Writing Friday: Character Vines

I want to first be clear about something. Absolutely crystal fucking clear.

When I say ‘vines’, I don’t mean whatever weird internet trending popular twitteriffic hocus pocus yahoo-mail-having VOODOO the rest of you mean. I mean a type of plant that grows on things. I mean this because flowcharts look a lot like vines to me. Vines, with little square leaves.

Obviously, my college major did not involve a ton of chartmaking.

I should add here that the most productive thing I have used flowcharts for, possibly ever, was creating a passive aggressive note explaining to my boyfriend when PRECISELY it is okay to grab a clean glass from the cabinet. Obviously, it looked like this:

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A fine use, you must agree. But anyway: after first learning about them in grade school twenty years ago, I’ve come up with a SECOND use for a flowchart. This involves characterization and writing, and may therefore allow more of us to feel like they didn’t spend an entire year of grade school math classes in vain. Here’s my logic:

1) You can’t just decide a character’s characteristics willy-nilly. I mean, people go through development processes, don’t they? One characteristic is linked to the other characteristics. I.e.–if your character is a sociopathic comedian, there’s got to be some explanation of how these two traits–humor, psychosis–are linked. Maybe his mother choked to death on a peanut while telling a knock-knock joke. I don’t know.

2) Traits tend to develop BECAUSE of a trait already in existence. For instance–maybe our sociopathic comedian laughs hysterically whenever the knock-knock joke that killed his mother–which isn’t I imagine, actually all that funny, because knock-knock jokes rarely are–is told. So, to disguise this tick, he’s had to develop a whole identity as a loud-laughing teller and lover of jokes to disguise his deep psychological imbalances. Hence–even though he’s actually colder than the North Pole, he’s a comedian.

3) But it takes more than comedy and psychosis to make a story, kids. What other traits might this character possess?

4) This is where I recommend my character vines method, and do it with a cup of tea in front of me, and a top hat on, because that’s how you do things if you want people to notice you. The idea is to take one nebulous characteristic–in this case, we’ll say the one thing this person obviously is is disturbed–and name two characteristics (one good and one bad, traditionally) that are secondary to that first characteristic. Then, you do the same for those secondary characteristics. You can go on and on and on. You can figure out related characteristics until your beard is long and your private parts have long since withered up and dropped off.

Here’s a small version I did for this example, to show it up for you:

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Thinking like this–or actually drawing it out, if you’re a concrete sort of person–does two things for you. For one, just generally looking at this chart gives you the flavor of the person: lots of unemotional traits here, intellectual traits. It also gives you an idea of what the ‘redeeming’ traits of a character might be–he might be heartless and cold (watching your mum choke on a peanut’ll do that to you) but he would also be a dedicated and focused person of great intelligence, able to come up with innovative solutions to problems. He might not be the sort of guy you want to call for sympathy and a beer when your wife leaves you, but if your starter is done for and you have thirty minutes to get to work in the morning? Mhmm. Also, I imagine a sociopathic comedian has quite a good grip on how our society functions. He might not totally understand it–why, after all, would a sociopath care about a young man getting gunned down by a police officer?–but he’d probably be pretty funny. All the more funny, ironically, because he doesn’t understand.

The other thing it does is give you an idea, if you follow along one ‘branch’ of the chart, of how this character might grow and change in the course of the story. In the first few pages, for instance, your reader will figure out that your character is that big nebulous whitey-white ‘disturbed’. How, however, will that trait wind up manifesting itself and developing? Do you want this to wind up being, after some story development, a monomaniacal person, utterly devoted to finding the peanut farmer who grew the peanut that killed his mother? Or a quick witted and incisive person, who uses his unique point of view and experiences to change the world?

Then: what has to happen to make your reader go from seeing this person as simply ‘disturbed’ to ‘creatively insane’? Therein comes your plot.

A writer, in order to be good, needs to have an orderly mind. Needs, in fact, to be able to write a twenty page essay just as well as a short story–I see a bunch of folks saying they could never write essays or other expository writing, and let me tell you, if a person can’t manage that they can’t manage fiction. Fiction IS expository. Like in your English 101 essays, there are nuggets of information that need to be passed on in your fantasy/mystery/whatever novel, and they need to be passed on in a clear and logical way that your readers will understand. A personality isn’t just a skein of odds-and-ends traits all wrapped up together: it’s a formed thing, a careful thing, that flows from one logical point to another logical point.

We’ll do a whole new post on this soon, because it’s something I haven’t talked about much that very much needs to get talked about.

In the meantime, hope those of you in America had a great Thanksgiving, and those of you who’re elsewhere had a very peaceful and enjoyable November 27th.

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Writing Wednesday: Likeable Characters

Hey, guys. I’m back.

Sorry for the long absence. I been workin’ on selling things and writing other things, as my first novel just came out. If you’re curious, or just want to see if I’m worth all the shit I talk, it’s available here:

Aurian and Jin: A Love Story

But that’s not why you’re here right now. I know, I know. You’re here because it’s Wednesday. Writing Wednesday.

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Today’s gem of semi-literate wisdom is brought to you by another frequently mouthed Writerly Tip, the ever popular ‘your main character must be likeable’.

I totally agree.

What, you say? I do. I totally agree with thisĀ  statement.

My problem (and you knew there was going to be one), comes in with some folks’ definition of likeable.

I read a book recently, which I won’t name due to the large amount of shit I’m about to talk, that featured the world’s most easy to get along with MC. This character was a font of understanding and acceptance. Forgiveness came as easily as microwave popcorn. All other characters, even the biggest dicks of the novel, were pitied or admired or helped as was most appropriate for showing off this main character’s incredible good nature.

It was, without a doubt, the simpiest and most treacly bit of characterization I have ever not enjoyed. And it wasn’t even good characterization. Nobody learned anything. Nobody grew.

This most likeable of characters was, in essence, the sort of person you want to noogie and shove in a locker somewhere on middle school grounds. I kept on hoping–really hoping–that something horrible was about to happen, and wipe that silly smile off her face and all her talk of dresses and relationships right the hell out of her head.

Why? She was likeable. (Every other character in the story certainly liked her). I’m not a naturally mean person (those of you who know me well, this is the part where you shut up). I wear dresses. I like relationships. I even have some with other people, when I can’t avoid it.

But here’s the thing, my barbies and kens. Think of someone you like in real life. (If you’re having difficulty with this step, go to therapy for a few years and then get back to me). Now, think of five specific reasons you like this person. Not general ones, mind you. No ‘s/he’s funny/creative/smart’. Specific reasons. Here are my five, for the handsome Definitely Not Dave:

1. He’s good with his hands. He likes to tinker, and he’s good at fixing all sorts of stuff around the house. He doesn’t just do it to do a favor, he does it because he honestly enjoys the tinkering.
2. His accent. My DND is from Boston, and there’s something so right about a magician asking you to pick a fookin’ cahd.
3. Cuddly person. If you are also lucky enough to have a cuddly person in your life, you know what I mean right here.
4. His impatience. I genuinely enjoy the fact that, before Christmases and birthdays, it is all he can do not to tell me what he got me.
5. He likes to know how things work. DND is a magician, and what this mostly seems to mean is that he has an unslakable thirst for knowledge of how shiny tinkly spinny things function. DND grew up watching old David Copperfield specials and pausing them, frame by frame, until he could figure out how the illusion was done. He would spend hours doing this. In a young kid, that’s dedication.

So there we go. Fuck, I feel like I just wrote a goddamn Valentine for demonstration purposes, but anyway.

Your list probably looks a lot like mine in some ways (yours, perhaps, with fewer card tricks). But the details are probably small, and you know what else is curious?

Some of these things are imperfections.

I mean, look at this list. Impatience, that’s not a good thing. And it isn’t, not always. Sometimes it’s downright irritating. Sometimes I don’t want to know what I’m getting for Christmas on the 21st.

But that’s where the growth comes in. In good characterization, there aren’t ‘good traits’ and ‘bad traits’. There is a single set of characteristics that, when expressed in different ways, can be likeable or dislikeable. That was so important I put it in italics. Because, and here’s the caps lock kicker:

YOUR LIKEABLE CHARACTER’S STRENGTHS ARE ALSO HIS FLAWS.

The guy whose pride causes him to practice his tuba playing six hours a day might also cause him to never speak with his estranged father. And that character’s struggle isn’t to get rid of his pride, it’s to learn how to use it for positive purposes.

I repeat, in Capslockian:

THE NARRATIVE JOURNEY OF A LIKEABLE CHARACTER IS THE TALE OF HIM LEARNING TO USE HIS PERSONALITY FOR GOOD.

Because his strengths are also flaws, see? What makes him likeable isn’t a set of ‘good person’ characteristics. It’s all the anger and hubris and small meannesses of an ordinary mortal, combined with the desire to do better, to become better.

Think about your favorite person again. Write a list of five things about this person that irritate you. When you’re done, burn it or put it somewhere they will never find it.

But it’s funny, isn’t it. Those two lists, though they may vary in magnitude, contain the same basic characteristics.

Love you guys, have a good day doing whatever you do other than read my blog.

NOVEL TIME

Sorry, guys. I’ll have a really writing post up for you tomorrow. But for now, guess what came out today?

No, not a new Harry Potter book. No, nothing to do with Star Wars. Sorry.

Here’s my book. Yessy yessir. You should buy it. You’ll love it, even more than you love me (which is a lot, I know.) You’ll grow fond of these people, which is a shame, because they ‘re words on paper and they’ll never know. But you’ll like it. I promise.

We’ve just got the paperback for now. Ebook is coming out tomorrow. Ebook will be 2.99. Print book is 12.99, because it’s pretty fucking thick. Yes. Yeeeessssss.

Aurian and Jin: A Love Story

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WRITING WEDNESDAY: Literary Po-Po

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A Brief Word to the Literary Police

I just had someone–a friend of four or five years, who I am hoping to Christ right now doesn’t read this blog–refer to my latest story, when I showed it to them, as ‘chauvinist’.

I’m a voting, reading, cooking-when-I-damn-well-feel-like-it, full-time-working sort of woman. I’ve never worried about how to ‘catch’ a man, and the thought of whether or not men find me attractive doesn’t keep me up at night. It certainly doesn’t set me to water cleansing or tummy tucking or insane amounts of exercising, either. I’ve never looked at men as being, by nature, my superiors, nor do I put up with that attitude in anyone I come across. I have a wonderful boyfriend. I shave my legs when I damn well feel like it.

This said, you can imagine my surprise.

Then I reread it. I flipped through the pages, entranced. And–by damn–it was sort of chauvinist.

Because the main character, a sad and empty man, is a bit of a womanizer.

Because he isn’t a whole person. Because he had an absent father and a mother who was often too busy with other concerns to spare him much attention. Because he needs, in the course of the story, to learn and to grow. Because he doesn’t treat anybody well, up to and including himself.

The story, so far, doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (if you don’t know what this is, check out Chris’s post here at Modern Fantastic about it). This isn’t to say there aren’t some strong and independent women in the course of the story, but it doesn’t. The sole viewpoint character is male, and is therefore a part of or overhearing every conversation in the story.
But does this mean it’s chauvinist?

I don’t think so. It might surprise you that I, a woman, have a fairly positive view of women overall (except the assholes, of course. But there are always assholes). My character, even, would, if he took a minute to think about it. His chauvinism hurts him, in the course of the story. The way he looks at women, in the complex tentacles of the Orestian myth, ultimately causes his downfall.

Because this is a story of his corruption, loss, and decrepitude as a moral human being. He isn’t ‘likeable’ in a lot of ways, though he is in some. He isn’t a friendly face. He’s a haunted and disturbed man.

I’m bringing all this up because I was very surprised at my own reaction. This person–again, a friend, who I’m sure knows I’M no chauvinist–put a damning word in front of my story.

I think, in our politically correct era, we tend to do this too much. A story that calls attention to chauvinism isn’t necessarily chauvinist. A story that calls attention to disparities between races or classes isn’t necessarily racist or classist. Literature was once the tool satirists used to flay open our society, expose the ugly bones and beating heart for what they were, bits and gristle. Sexism or racism or classism–all those isms that we decry regularly on social media sites, and hopefully also in public–are ugly things, and they belong to ugly people.

But even the nicest characters–even your viewpoint characters–are often a little ugly inside. And there are racists in our world, boys and girls. There are sexists, classists, homophobes and nationalists. These are ugly things, but they are a part of the world we live in. And, sometimes, these people don’t even recognize what they are.
And, sometimes, these things have to be shown too.

When I stub my toe, or cut my finger, or break a glass, I don’t say ‘sugar’. I say ‘fuck’.

Somebody else might say sugar, but I don’t.

That’s just how it is.

If I were writing a story about myself–if I were my own character–I wouldn’t have me break a glass and then go ‘oh, sugar biscuits!’. This isn’t true to my character.

I’m not condoning any of the isms we’ve mentioned. I’m just saying: sometimes, they exist.

Sometimes, a story is about people who look down on women, or who are racist, or homophobic. You might not be proud of this–you might not like it–but it’s a part of your characters. You can trust your audience, hopefully, to recognize that this isn’t a positive part.

And if your story holds an ugly truth, you shouldn’t sugar-coat it. If the ‘ism’ is part of your story, make it a part of your story. I lose a lot of respect for a writer who can’t bring themselves to tell the truth. I know I’m not the only one who does.

Excerpt: TELEPHONE

Here’s the second chapter of this weird hedge apple story I’ve been writing. I’ll probably post a few more, since I got positive results to the last one, and possibly release it as a .99 novella somewhere for your cheap but enjoyable perusal. Keep in mind this is first draft stuff, because I am just THAT brave, and I’m worried it’s a little stately in pace.

Yes, Russell is kind of a dick, I hate that his first name has to be my last name, but it kind of has to be for this story to work, and that kills, kills, kills me, Also, forgot the quote in the last chapter that begins the whole thing:

“That which lives on reason lives against the spirit.”
–Paracelsus

II
PHONE

Russell Attridge, now twenty six, was sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen eating his dinner when the phone rang.

His girlfriend answered it. She was able to get to the phone before him even when he was only sitting a foot or so away. He had never wondered why, though the effort it took her to cross twenty-odd feet of living room and kitchen in the time it took him to look up from his lasagna must have been considerable. She was a curious little person, his Amy. Sunny and social. He attributed it to that–she liked to answer the phone. He didn’t.

“Attridge residence, Amy speaking,” she said brightly.

In the seconds of silence while Amy listened to the reply, Russell lost interest. He went back to the lasagna. It was three days old, warmed over, still cold in the center. It hadn’t been that good of a lasagna in the first place. He wasn’t a cook, and he would be the first to admit it. Eating was something you did to survive and so was cooking. He did one so he could do the other. That was it. End of story.

“No,” Amy was saying, drawing the vowel out: no-ooo. “I’m his girlfriend. Three months. He didn’t? Wow.”

Russell ate as much of the lasagna as he could. He dumped the rest into the garbage can. He cleaned his plate with his fork, metal scraping against bargain-bin ceramic. He washed the plate and dried it. He put it back in the cabinet, stared for a moment at the neat stacks of black plates therein. It was about time for a new set. He had touched some of the chips in them up with Sharpie, but who knew what it did to you to eat Sharpie? It was probably poisonous, cancerous maybe. He imagined ending up in the cancer ward at the hospital, an armory of machines belching out the frequency and rhythm of his vital signs, Amy holding his hand, her eyes reddened under their long pale lashes.

“Mhmm,” Amy said. “Okay. He’s eating right now.” She looked over at him, pointed to the phone. Russell shook his head.

“I can take a message,” Amy said.

He imagined the silence of the ward at night, the squeak of a nurse’s rubber-soled shoes on the tile outside. The machines beeping, a sort of medical tinnitus. Gentle background noise to cover the sound of the cancer growing, the cancer ravenous, the cancer as conqueror. He couldn’t imagine what death would be like, but he thought this might come close–a lonely room at night, plastic-covered mattress, blankets that never quite kept out the cold.

“Okay,” said Amy. “I’ll let him know. Have a good night.”

She hung up. When he turned to face her, she was looking at him with both hands on her hips.

“That was Howie,” she said. “From the Pissed Pig. They’re moving your show on Saturday up to eight–there’s some band they really wanted to book in the ten slot.”

“Which band?”

“Mala and the Maenads is what he said, I think.”

“Oh. Mala Engelhoff?”

“How would I know?”

“I think I went to school with her,” Russell said, but Amy was already on to something else, her eyes darting towards the package on the tabletop, her pink-manicured hands curled into grasping claws, lips parted in avaricious need.

“Ooh,” she breathed. “Russ. Is this for me?”

Sunny, Russ reminded himself, forcing his jaw to unclench. Social.

“It’s just my new handcuffs,” he said. “For the show. The kind they have now without the chain. Police issue.”

Her face fell.

“Oh,” she said.

There was a moment of silence that filled the kitchen, overpowering as Amy’s cheap vanilla body spray. Russell waited, knowing from past experience that trying to run or attempt conversation would only make what was coming worse.

On the other hand, if it built for too long it was going to be bad anyway. And Russell Attridge had a death wish. He knew it. His fans knew it. His shrink knew it. The local lifestyle magazine, for the rather stately sum of $800 per half page, published it.

Mystery! Magic! Terror! The Astounding Russell A!

“You could lock me up in them,” he offered, unable to stop himself.

“Russ.”

“Time me. C’mon. You used to love doing that.”

“Russ!”

“C’mon. Here. Here’s the fucking keys.” He ripped into the package, ignoring the rain of tissue and packing peanuts until he found the little envelope containing them. He ripped into it, held the little keys out, faced her. He made them disappear.

“C’mon. Isn’t this what you fucking want, anyway? C’mon.” He took out the cuffs and snapped them over his wrists. He held out his manacled hands. “You can keep the keys right where they’ve always been for me, in your fucking sn–”

She slapped him. The keys, jarred loose from their hiding place in between his fingers, clattered against the tile floor.

“You’re such a dick,” she spat. “I’m tired of it. You know what Howie said, Russ? He didn’t even know who I was. Three months–three months–of me going to your stupid show and sitting at the front table and buying drinks on your fucking tab, and he had no idea you had a girlfriend. This isn’t going anywhere I want to be. I’m going. Find somebody else to fuck with, you useless lying sack of shit. Find someone else to dry clean your suits and answer your fucking phone.”

Russell’s cheek burned. He felt a raw spot, a tiny scrape, where one of her nails had dug into him. She was so close he could smell her girly deodorant under the body spray, the hint of salad dressing on her breath.

“Goodbye, Russ,” she breathed. She bent, picked up the keys.

She dropped them in the garbage disposal.

“Go fuck yourself,” she added. The door slammed behind her. It slammed so hard a few pieces of popcorn ceiling dislodged themselves and landed in Russell’s hair.

He looked down at his own handcuffed hands.

“Fuck,” he said.

It took him thirty seconds to get the handcuffs off. Twenty seconds of that was spent finding a pen with a cap of the right size to pick the lock.

****

The first thing Russell did after freeing himself was gather up her toiletries. The shampoo and conditioner, the portable hairdryer, the argan oil for softer hair. The lotion and the brown sugar body scrub. The sunless tanner. The toothpaste–she had insisted on having her own tube of toothpaste. Crest 3D Extra Brite Whitening; she swore by it. Russell was uncertain how toothpaste was supposed to be 3D, but there you were. She was a spoiled, high-maintenance bitch, and spoiled high-maintenance bitches believed candy-colored words in big bold fonts on packaging.

He tied them all up in a grocery bag and threw them in the dumpster.

He made a special trip for the body spray, which he had never been able to stand. He tore off the spray-cap and poured it on the ground, a foul-smelling libation for the absent gods. He threw the bottle in the dumpster so hard the plastic cracked.

He wasn’t crying. He was a grown man. He was a magician, dammit. Magicians didn’t cry. Especially not in front of an apartment complex at nine in the evening. Not beside the dumpsters, leaning against someone’s shitty ’96 Civic. Not in boxers and a t-shirt, not in house slippers, and especially not when they were him.

He wasn’t crying.

He wasn’t.

Eventually, it became true.

As he climbed the apartment stairs, he thought about it. She was, what, the sixth in two years? Not even quite two. They always liked him at first, liked what he did, liked the mystery and romanticism of it, watched with bated breath and shining eyes as he escaped locked boxes, cut himself in half, impaled himself on pikes, walked through walls, emerged, unbroken and phoenixlike, from the ashes of his own construction. They thought his silence was a brooding silence, his aloofness that of a man keeping great secrets.

In fact, Russell Attridge was a little shy. He was a little slow. He was a bit of an ass. His silence was half sullen, half disinterest. His magic was smoke and mirrors and levers and wires. And, once they figured it out–once they figured out the tricks behind the boxes, the hydraulic lifts in the grass–they had figured him out. There really wasn’t all that much to figure.

Everybody, he thought sourly, wished magic was real. It would be great if it was, wouldn’t it? It would solve a lot of problems.

But it wasn’t. It was smoke and mirrors, levers and wires. It was hard work and training and careful angles. It was months, years, of preparing to wow an audience for a single second. It was beauty, performance, art, and skill. It was physics and chemistry.

There’s nothing here you don’t know, he told his girls, while they would still listen to him. You got it all in high school, except maybe the lockpicking, and that’s easy to learn. Any magic act in the world–any–if you can watch it slow enough, and you have a good enough brain, you can figure out how it’s done.

It was illusion. It was pitiful. It was a sad, sad substitute for something else. Something that he could almost feel–when he was deep underwater, when he was in the dark box, when he hung suspended, ten feet in the air, from a chandelier. When his faro shuffle went well and the cards slotted into one another perfectly, when the two halves of the deck slid together like well-oiled parts, when he could pull a chosen card out of the deck at will, when he almost couldn’t feel the break he was holding in it with his thumb.

There was some transcendence then, if the moment was right, if the lighting was right, if his head was in the right place. He could almost feel that the thing he was about to do–this amazing thing–was somehow not his after all, was foreign and separate. Was magical.

He could smell, then, a hint of loam and rot and dark earth. He could smell mystery. It was a tangible thing, mystery, with a weight that settled on his chest, that nestled against his neck. It had a little heart that beat bird-rhythms against him, that tattooed his need and want of it into his soul.
But then the moment ended. He forced the card selection, he picked the locks, he turned the mirror in the wall. The audience applauded. He took a bow.

Magic wasn’t real. He was an adult. He knew this.

But it wasn’t, perhaps, a lie.

One critic from the News and Observer had come to his show and written a good review of it. It was the only good review Russell has received that he treasured. He had a copy of it in the old warehouse building downtown that served him as a workshop: it hung in a baroque silver frame amongst the power tools and wood scrap and beer cans and bits of broken mirror that made up the only place he really felt at home.

Attridge, the reviewer had written, doesn’t amaze with the creativity of his illusions. The boy will probably never make it to Vegas, and you rather get the feeling he doesn’t care if he does or not. It’s basic stuff, stuff Copperfield did fifteen years ago. The classic illusions of magic, strutted out on a filthy stage for a crowd that seems more bar than performance art worthy.

What makes Attridge great–what earns him his Astounding sobriquet–is his intensity. When he steps onto the stage, thin and hollow-eyed and dressed in an obviously secondhand suit, conversation stops. Even the hardest eyes in the crowd follow him. You gets the feeling–the creepiest feeling–that, in spite of all expectations, you’re about to see real magic. You want to tape the show, watch it over and over.

The man’s been touched in some way the rest of us haven’t. He is different. He believes in himself, even when the rest of us don’t. His water escape, which should be a tired old horse for any magician, is pristine. Some of it is because, at the top of his tank, you see no inch or two of clear air. His curtain is sheer. Russell Attridge, magician and greatest believer in magic of our age, actually holds his breath while he picks the locks. It is, at best, half an illusion. At worst, it is magic made very, very dangerous.

It was the greatest compliment Russ could imagine receiving.

His alarm went off, the muffled beeping from the bedroom intruding unpleasantly into his consciousness. Was it ten already?

It was. The clock by his low plain bed showed it. He took a bottle of pills from the bedside table, uncapped them, shook two out into his powerfully muscled hand. He took them without water. They were small pills, and no trouble to swallow.

Russell lay down on the bed and slept, somewhat fitfully, for about ten minutes. He was awoken by the ringing of the phone.

It took him a few rings to remember Amy wasn’t around to answer it.

He jumped up and ran. He caught it on the last ring.

“Attridge,” he said.

“Rusty?”

The voice was staticky, as though the call were coming from very far away. Which, he supposed, it was–there was only one person who would call him Rusty.

“Ma?”

“Rusty, honey. You need to come home.”

“Why? I’ve got a show Saturday, Ma. If I cancel, I’m out a thousand bucks.”

The pause, sullen, let him know exactly what Ma thought of a thousand bucks, and his need of it to do such things as pay rent, pay utilities, pay for his car.

“Your pa’s finally died, Rusty,” she said at last. “Your papa’s dead. The funeral is Sunday. I don’t give two figs about it, but you might just. I just thought I’d let you know.”

“Oh,” Russell said.

He thought the old bastard had died years ago.

“In prison?”

“No, no. They let him out. He died a few days later.”

“What of?”

“How would I know?” Ma said irritably, reminding him, for just a moment, of Amy saying the same thing just a few hours before. “Lord knows I didn’t love the man, Rusty. But he was your pa. You should come home.”

Russell thought for a few moments. “What time’s the funeral?” he asked at last.

“Six, I think.”

It would be expensive, to book a flight this late, but the drive would be at least nine hours, ten if he didn’t put pedal to the metal. He could do it, maybe, and still keep the show. He’d certainly need the money, either way he chose to go.

“All right,” he said at last, picking up the abandoned pair of handcuffs from the kitchen table. He snapped them around one wrist idly as he talked, picked the lock just as idly. “Can I stay with you and Al, then?”

“Of course, honey. We’d love to have you.” With a hint of motherly pique, she added: “it’ll be the first time in three years.”

“I came down for Christmas!”

“You didn’t even stay the night. Old Al would love to see you, boy. As would I.” For a moment there was a hint of her old affection in her voice, her old warmth for her only son. “Hear you’ve been doing some sort of acting show down there. It’s gotten some good reviews on the news.”

“Mhmm,” said Russell, who wasn’t particularly eager to talk about cutting himself in half for a living in front of his mother. She hadn’t even approved of the card tricks he had started doing when he was in middle school, the sleights of hand that made him popular in the lunchroom as a teenager. Seeing his show would probably devastate her. Even hearing of it, he suspected, would be worth a heart murmur.

“I’ll tell you all about it when I come down,” he lied.

“See you soon, honey.”

“See you.”

“Rusty!” This last as his hand waivered over the receiver, before he ended the connection entirely. “Rusty, boy. I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault, Ma,” Russ said, frowning. He hung up.

She must know he felt the same way about Pa as she did. He hadn’t spoken to the man in years, hadn’t heard from him, hadn’t tried to track him down. He knew when he was in and out of prison because Ma called and told him. That was it. Why would this news make him particularly sad? All pa had ever done for him was to occasionally drop by and steal the silverware.

But he was sad, as he went to sleep. That was the strangest thing. Lying alone in his bed, feeling intensely the empty space behind him where Amy usually rested, fresh-bathed and oiled and lotioned and conditioned, he was sad.

Perhaps, he thought as he drifted off, a missing father took up space too. He wondered sometimes if that wasn’t the story of his life–one big absence, a Russell-shaped hole in existence.

It didn’t matter.

He fell asleep with these words on his lips, and dreamed of forest.