I was going to rewrite a fantasy novel I first wrote in college. Really, I had every intention. I started and everything. The problem was the tone; it was completely off what I wanted it to be, and that was for lack of rereading the source material first. So that project is on hold.
Instead, I recently decided to redo a short story I wrote several years ago, because I wanted to put it in a longer format. The story is called Gray Area; the title is a double entendre. The original short story has a very conversational narrative tone, in which the main character tells the reader—as if he’s telling the story to someone he just met in a bar—about his alien abduction and escape, and how the situation evolved and deteriorated from there.
I’m relatively happy with the story, but I didn’t feel it was publication-ready. Like Both Sides of the Door, it felt like I was jumping from plot point to plot point too quickly. In short fiction maybe that’s a good thing, but the story was robbed of some drama and reflection that way. And reflection is the name of the game, here, because one of my main goals with the story was for readers to step back from it when they were done and have a good “Hmm” over it.
Let me put it this way. At one time I was planning to release my shorts in a collection. I thought it would be interesting to put a quote in front of each one. This is the quote I wanted to use for Gray Area:
I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world because they’d never expect it.
In the context of the traditional Grays, I found something positive in that quote.
The new story—whether it will be a novella or a short novel I have not yet determined, but so far it’s sliding into novel territory—is split into two parts. It alternates between present tense, in which the main character is telling his story to a reporter, and past tense, the flashback of what happened. If this style was good enough for Frederik Pohl in Gateway, it’s good enough for me.
Here’s a rough excerpt.
“Do you think that explains why some people remember their abduction experiences and some don’t?”
Holy cow, she’s actually buying this. Or at least, she’s acting just like someone who does. It’s so rare to have anyone take me seriously anymore, I feel relieved. I know Farley said Melinda would hear me out, and she told me herself she came open-minded and willing to listen. But just being treated like a sane person is refreshing.
“Maybe,” I say. “The darker ones. I’m sure there are some who didn’t get enough of the drug they prefer to use, or maybe had a weird interaction like me. But I want to be clear about this: Most self-described abductees really are crazy.”
“But how can you say that, after what you’ve been through?”
I shift on the couch a bit. “Well look at the stories some of them tell. One pretty common theme is that the experience is enlightening or uplifting in some way. People have conversations with these things and get deep, spiritually satisfying answers. They talk about getting a tour of the ship. That’s idiotic. The Grays are bad hosts, and worse neighbors.”
“And they probably don’t speak English.”
“I don’t know if their mouths could even handle it. And telepathy, well, that’s totally out of the question.”
“So you think most people are just making it up, or seeing things?”
“Some of it,” I tell her. “Some people, it’s all made up from whole cloth. The image of these things is fixed in our culture now. People grow up hearing about alien encounters. One bad dream or bad trip later, under the right combination of neurotransmitters, they’re off to the races.”
“And the others?”
“A lot of them are hazy about what they saw. Not surprising. And I’m sure lots of them have PTSD. They can’t repress the whole thing, so their brains try to fill in the gaps with puppy kisses and marshmallow clouds.”
Melinda seems willing to accept that answer. Her phone is still recording. If she saves the audio, she can make it the world’s most unnerving podcast. Maybe with a little music it’ll sound better. I’m always torn, remembering my bloody rampage through the ship, whether it should be set to Ride of the Valkyries or Yakety Sax.
“How many of the aliens did you kill?”
I pause to calculate. “Just on the ship?”
Her mouth freezes in a funny way when I say that, for just a moment. As if she hadn’t thought beyond the ship.
“That’s a very specific number.”
“I wanted to be sure of their crew complement, so I counted after. That’s 17 crew, that is. I actually killed more on the ship, in a very literal sense.”
She pauses again. “I don’t think I follow, but go on. You know, if you wouldn’t mind, I think I will have more cocoa.”
“Coming up,” I say with a smile.
She follows me into the kitchen with her phone in hand, presumably so it will pick up my voice clearly. She waits very patiently for me to rinse out the mug, refill it, and stick it back in the microwave before asking another question. The way she’s timing everything to avoid interruptions shows she’s conducted interviews this way before. Her professionalism is reassuring.
“So why don’t we skip past the other nine? I mean I don’t need to know the details of what happened to them. But you did kill all of them? No prisoners?”
“They didn’t surrender and I didn’t ask,” I say. “And the others we only encountered one or two at a time, in ambushes they had set up. They weren’t very effective.”
“If I had been thinking clearer I might have wanted to leave one or two alive, but in hindsight it wouldn’t have mattered. They wouldn’t have helped us, and they would just have been a distraction. I had my hands full enough as it was with Brenda and Corey, while they were both coming off the drugs.”
“Oh, right. Corey’s a boy we found aboard, not long after I cleared the command center. He was asleep until we woke him up. They hadn’t done anything to him except take him, as far as I knew. He came from Delaware, I think. It was an east coast night for them.”
“A boy, you say? As in a child? How old was he?”
Melinda curses under her breath. I don’t know if that’s to help gain my trust, or if she’s as genuinely pissed at the injustice of it as I was.
“Well Sung-li was only four,” I add. “Did you know four is an unlucky number in Taiwan?”
She nods back. “All of China, I think. But we’re off-topic again. How did Brenda react to any of this?”
“To the ambushes, not well. She froze up. Fortunately I was in enough of a killing mood for the both of us. As far as finding Corey, well, that made her really mad. I think she pictured her own kids there, and she lost it. Temporarily, of course.”
“I can imagine.”
“By that point I had killed off most of the crew. Once Corey was awake and following me down the hall, he wasn’t as afraid of confronting them as Brenda was. But then, neither was she, after she got worked up. Even past the point where she couldn’t remember why she was mad, she was still pretty darn furious. So she stopped freezing up, but she was still useless in a fight.”
“Did Corey kill any of them?”
“No. There were only three or four left anyway. I kept him at the back of the pack because I didn’t want him to have to do what I did. I thought a 12-year-old might be too impressionable. Either he’d freak out over killing something himself, or he’d get a taste for it.”
“What about you?”
“I’m an adult. I have perspective. Killing a dangerous animal isn’t something you shy away from or develop bloodlust over; it’s just what you do to survive.”
The microwave beeps again. She digests what I’ve said. I think it’s kind of wise in its way, but she’s perceptive enough to see that’s not exactly how I looked at the situation.
“So you were dispassionate about what you had to do?”
“Hardly.” Two scoops of the mix go into her mug.
“Maybe another half a scoop,” she says. “Can you clarify that?”
This is always a difficult concept to explain, but I give it a shot again anyway. “If you saw a squirrel hurt by the side of the road, suffering, certain to die, would you kill it?”
“But you’d feel bad about it. Because you had taken a life.”
“So would I. What about when you swat a fly?”
She takes the mug and stirs the hot chocolate herself, watching the little vortex swallow up the powder. “I don’t think twice about it,” she says.
“Now what if it’s a deer fly, and it bites you? Let’s say in a tender spot, right behind the knee. How do you feel about swatting it then?”
Melinda says absolutely nothing. She knows where I’m going with this, and she’s trying to decide if she’s okay with it.
“You see,” I say, “it’s a little too deep for a 12-year-old. Their moral landscape is high-contrast. You don’t appreciate the subtle topography until you have experience.”
She sips the drink again. Bad guys don’t make you hot chocolate, do they? Poor girl, I’m afraid even she might be too young to appreciate this concept.
“It’s good that you didn’t let him do any killing, then,” she says. That’s awfully non-committal. Means she’s still figuring it out herself.
“Well…” I say, the same way you’d tell a friend you might have driven his car into a pond. Her eyes give me the classic what-did-you-do; I get that a lot. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”