Ignoring the Rules, and Other Stuff

Every mistake in the rule book, or how to ignore them all and write a bestseller.

The first time I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, many years ago, I hated it. Who’s speaking? Doesn’t the guy know how to use apostrophes? It wasn’t so much that my inner grammar nazi was offended, it was just a very hard book to read. Unrelievedly dark. Depressing. And then to have to struggle through figuring out who was talking because the characters didn’t have names.

I don’t know what kind of mood I was in when I read it, but I obviously wasn’t ready for a book that required patience and thoughtfulness from me. So this week’s reread was very different. I let the book speak to me, and what it said was that the rule-breaking was deliberate and had a point. If I didn’t get the point, that was my problem. I’m not interested in critics’ interpretations of the book because I know what it said to me. The world is dying due to some unspecified disaster. Everything is gone. The characters have no future, and are just struggling to survive from day to day.

Life has been pared down to the basics, which includes language. What is there to say, between two people in such circumstances, that needs elaboration? McCarthy’s language plods on, just as the characters do, with rare escapes into dreamlike segments that might be memories, might be a mind rising, for a short time, out of hopelessness, or might be hallucinations.

A master of story telling can break all the rules and make them serve him.

The face on the cover: is it becoming a woman’s world?

I can’t help but notice, as I browse through several categories of Amazon’s best seller lists, that females have taken over the covers. Since my first impression of a book and whether I want to read the blurb is the cover, I’m finding fewer and fewer that make me willing to take the next step. As far as I can see, on the basis of dipping in here and there out of curiosity, most of those books are about either kick-ass female heroes, or romances snuck into categories in which you wouldn’t normally find them, purely in order to gain more sales.

I read a fair amount of science fiction, so my eyes skim over most of the covers these days. I’m a long-time SF fan, but of serious, even literary SF. Judging by Amazon’s best seller lists, there’s very little of that being written. The dominant themes are women acting like the most stereotypical men, or acting like the most stereotypical women in new settings which most of the authors are unfamiliar with and write in the least convincing ways.

Trends come and go, styles change, society changes, but not all change is for the best.

 

How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

How long does it take me to write a novel, from start to finish? As long as it takes, which might be, and usually is, several years. How many drafts go into a novel? Another unanswerable question because I pick up and drop WIPs, and pick them up again, for all sorts of reasons, or no apparent reason at all. My writing life is in a perpetual state of disorganization, flux, chaos, whatever you want to call it, and it works for me.

Ideas are always running through my head, against a background of unanswered questions about this WIP or that, even the ones that I’m not currently working on. Out of this mess comes the answers — usually. All this came to the foreground this morning as the solution to an ongoing problem with Bentham’s Dream came to me with no warning.

The question: Why would the warden of a secretive prison sit down with the first inspector to invade the premises in the 40 years of the prison’s existence, and reveal all (or nearly all) to him? I fooled around with motives like trust: for some reason, he knew that this inspector would keep everything to himself. The long-pent up doubts about his position and the whole concept of total solitary confinement, and no longer concerned about the possible consequences of his revelations. Well, there were others, also, but none of them satisfactory. This morning’s solution is truly the solution I’ve been looking for. It unites two ideas that my mind had kept totally separate, for some reason.

It’s a mystery why I couldn’t have seen the obvious need to combine them much sooner, but mystery is a good part of creative writing. Maybe I’m just trying to justify my lack of discipline, but it seems to me that you longer allow a piece of fiction to simmer and develop, the more chance there is of finding the best solutions. Not the solutions that let you zip through several thousand words a day or produce several novels a year, but the ones that bring characters to life, that result in a plot that seems inevitable rather than manufactured.

In today’s dominant emphasis on building a career, on treating writing as a business, taking the long path to a finished novel can look suicidal. It can certainly dump you in the waste bin called hobby writer, ignoring that, by those standards, many of the past’s great writers were mere hobbyists.

 

Re-finding Me

I’m in a strange place, mentally, and have been pretty much for the last three months, ever since a stay in the hospital and a diagnosis of heart failure. Well, at 80, what can you expect? But the place I’m in, and it’s a damned boring and uncomfortable place, isn’t part of being 80. It’s being, for the rest of my life, a heart patient, after avoiding doctors altogether for many past decades. That inevitably involves medications. Which means putting up with, working around, or refusing to accept the many side effects. It also involves meeting, on a daily basis, one’s own mortality, without the luxury of thinking about death as something that will certainly happen some day, but far enough in the future that it’s more or less an abstraction at the moment.

Believe it or not, that isn’t the real problem for me. The real problem is that I haven’t been able to write. The drugs that are helping me avoid a heart attack or stroke are sucking out the essence of what it means to be me at my best. And empowering my worst qualities. Which, if you think about it, isn’t too different from the drugs that help people with severe mental illness. It isn’t that unusual for people who are bipolar to go off their meds because the drugs kill their creativity. I won’t try to compare the fear of sinking into a cycle of depression/mania with the fear of your heart giving out on you. When you are attacked and diminished at your core, the pain and fear are the same for everyone.

What I’m working through is more complex than how do I recover my creativity and get back to writing. My concept of who I am as a writer and why I even want to write is changing. As I wrote to a friend earlier today, “I’ve given up on the idea of “making a difference,” so if I continue to write, it’s for myself and for the few who stumble on it by accident. I don’t have the talent to “write for the ages” so I have no illusions or guilt about not making more of an effort.” But the itch to write is there, unrelenting, so I have to figure out how I’m going to move on from this state of paralysis. I have to re-find myself, but accept that the self I settle into isn’t going to be exactly the old one.

Maybe that means I can be more relaxed about my writing. Maybe I can let myself choose what to write based purely on how much I’m intrigued by the story rather than how “important” it will be or whether it makes a difference — says something profound enough to change someone’s life, change the world in some small way. Yes, I’d like to “write for the ages,” but since I don’t have that kind of talent I need to leave my self-judgmental attitude behind. I don’t have enough time or energy left to waste on impossible standards. There’s no sin in writing books that don’t have a message. I just have to keep telling myself that.

Trapped by Details: an Epiphany

One of the side effects of a medication I’ve been taking for a couple of months is insomnia — serious lack of sleep. There are moments when I think this could be a good thing because the hazy state between sleeping and waking is often the source of ideas and insights — and there has been a lot of hazy state . Alas, those ideas and insights seldom carry over into the daylight hours. If I could just lie there in the dark and dictate into a recorder, who knows what marvels of novelistic fiction I could create. Well, that’s never going to happen, but once in a while, something worth pursuing does survive until morning and daylight.

A recent night was one of those frustrating on/off sleep/wake stretches that had me wanting to just get up, wander around the apartment, find something to do, and forget about sleep altogether. But I stuck it out and let my mind do the wandering. And what happened was that I had a sort of vision. I haven’t been able to write at all for the last two or three months, so part of the night’s mental meandering is often about trying to select the ongoing WIP most likely to have a chance of sucking me in and getting my fingers back on the keyboard. Gift of the Ancien is always one of those being considering — and discarded.

But last night, I saw that novel in an entirely new way. It was as if I was standing off from an actual, physical construct, and seeing it as an object independent of details like voice or characterization, and stripped of my personal interest in and attachment to it. I can’t regain much of the feelings I had about this new view, but the image itself is still fairly clear in my mind — and its meaning. Although I can’t reconstruct or explain how I came to it, the meaning of the image is that this particular novel (and several others), has been a challenging puzzle to work out, and that challenge is completely independent of the novel’s importance to me. In other words, I’ve been sucked into an ongoing attempt to solve a puzzle (or a handful of puzzles), fascinated by the challenge just as certainly as any game player. It’s the intricacies of that particular story that I’m attempting to work out, without any consideration of whether it has enough value to me to justify the time and energy I’m putting into it.

I also had brief glimpses of a couple of the other WIPs being bounced around as possible ways out of the black hole of wordlessness. Most of the insights are gone, damn it, but there was the sense, however vaguely I can see or express it now, that those WIPs had value apart from the details. Their value — their meaning — to me, personally, was more important than the puzzles they represent, or the working out of the puzzles. Ancien, on the other hand, even though it would have value as a published novel, and possibly of more value than the others, has no other value to me.

On a superficial level, this all boils down to the question of why I write: for money, or for myself. But now I can see it isn’t that at all. The real question is: is this a story I really care about, for its own sake, or is it just a container for intriguing puzzles? I turns out that anything I write for myself has a boundary far beyond me. It’s an idea or collection of ideas, that I hope will draw readers looking for more than entertainment. Of course, every novel is a series of puzzles to work out; maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for writers, especially writers who aren’t particularly successful in the fame and fortune arena.

I still haven’t settled on a WIP to drag me out of the creativity black hole, but at least I have a better basis for making that selection. Ancien, as strongly as its puzzles fascinate me, needs to be put aside where it can’t tempt and distract me. The same is true of several other WIPs in various stages of development. Maybe if I can get them shoved under the carpet and use the imagery from my vision, I’ll find the piece that will inspire me to get back to writing.

 

 

Trauma and Creativity: Off the Beaten Path

The last couple of months have been a no-writing zone, and the medical issues responsible probably aren’t going away anytime soon. The devil’s brew of meds I’m taking probably has something to do with what I perceive as a cognitive decline. Not anything so serious that I can’t function more or less normally, but certainly getting in the way of sustained work on writing projects. I’ve also come to see this non-productive period as similar to the one I went through after the apartment building fire and having to start my life over. Call it trauma, or even a mild form of PTSD. It’s a psychological shock to the system, and it’s bound to have effects on intellectual function. But what I learned last time is that it doesn’t last forever. Even the destruction of the belief in a healthy old age has to be accepted, and adapted to. Unless I want to take on the role of victim.

In spite of the cognitive decline, which includes a loss of focus for sustained work, creative insights keep coming. Since my novels tend to take at least a couple of years for development and completion, the current slowdown doesn’t seem terribly significant. What is significant is that the bursts of creativity are based, as they always have been, on input from my reading, both fiction and nonfiction, including current news. When I can’t write, I read, as always, and probably more obsessively. And there is no way to anticipate what will trigger sudden insights into an ongoing piece of work.

A Well-Educated Boy isn’t the WIP I’m currently working on (or trying to work on), but it’s the one that’s developing most actively in terms of plot and characterization. One of the interesting things that happens when a novel develops over a long period of time is that it can change significantly from my original concept. In the case of Well-Educated Boy, the emphasis has been shifting from Hart’s discovery of what lies behind the peaceful facade of his hometown, to the psychological changes he goes through over the course of the novel. The strong influence here comes from several novels that portray, to one extent or another, the development of the central character from childhood to maturity.

Both as a fictional theme, and an aspect of real life that puzzles and intrigues me, the maturation process and the possibilities of future potential are an endless source of material for the creation of complex characters capable of surprising readers. Richard Herley’s The Earth Goddess was the first book to focus my attention on this theme, and is still central to how I think about my characters. That’s followed in importance by the Phoenix Legacy trilogy by M. K. Wren, and more recently by Lion’s Blood, an alternate history by Steven Barnes. What is important is the many different paths by which a character’s temperament and life might be formed, and how the one chosen or forced on them determines the shape of the fully formed adult.

In the case of Hart Simmons, his developmental arc ignores the usual young adult trope, in which our youngster overcomes a major negative force, such as an oppressive government, and becomes something of a hero. Instead, Hart has to acknowledge a power that is ubiquitous and fully capable of swatting him aside if he attempts to face it down. The question then is how he manages to live with that understanding without succumbing to hopelessness and acquiescence.

Well-Educated Boy is dystopian science fiction as well as young adult fiction, and this is another area where I want to ignore the usual themes in favor of something more complex and realistic. So Hart will experience two kinds of dystopias, the one in which he lives, as a citizen of a corporate-owned town, and the one taking place outside that cocoon, one not very different from our current reality in many ways. Compare and contrast.

A lot of this hasn’t been worked out yet, of course, so I’m prepared to be surprised.

The Keyboard Still Waits

It seems that my post of April 2, Getting Back to the Keyboard, was somewhat over-optimistic. What seemed like a one-time health incident has become the too, too solid foundation of my existence, a fact that isn’t going to change signifcantly. Whether I blame it on the condition itself or the ever-increasing and changeable assortment of meds I’m taking, writing creatively, or writing more than a few lines at a time, has become a distant goal that doesn’t seem to be coming any closer.

But the new kind of nights, boring, frustrating, frightening, in which sleep stays away for hours, at least has one use. I have plenty of time to think about what I still can’t write. The rewrite of Gift of the Ancien got sideswiped, the actual writing of it, but there’s no shortage of new ideas. Nothing is for sure until the actual words can be put down, but some of the ideas address — or seem to address — the ongoing weaknesses in my writing. So maybe this rewrite — if and when it happens — will not just improve the novel but take me a step closer to being the writer I want to be.

Is a two-paragraph blog post a step toward that goal?

Theme and Variations

One of the topics currently under discussion on a writing forum is theme. The post’s author stated that she sometimes feels as if she’s writing the same book over and over again.  I can certainly relate, having recently taken note of the overwhelming presence of various kinds of oppression in my stories. You can probably make a good case for the presence of a dominant theme in the work of many writers. After all, any theme you choose — or that chooses you — can probably be explored endlessly in all its complexity and variability.

My particular concern, when looking over my published work, with an eye to writing projects still in process, is whether I am, unconsciously, telling the same story over and over, merely changing the settings and the names of the characters. I can see that I concentrate on the character suffering oppression, whether as a prisoner, a slave, or someone caught up in the gears of a society suffering the strains of unanticipated and extreme changes.

But what about the people or the social forces responsible for the oppression? They are the source of the novel’s necessary conflict, but I think a closer examination of my published work might show that I sometimes allow them to remain shadowy figures that aren’t fully developed. The source of conflict in a novel can’t be an abstraction; the protagonist must be doing more than punching the air against a mysterious figure that fails to reveal itself.

There are many ways to approach theme, and that includes discovering it after you’ve written the first draft, and then developing it more fully. Chuck Wendig, bless his foul-mouthed heart, offered some valuable views of theme in an old post. Go there. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/09/26/25-things-writers-should-know-about-theme/

Getting Back to the Keyboard

Being too sick to write is a new experience for me, and one that’s been made even more difficult and unpleasant by dragging on for about six weeks. I’m far from well, still, but maybe improvement can be measured by the ability to at least think about writing. As always, when there’s been a hiatus, I have to go through the process of deciding exactly what I’m going to write. Which means which ongoing project am I going to pick up.

Normally, I have some internal reason for choosing one project over another, but now a new factor has come into play — money. As happens to many in this greatest of nations with the worst health care system in the world, one catastrophic illness means that I will spend the rest of my life deep in debt. I will never write the kind of book that could wipe that out, but I do have choices that are somewhat more likely to find readers than a couple I’ve been working on recently.

Gift of the Ancien and A Well-Educated Boy are far from commercial, but both have the potential to be tweaked a little way in that direction. Of the two, Gift is complete and has been through a certain amount of rewriting, so it’s the obvious choice. It would also be nice just to see it finished and published since it’s been in the works for several years.

I probably won’t be able to do a great deal of work each day, but it feels good to anticipate getting started. Onward and upward!

Dipping into Young Adult — Divergent

Divergent has not been on my TBR list. In fact, I fully intended to never read it. Why? Because when I read the description and some reviews, the basic premise seemed just as ludicrous as the premise of Hunger Games. I did read Hunger Games a couple of years ago, out of curiosity, but that curiosity was more than satisfied with the first volume. So when Divergent came along, it was a big unh uh for me.

But when I had the chance to buy it for a measly dime a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well give it a try. It’s still ludicrous, and I still have little sympathy (if that’s the right word) with the trend (if it’s still a trend) of pumping ordinary kids up into unbelievable heroes in order to make teens and young adults feel good. So it’s a girl. Yay! And she soldiers on with a bullet in her shoulder. Yay! But this kind of book isn’t about realism, so that’s just my take.

However… I’m glad I read it. Since the action, at least, is somewhat closer to reality than Hunger Games, and it’s well-written, for the most part, it gave me some insights about the development of A Well-Educated Boy. For one, it reminded me that my writing is still too barebones, and that Boy is likely to suffer from that fault. Almost any book will benefit by a richly described world, and deep diving into the main character’s inner life, but I think young adult science fiction really demands it. Until very recently, I wasn’t even thinking about Boy as young adult, so there’s that transition to get through.

Another insight is about titles. While I love A Well-Educated Boy, and it conveys the theme of the plot, it’s meant to be ironic, which isn’t apparent until you’re well into the novel. Plus, doubt that most younger readers will even catch it. Even worse, it sounds like the title of an essay on education. Not exactly a hook for curious minds. So, from now until the book is actually finished, I’ll be tossing around more catchy titles. At the moment, a better one seems like an impossibility, but maybe that’s because I’ve lived with this one for so long that it’s embedded in my brain.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

I had planned to serialize half of Privileged Lives, but from the number of views so far, it seems that no one is interested. I’m not enthusiastic about reading serials, myself, preferring to let the chapters pile up until there’s a good sense of story, rather than read them one by one as they come out. General readership has also dropped like a stone while I’ve been serializing. So I’m going to do two more segments and then get back to the kind of stuff that this blog is usually about. Serializing is boring, anyway.

There was a discussion recently about an article someone had written after trying out Hemingway, one of the editing software programs that’s supposed to make you a better writer. I think the basic concept of Hemingway is a poor one, and the article’s author illustrated that pretty well with some samples. That’s one post coming up soon.

Privileged Lives — Chapter three, Part two, Linden

Linden sat in numb silence between the two soldiers. The statement that they had a plane to catch didn’t make any impression. He hardly took note of the long ride and the way it was taking him farther away from his mother with every minute that passed. That all came later.

But there was finally an end to the trip, at least that part of it. They got out of the car and walked from an almost-empty parking lot to an almost-empty airport waiting room. Linden started to wake out of his stupor and looked around. The place didn’t look anything like the airports in movies. The waiting room was small and he could see the airfield from the big windows. There were no big passenger jets, just one small plane, looking lonely and, somehow, ominous. Sharing the waiting room with him were more soldiers and a few kids his own age. A soldier with a clipboard in his hand, walked over to him.

“This Linden Thomas?” At a nod from one of Linden’s guards, the man made a mark on the clipboard and said, “We’re all here, then. I’ll let the pilot know we’re nearly ready to go.”
Linden became aware that someone was staring at him. When he lifted his eyes to the huddled group of kids, he saw three girls and three boys. One of the girls was crying. One boy’s eyes were suspiciously red and swollen, and he glared at Linden as if he was to blame for their being here. Or maybe he was making them late. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. He clenched his fists and glared back, then walked over to a seat near the wall. The soldier with the clipboard stepped in front of him. Instead of the clipboard, he was holding a metal bracelet.

“Hold out your left arm, son.”

“Why?” Linden asked, the spirit of resistance suddenly raising its head. It was much too late, but it made him feel alive for the first time since he’d walked away from his home. “Suppose I don’t?”

The soldier closed his eyes, mumbled something and then gave him the expression that adults gave kids who were being annoying. “It won’t get you anywhere, you know. Just give me your arm.”

Linden didn’t move. He watched the man’s hand reach for his arm. Watched the bracelet being put around his wrist and heard the snap of a catch. It wasn’t his arm, he decided. He would simply refuse to accept that it was his arm, encircled by a bracelet of cold, hard metal.

“It’s a temporary ID, in case you’re wondering. It’ll be removed when you get your permanent ID.”

The hand let go of his arm and he let it drop. It took with it the brief flareup of rebellion and the cold numbness returned. When a door opened a few minutes later, Linden followed the others out onto the tarmac and up the metal steps into the sleek two-engine plane. He’d never flown before, and a little voice in the back of his head kept trying to tell him he should be excited. He let himself be directed to a seat, let the drone of the engines lull him. He ignored the voices of the soldiers in quiet conversation, and the sudden cry from one of the girls: “I want to go home,” and the sobbing that followed.

He dropped into a shallow doze that was broken just for a few seconds, every now and then by a raised voice. The first bump when the plane hit an air pocket jerked him fully awake, panicked. But no one else seemed alarmed, and he allowed himself to drift off again. Vague thoughts floated through his mind and disappeared. He should look out the window and see what the world looked like from up here. He should pay attention to what was going on around him. He should remember all this so he could tell his mother about it, later. The thoughts faded and he slept again. Suddenly, it seemed to him, they had arrived at another airport and were leaving the plane. There was another long ride, in a van this time, with the other children and the soldiers who’d been on the plane with them. The slamming of a heavy metal gate finally brought him out of his daze. He got out of the van with the others and found that they were surrounded by buildings that said ‘college,’ but it didn’t look anything like the pictures in the brochure. We’re here. Wherever here is. The van drove off, and the soldiers who’d come with them headed to another part of the campus.

Eight adults stood in front of the small group. One was a tall man in a uniform that was much fancier than the ones the soldiers had worn, and with shiny decorations on the shoulders. He stepped forward and ran his eyes over the seven children. “You look tired, youngsters. It’s been a long trip and I’m sure you’d like to rest. I’m Major Cornwell, provost of Merriman College. I want to welcome you as the latest members of this year’s class. And the last to arrive.”

Linden stared at him, trying to work out the meaning of the uniform and the rank, and everything suddenly clicked into place. He shuddered. If this was a military academy, he wasn’t going to survive. He’d failed his high school’s compulsory cadet training program quite spectacularly. They’d thought it was just a bit of childish rebellion, that he would give in eventually, but he hadn’t. He refused to wear a uniform. He refused to march. He refused to learn the commands or the stupid pledge that they were supposed to recite. He’d won, as far as that was possible. He had to attend, but he’d been allowed to sit on the sidelines while the other students drilled. He was sure that failure here would be get him more than reprimands and a bad grade on his report.

“I’m aware that not all of our students are pleased to be here when they arrive, but that will change, I assure you.”

I’m not the only one. I bet none of them want to be here. The major confirmed every hateful word of the instructions, every word from Mrs. Kinney’s lips. He’d been tracked, like an animal, and all they had to do was wait for the right time to capture him. He’d never had a chance. Maybe some of the students were proud of having been selected. Maybe they even liked it here, but he would never be one of them.

The major waved his hand at the other adults and stepped back into the line with them. “These are your tutors. They will also be your advisors and, we hope, your friends. They will be sharing your quarters, and their first job will be getting you settled in. Tomorrow, they’ll accompany you to the orientation for the incoming class.”

The tutors were dressed identically in exercise clothes, in shades of gray and black. They each carried a clipboard, and it didn’t take a genius, Linden thought, to figure out that the new students’ photos were right on top. The adults knew exactly who was who. They introduced themselves and led their charges away, all heading for the same building, chatting as they went. Linden’s tutor was a man with a sour face and stiff posture. He certainly wasn’t the one Linden would have chosen if he’d had a choice. He wondered briefly if he’d ever have a choice about anything, ever again.

“I’m Tobias and I’ll be your tutor and advisor for the next few months.”

He didn’t looked pleased, and the introduction was so abrupt that it took Linden a second to register that the man had walked off without offering his hand, obviously expecting him to follow.
Exhausted, hungry, and expected to accept as his tutor and advisor—and friend—a man who clearly wasn’t happy to see him, Linden dawdled, letting himself fall behind. If he got lost in the building, Tobias could just come and find him. He was almost disappointed to find the tutor waiting for him inside, his arms folded, disapproval coming off him like a heat wave.

“You’re going to have to learn to move a lot faster than that, young man.”

“I know how to move faster,” Linden snapped. “I just wasn’t expecting to be treated like a dog on a leash.”

Tobias had started toward a stairway. He stopped and spun around. “Let’s get one thing straight, right now. I’m not going to put up with any insolence. My job is to keep you on track with your studies, and that’s what I’m going to do. You don’t have to like me, but I expect a minimum of courtesy.”

“That would be a lot easier if you showed me some.” Linden put his hand out and leaned against the wall, suddenly dizzy. He shook his head to clear it, and with the last of his energy, he said, “I just want to be treated like I’m a student and not a prisoner.”

Tobias stared at him, then turned around and went toward the stairway, at a slower pace. “It’s only one flight,” he said, without looking back.

The hallway at the top of the stairs was bleak, with a dozen or so doors on either side before it turned a corner. “This floor in this wing is for new students. There’s a print map of the building and the campus, next to the stairway, and it’s also on your computer.” Tobias put his hand to a plate next to the last door on their right. “Put your hand here and let the building register your identity. Your hand print lets you in and out. It also keeps a record of exits and entrances.”

Linden was too tired to ask why, and Tobias didn’t volunteer the information. He already had the feeling that Tobias wasn’t much of a talker and wasn’t going to tell him anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. How was he going to find any good in this situation if he had this antagonistic man hanging over him all the time? He stopped in the now open doorway, appalled. He could see the entire place from where they were standing, in a small bedroom that was the center of the apartment. The bed was just a few feet in front of him. The rooms were small, efficiently arranged, and as cheerless as the hallway. With the exception of the white walls, everything was in shades of gray, even the bed covering. The light from the window above the bed didn’t do a thing to brighten the place up.

“Is this your bed or mine?” he asked Tobias, who seemed to be waiting for his reaction to his new home.

“Yours. My bed is in there.” He pointed to the room on their left.

Linden took a few steps in that direction and looked in. The space was even smaller than his own, and just as dreary. But what gave him an unpleasant feeling in his chest, was that though the beds were separated by a wall, there was no door. Neither of them would have any real privacy. The room to the right of the entrance, a study, also lacked a door. It had a worktable with a computer and two tablets, two chairs, and a few shelves on one wall. It was also the route to the bathroom. That did have a door.

Linden scanned the corners of the rooms, where the walls met the ceiling. “Where are the cameras?”

“There are no cameras.”

Linden’s sarcastic mode, so much a part of him when he was in school, took over. “So my dinky little school in Nowhereville keeps an eye on every twitch, but here I’m in the heart of the machine and there are no cameras?”

“I told you, we don’t need them. And I’m part of the machine, so I suggest you watch how you speak to me.”

“Really? I thought you looked kind of like a stiff. So why no uniform?”

“I don’t wear my uniform when I’m serving in this function. We’re usually short regular tutors because the student body is growing quickly. Support staff has to fill in until . . .”

“Until what?”

“Until none of your business,” he snapped out. Go take a shower and change your clothes,” he added, leaving Linden with one more thing to think about. “You’ll feel better. I’ll take you down to the cafeteria afterwards.”

“I don’t have anything to change to.”

Tobias pulled open a drawer in a low chest that spanned the room from the doorway to the wall of his own bedroom. Linden hadn’t noticed it before, and he wondered what would fill so many drawers.

“My clothes are in the drawers at my end of the room. Yours are in the middle section. The rest are for towels, sheets, etc., and winter wear.” He pulled out a pair of what looked like yoga pants, a pair of boxer briefs, and a long-sleeved henley, all dark green, and tossed them on Linden’s bed.

“Everything’s green.”

“That’s right. Freshman green.”

“I don’t like green.”

“Then go naked,” Tobias said, his voice sharp with annoyance.
Linden decided that from now on he wouldn’t ask Tobias anything that he could figure out for himself. He picked up the clothes and went to find out what the bathroom was like. Like the rest of the apartment, the bathroom was utilitarian and not an inch bigger than necessity demanded.

There was a shower, but no tub. The floor and shower enclosure were tiled in white and shades of gray. “Great color scheme,” he muttered. “Nobody will ever be able to tell if the place needs to be cleaned.”

He avoided looking at Tobias when he came back out. A quick glance had been enough. He wondered whether the anger had anything to do with him, or was just part of the man’s personality. “The clothes fit okay.”

“Of course, what did you expect? Let’s go.”

Linden followed silently, keeping his head down. He didn’t want anyone to see that he’d been crying. He’d sat on the shower floor letting the water pour over him until it started to cool, and he remembered that Tobias was waiting for him. Tobias would expect him to eat. Tobias would expect him to get up in the morning, and he didn’t know if he could do that.

Privileged Lives — Chapter three, Part one, Linden

Chapter one starts here

Linden lay on his bed, not moving, trying not to think. They’d walked home in silence, and as soon as Carrie closed the door behind them, she tried to put her arms around him. He’d managed not to cry before, but her comfort was more than he would have been able to resist. He pushed her away, ran upstairs to his room, and shut the door. Two or three times, as the afternoon passed, he heard her walking quietly up the stairs and coming to his doorway. She waited a few seconds each time, and then went away again. He was making things worse for her, and that made him feel guilty, but he didn’t know what to do about it.

He didn’t think he’d miss school too much, but he couldn’t imagine his life without his mom. When would he see her again, and how would she manage without him? She depended on him for so many things since his dad died. He couldn’t leave her to manage on her own, but he couldn’t think of any way to keep it from happening. He thought about running away and hiding, but they might keep coming back and, eventually, they’d find him. And they might do something terrible to his mom if he disappeared.

It was almost dark when the spicy smell of sausage came floating up the stairs. Reluctantly, he let his nose lead him down to the kitchen.

“Mom! What are you doing? You said we can’t afford that sausage anymore. We’re going to be eating beans and rice the rest of the month to make up—. Oh!” The pain went through him again and his knees went so weak he was afraid he’d fall down. The words came bursting out, an agonizing flood that he couldn’t hold back any longer.

“I can’t leave you, Mom. You’ll be all alone. Who’s going to help you if your asthma gets worse, or you get sick? Who’s going to fix the sink if it leaks again? Those people… they don’t understand that I can’t go, no matter how important they think it is. I’ll talk to them when they come. I’ll explain everything and they’ll go away and leave us alone.”

“Hush now.” Carrie’s arms were around him, and he clung to her as if it was the last time. “They probably know everything about us, not just your schooling. They’re not going to listen. They’ve been watching you for years, without us even knowing, and now they want you. You heard what Mrs. Kinney said. The government needs good minds, and you have a marvelous mind. They’ll educate you and then you’ll find work that can help make this world better. That isn’t such a bad thing, is it?”
Linden shook his head frantically. “I don’t care about that, Mom. I just want to stay home with you. And I want to finish high school, even if most of my classes are boring and my teachers are idiots.”

“Baby, I want that too, but things change and we have to learn to accept them and make the best of it.”

Linden usually hated it when his mother called him Baby, but this time it sank into him with such warmth and sweetness that he nearly cried. It reminded him how she always tried to find some good in whatever happened, no matter how bad it was. The only time he’d known her to fail was when his dad was killed at work. For a little while, he thought she’d accepted it, but when she finally broke down, he’d realized she just hadn’t absorbed the truth, that his dad wasn’t ever coming home, that they would never see him again. She’d clung to him for a long time after that, hardly letting him out of her sight whenever he was home. When he left for school each day, he’d look back from way down the block and see her standing on the stoop, watching him walk away from her.

He couldn’t go, and that was that. He was afraid of what she might do if he left her alone. They’d never talked about it, but he’d known that she wanted to die back then, during that awful time. This wouldn’t be the same, but he would be older and different when he came home for a visit. And she would be different too. Even if she was okay and managed without him, it would change her.
But she’d already changed, hadn’t she? He’d never have his mother back again, just the way she’d been before they were left alone to take care of each other. The silly things she loved to say were mostly gone. She avoided talking about things that really mattered. Right now she was more like her old self, telling him it would be okay, that they’d find a way to make it okay. This wouldn’t be okay though, not ever. How could he let their little family be torn apart and make something good out of it?

“I’m still going to try to talk them out of it when they come,” he insisted. “It may not do any good, but I have to try.”

“Linden, please don’t. You know you’ll get upset, and that will make me upset, and then, when you have to go, that’s how we’ll both remember it. It’s breaking my heart, but I’m trying to look at it the way Mrs. Kinney said, that it’s an honor. You were chosen because you’re so brilliant. You’re special. I’ve always known it. Now someone else does.”

Her pleas were weakening Linden’s resolve, but he shook his head. “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be an honor. They can let someone else have it.”

Carrie let him go, took a step back, and sighed. “Let’s not talk about it now. I fixed everything you like, and you need to eat instead of working yourself into a tizzy. Please.”
He watched her scoop a huge portion of the stir-fried rice and sausage onto his plate. He wasn’t hungry, but she clearly expected some reaction, and the smell that came wafting up to his nose was irresistible.

He took a bite and tried to smile. “It’s delicious, Mom, just like it always is, but you shouldn’t have spent the money.”

“It wasn’t that much.” She looked almost happy now. “I bought plain ground pork and added the spices. I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but it’s almost like real sausage, isn’t it? I wanted to surprise you. Is it really good?”

“It’s great. I don’t know how you do that—make ordinary stuff into something that tastes so expensive. Now we can have it more often.”

He dropped his fork as his words came back at him like a physical blow. When he looked up, he saw the misery in his mother’s face. There wouldn’t be any more meals like this. He stood up, kicked his chair back and ran up to his room. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. The words rolled around in his head until he fell asleep, his pillow soaking up the last of his tears.

It was still there when he woke up the next morning: this can’t be happening. Only two days remained before his life was over. Misery swamped him and he pulled the covers over his head. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. But it is. He threw the covers back and sat up. He was still determined to fight when the time came, but if he spent the last two days making them both miserable, he’d always regret it. Even if he had to put on an act, he’d try to make his mom feel better about the honor. He didn’t want her last memories of him, for however long before they saw each other again, to be a sour face and complaints.

When he padded into the kitchen, still barefoot and in his pajamas, and saw her face, he knew he’d made the right decision. The dark circles under her eyes and the tight lines around her mouth reminded him of that day. The cup of coffee she was holding reminded him of his first and only taste of real coffee. His dad had splurged and bought her a quarter pound of the real stuff for her birthday. Linden had been allowed a sip and had reacted with disgust. How could something that smelled so wonderful taste so awful? His mom and dad had both laughed at him.

What was in her cup now wasn’t the real stuff. It didn’t even smell like it. He wished he could buy her some before he left. But even if he had the money, where would he buy it? Months ago, there had been a news story about how almost all the coffee trees in the world were dead now, of some disease they didn’t know how to stop. Two big corporations had bought up every bean that had been produced for the last few years. Now only rich people could afford real coffee. There were other things you couldn’t get in grocery stores anymore, but that was the only one he really cared about. And chocolate.

“Morning, Mom. What do you want to do today?” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her cheek. “Let’s do something we’ll both enjoy. I promise, no more moaning and complaining. If I have to go, I’ll do my best to make you proud of me.” He wanted to turn his face away, afraid she’d see right through the lie, but he let her look her fill, and was finally rewarded with a small smile.

“Okay. I’m sure we can find something that will be fun. But first, how about some scrambled eggs for breakfast?”

“You know I can’t stand that fake stuff. Just toast is fine, and milk, if we still have any.”
“Well, then, how about real eggs?” A smile spread over her face. “Mrs. Compton’s chickens are laying well right now, and she sold me a half dozen.”

“Really real?” Linden threw his arms around her again, and the hug she returned made him want to never let go. “The good sausage last night and real eggs today—it’s going to be harder than ever to leave.” He tried to make it sound like a joke, but couldn’t quite manage it.

“I want you to have good memories to take with you, hon, things we can both remember.”

She was working so hard to keep the smile going, and Linden promised himself he’d do everything he could, to keep it there for their last two days together. “And I’ll tell you all the good stuff that happens at college.”

“Right,” Carrie said. “Promise you’ll let me know as soon as you get there. Or as soon as you can. I guess that’s one of the things you’ll have to find out about—keeping in touch. And vacations.”

They did their best to make the short time memorable, but sometimes the masks slipped. More than once, Carrie tried to keep her back turned to him, but he saw how red and swollen her eyes were.
She suggested that he say goodbye to his friends. “They must be wondering what happened to you.”

“What friends, Mom? I’m one of the outies. Besides, if anybody even noticed I wasn’t in classes, they’d just think I had a cold or something.”

“What about that girl… Cyndy? The one you’ve been helping with her essays? I thought she was a friend.”

Linden laughed at the idea. “She isn’t a friend. She doesn’t even like me. I think she hates that I can write A papers and she can’t do better than a C-. Mr. Shaw assigned us to work together, otherwise, she probably wouldn’t come near me.”

“Oh, Linden, I didn’t know it was that bad. Why haven’t you ever talked to me about it?”

He shrugged. He wished she hadn’t brought it up. It was too late for it to matter, and it was the kind of thing that just made her sad. “There wasn’t anything to talk about. You couldn’t have done anything about it. It isn’t anybody’s fault. It’s just me. I’m not super friendly, and I don’t like the things they like, so they think I’m a snob.”

Carrie sighed and took his hand. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Maybe going away to this college will be a good thing. If everybody’s picked for their brains, maybe you’ll find some friends there.” She patted his hand absent-mindedly. “It doesn’t make up for you being dragged away like this, but if some good can come out of it…” She sighed again. “I just feel so helpless?”

“I know, Mom. But it will be okay once I get used to it.” It was one more lie, but if it made her feel better, he’d lie from the time he got up in the morning until he went to bed.

The last evening was the hardest. They watched a movie that they’d seen more times than they could count, but that always made them laugh. Linden lay with his head in his mother’s lap, and was horrified when his laughter turned to hysterical tears.

Carrie brushed her fingers through his hair, over and over, making soft shushing noises and murmuring, “It’s okay love, it’s okay. Just cry it out. We’ll be together again, maybe soon. The holidays are only a few months away.”

When he could finally find the breath for speech, he tried to apologize. “I wanted it to be nice this evening. And I’m too old to be crying, anyway.”

“You’re not too old, love, and if there was ever a good time to cry, this is it.”

“I am too old. I’m almost 16,” Linden protested, and felt a movement against his head that, if he’d looked, would have been Carrie trying not to laugh. But he would also have seen tears threatening to spill down her cheeks.

They were still at the breakfast table when the knock at the door came. Linden had been picking at his food, hating to waste it, but too tied up in knots to tolerate either the smell or the taste. His heart began to pound heavily and he felt like he might vomit. Carrie put her fork down and got up from the table, very slowly, as if she was in a daze. Another knock and Linden jumped up, trying to put himself between his mother and the door.

Carrie took him by the shoulders and gently moved him aside. “You promised, Linden. Don’t make this harder than it has to be, please.”

The words had no life behind them, just like the last time she’d sounded like this—after his father’s death. “I’ll let them in, Mom. Stay here.” He wanted to tell her it would be all right, but he couldn’t get this last lie out of his mouth.

There were two of them, in uniforms that looked military and sent a vague sense of alarm through him. He stood there, gaping, until one of the men said, “Linden Thomas?”
He nodded and backed away from the door, right into his mother. He leaned into her as she put her hands firmly on his shoulders. “You’re here to take my son away from me?” Linden was surprised to hear anger in her voice, rather than sorrow or pleading.

The man closest to Linden flushed slightly. “I’m sorry, m’am. Those are our orders.” Then, to Linden, “It’s time to go, son.”

Linden’s arguments, the protests he’d intended, died. These men had no power to change anything, he realized. He was just a job they’d been given. He turned and buried his face in Carrie’s shoulder. Wrapping her arms around him, she held him tight. “Mom,” he murmured, his voice shaking. “Mom.” He couldn’t find any more words.

“Go on, Sweetheart. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Make me proud. I know your dad would be so proud of you if he could be here.”

A large hand on his shoulder pulled him gently but steadily away from her. “Let’s go, young man. We have a plane to catch.”

He didn’t really know how it happened, but they were suddenly halfway to a black car parked by the curb before he turned around for a last look. Carrie was standing on the stoop, her face blank, her hands gripping her upper arms as if she was holding herself together. When she saw Linden look back, she lifted one hand and waved to him. Then he was being pushed into the back seat of the car. With a soldier on each side of him, the car glided quietly away from everything he had ever known.