Another fantasy short story. This one's been done for a few months but I was sitting on it in case the urge came upon me to submit it to magazines. It did not.
It's called "It Had to be Swamps."
The Gawker scandal going around (I won't link it here; it's vile) inspired me to start a new story. It's not finished yet, but I'm really pleased with the opening paragraph, so sharing it here.
In the endless war for clicks, there are three factions. There’s the corporate-owned propaganda machines, of course, who don’t have to try to push the shit they’re selling—every device that’s ever been anywhere near a corporation has a backdoor installed. You can avoid corporate news if you don't mind being a weird recluse. Then there’s the endlessly anodyne content mills with more algorithms than real people on staff. And finally, there’s the real journalists. You know the sort: cutthroat, nothing is sacred, burn-your-life-to-the-ground types. The last true independents. If you so much as smile at a corporate employee, you’re a valid target. You don’t want to cross them, but if you need to learn someone's secrets, that’s where you turn. They stockpile secrets like weapons.
So there's this kid I know whose name in my cell phone is just "that fucking guy." I've known him for years, always stop in to see him whenever I'm passing through Chicago, and I don't actually remember what his real name is. I guess "kid" isn't a very accurate word anymore, either, but since I don't know his name that's what I call him to his face. We've both put a few miles on our shoes since we first met, young, dumb, and restless.
I've started doing this thing where, every time I see him, I imagine we're living in a story I'm writing. It's different every time. Sometimes he gets to be the author insert character, and sometimes I play that role myself. I don't know if he knows--probably not. That's why I have him in my phone as "that fucking guy," really. Together, him unknowing and me unwilling, we act out my fictions. I've tried not to, really. But I just slip into some new character, and then it's not me making the decisions anymore, but whatever skin I've slipped into.
So, the last time I saw him, this winter, I realized he doesn't know my name, either. It's been years. And now I wonder if it's the same with him, if every time we meet it's not just this elaborate dance of pretending to be someone else, each of so deep in the lie we don't dare to stop and question this false reality we've created.
A few years back we had a rat problem. Someone had left a bag of rice at ground level and one of them found it, so for the next several months they prowled the house for any available foodstuffs. My housemates and I were never very clean at the best of times, so even if we took efforts to lock our food away, they could always find crumbs.
It's not like I learned that cyberpunk is a thing recently, or anything, but I'd never really written it before (except for a few stories on here that probably count, though I never really thought of them that way). I don't know why. It's pretty much made for me: an entire genre dedicated to ennui, social isolation, mistrust of technology and surveillance, and depersonalization. If that doesn't handily sum up my obsessions, I'm not sure what does.
The point is I wrote another story. This one is called Cadence.
It snowed last night while we were out. It was still snowing when I trudged back home, alone and more sober than I would have liked, and it kept snowing until the morning, when my sister dragged me out of bed at nine o'clock and took me to the little diner half a mile from the house.
Nobody was out, so the city still looked clean and new--a rare gift on New Year's Day. We were the only customers in the diner and the waitress told me we were the first ones she'd had all day, which was probably for the best. "I didn't even drink that much," I said, mostly for the benefit of my sister. "Why do I feel so gross?"
"Probably because you haven't showered all year."
"And because you woke me up at nine on New Year's Day. Why are we here?"
She didn't answer. Instead she stirred her coffee and asked, "Do you remember when we came here with a vegetarian who didn't know linguica was a sausage dish?"
"I'm not sure I follow."
"All right. You remember that guy who was always talking about the distinction between literature and stories that aren't proper literature, or whatever?"
"It doesn't have to mean anything to be beautiful. I see you, okay? Now it's your turn. Look. See." She pointed out the window with her spoon, dripping coffee on my napkin. "I wanted you to see something beautiful before we fuck it all up again."
"It still sounds like you're trying to impart meaning."
"That's what humans are for, dear sister," she said. "We see a series of coincidences happen on an arbitrary date and we say 'oh, that must mean something.' Meaning is a fiction we create. You're the writer. You should know that."
It's never that simple, of course, but she was probably right. More or less.
You can tell it's going to be good day when the first thing your coworker says when you show up in the morning is "You look like shit, El. Party too hard last night?"
He thinks he's everyone's friend, but despite that he's not such a bad person. "Haven't been sleeping well," I tell him. "Can you hold the fort while I go get some coffee?"
"It'll be rough, but I think I'll manage." Sadly, he also thinks he's funny. Sometimes I humor him and smile at his jokes, but not today.
The coffee helps me feel more human, but these days it also gives me an eye twitch. Fortunately it's the week after Christmas and business is about as slow as it gets, so I can't scare anyone off.
My coworker tries to make conversation. "Any big plans for the new year?"
"If this past week is any indication, curling up in the dark and trying not to think at all. You?"
"You getting existential again, El? It doesn't suit you."
"I can't help it."
"Gives you a twitch. Nobody should have an existential twitch."
"I thought it was charming."
He grunts. "You shouldn't care so much, El. It's bad for you."
The rest of the day I think about that. Do I care too much? I didn't think I cared at all--but here's me obsessing over it, so clearly I do. Can you even turn that off? Can you not care when you care about not caring?
It's been a while. Here is something. Might be the start of a new thing.
We walked home together after one of those Christmas gatherings for the lost and lonely, where people who can't or won't go home to their families meet up and drink champagne and celebrate in their own odd way. The streets were desolate in a way only city streets can be, and he, at least, was still in good spirits. I'd had a headache most of the night and the only thing I wanted was to take some aspirin and curl up in bed.
A secret: I've always mistrusted extroverts. In all that bustle I never felt like they really notice me--what I do, what I say, sure, but not my actual self. But, extrovert though he was, he noticed. He stopped in the middle of a story, halfway across the bridge, and looked me in the eye and said, "You okay, Ellie? You look tired."
I'd dreamed of this moment all night. I wanted to just tell someone I had a headache. I wanted to tell someone that the existential bullshit of the winter was finally catching up to me, that, in fact, holidays were depressing, and celebrating them just made me feel even worse.
Instead I said "It's been a long week," and I tried to affect a world-weary tone when I did. Then I smiled and said "I'll survive. I always do."
Sometimes I worry the reason nobody ever sees me is because I've gotten so good at hiding.
First, the announcement: my new magazine (which is now called Strange Constellations is officially open for submissions as of today, until August 31. I'm paying $30 for stories I accept. If you're a writer you should send me something.
So, since I announced I was starting a magazine I've had several people offer me advice and encouragement. When I started all I knew is I wanted to edit a magazine, and I wanted it to be Creative Commons. Those two things haven't changed, but a lot of other things have. I've changed the name, because while I still love Asterism Press as the name for a small press, it's not really a magazine name. So now it's Strange Constellations. I decided to start paying for stories, and I'm listing it on actual markets instead of just hoping that people stumble across it through dumb luck.
I think the biggest change is the format. It was originally going to be twice a year, with six stories every six months. I've switched to a monthly format, with one story per month. I'll start publishing in September and I intend to keep going until people stop sending me stories.
I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully you'll enjoy, as well.
I'd like to apologize for the radio silence. I've been directing my creative energies into some short stories, most of which I've linked to, but I've also been working on a new project. It's called Asterism Press, and it's a short fiction press for science fiction and fantasy, and it will feature a semiannual magazine collecting stories from all sorts of writers. I'd love it if you took the time to check it out and share it with your friends. I'd love it even more if you'd submit a story. This is a project I'm starting, but what I want is to make something bigger than just me. I think that's what I've always wanted.
I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do with this place. Do you know it's been eight years this month since I started posting these weird little morose vignettes? I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it then, either. What I do know is over the past eight years I've had lots of readers pass in and out of my life. I probably haven't ever properly thanked any of you for it, so here it is: thank you. It means more than I can adequately express to have had people reading these things at all. And to those of you who found this place through some odd twist of fate and who talked to me and became friends, even though we've since drifted apart: I think for every last one of you there's a story on here that I wrote just for you. Thank you especially for allowing our lives to brush against one another, however briefly.
I'll keep posting links to things that I'm doing elsewhere, and if the mood strikes me I'll put up more stories, but apart from this update, the radio silence may continue for a while longer. So for now, thank you again. And please consider checking out Asterism Press. With your help I'd like to fill it with stories I could never have told.
One year, spring never came. That is to say, the actual, physical season still came. The rains cleared up and the weather warmed and the sun shone as bright and cheerful as ever, but the flowers never bloomed and the grass stayed withered and the trees remained just as barren as they ever were. Everyone had an opinion on it, of course. Lay people said of course it was pollution and GMOs and global warming and the bees disappearing. Some people thought it was a sign from a vengeful god. The scientists on TV said they didn't know, and talked at great length about how they didn't know and what they didn't know.
For a while I didn't have any dreams. At night I slept peacefully and I woke up rested, with none of the detritus of half-forgotten dreams to cloud my mind. Of course you don't really notice that sort of thing while it's happening. Instead you just notice that you're happier and more productive, and why would you ever think to question something like that?
People used to tell me I had a lot of passion. I remember when I was still in school I had a professor praise the fire in my essays, the conviction with which I defended everything I held dear in this world--which, since I was young and stupid then (or anyway younger and stupider), I'm of course a little embarrassed about now. But around that time there was a girl who loved my convictions, too. She worshiped the ground I walked on, and sometimes I think everyone needs a little bit of that.
So, I said I'd probably link to the stories I was writing on here. I've written several, all set in the same fantasy world. I've been building this world in my mind for years, now. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. For ease of reference, here's a list: