Shooting the Ending

We had all of five minutes to grieve when we heard. Just about the time it took between the knock at the door and the first journalists to start Googling her name and making their way over, just behind the cops.

The first of them, a young guy from a local affiliate to one of the big networks, he got our name wrong. He got her name wrong. He ran up asking about Rachel Jennings, which for a moment made everything almost better. Maybe there had been a mistake? It’d be easy to make in the chaos after the shooting. Maybe Jenna was ok, hurt perhaps, not able to call or let us know where she was, but more ok than dead. The tetchy looking cop who was still lingering in our doorway killed that hope quickly enough though, half shoving and half punching the young hack away from our door. The right thing to do, even if he shouldn’t have done it. I almost went to stop him, ask him why the hell he was trying to keep good news away from us but I figured things out soon enough. My wife was already ahead of me, crying and retreating into the house. I had to start again, too confused to be angry at the journalist, too confused to cry myself, for a moment at least.

The tide after that was relentless. Cameras, broadcast vans, polished and shined TV faces making the whole damn street look like prime time. I’m told they had policies about not bothering families who’ve lost someone when shit like that happens and maybe they weren’t trying to. It’s a small town though, it was harder to miss the grief than it was to find it and most every family on our block had lost someone, or knew someone who had.

We locked down for those few days where people cared. I saw neighbours talking on camera, only from a distance though. I plucked at the blinds, staring at the circling journalists and occasional police car – just about the only escape I had from the wailing and crying we had in the house. It was good, in a way. I could watch the story unfold, muted, but there – moving and fading as people spoke or clammed up. My wife wouldn’t have the TV on, not with our other daughter, Haley, in the house. Stupid, I thought. If we could watch it then we could get some distance, y’know? She thought I was just in shock though, when she could talk to me anyway. I was a burden she told me later, gawping at TV vans and getting my face half caught in the edge of framed shots. Now maybe I think she was right. At the time though? Fuck that. She wanted to sit and cry and stare at nothing. At least watching it we could have seen something happening, seen some kind of memorial for Jenna being played out by someone who wasn’t us, someone who wasn’t trapped inside that damn house.

By the time the press left and the police stopped hanging around I was going stir crazy. It’s odd but I didn’t grieve then. Not really. Haley and my wife were crying and screaming and talking, healthy I guess, processing it all. I just felt locked in though, trapped with a fact and, to be honest, with people I wanted to be away from. Jenna was dead for fucks sake, shot in the chest and dead. All the mourning in the world wasn’t going to change that, not in our suddenly tiny, claustrophobic cell of a house. At least out there people were offering an ending, a story they were telling with an end that came when someone said ‘cut’. Shock, again, I was told. Bullshit really, it was meant as an insult because I wasn’t weeping and sobbing like I should. And it wasn’t like Jenna was going to see me weeping and sobbing was it? That was the whole point, she was dead, she was gone and she was dead. There was no crying for her, there was just crying for us.

I got a hold of the news footage later on, it was all over YouTube. Crying kids just after the shooting had stopped, traumatised parents, talking heads guessing at how and why it had all happened. Hours I spent watching that stuff, all of it, every channel, every reporter, every jackass with an opinion. She said I hadn’t gotten over it, hell, she said I’d never accepted it in the first place. I got my resolution though, just not like she wanted, I got something far bigger than she did. I got the story, I got a beginning, a middle and, when the story stopped, an end – of sorts.

They shot him, the kid that is. The one who’d started the shooting and fled the scene. Cops caught him in a parking lot a few miles away, shot him when he wouldn’t drop his gun. I watched that too, although it wasn’t supposed to be out there. Someone posted the footage, fucked up as that is. A load of strangers left comments, half of them calling him a hero, half of them giving a play by play of the bullet that took him down. Like I said, an end, of sorts. Certainly more than anyone else got in that house.

 

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I’ve been on a mini Bacigalupi streak recently – Wind Up Girl, Ship Breaker and now The Water Knife, a minor diversion into post-apocalyptic and dystopian misery which, to be honest, is a bit exhausting.

To start with the good The Water Knife is an efficiently well written and occasionally very immersive book, Baigalupi seldom drifts from the essentials of his characters and story telling and while the prose has flair to it there’s little that doesn’t also serve a purpose. So it’s readable, very readable.

The story is set in a water starved Southern and Mid-Western US where thirsty power blocs – California, Las Vegas, Colorado – vie for rights to the ever diminishing supplies under the decaying and largely indifferent gaze of the government back East. Throw in straggling hordes of refugees from the dried out state of Texas, narcos from the now formally declared Narco States, Chinese corporate interests and local gangs in Phoenix, the broad focus of the book, and you’ve got enough apocalyptic fodder to depress anyone. Which Paolo does, constantly.

There’s an ensemble cast of characters, all unified by their existence on the edge. On the edge of legality, criminality, their own societies, their own professions, morality. Bacigalupi’s world here is one with no interest in or time for the masses or the middle which, as far as an action driven plot goes, makes perfect sense. His perspective is one held just beyond the breaking point, his characters either spiralling towards it or long since submerged into a chaotic mess of cruelty and survivalist necessity. Which does work, for the most part, as I said this is a well written and eminently readable story. One which is set in a interesting world too, a compendium of human paranoias and fears about climate change, cultural decay and societal oblivion all brought to their pinnacles in one hellish, desertified landscape.

The one problem I found with that though was that his focus is a little bit too relentless. In Wind Up Girl, the first of his books that I read, things weren’t that much less extreme but in some characters at least he did allow a little humanity to survive. Even as it was shattered by another, similarly brutalised, world there were elements and characters which spoke to a remnant of recognisable humanity which wasn’t entirely despairing. With The Water Knife though there’s pretty much no redemption, no trace to be found of anything positive about our species and what minimal nods there are to a world beyond the extremities of the main characters are only ever given as a prop to demolish in the greater service of making everything worse.

I’m not saying this should be a book which offers hope mind, it obviously didn’t set out to be and grim as the reality he’s created is there’s not much scope for it. But even in the world Paolo builds there is evidence of something else, some ongoing collective struggle and sense of community existing within the horror. The shanties of the thirsty future aren’t just killing grounds, the streams of refugees aren’t solely comprised of those who’ve turned to obscene cruelty and violence as a basic state. Again though, as far as the story goes they exist only to further the main cast’s misery, to reinforce and, through suffering, prove their own descents into moral oblivion and incomprehension. There are hints that this is being presented as a comment on the US itself, a condemnation of the spirit of ultra-individualism in times of crisis which, maybe, wouldn’t be the same in other cultures. But if the relentless hopelessness is meant to push that line then it’s almost comically extreme. Pushed too far to make the point as anything short of a hammering horror story.

It’s a lack of balance which stops a good book from being a great one for me. The best exposures of human misery, in my experience, are the ones which don’t forget that there are humans in the story. The ones which don’t forget that, for most people, there is a desire towards community and a sense of security, even in situations which refuse to allow for it. That’s not to say there are happy endings or that some fantastical ‘good guys’ get their moment of victorious glory but there is some desire and, well, hope that things could be more normal. Something which Bacigalupi seems to revel in repeatedly smashing down as fodder for corruption.

On the generous side you could say that, given the issues of the books covers, like climate change, resource scarcity and societal decay an element of over the top grim-darkness is justified. Maybe that was an active choice for this story and, to be fair, in his YA Ship Breaker book there are hints of solidarity and (attempted) decency even amidst a similarly decaying world. With The Water Knife though it’s so completely, resolutely absent that it almost just feels like nihilism. Paolo has concluded that humanity will turn to cruelty without hesitation or even much resistance when circumstances demand it. All of humanity, more or less, with any hold outs falling quickly enough to be exceptions that prove the rule. A certain relish for violence, especially sexual violence, in this book (and The Wind Up Girl) doesn’t do much to dispel that notion. It’s evil all the way down here, with the only question being how long it takes any given character to descend, or be butchered before they can.

That said it’s still a good book, it’s still very well written and very strong in its intent and dystopian vision. Just as The Wind Up Girl was before it. When I circle back to his work though (and I will) it’d be nice, maybe even necessary, for him to allow for a view from the centre. Not one that’s any more upbeat or hopeful perhaps, but one where there are characters at least allowed to attempt decency without being knocked down with knowing disdain by a sense of absolute misery. Perhaps even allow a sense of agency for them, show that not everything, from society to family, is a flimsy front for inherent cruelty.

Feed the Birds

Bastard reached a claw towards the switch, eyes averted from the monstrous creation that lay next to it. It was best not to dwell on that bit really It wasn’t pleasant but it was, in the grand scheme of things, necessary. Next to him Diseased was coo’ing gentley to himself, feathers fluttering a little with excitement but darting eyes not showing a sign of doubt.

“Look” Bastard drew his claw back and took a few quick steps backwards “are we really sure about this? I mean, it can’t really be right can it?”

Diseased fixed him with a beady, judgemental stare.

“Of course it’s right, we all agreed didn’t we? We won’t make a habit of it, we’ll just create enough of them to get things back to how they used to be.”

It was never easy to argue with the scabrous looking grey pigeon, Bastard had tried before although in fairness he’d been in full agreement too when they first came up with the idea. Somehow though the steps between idle, rooftop speculation and grizzly reality had made it all seem a bit wrong.

“I’m not sure just you can just play around with necromancy, can you? Once you start you’re kind of in it for the duration right? And I know you don’t remember the old days, I don’t either, so how do we know they were so good? Maybe they were really crap, and it’s not so bad now is it? I found half a sausage roll yesterday, can’t get much better than that can you?”

“Typical. I knew you were spineless, living on their rubbish like they’re doing you a favour. I don’t need to remember the old days, I know the stories, I know our history. They used to worship us. They used to pay to give us food and I know you’ve seen the temple they built for us. How can that not be better than raking through bins with those manky foxes you’re so fond of?”

Bastard didn’t have an answer for that, or at least the one he did have had been aired before and never gone down well. Yes, there was a temple, anyone could see that, all you had to do was fly over. But why would a temple to pigeon-kind consist of a bloke standing on a big stick and a few excessively hairy cats? Cats hated them didn’t they? Bit of a dodgy choice for reverential worship. The foxes had agreed that it was nonsense too but there was no point bringing them into the discussion, Diseased would never listen to anything that came from creatures with four legs and fur.

“Now, are you going to flick the switch or am I?”

There was no point trying to argue, what was going to happen was going to happen whether he objected or not. It was still a bad idea though, a really bad idea. Pushing his doubts down though Bastard skipped forward again and laid his claw on the switch again, wishing he’d never helped steal it from that human flat in the first place.

It took all of his weight to push it down and even then he had to do a bit of jumping up and down to make it click into place. A sign probably, a warning from the universe not to start dabbling with this sort of madness but when it was done it was done. A buzzing echoed around the ledge, a metallic tang filling the air as the cars passing underneath their bridge drove by blindly indifferent.

For a moment nothing happened, just long enough for Bastard to hope to himself that it wasn’t going to work anyway and that they’d been saved from themselves. Before long though it started to twitch, first just a curling claw, one amongst the fifty or so they’d stitched onto it, but then came a real spasm of movement. One which shook the thing’s entire body and sent both pigeons jumping back, wings half opened to take flight.

Then their creation sat up.

“Fuck” said Bastard.

“Coo” said Diseased.

The creature looked confused, which was understandable. The parts had been eclectically gathered from wherever they could be found. There was a fair bit of pigeon about it, limbs and feathery patches culled from the unfortunate victims of traffic accidents and culinary mishaps with bleach. They’d wanted it to be too big though, too big for the frail bones of one of their own to support so they’d started shopping around. A human leg here, a foxes tail there, the skin of an elephant they’d pecked to death at London Zoo, the liver of a badger. Things had started to get out of control and what they had now was an unrecognisable hybrid the size of a car, barely fitting onto the arch of the bridge and perilously close to collapsing it, or at least falling to land on a passing bus.

“What do we do now then?”

Bastard was speaking from the edge, eager to fly off as soon as it seemed polite.

“Well we… erm… we send it to the temple, that sounds right, yeah. It goes there, reminds them they’re supposed to serve us, we all fly in for some seed and worship, job’s a good’un. Simple.”

“You really think it can get there? I mean, we did give it a lot of wings but they don’t really look like they’re going to work do they?”

The creature, flailing around now making pitiable moaning sounds, tried to pull itself into what might conceivably have passed for a sitting position but for the excess of potential arses.

“It can walk then, even better, it’ll really make an impact. Now, just go over there and tell it what to do. Flying Rat’s brain is in there somewhere, you two were friends.”

Flying Rat’s was one of the brains in there it was true, but it wasn’t exactly alone.

“No, you’re alright, you can do it, you’ve got a way with words. Commanding voice you know.”

“Coward” Diseased mumbled unconvincingly “fine, I’ll do it, we created it after all, I’m sure it looks up to us.”

Of the dozen or so eyes the creature had it was, in fact, simultaniously managing to look up, down and sideways at them but it didn’t seem like the time to get pedantic. True to his word Diseased did edge towards the monstrous creation and with as stern a tone as he could manage through the evident terror began to speak to their new friend.

“Now, we created you, we’re your gods, in a way. Us pigeons and no one else so you’ll do what your told won’t you?”

“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarghl!”

Taking the scream of anguish from one of the more human looking mouths as a yes he pushed on.

“Good… good… Now, just over there” Diseased gestured with a wing “there’s a, er, holy place. Our holy place. Now you be a good little… creature, make your way there and tell them they need to start worshipping the pigeons again. Use one of your human mouths, they’ll understand that.”

The thing’s eyes showed a glimmer of understanding of the pigeon’s words, at least three or four of them did, the rest seemed to be silently screaming more than anything. Although they weren’t alone for long as, with a sudden blur of movement, it spasmodically and much to it’s own surprise managed to roll sideways sending both birds flying and bringing up a chorus of shouts and terror from a bus passing below as it slammed through the roof.

The last thing Bastard saw of the beast was a crowd of shocked and confused commuters desperately trying to clamber around, through and over it in a rush for the stairs. Doing their best to ignore both the monstrous obstacle in their way and the handful of people it had managed to crush beneath it. On the plus side though the bus was going in the right direction at least.

Lifer – Short Story

 

Just a quick heads up to say that I’ve got a new short story out, it’s available here on Amazon as an ebook for the low, low price of 99p.

It’s a one shot read with a Sci-Fi feel focused on the concepts surrounding immortality, suicide and human nature. Grab a copy and let me know what you think.

Spoken Word & Holy Squatters

While I’m waiting for the edit to come through on my next book I’ve been experimenting with a few side-projects. Including some spoken word stuff which I’ve been dabbling with today. More of a distraction than anything I’m not expecting a great audience for it but it’s nice to try some different mediums and see how the nature of a story changes in the vocal re-telling. Still in the dicking around stage at the moment and obviously I’m doing it on a shoestring budget so quality isn’t great but just to give you a sample here’s my reading of ‘Holy Squatter’, a story I wrote a few years back and which, out of the long list of them, got picked up for recording…