which makes sorting out who’s owed what no easy matter.
That’s just one of the issues in the music industry and payments. It doesn’t help that Spotify and other streaming services are paying a fraction of a percent (sometimes as little as .0003 cents) for each stream, nor does it make things any simpler when the streaming service deals with millions of streams.
A single song—a single title—can generate payments that go to the recording artist, the record label, the holder of the song’s performance rights, the writer of the music, the writer of the lyrics, and others as well, depending on various deals and agreements. These deals and agreements might be contractual (between an artist and a record label). They might be mandates from certain organizations (like ASCAP). They might come from terms of service (for those artists not attached to a major label). And they might come from the major record label’s agreement with the streaming service.
Then there’s this complexity, also written in that New Yorker article:
AM/FM radio pays the writer of the song on a per-play basis, but gives the performer and the owner of the recording of the song—generally, the record label—nothing. On digital streaming services like Spotify, the situation is nearly reversed: the owners of the recording get most of the performance royalty money, while the songwriters get only a fraction of it. Songwriters, who can’t go out on the road, are particularly hard hit by the loss of publishing royalties.
There are other deals as well—how much an artist (or a copyright holder or a licensor) gets paid for each CD sale, how much they get paid for each paid MP3 download, how much they get paid for vinyl sales, how much they get paid for performance (such as a live show), how much they get paid for permissions, and how much they get paid for derivative works. If you don’t understand what I mean by permissions and derivative works, then get thee a copy of the Copyright Handbook, because prose writers deal with derivative works all the time.
Here’s a shorthand way of understanding derivative works. A new song by Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye” featuring Meghan Trainor, clearly references many Marvin Gaye songs. The Gaye estate had to be paid for those references in one way or another, through copyright. Here’s the video, (which is good but surprisingly [at least to me] not diverse).
And since we’re talking about revenue streams in the music industry, this video represents another—all the income connected to the music video itself.
Think of this complexity, when you contemplate the revenue streams on your one novel. You wrote the novel, and yeah, you might have put it up on various ecommerce sites yourself, so you have a handful of revenue streams that you can keep track of.
Some writers just publish to Amazon, and have a single revenue stream. When that revenue stream gets disrupted, the writers complain loudly. (That’s why those indie writers are complaining about the changes in Kindle Unlimited.) To keep up our music analogy, it’s rather like a band that plays in a local bar, and when that bar closes (or decides it wants other bands playing there instead), the band complains rather than trying to get gigs elsewhere.
If you move to other places besides Amazon to sell your single title, then you have multiple revenue streams on that title. Those of us who have freelanced forever learned the first rule of freelancing is to have more than one revenue stream, because the single stream can close literally overnight.
The complexity for writers grows with the number of titles that you publish. Each title, published on multiple sites and in multiple formats, has multiple revenue streams. Not just streams for subscription services like Oyster, but through the digital sites like Amazon and iBooks, and through print, and audio, and podcasting, and a dozen other licenses.
And that’s just the indie work. Hybrid writers like me have titles in channels we can’t monitor easily. Any book still licensed to a traditional publisher has multiple revenue streams, some of which I control and some of which the traditional publisher controls.
That traditional publisher reports on those revenue streams twice a year, a throwback to the origins of the publishing industry, when all of this stuff was done by hand.
And those books aren’t the only titles that are licensed to other entities. I have published short stories through traditional channels, novels through traditional publishers, a bundle that started this week, a bundle that will start in August, preorders on two novels right now, books I’ve edited, books I’m writing/editing, and on and on and on.
The bookkeeping for my writing business alone is complicated.
Then toss in my husband’s work, since he has been writing as long as I have, and suddenly, the accounting for our two writing businesses becomes nightmarish. (And that doesn’t count the accounting for the other businesses we own. Even the retail store (which we’re expanding to another later this year) has easier accounting than writing does.)
Dean and I have been searching for software that will track all of the writing income and more, but we can’t find any. It doesn’t help that we’re on Macs and the handful of things we’ve found are only for PC. But even the PC software won’t give us a clear picture.
Some writers I know have reinvented the wheel and have found an accountant and/or programmer and/or bookkeeper who can handle all of this, with a lot of data entry—by hand, data entry. But that still doesn’t help with the traditionally published stuff.
Figuring out what’s going on with traditionally published work is truly a nightmare, because traditional publishing is not transparent, in any sense of the word.
Sure, writers get paperwork from our traditional publishers. At the beginning of July, Dean and I each got over 50 sheets of paper royalty statements for some of the tie-in novels that we wrote in the 1990s. We could sign up for the online version of those royalty statements, but we haven’t done it yet. I think we’re being passive-aggressive: we’d rather have the publisher spend the money to print out the things than do it on our own.
Most traditionally published writers also have agents, and have a traditional relationship with those agents. That means the money from all of the various revenue streams funnel to a single point—the agent—who removes his 15% before sending the rest of the money to the writer.
You’d think that financial relationship would be transparent, but it is not. In fact, in all the years I had agents, not a single agent ever sent an overall yearend statement, delineating all of the financial transactions that we had throughout that year. Hell, I just got a financial transaction statement from my veterinarian because we spent quite a bit of money there these past two months. And it was a monthly statement of account.
No agent has ever done that for me, and I’ve had several agents from some of the biggest agencies in the business. Think on that, and look at that Investopedia quote again. Then add 2+2, and see what you come up with.
Most traditionally published writers have no idea that it’s so very hard to keep track of revenue streams on a single book title, let alone on dozens or hundreds or (as in the case of agents and publishers) thousands of titles.
Even with computerization, it’s tough, because you need a dedicated program to handle all the number crunching.
Let’s look at the music industry again. I examine what they’re doing for two reasons. First, they’re about ten years ahead of publishing in digital management; and second, if innovation is going to come on tracking rights and royalties, it’ll come from music.
Have the artists in the music industry come up with an easily accessible computer program to handle all the rights and royalty information?
No. In fact, it’s so complex that a single program can’t handle it easily. Again, from last fall’s New Yorker article:
Not surprisingly, companies that specialize in digital royalty collection constitute one of the hottest growth sectors in the music business. Among the leaders is Kobalt, founded, in 2001, by Willard Ahdritz. Part collection agency, part music publisher, and part tech platform, Kobalt has built a system of enormously complex Oracle databases that compute billions and billions of transactions and royalty lines from all over the world, and collects on behalf of some two thousand artists, including Paul McCartney, Maroon 5, and Skrillex, while the rest of the industry uses Excel spreadsheets to try to piece everything together. On YouTube, Kobalt’s proprietary song-detection technology, ProKlaim, detects unclaimed videos for its clients. Ahdritz says, “We create transparency, which drives liquidity, and the money is now flowing.”
This part is worth repeating: enormously complex Oracle databases that compute billions and billions of transactions… It’s not easy, in this modern world, to track music. And it’s getting harder and harder to track what’s going on with fiction titles as well.
Add to that the fact that the publishing industry, like the music industry, is deliberately opaque. No artists in the publishing industry have gone after the entire industry for its lack of transparency.
Until Tuesday, no one in the music industry had gone after that transparency in an organized manner either. But Tuesday, the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship released a study on transparency and fairness in the music industry. Here’s how the press release describes the study:
…the culmination of a year-long examination of the $45 billion global music business [that] explores the underlying challenges within the current compensation structure while proposing solutions to improve licensing, revenue transparency and cash flow for musicians.
There are a lot of recommendations here, and a lot of things that traditional publishing could adopt—or writers in traditional publishing could adopt. I have downloaded the study, but haven’t yet read it. I scanned it yesterday, and decided it was too complex, and too important, to skim. I need to spend some time with it.
If you care about the way that income gets reported in the publishing industry, you should spend some time with this study as well.
Because, as the founding managing director of BerkleeICE, Panos Panay, says in the press release:
There’s a revolution happening in the media business today, and in some ways the creative class has been a passive observer. The matters addressed are critical for all creators…
Writers and the publishing industry are so far behind the music industry on this that we’re fighting about stupid stuff, like trying to stop Amazon. The Author’s Guild had one moment of clarity in May, when it announced the Fair Contract Initiative, and I had hoped the Guild was moving to sensible fights. Sigh.
Of course, even the Fair Contract Initiative is behind the times. It’s something that an organization like the Author’s Guild should have fought for fifty years ago. But the Author’s Guild, unlike many music organizations, is toothless. The Guild has no clout at all (even though it thinks it does), and others in the industry can easily ignore it.
As the Berklee study points out, the artists who handle their own finances and don’t go through what the study calls “intermediaries” like record labels have a better understanding of what the income is from music.
Those of you who are indie published can keep track of what you earn with greater ease than traditionally published writers can. The problem isn’t with the transparency of Amazon or Barnes & Noble or other retailers. As I’ve said before, these large organizations with public stock are governed by very strict laws, some of which address the need for transparency for investors.
The problem for indie writers comes in the amount of data, as I mentioned above, and trying to keep track of all of it.
The problem for traditionally published writers is the same as the problem for musicians who have chosen to go through labels to market their work. As the study says repeatedly:
Data provided to artists and writers with these royalty payments is often opaque. As a result, they often don’t understand the payments and accountings that they receive. One reason for the opacity may be that it benefits intermediaries. —Fair Music: Transparency and Payment Flows in the Music Industry, P. 3
It has been shown time and time again, in industry after industry, that when information on income and earnings is controlled by a single source, that source will bend the information to benefit the source, not the others who also earned the money. It’s not that the source is venal (although it might be). It might simply be inertia or long-existing habits and structures.
Unless pressure comes from the outside, that source will not change because it has no incentive to change.
So rather than contact the DOJ about Amazon with a complaint that completely misunderstands both the law and business, perhaps Authors United, the Authors Guild, and those who claim to care about authors’ rights should start arguing for greater transparency—from publishers, agents, managers, and anyone else who gets revenue that should go to writers.
It’s time that writers act like real business people, and start putting pressure on the organizations who control our income.
Traditional publishers have already gotten into trouble with the Department of Justice for bad business practices. It’s not hard for anyone who understands business to believe that organizations which have already proven that they’ll break the law to have a business advantage will break the law in other places as well. Companies that are willing to cut corners will look at the most vulnerable parties first, and in publishing, those parties are naïve writers, who expect honesty and get none.
Neither the music industry nor the publishing industry has an internal reason to change its reporting structures. Those structures also benefit agents, no matter how much they complain to the press. Because a lot of agents skim. Some do it on the float, by holding money in interest-bearing accounts for as long as a month—which is, by the way, perfectly legal if the writer has agreed to it in a contract. Other agencies actually skim by “losing” payments or by taking a larger percentage than they deserve.
Even if individual agents believe that the system must change, the company they work for, the agency, will not take on this fight. It’s not in an agency’s best interest either.
Writers have to do it. And the big names should stop wasting their time and what little clout they have with things that have nothing to do with the sharp decline in traditionally published writer revenue, and go after the thing that actually has impacted writer revenue: the way that this new digital income gets reported.
I suspect I’m preaching to the choir on my blog here, and nothing will happen. But here’s my hope: someone, somewhere, will organize the big names and some writers organizations into doing something useful, like demanding that publishers have modern financial accounting to their writing partners—and not the online “reports” that some publishers have reluctantly posted. Things like this, also recommended in the Berklee study:
It should be fairly straightforward to give creators access to an app or Web page that electronically accesses real-time, in-depth, and comprehensible royalty information about their sales or plays on these platforms— data that can be reported to provide useful analytics, similar to an online banking platform—and that could conceivably offer a suite of banking services to creators if transparent revenue data was accessible. —Fair Music: Transparency and Payment Flows in the Music Industry, P. 7
I know, I know, I’m dreaming. In a world where Big Name authors believe that the platform that sells most of their books is harming them, expecting sense is probably not logical.
Ah, well. I am putting this idea out there. I do hope it makes a tiny difference.
I know this business blog makes a difference for writers who have taken back control of their writing business. So many of you have let me know how the blog has helped, or made you feel less alone. I greatly appreciate that.
I also appreciate the small percentage of the thousands who read the blog weekly who support the blog financially. Thank you! I want the information out there, and your support means I don’t have to put this information behind some kind of pay wall.
So…for the rest of you…if you’ve learned something, or received some value here, please click the donate button. I appreciate it.
“Business Musings: Fighting the Wrong War,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. /DrawShop
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July 13, 2015
In Seavy Village, she calls herself Linda. She has gone by many names. She travels from nursing home to nursing home, fixing problems, helping others, in her own way.
Until she meets Eloise Mortimer. Rich, famous Eloise Mortimer. Dying Eloise Mortimer, who fancies herself a latter-day Miss Marple, but who might prove much more dangerous—and much more destructive.
“Kindred Souls,” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The first time I noticed death’s true power to make the ordinary into something extraordinary was my junior year in high school. There was a girl in my English lit class who had a self-done hair cut, wore the same t-shirt and frayed jeans every day, and who spent more time giggling with her friends than listening to Beowulf.
I can’t remember her name now, but I can remember her position in the row of chairs (two down from the door), her crooked smile, and the flat way her eyes assessed me every time I spoke up in class.
She died at an unmarked railroad crossing on a Friday night, sitting in the backseat of a rusted Ford Fairlane, with three other friends, kids I had never met.
They were all drunk.
And her chair remained empty the rest of the year.
I know I wouldn’t have remembered her if she hadn’t died. By now, twenty years later, she wouldn’t even be a blip on the memory radar.
But she’s there. Every time death shows up in my life.
And he shows up often.
I’m an orderly in a nursing home, a far cry from those days twenty years ago when my biggest worry was whether I got into Princeton, Yale, or the state university.
It’s not a lack of skills that brought me here. Nor a lack of brainpower. It’s actually the availability of the work. In every town, in every county, in every state, nursing homes need orderlies.
And they hire.
No questions asked.
Well, not true. Maybe a few questions asked. You see, I’m 5’2” and petite in a delicate sort of way some women never grow out of. Most administrators take my word that I can bench press my own weight plus (I show them my biceps and that helps) but here, in Seavy Village, Oregon, I actually had to lift the administrator.
Caught him by surprise, I’ll tell you. I don’t think that 200 pounds of walking depression had ever had a woman heft him like a sack of flour before.
He hired me and put me on the night shift, so he’d never have to see me again.
Let me tell you about the night shift. You can actually feel death stalking the halls.
This place, Seavy Village Senior Care Center, was built in the early 1970s, and sprawls, as so many buildings from that era do, across a full city block. The apartments in the front overlook the ocean. The old folks there I never see: They’re self-sufficient, most of them, and healthy enough to live on their own. It’s the nursing home part, the part tucked in the back, where I spend my time.
People don’t die at night. They die at dawn. One moment they’re breathing, the next they’re gone. I’m the one who gets to move them, usually wheeling their little hospital beds to the sterile room in the basement that Senior Care uses as a temporary morgue.
But sometimes I have to carry them—like that 1920s football star who slumped over on the toilet or the 95-year-old great-grandmother who never spoke but managed to get out of her wheelchair and walk fifty feet before collapsing forever in the middle of the corridor.
I remember those, like I remember dozens of other deaths. After a cadaverous old guy died in a pool of vomit, one of the nurses said to me that death is like eating: You eat hundreds of thousands of meals over your lifetime, but you only remember the ones that make you sick.
Wonderful place, this.
And the bitch of it is that she’s right.
Eloise Mortimer arrived on January 15, 1997. I remember the date because we’d lost a record fifteen that night. Five of the deaths were normal—the expected end to long and unhealthy lives. Part of the problem was a flu epidemic. We’d tried to keep the sick ones isolated, but the virus spread through the first floor like something out of a Stephen King novel. And those deaths were not pretty. They took out five popular residents, and the entire staff was in mourning.
There’s a room at the end of Hall One-A that we called the Presidential Suite. Not because anyone important ever stayed there, but because it was big and private, and the long-term care resident had to be worth big bucks to even be considered for it. I’d never seen a room like it in any other nursing home, and believe me, I’d worked at dozens. It was, one of the nurses told me, the old administrative office, but something had happened there shortly after the home was built, and the office was moved to the back of the building, as far from the residents as possible.
Eloise Mortimer got that room, and she decorated it with pieces from her house: two reclining leather chairs, dark green velvet curtains that blocked the sun, a large stereo television with state-of-the-art VCR and every cable channel Seavy Village could receive. We were even supposed to use her bedding, until one of the nurses explained how the home simply didn’t have time to care for something so expensive.
By now, everyone’s heard of Eloise Mortimer. But even then she was famous, mostly for her publicity stunts. It began shortly after her husband, Jay Mortimer the Third, died. She held a benefit for the Portland Actor’s Guild and insisted on performing at it herself. She wasn’t half bad, but her get-up was. She dressed like Marilyn Monroe at the President’s birthday bash—and Eloise didn’t have the figure for it.
That made the Portland papers, they tell me, but it was her later stunts that made the national news: dropping fifty thousand dollars in cash on the floor of the Senate in protest of budget cuts to the arts; shredding a book in the Library of Congress to reveal the trashing of hundreds of paperbacks all over the country; blocking traffic on every bridge in Portland to force highway money to be used for bridge improvement—and so on. For ten years, you couldn’t watch television without seeing Eloise Mortimer doing something wildly inappropriate, gaining attention, and then making some sort of difference.
Obviously, she had turned her attention on nursing homes. And since she had a vacation home in Seavy Village, she picked on us.
To be fair, she was ill. I never knew the details, but I guessed it was some form of cancer that was taking away her strength. It could have been something else, though, too. She did have to use a wheelchair from the moment she arrived.
You’d have thought she could have afforded her own live-in care, her own nursing home, for god’s sake. Any sensible person would have done just that, taken care of themselves in the privacy of their own home.
But not Eloise Mortimer. Her entire mission in life had been to improve the lot of the common people. She wasn’t going to abandon it as she approached death.
She held a press conference the morning she arrived. I saw it on my black-and-white in my furnished apartment, still rented, at that point, by the week.
She looked tiny in her wheelchair, wrapped in a cashmere coat, and a blanket that would have cost me half a year’s salary. She had the look of the very old or the very ill: bones so prominent that the skin seemed translucent, eyes wide, hands clawed with age or arthritis. There were several handlers behind her, a few nurses I recognized, and a gaggle of reporters.
“One should never give up in the face of terminal illness,” she said, her amplified voice thin but strong. “I am going to take this opportunity to investigate conditions in nursing homes—from the inside. I am choosing a mid-range extended care facility simply because so many people will end up here. We all know about the cheap ones, and the expensive ones, well, they may have their problems, but they won’t affect most people.”
She made it sound as if her very presence would uplift the facility. It would change the facility, certainly. All of the resources would be directed toward her.
I shut off the tube, thinking that she was making one of the strangest gestures I’d ever seen a rich so-called humanitarian make. But that was how I always felt about Eloise Mortimer. How, it seemed, much of the country felt about her. Political cartoons made fun of her charity efforts, successful as they were, because Eloise was always front and center. It seemed she benefited more from the publicity than the charities did from the money.
It would have been better for all nursing homes, I thought, for her to donate her fortune to them. Or part of her fortune. Or even designate a part of her fortune for nursing home regulation, improvement or inspection.
But no. She had to do this.
Eloise Mortimer’s attempt to be one of the common people.
Or so I thought.
She was awake that first night when I clocked in, propped up in bed, the expensive blanket still wrapped around her. She had a book open on a lapdesk, a desk lamp—green and expensive—on the end table, and stylish half-rim glasses on the edge of her nose. If I hadn’t known she had a terminal illness, I would have thought she was fine.
“Lights out was several hours ago, Mrs. Mortimer,” I said, even though it wasn’t my place. Orderlies didn’t instruct patients. Nurses did.
She smiled at me and pulled the glasses off her nose. They were attached by a small gold chain that shimmered in the light. “I had some paperwork to finish.”
“Other residents don’t have paperwork, Mrs. Mortimer,” I said and then flushed. Calling attention to myself was something I wanted to avoid, and yet here I was, all for the chance of speaking to Eloise Mortimer one on one.
“You saw the press conference,” she said.
She sighed. “I suppose I came off as a little too arrogant. I usually do.”
“I don’t think this is the way to experience nursing home life,” I said.
“Do you have a better suggestion?”
“Register under an alias. Live with the furniture the home provides. Forgo the press conference. No one else comes here with that kind of fanfare.”
“You do speak your mind, don’t you?” she said.
“Not usually,” I said. “Just when a bit of foolishness crosses my path. Foolishness I can’t ignore.”
“I just want to do some good in my last few weeks of life,” she said.
“Then let someone else have the room. Pay every patient’s bills from now until they die. But don’t come here with your fancy furniture and your expensive clothes and say you’re living the life the others have. You’re not, Mrs. Mortimer, and no matter how many publicity stunts you pull, you never will.”
She stared at me a moment, her eyes even bigger than they had seemed on my small television set. Then she slowly pulled her glasses over them, and bowed her head, making me feel as unimportant as the discarded dinner tray beside her bed.
I picked up the tray because it was my job, and carried it to a cart in the hall. Then I stopped at the nurse’s station and made a note that someone had failed to remove the food from Mrs. Mortimer’s room before lights out. Then I went into the employee break room, bought myself a Coke, and leaned against the wall, trembling as I drank it.
It wasn’t that she could get me fired. That didn’t really matter. I could move on. Get another name. Get another job. But it was that arrogance, that so dismissive arrogance, that had me shaking.
Let’s take care of the little people, and do it in the way that best benefits me.
Her lights went out at 3 a.m., and I didn’t even open the door to her room, as I usually would. I made my rounds just before clocking out, partly to see how death would fare that night. I could almost imagine him, perusing the occupants of the room like a man would look at a dessert tray, then carefully selecting the right combination to finish off the evening meal. Sometimes he wanted a lot, and sometimes nothing at all. And frankly, given some of the people I saw, the diseases I saw, I wasn’t sure which was worse.
Death took out two more that night: one a tiny old woman—Hannah Dailey—who’d been holding on despite diabetes, blindness, and severe loneliness, and the other, Biff Lonnen, a former contractor who’d been swindled out of his life savings and was extremely bitter about it. I’d liked Hannah—I’d always made a point of speaking to her about something every day—but I wasn’t sad to see Biff go. No one deserved to be swindled, but the rest of us didn’t have to pay for his victimization.
I clocked out, went home, slept a few hours, and then went to the beach.
I always worked near water. A product of my childhood, I guess, growing up near the Great Lakes. One of the reasons I loved Seavy Village was the beach itself—seven miles of untouched beauty, in Oregon, where the beaches couldn’t be owned. I went there, winter, summer, sunshine or storm, to mourn my people and to reflect, just a little.
I didn’t say a prayer for them—I couldn’t. It wasn’t my place—but I did a small silent wish across the waves, a wish for their spirits, a wish for peace. Then I picked up a handful of sand, and let it slip through my fingers.
The wind blew the grains across the beach, where they mingled with the other grains, unrecognizable as the ones I held only a second before. A reminder to myself, how each life is insignificant, like a grain of sand, and yet without each life, there would be no beauty, just as without the individual grains, there would be no beach.
You never know who you touch, said Father Flannery shortly after he had found me twenty-five years ago. Only that you move forward, you never give up, you never stop touching.
He touched me. I touch others. Or try to. Which was why Eloise Mortimer angered me. She pretended to touch others, when all she really did was touch herself.
Her light was on the following night, and the night after that. I ignored her, against the administrator’s orders. Let someone else pay attention to the royal Mrs. Mortimer. I would give attention to the people who really needed it. Who didn’t have cashmere coats or leather chairs for their guests.
Who didn’t have guests.
Or press followings.
On the fourth night, I found a note clipped to my timecard:
Mrs. Mortimer would like to see you.
It was in the administrator’s handwriting, and I knew I would receive one small reprimand in my file. As if it mattered. Too many of them and I would move on.
Since the note said nothing about when Mrs. Mortimer wanted to see me, I went about my duties. I moved trays, changed bed linens, helped residents to the restroom. I prepared three different rooms for new residents who would arrive during the day, and moved exercise equipment for the physical therapist’s sessions the following morning.
By three a.m. I went by her room, hoping her light would be out.
I pushed the door open. She was sitting in bed as she had the last time, blanket wrapped around her. The book on her lapdesk was nonfiction, thick and heavy. Her papers were piled on a briefcase beside the bed.
She brought her glasses down and let the gold chain hold them in the center of her chest.
“Linda,” she said, her voice. “You don’t look like a Linda.”
I slipped into the room. I wasn’t a Linda, even though that was the name I used here. But she didn’t have to know that. “How’s a Linda supposed to look?”
“Tall, willowy, blonde. Debutantish.”
“Not mean and muscular.”
She smiled. “You’re petite and strong,” she said. “More a Jo or a Pat.”
“More butch?” I couldn’t keep the edge out of my voice. “You have many prejudices, Mrs. Mortimer.”
“Do I?” she asked.
“I can think of only one willowy Linda. Linda Evans. The others are small and tough. Think Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 or Linda Hunt in just about anything.”
“I don’t watch television,” she said.
“Much,” I said, looking at the expensive screen across the room. It was dark, but I had heard it earlier, blaring the Headline News theme.
“Much,” she said.
“I have other things to do,” I said. “You wanted to see me. Make it quick.”
Her smile grew. She closed her book. “I like you,” she said. “You’re direct.”
“I really don’t care what you like and don’t like, Mrs. Mortimer,” I said. “I just want you to get to the point so I can get out of this room.”
She took a deep breath, sighed, as if I were imposing on her. “I want you to show me what nursing home life is really like.”
“You want me to take you on a tour?”
“Make you see how the others are?”
She nodded again.
“You can’t wheel yourself, peer into others’ misfortunes on your own?”
“Is that what you think I’m doing?”
“Lady,” I said, “I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I’m making a difference,” she said.
I snorted and pushed open the door. I wouldn’t even dignify her comment with a response.
“I don’t suppose you’ve been watching the news,” she said.
I froze. I shouldn’t have, but I did. “I’m a little busy,” I said. “I don’t have all day to lay on silk sheets and watch CNN.”
“MSNBC is doing a joint online on-air investigation of the top nursing homes in the country. CNN is investigating unreported violations at nursing homes all over America. CBS, NBC, and ABC are using their news magazines to investigate the plight of the poor, sick, and elderly who use all the beds in these places. And CNBC is doing a long series on the efficacy of extended care insurance. Not to mention the Oregon stations. They’re investigating each home one by one.”
“All because of you,” I said.
“That’s right.” I had my back to her, but I could hear the smugness in her tone. “I brought the issue out; now they’ll cover it. I got a call from our senior US senator today promising to set up hearings to look at the nursing home issues in this country.”
I pulled the door closed, stepped back in the room, and turned around, fists clenched. “What are the nursing home issues?” I asked her.
“Poor care, lack of funds, familial neglect—”
“Over fifty percent of the people in this home have family visiting them on a regular basis,” I snapped. “They don’t bring leather furniture, but they stay as long as their stomachs can stand. The other fifty percent may not have families any more, or may have alienated them, or don’t want them to come. And sure there’s a lot of lonely dying people, people who can’t afford better treatment, people who can’t afford a private room or their own wing or deserve a phone call from a senator. But they’re not getting poor care. Every nurse in this place tries. And most of the orderlies do too. You come here and lock yourself in this private suite and claim you’re doing something for America, when all you’re doing is diverting time, diverting resources, and forcing people to concentrate on the wrong things.”
“Then take me out there,” she said. “Show me what you see.”
“You don’t need me, Mrs. Mortimer,” I said. “You got eyes. Look for yourself.”
And then I walked out of the room.
Death took four more that night. The flu epidemic was waning, but still present. Two men died from flu-related causes, and one woman, Sue Lee Frank, apparently died of natural causes. The other, Alice Andreeson, a tiny birdlike woman whose anxiety was so palpable that it seemed to infect her entire wing, saved up her medications, took them in combination with her nightly pain pill, and died a horrible choking vomitous death.
There was nothing the nurses could do. By the time the ambulance arrived, she was so far gone that they drove her, without lights, to the hospital.
I was embarrassed to be relieved that their morgue would guard her.
Still, I cleaned up the sheets and disinfected the room, and stood, alone, with the presence of death.
I hadn’t liked her. She had been too frightened, too insistent. I looked in her square lonely face, and I had seen myself forty years hence. Alone. Terrified. Dying, but not fast enough.
“I did everything I could,” I whispered, and knew it to be a lie.
I did watch the news that day, and discovered that Eloise Mortimer hadn’t been lying to me. Not only was the broadcast media covering the story because of her presence, but so was the print media. Investigations of unexplained deaths. Examinations of nursing home medicine. Philosophical discussions of the cultural necessity of warehousing the old.
Discussions we as a culture had been having since I was a girl. I remembered going to nursing homes as a pre-teen, performing with the Christmas pageant or on a mission with the church. Those homes smelled bad—of urine and unwashed bodies—and most of the elderly there had clearly given up hope. Things changed in the late seventies and early eighties. Part of it, I think, was that the Boomers were growing older and watching their parents and grandparents end up in those places, deciding to make changes before the Boomers themselves had to go in. The reality was—is—that most of us will not have the money that Eloise Mortimer had. Most of our families will not have the resources or the time to care for us.
Most of us will end up in a home.
Not by choice, like Eloise Mortimer, but because there is nowhere else to go.
And no matter how much I explained that to her, she did not understand.
She did try though. The nurses told me when I arrived that she went to the dining room three times that day and tried to engage others in conversation. Most would not talk to her. Then she went from room to room, using her motorized wheelchair, trying to learn how the other patients felt. She caused so much distress that a nurse, hearing shouting on the floor, brought Mrs. Mortimer back to her own room, and gave her instructions to stay there.
Her light was on till four a.m. this time, and I did not stop. There was something more going on here besides simple curiosity and press entourages, and I didn’t want to know what it was.
I lead a solitary life. Even more so now, now that I’m away from Seavy Village. But there, I was solitary too. I had my beach, and my job, and my gym.
The gym was state of the art, with new Nautilus equipment, and every single rowing/walking/climbing machine known to man. But those didn’t interest me. What interested me was the real gym, tucked in the back, with its free weights and mirrors, mats and punching bags. It smelled of sweat, and there men, and a few women, worked with a concentration not often found outside sports training camps.
I don’t know why it existed in Seavy Village. I was just glad it did. I went there, lifted weights, punched a few rounds, did my 200 sit-ups and 100 pushups. By the time I was done, I was layered in sweat, and pleased to be alive.
It felt as if it washed the stink of my work off me. It also allowed me to think of something else for a while, something that didn’t involve death and dying.
But that day—the day after Alice killed herself—I couldn’t forget. I sweated and pushed so hard that my spotter on the bench press threatened to report me to the management as an insurance risk if I didn’t slow down. I sparred with one of the guys in the makeshift rink, and I even played a game of handball—badly—when one of the courts came open.
Nothing worked. I kept seeing Alice’s face, her birdlike eyes as they had followed me through the room. She was always awake at night and we always talked, and by the time I left, she was usually calmer.
She had no one. She had told me that, and in the six months she had been at Senior Care, no one had come to see her. Her husband had died five years before, and she had lived alone, rarely leaving her house, seeing only neighbors and the people from her church. The anxiety, always a factor in her life, had grown worse in those years, until she had become a virtual prisoner in her own home. But she hadn’t minded, she said. She had loved the place.
She minded Senior Care. The presence of other people. The lack of privacy. Sometimes she screamed in terror when we couldn’t answer her call button quickly enough.
She never told me what she was so afraid of, and I never asked. As I said, she made me nervous, and often I would leave her room after those talks anxious myself.
Ironically, though, she wasn’t afraid of death. She welcomed it as a silence, a calming, a long sleep after a particularly rough and horrible day. She welcomed it, and told me, expecting, somehow, that I would take care of it.
I never did.
So she had to take care of it herself.
That night Eloise Mortimer was waiting for me. She sat in her motorized wheelchair, wrapped in her expensive blanket, arms crossed and glasses dangling from their chain around her neck.
“I have something to show you,” she said.
“I have a lot of work to do,” I said as I walked by.
“This will only take a minute.”
I stopped. I could have kept walking, but I didn’t. I was slightly flattered by her interest, her attention, and I was curious, too. “Why the obsession with me, Mrs. Mortimer?” I asked. “Is it because I don’t bow to your every whim like the others around here?”
“I’ve lived with naysayers all my life.” She wheeled her chair through the open door.
“Then what is it?” I asked.
She waited inside. I got the message. I had to follow her in order to get the answer.
And I cared enough to do so.
I went in, and allowed her to push the door closed behind me.
She wheeled her way to the leather chairs across the room. I think she expected me to sit in one of them, but I wouldn’t. I would stand. Near the door. To show her that, I crossed my arms.
“I am interested in you,” she said, “because I believe you have more than a passing acquaintance with death.”
“I see it every night, Mrs. Mortimer,” I said.
“No,” she said, and her voice was strong. “I believe you know Death. I want you to introduce me.”
I was so shocked by her statement that my mouth operated before my brain. “Why? So you can sic the press on him too? You know, they’re pretty aware of the effects of death on the culture.”
“You make fun of me,” she said. “But I’m very serious.”
My heart was pounding. “I really don’t know what you want,” I said as I turned to the door, “and I’m not sure I want to find out.”
A notebook sailed across the room and landed at my feet with a smack. Pages riffled open from the force of the throw.
Articles were pasted onto the plain white sheets, almost like killer’s notebooks out of the movies, or a child’s homemade picture book. Only the articles weren’t what I expected from a charitable society maven.
Angel of Death Kills Six in Cancer Ward
Kervorkian Supervises Fifth Suicide
Police Arrest Nurse in Patient’s Death
I turned pages with my shoe. The headlines went on and on. Most I didn’t recognize. Stories from local papers about mercy killings, in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, extended care centers.
“You think I’m doing that?” I asked.
“Someone is here,” she said. “There are too many deaths.”
“So you decided to check in here, a latter-day Miss Marple, to solve the crimes yourself.”
“No.” Her voice was stronger than it had been before. “I would like whoever it is to take me.”
“To introduce you to death.”
“And you want me to get out the word.”
“If that’s what it takes,” she said.
I picked up the notebook, closed it, and tossed it on her bed. “Do you know what that would do to this nursing home? You check in with all the publicity a celebrity gets, with a terminal disease, yes, but one that gives you months, maybe years yet, and then you die. You don’t think that would be investigated? You don’t think people would talk? You don’t think someone would find your damn notebook and start investigating every soul in this place?”
“That frightens you, doesn’t it, Linda. Because your references don’t check out. And neither does your name.” Her eyes were a bit too bright. “That’s right. I checked. Or had one of my people check. And that may seem Miss Marplish too you, but I wanted to know I was talking to the right person. And I am, aren’t I?”
“Do you always make up conspiracies, Mrs. Mortimer?”
“Usually,” she said as if I hadn’t spoken a word, “there’s a triggering event. What was yours, Linda? A parent? A grandparent? Someone who died a lingering death with no succor? Someone you couldn’t help, perhaps you were too young, perhaps unknowing, so you got a job like this one, where you can prevent such needless suffering?”
“How come you never wrote books?” I asked. “You’re so good at making up scenarios.”
“Are you saying I’m lying?” she asked.
I took a deep breath. “I’m saying that even if I could, as you so quaintly put it, introduce you to death, I will not. Because that would be murder, Mrs. Mortimer, and I do not commit murder.”
“Then what do you call it when you put a pillow over the face of a little old man who doesn’t have the strength to fight you? Orderly Assisted Suicide?”
“You’re not funny,” I said.
“I’m not trying to be funny,” she said. “I’m looking at a long tunnel ahead. I really don’t want to go through the pain and the agony. I’d like to die.”
My eyes narrowed. I felt a tightness around my heart. “Then do what I told you before, Mrs. Mortimer. Take care of yourself.”
“I can’t,” she said.
I didn’t believe her. If frail, frightened Alice could orchestrate her own death, Eloise Mortimer, with all her resources could too.
“Hire Kervorkian,” I said. “He specializes in these things.”
“But don’t you find him rather ghoulish?” she asked.
I didn’t answer her. I grabbed the door handle and yanked it down, and let myself into the hallway.
It was light, but shadowed, so that residents could find their way if they needed to, but so that the light wouldn’t interrupt their sleep.
I made myself walk to the break room and sit down. I planned to stay there until I felt calmer. It wouldn’t be good to walk into patients’ rooms upset. They had enough to contend with, without a simple orderly interrupting them or their sleep.
I sat there and waited.
But the calm never came.
The triggering event was not, as Mrs. Mortimer guessed, a parent or grandparent. It was someone much more important.
It was Father Flannery.
I ran away at the age of 12. Not that there was much to run from. My mother had lost herself in a bottle long before, and my stepfather, a charming man who’d been in prison three times, had never bothered to learn my name. I doubt they noticed I was missing for days, maybe weeks, and I doubt even more strongly that they reported my loss.
Father Flannery found me sitting under the viaduct with a bunch of street people in early September. This was in Northern Wisconsin, and the tinge of fall was already in the air. I didn’t know then what faced me. The winters there were so harsh that even healthy street people died of exposure.
He took me by the hand and, with the promise of a real meal, drove me to the local orphanage. This was the early ’70s in a conservative town. The orphanage hadn’t yet been taken over by Adult and Family Services, and the money that supported it all came from the Church.
I had a bed for the first time in weeks, and food, and I would have bolted if Father Flannery hadn’t found my weakness right away.
He gave me books.
That first night, he gave me a copy of Love Story, and when I snorted at him, and told him I didn’t read that sappy stuff, he hauled a paperback copy of The Godfather out of his pocket.
“Don’t let the nuns catch you with this one,” he whispered in his broad Norwegian accents. He was a Minnesota native, and sounded like it, despite his Irish roots.
I hid the book successfully, and each time he visited, he would trade me the book I had finished for one I had not yet read. He nourished my mind, and in doing so, he nourished my heart and my soul.
He never asked me to convert. He never even asked me to go to church, although I did, for him. I also went to school, for him, and became a model student, for him, and learned that God had given me a brain so that I didn’t have to live like my mother had. He also gave me the use of the gym, long before it was fashionable for girls to sweat. He made me realize there was more to life than struggle and survival. He made me realize that each one of us had a purpose—we had only to find it.
He was my own personal savior, the kindest, gentlest person I had ever known.
He died of Alzheimer’s.
By the time I graduated from college, he didn’t even know his own name.
I should have left Seavy Village then and there, and I knew it. But I had rounds that night, and promises to keep. Some were spoken, others were unspoken, but they all amounted to the same thing:
A sacred duty.
Father Flannery would have understood. He always said God had a plan, even for the worst occurrences. I used to think Father Flannery’s Alzheimer’s was a plan to bring me to these places, to prevent such needless suffering.
But I really don’t know.
None of us do.
All I know is that when it comes to death, the entire culture’s in denial. We take our beloved pets to the vet when they become incontinent or paralyzed or demented with age, and ask that they get “put down.” Then we stand there, and hold a paw, while the vet injects a drug, and the animal’s spirit leaves its body, and we are all relieved that the suffering is over.
Alice Andreeson had begged me to help her. Over and over again, and I had refused. I did not think her sick enough, and I couldn’t get enough distance from her anxiety to see her clearly. I never saw the resolve that made her spit out the pills day after day, hour after hour, saving them as best she could until she made the choice the only way she could.
At least I would have arranged a merciful death. She had died choking on her own vomit, in more terror than anyone had a right to feel.
She was 81.
Even in our compassion, sometimes, we fail.
That night, death took, without assistance, the last three flu victims. He also took three more. He took Lana Eagle, a former pillar of Seavy Village’s community, who had emphysema so bad that each breath made her cry. Then he took Ira Rundin, who had rheumatoid arthritis, and fluid in his lungs. It was, the nurses said, only a matter of time. And in these cases, sooner is always better than later. And he took Sam Conner, a once robust old man who’d been the best card player on the floor. Sam weighed fifty-six pounds, and no longer knew the difference between an ace and a dog dish.
He was the last to go, just before dawn.
Then I clocked out, and went home. It didn’t take long to gather my things—I’d done this a thousand times before—and to pack them into my truck. I went to the bank, and took a full withdrawal in cash. I had plenty of time. Usually no one ever searched for me. And if they did, they wouldn’t even start until I’d missed one shift. And that was over twenty-four hours away.
I was thinking Austin this time, or maybe Vancouver B.C. I suspected weather would dictate my final choice: Vancouver in the summer, Austin in the winter.
And since we were in the middle of spring, I headed north. Taking my time, using my cash sparingly, trying to decide which identity to wear next.
I didn’t feel free—there were a few other folks, not yet ready, whom I’d been watching and whom I had to abandon—but I knew I’d find a place in Canada that would need me just as much.
But I never even had the chance to look.
I had promised myself an afternoon nap before making the drive inland to Interstate Five, and then north to Vancouver.
North to see who needed me there.
North to do what most people wanted to do, and couldn’t.
They found me at a roadside motel with $20-per-night rooms, and no ocean view. I was just south of Seaside.
I had underestimated Eloise Mortimer. She’d been keeping track, she would say later, of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” deaths. And she knew after three “illegitimate” deaths on the same night, that something was going wrong. And when I didn’t clock in the following evening, she had her Miss Marple Moment: the highlight of her media career.
She fingered a killer.
“As crimes go,” she said at her first press conference related to my case, “this is as close to perfect as they get. Take an elderly person with no family, and so ill that she cannot fight back, and kill her. It satisfies that sick urge to murder and does so in a way that most people won’t mind.”
It didn’t matter to me that she misunderstood. It didn’t even bother me that she was using me this time as her media springboard.
It bothered me that most of the culture agreed with her, and I was branded as a murderer right from the start.
Death’s Handmaiden, they called me, and they portrayed me as this Nazi-esque matron, this tough woman who killed for pleasure in town after town after town.
No one talked about the real issues.
Not even Eloise Mortimer.
She died, I’m told, peacefully. In her sleep in her own bed. After the publicity surrounding my arrest and trial, no one noticed that she had abandoned her post in Senior Care. Her duty was done. Her empathy played out to millions. And she would be remembered forever for starting the Congressional Hearings that led to the closure of fifty nursing homes nationwide (with none opening to take their place) and, of course, for identifying me.
I had hoped that she would die in excruciating agony, begging someone—God, her “people,” a nurse—anyone to help her end it all. But she was lucky, even to the last.
Most of her money went to distant cousins and in-laws. The rest to civic organizations where she had spent most of her life: the Portland Metropolitan Opera; the OMSI Museum; Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival. She even gave money to the local media in the form of grants to help “improve” local reporting.
Not a dime went to hospice foundations.
Or nursing homes.
Or relief organizations.
Not one thin dime.
Even though it’s summer, I’m in Texas. I am in a maximum-security facility with twenty years before I’m eligible for parole. A lot of people die here, and they die, like that girl in my high school class, in senseless ways after leading senseless lives.
I have introduced no one to death, and I don’t expect to. I work in the prison laundry because I am forbidden to go near the sick, and I work out as much as I can, and I spend some time in the yard.
In the evenings I read.
It’s not a bad life, considering. But if it continues much longer, it’ll be a wasted life. My only hope is to be a model prisoner so that they’ll let me out sooner, and I can start doing something worthwhile again.
I have spent a lot of time talking to the local priest. He already knew of my work—most of the country did; it was one of the biggest news stories of the decade—but he didn’t know about Father Flannery.
This priest, Father Harralson, is appalled that I have used Father Flannery as justification for what he calls “mass murder.” There is a point to suffering, Father Harralson has told me. Even Jesus, God’s son, suffered on the cross. Suffering is part of life. It is, he says, an integral part of death.
I do not believe him, but I do not argue. Even if I could, he would not listen to my opinions. According to Father Harralson, I am the worst kind of sinner: the kind that takes God’s work into her own hands.
He says he prays for me every night, prays that God will forgive me.
Because he cannot.
Yet every day, after he leaves the prison, he makes his other rounds. He visits the sick, and comforts the dying. He holds hands with people whose life is measured in hours and tries to give them some degree of succor, to ease the pain of their last moments on Earth, to let them go gently into that good night.
His method is less effective than mine, but it has the same purpose.
Stop the pain.
Allow the dying to meet death easily and without struggle.
I said this to him two days ago.
He has not been back.
He does not like seeing us as kindred souls.
But we are.
And that is something the Eloise Mortimers of the world have never understood.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Cemetery Dance, Issue No. 32, 1999
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Sudok1/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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July 8, 2015
I appear to be on a new blog streak. I wouldn’t be sitting in my hotel room writing this, if I weren’t. This is the thirty-third week in a row that I’ve posted a Business Musing. I guess that counts as a streak.
I’m in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Mostly, I’m here for research. If you’ve read my story in Fiction River: Hex in the City or my story in the most recent Uncollected Anthology, The Streets Where We Live, you’ve probably guessed that I’m writing a novel about those three sisters, magical dramaturges, all.
And before you ask: No, I haven’t started the novel—on the page, anyway. My subconscious is way ahead of me. And no, I don’t know when it’ll be published. And no, I don’t have a deadline. And no, it will not get in the way of all the other things you folks want me to finish right now. (Or maybe it will, but I’m not going to say that in public, for heaven’s sake. )
As part of this, I’m brushing up on my Shakespeare. I was very active in theater and professional theater until I moved to Oregon. I was a history major, though, not a theater or English major. My involvement with theater was always behind the scenes. And my first adult fiction was written in play form. (A dear friend of mine, a professional playwright, was one of the first real writers I ever knew.) So this is a great love that I’m returning to.
I’m trying to see the festival as an overall event, and seeing individual plays. I’m also attending classes and lectures. Sometimes research, for me, is just soaking up atmosphere.
I’ve been here before, so I’m not taking the backstage tours. And I do plan to talk with some of the folks involved in the business side of things.
But most of what I want from this trip isn’t something I can quantify exactly. In fact, in this morning’s Shakespeare Comprehensive class, the instructor—Martine Kei Green-Rogers, a real dramaturg from the University of Utah—asked us all what we hoped to learn.
I ask the same question when I teach. That way, I can tailor the class to what my students want, not to what I think they need. (That’s the difference between teaching in an organized class setting, with grades and degrees as the reward, and teaching adults who don’t need the grades and already have the degrees.)
In this class, most people specified what they wanted to learn. I didn’t. I was rather startled by the question. Because I’m not here to learn something. I’m here to shake up my brain.
It’s hard to quantify brain-shaking. It’s a little moment of oh? what? Although I often find that the experience is reflected in that lovely Yiddish question, nu? I love that word because it almost sounds like “new.” And it also means, “does that surprise you?” Yep, it does. That’s how my brain feels when it’s shaken. Nu?
Often what shakes my brain isn’t something I would have expected. For example, this morning the instructor asked us to write down our nicknames and the personal pronouns we use. Immediately, I understood, although most of the class didn’t. Martine Kei Green-Rogers teaches at a university, so she’s dealing with young people, many of whom don’t accept a particular gender role. Some of these young people are transgender. What a brilliant and sensitive way to ask people how they identify themselves.
And I never would have considered it without opening myself up to a new learning experience.
Sometimes my brain shakes when it realizes it’s thought of things one way forever, and I’ve never put the information into context. That shaking happened a lot for me this morning, partly because I did most of my in-class Shakespeare learning in my late teens and early twenties. I have seen professionally produced Shakespeare plays for the past four decades, but I’ve never really returned to an organized learning environment to consider the Bard.
And y’know, sometimes life experience does influence how you look at material.
For example, I’ve always known that Shakespeare was business-minded. That fact got mentioned in every single class I ever took on Shakespeare. How he was part owner of the company that performed the plays, and how he had died a wealthy man.
As a kid, I just figured bestselling writer=wealthy writer, and dismissed the rest of it as unimportant.
It’s not unimportant. Because business is always a big part of writing, something I know as a working writer and didn’t know as a wannabe.
I also know that making money off copyright in that time period, in that country, was almost impossible, something I hadn’t know as a young woman. So there’s an entire side to Shakespeare I had known about and hadn’t given any thought at all.
He knew how to manage money. He not only knew it; he did it so well, he became rich.
Huh. Not sure what I’ll do with that yet, because it’ll take some work on my part, but I’m throwing it out there, in part, because it fits into something I’ve noticed through my years as a working writer: Successful writers are, with very few exceptions, good businesspeople. For example, Charles Dickens. Excellent businessman. Knew how to work his way around the difficult business issues of the day (such as the way that the United States kept stealing his copyright). Seems Old Bill Shakespeare knew how to do the same thing.
Which is one of the reasons this blog exists—to teach you all how to be businesspeople so that you have a chance at success as writers.
There were other nu? moments, but none of them relevant to this blog.
The relevant thing is staying fresh, and opening yourself to new ideas. Or a recasting of old ideas.
Frankly, I miss living in a university town, because those opportunities exist more in a university town than they do in a little out-of-the-way town. But I spent most of my first three decades around universities, and I also learned there are patterns to university people and university towns. Those patterns are just different than patterns of small town Oregon.
I think the problem is that as people, we get into ruts—in our thinking, our behavior, our contacts. Travel always knocks me out of my comfort zone, and traveling alone is particularly beneficial for me, because then I talk to people.
So far, I’ve spoken to a number of people about things as diverse as the color of the clouds in Southern Oregon, the language in Shakespeare’s plays, and how long it takes to make kimchi. At least one of those things will make it into a story.
I believe that staying fresh is one of the most important things to a long-term career in writing. A lot of writers write the same things over and over again. They read exclusively in the same genre that they write in. They hang out with the same people, both at home and in their writing careers. And they rarely challenge themselves with new techniques, new thoughts, and new genres.
I just discussed new thoughts. Now that my health has improved so that I can travel again, I have several trips planned. Some are family- and friend-related, but some are discovery and new-thought related.
This trip and one more in July are also new-technique related. I’m studying Shakespeare for a reason. While one woman here mentioned how upset she is that the class won’t delve deeply into Shakespeare’s language, I’m relieved. Because we’ve been discussing story, and I still have a lot to learn about story, particularly from a writer whose stories have endured for centuries.
I can combine my love of theater with learning how to tell stories in new and different ways. I learned a few terms this morning that have meaning in the academic world, and mean something entirely different to my brain. Those terms have become suggestions, and believe me, I’ll be using them.
In that way, this week’s travel dovetails nicely with my women in science fiction project. Because I’m revisiting old favorites there as well, and that’s caused me to realize a few things. I realized that, despite my best efforts, I’ve internalized a lot of stupid rules about writing, rules that my favorite writers constantly broke. (Rules, I’m figuring out, that Shakespeare broke. I knew that, but I didn’t know it. And, before you say anything, he didn’t break them because he was Famous Playwright (as in, J.K. Rowling can break the rules, but you can’t). He broke them in service of the story.
I find a lot of new techniques by visiting other disciplines in the arts, studying other artists’ lives, and learning how other artists think/thought. Not only do I find such things inspiring, I also find them illuminating.
And, as I mentioned, sometimes my learning is new-genre related. Sometimes I mean a new genre to me, something I haven’t played with before, but which existed for a long time. And sometimes I mean, let’s mash up this genre with that genre and see what we get. We’ve been discussing that a bit in the comments from last week’s post, and I have to admit, it has my brain humming.
All of this has my brain humming. I’ve got lots to figure out and lots to write. But in the next hour, I have to post this blog, buy myself dinner, get gas for the car, and get back to the festival. In theory, I’ll see a play tonight. In practice, I might not. As I said, we’re in the middle of storms, and this show is outside.
I expect that, either way, I’ll be having an adventure.
And an adventure now and then is as important to my writing as reading is. Which is to say, essential.
“Business Musings: Brain Quakes,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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July 6, 2015
J. Reed Brasher knows he has forgotten something important. A lot of somethings, actually. The memory of his entire life slips through his grasp save for bits and pieces. Age, they tell him. And at 90, maybe he should believe them.
But he doesn’t. Because he remembers something. Something that tells him he should never have lost his memory in the first place.
Chosen by Tangent Magazine as one of the top ten science fiction stories of 1998, “The Questing Mind,” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
The Questing Mind
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
In memory of Kathryn Rusch
He tries to remember.
The nurses don’t understand that. They think it odd that he requests audio tapes of the books he has written, videos of the interviews he has given, and photograph albums of times past. The nurses also give him 3D moving pictures of his last few years, pictures so tiny they rest in the palm of his hand. In them, the people turn like toy dolls, but he cannot feel their feet against his skin. Outside the door, he hears the nurses whispering, “Sad old man. He’s got nothing left to live for, so he lives in his past.”
Only he doesn’t have any memories except inconsequential ones: the runny eggs he had for breakfast, the plot of the crime drama he watched the night before on the wide-screen television placed at the perfect distance from his bed. He has a superficial knowledge of everything he has done, like a back-of-the-book bio sheet written about someone else:
J. Reed Brasher, novelist, playwright, and essayist, born 1920 in Camden, New Jersey, to physician Paul Brasher and his wife Mary. Published his first novel, Golden Sunset, in 1945. Wrote sixteen Broadway plays, including the Tony Award winning Stations in the Sky (1960). Published five books of essays, the last an autobiographical sketch. Married Olive Franklin in 1942, fathered two daughters, Mary and Paula. List of publications (including all 55 novels) follows.
But the memories are gone, stolen an incident at a time. He had noticed the first one missing on his ninetieth birthday when his daughter, Paula, asked him to recite her favorite bedtime story to his great-grandson. He did not remember telling bedtime stories, and said so. She reminded him of that only this morning, when he asked what day she first noticed his memory slipping.
“It’s normal, Dad. The mind goes with age.”
But not his mind. His mind has controlled his entire life. He knows that with the same certainty with which he knows he is male. He remembers the feeling of control, but he does not remember the incidents that triggered it.
It is the ultimate curse. His body is now so feeble that he cannot spend much time out of bed. If he does, the nurses come after him as if he were a child. “Now, now, Mr. Brasher, we mustn’t hurt ourselves.”
He wonders how he can hurt himself in this house he has built—he saw the documentation in the photo album: his younger self standing over the blue prints, holding a hammer, speaking to a contractor. He chose the big brass featherbed, the ruby bedspread with matching carpet and curtains that set off the mahogany paneling. It is soothing to sleep in this room with his books and posters lining the walls, this place he has been for fifty years. It is like living in his own mind.
This morning he woke with the thought that the longer he remains passive, the sooner the thief will take his entire being. Until his daughter made her casual remark, he was willing to let his brain slip away drop by drop. But she was wrong. Age should equal wisdom, and somewhere, someone is stealing his wisdom from him. He cannot allow this to continue.
He needs a plan. A simple plan to prevent the destruction of his mind. A plan that will save the little bit he has left.
He reads until he dozes off. Each word is an effort, each sentence a battle he must fight to the end. He reads only two pages before his head lolls against the pillows. When he awakes, the side of his mouth is wet. He drools in his sleep, like an old man. He hates thinking of himself as old.
He has spoken to the nurses. They pat his arm, and refuse to answer him until he gets agitated. They say different doctors have different opinions, but no one will tell him what those opinions are.
He investigates various diseases on his own. But, as he reads, and sleeps, and reads some more, he realizes his symptoms are not neatly categorized. He can learn and remember from day to day if he tries. The information he has lost all seems to fit into part of the same whole.
He cannot remember his work, although he can remember setting pen to paper. But he does not try to write. That drive left him first as if fleeing from a crisis about to happen.
It takes half a day before he realizes that detail is a memory. He can pinpoint the day he lost his will to create, pinpoint it without anyone else’s help.
He was sitting downstairs in the solarium he built for Olive. She had been dead a year, and in that time, he discovered that the only way he could feel close to her was to sit in that overheated room she loved. He had to hire someone to tend her plants, and even then they didn’t look right. But the light coming through the window, that was right and always would be, and he knew if he turned his head just one certain way that he would see her again, that she hid in the periphery of his vision like a car in his blind spot. He knew he should write about the loss as he had written about everything else in his life, record it for some future even he couldn’t fathom, but for the first time since he knew the alphabet he didn’t want to make a record.
And then he had a double loss, first of Olive, then of himself.
It was only a short walk from the solarium to the bed. In six months he has become a bed-ridden drooling old man whose emaciated form more resembles a starving man in a magazine ad than the famous, well photographed writer, robust from too much good food and not enough exercise. The loss is not related to Olive for he wrote before he knew her and he wrote after she died.
No. The loss has a physical cause, and he will find it.
On the third day of his quest, he waits until the nurses take their lunch. He can hear a soap opera at high volume in the kitchen, some hapless heroine sobbing about murder in the arms of her lover. He uses the glittering metal knob attached to the plastic headboard to pull himself out of bed. His legs are unsteady, but he manages to traverse the bedroom. The carpet from bed to door seems as long as the Sahara. He has to lean against the frame and pant to get his wind. Has he forgotten to eat in those six weeks? Or did the doctors order some low-calorie fare that failed to nourish him? All he remembers is burnt toast, cold soup and roast beef sandwiches made mostly of gristle. Whoever hired those nurses did not hire them for their cooking ability.
After a few minutes he catches his breath and staggers down the hall, as wobbly as a child taking his first steps.
Instantly he gets a picture: Paula toddling toward him, hands outstretched, joy on her pudgy face. He owns that one, and Mary too, balancing herself with one hand on the couch, the other knocking his magazines off the coffee table, Olive’s three-note laugh echoing in the background. He blinks back tears, so grateful to have photographs in his head that he stumbles and nearly falls. He catches the wall to steady himself and listens for heavy nursy footsteps on the stairs, but the television blares coffee percolating music, and after a moment he realizes they aren’t going to come.
When he reaches the door of his study, he stops. The area around it smells faintly of pipe smoke and he catches a glimpse of a memory before it disappears into the recesses of his brain. This room is gone from his head. If he opens the door, he will see a room he designed as if it were assembled by a stranger.
He does not know what he will find.
The thought fills him with apprehension. Even so, he reaches down and grabs the knob. It turns, but the door does not open. The knob feels strange to his palm. He pulls his hand away. This knob does not match the others in the house. It is square and has a red light pulsing in the center. He recognizes it from the magazine on his bedstand—a private in-house security system, keyed to one person’s specifications.
He lets out a silent moan. He must have bought that system and installed it. But he cannot remember doing so, nor can he remember the code.
He leans against the frame, exhaustion making his limbs shudder. The television blares menacing music that leads to another set of commercials. The show will end soon. He has to get back to his bed before the nurses find him.
As he makes his way back, hand pressed against the wall, he wishes for a cane. Something to lean on to make his passage easier. It isn’t until he reaches the Sahara carpet that he thinks to wonder at the lock itself: Whom was he trying to keep out of his study? Until he became ill, he lived alone.
He demands to see the doctors, and the nurses drive him to cold sterile offices: the first on Rodeo Drive near all the exclusive shops. This child with bright red hair, the nurse tells Brasher, is his personal doctor, the person who has treated him for the last sixteen years.
Brasher doesn’t recognize him.
Nor does he recognize the waiting room: Empty except for him, filled with blue chairs that match the blue carpet and the white walls. No magazines lay on the table. Instead someone has installed a television set in front of each seat, and thoughtfully provided the viewer with a remote.
The examining room is even colder than the waiting room. He sits on the gurney with his clothes on, feeling naked nonetheless, wishing he could lie down, but knowing that he shouldn’t. The doctor treats him like a baby, and speaks in that sing-song voice reserved for children, the mentally unstable, and those who don’t speak English.
“Sometimes,” the doctor says, “the mind leaves before the body does. I’m sorry, Reed. I know this is hard for you, but you have enough money. You have lived a full life. Lie back for your remaining years and relax.”
The advice of the young. Brasher asks a few more questions, all about the progression of the doctor’s version of Brasher’s disease, and learns that it matches his memories of himself: the quick onset (rare, the doctor says), the rapid deterioration (tragic, the doctor says, but understandable, given the loss of your wife). The doctor-child’s eyes have no understanding, however, and Brasher wants to demand how the doctor would feel if it were his mind, his life, being eroded away bit by tiny bit.
But he does not. He did not come for compassion. He came for answers. He has received neither.
The second doctor’s office is in a clinic on the revitalized section of Hollywood Boulevard. The clinic has a large sign over the door which announces a specialty in geriatric services. The waiting room is designed for people his daughter’s age: Elvis Presley blares on the speakers, books line the walls, and photographs of Hollywood in the fifties and sixties rest beneath the glass on the coffee table. He does not feel old here: he feels ancient, as if he should have died years ago.
This doctor is a woman in her forties, the age of his granddaughter Kimberly. The woman is not attractive: middle age has lined her mouth, sagged her breasts, and flattened her buttocks. She, at least, has compassion. It appears to be what has wearied her. Since they are alone, she sits across from him in the waiting room, a file folder clasped to her chest like a shield, and tells him in a gentle voice that some people become children in their old age.
“I am not a child,” he says. “I simply cannot remember my life.”
They discuss his symptoms. She agrees that he has no classic symptoms for any disease which attacks the mind. But she reminds him that no one is classic, and that even now, no one understands the human brain.
“Except the computer programmers,” he says, thinking he is making a joke. Sitting in this room designed to ease people younger than he is has put him on edge.
The doctor starts. She has obviously not expected his joke. Finally she smiles. “I believe the computer people are working on artificial intelligence,” she says.
He is tiring visibly when they finish their discussion. She sends for his nurse/chauffeur and then touches his hand before she leaves the room. “You are more fortunate than some, Mr. Brasher,” she says, that compassion enveloping him like a hug. “You at least wrote about your life. Perhaps you knew this time would come all along.”
Her words send a chill through him and he remembers, oh, so briefly remembers how it felt to be young and whole and in control of his world. “No,” he says to her. “I did not know this would happen, but I was afraid it would.”
He sleeps, on and off, for the two days after his excursion, and each time he awakes, he curses the exhaustion that will not leave him. He wants to think, but finds it tiring and so he sleeps instead.
On the morning of the third day, he wakes with a restlessness it takes him a while to identify: it is energy. He has finally regained some of his strength.
And he has an idea. The female doctor’s words have echoed through his dreams: he needs an intelligence specialist. Computer experts have studied the mind for most of his life. He will have someone make a map of the deterioration of his brain. He knows just the person to do it.
He picks up the phone beside his bed, hits the speed dial button marked with his nephew Scott’s name, and asks—no, demands—that Scott join him for dinner. Scott’s voice holds the tolerance one gives to the eccentric in the family, tolerance touched with urgency, with the knowledge that he might not have discussions with his Uncle Reed much longer. Brasher recognizes the tone: his voice has held it too, but for whom and when he cannot remember.
He closes his eyes in frustration and hopes enough of his mind will be left by dinner so that he can have a meaningful, life-saving conversation with his sister’s son.
The man who eats from the tray at Brasher’s bedside is not a boy, but a person who is crossing the threshold of old age. He is balding, and his features are wide and square. The cartilage in his nose has softened, flattening it against his jowly face. Only the eyes are familiar: bright and green and shining with intelligence.
The nurses have served roast beef obviously carved in a grocery store deli, gravy from a can, and mashed potatoes made from a mix. The preservatives give everything a flat flavor, except the potatoes, which have a gritty taste all their own. Scott eats carefully, flattening his potatoes so they melt into the gravy and pushing the gelatinous mess away from his roast beef. He will not look at Reed.
“It happens to everyone, Unc.” Scott’s right hand has lumpish knuckles and an age spot near the wrist. “We all get old.”
“No,” Reed says. “No one else in my family lost their mind.”
“Aunt Olive did, at the end, remember?”
He remembers. But he chooses to believe that his wife’s personality simply died before her body did. “We were not related by blood,” he says, gently.
Scott smiles and for the first time, Reed sees the boy he remembers trapped in the man’s body. “I know that. But they think now that sometimes things like this happen because of environment. You two went everywhere together.”
Reed shakes his head. “This is different. I’ve been reading—” he sweeps his hand at the bookshelf “—and my symptoms are unique.” He clears his throat, runs his hand through his thinning hair, feeling the baldness pattern that is an advanced version of his nephew’s. “I need your help. I want you to do a map of the deterioration of my brain.”
Scott’s eyes widen, and for a moment, color brushes his cheeks. He sets his fork down, brings the linen napkin to his mouth, and wipes. His hand shakes. Then he says in an oddly strained voice, “Unc, I haven’t done any programming since college.”
Reed frowns. “But computers are your specialty.”
Scott shakes his head. “No. I play with computers, but I use other people’s programs. Besides, this would take knowledge I don’t have.”
Reed slumps against his pillows. Even the thought that his knowledge of Scott comes from the memory of a boy instead of the reality of a man does not make him feel any better. Reed stares at the sheet, folded against the thick red comforter, the white cotton smudged with a dab of gravy.
“It feels as if a shadow is creeping across my brain,” he says. “If we can shed light on it, then perhaps it will go away.”
Scott puts his tray on the floor and buries his face in his hands. Reed glances at his nephew. They were close once, when Scott played with Reed’s children at all the family gatherings, but there seems to be little closeness between them now. Not enough to cause Scott’s reaction. Finally Scott brings his head up, his eyes hooded and unreadable, an expression so like Reed’s father that Reed starts.
“All right, Unc,” Scott says. “I know a man who can help you. I’ll send him over tomorrow and we’ll see what he can do.”
The man’s name is Cielo Rodriguez, but he speaks no Spanish. “My mother chose the name,” is all he will say, which puts his birth date squarely within a five-year period that began in 1966. He is tall and slender, with wavy black hair and piercing blue eyes—a bit of cielo, he says—but Reed is uncertain whether the man means the sky or heaven. Rodriguez wears white to set off his dark skin. Thick corded muscle runs up his arms and into his shoulders, as if working with computers has made him very strong. He answers Reed’s early questions as if he has answered them a thousand times.
They meet in the solarium because Reed does not want a stranger to see him in bed. The warmth is a comfort for his old and aching bones. The nurses have put a stool in front of his favorite chair so that he can rest his feet. Even in his white shirt and lightweight pants, Rodriguez looks hot. Sweat beads on his forehead, an occasional drop falling off his brow onto his pristine clothes.
Reed does not like the small talk and doubts he ever had patience for it. He leans forward, his shoulder brushing a fern, and tells Rodriguez the brief history of his deterioration, then requests the map.
Rodriguez wipes at a trickle of sweat that has fallen onto his cheek. “Frankly,” he says, “I am surprised you have come back to us.”
Reed feels a little chill in the pit of his stomach. “Come back?”
“We did this five years ago,” Rodriguez says with the cautious tone Reed is coming to recognize. “Both you and your wife. It was a big deal. The first successful mapping of the activities of the working, intelligent human brain. Made the cover of Science News and Scientific American.”
And I can’t believe you don’t remember. That is what his tone said. How could you ever forget? Reed’s breath is coming in small gasps. No wonder Scott looked so upset. The first time they probably sought him out. The second time, he sought them.
“If I’d known you were having troubles, I’d have come to you,” Rodriguez says. “Just like we did for your wife.”
“You made a second map of Olive?” Reed’s voice rasps. His throat has tightened against the words.
Rodriguez shakes his head. “She wouldn’t let us touch her again.”
Reed doesn’t move. He can feel Olive’s presence all around him. The warmth envelopes him like a hug. Sometimes things like this happen because of environment. You two went everywhere together. Or shared the same experiment.
“Could this be happening to me because of the map?” Reed asks. He does not look at Rodriguez, focusing instead on the small hothouse rose blooming on the third shelf to his left.
“No.” Rodriguez leans forward into Reed’s line of vision. Rodriguez places his face so that his piercing gaze meets Reed’s. “We have done this technique a hundred times since and have used it as a diagnostic tool. No one else has had this problem.”
Reed cannot look into that tiny bit of cielo. He turns away. “You sound awfully certain for a man who is experimenting.”
“You used to like my certainty,” Rodriguez says.
The words make Reed start. Another thing lost? He cannot tell.
Rodriguez stands. He pats Reed’s shoulder with a familiarity that strangers should not have. “Come to Cedar Sinai tomorrow at 9 a.m. and report to Neurology. We will have your new map in no time.”
“Tomorrow,” Reed whispers. The promise hangs in the air long after Rodriguez has left. The heat has become oppressive as if, in its weight, lingers Olive’s disapproval.
They begin with old-fashioned technologies, X-rays, an MRI, a PET and an AAL. Then they take him into a room he believes he has never seen before. This test has no acronym. He is placed on a divan, one of three in a room the size of his master bathroom. A technician places a device shaped like a hairdryer in a 1950s beauty salon over his head. His neck is held in place by a soft cushion. He is encouraged to close his eyes, but he is asked not to sleep.
He cannot sleep anyway. The room is air-conditioner cold, the kind of dry chill that seeps into his bones and brings goose bumps to his skin. Two people monitor him from the booth above—both women. He has not seen Rodriguez all morning.
All night he dreamed of Olive as she had been when he met her, her black hair held in rolls by ornate combs, her lipstick thick and red on her narrow mouth, her eyes snapping with a vitality that drew him like a thirsty man to water. At first he was happy, because he had found another untapped memory. They made love in a private rail car as it bumped and thudded along a steel track, their moans lost in the clatter. Then everything went dark, and he heard her voice, faint and quivering with age: It’s wrong, Reed. Please. Don’t ask me again.
As he closes his eyes now, he hears that voice, gone now almost two years and still buried inside him. Don’t ask me. Please, Reed. Please. He has a sense of disquiet, as if the dreams have told him something he should understand. He allows his mind to free associate, as the technicians have told him to.
He is not asleep, but he is not awake, either. Finally the answer comes to him, firmly and with strength, his mind speaking with confidence for the first time since this ordeal began.
The visual memory is gone, but the audio remains.
He has been trying too hard. He needs to remember with his body, not with his mind.
This test is done, and the techs take him to another room, attach him to another machine. He barely notices; he is too engaged reviewing his small store of memories. The wobble of his legs brought back the children; the warmth of the solarium brought him Olive. Other memories are subtler: the taste of canned gravy brought the years of his young marriage and the boy Scott to his mind; the expression in Scott’s eyes reviving for a brief instant Reed’s father. The body is a link to a secondary store of memories, one he accesses in a different way than simple recall.
They complete two more tests before lunch. After lunch, the techs warn him, is the frightening part. They assure him he will feel nothing.
They take him to another white room, this one with a lounge and a series of wires hanging over it, like an old-fashioned dental chair. A young woman straps him in, explaining in a cheery voice that he has been through this once before. He has minute scars to prove it. Then she uses a tiny needle to inject a solution into his skull.
She is right; he feels nothing. Occasionally he makes an involuntary movement—a toe wiggles, a finger twitches—but otherwise he seems to be in control of himself. Over lunch, the techs tried to explain the process to him, using words like Virtual Imaging and Composite Mapping, but the jargon passes him too quickly. He will have Rodriguez explain, later.
When she finishes, she takes him to a room and lets him sleep—a much needed, dreamless rest. He does not see Rodriguez until the following morning.
Reed is still exhausted. They meet in Rodriguez’s office, a cramped room piled with printouts and curling photographs, X-rays, and photographs of the brain. Computers hum on three desks. Framed degrees proclaim Rodriguez a medical doctor as well as a computer scientist. Magazine covers hide the part of the wall not covered with bookshelves. If Reed squints, he can see the Scientific American cover with the map of his brain.
The same map rises from the surface of one of the desks. A holographic projection. Reed half-smiles. An old memory must have led him to expect the map on one of the computer screens. A similar map rises from another desk. Rodriguez stares at them as if they hold secrets he cannot fathom. The light from the maps reflects on his face, making his dark skin as pale as his clothes.
“I have never seen anything like this,” he says.
Reed has to fight to concentrate on the words. The exhaustion and strain have made him dizzy. He leans forward, ignoring the complaints of his back.
“Look.” Rodriguez swivels the two models so that they face Reed. “You’re right. You are losing information, but the loss is not starting in the corner of one lobe and moving in the other direction. Instead it follows pathways as we would follow a road, as if it is searching for particular kinds of information. It is as if these areas are washed clean.”
He turns and faces Reed. The light from the maps shines over Rodriguez’s shoulders, giving him a halo. “If this is a disease, it is unlike anything we have ever seen before.”
Reed frowns. “Are you saying I’m all right?”
“No.” Rodriguez temples his fingers. “Something is clearly wrong. The links remain—you can relearn things, but the knowledge you’ve stored is gone, and that knowledge seems to be specialized. With more time, we can figure out what areas are being affected.”
“Today?” Reed asks.
Rodriguez shakes his head. “You’re too tired. A week from now. Will that work for you?”
Reed nods. Then asks the question he has been thinking since the day before. “Is this what happened to Olive?”
“We don’t know.” Rodriguez wipes his hand on his pants. He turns slightly, so that he can look at the screen instead of Reed. “She would not let us map her brain before she died, and she insisted that no one touch it after. You cremated her so that we would all comply with her wishes.”
Reed stares at the revolving brains before him. The second is webbed with thin lines not in the first as if someone has poured a dark liquid into the blood vessels to touch up the shadows. It is as if Death has snuck inside him and is snuffing out his life, inch by painful inch.
He sleeps for another two days. The sheets in the bed are damp from his sweat. His pillow feels hard and once he dreams he is trapped in an old CT machine, a room-sized monstrosity that sucks him dry.
On the third day, he awakens with a sense of loss. He runs through his feeble store of memories and stumbles. When he wobbled down the hall days before, he uncovered a memory, but now he can no longer find it. His head hurts with the strain of looking for it; his mind plays with the emptiness like the tongue plays with the space left by a missing tooth. He even gets out of bed and wobbles a bit, hoping the memory will return. But it is gone, like the others, perhaps forever.
A terror shudders through him, quick as alcohol on an empty stomach. He should not lose memories he has struggled to recover. Even Rodriguez said his brain was fine. The new memories should stay.
With a shaking hand, Reed reaches for the phone and calls Rodriguez. All Reed gets is Rodriguez’s automated voice, urging him to leave a message. Which he does. All garbled and fear-filled, sounding more like a hysterical old man than he has ever sounded in his memory, as paltry as it is.
Then he gets out of bed, determined to try the hall again, to see if recreating the same circumstances will bring the memory back. He grips the plastic headboard and pauses for a moment. His taste is not that bad. A brass bed should have a brass board. Someone must have changed it. He does not know why.
As he crosses the Sahara carpet, each step is slow and uncertain. Even though he feels he has made some progress with his mind, his body’s deterioration continues. His hands, outstretched before him for balance, are thin and bony, their flesh loose and lined with oversized blue veins. When he reaches the door’s threshold, he grips it and leans into the hallway. The television blares below: the CNN news theme this time. If he were to cry for help, the nurses would never hear him.
He turns back to the hallway itself, wide enough for a wheelchair, filled with polished occasional tables and framed art that once had meaning for him. Keeping one hand firmly pressed against the dry wall, he takes small baby steps, then stops.
This was the place he had the memory. He remembers the moment of recovery, the joy that ran through him, the feeling as if he had recaptured part of himself. Odd that he can recall remembering but the memory itself is gone. He inches closer to the wall and rests his head on the back of his hand. Little shudders run through him. Someday it will all be gone and he will be a great hulking empty shell of loose skin and brittle bones.
As Olive had been. She left before her body did, but where she went he had no idea. A tiny thread of despair fills him. She never left him before without telling him where she was going to go.
Another memory. But he knows it is not the same as the one he has lost. And this new memory has come through his body again, through the tactile image of a vacant shell. He cannot see Olive’s dead body, but he remembers how it felt—like a beloved robe tossed on a bed—threadbare, worn, full of memories, but empty without its owner.
He starts. A nurse is beside him, her large breasts pressing against his arm, her uniform smelling of perfumed laundry detergent and sweat.
“You need to be in bed, Mr. Brasher.”
He glances at her—rounded cheeks and chocolate eyes. She is younger than he realized, perhaps twenty-five, but already set in a middle-aged body. Her voice has a warmth she does not have to fake, and her breath is laced with garlic. He has succumbed to this gentle persuasion before.
Then he looks down the hall. Only a few feet remain to his study. The red light on the door knob blinks. “I know,” he says, “but I need to do this more.”
He pushes away from the wall and almost loses his balance. She places a firm hand on the small of his back to steady him. He walks without support now, embarrassed by his old man’s gait. After he walks a few steps, he hears a sharp intake of breath. She must have realized where he is going.
“Mr. Brasher, sir, you can’t go in there.”
He stops in front of the study door. The faint aroma of pipe tobacco brings up a wistfulness in him. He gazes at the tiny blinking light reflecting off the translucent skin of his right arm. “If I can’t go in there,” he says, “who can?”
She apparently has no answer. He closes his eyes and grips the knob. The corners bite into his skin. The metal is cool beneath his palm, except in the center, where the light blinks. He has felt this before. His own voice speaks in his head and he repeats the words, the quote he chose to release the lock: “‘Go then! Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer!’”
And he hears not his own voice, but a raspy female voice in a room tinged with whiskey, the words echoing across a stage, and sees a young girl, dressed in white, the spotlight on her hand, cupping a broken unicorn from her glass menagerie. And he knows then what he has lost: that magic, that music perfection could raise in him: the tears he cried when he first saw Ibsen and Williams and O’Neill performed upon the stage, the glimmer of inspiration that made him want to do the same things. He remembers the feel of the velvet-covered steel theater chair, the collective gasp of the audience, the instinctive grasping in his soul that made him want to achieve uniformity of emotion in a hundred people sitting in the dark. He is so lost inside himself that he does not notice as the knob slips through his grasp. Only the cool hand upon his arm brings him to the present.
“Come inside, old man,” says a voice he recognizes. “It’s time we talk.”
It takes a moment for his eyes to focus. As they do, he finds himself gazing at skin so flawless that it lacks the visible imperfections of open pores or bristly whiskers. The lips are smooth, a rosy hue he has never seen outside of commercials; the nose a flawless aquiline missing the slight bump it had had since a skiing accident; the eyes white and green in perfect contrast, untouched by exposed vessels or deep circles in the lid below. Only the hair seems familiar, dark and black and thick, smooth in the front and slightly upraised in the back as if hands have been running through it in a nervous gesture.
He has not seen that face in sixty-five years—except on jacket covers, retrospectives and the wedding photograph that hangs above the mantle in the library on the first floor.
For a moment, he can’t breathe. The lump in his throat is so thick he can barely swallow. He can only stare—up—at the man he once was.
And it all clicks into place. Even though he doesn’t remember, he knows.
“I shouldn’t have to invite you in,” the replica of his younger self says and steps back.
But Reed cannot move. The voice is half a step off—that odd timbre the human voice makes when recorded, when not heard from within and without. The man—the boy—before him is the age of his great-grandchildren, from an age when the body is lithe and beautiful, unmarked and unmarred by time.
A flush warms him. How odd it feels to look at his former perfection, to know that the broad-shouldered, slim-hipped body before him became this bowed, broken and bent thing that can barely stand on its own.
“Please,” the boy says.
Reed glances back at the nurse. She is watching with her hands pressed together in unconscious imitation of prayer, her fingertips pushing against her chin. He cannot bare the look of pity and concern on her face. He steps inside and closes the door.
The room brings up no memories in him, although the pungent scent of tobacco makes it feel like home. A large oak desk dominates. Its position beneath the floor-to-ceiling windows makes it the center of the room. Papers are scattered across its surface, next to a dust-covered typewriter. The primary workstation appears to be the couch, where a laptop hums. Small swinging doors lead into another room, and he knows without looking that houses a small kitchen with an even smaller bedroom beyond.
Artwork and photographs are scattered along the floor as if someone meant to hang them up. His books, plays, and other published works fill the bookshelves, and the bookshelves dominate, running from floor to ceiling. Over and over, his name appears, in Times Roman, Geneva, and Palatino; in gold, blue and bright green: J. Reed Brasher. A constant reoccurring image to remind him who he was.
Richard Nanes’ Nocturnes of the Celestial Seas plays softly in the background, the rhapsodic, richly chorded Nocturne in C Major evoking a melancholy in him he hasn’t realized he is feeling.
He built all of this and he remembers none of it.
“Did Cielo Rodriguez help design you?” he asks, his back to the boy.
The boy laughs. That sound, at least, is familiar. It is his father’s laugh, down to the last ripple. “Cielo Rodriguez merely laid the groundwork. He knows nothing of the project. You hired RoboTechs to make me, and had them work with a designer in Hamburg, and a young woman whose work shook the world of artificial intelligence. Seventeen tries to come up with me.”
Seventeen sounds like too few to create the perfection before him. Too easy. He staggers to the couch and sits beside the laptop. He brushes the keyboard, finds the keys molded to the shape of his fingers. He knows he created all of this so that he would be immortalized, so that he would not die at the end of a normal human lifespan, but somehow, now, it seems vainglorious.
“And Olive?” he whispers.
“She died before the project was finished.”
Reed looks up. This—boy—is the only person who does not speak to him in that sing-song voice of tolerance. He answers the questions as if they are normal, as if he has anticipated them.
“You are stealing my memories.” The words rush out of Reed in a gust of anger he does not know he has. His mind has controlled his entire life, and now this artificial person—this thing—is taking his mind from him.
“I do not know how a man can steal from himself,” the boy says.
Reed looks at the boy, really looks at him. He is Reed and not Reed. The lump on the nose that Olive used to trace with her finger, the scar beneath the lower lip, the hint of acne that bothered him until he was thirty-five, all missing. The boy’s knuckles have lines, but his hands do not—not even the tiny wrinkles Reed used to create by arching his fingers backwards as far as they would go.
“You are not me,” Reed says.
“No,” the boy responds, “but I will be when the transfer is done.”
His dream was prophetic then—or memory perhaps—the bed as a CT or some other kind of scan, leaching his life from him tidbit by tidbit, idea by idea.
Reed’s breathing is labored. He understands his own rationale. His mind controls, so move the mind and he will continue to live. He hates this old man’s body, hates its lack of mobility, its constant pain, its systematic failures, but it is his body, and trapped within it are the indelible imprints of a life well lived. He clenches his fists and holds them in his lap.
“You can’t kill me,” the boy says. “They’ll just reactivate me when you leave.”
Reed swallows. His mouth is dry, his tongue pasted to the back of his teeth. Kill the boy? Destroy the machine that holds all of his memories? Surely he didn’t expect himself to be as crazy as that?
Still, the anger has nowhere to go. He is an old man whose body shakes when he stands. He licks his lips, wishing for strength in his limbs. “You should never have let me in here,” he says.
The boy sits across from him, the body long and easy in a chair that never housed anything so young. “Had to,” he says. “There are bugs in the system.”
Reed runs his fingers across his balding pate. He does not want to help this usurper self, this idealized version of the person he once was. His mistake was to think that the boy’s future would be his future, a thought he cannot even remember having, but knows he had. Still the questing mind, ever his savior and his betrayer, forces the question from his lips: “What sort of bugs?”
The boy reaches back, gathers papers off the messy desktop, and hands them over, like a young student awaiting his teacher’s approval. Reed takes them, his own hand curved and shaking, skin wrinkled and spotted and pocked, without a trace of perfection. He knows where the drive has gone now. They were smart to implant that first.
He glances at the pages, then reads, curious to see what his mind has created without him. The words are smooth, the rhythm and style his. He feels the logic of the grammar, recognizes the vocabulary. But the emptiness shocks him. He saw better papers when he taught the occasional writing class.
The boy leans close and watches Reed. Bugs in the system. Reed sighs. Yes, of course. He would have wanted everything. Continued life and continued success.
But there can be no success with only pretty words. Doesn’t the boy understand that? There are no characters, no emotions. The heart Reed was praised for is missing as if it never had been.
He gazes up at the boy and sees not distress in those green eyes, but a curiosity as if the boy believes Reed can give him the piece of the puzzle that will make him whole.
“I need to study these,” Reed says, and stands. His legs wobble beneath him and the boy reaches out, catching Reed as gently as a man would catch a child. The memory returns: Paula, stumbling as she almost reaches him, her baby legs shaking and uncertain. His hand—scratched, scabbed and callused but young—reaches for her to steady her. Not quite what he had in the hall: close, but different.
He has to get out of here. Now. He rolls the papers and staggers forward, more a drunk than a baby, lurching toward the door. He will not go back to the bed. Finally he understands the plastic headboard. This leaching of memory will have to quit. And be reversed. If they can pull the ideas from him, they can put them back.
“Please,” the boy says, and there is a desperation in his tone. “Please. If you leave now, you won’t come back.”
Damn right, Reed almost says, but doesn’t. Confusion makes him dizzy. This is his project after all. He understands the logic of it: brain cells die when deprived of oxygen. An information transfer of this magnitude could not occur after death.
But he never guessed how it would feel—or that it would fail.
He stumbles and the boy catches him with a tenderness he does not expect. The toughness from earlier must have been programmed in, a planned response to questions Reed thought he might ask. The boy’s hands are cool and smooth, not quite human, but he eases Reed back to the couch as if Reed were more precious than gold.
“Please,” the boy says again. “What am I doing wrong?”
That, at least, is right. The questing mind which has never left him. Never left him, yet is replicated in the boy. An idea blossoms, but he ignores it, allowing it to rise to fruition without the help of his conscious brain. Instead he touches the boy’s cheeks, feels the down of invisible hairs, the jut of the cheekbones, the oddly perfected nose. After a moment, the boy brings his hand up and touches Reed’s face, fingers tracing the wrinkles and grooves carved by time. Reed cannot tell the boy what is missing, because it has taken Reed until this moment to realize what is there: the mind is more than the brain, more than chemicals and neural pathways carved in gray matter. Memories live in each cell, branded as deeply as time has branded his skin.
Reed can stop the theft as easily as he started it—and he will. For he can never recreate himself. He was right about seventeen being too few—and he has not time for hundreds. Even then, the mind will not be whole. It will not know, really know, how Olive’s skin felt beneath his fingertips or how her voice resonated in his ears. The scent of pipe tobacco will not bring with it the smell of home, and the brush of fingers against the arm will not recall his co-mingled joy and fear at his first child’s first steps.
His body holds those memories and his brain is the link, not the repository. Without his body, no trick of science can pull them free.
He lets go of the boy’s face, and glances at the laptop. It is not his, even though it is made for him. He eases off the couch and heads for the desk, pulling the heavy, dusty typewriter toward him. His hands shake no longer, and, as he rolls a sheet of paper into the platen, he smiles just a little. For the drive has returned, along a different pathway, inspired not by the passions of someone else’s life, but by the passions of his own. Passions no one, not even the perfected figure in front of him, will experience in the same way again. Passions recorded in the books on the wall. His passions, his life, in his words, already transferred from the deepest parts of his being from the wounds and the scars no doctor has ever seen.
His daughter, the doctors, his nephew, they are all right. It is normal to lose the old. But the loss will not be his. It will be theirs. Someday he will follow Olive to a place he has never seen.
He looks at the boy, and now the quizzical expression in the boy’s eye pleases him.
“I can’t teach you how to put your heart and soul on the page,” Reed says, his voice firm. “I’ve never been able to teach anybody that. But I can show you how it’s done.”
His fingers fit on the dusty keys, but he does not type. The boy can type. Instead Reed tilts his head back and feels the ideas come together. A surge of adrenaline fills him as it always has at the instant of creation. The boy looks over his shoulder, waiting, but Reed does not explain. He does not have to. He has never written to teach.
He writes for the sheer joy of placing himself on the page.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January, 1998
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Nexusplexus/Dreamstime
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