Monday, May 15, 2017

The Nineties Are Calling You

The summer of 1991 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma was a hot and humid one. Nothing unusual about that. Oklahoma gets its share of hot, humid summers, but this particular year was different.

It all started when a young man by the name of Navin Noe hopped over the fence at the back of Tuxedo Trailer Park and made his way into the overgrown wooded area beyond. He only intended to retrieve his prized baseball, the one he caught during a local high school football game.

Unfortunately, the woods were overrun with stray dogs and worse. Something was hidden deep in the hollow of a tree, something waiting to be roused. Once awakened, it's power threatened the whole city.

Who are the young people responsible for stirring up all of this trouble? Let's meet them.

Navin Noe

Navin lives in Tuxedo Trailer Park, in the third trailer from the end, in fact. His mother works the graveyard shift for a janitorial service at the local hospital, so Navin's aunt spends nights with him. During the day, Navin's mother spends most of her time sleeping on the couch in the living room, so he's left to roam with little supervision. Unfortunately, there's not much to do in his immediate vicinity.

Hao

Navin's best friend, Hao, actually lives across the street in a real house. His father owns a small restaurant on the east side of town, though it doesn't have the best reputation. Hao has a game room with multiple video game systems, including an old Atari 2600, an NES, a Sega Master System, and a brand-new Super Nintendo. In the eyes of most trailer park residents, Hao's family is rich.

Jane

The newest resident of Tuxedo Trailer Park, Jane arrives with a strong sense of disgruntlement. She had no desire to move into a trailer park and tried to convince her dad to rent an apartment instead. He didn't listen, and she's not at all pleased. Her old hometown, Plano, was far more exciting, and she's not afraid to make comparisons.

Now, meet our fine city. Bartlesville, the City of Lights! Actually, that's Paris, but for those unfamiliar with Bartlesville, here's a glimpse of downtown:


Cool places the kids like to hang out? Well, there's the Eastland Four. That's the "nice" movie theater in town.


There's also the Penn Twin. It's got an interesting retro vibe. Navin doesn't like it when the movies play off-center and out of focus, though.


There's Washington Park Mall, of course. The old folks prefer Luby's. Navin and Hao make the occasional trip to Aladdin's Castle to play video games. Hao is pretty good at Smash TV. There's also Time Warp Comics, but Navin doesn't really have extra money to spend on comics. He borrows X-Force or Wolverine from Hao sometimes.

So, as you can see, Bartlesville is one of the most exciting towns that 1991 has to offer. Unfortunately, it's all about to come crashing down.

Enjoy the catastrophic adventure!

The Ribbon Tree is available in paperback and on Kindle. Click the book cover and check it out.




Sunday, April 23, 2017

Everyone Loves a Nice Mechanism


Of all my novels, this particular bleak little tale has been selling most consistently the last couple of weeks. I'm not sure why, but I figured I'd talk about it a little bit.

It's one of the bleakest things I've written, set in one of the more evocative settings--a sprawling, windowless factory filled with massive oily machines. Picture it. Smell the grease and the warm metal and the mysterious grimy filth. Within the factory, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of rooms, most of them sealed behind locked doors. And within these rooms, you'll find the saddest child slaves you've ever imagined, rag-draped Dickensian wretches doing endless menial tasks day after day. 

Cruel robots called Watchers guard them, punish them when they fail to work, and feed them hideous gray food bricks once a day. Doesn't that sound uplifting? I actually think it is one of the more uplifting things I've written.

The book introduces us to four main characters.

Bik, a mostly hairless, tiny thing in the filthiest scrap of a robe you've ever seen. He spends his days polishing mysterious purple rocks using a harsh chemical polish.

Hen, an emotionally disconnected girl who does her best to avoid personal interaction, she spends her days climbing up and down a towering contraption called the Mechanism, like a little bug.

Ekir, a bent-backed boy, much abused by an older supervisor named Ous, he spends his days preparing and serving meals on a nice table in a lush dining room and then cleaning up afterward when nobody eats the food. Nobody ever eats the food.

Kuo, a damaged and possibly disturbed young man who spends his days climbing up and own the enormous fat folds of a headless monster called the Grong, feeding it meat paste from a bucket. He might be losing his mind.

These four eventually cross paths and descend into the bowels of the factory, uncovering secrets and horrors beyond description.

If you've never read the book, let me encourage you to do so. 

For a deeper look at the meaning behind the story, check out this luscious article!

To check out the book, click on the book cover above.




Sunday, April 9, 2017

Embrace the Sadness

I am of the opinion that the best and most effective stories need a few truly sad moments. I don't mean the dainty kind of sadness with a sigh and a single tear. What I'm talking about is a soul-crushing moment of hopeless despair, where we peer into the void. Work a few of those into your story, and people won't soon forget the experience of reading it.

For example, there's the testimony of the ghost from The Vale of Ghosts:

“It happens to all of us. As time passes, everything we ever knew or saw or heard, every person we ever touched or loved, they all drop away, leaving us with nothing but the vague and choking need to escape.”

That's not nearly the saddest moment in the book. Of course, what affects the writer deepest might not affect readers in the same way. For me personally, as I wrote the thing, the saddest moment comes in the basement of a cathedral in Tilieth. Not to give too much away, but it involves our protagonist making an emotional confession.

The bleakest thing I ever wrote is Children of the Mechanism. It's got a few of those horrible, hopeless moments, along with some truly wretched, miserable little characters who suffer far more than they deserve to.

The sad moments start early on. I'd be curious to know which bleak moment of despair hits readers the hardest. For me as the writer, it involved the character of Hen and her tragic interactions with a girl named Tag. And this thought:

I told you to wait, one thought resounding over and over. I told you to wait.

Actually, there's possibly a sadder moment, and it involves a character saying this:

“You were so brave and so strong. I have to do something now, Bik, and don’t you follow me.”

So what is your opinion on sad scenes? Do you enjoy a story with some truly heart-rending bleak moments? What are some scenes from various novels that have deeply affected you?


By the way, the paperback giveaway is still going on! Check out the previous blog entry for details.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

One Million Beautiful Quotes (and Giveaway)

I love reading individual, isolated quotes from novels, especially when it's a good, strange, or thought-provoking quote that piques my interest. I like to try to imagine how it fits into the overall story. I guess that's why I keep doing these quote posts from my novels. Maybe nobody finds it as interesting at me.

Anyway, I've done enough of these that I thought it might be interesting to collate them all into one mega-post.  Also, click on the pictures for more info about the books.

GIVEAWAY: I've got a few paperback copies of my books to give away. Respond with your favorite quote from this list, and I'll put you in the drawing. You can respond on the blog, on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. If you'd prefer a Kindle copy instead of paperback, let me know. Books will be given away in a couple of weeks (4/15/17).

Mary of the Aether Series

"I don’t want a boring old world where all anyone ever does is grow up and work some awful job for no money and spend Friday evenings watching high school football games and recalling the so-called glory days until they die."

"Nobody really believes in anything. My parents don’t believe in anything. They just breathe and eat and work."

"I don’t want sympathy. Sympathy only makes me mad."

"Maybe if I practice a lot, if I order my thoughts, I can learn to imagine better things. Maybe in time I could imagine anything. What if nothing is impossible?"

"The world just got a whole lot more dangerous tonight. Maybe it always was dangerous, but I didn’t know it."

"I know who I want to be. I want to help and heal, and I won’t let you or anyone else try to change me. I saw what I can become, I saw it, right there by the side of the road."

"I don’t care if anyone likes me, as long as I’m not embarrassed ever again by my own feelings or my own behavior."

“I never want an explanation for any of this. Never. I don’t know what you did. I don’t care what you did. The whole world has gone crazy, and I don’t want to know anything."

"I’ve been selfish. I see that now. I wanted a happy little life, but I was entrusted with this power by people who loved me. I’ve wasted so much time whining when I should have been learning."

"The world will burn out like a torch, but the light will shine brightly, and I will rise like the brightest ember into the stars at the end."

"The world is sliding into oblivion, devoured by shadow, and you are its last light."


Shadows of Tockland

"Destiny, I want to lick your face for all your perfect ways.”

"Mark my words, the ever-night is coming, and when it does, you'll be glad you've got some wild nutters at your side."

"Destiny has a funny way of making things irrelevant. Superior numbers, for example.”

"Far away, far away, blessed one. The ever-night is coming. It is coming forever."

"Tonight is a night you’ll wish you had a gun.”

"Sometimes, rubes don’t think they got their money’s worth, and they try to take it out of us in blood."

"Look, we’re committed to destiny now. From this point on, whatever happens, happens. That’s how destiny works."


Children of the Mechanism

"Open doors are the best thing in the whole world. An open door means you can leave something bad and maybe find something good."

"If you hold on, we will live. If you let go, we will go down, down, down. Do you understand how important it is for you to hold on?"

"I was born climbing the Mechanism. Nobody ever told me why.”

"Where I come from, the higher you go on the Mechanism, the more dangerous it gets. The circles get smaller, and the fall is farther. The world is like that, isn’t it? The higher we go, the stranger, the smaller, the uglier, the more dangerous."

"I walked forever down a hundred different places and saw all kinds of different lights and Watchers with hands, and then I came to the end."

"The world got worse and worse the more she understood about it."


Garden of Dust and Thorns

"The very thing that you took for granted will be your salvation. Never forget it."

"You’ve lived in the shadow of this Garden all your life. And you had no idea what was here. None of you did, not even the caretakers. This will be to our everlasting shame. While we lived outside the wall in the dirt, we had everything we could ever need in here.”

"Persistence is not a virtue. It is a defect."

“Stand on your island, in the shadow of your sacred tree, and watch me defile this ground. And weep, if you will, knowing that your thief-lord’s reign is at an end.”

"It’s a very strange thing to be deceived. A very strange thing."



The Archaust Saga (The Vale of Ghosts)

"Why is it every decision I make seems right one second before I make it and then completely wrong and ridiculous one second after I’ve made it?"

"You crossed the relic wall. The ghosts can see you now, and they will—they will drag you down into the vale, sooner or later. They do not give up."

"As time passes, everything we ever knew or saw or heard, every person we ever touched or loved, they all drop away, leaving us with nothing but the vague and choking need to escape."

"Are we smarter than the generations that came before us? How can we expect to fix a problem that they could not?"

"Our worst mistakes can become the catalyst for our greatest accomplishments, if we are willing to make it so."

“There’s not a worse person in the world than someone who will abandon a friend or family member in their last days.”

 

Dreams in the Void

"Your comfortable life is paid for with the taxes of hard working villagers, so that one day, you might provide just leadership for them.”

"Until a few weeks ago, I thought the world was normal. Then it all came crashing down, and I learned everyone is sick—depraved and sick."

"It’s a miserable thing to be helpful—to be needed, to be essential—and someone can’t see it."

"There is a heaviness in me now, like something coiled around my intestines. I hope to make it go away. I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I don’t want to be the person I have become."

"Sit and ponder, boy. Dream of killing kings."

"And so it comes down to a simple question, young Dekembri. Are we the righteous, or are we the wicked?"

“A storm is coming to sweep away everything. Find a secret place, bury yourselves inside and wait it out. Wait it out.”


Fading Man

"You cannot bury sickness under the ground and expect it to stay there. It will make itself known eventually. It will climb up out of its hole and demand to be seen."

"Nature or fate or destiny has selected us for suffering, and we are to endure it, accept it, take and gorge ourselves on misery like the dutiful sub-creatures that we are."


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

But What Are The People Reading?

Let me preface this by saying, I am by no means even a modestly successful author. However, having said that, the truth is I've churned out a ludicrous number of novels in the last four years. Just take a look at my website to get an idea. As far as sales go, I'm not real good at promotion and marketing, so I could certainly be doing better.

Having said all that, a few of my novels have consistent sales. That is to say, they sell a few copies every week. My other novels have sort of faded into the wastes of time, even my first YA series, which did fairly well regionally back in the day.

So what are the novels that keep selling? Here they are, in no particular order. These are the novels that I continue to sell on a regular basis:

Shadows of Tockland
A novel about a kid running away from home to join a clown troupe in a post-apocalyptic version of Northwest Arkansas that is overrun by plague-ridden lunatics and being conquered by a tyrannical overlord. What more could you possibly want in a novel?

Children of the Mechanism
If you like your science fiction drenched in bleak despair and wretchedness, this is the one for you. Rag-draped child slaves live and work in a massive factory, tormented by cruel robots called Watchers. This one's a real "pick me up." Enjoy. Ultimately, I believe it's fairly uplifting.

The Vale of Ghosts 
(and, to a lesser extent, its sequels)
The first volume of a paranormal fantasy series that is alternately creepy, gross, and strange. I suppose that's a vague description. Let's just say, it involves ghosts, weird underground creatures, hideous surgeries, and powerful magic.

Every once in a while, I sell a copy of something else (say, Dreams in the Void), but that's about it. So, if you're looking to read something I've written, I suppose one of the three listed above would be the place to start. At least until The Figment Tree comes out and takes over the world. See how I inject optimism into the conversation at the very end?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Figment Tree and Other Developments

Recently, I finished the first draft of another novel. It's an attempt to return to the Young Adult genre. At the moment, the working title is The Figment Tree, but it's subject to change. I've mentioned it before because I actually started this novel a long time ago. In fact, I had to dig through my old blog posts to figure it out.

Turns out, my earliest reference to it is from a post on June 29, 2013, when I wrote the following:

"As a final bit of news, I have an idea for another YA urban fantasy series I want to write next. It will be set in a trailer park in Bartlesville, Oklahoma."

I also made the bold claim:

"It will be the next thing I write."

Nothing could have been further from the truth. I managed a couple of chapters and gave it up for dead all those years ago. In fact, by October 9, 2013, I made the following confession:

"Of all the projects I have going on, this is the one that is getting most neglected. Sorry, Figment Tree. Don't take it personally."

And indeed, it wallowed in darkness until sometime late last year, when new concepts for the story coalesced inside my brainpan. I've been working on it ever since, hampered significantly by a hectic work schedule that consumes every single day of the week.

Anyway, The Figment Tree will soon see the light of day. As mentioned before, it is set in the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma in the summer of 1991, the summer, by the way, after I graduated high school. The protagonist is a 13-year-old boy who lives in a trailer park just off Tuxedo Boulevard. It's an urban fantasy, so it involves some magic and mystical elements, but I do believe the concept behind the story is fairly unique. I won't spoil it at this time.

Setting the story in 1991 is somewhat of a challenge. How do I evoke that summer without being too obvious about it? How do I avoid anachronisms of speech? I do know that "Winds of Change" by Scorpions was playing entirely too often on 104.5, so I'm sure that detail will make it into the story during the revisions. 

In the meantime, I've been uploading short stories to OMNI's new platform, so be sure to check them out. There's some truly weird stuff in there. You can find those HERE




Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Uninterruptible Avalanche of Short Stories

So I've been gradually uploading all of my old short stories from 2009-2010 onto OMNI's new writing platform. It gives me a chance to go back over the stories and make some minor changes. Anyway, they're all fairly weird. I encourage you to check them out. The ones that are currently available are:

Companion - One of my rare attempt at straight-up horror.

Heart Case - This fantasy story is clearly a comment about working a crappy job.

Planet Feast - I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote this one. A pulp sci-fi story.

Grandfather's House - This one has a sort of Twilight Zone vibe.

Profaning the Leistra - This fantasy story is a strange meditation on the meaning of ritual.

Seeing through Doors - Another unusual science fiction story.

Robo and the Little Door - This one could also be a Twilight Zone episode. Who or what does Robo represent?

Eating the Sickness - A short story that inspired some of my later novels, specifically Shadows of Tockland and Fading Man.

More to come. I've got a lot more of these buried in old hard drive folders.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

A New Platform for Long-Lost Short Stories

As I've mentioned before, I went through a "crazy go nuts" short story writing phase back in 2009-2010, churning out 22 stories in six months. About half of them found publishers, but the rest have just been sitting around waiting for a purpose in life.

Well, recently, I got a message from OMNI. You know, the science magazine. They've created a new writing platform called Vocal, where writers can submit "fiction, short films, personal UFO encounters, advances in science and technology, conspiracy theories, artificial intelligence fears, all things DUNE, and anything else you think people in the OMNI community would be interested in."

It seems like a good platform for some of these old short stories of mine. I submitted the first one yesterday. It called "Eating the Sickness." It's a story that almost got published back in 2010. The editor of a post-apocalyptic science fiction anthology was interested in it, but he asked me to make some major changes. I made modest changes instead, and when he said they weren't enough, we parted ways. This particular short story served as one of the inspirations for two of my later novels: Shadows of Tockland and Fading Man. Check it out HERE.

The second short story is called "Robo and the Little Door," and it's another one from that same period of time. It was one of the last short stories I wrote during that period of time before moving on to novels. I only tried submitting it to one place, and when it got rejected, I just tucked it away in a folder never to be seen by man nor beast. Check that one as well.

There will be many more to come, so click the little robot below and keep checking in!





Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Reappearance of Long-Lost Short Stories: Seeing through Doors

Here's another short story of mine that appeared in the now-defunct webzine called Absent Willow Review. Now, to be honest with you, I have no memory of writing this one, so I don't know why I wrote it or what it's all about. I do note a blatant thematic similarity with "Tinni and the Chain." It's weird stuff, friends. Enjoy!


Seeing Through Doors
By
Jeffrey Aaron Miller

Sometimes when the door opened, it coincided with another door at the end of the hall opening. When that happened, if Desset pressed himself against the far wall, he could see outside. The glimpse never lasted more than a couple of seconds, but even the briefest image of yellow sunlight on white pavement and neatly trimmed green grass lingered in his mind for days. At night, when he was locked in place, he dreamed of wind in his hair and warmth on his face. He always woke from these dreams in tears, gnashing his teeth to keep from wailing.
That fateful morning, he was floating in the residue of a dream when the director stormed into the room, his suit jacket unbuttoned and his crimson tie flapping up over his shoulder like a devil tongue. Desset had tools in either hand, and he was bent low over the open panel of a hover chair, but his mind was elsewhere, sailing through clouds in a gold-tinged sky. The director slammed a plastic folder down on the table, and the clatter of data chips roused Desset. He looked up into the hard and haggard face of Director Thane.
“Complaints,” the director said, flashing his big crooked teeth. “Endless complaints.”
Desset glanced down at the plastic folder, which had fallen open, gushing data chips onto the table like a disemboweled animal. He set his spanner down and picked up one of the chips.
“Oh, go ahead,” the director said. “Plug it in and see for yourself. Page after page.”
But Desset merely shook his head and set the data chip back on the table. It almost didn’t bother him. Almost. He knew he would think about it too much later, but his immediate reaction was only weariness.
“The quality of your work is plummeting,” Director Thane said, jabbing a fat finger in Desset’s face. “It is beginning to affect business. Customers are saying they won’t come back.”
Desset retrieved the spanner and made as if to return to work, but he only stuck his hands inside the open panel and held them there.
“What happens if this company becomes financially unviable?” the director asked, leaning in so close that Desset smelled the coffee and bacon on his breath. “What happens to you? Is anyone going to spend to money to have you relocated?”
“I shall work harder,” Desset said, but he said it too quietly and had to repeat himself to be heard.
Director Thane stared at him for a long uncomfortable moment. Desset didn’t return the look, but he could feel those big, bloodshot eyes boring into his skull.
“It might be too late,” the director said, at last. He picked up the folder and began scooping up the data chips, but then he seemed to change his mind and scattered the chips across the table. “You know what? I don’t even want to deal with them. If people come here to complain, I’m just going to send them to you. How does that sound?”
Desset pretended to tighten a screw. “That sounds fair.”
Director Thane nodded then gave a little snort and turned to leave. “A waste of money,” he said, with a broad sweep of his arm. “All of this. We should have sent you to prison.” And he stormed across of the room, the empty plastic folder clutched so tightly in his fist that it bent in half.
The door swept open at Thane’s approach, and Desset consider flinging himself against the far wall to catch a glimpse of the outside, but he was too tired to attempt it. So very tired. It felt like all of the strength had drained out of his body into the network of tubes beneath him. All he wanted was to retract against the wall, turn off the power and sink back into his dreams of sunlight.
Prison. Yes, he had thought about it more times that he could count. If the director had come that morning, opened a portal into a dark cell and offered to detach him, he would have accepted. Better a cell than this endless decay. He had thought about it many times and felt ashamed. How thankful had he been when the offer had first been made to put him to work in the factory? With tears of relief and trembling hands he had embraced the director. Good food, real work, no threat of punishment, and the chance to do what he felt gifted to do: tinker with electronics.
He hadn’t understood then that his freedom was only another prison. He had become a puppet on a stick instead of an animal in a cage, and which was worse? He took a deep breath, brushed the data chips to one side of the table and returned to work, but he felt as if a shadow hung over him. He had no other options if the factory went out of business. He was trapped. If some generous fool wanted to pay to have him detached from this place, shipped elsewhere and reattached, then maybe. But there were few generous fools left.
He had trouble concentrating on his work, but, then, he always did after a browbeating. A little voice in his head wouldn’t stop whispering, “Your doom draws near.” But he did finish, closing up the panel and tossing the spare parts into a drawer on the wall beside him. He tested the hover chair, and it seemed to be working. The lights came on, the lift gave a little whine, and the whole thing rose about an inch from the tabletop. Surely that was good enough.
He pressed the button that signaled he was done and swept across the room for a sip of water.
“Well, now, this is not what I expected.”
Desset was bent over the water fountain when the voice spoke. High and soft. He hadn’t heard the door open over the tinkling of water. He turned back and saw a woman standing just inside the room, dark hair and fair skin, a wry and slightly disturbed look on her face.
“Can I help you?” Desset asked, rinsing his grease-stained hands in the water and drying them on a dangling, ragged towel.
“Actually, I was told to come and complain to you directly,” she said, stepping further into the room. Her eyes were fixed on his attachments, the metal shaft and cluster of tubes that began at his lower back and curved into the wall. “Are you…” She swallowed, as if struggling not to vomit. “Are you connected to that thing?”
“I am,” Desset said with a sigh. This he did not need, to be gawked at like some kind of museum freak. “It’s standard practice for people like me.”
The woman crossed the room and leaned both hands against the edge of the table. “I guess I’ve read about it. I’ve just never seen it.” She shook her head and looked into his eyes, and the sickness melted into pity, which was worse.
“It’s better than being locked in a cell on a moon somewhere,” he replied. He was so tired, his words all ran together, but the woman seemed to understand him.
“Is it?” she asked.
No, Desset thought. No, not at all. But instead he nodded. “Here I can work. I’m never beaten. It’s well lit.”
The woman kept staring at him. She started to say something, but the words died on her lips. Finally, Desset turned away from her and began rooting through drawers, as if looking for something, hoping she would go away.
“What did you come to complain about?” he asked, finally, when he realized she was not leaving.
“My exercise platform,” she replied, sounding dazed. “It shorted out a few days after I brought it home.”
“I apologize,” he replied, digging his hands into a drawer full of tiny screws and sifting them through his fingers like sand. “Bring it back in, and I’ll work on it for free. We’ll even refund what you’ve already paid.”
“Okay, I will.”
“Thank you,” he said, before she could continue speaking. “Now, I really must get back to work. Have a nice day and goodbye.”
“Okay,” she said again and turned to leave. She took two steps, paused, and turned back to him. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, her fingers pressed to her cheeks. “Did they…Did they remove the rest of you?”
“Yes, of course,” he said, waving her away. “You agree to take the job, and that’s the deal.”
“For how long?”
“Forever,” he said. “It stays like this forever.”
“Would you leave if you could?” she asked, hesitantly.
He didn’t want to answer. It wasn’t a good idea to speak the truth to a customer, but when he tried to lie, the words stuck in his throat. “Yes,” he said, so quietly he didn’t know if she heard him.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Thank you for being honest. My name is Neoma. What is your name?”
“Desset. Now, please, leave.”
“It was nice to meet you, Desset,” she said and walked out of the room. The door closed behind her with a soft whoosh. Desset slid the drawer shut and turned back to the table. And he wept, tears spilling down his cheeks like poison. He clasped his hands in front of his face, and they shook like the hands of a madman. In that moment, he would’ve given anything, done anything, suffered anything, to be able to walk out of the room. A prison cell on a moon, yes, he would’ve crawled into it, curled his fingers around the cold bars and cried out in exultation if it could’ve been.
But no. This was the choice he had made, and he could never escape it. Never. He slammed his hands against his forehead until he saw stars, but the pain diminished the weeping, if only a little. Workers came in to pick up the repaired hover chair, and they glanced at him, frowning in disgust, but said nothing. As they left, one of them glanced over his shoulder and shook his head. By the time the lunch cart came through, he had mostly pulled himself together. He stared at his face in the mirror above the water fountain and saw red blotches around his eyes and on his cheeks.
“Time to eat,” the server said, pulling a segmented lunchbox out of the cart and setting it on his work table.
Desset wiped away the tracks of tears and glided back over to the work table. “Thank you,” he said, but the server was already wheeling the cart out of the room. He ate his lunch in silence, but the food had no taste. The sandwich might as well have been a stack of cardboard, the peas dust, but he choked it all down and sat staring at the empty lunchbox, feeling miserable.
The door opened again, and Director Thane strode in, scowling darkly. “I hope you enjoyed the complaints. That’s what I get to put up with a hundred times a week, thanks to you.” The door closed behind him, and he came to stop. “And this is why.” He gave the hover chair a push, and it sailed off the table, bounced on the floor and scraped its way across the room.
It came to a stop near the bend of Desset’s metal support rod. “I’ll take another look at it,” he said, pushing his empty lunchbox away from him.
“Willful incompetence,” Director Thane shouted. “I just got done screaming at you for ruining the company, and you have the nerve to send this shoddy piece of work back out?”
“It hovers,” Desset said. He felt the old weariness stealing over him, but a hard knot had developed in his gut.
“It scrapes the floor like a damned plow,” Thane said, shaking a fist at him. “That’s not fixed, you worthless half-man! That’s another complaint and refund waiting to happen.”
Desset could no longer stand the sound of the director’s voice. He deserved the scolding, perhaps, but it didn’t make him care. He didn’t care if the complaints flowed like a river through the front door and swept everything in the building away. He moved over to the wall beside the water fountain, but only because it was the farthest he could go. The hinge in the metal shaft gave him about a hundred and seventy-degree arc in which to move, the work table at one extreme, the water fountain at the other.
“You’ve ruined this company,” Thane said. “More than that, you’ve ruined yourself. If this place closes down, I can find other work, but you, you have nothing. You’ll be here when the wrecking ball knocks down the walls. Maybe that’s what you want?”
“No,” Desset said, bending over the water fountain, as if to take a drink. The little knot in his stomach was growing, like some furious worm feasting on his despair. “No, that is not what I want.”
“It has to be intentional,” Thane said. “This level of incompetence has to be intentional.”
Desset turned to the director. He spoke without thinking. “It is.”
Thane had one hand in the pocket of his jacket. He pulled it out now, clutching a fistful of data chips. “It is? It is intentional?” he shouted. “Did you just admit it?” He threw the data chips at Desset with a cry of rage. They hit his chest, his arms, his stomach, made high tinkling sounds as they bounced off the metal shaft, but they were as light as fingernails. He scarcely felt them. Desset watched them fall to the floor and wished he had feet to stamp on them.
“Financial reports,” the director said, still shouting. “The testimony of your failures, and you’re telling me you did it on purpose?”
Desset felt heat filling his chest, making his heart race. He gazed into the director’s wide, wild eyes and felt like he was looking into a void. “Yes, I did,” he said again. “Disconnect me and throw me outside.”
Director Thane shook his head, gnashed his teeth, and took a step toward Desset. “Don’t you tempt me. I did you a favor letting you work here.”
“You did not,” Desset replied, gliding back over to the work table. “You have a contract with the government, and they pay you well. If my services are not acceptable, disconnect me and throw me outside.”
“Believe me, if I could get away with it, I would,” Thane said, taking another step toward him. “I will see better work from you, half-man. I will see better work.”
Desset grunted and reached for the lunchbox. “Better work,” he said. He flung the empty lunchbox at the director. It hit him on the chest, spattering his blue shirt with the residue of peas and meat paste, and fell to the floor. “There’s some better work for you, sir.”
Thane stared at the lunchbox for a long, tense moment, then reached up, very slowly, and brushed the crumbs off his shirt. “That’s how it’s going to be, then.”
Director Thane rushed at Desset, head low, hands reaching. Desset saw him coming and shifted away, but Thane altered course, trapping him against the water fountain. He grabbed the collar of Desset’s shirt and slammed him into the water fountain, causing a great rush of agony at the place where the shaft attached to his spine. Desset cried out, and Thane clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Shut up,” he screamed. “You shut up!”
Desset screamed through his fingers. The agony sent a wave of nausea through him, and made his head spin. He screamed until his voice broke, and then he let out a last defiant hiss until he ran out of breath. Thane sneered at him and slapped him across the face so hard his vision dimmed.
“I will not be treated with disrespect by the likes of you,” he said. He slapped him again, this time so hard his head bounced off the wall. “Do you hear me, Desset?”
Desset felt blood running from his nose. His first instinct was to retract into his nook in the wall, as if that were an escape, but the fire still burned in him. The worm was restless and angry. He licked the blood dripping from his upper lip and spat it into Thane’s face. Thane made a grunt of disgust, and Desset, catching him off guard, punched him in the neck.
“I don’t want to fight, sir!”
The director staggered backward, clutching his throat and gagging. Desset didn’t wait for him to recover but rushed over to the work table, opened a drawer, and pulled out a small hammer. When Thane came for him again, a crazed light in his eyes, he threw the hammer at him. Thane tried to deflect it, but the head of the hammer caught him on the forearm with a loud and satisfying crack.
“I don’t want to fight,” Desset said again. “Disconnect me and throw me outside.”
Thane, his face distorted in pain, grabbed his injured forearm. “I’ll do worse than that,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I’ll do much worse.”
He rushed at him again. Desset turned back to the open drawer, fishing around for another suitable weapon, but the director was upon him. He grabbed his upper arm, fingers clamping down until it hurt, and jerked him away from the drawer, flinging Desset across the room. The hinge of his support rod gave a squeal of protest at the forced movement. Thane drew a screwdriver out of the drawer and came for him.
“If I hadn’t been worried about losing the contract, I would have dumped your half-self in the dumpster a long time ago,” he said, hunched over, the screwdriver held in front of his face.
Workers came to the door then, no doubt drawn by the screams. Thane rounded on them, red-faced, and yelled, “Get out! This is none of your concern. Go back to work!” And the workers fled.
Desset, seizing the opportunity when his back was turned, glided up behind him and grabbed the hand wielding the screwdriver.
“Let go,” the director said, in a voice like the snarl of a rabid dog. “I’ll carve your heart out.”
They struggled over the screwdriver, shifting back and forth in a kind of violent dance. When it became clear that neither would win, Thane drew his other hand back, balled up a fist, and punched Desset in the face. Darkness descended, and it felt like the world broke loose around him and drew back. As everything shrank into the distance, Desset thought, though surely it was only the old familiar dream, that he saw a flash of sunlight through the door.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
The voice roused him. His head had tipped forward onto his chest, but he lifted it. The sudden movement almost made him pass out again. His whole face felt numb, but his back was a sea of agony. Thane was stumbling away, a look of open-mouthed horror on his face.
The woman with the dark hair, Neoma, stood in the doorway. She had a purse in her hands, holding it up in front of her like a shield.
“I said, what in God’s name are you doing? Are you hitting him?”
“He attacked me,” Thane said, adjusting his tie and pulling his jacket back into place. “Things got out of hand, ma’am. Could you please wait outside?”
“He’s bleeding,” she said. She remained in the doorway, so the door wouldn’t close. Workers had gathered in the hallway outside. One of the workers had a large flat piece of black plastic held in his arms, which Desset recognized as the woman’s exercise platform, the very one he had failed to repair.
“He means to kills me,” Desset said, but the words were a mess. His lips felt a hundred sizes too big, and blood was running into his mouth.
“Foolishness,” Director Thane said. “Things got out of hand. I’ll send for a nurse to tend his wounds.”
“No, you don’t go anywhere,” Neoma said, rounding on the director but drawing her purse against her chest, as if she feared he might try to take it. “Don’t come near me. Don’t even move. What sort of an animal are you?”
Thane frowned and shook his head, clearly feeling that he had been grossly misunderstood. He started to speak, but the woman interrupted him.
“Desset,” she said, her voice softening. “I don’t know what you did to wind up here, but I won’t leave you like this.”
Desset gave her a brief smile, though it was forced and made his lips hurt all the more. Of course, she would leave him like this. She had no choice. He turned to the water fountain and began washing the blood from his face. Let the woman feel sorry for him, if she must, but she couldn’t help him. She was only going to make it worse between Desset and the director later, that he knew all too well.
“Ma’am,” Thane said, trying to sound patient though Desset heard the threat in his voice. “There is nothing you can do for him. He is a convicted felon under a government contract. If you want to detach and relocate him, you’ll have to buy out his contract and pay for the relocation, and, trust me, it’s more than you can afford.”
“Don’t you pretend to know me,” the woman said, her voice rising. “You don’t know what I can and can’t afford. You keep your mouth shut.”
“Ma’am,” he said again.
“I said shut your mouth!”
“Very well,” Director Thane said in a sigh.
Desset finished washing his face and hands and turned back to her. She was still in the doorway, still holding her purse against her chest. Thane stood in the corner, his head bowed, his brows knitted. He looked worried, not the enraged sort of worry that Desset was so used to but genuinely afraid.
“Desset,” the woman said, lowering the purse. “You were honest with me, and I want to help you. What can I do?”
Desset shrugged. He knew he should feel hopeful, even if the woman was out of her mind, but he felt only weariness and pain.
“Him,” she said, pointing at Director Thane. “Despite what he thinks of me, I could buy this company and fire him. He’s not worth much. If you ask me to, I will.”
“Now, please, let’s calm down,” the director said with an uncomfortable laugh.
“I could also call the police,” she continued. “Surely he’s not allowed to beat you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Thane said, clasping his hands. “I know I got carried away, but it won’t happen again. Ma’am, listen to me.”
She ignored him and took a step into the room. The door started to close behind her, but the gathering crowd of workers pressed in behind her and kept it open.
“Tell me what you want me to do with him,” the woman said. “And I will do it.”
Desset looked into her eyes as long as he dared. Misty eyes filled with pity, he could only manage it for a couple of seconds before he dropped his gaze. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was it possible? Was this woman for real? Desset glanced at Director Thane, at that big cinder block of a head, the sharp lines of his face, the hard glint in his eyes. Not a nice man, not a pleasant man, never a happy man. And Desset considered what, in fact, he really did want to do to him, the one who had contributed so much to his ongoing misery. Pick up the screwdriver and jam it into his eye socket? Seize the hammer and shatter his skull like an eggshell? Perhaps.
He considered, and Thane kept his anxious gaze fixed on the floor.
“I don’t want you to do anything to him,” Desset said. “It’s not his fault that I’m here. It’s my fault. I chose this, and, even though I didn’t understand the stupidity of the choice when I made it, I still can’t blame anyone else for it.”
The director swallowed hard and looked up at Desset, daring to smile. “Oh, Desset, thank you. I’m so sorry I lost my temper. It won’t happen again.”
Thane was so busy apologizing--it sounded abnormal on his tongue, like a language that he hadn’t yet mastered--that he didn’t notice the woman’s approach. She walked up to him, raised a hand, and slapped him across the face. Thane grunted, stumbled back into the wall and grabbed his cheek. Danger flashed in his eyes, and Desset fully expected him to charge the woman, but he didn’t. The workers in the hallway gasped and grumbled.
“That’s from me,” she said. She turned back to Desset and approached him. He found himself trembling as she drew near, and he almost retracted into the wall. “I can have you relocated, if you want. I will do whatever you ask of me. What do you want, Desset?”
He met her gaze and felt the room swimming around him. He was all too aware of what he looked like, pasty and thin, nearly bald, sickly, yet she reached out and took his hand and held it.
“What do you want?” she asked again.
And what did he want? He had dreamed many times of relocation, but now that it was being offered to him, he felt no real excitement at the prospect. He would always be a half-man attached to a metal rod, kept alive artificially by tubes. He would always be confined to a single room, always under contract, always working for unfriendly people as a convict. What difference did it make if it was Director Thane abusing him or some other bully, it all came to the same thing.
“There is one thing I would like,” he said.
“Tell me,” Neoma said. “Anything.”
Desset slipped his hand out of hers and leaned against the wall beside the water fountain. “Sometimes the door to the room will open just as the door at the end of the hallway opens. When that happens, if I’m standing here, I catch a glimpse of the outside. Maybe you could have the workers prop both doors open for me. Not all the time, of course, that’s unreasonable, but perhaps once a day, in the morning when the sun is brightest, have them prop the doors open for an hour or so. That would be enough, and I’ll work harder. I promise.”
She looked at him for a long moment, glanced over her shoulder at the door, then looked back at him. And she burst into tears.

* * *

The feel of wind in his hair and the warmth of sunlight on his upturned face. Even now, after a month, he still found himself sitting on the porch behind the guest house, eyes closed, just basking in it. When he wasn’t sitting on the porch, he was usually at work, though neither Neoma nor her husband required it of him. He owed her so much, the sense of gratitude was overwhelming, but he did what he could for them, repairing appliances that broke down or working on little projects around the house, hoping that in some small way, he could improve her life as much as she had utterly transformed his.
He heard the sound of her feet on the walkway and turned. A small concrete path led from the back door of her house to the porch of the guest house. She had a wicker basket in her hands, and as she approached, she held it up, smiling. He returned the smile and reached for the control stick of his hover chair. The irony of his situation, that he owed his new mobility to a hover chair, hadn’t escaped him, for it had been another hover chair, poorly repaired, that had almost cost him his life at the hands of Director Thane. Of course, designing attachments for the hover chair to suit his needs had been more expensive than he could bear to think about, but he meant to make every penny of it count.
“Lunch,” Neoma said, setting the wicker basket on a table near the door. She opened the lid, and the smell of baked chicken wafted out. Real meat, lab-grown, not that awful pink paste.
“You do too much for me,” Desset said. “I should be bringing lunch for you and your family.”
“Oh, stop,” Neoma said. “You’ve done work for us every single day that you’ve been here, and it’s not necessary.”
He glided over to the table and peeked into the basket. Chicken, peas in a small dish, bread, a bottle of wine. He shook his head.
She turned to leave but lingered. “No more seeing through doors.”
“Thank you, yes,” he said. “I mean to take a look at the thermostat on the pool this afternoon. I know it’s not been working right lately.”
She smiled at him over her shoulder and left. Desset’s gaze turned to neatly trimmed grass beside the walkway, swaying in the warm noon breeze, and then to the billowing clouds in the eastern sky.
“No more seeing through doors,” he echoed, and reached into the wicker basket for his lunch.



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Reappearance of Long-Lost Short Stories: Tinni and the Chain

"Tinni and the Chain" was the first short story I published when I began my writing spree toward the end of November 2009. It appeared in an online magazine called Absent Willow Review (Which, sadly, no longer exists). 


Gone Too Soon!

Anyway, without further ado, here is that story.



Tinni and the Chain
by
Jeff Miller


“Tinni, bring me my tea,” the old man said, one hand poised over the leather-bound tome on the desk before him.
Tinni rose from his place in the corner, grunting as a great thundering pain pierced his back. The chain hurt more than usual. Some days it felt like little more than a finger nagging at his spine, but today it burned like fire. He pressed a gnarled hand to the place where the iron links poked out of his flesh and struggled to cross the room.
“What’s the matter with you?” the old man asked, though his eyes didn’t leave the page he was reading. “Are you stalling for sympathy?”
“No,” Tinni replied, his voice a thick whisper spilling from mangled lips.
As he hobbled across the dark study, the chain dragged loudly on the wood floor. Tinni reached behind himself to pull up the slack, but a sickening stab of pain brought him up short. He paused, clamping his eyes shut to fight back the tears, and waited for it to abate.
Finally, with a lurch, he resumed his passage to the kitchen. The kitchen in the study was as far as he could go. The chain pulled taut at the far end of the room. This was not the real kitchen, of course. Tinni had heard of a dining room and kitchen in the lower part of the house, and, from what he could gather, it was a much more lavish place. There, apparently, the old scholar kept a long, fancy table and many, many shelves stocked with food items too exquisite to describe. He had been told these few things by some of the other servants, though they rarely dared speak to him.
“The water is already hot,” the old man said, turning a page in his book. “Just steep the tea and bring it here.”
Tinni attempted a “Yes, sir,” but it came out as a groan. The chain was off the ground, dangling between the post in the far corner and the anchor in his back. For a moment, he thought the pain might make him vomit, and he struggled to stave off the sickness. He dared not make a mess in the old man’s presence.
“What did you say?”
Tinni rested his arm against the edge of the stove, comforted by the warmth bleeding through the metal. He breathed slowly, deeply, and large drops of sweat ran down his forehead and cheeks. Gradually, the pain became bearable, and he reached for a rag to lift the steaming kettle.
“Tinni, did you hear me? I asked you a question.”        
Tinni heard the scrape of the old man’s chair on the wood floor. If the old man was distracted enough to get out of his chair—well, Tinni did not care to speculate on what he might do. He hadn’t the strength to contemplate punishment.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Tinni replied, cringing against the stove. “I heard you. I am bringing the tea.”
“Very well,” the old man grumbled. “Answer me when I address you. I have little patience for your foolishness today. I am studying. This is an important day for me. My new pupil will arrive this afternoon.”
“Yes, yes.” Tinni slid the dirty bit of rag around the kettle’s shiny handle and lifted. It was a thin piece of cloth, not enough to hold back the heat, but Tinni’s palms were such a patchwork of scars and calluses, he barely felt anything. “Tea is coming.”
“Steep it.”
“Yes.” Tinni poured the steaming water into a large ceramic cup, then retrieved a silver tea bulb and dropped it in. Immediately, the water discolored, rivulets of brown streaming out of the silver bulb. There was something familiar and beautiful about the changing of the water, and Tinni stood frozen, transfixed by the sight. He had an image in his mind, a vague image, but one that returned to him often, of a large body of water, like glass stretched between green hills, and something else, a terrible darkness falling, disrupting the calm water like a knife piercing an eye.
He was roused by an explosive thud, the sound of the old man’s book slamming shut. He stumbled, crying out in pain.
“What are you doing?” The old man yelled. “It doesn’t take that long to steep. Get over here.”
Tinni slipped the dripping bulb from the cup and set it on a pile of rags. “Coming, sir.” He took the cup in both hands, balancing it clumsily between crooked fingers. As he turned, his elbow caught on the chain, causing it to tug at his back. Tinni’s vision dimmed, and he stumbled, dropping the cup. It turned over, spilling its contents before hitting the floor and shattering into a thousand pieces.
“You stupid, stupid animal! You creature! What have you done?”
Tinni stared numbly at the mess of tea and ceramic at his feet.
“What have you done?”
       Tinni’s gaze rose reluctantly to find the old man towering over the desk, his palms pressed against the closed book. His dark hood had fallen back, revealing a pale face, wisps of white hair, and cold eyes.
“I’ll clean it,” Tinni said, wincing as he reached for a rag.
“Hold out your hand,” the old man hissed.
Tinni froze, swallowing a sudden lump in his throat.
“Hold out your hand, Tinni.”
“No, no, please…” Tinni drew his hands to his chest, tucking them under his armpits.
The old man bared his teeth. “You do as you’re told.”
Tinni drew a shaky breath and held one trembling hand in front of him. The anticipation was the worst part of it, sticking in his belly like a hot coal. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to, sir.”
“Stretch out your arm.” The old man demonstrated, thrusting one withered, white arm in front of him.
Tinni did as he was told, but he couldn’t keep the arm from trembling, the bent fingers from clutching at the air.
“You are clumsy, and you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing,” the old man said, his voice flat, calm. “And this will serve to remind you to do better.”
The old man’s wrinkled hand clenched. As it did, the air crackled between them, and Tinni’s hand erupted in red flame. He cried out, but he dared not move. He could feel the flesh of his hand peeling away, fingers crisping, until his knees buckled, and he collapsed on his side. He writhed on the floor, grinding against the spilled tea and broken ceramic.
“Enough,” the old man sighed, and, with a wave of his hands, the fire disappeared.
Tinni blinked tears and tucked his injured hand against his chest. He felt a black hatred for the old man, but it was a hatred tempered by pain. He hadn’t the strength to move, and, for a while, the old man let him lie on the floor, the tea soaking into his clothes, jagged bits of ceramic digging into his side.
“When you’ve recovered, get up and make another cup of tea.”
Tinni grunted and sat up. He examined the pink ruin of his hand, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks. He hadn’t meant to spill the tea. He hadn’t meant to. Why did that count for nothing?
Distantly, from some place in the house that Tinni had never seen, a bell rang.
“Ah, my new pupil has arrived,” the old man said, sliding his chair back and rounding the table. He hopped over Tinni’s chain and hurried for the door, pausing only a moment to glance down at his crumpled slave. “Clean up the mess, Tinni, or you’ll have more of the same. Understood?” Before Tinni could answer, the old man rushed out of the room, his footsteps fading down the hallway.
Tinni picked himself up, favoring his wounded hand. He leaned against the stove, staring at the smeared mess on the floor. He had made it worse by rolling in it, and the thought of cleaning it up made him dizzy. His burned hand was beginning to throb, and he knew it would be useless to him.
Tinni sighed and scraped bits of ceramic out of his tattered robe. It was just another day, really. Every day had its punishments of one sort or another. He told himself this, but it gave little relief.  He snatched up a handful of rags in his good hand and dropped them to the floor. As he stooped to his work, he felt a tug on the chain.
He drew in a sharp breath, his good hand grasping protectively for the small of his back.
“Well, look at you.”
Tinni stumbled out of the kitchen to find a small boy in the old man’s study. The boy was holding the chain in his hands, rubbing the dark metal with tiny fingers. Dark curls of hair framed his face, accentuating an angular jaw, narrow eyes.
“Don’t, don’t touch that,” Tinni said, waving him away from the chain. “The Master wouldn’t like you to bother me. I am his servant.”
“Oh, his servant? Is that what you are?” The boy gave him a puzzled frown and let go of the chain. He was dressed in many layers of fine cloth, robes that flowed one over the other. As he spoke, he ducked under the chain and glided over to the old man’s desk. “A servant doesn’t get chained to an iron post. A dangerous animal does.”
Tinni stumbled toward the desk, panic clenching his throat. “You…you mustn’t touch the Master’s things.”
Ignoring him, the boy hopped up on the Master’s chair and dragged the book toward him. “I can touch the Master’s things if I want to. He’s out of the room.”
Tinni approached the edge of the desk, careful to shield his burned hand. “Who are you?”
The boy glanced at him, and Tinni noted a peculiar intelligence in his eyes. “Why, I am the Master’s new pupil, of course,” he said with a smile, casually flipping open the old man’s enormous book. “And right about now, he is throwing open the front door to greet me.”
“You tricked him?” Tinni gasped. “But why?”
“Because I wanted to,” the boy replied, feigning interest in the intricate lines of prose scribbled on the pages the book. “And because I can. That’s a gift of mine--I can move about undetected.” As he said this last word, he waved a hand in front of his face and winked at Tinni. “But enough about me. Tell me about you.”
Confused by the boy’s request, Tinni said nothing.
“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” the boy asked, drumming his fingers against the open book. “Doesn’t the master teach you to be polite when you’re asked a question? He’s going to make me as great as he is, you know.” Something about the boy’s tone of voice struck Tinni as odd, but he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“Sorry, sorry,” Tinni muttered, backing away. His hand was hurting so badly, it was becoming harder to concentrate on anything else.
The boy rose suddenly, sweeping his robes back. “My name is Yurei. What is your name?”
“Tinni.”
“Tinni? That’s an odd name.” The boy pursed his lips. “Are you sure that’s your name?”
Tinni nodded as he backed toward his corner. He gathered up the chain with his uninjured hand and carefully piled it around the iron post, safely out of the way.
“Tinni,” the boy mouthed. “Tinni. How did you come to be in the Master’s service? Do you recall?”
Tinni shrugged. “I’ve always been in the Master’s service.”
The boy came around the table, his robes swishing with each step. “Always? Don’t be silly. Do you think you just blinked into existence with that chain stuck in your spine?” The boy shook his head.
Tinni cowered against the cold iron post. “Yes, yes.”
The boy leaned in close. “Can I tell you a secret? Will you keep it to yourself?”
“If the Master asks me--”
“Oh, I doubt he’ll even know I was here.” The boy winked again, his voice falling to a whisper. “Here’s the secret: I’m not really his pupil. He doesn’t have a new pupil.”
“Then…why…?”
“Why did I come here if I’m not his pupil? Very good question, Tinni, though awkwardly delivered. Mostly I came to implore you to escape. As soon as you have the opportunity, get out. Until then, don’t tell your Master about me. Normally, I would trust you not to say anything, but I’m afraid he’s stolen your memory. Do you remember the lake?”
“The-the lake?” Tinni eyed the boy, confused. “What is that?”
“Don’t worry. It will come to you.” The boy glanced over his shoulder. “Your Master will be back soon, so I’d better go. When you have the chance, pull that damned chain out of your back. I would do it myself, but I’d hate to wind up like you. That wouldn’t do either of us any good, would it? No. So you’ll have to do it yourself.”
The idea of pulling the chain out, a thing he had never dared to consider, much less attempt, made Tinni’s head spin. “No, no, I couldn’t. The Master would be unhappy.”
“Well, of course he would be unhappy,” the boy said with a laugh. “He put the thing there, didn’t he? I don’t think it will kill you to pull it out, though it might feel that way. Just keep pulling no matter how much it hurts. It should slide out.” He backed toward the door. “Don’t worry, it will all come back to you when you get that thing out of you. It’s his black magic, you see?”
Tinni shook his head, appalled at the idea of doing what the boy suggested. Was the boy testing him, hoping to plant thoughts in his mind that the Master could later read? “I can’t do that.”
“You can. You must.” The boy glanced over his shoulder again. Faintly, there arose the sound of footsteps in the lower hall. “That’s my sign, Tinni. Remember, come to us soon. Don’t let that old devil have his way with you.” He nodded and waved his hands in front of his face. “Until I see you…” And with that, a mist enveloped the boy, swirling around him like a captured breeze. Before Tinni’s eyes, he faded from sight, leaving a faint grayness that lingered for a time.
Tinni groaned and pressed his forehead to the floor. He tried to block the boy’s words from his mind, but they pounded at him. Could he really just pull the chain from his back? It didn’t seem possible, and even if it were, what price would he pay for doing so? The Master who burned his hand for spilling a cup of tea surely had much greater and more horrible punishments in store for the servant who removed his chain.
“Tinni.”
He glanced up to find the old man standing in the open doorway, his pale stick arms crossed over his chest. The corners of his mouth were turned down, a hateful glint in his eyes.
“What are you doing there in the corner?” the old man said, his voice low and contained.
“I was…I was…” But he could think of nothing to say. He swallowed heavily and crawled toward the kitchen.
“Did something happen in here?” The old man took a menacing step into the room.
“No, no.” Tinni scrambled into the kitchen and picked up the rags from the floor. “I’m cleaning up the mess, sir. I’m cleaning up the mess.”
“Damn you, look at me.”
Tinni dared not resist the coldness of the words. He clutched the damp rags to his chest and turned. The old man beckoned him close with one thin finger. Tinni approached, cowering.
“Look at me and answer,” the old man said, crouching so that his face was level with Tinni’s. “Did something happen in here while I was gone?”
Tinni whimpered but didn’t avert his gaze. “Yes, yes, there was a boy. There was a boy in the room. I told him to leave, sir. I told him.”
The old man nodded, his eyes slipping shut. “So, that’s what they’re up to, is it?” Suddenly, he clenched his fists. An invisible force slammed Tinni in the chest, lifting him off the ground and tossing him onto his back. He slid, the chain grinding against his backbone, and came to rest in his corner, howling in pain. “And why did you lie to me the first time I asked?”
Tinni groaned and rolled into his side, blinded by the pain. He held up his good hand to shield his face. The old man’s booted feet echoed like hammer blows on the floor, closing the distance between them.
“Did the boy say something to you? Tinni, did he say something to you? Did he tell you to lie to me?”
Tinni tried to respond, but his voice failed him. The words came out as strangled cries.
“I will ask one more time, and then you will be made to suffer. Did the boy say something to you?”
“He…he…” Tinni tried to speak, but a fit of coughing overcame him. He curled up on his side, tucking his head against his knees.
“He did say something, didn’t he? And it has made you disobedient. Well, they shall not have you. I will tear you to pieces before I let them have you.”
The old man stepped on Tinni’s injured hand, crushing it against the floor. Tinni opened his mouth to scream but managed only a thin hiss, as sickening needles of pain tore up his arm.
“I will tear you to pieces before I let them have you. Do you hear me?” And with that, the old man relented, turning with a whoosh of his robe and moving to his desk.
In the silence that followed, Tinni lay motionless on the floor, fearing he would pass out. Hoping, perhaps. But he didn’t, and the minutes slipped by, as the Master resumed his study, unmindful of his suffering servant. After what might have been an hour, two or three, even, Tinni roused himself and started for the kitchen, pulling himself across the room with his good arm.
“Finish cleaning the mess,” the old man said. “Afterward, we will talk.”
“Yes, sir,” Tinni replied, blinking sweat and tears out of his eyes.
By now, much of the spilled tea had evaporated or soaked into the wood, but Tinni mopped dutifully at the boards with a fistful of rags. The broken bits of ceramic he piled to one side. He worked slowly, wanting to put off the talk with the Master. What, after all, would he tell the Master if asked again about the boy? He couldn’t tell him what the boy had said. Surely, that would be the end of him.
Nevertheless, working slowly bought him only a few extra minutes. When he was done, he stared at the damp rags in his hand and waited, hoping the Master would forget about him.
“Tinni, set those rags on the counter and come to me.”
Tinni whimpered but did as he was told. He set the rags on the counter and stumbled toward the old man’s desk. The Master regarded him calmly, fingers steepled on the table before him. Tinni knelt near his feet.
“I was angry with you,” the old man said. “I was angry, but I am calm. Now is your best opportunity to tell me the thing that I desire to know. I want to know what the boy told you.”
Tinni pressed his good hand to his forehead, wiping away a layer of sweat and grime. “He said he was playing a trick.”
“Playing a trick? What kind of trick.”
“Making you think he was your pupil,” Tinni said, his gaze dropping to the floor. He was reminded of something the boy had mentioned--a lake. Tinni didn’t know what the word meant, but it sounded so familiar. Why did he feel as if some thought, some memory, had been placed just out of reach? “He said he wasn’t really your pupil. I told him, sir. I told him to leave your things alone.”
The old man hummed thoughtfully. “Tinni, this boy, he is very wicked. He belongs to an order of people who wish to destroy all that I have tried to build here, and if they succeed, they will destroy you, as well. Your only chance for life is here, as my servant, safe from their hands. You must trust me. You must obey me.”
“Yes, yes, sir,” Tinni said with an eager nod. “I will.”
“And what else did the boy say to you? What did he tell you to do?”
Tinni bowed his head and considered the boy’s words. For the first time in his life, really, he found he was not at all willing to tell the old man what he knew. There had been something terrifying about the boy’s words, and yet…and yet…it was as if the boy had shared some beautiful, secret thing with him, something that belonged only to them. To share it with the old man was to profane it.
“He said…he said I was stupid,” Tinni replied, relishing the taste of the lie. He met the old man’s gaze, expecting instant animosity, but the old man continued to regard him with a bland expression. “He said I was stupid and ugly. He made fun of me, and he messed with your things. I told him to stop, and he kicked me.”
“Did he?” The old man arched one eyebrow.
“Yes, yes, and then he heard you coming, so he went like this.” Tinni waved a hand in front of his face. “And he went away. I told him, sir. I told him to leave everything alone. I hated him.”
The old man considered this, one finger tapping his lower lip, then nodded. “I believe you, Tinni. I believe you because I know you wouldn’t look me in the eye and lie to me. From now on, be quick to obey and answer. Now, go back to your cleaning, and bring me my tea. This time, don’t drop the cup, and you will be spared further suffering.”
Tinni nodded and scampered back into the kitchen, careful not to trip over his chain. Dutifully, he stoked the fire in the stove and began reheating the kettle of water, but his mind was not on his work. The boy had told him to remove the chain, a thought that would never have crossed Tinni’s mind in a thousand years. Remove the chain! How could it even be possible? Just bumping the chain sent spikes of unbearable agony through his body. Perhaps the boy had been playing a joke on him, and perhaps the Master was right about him, that the boy was indeed wicked.
Still, the ideas, the possibilities that the boy had hinted at were too powerful for Tinni to drive from his mind. As he stooped to work, he reached behind himself, hoping to appear casual, and felt the chain, felt the harsh knot of skin around the first link protruding from his flesh. For a brief moment, as long as he dared, he grasped the first link of the chain in his hand, as though he were going to tug it free. Just doing that, holding it like that and imagining, made his heart race. What would it be like?
He smiled guiltily and prepared the Master’s tea. As he was bringing a fresh, steaming cup from the kitchen, he heard again the distant sound of a bell ringing. The old man muttered a curse and rose.
“What do these people think they are doing?” he said, slamming a fist upon the leather cover of his book. “They must know they can’t undo the spell. Fools!” As he crossed to the door, he pointed at Tinni. “Don’t you give me a reason to hurt you. If the boy comes back, kill him. Wrap that chain around his neck and pull it taut. Do you hear me? I want to see a blue-faced corpse when I get back!”
“Yes, sir.” Tinni whimpered, hunkering down in the kitchen door, the hot teacup still clutched in his hand.
“Let’s see this boy try his little tricks again. I will destroy somebody today.” And with that, the old man glided out of the room.
Tinni waited quietly, listening to the old man’s footsteps fade down the hall. When he was again in silence, he cast his gaze around the room expectantly. After a few tense minutes, he cleared his throat.
“Are you coming?” he whispered into the stillness.
There was no response. Tinni set the teacup on the floor beside him and grabbed hold of his chain, rattling it. It echoed in the hallway beyond the room.
“Boy, are you coming?”
With a sigh, Tinni retrieved the teacup. He stared at it, at the dark liquid, seeing again the image of the still water, the falling darkness. Tinni swallowed a sudden lump in his throat and flung the cup across the room. He regretted it as soon as the cup left his hand, but part of him felt a thrill of satisfaction as the cup shattered on the far wall, sending a spray of tea and ceramic shards in all directions.
Then the weight of what he had just done sank into his belly. Tinni’s jaw fell slack. The old man would kill him for this!
“Stupid, stupid,” he said, snatching up a rag and racing across the room.
Somehow, the chain got tangled around one of his feet, and he fell, knocking his head on the floor hard enough to see stars. Dazed, Tinni rolled onto his side. As he lay there, he realized he didn’t want to clean up the mess he had made. He had enjoyed making it. He picked himself up and flung the rag away.
“Boy, where are you?” he asked, peering anxiously at the pieces of the second cup. “I need to talk to you. Hurry, before the Master comes back.”
But the boy didn’t come. As the minutes slipped by, Tinni felt such disappointment, he started to cry. He wiped the tears from his cheeks and listened for the Master’s footsteps. It occurred to him that he could lie to the old man when he returned, tell him that the boy had been there, that the boy had flung the teacup across the room. Why shouldn’t the Master believe it? Tinni nodded and took a seat in the middle of the room.
As he sat in the silence, he reached once again for the chain at his back. He grasped the cold metal of the first link, gripping it as best he could with his crooked fingers. He wanted to pull it out. At that moment, he had both the desire and the will to do it. Tinni grunted, amazed at his sudden ability to disobey, but he paused. What if the boy had lied, and pulling out the chain would kill him? After all, hadn’t the Master told him, time and time again, that his only chance for life was here?
“Then I don’t want to live,” Tinni muttered.
He seized the chain firmly in his hand and gave it a sharp tug. The pain made his head spin, sent a shock of sickness into his guts, but the chain didn’t budge. He got on his knees and pressed his face to the ground to steady himself, then tugged again. This time, he thought he felt the chain give a little, but his vision dimmed. With a cry, Tinni pulled harder, sweat dripping from his face, pooling on the floor. The pain radiated out from his back, burning through his flesh and into his extremities, tingling in his fingertips. Yet slowly he felt the chain moving, sliding from his back with a moist gurgle. He screamed, his body clenching as if every nerve ending had been exposed.
And then, like a candle flame being snuffed, the pain dissipated. Tinni blinked and sat up, his body flooding with a strange warmth. In his hand, he held the chain, dark iron links that ended in a long, curved piece of blood-spattered glass. Tinni stared at it numbly. The glass hook felt strangely cold in his hand and much heavier than its appearance would suggest.
“Black magic,” he whispered.
And, with that, he slammed the glass hook on the floor, shattering it. A faint mist rose from the pile of bloody pieces like an escaping spirit.
Tinni took a deep breath and let his eyes slip shut. Warmth filled his chest, moving through his body like water, filling the empty spaces where pain had been, working through tissues and bones. It spread to his heart, and his thundering heartbeat gentled. It climbed up his spine, driving out the agony, and up into his skull. And then, like a veil tearing, memories returned to him. He saw the still water, saw it rushing up to meet him, saw his broken body sinking, bright blood discoloring the lake. He saw everything that had been taken from him.
Tinni rose effortlessly, for his body felt now as if it weighed nothing. When he opened his eyes, he saw his own arms stretched out before him, skin a translucent blue. The scars, the disfigurements, all of them gone. He gasped and gazed down at his body. Though he was still wearing the tattered robe of his enslavement, his body had changed. He was…he was beautiful, tall and straight-backed, radiating a faint inner light.
“What am I?” he asked, wading through the sudden inundation of returning memory.
“Tinni…” The old man’s voice choked on his name.
Tinni turned to the door. The old man stood there, frozen in mid-stride, one hand pressed to the side of his face. His mouth was open, working wordlessly.
“Welcome back, old man,” Tinni said, amazed at the strength of his own voice.
“He told you,” the old man said with a sneer, his countenance darkening. “He came back here, and he told you, and somehow he talked you into it despite all my threats.”
“No, he didn’t come back.” Tinni took a step toward the old man. Who, after all, was this fragile creature that had so terrified him? “He told me everything the first time. When you asked me what happened, I lied. I lied to you. When you punished me and asked again, I lied all the more.”
The old man stumbled back against the doorframe, baring his teeth. “Damn you. I will return you to your rightful place.” He raised his hands, waving them in the air. Traces of light followed his fingertips as the magic swelled.
Tinni hesitated, uncertain. He had no plan for dealing with the old man’s magic.
But the old man ceased suddenly, cursing, and dropped his hands to his sides.
“Why did you stop?” Tinni asked, taking another step toward him. “Your magic won’t hurt me, will it?”
“Indeed, it will,” the old man spat, backing into the hallway. “But I’ve no wish to destroy you. I will let you live, if you get back on your chain.”
Tinni laughed. “I would rather die, so do your worst, old man. Kill me now, or I am going to crush your throat with my hands and leave your body here in this room, this cell which you fashioned for me.”
“No, no,” the old man said, turning to flee.
Tinni lunged forward, seizing the old man by one sleeve, and jerked him back into the room. The old man fell in a heap, flailing his arms.
“Look at me,” Tinni said, pinning him to the floor with his knee. “Look at my face.”
The old man squirmed on the floor, trying in vain to twist out from under Tinni’s weight. Tinni grabbed him by the chin and forced eye contact.
“You took me by surprise out there,” Tinni said, gesturing vaguely beyond the confines of the house. “That’s the only reason you were able to shoot me out of the sky. You took me by surprise with your magic. That’s true, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes,” the old man whimpered, his eyes widening until it seemed they would pop out of their sockets. “I put a spell on an arrow and shot you from hiding. It took me six years to perfect that spell, six years and half my wealth. But listen to me, it was needful. I didn’t mean to harm you, and I regret your suffering, Tinni. I regret it, I swear to you.”
Tinni nodded, his grasp on the old man’s jaw tightening. “And my name is not Tinni. Tinni is a slave’s name, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I made it up, yes.” The old man grew suddenly still, his limbs going slack. “I was a fool. I captured you because I…I thought I could use you to perfect my magic. I learned so much, how to control a body, how to control a…a mind. It was all so terribly complex. I never meant to hurt you.” His voice quavered. “I could have killed you, but I didn’t. You owe me mercy!”
“I owe you nothing. I don’t think you can kill me,” Tinni replied. “You never could, so you imprisoned me in my own fear.”
“I swear I intended to release you when I finished my studies. I swear it!”
Tinni felt his anger give way to an unusual calm. He stared at his former Master now as one stares at a sick animal. “And now that you are finished, old man, I am going to release you.” With that, he wrapped his hands around the old man’s throat. “And may your soul go where it belongs.”
“No, no, wait, wait! I will help you return to your people if you spare me. The boy who came here, he was one of your people, a being of magic, one of the immortal Anulem like yourself. I will take you to him! I will take you to him!”
“No,” Tinni replied simply, clenching his fingers. When he heard the bones break, he released his hold and rose. He stared down at the broken body for a long time, numb. He didn’t relish the death, as he had imagined he would. It had been, in the end, a sad necessity.
He turned and stepped out into the hallway. As he did, his name returned to him. His name was Yaserelim. He said the name, enjoying the sound of it on his lips. Yaserelim, Son of Starlight.
He moved down the hallway, robed servants scurrying out of sight before him, ducking into shadows and doorways.
“You are free,” he called, loud enough that his voice shook the walls. “Your master, the father of your pain, is dead. You are free.”
A small window at the end of the hallway was open, letting in a breeze that stirred crimson curtains. Yaserelim strode to the window and leaned outside, breathing in the night air. There he saw the boy, suspended in the air and bathed in a nimbus of light, his multi-layered robes swirling about him like a million wings.
“Good to see you, brother,” the boy said, grinning. “Sorry I didn’t find you sooner, and sorry I left you to free yourself. But really, you had to do it yourself, you know that.”
“Yes, I do, Yurei.”
“Shall we go home, then?”
Yaserelim nodded and pushed himself out of the window, his arms catching the night air and propelling him upward. He turned his eyes to the moon, a brilliant silver sphere shining in the night like an eye wide and watching.  And he ascended from the earth with a cry of boundless joy.