I can still hear her laugh, like the tinkling of crystal bells. Her song still dances through my mind untainted, and her voice is as clear and pure as it was on the day I lost her. Every child I see on the street is her; every giggle makes me turn my head, ready to call out her name. The little boy next door’s smile stirs buried demons within me; it awakens monsters that tear through the crust that has over time come to encase my heart, and with searing claws they rake at my already battered spirit. They moan of dead beasts, long trapped away in the recesses of my mind, and cry out in a bitter agony.
I would sit in my room and stare out the window, watching as children scurried across the pavement. Their happiness churned up discarded memories, and unable to handle the asperity that the sight of them brought upon me, I’d draw the curtains and crank up the volume on the television. I ran. I always ran.
But not anymore.
I sit on the porch and watch as they play. I allow the demons to devour me, and I don’t struggle when a pearly vision bleeds into my mind. A lone swing creaks in the sweet-smelling wind. Little blue shoes with the buckles undone rest in the dirt by the tree. A distant call, a mother’s song, brushes the warm air. Then I hear a string of laughter, her laughter. I smile and push aside the branches of a bush. She’s there, where I knew she’d be, her hair snagged with crumbling, brown leaves. “Found you!” I say.
She sticks out her tongue, stained green by the popsicle she just ate, and leaps from the brambles. “You’ll never catch me alive!”
A laugh escapes from between my teeth as I watch her bolt for the house, and I see my mother standing in the back doorway, her hands planted on her hips. She yells at me for playing in the dirt, and scorns my unkempt hair. “Get in for dinner!” she says.
I pick up the blue shoes left behind in the shade and dump out the wood chips. I hear her voice again, coming from the house. She reminds me that I still haven’t caught her, and that she won’t let me rest until I do. A smile peaks on my lips as I start after her. In this moment, everything is perfect.
Nothing ever stays perfect.
The fingers of my memory creep across the scene, and now I’m in a church. She sits beside me in the pew, her black-stockinged legs kicking at the kneeler in front of us. Her gray, cotton dress is ruffled up to her hip, and her braid has fallen apart in ribbons of frizzy hair. She looks at me with solemn eyes, and asks, “Why’re they putting Mommy in that box?”
Tears tug at the corners of my eyes, and a lump nestles in my throat. I want to stay strong for her; I want to show her that I’m brave, but I feel limp. I look away, my eyes losing their focus as I stare ahead at the droning priest at the altar. I tell her the same thing I told her ten times before. “Mommy’s dead.”
The air is stale and thick with incense, and the smoke from the candles burns my eyes. I don’t look at her reaction. I don’t offer her a comforting arm. I’m a cold statue, stony in body and mind.
“She’s not dead,” she says to me, grabbing my sleeve. “She wants to get out, she doesn’t like it in there. It’s too dark.”
My eyes well up with tears, but my cheeks remain dry. “No,” I say. “She’s dead.”
Her voice turns sour. “No! Can’t you hear her? She wants to get out!”
I pull my arm away and grab her wrist. “She’s dead, and she’s not coming back!”
My voice rings through the church, and the pensive faces of chromatic saints look down on me with judging, glass eyes. The mourners pause in their sniffling to look at me in pity, and I know what they’re thinking. Those poor children, scarred forever. Forced to live with a mother who didn’t care, a mother who didn’t bat an eyelash before she tightened the rope.
Now she’s crying, and I can’t bare to look at her anymore. I leave her in the pew, and whisk up the middle of the aisle. Her cry reverberates in my ears, but I don’t look back. I run.
They said we’d be happy with the old couple across the country. They said we were distantly related, and that they were eager to have us. And that might’ve been so, we might’ve truly been happy there…but we never got the chance to find out.
I wake up to her screams from the bed beside mine. She flails under the thin sheets, writhing back and forth frantically. I switch on the lamp by my bed and rush to her side, peeling away the sheets tangled in her legs. She looks up at me with red eyes and a nose slick with tears.I grab her shaking arms gently, and say, “Shh, shh…it’s all right. The nightmare’s over.”
She shakes her head, and her forehead creases. “It’s not.” Her voice is clear and mature, and I’m taken aback by her forwardness. “I am so sorry,” she whispers. “It’s not your fault. I know you think it is, but it’s not. I love you.”
I don’t know what to say, and I pull away from her. I realize now that my fingers are trembling, and I tuck them under my arms. “What are you saying?” I ask.
She remains lying, but props her head up on the pillow. “I’m sorry,” she says again, and her voice quavers. “You two don’t deserve this. But I’m scared. It’s so cold.”
I’m terrified now, and I jump to my feet. The aged floorboards of the house groan as I step back on them. “I don’t understand,” I say. “What-”
“Good night.” Then she rolls over, facing her back to me, and pulls the sheets up and over her head.
My last memory of her is her laugh.
She trails after me on the way to school, stepping on the curb one foot at a time like a gymnast on a balance beam. She doesn’t seem to remember the night before, and she jabbers on about her crabby teacher like nothing had ever happened.
I begin to cross the bridge that hangs over the river, but I stop when I see that she’s not following. “Hurry up,” I say.
Her face goes ashen, paler than the moon. She whispers to herself. “No, don’t make me.”
“We’re going to be late,” I say. “I don’t have time for this.”
Her expression switches, and her feet jerk towards the bridge. “Yes, free me! I can’t stand it any longer!” She starts to run towards me, but halts a few feet before me. “No, I don’t wanna! I’m scared!”
Annoyed, I grab her wrist. “Let’s go. School is just around the corner.”
But she jerks away from me, and grabs the bridge railing. “I tried!” she cries, her eyes brimming with tears. “I tried, but I just can’t! I’m hurting!”
“Where are you hurting?” I ask, but she shies away from my hand.
Her eyes go wide like disks, and her eyebrows arch up. “I know,” she breathes. “That does hurt…”
I’m scared now, and I look around wildly, trying to see if she’s talking to anyone. But we’re alone on a rickety bridge, with nothing but the surging creek below us and the golden leaved trees framing the sky.
I look back at her, and my heart leaps into my mouth. She’s under the railing, and hanging off the bridge. I see her blue shoes slip on the ridge, and I lunge forward to grab her. “No!”
She looks at me with shining eyes, and the tears are gone. “Don’t you see? She’s hurting. It’s dark and cold there, and she wants to be free.”
“Who?” My voice is shrill, and I grab at her arm. “Who is she?”
She flutters her eyelids, and laughs blithely. “Mommy.”
Then she jumps.
And my grip slips.
And she’s gone.
I open my eyes, and the little boy from next door is standing on my porch. He grins at me, his freckles stretching across his cheeks, and says, “I’ve never seen you before!”
His eyes are an eggshell blue, just like hers. A stabbing ache roots itself in my stomach, but I ignore it. I’m not sure what to say.
“My mom says you’re a grouchy, old i…intro…introvert!” He struggles over the last word, but seems very pleased with himself when he gets it out.
I can feel the demons shrinking away, and my heart lightens. For so long I have shut away my memories; for so long I have ignored the guilt suspended in my mind. I would drown out her ghostly laugh with pointless tasks, and I wasted away my life without giving each passing day a second thought. And now…I am free. I remember, and my memories are raw and cruel, and they gnaw at my spirit like a voracious beast…but at least I have come to terms with them. At least now I can breathe.
I am seventy-five years old. I have seen hell. And I have survived.
I smile at the boy, and the more I look at him the more his elated grin reminds me of hers.
And it makes me happy.
I excavated this story from the disorderly abyss that is my documents folder. It was a for-fun-thing I did last year, and boy, was it unedited… I was almost afraid to touch it for fear of it shattering beneath my cursor, but I think it came out ok in the end.
While an intricate plot dripping with voice is essential to the integrity of your writing, a story just isn’t complete without well rounded characters.
No matter what genre you write, animated characters that readers can identify with are what drive the plot and keep audiences interested. But how does one go about breathing life into characterizations written on a page? While every writer has their own style and way of tackling depictions, there are a few crucial elements of character building that must be taken into account.
1. Give your a character a realistic and enticing background, but don’t drown them in it.
Everyone loves a good backstory, but sometimes its execution is tough to pull off. Backstories make characters more interesting; they give them a certain allure that can’t be achieved through laundry-list trait descriptions. In many ways, backstories make your characters more human (if your character isn’t a human, then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish). Don’t be afraid to get to the nitty gritty of what makes your character unique. Did something happen in their past that forced them to go in one direction over another? How is their story different from a more minor character’s?
While backstory is fun to write, beware of suffocating your reader in lengthy narratives about your character’s “ravaged past” and “tortured, orphaned soul”. There is such thing as too much backstory, or at least to the point where it takes up more of your writing than the actual plot.
2. Make a lasting impression.
You want to introduce your character with a bang. No one wants to read about Plain Paul who just happens to bump into the girl of his dreams while walking to work. Been there, read that. Not a dynamic first impression. And in this craft, first impressions are everything, because it’s what makes readers want more. Give them someone to care about, or not to care about. As long as they feel something about your character from the get-go.
3. Allow the reader to form and change their own opinions.
Once you’ve gotten the reader hooked with a dimensional character, throw them a curveball. As you develop your character, your reader must be able to develop their opinions. Maybe they start liking your character more. Maybe they grow a deep hatred for every word that passes your character’s lips. Change, no matter how beneficial or detrimental, is essential for well-rounded characters. Don’t fall into the flat trap, where everything your character does is premeditated and expected. Predictable characters are no fun to read or write about. Also, don’t be afraid to make your reader’s blood really boil by something your character does. As the genius of gut-wrenching character development, John Green, says,
I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.
4. Paint them with flaws.
Complex character traits are key to making your writing pop off the page, and that includes writing your characters with imperfections. Simply put, perfect characters are boring. Who wants to read about the perfect love interest, with his perfectly chiseled jaw and perfect gentlemanly etiquette and perfect intellect? Maybe your character has a physical defect, or maybe he or she is especially jealous or competitive. Maybe their flaws are what make them all the more appealing.
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
-Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
5. Give them a motivation.
A character without motivation is a waste of space in a story. It would make no sense for Frodo to take the ring to Mordor if he hadn’t been bent on protecting the Shire, his friends, and all of Middle Earth. It would be pointless for Harry to seek Voldemort’s end if his parents had never been killed and he didn’t care about the well-being of his friends. This applies to protagonists and antagonists alike. If you give your character something to care about, you’ll give your reader something to care about.
Writing believable characters is one of the scariest and most rewarding parts of writing. There is nothing more satisfying than creating a well fleshed-out character, and in the end, it’s what will make your story stand out from the rest.
I hear the laughs, the cruel, barking laughs, Like a gull hears an oncoming storm.
I hear the whispers, the croaking, wet whispers,
Before their owners even take form.
The sneers reach my ears and my eyes start to tear,
As the shadows elongate on the floor.
They trudge as they judge with an unjustified grudge,
I tense up; preparing for what’s in store.
What did I do to provoke them this way? Was it something I did? What did I say?
Their dedicated contempt is a wrench in the side,
A brutal reminder that I am despised.
I know I don’t deserve this leering and spite,
So why does it keep me awake at night?
Sticks and stones may sting, they say words are just small,
But it is those words that are the most degrading of all.
This is something I wrote about a year back. Pretty much everyone has gone through one form of bullying or another at some point in their life, whether they be young or old. This is a tribute to those who struggle against verbal or any other kind of abuse. Stay strong, because it does get better.
Do you ever have those days where every word that passes your pen (or keys) is the most unpoetic, gelatinous heap of cliche’d garbage to curse a page? Well, if you used that description, you’re probably just hard on yourself. Ok, really hard on yourself. And believe it or not, this is an affliction that plagues even the most established of writers. People say that writers are conceited creatures, but we sure like to hate on our own craft.
I’ve known people who wouldn’t write another page until they had read over their previous one twenty times and had a beta reader edit it with a fat red marker. I’ve fallen into this trap many a times as well. I’d write one sentence, delete it, write another sentence, delete it, and so on until I had spent fifteen minutes staring at a blank page and cursing to the heavens about my ineptitude. The worst was when I was so stricken with inspiration, and knew exactly what I wanted to write about- but I would lie there like a dead fish, unable to recall how to function.
But, as author C.J. Cherryh says,
It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.
The key thing to remember when you write is to not look back. At least, not until you’re finished.
You may feel like every sentence is a struggle, that every word is choppy and unoriginal, that your very literary voice is flaking before your eyes. But no matter how cynical the storm seems, you must power on. Forget about the typos, the shaky dialogue and hokey metaphors. Don’t trouble your mind with stunted punctuation or minor plot holes. Just write.
Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.
– William Faulkner
When you’ve finished writing, take a step back. Walk away from the screen and busy yourself elsewhere. Take as long as you need. An hour. A day. A week. That way you can look upon your work with revitalized eyes, and a head clear of the biases that take root during the heat of writing. Then it’s finally time for the magic of editing.
Hey, no one ever said that writing was easy. From loathing the mocking glare of the blank page to blaming writer’s block on debilitating hand cramps, we suffer through a lot. But when all’s said and polished, the feeling you get from beholding your finished masterpiece is arguably the most irreplaceable in the world.
I gazed upon the machine cautiously through the stilted light, my eyes catching the glint of copper off its face. It smelled of oil and metal, and had eyes deader than a corpse’s.
“It’s…” I tripped over my words, and chewed at my lip. “What is it?”
My father’s eyes were alight with glee, and his upper lip curled into a smile. “An automaton, of course! But not like the ones you see in the shops, my dear, no… Those machines can hardly count their twos and threes. This, this creation here is capable of intelligent thought!”
I looked into its cold eyes again. “Really?”
Father pinched the end of his mustache with two fingers and twirled it. “A little enthusiasm would be welcomed,” he said. “I’ve been slaving over him for months!”
“Why, yes! I call him Cephas. Marvelous, isn’t it?”
Marvelous wasn’t quite the word that came to mind. The machine was tall in stature, with exposed gears at the neck and joints, and a ridiculous top hat perched upon its head that I assumed was my father’s attempt to make it look more human. Human. I would sooner compare it with a toaster.
But my father had always wanted a son, and he was an excellent clockmaker by trade. Perhaps this would offer him some solace in the fact that he got glued to a daughter who had no interest in befriending androids.
“Well! Let’s ignite him, shall we?” His eyes crinkled at the corners in elation, and he reached to flip a latch across its chest. It opened to reveal a small compartment with an assortment of buttons and knobs. “Would you like to do the honors, my sweet?”
I drew my lips into a thin line. “No, no, you do it.”
He pressed a red button, and at first nothing happened. Then a faint humming came from the inner mechanisms of its chest, and all at once the metal shuddered. A puff of dust escaped from the thing’s mouth, and a bluish glow bloomed in its empty eyes. I jumped back as its neck snapped to attention, and its head swiveled in its socket to behold my father and me.
My father clapped his hands. “Ah, do you see this, Parthena? It’s extraordinary!”
I took another step back, all the while keeping my eyes on the machine. “Yes, very extraordinary…”
Its icy sockets switched to me, and I felt my insides congeal. It was looking right into me, as if observing the deepest reaches of my consciousness. That’s…not possible… It’s a machine, it can’t be sentient…
“Greetings, Cephas!” my father exclaimed, grabbing hold of its mechanical arm so forcefully that he nearly knocked the thing over. “I’m your maker!” His voice was on the verge of delirium, and his eyes wild with an enthrallment that frightened me. The automaton’s head cranked towards my father, and that only caused him to squeal in excitement. “Oh, do say something!” he said. Then to me: “He can speak, you know. Can do anything! I won’t need your help around the shop so long as I have him. Cephas, you card, don’t be shy! We’re your friends here.”
I felt a bit of bile slopping up my throat, but I swallowed it and began to turn towards the stairs. “I’ll just be going, now…”
“Don’t be such a wet blanket, Parthena. Look, I think he’s about to speak…”
I looked back, just in time to see the machine’s jaw unhinge, and a few lifeless words tumble from its copper lips: “I want.”
My father blinked rapidly, and he clutched the side of the automaton. “What? What does that mean? What do you want, my son?”
With that, I could no longer stand to be in the room. I gathered up my dragging skirts and hurried up the stairs.
Days went by, and my father only grew more attached to Cephas. He no longer worked on his clocks, but spent hour after hour fawning over the mechanical creature, and boasting to anyone who would listen about its infinite database and unparalleled abilities. I avoided the thing as often as possible, but its eyes followed me everywhere, and it always seemed to be around every corner. It was in the workshop constructing perfect clocks with perfect pendulums and perfect glass casings; it was out in the shop charming customers with its perfect articulation and perfect wit and perfect salesmanship. It was perfect in every way.
But I hated the thing. Oh, my blood curdled and my fingers clenched whenever I saw it amble up the street, carrying the basket of groceries that Father had bid it to fetch. That used to be my job. I used to be the gopher. Now all I did was sit around, listening to the oohs and ahhs of entranced window shoppers as they admired its metallic sheen and sparkling personality. For God’s sake, it didn’t even have a personality. It was a toaster with a voice box. That was it.
And then Father began to speak of constructing more of them, ones that he could sell or rent off to make a bit of extra cash. He even jested about building enough to form a mechanical theatre troupe. When I told him he was being silly, he said, “Oh, but Cephas has an exquisite singing voice, Parthena. He lullabies me to sleep every night! I can bid him to do the same for you, if you’d like…” I scoffed the notion away, but his words did make me think. If he were able to organize an entertaining ensemble of automatons, then it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to assemble an army.
My father was a brilliant man with foolish notions. And I think that more than anything, that was what drove me away.
I left because I earned a scholarship that would be idiotic to pass on at a school in the country. At least, that’s what I told everyone. I really just wanted to get away, to go to a place where machines didn’t breathe down your neck and ribbons of smoke didn’t lace the sky. My father hardly noticed when I left. He was too busy in his workshop building another friend for Cephas. I didn’t care. Not anymore.
The country was a refreshing change of scene, and I was finally able to get the stench of oil and smoke out of my clothes. For years I studied, and over time my father and his mechanical doll faded into the back of my mind. He never wrote, asking after me and my studies. He never cared.
After two years, I decided to be the better person and travel home over holiday to visit him. A small part of me was glad to be returning home, and to see him again, but a more dominant portion of my brain was afraid at what I would find when I got there.
I boarded off the train at eleven o’ clock, the time when my father would be sending Cephas to prepare his lunch. My boots stabbed the cobblestone road as I headed up the street to his clockwork shop, and my mind reeled in anticipation. Would he have an army of automatons, as I feared? Or perhaps that theatre troupe he wanted so badly worked out, and he was on tour with a circus three countries over.
I rounded the corner, and stopped dead in my tracks. The windows to the shop were boarded up, and the scrawling script that once read “Orville’s Clockwork Emporium” was faded and missing letters. At first I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything…but stare and fret that my greatest fears were realized. He was dead. He was dead or lying in a ditch somewhere, dying.
No! I didn’t know that! My heart leapt into my mouth in a sudden strike of adrenaline, and I rushed over to a man who was sweeping his front porch. “Sir!” My voice was leadened with dread. “Excuse me, but do you know what happened to that clock shop?”
He looked at me with tired eyes, and said, “What clock shop?”
Surely, he can’t be genuine… “The clock shop across the road. Right there. With the boarded windows. I’m pointing to it?”That last sentence ended in a sort of question, because the man’s eyes offered no reassurance or familiarity.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “I’ve been here for seventeen years, and not once has there been a clock shop across the road.”
“No,” I breathed. “You’re lying. That’s not possible. My father worked there! He had an automaton!” I was practically shouting now, my voice harried and distant. “You must remember!”
The man gave me a leery glare, and shrunk back onto his doorstep. “I’ve already said, there is no such place!”
“No!” I spun away from him, and hurried back to my father’s abandoned shop to see if I could find an opening to peek through the windows. No such luck. The door was barred as well, and I was beginning to give in to defeat when I remembered- there was a back way. I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and ran off down the alleyway, coming around to the back of the shop, where the overflowing rubbish pails filled with rusted cogs and springs gathered in stinking heaps. I flew to the back door, and was about to toy with the knob when I heard a cranking, followed by, “I want…”
My head whisked around, and there, lying against the fence, was Cephas. He was rusted beyond repair, and one of his arms lay in pieces a meter away from him. His cog springs coiled out at random, and the gears around his jaw made an incessant ticking noise as they jammed together. But still, his eyes burned with a blue fire, and he looked up at me. “I want…”
“Where’s my father?” I demanded.
“He…he…he-he-he-he-heheheheheheeeee…” Cephas’ head began to jerk, and the light in his eyes blinked rapidly as he malfunctioned. I gave him a good kick in the side, and he snapped out of it.
“My father? What did you do to him?”
“My maker…” His voice was deeper than usual, and slurred like a drunkard’s. “…wanted to re-re-replace me…”
“What are you talking about?”
“He di-didn’t need me anymore. He didn’t want Ce-ce-cephas.”
“What did you do?”
“He wanted to re-replace m-me. Cephas wouldn’t let th-that happen.”
My heart sunk in understanding. “You did away with him.”
“Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. N-ne-never go in. Cephas m-made sure no one ever g-goes in.”
“What beast? What do you mean?”
Cephas cocked his head, and a whistle squealed in his joints. “Cephas was t-too la-la-late.The automaton-ton-ton that Maker made is dange-danger-dange-”
“Dangerous?” The world around me went still, and it was only the machine. My father was gone…and it was this monster’s fault. But if it had stopped my father from bringing something even worse and more unnatural into the world…then I didn’t know what to think.
“Do not go in. No one go in. No one gooooo…” His voice become heavy and sloppy, and I knelt down beside him on the litter strewn ground.
“I want…” he garbled.
“I never liked you,” I said. “You replaced me.”
Then I flipped the latch on its chest, pressed the black button, and watched as its eyes died.
I’m a huge steampunk fan, and couldn’t help myself with this one! I wrote it all in one go, too, so there’s bound to be a few typos here and there.