Thursday, September 26, 2013

I have the Anger!

Dear Walmart out by Cabella's, I have to say, you suck.  I've been in your store twice now, the first time it was to purchase two laptop computers from your electronics department.  The total purchase came to a little over a thousand dollars and the only reason we came to you was because the Walmart closer to my house didn't have the one I wanted in the box.  They had a floor model but I know how that goes and didn't really want that one.  So off we go into the night to get two computers.  We waited in the electronics department for an hour and a half.  Several stock-people tried to help us, but no, the people who had the keys were too busy to be bothered.  Almost two hours later we get out of the store with our computers and get home.  The second time... it was also concerning a computer.  Mine.

I am not typing this on Vignette.  I am back on the big old Commodore.  Poor Vignette has a loose wire or something and I called Vizio Tech Support and the guy was very nice and all he needs to make it better is the receipt.  Unfortunately it has been misplaced BUT the good news is that I can get Walmart to print me a new one.  Well I have to know the exact day of the purchase for them to zero in on it.  This is fine and dandy.  But when I went in to talk to customer service it took over half an hour to get to the ONE PERSON who was manning not only customer service but the photography department as well.  Whatever genius decided to put those in the same damn corner should be bitch slapped into tomorrow.  But I digress.

He had to help Ms. Geriatric and Computer Illiterate at the digital photo booth which normally I wouldn't mind except that she had like a hundred pictures that she needed to go through and she needed help with each one.  Now, a smart corporation would call in someone to help!  But not Walmart by Cabella's.  Nope.  I asked a sales associate if there was a way to call someone else into Customer Service and she says - but there's someone there already.  Then she smiles and starts to walk away.  I ask her if it's possible to get anyone else here (as there is now a rather large line forming and the old woman still has the reps full attention), and the lady just says, nope, there's no one else.  A lie.  Because after my half an hour wait (and by the way, I was there first and somehow ended up being serviced dead last) the man quickly gets another woman there who is better equipped to help me.

And now... now after all of this, she says I have to have the exact date.  How fucking hard would it have been for someone to come and help me and tell me this so that I could get the date and get this whole mess taken care of?  But that is what I have come to expect from this Walmart.  And what I'm starting to expect from all Walmarts and all big businesses in fact.  There's issues with hours now (and it's not the employers that are doing it to their employees, it's the fucking government), as well as various other economical crunches in place, but I'm sorry, fucking suck it up when you are dealing with the public.  And if you have a rude customer, take it in stride and then cuss their stupid ass out when they are gone.  Yes, customers are starting to suck, but it's absolutely unacceptable for those who work in customer service to be neglectful/rude/or otherwise unhelpful to decent customers who wait patiently for their turn.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Before My Birthday Goals

This Saturday I turn the dreaded 3-oh.  I will be spending it down in Moscow with some friends and in order to make sure I have a nice and relaxed time, I have some MFA related things that need to be finished prior to Saturday morning.  I need to finish at least two of the four following books:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The End of the Affair, and The Heart of the Matter.  I have so very many more books to read - two of which where written by none other than my mentor, and several more that detail sci-fi and Dystopian landscapes.  I'm feeling a bit of a crunch because my critical thesis is going to happen next semester and I'm really struggling this time around with writing a truly effective craft analysis.  Creatively, I'm writing fragmented scenes and drifting a little.  I am still very involved in the project and since I have two protagonist's (one main one and one to act as a foil) I do get a break in POVs occasionally that helps to keep my narrative from getting too comfortable and losing flare.

I have a few weeks left before this packet is due.  This one is kind of important.  Also I need to have either two more complete chapters to submit for workshop (new and bizarre and unique) or I need to have two short stories or pieces of short stories.  There just isn't enough time in the day.  And sleep seems to me to be very overrated.  When I was in college I stayed up for a little over 72 hours straight.  It was during the Rocky Mountain Theatre Festivention and I was taking part of a critique writing contest.  I totally won.  The experience afforded me a few things, one of those things being a shiny plaque and a check for $100.  Other things I learned were: hard work and going further than others does pay off, espresso tastes like shit but does the job, and that sleep deprivation creates edginess in writing.  The last of these things is what I rather hope for in the days to come.  For now, however, I think I need to stock up on a little bit of sleep, get all my ideas straight in my mind, then throw sleep to the curb.  I need edge in this story and I want to plow onward and upward, I want to keep the herd moving west, I want to generate as much new material as I can so that when fourth semester comes I can chop and rewrite and mangle what I've got down instead of trying to pull some slipshod ending out of my ass.

I only work two more days before my birthday.  Usually at work I can get at least thirty pages read but lately we've been slammed.  It's not that I want boring days at work, but I wouldn't mind like a few thirty minute periods where we can just sit sip coffee and I can read.  As it is, we're running around like chickens sans heads from the moment we open until close to closing time.  When I get home from all of this, I feel so drained that reading is out of the question and writing is a faraway dream.  Tomorrow I'm off, however, and I want to keep pushing on the books that I'm reading, but mostly I want to get some Simon written.  What's so great about one of the books I'm reading, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is that Billy Bibbit has a very pronounced stutter and I recently decided that the reason Simon doesn't talk to strangers in my novel is that he stutters, so now I get to see how Kesey handled the actual writing of the dialogue in his story.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Library, Novel, and 4K Pageviews

I'm sitting at the Post Falls Public Library.   This is a really fantastic building.  I spent numerous hours here before the MFA and after starting it, this is now a second home for me.  It's calm, peaceful (for the most part), and the librarians are all wonderful people.  Hannah and I have come here and used the private study rooms a few times and while they are great, they are almost too great - too cozy - and there is a huge temptation to curl up and sleep on the keyboard.  It's just that nice of a place.  I've slept her a few times (naps in the chairs while Hannah works on her writing or blogging) and then a semi-medicinal slumber with my head propped up by the heel of my hand.  Right now, I'm comfy but not sleepy.

I'm going back and forth between working on a short story and working on a pivotal chapter for Death Man.  For some reason this chapter is giving me the kind of resistance one might expect from a two-year-old being force fed liver and onions at an obscure relative's funeral.  Yeah.  It's like that.  So I'm going to shove that spoon as far down his little throat as far I can today.  Or try to, at least.  As for how the MFA is going overall, I am absolutely loving this mentor but I can definitely see where I am a bit more tentative in my writing, aiming for perfection in my first drafts and then going out of my mind editing and revising.  It's good for me, but I need to embrace the fact that I can't write a perfect chapter for this man, that I just need to pump out as much as I am able to so that he can help me not only hone what I have, but propel me toward more.  That is the goal of this packet.

In other news, this blog has reached over four thousand page views.  This is a very nominal number when compared with the page views for the Detangled Writers blog, but this one is much more intimate and I am just thrilled that after a year (the blog's anniversary was actually last month!) or so of writing, whining, explaining, and planning, it's still a useful outlet for my creativity and, I hope, somewhat entertaining to my readers.  Now.  Back to my chapter and force feeding the figurative two-year-old.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Pumpkin Frustration and Irk

I tried to make a no bake pumpkin pie dessert tonight and shouldn't have since I didn't have all the ingredients to start off with.  The end result is a very thick, very rich, slop of pumpkin pie dessert that may or may not be riddled with salmonella.  I didn't have condensed milk and so I made an acceptable substitute for it, which is essentially egg and brown sugar.  Well... it's a no bake recipe so... egg is a great choice.  Really.  I cooked the condensed milk substitute mixture in the microwave for a while to hopefully make the eggs safe for consumption but who knows.  This was definitely not one of my finer moments in cooking.  Moving right along.

Something happened not too long ago that really irked me.  I like to think that I could have a good relationship with my Mesa State professors should I choose to invoke it.  When I got ready to go back to school to pursue my MFA I sent out a 'please, oh, please, love me enough to write me a letter of recommendation' to two of my previous professors: Dr. Haas (literature), and R. Cowden (theatre).  The former replied to me and had me send in some of my old papers and asked for my CV and proceeded to write me a letter that helped me get accepted into the Pine Manor Creative Writing MFA program.  The latter... never replied, not even to say, 'gee, I just don't have that much time right now.'  This is okay, really, because I know he's busy and I respect that.  It was sad but I got over it.  Anyway, the most contact (directly) that I've had with this professor since I graduated has been the acceptance of my request for FaceBook friendship.  Until the other day.

I've put up hundreds, even thousands, of silly and serious FaceBook posts.  I don't care that people respond or don't respond.  This is just a fun outlet that is semi rewarding.  Well, I play DragonVille.  I enjoy it.  And whenever I play, I send out requests for gold and food, etc.  It sends out a blanket request to all my friends on FaceBook.  This is annoying and I know that people who don't play games HATE these kinds of things but really... what is the big deal?  Just block the game!  Or ignore the request.  It's not that hard.  But I digress.  Recently a friend from college posted a comment on my wall, politely asking if there was any way he could stop getting DragonVille requests.  I told him that he could block the game and that I have blocked many games myself.  This was all wonderful and civil.  And in an unprecedented show of attention, R. Cowden 'liked' his post.  His post on my wall; not my reply, nothing of mine.  This wouldn't bother me except that this is the one and only thing on my time line that he's ever 'liked' or made any notice of in all my time on FaceBook.  He 'likes' a status where someone is complaining about my behavior.  Nice.  Glad he pays attention.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Someone to Kill and Something Beautiful

The following is my creative submission for the second packet exchange with my mentor.  This is a revised edition of the original post.  There are substantial differences, also the first scene has been expanded and I've added a second scene.  I have a third scene for this segment but that is still in the works.  I'm going to go ahead and rate this M, for Mature.  Please read with discretion.  

“Someone to Kill”
“I didn’t think I would need to practice this part.”  The boy raised an eyebrow at his mentor.  “I’ve been killing since I was ten.” 
            “No.  You have not.”  Roy Kim came around behind the boy and set a thick cloak about his shoulders.
            “Yes, I have.”
            “No, what you did in the Arène was fighting.  It was surviving.  Today, however, you will be killing.”
            With a groan, the boy pulled the cloak tight about him insulating himself from the bitter chill he knew awaited them outside in the night.  He wiped his nose with his sleeve and muttered, “I don’t see the difference.”
            “It’s not something you can see.  But you’ll feel it.” Roy Kim opened the door and gestured for his pupil to go first but the boy stepped back.  Something about the dark still unsettled him.  His mentor frowned, opened his mouth then closed it without saying anything.  There was nothing to say.  Roy pulled his own cloak tight about his chest and took off without looking back.  The boy, of course, charged after him.
Frozen patches of snow crunched under their feet as they marched to the dungeons.  The boy sniffled and wiped his nose again.  Every little noise seemed enlarged.  His nostrils whistled his existence into the darkness with more effrontery than even his footfalls.  He shivered.  He didn’t want the dark to know he was there.  Opening his mouth wide, he breathed silently, puffing out wisps of fog from lungs that felt half their regular size. When they reached the dungeon, he resisted an impulse to reach out and grab hold of Roy Kim’s cloak.  Somewhere above them a cloud shifted and let out the moon.  In the silver glow, they descended together, and yet alone, down the stone and mortar steps, polished by decades of heavy tread.    
About ground, North City was modern and convenient – civilized.  It hummed with the pulse of electricity, mildly in some places and fiercely in others.  Down below, however, in this pit, nothing spoke of civilization, no fluorescent flickering, no sweet smells from bottles or ovens, no electrical humming.  Here it was all candles and screams.
“Well look who showed up after all?”  The Keeper met them at the bottom of the stairs.  He carried a candle in a silver holder with scalloped edges, the kind used in the Luminary’s household.  The tiny flame cast a faint yellow glow on the Keeper’s apron.  Dark brown smears covered the fabric.  It might have been blood, but in the dimness it looked like shit.  He smiled at Roy, “I was starting to think you weren’t coming.”
“I told you not to expect us until after dark.”
The Keeper picked at his beard, pulling chunks of something from the tangled hair.  “Well, it’s been dark for a while now.  I got plans for the night so you better make it quick.”  He snorted wetly and turned away from them, the bulk of his body blotting out all light from the candle. 
What sort of plans could a man like him have?  The boy decided he didn’t want to know.
Along the wall was a table smeared with gore, a torture altar, which the Keeper had yet to clean.  The boy squinted to see it.  Large square grates in the ceiling let in enough moonlight to soften the darkness, but not enough for him to identify anything.
Though the boy had never witnessed the Keeper at work, he knew the vibration of pain and had felt it coming from this place many times.  Right now, the dungeon was quiet and still, but echoes were often quiet, repeating infinitely into nothing and yet never really disappearing.  All the echoes of his life seemed to converge in this place and they summoned cold sweat from his brow.  He reached up to his chest and felt the bumps where the beads of his mother’s rosary rested beneath his clothes.  When he’d been very young, he used to lay in bed beside his mother and worry the pewter crucifix between his tiny fingers until whatever imaginary monsters were chasing him let him be.   The habit had stuck.  Over the years, he’d rubbed Christ off the cross.
“Where’s your assistant?” Roy Kim asked.
“I lent her out to a couple of Her Ladyship’s guards.”  He had a pleased, conspiratorial air about him.  “But she’ll be back right quick, I bet.  Those boys never last long.”
“Did they pay you?”
“You better believe it.”
“I see.”  Roy Kim cleared his throat.  “Then maybe you could afford to burn a few more candles.  I can’t see a damn thing down here.”
“It ain’t my fault you’re going blind, old man,” the Keeper said. “One candle’s more than enough for a walk-through.  It’s all I ever use.  Even when I’m cutting.  Makes it better, I think.  Helps with the imagination.”
“I’m not questioning your methods,” said Roy Kim, “but this place is a mess and I don’t want to slip on someone’s tongue.”
The Keeper tsked.  “Normally I’d take offense to that, but I guess since my girl ain’t been in to clean yet, you really could slip on a tongue.”  He laughed like broken bellows.   “Ah, Christ, Roy.  Come here, I got something better than candles.”
The boy ignored them and stared at the table.  He tried to imagine what parts of who had been cut off.  And why?  Had they struggled?  Where were they now?  Back in a cell?  Bleeding out in a corner somewhere, choking on the leftover stub of their tongue?  Would he be killing that person tonight?  He moved closer.  The gore was a comfort.  It was familiar.  He’d never been down here before but the potential for violence made it feel like home.  The dungeon was the Arène sans hope.  Bloody straw for a carpet, steel bars and rusted hinges, the blemish of slipshod construction and the perfume of human waste, blood, decomposition. 
Roy Kim lit a fire lantern and, as the room came into focus, the boy took note of several slender icicles dangling from the steel mesh above them.  Like teeth aching to bite down, they pointed at the cells, thirsting for the blood of the condemned.  They were stained red in the firelight.  It didn’t feel like home anymore.
            “You know what we’re here for.  Get to it.” Roy Kim hung the lantern on a hook in the wall.  Whether the hook had been placed there for this purpose or for something worse, the boy did not know.
            “It’s freezing down here,” he said.
“Then choose quickly.”
The boy let out a long sigh and stepped up to a cell.  At first he couldn’t see anything beyond the smattering of rags that somehow formed a quilt, but then he perceived the faint outlines of a body – slender, all but sexless – and the wiry, tell-tale tresses of a female’s hair.  White, trembling fingers tugged the tattered blanket higher and higher until she’d covered her face.  A weird tingle surged through him, pricked his ears like needles.  She was just a little girl.  Or the lantern was playing a trick on him.
            “I will.”  He walked along, peeking through the bars of various cells.  While he hadn’t taken much note of it with the little girl, he saw now that all of the prisoners were naked.  It seemed cruel to keep them that way, especially during winter, and it reminded him of the Arène.  He remembered how the Herdsmen had systematically stripped him of everything that made him human, starting with his clothes.  He guessed that the dungeon operated under similar principles.  Sucking in his bottom lip, he bit down.  The prisoners had blankets at least, but these thin shreds did not make them any less naked in his eyes. 
His pupils had dilated to match the flame and, no matter where he looked, he saw the shapes of arms, legs, hips, and breasts, each piece adding up to something whole, alluring and frightening.  For a moment he forgot Roy Kim.  Forgot the icicles.  Forgot to breathe.  So many women, all of them prone, curling in on themselves, shivering and seeming to shrink under his gaze.  A few were asleep, but they might have been dead for all the boy knew.   In one of the cells, two women held each other, one crying and one soothing.  The crying one’s body shook with the passion of her pain and it was terribly attractive.  He paused to watch them, captivated by their intimacy.  On impulse, he lowered himself to one knee and reached in past the bars until his fingers brushed against a frayed hem.  He gave a gentle tug and the blanket fell away.  He stiffened.  He knew nothing of these delicate creatures before him.  Not even the color of their blood.  Their skin was so pale, even under the glow of the lantern, that it didn’t seem possible for red to lie beneath. 
            “Oh, ho, look at this.  He’s a kid after my own heart, Roy.” The Keeper laughed and set a hoary hand on the boy’s head.  “Go ahead and look all you want.  It’s one of the perks of the job.”  Leaning down, he ruffled the boy’s hair and said into his ear, “They’ll all be naked when they get to you, little Death Man.” 
            His guts churned.  It hurt when he stood up, hurt like he had to pee.  He wanted to escape but Roy Kim caught hold of him. 
“I take it you’ve made your decision.”  His mentor squeezed his shoulder hard.  It was just enough to bring him back from the shadowy clefts of the woman’s shoulder blades.
“I’m still looking.”  He shrugged away from his mentor and continued down the corridor until the lantern light became an echo and darkness returned to obscure the outlines of breasts and devour provocative shadows.  Later he would wonder why so many of the prisoners of North City were women and he would punish himself for the things he had felt while looking at them.
He didn’t see any boys in the dungeon, which was too bad.  He supposed they were still in the Arène.  Dying without any help from him.  The few men he saw along the way were old and beaten down, unthinkable to kill.  Yet he would certainly kill any one of them before killing a woman. 
Finally he came upon a male prisoner who possessed an air of life, something substantial that the boy could snuff out.  The man sat cross-legged at the back of his cell with his blanket draped over him like a cloak.  As the boy drew nearer, the man rolled his muscle swollen shoulders, dropping the blanket, revealing a powerful thickness that the dungeon had yet to extinguish.  Cloaked only in shadow now, the man seemed gigantic, his neck like a knotted bundle of sticks, his body like an animal’s covered in thick patches of hair which shone golden even in the darkness.  He watched the boy and bristled.  Pick me, his eyes said.  Pick me and I’ll make you bleed before the end.  It was exactly what the boy wanted.  He stood before the cell and gripped the freezing bars.
“This one.”
“Not him,” Roy Kim said.
            The boy’s warm flesh made an awful sound when he ripped his fingers from the steel and turned to face his mentor.  “But you told me to pick someone.”  From somewhere in the shadows, the Keeper laughed.
            “Yes,” Roy Kim said.  “Someone to kill.  Not to fight.  You’re going about this all wrong.”  He frowned and ran a single calloused fingertip over his left eyebrow.  It more like a nervous tic than a ritual of grooming.  He probably didn’t even realize he was doing it.   When the man looked at his pupil again, the limitless wisdom within his black irises swallowed the boy and left no room for understanding.  The boy was used to it.  This world was too dark for some kinds of knowledge.
            “This was your idea in the first place.”  He pressed his hands together, rubbing them, warming them.  He glanced in at the prisoner and saw an expression of disappointment on the man’s face.  A silent promise had been made between them and now it lay broken for reasons neither of them understood.  Stalking along the cells, the boy searched for a sacrifice to appease his mentor, but he was Cain, never Abel, and the only thing he had to offer was rotting fruit. 
“Him,” he said at last and pointed to a male not much older than himself.  At first glance it had been difficult to tell the sex of the shivering thing in the corner, but the hair was short and the limbs were long.  It was too gangly to be a girl.  And too sickly to put up a challenge.   Filthy bangs hid most of the thing’s pale face.  A single red rimmed eye looked out from the matted locks, and it conveyed no resistance.  Just fear.  Surely Roy Kim could see that. 
            “You really don’t get the point of this,” his mentor sighed. 
            “Why?  What’s wrong with this one?”
            “Yes, yes, what’s wrong with this one?” the Keeper asked.
            “Look at him.”  Roy Kim gripped his pupil’s arm and pressed him close to the bars.  “Look at his hands.”  The imprisoned boy was down to five digits and none were thumbs. 
            “I’m not sure I’d call those hands at this point.”  The Keeper snorted hard before spitting phlegm.
“I don’t care.  I’ve killed lots of boys who were missing fingers,” the boy said, “the Arène was full them.”  He shook his arm free of Roy’s grip and took a step back to regard his mentor.  “You told me to pick and I did.  I’m done playing this game.” 
“That boy is a shell,” Roy Kim said.  “He wants to die.”
“Then I’ll help him along.”
“No,” he said, “that would be mercy and it’s not your place to show mercy.  You are not God.  And you’re not the Luminary.  Mercy is for them to decide.  You’re just a tool through which their mercy might be carried out.  You kill.  Do you understand?  You don’t pick fights.  You don’t sympathize.  You don’t give them what they want.  You just kill.  And that’s all I’m asking you to do tonight.  But if that’s too difficult a task for you, I can find another Arène boy to train. ”
 Cheeks burning, the boy looked down.  His throat tightened and his fingers twitched until they’d curled like spider legs jerking into a ball.  He made two useless fists.  When he’d been a fledgling in the Arène, his mentors had told him that humiliation was a greater teacher than failure.  This was the basis of their curriculum.   Roy Kim, however, rarely resorted to humiliation tactics and this infrequency had acted like a whetstone, sharpening his words so that they could peel the boy’s flesh in just a few short stabs.  For a moment he was naked, equal to the condemned in their cells.  In that moment, he hated his mentor.  Everything was a lesson.  Everything was a test.  The boy couldn’t even cut his meat without black eyes on him, watching and sizing up the motion of his wrist.  Lesson, lesson, lesson was exhausting on the best of days and just then, in the dungeon, it was excruciating. 
And what was the lesson? This wasn’t the first time Roy Kim had spoken harshly to him, but it was the first time he’d been so blatantly unkind, and the first time there had been an audience.  Perhaps that was the lesson.  A reminder that from now on there would be no privacy.  Someone would always be there to witness every failure and reprimand.  Someone like the Keeper.  It was the Arène all over again, but worse, because now there were rules.
“There won’t be any other boys,” he said and met his mentor’s gaze.  “I’m the only one.  It has to be me.” 
Roy Kim’s brow pursed a moment and he nodded.  “Pick someone.”  It was a quiet command, almost a plea.
The boy walked back to the cell with two women inside.  He exhaled deep and pointed.  The Keeper asked which one, but he couldn’t respond.  The echoes of the dungeon, the trapped screams now part of the shoddy mortar walls, deafened him. 
“Don’t matter.  I’ll pick.”  The Keeper produced a master key from his pocket and entered the cell.  He seized the crying one from her cellmate’s clinging arms, pulled her from the security of the threadbare blanket.  She shrieked and writhed, dropping to her knees, going limp. 
“I’m pregnant!” she cried.  The Keeper didn’t seem to hear.
He gripped her wrists and dragged her from the cell, laid her at the boy’s feet, “She’s all yours,” then went back and locked the door.  The boy stood there, head throbbing.  Her terror paralyzed him. 
            “Please,” she said, “please.  It was a small crime.  My husband’s going to pay the fee.”  She wrapped her arms about his ankles and pressed her face to his boots, crying on them, wetting the leather.  “He’s coming tomorrow.  I’ll be a free woman tomorrow.  Please.  I want to have my baby.”
            “Is that true?”  The boy looked to his mentor.
            “It is!  I swear it,” the woman bawled.
            “It don’t matter if it’s true or not.”  The Keeper reached down and grabbed her hair.  He jerked her face away from the boy, forced her to look up at the grated ceiling, at the icicles.  “We don’t deal in tomorrows, we deal in todays.  And today she’s guilty.”  He tugged up, then down, making her nod.  Somehow during all of this his fingers must have gotten tangled because when he yanked his hand free, the woman screamed and fell to her face.  A fistful of strands and a little bit of scalp dangled from the Keeper’s fingers. “Guilty.  Ain’t that right Roy Kim?”
            Warmth shot up from the boy’s bowels, spread like panic through his arms and legs.  So this was killing?  He didn’t want anything to do with it.  At least in the Arène, death for one meant life for another.  Killing this woman would mean nothing.  Desperate to make sense of it all he looked to his mentor.  
Roy Kim was smiling.

“Something Beautiful”

Steam still rose from the slushed red snow.  Her blood must have been hotter than hell.
            “Don’t let it upset you,” Roy Kim said.  “It’s never a clean kill the first time.  Something always goes wrong.  It’s supposed to.  That’s why we practice.”  His voice was strangely soft.  Everything about him was soft now that the deed was done.  The boy wondered if he would try to hug him and hoped he wouldn’t.
They sat at the top of the stairwell, their feet dipping into the world of the dungeon.  The boy rested his elbows on his knees and observed the night in quiet contemplation.  His mentor cleaned the axe head with ice and the hem of his cloak.  The lantern and the body had gone down into the dungeon with the Keeper, and the moon had found a new hiding place.  Darkness enveloped them and the boy imagined the Coeur de la Ville as a giant mouth.  The snow became frothy spit swilling about huge, black teeth – the apartments were the molars and the estate houses were the canines – encircling the gaping maw of the Luminary’s Square.  Ahead of him in the distance was the throat, a hulking black fortress, the Manoir sur la Colline, ready to swallow him.  And he was ready to let it.
“So you understand the difference now,” Roy Kim said, “between killing and surviving.”
            “Yes.”  Looking down at his blood spattered pants and shoes he pictured the naked woman kneeling in the snow, every part of her shivering.  He saw her neck stretched out over an old, retired chopping block.  The wood was too sun bleached and cracked to be part of the shows anymore, but, as Roy Kim had informed him, the despondent slab more than sufficed for practice.
            It took three blows to remove her head.  In his training before tonight, he’d built up a precedent of near-flawless accuracy.  One blow was all it ever took whether his victim be a melon, a pig, a straw effigy, or a fresh casualty from the Arène.  Yet, tonight, with his mentor watching him and the Keeper tugging at her hair, forcing her into the correct position, the axe slipped in his grip, his elbows locked, and his back leg bent further than it should have.  The first swing had landed across her back, cracking her shoulder blades.  He thought of blaming the ice underfoot or even the inconsistent flicker of the lantern as it fought for dominance over the moonlight, but it wasn’t any of those things.  It was the ripping of his soul that had botched his aim.
            He struck the neck with the second blow.  The blade had crushed through skin and bone, but stopped halfway.  She was dead before the axe fell a third time.  That wasn’t how it was supposed to go and he couldn’t help but think that it would have been easier with the sword, or at least less painful.  For both of them.  His soul wouldn’t have ripped as much, if he’d used the sword.
            “What he’s doing down there anyway?” The boy picked up a frozen chunk of mud.  “She’s dead.  He can’t get much pleasure out of torturing a corpse, can he?”
            “He’s not torturing her.  He’s getting her remains ready to go back to her family.”
            “Is she going back tonight?”
            “Tomorrow,” Roy Kim said. “It’s too late to notify her family tonight.  But tomorrow the Keeper will send a message and then it’s up to them to come and claim the corpse.”
            “And then they’ll take her to the crematorium?”
            “Not likely.”
            The boy frowned.  “I thought everyone went to the crematorium.”
            “They’ll probably bury her.  There’s a grave yard along the eastern fence.”  Roy Kim gestured with the axe handle.
            “What’s a grave yard?”  The boy made a fist about the mud, thawed it into mush.  “Is it only for women or something?”
            “No.”  Roy Kim ran his thumb along the clean blade.  “It’s only for citizens.”
            The boy was quiet.  Tightening his grip on the softened clump, he discovered a rock at its core.  “I hate citizens.”  He wrenched his arm back and threw the mud ball as hard as he could.  Most of the intended projectile remained in his palm, stuck there as if his heat were an adhesive.  “Damn it.”  He huffed and wiped his hand on his thigh.
            His mentor watched him a moment.  “Good news, then.  You’ve got one less to hate.”
            “Yeah, but…”  The boy frowned and shook his head.  “It shouldn’t have been her.”
            “Why?”  Roy Kim set the axe aside.
“She was pregnant.”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
I do,” he said.  “I mean, why would she lie about something like that?”
Roy Kim stroked his eyebrow a few times before answering.  “It’s human nature.  People who are about to die will say anything to get out of it.  And you can never allow yourself to believe them.”
“I don’t know.”  The boy narrowed his eyes.  “You’d think she’d have come up with something a bit more attention grabbing than ‘I’m pregnant,’ if she was just saying whatever she could think of.  Now if she’d have told us it was the Luminary’s bastard that might have gotten her something.”
“Yes, it would have gotten her an apostate’s death,” Roy Kim said.  “Don’t talk like that.”
“It was just an example.”  A snowflake landed on his eyelashes and he blinked and jerked back.  Looking up at the sky he saw that the interspersed clouds had come together to form a white sheet.  More flakes fell.  He sniffled and sucked one up into his nostril.  “It’s snowing.  Are we done here?”
“The axe needs to go back in the lock box,” he said, “and I have some forms to fill out for your training.  But since you can’t really help with either of those things, I guess you can go.”
“Good.”  The boy stood.  Before he could take a single step, Roy Kim reached out and caught hold of his pant leg, halting him in his escape.  “What?”
“You killed for the first time tonight.”  Roy Kim looked up at his mentee.  “Don’t ever forget how it felt.”
“I won’t.”  He said and didn’t realize at the time he was lying.
            “Hey,” a shout came from below, “I got something to show you.” 
            Roy Kim let go of his pant leg, but curiosity kept the boy still.  He looked down the stairwell and saw the Keeper climbing toward them, the lantern in one hand and a wrapped up something in the other.
            “I just couldn’t resist,” the Keeper said between wheezes.  At the top step he paused and held out the little bundle.  It dripped red.  “Take a look, boy.  She weren’t lying.”
            His forehead beaded over with sweat or maybe it was just snowflakes sticking to his skin.  He lifted a corner of the dirty cloth and saw what life looked like when stolen from a womb.   A secret no one was supposed to know, blood caked and limp, hardly bigger than the boy’s thumb.  The Keeper laughed. 
Jerking his hand back he covered his mouth but it was too late.  Bile spewed out between his fingers like diarrhea.  It even came out his nose.   He turned and ran.
He didn’t get very far, however.  A few steps into his flight, his ankle gave out and he went down hard on his hands and knees.  Something cut one of his palms, bad enough to merit stitches, but he didn’t feel it.  He coughed and gasped and spat saliva strings from his lips.  Acid burned his throat as a fresh wave of vomit burst from his mouth.  A moment passed where all he could do was tremble and drain.  No one came to help him, and when he felt well enough to look over his shoulder, the men were gone. 
He got to his feet.  Puke spittle trickled down his chin.  He went to wipe it away but stopped.  It was like a badge, an emblem to symbolize his humanity.  Because a monster wouldn’t have gotten sick like that.  A monster would have smiled. 
“Fuck it,” he said and cleaned his face, nearly rubbing it raw. 
The air was static and the snow, which had seemed so peaceful before, felt ominous somehow.
The world faded to white and became a different kind of darkness, frightening in its newness.  He waited to see if Roy Kim would come back to check on him, maybe even walk him home, but when the snow started to soak through his cloak, the boy gave up.  His legs moved and he just went with it, grimacing each time he put weight on his left ankle.
Despite the sobering pain, he kept seeing the tiny alien bundle in the Keeper’s palm.  He imagined it twitching and he wondered if it had been alive and afraid when the Keeper had ripped it from its mother’s belly, or if he’d killed it vicariously with the axe.  He wondered if it was a boy or a girl – did that even matter? – and thought about the man who’d put it there, and pretended, for a moment, that it had been him.  It was a startling, addicting notion and one he exhausted while trudging through the Coeur de la Ville lost in the brilliant darkness.
If he’d been allowed to choose differently, to kill anyone else but her, that thing, for that’s all it was by the time the Keeper had cut it from the woman’s stomach, would have continued to grow and eventually have been born.  It would have been beautiful someday, and it made the boy’s chest ache with a desire he’d never acknowledged before, yet, he sensed, had always been there.  He knew it was shameful to want for more than he already had, but he decided that someday he would put a piece of himself inside a girl and their two pieces would mix into a singular being.  He’d keep it safe, this time, and let it grow into something beautiful. 
The snow had stopped by the time he reached the edge of the courtyard, leaving the world with a sprinkling of white and a deceptive warmth that was already melting the frozen mud into brown slush.  But it was familiar slush, now.  He looked up to see the Luminary’s Stables.  He smiled.  His legs had known where to go even if he hadn’t driven them consciously.  This was one of the few places that made sense to him. 
The name was a bit of a misnomer.  It was only called the Luminary’s Stables because everything in North City was known as the Luminary’s something-or-other.  In actuality, the Luminary had very little to do with this place and, as far as the boy was concerned, that was one of its more attractive qualities.  Its best quality, of course, being horses.  Inside the stable were beasts of all different breeds and color.  Most of the animals were nothing more than diversion, the pampered pets of the Elder Families and the Elite, but some belonged to guards and worked just as hard as their masters.   Roy Kim was fortunate enough to have two horses in the Luminary’s Stable: a bay mare called Tiger Eye and a white gelding called Alabaster.  They were not for diversion.  These horses, even though his mentor had never said it explicitly, were for love.
He went to the double gate and undid the hook latch. 
During the first month of his tutelage, horse grooming, rather than blade training, had been the boy’s primary focus.  At first, he’d thought it odd for the Death Man’s assistant to spend his time braiding tails and picking hooves, but he never complained.  And why would he?  The work gave peace.  Even after the lesson plans changed from husbandry to honing his axe swing and conditioning his arms to handle a broadsword, he still sneaked away whenever he could to see the horses.  Sometimes his mentor would come with him and that’s how he’d learned to ride. 
Those lessons were the boy’s favorites.  They were never planned out, never rigid.  Riding was all about trial and error and while the boy knew he’d made his mentor grimace at his falls, he also thought he made him smile at his triumphs.  But who really knew what made the man smile anymore? 
Shuddering, he tugged the handle and the door gave just enough to snap back into place.  He frowned and pushed then pulled again.  Still nothing.  Stepping back he examined the doors and found a second lock.  A good hand or so down from the hook latch was a hinged bar of metal reaching from one door to the other with a fat padlock making sure it didn’t budge.  His hands trembled as he tugged once more.  Neither the metal nor the padlock had been there yesterday so why now?  Why today of all days?    Why now, when all he wanted was to lay his head on Alabaster’s side and hear his tremendous breath, would the doors be locked?   He pulled on the doors again, shaking them, determined at least to hurt them if he couldn’t beat them.  Old wood creaked, or perhaps it was something rattling in his throat.  He couldn’t tell.