Kickstarting (Kicking) the Muse

If I really had a muse, I’d be kicking its ass, trying to wake it up and encourage it to do its job. With health issues sapping my energy (mental as well as physical), I’m getting kind of desperate. I need to be writing. I want to be writing. But most days, writing isn’t happening. It’s partly my own fault, of course. Any sensible person would have no more than two or three WIPs underway, and even if they skipped around between them, progress would probably be visible.

But who ever accused me of being sensible? Well, I’m trying to be, so I picked out six WIPs out of the wild jungle of infinite numbers, and I’m going to let them battle it out for further attention. Only six? you say. Nothing sensible about that, but it’s what I’m going with — for now.

I’m hoping that somewhere in the process of figuring out how to evaluate them, and then doing the evaluating, a spark will leap up and I’ll know what to do. Yup. Sure.

In no particular order, here are the six I’m considering for immediate action and publication.

A Perfect Slave is technically the third Boundaries (Hand Slaves) novel. It’s finished, but could probably benefit by one more run-through. I sent every copy, including backups, to digital oblivion, thinking I’m through with slavery fantasies. But it won’t leave me alone, so I dug it out of the Time Machine (thank you, Apple).

Privileged Lives and Other Lies is not only finished, but published. It’s hardly sold any copies, but I can’t give it up. I’m almost finished with a thorough revision. If I choose it, I’ll shorten the title to Privileged Lives, and create a new cover. Does it make sense to republish an old, unsuccessful book when there are so many new ones waiting in line? Good question.

Gift of the Ancien is somewhat vampirish, probably the most mainstream novel I’ve written, and potentially the one most likely to sell more than one copy a month. It’s complete, but needs a massive revision that threatens to drown me every time I look at it. It’s also one of my oldest pieces, so there’s this nagging pressure to get it out there.

Empire of Masks has been kicking around in my head for several years, and on my computer, collecting notes. It’s another slavery fantasy, but mostly about a society gone amuck and, like A Perfect Slave, rescued from digital death. With only 1,000 or so words written so far, it’s the least likely be finished any time in the near future unless I abandon every other WIP and concentrate on it exclusively. When have I ever concentrated on one book exclusively? Only during NaNo, and I don’t think I have what it takes to do that again.

Bentham’s Dream is a prison story dear to my heart, but unlikely to attract many readers. It’s depressing, for one thing. Half to 3/4 done, with the hardest parts still ahead of me.

A Well-Educated Boy takes up most of my imaginative daydreaming lately, but I’m only a few thousand words in, and there are critical parts that still aren’t coming clear. Set in the near-future, it’s a look at two possible co-existing dystopias not so different from today’s realities. It might do well, since it’s basically YA.

So this is me, thinking out loud, and now looking back at what I just wrote for clues to the way ahead. Nope. Not yet. But it’s a start.

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.

March 5 Weekend Odds

Just a reminder (I did mention it before, didn’t I?) that the version of Privileged Lives I’m posting isn’t quite the final one. Very close, but not finished. And an invitation, in case I didn’t mention that, comments, questions, and criticisms are welcome.

I meant to post another section yesterday, but forgot about until late in the evening. Does anyone see a pattern here? Maybe I’ll put up two today. After all, there’s nothing like swamping readers.

Anyway… the final  revision is going well and I’m over halfway through. It’s going to be a much more solid novel than the first published version.

I’m currently engrossed in reading The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. It’s a long book and is turning out to be possibly critical to another book that I might possibly write some day. As a confirmation of my belief that humans are a basically flawed species that is failing Mother Nature’s grand experiment it’s extremely depressing. I’m about halfway through and looking forward to the hopeful conclusions he says are coming at the end of the book. Frankly though, I believe whatever hope he has is as delusional as the many delusions about ourselves that his Stanford Prison Study reveals.

Between The Lucifer Effect, research into criminal justice, and keeping tabs on the political and other craziness that fills the news every day, a coherent overall view of humanity is trying to assemble itself in my overloaded brain. Thank goodness, I will probably never find the time to write it, because it would undoubtedly look just like the rantings of all the poor souls who’ve tried to give us a true big-picture view and are remembered, if they’re remembered at all, as kooks and cranks.

Privileged Lives — Chapter two, Part two, Bennett

Chapter one starts here

More banging, louder this time. “I’m coming, damn it! Hold your horses.”
He opened the door and almost got a fist in the face. “What were you going to do next, break it down?” he yelled at the soldier who’d been about to knock again.

The man stepped back and was brushed aside by another soldier. “Bennett Sanders?” Bennett nodded and his protest was cut off before it began. “From now on, you’ll do as you’re told and speak when you’re given permission. Is that clear?”

“Looks like I woke up in the wrong damn country this morning.” Bennett was almost too angry to care what the response was, but when the soldier grabbed his shirt and pushed him roughly backward away from the door, violence from these people was, in an instant, within the realm of possibility.

“Okay, men. Spread out.”

“What the hell’s going on? What are they doing?”

The soldier whipped around and glared at him. “They’re searching. You might be hiding someone. Didn’t you read the info?”

“Yeah, I did. But you could have just asked me.”

“And if you’re hiding someone?”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Bennett gave up, frustrated. Arguing wasn’t going to get him anywhere. “Hey! What are you doing with my stuff?”

His duffle had been dumped out on the couch and a soldier was pawing through his belongings.

“Tell him to take his hands off my stuff. It’s none of his damned business what I take with me.”

“Clothes and personal items only. The computer isn’t personal. It stays here.”

“It is personal. My whole life is on it. My writing. Everything. I can’t just leave it here. Someone might steal it while I’m gone.”

The soldier who seemed to be in charge grinned. “You aren’t going to have any time for writing, believe me. And I wouldn’t count on coming back.”
The bald statement hit Bennett like a fist. It was the difference between speculating about something that might never happen, and being faced with the reality. But he couldn’t lose his computer. “If I’m not coming back, then I have to take it.”

When he reached out for it, his hand was knocked away. The soldier snatched the computer from the couch and dropped it on the floor. While Bennett watched, horrified, he slammed his boot heel into it. “Okay, take it with you.”
Bennett backed away. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. It felt like one of those videos where soldiers broke into houses in far off countries and destroyed stuff randomly—just because they could.

“I thought you were so hot to have it.”

What could he say? Half his life had just been destroyed, right in front of his eyes. Bennett stared blankly at the soldier, his mind numbed by everything that had happened in the last half hour.

“No? Okay, let’s stop playing around. Keep your mouth shut and put everything back in. Let’s go, let’s go!”

* * *

Do they seriously think I’m going to try to escape? Walking to the truck, his duffle slung over his shoulder, a soldier walked on each side of him with another one following. He climbed in and found he wasn’t the first one to be collected. The truck was half full already. Bennett sat on one of the benches and dropped his bag between his feet. The three soldiers who’d brought him out were already gone, undoubtedly on their way to another capture. I’ve been captured. By the enemy. With the loss of his computer, everything of importance to him had been abruptly stripped away. He felt himself slipping into a new mindset: a prisoner. Maybe if the asshole hadn’t crushed it underfoot, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but that one act, so deliberate in its arrogance and power, made him wonder if it was the model for what he had to expect from now on.

He couldn’t even summon up any more indignation. He closed his eyes and let himself drift, aware, but not really paying attention as more men climbed into the truck. For a little while, at least, it had nothing to do with him.

“Okay, that’s it for this batch. Let’s go.”

The voice was almost simultaneous with the truck’s back gate being slammed shut. The sudden noise jerked Bennet back into the present. Two soldiers with rifles occupied the seats next to the tailgate, their weapons held to block anyone trying to approach it. Bennett thought it was unlikely that anyone would try. It wasn’t just the rifles. He’d be surprised if there was anyone not in a state of shock. He let his glance slide over the faces of the men opposite him. Shock and fear. That’s really all it took. Had he tripped the one soldier’s temper, or was intimidation a standard part of the operation?

He looked out the back just in time to catch a last glimpse of his house, already looking abandoned. They hadn’t even given him time to lock the door behind him. Did it matter? If anyone wanted to get in and the door was locked, all they’d have to do was smash it in. What he’d seen in old newsreels of foreign occupations, and bad movies had given him only a glimpse of the possibilities. He looked down at his duffle and let his eyes roam over the collection of backpacks, suitcases, and even a plastic garbage bag, that the other men had brought with them. It was possible that this was now all any of them owned. His mind refused to go any further with such speculations. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes again, and leaned back against the wall of the truck.

He hadn’t given any thought about where they might be going, and when the truck stopped in the high school parking lot and they were ordered out, he found himself only mildly curious. It was an unexpected destination, but at least it wasn’t an open field surrounded by barbed wire, and he was grateful that his memory had waited to bring up that particular image. They were herded through the front door, accompanied by a contingent of armed soldiers that had been stationed by the front entrance. There were no rifles in sight now, but the soldiers all wore sidearms, and Bennett had the vague thought that he should be worried about it.

As they trudged up the stairs to the second floor, the familiarity of his surroundings warred with the strangeness of the circumstances. He’d taught in some of the classrooms that they passed as they were escorted along the hallway. He straightened up from the slouch he’d fallen into and looked around. Most of the doors were open. In In every room, cots, each one with a pillow and a folded blanket at the foot, took the place of desks. They stopped at room 206, and all Bennett could think about was that he’d never taught a class in this room.

“Okay, men,” someone said, as they filed in. “Pick a cot and put your belongings under it. The rules are on the blackboard. You’re free to walk around on this floor. The stairwells are guarded, so don’t even think about trying to leave. You’re here to work, and the daily assignments will be posted on the blackboard last thing every evening. You’ll be taken down to the cafeteria for meals. Lunch is in a couple of hours, so I hope you have good appetites.” The soldier grinned at them. “We’ll be taking attendance every morning when you get up, when you come back from work, and before lights out. It’s gonna be just like school, kiddies.”

And then the soldiers were gone. Most of the men, Bennett included, stood like abandoned objects, the decision of which cot to choose momentarily too difficult. Bennett shook himself, scrunched his shoulders up and down, and headed for the row at the back of the room. He dropped his duffle, shoved it under the cot closest to the windows, and sat down. So this is it. We’re workers. The questions started popping up. What kind of workers do they need? All I know how to do is teach. Will they care, or do we just get assigned randomly? He shut it off. Too many questions and no way to get any answers. Yet. He’d be patient. There really wasn’t any choice. Be patient or go crazy.

Lunch was a typical school food. Had the cooks also been absorbed into the R & C world? If so, meals weren’t going to be anything to look forward to. But he didn’t hear any complaints. It occurred to him that they’d all been pretty quiet. But that couldn’t last. Once everyone had gotten over the shock and absorbed the current reality, they’d probably start complaining and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. After lunch, they went back upstairs to room 206, 14 very subdued men, accompanied, just as they had been going down, by two armed soldiers. Bennett came to the conclusion, not a difficult exercise, that the only time they wouldn’t be under guard was when they were in this room.

Crappy food or not, the meal seemed to have brought a few of the men back from wherever they’d gone into hiding in their heads, and a couple of conversations started up as soon as they were left to themselves. There was no way not to listen in, and Bennett tried to pick up any information he could. But the talk was mostly questions and complaints, just as he’d figured., They were all desperate to know what was going to happen to them, but nobody had anything to offer except guesses. As a conversation near him came to a limping halt, one of the men lay down on his cot, his arm over his eyes. The other one wandered over to Bennett and stuck out his hand.

“Hi, George Grodin. I guess we’re stuck in the same boat.”

“Yeah, I guess we are. Bennett Sanders.” Bennett gave the hand a brief shake.

“Any idea what the hell’s going on here?” Grodin shifted back and forth and Bennett noticed that his hands were clenching and unclenching. He hoped the guy was just nervous and not looking for a fight. He probably outweighed Bennett by about 80 pounds and looked like he worked out regularly.
Bennett shook his head. “If you read that paper they dropped off, you know as much as I do. All I can do is guess, just like everyone else. We’ll be working. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. At least we won’t be sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”

“Yeah. I get antsy if I’m not moving. You know? D’you think there’s any chance of getting out of here? I mean out of town. My ex is expecting me to visit my daughter this weekend. She’s gonna be pissed when I don’t show up.”

“Are you talking about escaping? Not a good idea. Remember that stuff about necessary force? I wouldn’t be surprised if that means a bullet in the head.”
Grodin squinted as if he was in pain. “Do you think they have real bullets in those guns?”

Bennett couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. Grodin was lacking something upstairs, for sure. “They’re military. I’d guess that if they’re carrying guns, they’re loaded. With live ammunition.”

Grodin nodded, looking sad. “Not much point in trying to see my daughter if it’s just gonna get me shot.” He wandered off to a cot on the other side of the room, and Bennett gave a sigh of relief. He lay down with his back to the room, hoping that would be enough to discourage any more attempts at conversation. He drifted in and out of a light doze, coming alert at the sound of a large number of feet. Turning over, he saw two newcomers, and two soldiers on their way out the door. The new men stood there for a minute, looking just as lost as he and the rest of the first batch had been, before claiming the remaining cots. He hadn’t bothered to count the cots, but now he saw that there were 16 of them. He tried to remember how many rooms there were on this floor. Was every unattached man in the town going to be housed here? Sooner or later, he hoped, he’d run into someone he knew and would actually be willing to spend some time with. But right now, he just wanted to be left alone. He rolled back onto his side and shut his eyes.

Privileged Lives — Chapter two, Part one, Bennett

Starts here — Chapter one, Part one, Linden

“What the…?” Bennett struggled out of a dream in which someone outside was yelling, into a day in which someone was yelling, even louder. “It’s Saturday. Can’t a guy be allowed to sleep?” He groaned, and his feet hit the floor as his hand reached for the clock. “Seven o’clock? Can’t be. Why’s it so dark?”

He pulled his robe on, staggered to the window, and opened the blind. No wonder it looked almost like the middle of the night. He still hadn’t managed to accustom himself to autumn’s shorter days; and now this. It was drizzling and the solid gray overcast said this wasn’t going to be a beautiful day. Another not-beautiful day. And the idiot who’d woke him up was still at at it. Probably a drunk just getting home from a beer brawl.

He stumbled into the living room, his body not yet really awake. The curtain over the front window defied him for a moment, but with a bit of fumbling, he managed to get it open. The view from the front of the house wasn’t any more cheerful. And the noise was even louder now, tearing apart what should have been a peaceful Saturday morning. He was beginning to pick out some words when he saw where the noise was coming from—a jeep parked halfway down the block. Right in the middle of the street, too.

“Who the hell do they think they are?” His ears and eyes seemed to come into focus at the same time, and a little thrill of alarm hit him. Big red letters on the back end of the jeep said ‘R & C’. The noise was coming through a megaphone held by a uniformed man in the jeep.

“. . . and stay in your homes. Keep calm, please.”

Before Bennett could start processing the fragments of information, a sharp knock at the door forced a startled groan out of him. “Right! I can see this is going to be a great day. At least they could have waited until I’d had my first cup of coffee. Hold on a sec, will you?” he yelled.

He opened the door just in time to see a man—another uniformed man, cut across his lawn and head for the next house. What the hell is with those uniforms? And he couldn’t wait for someone to answer the door? He started to close the door, shaking his head in irritation, and happened to look down. On the mat was a sheet of paper, already damp and starting to wrinkle. He picked it up and looked around the neighborhood. He noticed now that the man—a soldier?—had a stack of the things and was going from house to house, dropping them off. Ken Hanson, his next-door neighbor, was standing on his porch, holding one, looking puzzled. Up and down the block, people were watching from their front room windows, or standing in their doorways, looking puzzled or angry. Ken noticed him and frowned, waving the sheet of paper. Bennett raised his shoulders in a ‘don’t know’ shrug and went back inside.
Saturday mornings had been blessedly peaceful lately, thanks to the grass that had stopped growing, or had up and died in the summer heat and drought. There was no longer any reason for obnoxious neighbors to bounce out of bed at the crack of dawn and crank up their lawnmowers. It was too good to last.

Bennett tossed the paper in the general direction of the coffee table, and went to put the coffee on. He would have killed for a cup of real coffee, but he couldn’t afford it anymore, except as an occasional treat. He measured out the coffee substitute and the water and sat down at the kitchen table, waiting for the pot to do its thing. He put his head in his hands, wishing he was still asleep, then jumped up, remembering the mysterious paper waiting to be read.

He went back to the living room, almost fully awake now, but feeling the full impact of having been jerked out his sleep. The crumpled paper was face down on the floor. Bennett Picked it up, turned it over, read the big, bold letters at the top, and flopped down on the couch in shock.

“Reclamation & Conservation Corps. The municipality of Cypressville is now under martial law. Read and comply.”

“Martial law? What the hell happened?” Bennett muttered. “I knew I should have watched the news last night. Don’t tell me the conspiracy nutsos finally got it right and we’ve been attacked. Nah. This has to be some kind of joke. Those guys should be out fighting the real enemy, not dicking around in the suburbs.” He went to look out the window again. The men in the jeep were armed, rifles at the ready. They were certainly prepared for something, whatever it was.

It wasn’t an invasion, he realized, with a sick feeling, as memories clicked in. Reclamation & Conservation was the newest branch of the military. He’d always had the feeling, watching the clips and listening to interviews with R & C officers, that it was all propaganda, covering up something that would turn out to be unpleasant if the truth ever got out. Like just about everything that passed for news these days.

He started to read the rest of the sheet, just as the coffee maker beeped. He took the paper with him to the kitchen and laid it on the table, face down again. He didn’t really want to know what it said. As long as he didn’t read it, everything would stay just like it was. The words at the top didn’t really mean anything.

“Yeah,” he growled. “And the soldier with the horn didn’t wake you up this morning, and the jeep in the middle of the street is just a hallucination.”

He could still hear the voice, but more faintly now. They must have moved on down the street. Were there jeeps on other streets, and soldiers dropping those papers off in other neighborhoods? He wasn’t going to think about it without at least one cup of coffee under his belt.

But two cups later, he still wasn’t ready. He got dressed, went back to the living room, and looked out the window to see if there was any activity. Everything looked just as it normally would on a rainy morning. Except—every car was still parked in the driveways. Earl Baker usually took off for the bakery first thing every Saturday morning. The guy claimed that he couldn’t start his weekend without fresh bagels. But his car was still there. Bennett hadn’t heard the old rattletrap starting up, and there was no way to sleep through that, so Earl hadn’t already gone and come back. A couple of the neighbors usually worked on Saturdays, and their cars were still sitting there.

A sick feeling gathered in his gut. He turned around and looked at the paper still lying on the kitchen table. He had to read it sometime. “Martial law,” he said out loud. The words still hadn’t lost their shock value. He made himself go back to the kitchen and pick the damn thing up. He skimmed rapidly over what was beginning to look like the end of his life, of everything he knew.

The news programs had concentrated on the reclamation and restoration part, but there was more that they’d tried to pretend wasn’t that interesting or important. Sure, its mission was reclaiming land for reforestation and farming, like they said. But once in a while, a nosey newsperson asked enough uncomfortable questions that a few more unimportant details came out. To carry out its mission, R & C had the authority to move people out of far-flung suburbs and small towns and resettle them in more heavily populated areas. That’s what reclamation really meant. After all, you couldn’t reclaim land that somebody was sitting on. R & C could also draft anyone it needed to work in the achievement of its goals. And who knew what the hell that meant? Reporters’ attempts to find out were simply brushed aside.

Is that what’s happening? It can’t be. Not here. Not in Cypressville! ‘All roads in and out of Cypressville are now closed. No one will be allowed to come in to the town, or leave. Attempts to leave will be met with all necessary force. Stay in your homes until you are given further instructions.’ It’s an occupying force, Bennett realized. We’ve been occupied! It had been so easy to turn off the TV and forget about it. But this isn’t TV and I can’t turn it off.

On and on, the horror went, in small print. Including the part that told him he was going to be a participant, whether he wanted to be or not. ‘All single men are to pack one bag with clothes and personal necessities, and wait to be picked up.’ Bennett shuddered. Picked up for what purpose? He suddenly understood the terror of people whose countries were occupied by foreign forces. But these were his own countrymen! It couldn’t be that bad. It couldn’t be happening at all, some part of him screamed.

He thought about just refusing to pack, refusing to cooperate. Then he remembered the rifles. Martial law meant that anyone who refused to cooperate could be arrested. Would they even bother with court martials? For non-military citizens? Did necessary force mean they’d just take you out and shoot you? It would be stupid to take that chance, he decided. Better to wait and see what was really happening, and deal with things as they come up.

But sweet reason was having a hard time coping with such an outrageous impossibility. “This can’t be happening!” Bennett moaned. He was a citizen of the United States. He shouldn’t have to think about things like whether to resist and whether that could get him shot. Is this what’s been happening in all those places they’ve shown, where R & C is planting trees and ploughing fields? He could understand claiming any open spaces where trees and food could be grown, but why boot people out of their homes and move them somewhere else? That just didn’t make sense.

It made sense to put able-bodied people to work. They needed people to help them get the job done. But it would just be temporary, wouldn’t it? The more Bennett thought about it, the stronger his sense of relief became. Sure, after the work was done, he’d come back home. And then it hit him. Relocation. What if they weren’t here just to collect workers? What if Cypressville was going to be reclaimed? There would be nothing for him to come back to. Everybody would be gone, their houses empty.

He jumped up from the couch and rushed to the bathroom. He made it, just in time to spew out the two cups of coffee and whatever was left in his stomach from last night’s supper. Shaking and as cold as if the temperature around him had dropped twenty degrees, he knelt by the toilet, trying to find something to make all this not be true.

A little later, he sat at the kitchen table, listening to the coffee maker’s familiar sounds as it pumped out fresh brew. He thought about the price of real coffee, about all the foods he’d had to stop buying because they were too expensive for him to afford any more, luxury items for the rich. He thought about all the things he knew and had tried to ignore, and all the things that the government was probably hiding. There was no room for denial any more. Things had to be a lot worse than anybody had let on if the army could come into a town and declare martial law.

He’d imagined his future as an unexciting but familiar continuation of the path he’d followed for the last few years. Instead, it was now a dark hole full of uncertainties. Mentally, he walked through his little house, cataloging his possessions, none of which would be worth much to anyone else. What would happen to his home and his belongings while he was gone? Would he be coming back, and if not, where would he go after it was all over? He’d never tried to imagine himself as a displaced person, but it now seemed possible that might be part of the unknowable future.

People were displaced by war, by drought, by the coastal flooding that came with the rising oceans. But they weren’t displaced by their own government. Not in America. Wasn’t it one of the sacred maxims of this country that people were safe from arbitrary disruptions of their lives? That they were safe in their homes? As he sat there, Bennett started remembering news stories about doors smashed down and people dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night. That had been going on for years. People would get indignant, but it was always explained as an unfortunate mistake, an innocent person with the same name as someone wanted by the police, a wrong address. Sometime there was apologies, but not always. After a while, it hardly even made the news.

He scrambled two eggs and poured a cup of coffee. But when he sat down at the table, his stomach threatened to revolt again. He scraped the eggs into the garbage, poured the coffee into the sink, and went into the living room, too numb to make any decisions. He didn’t know how long he’d sat there, his head in his hands, when the rumble of a vehicle brought him to his feet. A truck, its back roofed over with canvas, came to a stop in almost exactly the same spot where the jeep had been. Half a dozen soldiers got out and spread out along the sidewalks, while two soldiers with rifles at the ready stood by the back.

“Oh God, it’s really happening!” Bennett ran to the bedroom and pulled his old duffle out of the closet. “One bag? What can I squeeze in besides clothes? Damn it! Why are they doing this?” He grabbed a random assortment of clothes out of the closet and drawers, toiletries from the bathroom, and found that, thank goodness, there was enough room for his laptop. His half-finished novel was on there, and on a memory stick that he grabbed and stuck in his pocket. He could still squeeze in some books, but there wasn’t much time to make up his mind what to take.

Suddenly, there was no time at all. He heard a knock at the front door and a shouted “Open up, Sanders.” His heart skipped a beat, then started to race. They knew his name. They must know everybody’s name, then. And where they’d be. He grabbed the duffle and dropped it by the couch on his way to the door.

Privileged Lives – Chapter one, Part two, Linden

“Linden. Honey? You’re going to be late for school if you don’t get up now.”

Linden rolled over and looked at the clock. He’d been awake since before daylight was beginning to show, thinking about what had happened yesterday, how it just wasn’t possible for someone to change his whole life without even asking him. Like a giant hand reaching down out of the sky and just picking him up and carrying him away. Like aliens.

They’d stopped talking about it yesterday when neither of them could find anything more to say. But Linden refused to accept it. He wasn’t going to let himself be carted off by strangers to some college, who knew where. Not that he even cared where it was. Frustration and anger washed over him again, and then he gasped. Why hadn’t he thought of it yesterday?

He scrambled out of bed, threw on the same clothes he’d worn yesterday, and with only a stop to empty his bladder, tore down the stairs to the kitchen. “Mom, you have to call the school right now and make an appointment with Mrs. Kinney. We have to talk to her today. Don’t let anybody put you off because this is really, really important.”

“Your counselor?” Carrie flipped a pancake and put down the spatula. She looked Linden over with a disapproving eye. “You didn’t change your clothes and you haven’t brushed your hair. Did you even bother to wash up? You can’t go to school that way.”

“Mom!” What was wrong with her? She was acting like this was just a normal day. “What’s the point of going to school if I only have three more days? Look, maybe Mrs. Kinney knows what this is all about. She has to know something. Wouldn’t they have talked to her? She can tell us how I can get out of it, tell them I don’t want it. Call, please. Right now!”

Carrie’s expression lightened as she took in what Linden was saying. “Do you really think she could help?”

“I don’t know, but if there’s anybody that can, it has to be her. We have to try. Call her, Mom.”

                                                                *  *  *

Linden was hot and sweaty by the time they got to the school. His eyes were dry and itchy and his throat was sore. He bet that nobody was going to be going outside for phys ed today. There must have been an air alert, but neither of them had thought to turn on the news. It felt strange to be walking down this hallway with its familiar smells and sounds, knowing that it could be the very last time. It was just as strange to be here with his mom because that hadn’t happened since Mr. Charles had finally lost his temper and insisted on a parent-teacher conference.

The strangeness grew when Gus, the security guard, had made them wait outside until he got the okay from the office. He’d scanned Linden’s ID three times before shaking his head. Apologizing to Carrie for the delay, he said, “I can’t let anybody in without proper ID, Mrs. Thomas, even if I know them. You don’t have one, and Linden’s isn’t coming up. Must be some kind of glitch. Just the rules, you understand. Nothing to do with you, personally.”

Carrie had winced when Gus scanned Linden’s ID card and then the chip in his neck, and Linden wondered why it bothered her. “What’s wrong?” he asked, when Gus finally let them in and they were out of earshot.

“Nothing. It’s just the chip. I’m not used to that kind of thing. I always forget you have one, and I don’t like to be reminded.”

“Why does it still bother you so much?”

“You know why. You’re not a lost pet. The chips made it easier for them to be identified so their owners could be notified. It isn’t right for it to be used on people. Why do you even ask, Linden? We’ve been around and around about it.”

Except for the initial pain when the chip had been injected, it had never bothered him. It had been there since he was in the fourth grade. He hadn’t understood why his mother made such a big stink when the school board voted for them, and it didn’t make any sense for her to still be upset about it. Practically everybody was chipped. The only reason she never had been was because she didn’t have a regular job. She babysat for the neighbors once in a while, but that wasn’t something that required you to be chipped. He shrugged and knocked at the side of the counselor’s open door.

Mrs. Kinney looked up and smiled. “Come in Mrs. Thomas, Linden. Have a seat.”
Carrie hadn’t given  a reason when she called for the appointment, but Mrs. Kinney knew why they were there; he was sure of it. He’d catalogued all her smiles, most of them phony, but this one was the worst, and she flicked her eyes away from him too fast. She was nervous, the way she always was when he said something that he knew would throw her off-balance.

“You said that Linden has a serious problem, Mrs. Thomas. I hope it’s something I can help him with.”

Carrie didn’t return Mrs. Kinney’s smile. She laid the envelope on the desk and pushed it toward the woman. “We both have a problem. Would you look at these papers, please, and tell us what you know about this scholarship?”

Mrs. Kinney’s lips thinned. Carrie’s attitude offended her, and Linden was glad. Carrie had a way of doing that to people if she got angry enough. He saw the slight hesitation as Mrs. Kinney reached for the envelope. She shook the papers out and barely looked at them before raising her eyes to Carrie.

“I don’t understand why this is a problem, Mrs. Thomas. Linden is to be congratulated on being accepted to Merriman. The school is highly selective, and he’s only the second of our students to make the grade since the program began.”
Linden’s heart sank.

“Where is this Merriman College located, Mrs. Kinney? We can’t find an address anywhere in these papers. Not even in the letterhead. How do we know it’s real? And why would these people, whoever they are, just snatch Linden out of his school and away from his home? It says he can’t refuse to go. How is that possible? Isn’t this a free country anymore?” Carrie’s voice got louder with each question, and her face was flushed.

Linden reached over and put his hand on her arm. “Mom. Give her a chance.”

“Mrs. Thomas, please.” Mrs Kinney patted the air as if that would have a calming effect. “One thing at a time. I’ll try to address your concerns, but I have to tell you that I don’t know everything about the program, and there are things I’m simply not allowed to tell you. What I can tell you, which may alleviate some of your anxiety, is that the scholarship is quite legitimate. It’s a government program, after all.”

“I know it’s a government program. At least that’s what I read, but I couldn’t believe it. How can you even approve of something like that? My own government wants to take my son away from me! He’s just a youngster. They can’t possibly have any interest in him.”

Mrs Kinney smiled. “That’s where you’re wrong. They’re very interested in him. In fact, they’ve been following his academic progress for several years.”
“The government’s been spying on me?” Linden burst out. “What right do they have?” He clutched the arms of his chair as if he’d like to tear them off.

“Linden, it wasn’t spying. And they do have the right to track students. Especially since they’re the reason you and your classmates have been taking all those extra tests for the last three years. The government needs good minds, and it isn’t willing to depend on luck to find them. Our country’s problems are too serious. That’s how it was explained to me. The testing program is used in schools all over the country. I don’t know where Merriman College is, and probably wouldn’t be allowed to tell you if I did know, but the program is legitimate. Merriman is a real college with a real program for elite students.”

“How is that supposed to make me feel better?” Linden was close to tears. The trap was closing and he knew that none of his arguments would force it open. He knew that now. But he couldn’t just give in. “So they think there’s something special about me. So what? Does that mean I don’t have any rights any more? I still have a year and a half of school. I don’t even know if I want to go to college. I told you that a dozen times.”

He stopped dead, glaring at the woman. “That’s why you’ve been nagging at me to get my grades up.” He didn’t even notice that she stiffened with disapproval at his words. “Is it a prestige thing for the school? You were afraid they wouldn’t take me?” He stood up, his fists clenched, ignoring Carrie’s gentle tug at his hand. “Well, you can just find a way to get me out of this. Tell them I won’t go. I won’t cooperate if they take me. Tell them I’ll kill myself first. I don’t care what you tell them.”

“Calm down, Linden. I’m not going to tell them anything. I haven’t been given any details, but I do know that the program is a matter of national security. Instead of making a big fuss about it, you should be proud you’ve been chosen. Where is your sense of patriotism?”

Linden snorted. “I guess I lost it when I got that stuff.” He looked at the envelope still lying on her desk and then at the clock on the side wall. “I’ve already missed two classes because of this. I’m going to my psych class. It’ll be okay, Mom. She got me into this and she’s going to get me out. All she has to do is tell them that I won’t cooperate—ever. Go home and stop worrying.”

“Linden.” He was halfway to the door when Mrs. Kinney’s voice stopped him.

“Whether you cooperate or not, and I doubt that you’ll be allowed any of your usual rebellious attitude, you’re still going. I hope that you’ll eventually understand how important this is.” She gathered the papers together, put them back in the envelope and held it out to Carrie. “Go home with your mother. You’ve already been withdrawn from school. You’re no longer a student here.” She held out her hand. “I need your ID. Now, Linden.”

He stared at her in disbelief, then down at the piece of plastic hanging from the lanyard around his neck. Now he understood why Gus’s scans hadn’t worked. Very slowly, he lifted the lanyard over his head. He laid it in Mrs. Kinney’s hand, suppressing the urge to throw it at her, and watched her open a drawer, drop his identity in and shut it away.

“I’m sorry this is making you so unhappy, Linden. I wish I could change things for you, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do. You have to start thinking about the good side. It’s an honor, and you’re going to get the very best possible education. I know you wouldn’t have been able to go to college without a scholarship. Well, here it is. I’m very glad for you, and I wish you all the best.”

Linden turned away from the desk, willing himself not to have heard any of that. He shook his head. “No.” He was running out of air. There was a strange buzzing in his ears and he was starting to feel dizzy.

“Linden!” Suddenly his mother was holding him in her arms, protecting him from something, but he wasn’t sure what.  “Linden, honey. Look at me.”

He looked up into her face and everything came rushing back, and with it a pain that was unlike anything he’d ever felt. It was sharp and it stabbed him right down to his bones. He was afraid he was going to start crying, right there in his counselor’s office.

“Take me home, Mom, please.”

Privileged Lives – Chapter one, Part one, Linden

“Hey, Mom. I’m home. You in the kitchen?” Linden let the door slam shut behind him and cringed. She’d probably chew him out about that. He dropped his backpack on the floor and followed his nose to the kitchen. “Something smells good. Oatmeal raisin cookies? How did you know I was wanting those? It’s been just about forever.”

Carrie Thomas smiled at her gangling son and uncovered the heaping plate of cookies. “Yes, it has. It’s the first time in a while the store has had raisins, and there were only a few boxes. The price has gone up again, so I just got one box. They have to last, so try not to make a pig of yourself. Okay?”

“Okay.” Linden poured himself a glass of milk from the fridge, sat down, and grabbed a handful of cookies. “What’s all that stuff?” He nodded toward the papers spread out in front of his mother, and stuffed half a cookie in his mouth.

“A college offer. Sort of a scholarship.”

Linden washed the cookie down with a swallow of milk and peered at his mother, a line of worry between his eyes. He wasn’t sure what to ask first. Her expression was… strange. He didn’t like the smile she had on now, as if there was something she didn’t want to say.

“What’s a sort of scholarship? I haven’t applied to any colleges.”

Instead of answering, Carrie went to the sink and started washing the dishes.

Linden glared at her back, annoyed. “Mom. We agreed that we wouldn’t get into the college thing yet. I still don’t know if I even want to go. You didn’t send in an application, did you? Without telling me?” He thought about it, frowning. “No. You couldn’t have. I’d have to fill in all kinds of stuff for myself. That’s what Jen told me. They want to know what your ambitions are in life, the important stuff you did in school, like be the president of some silly club, all that junk.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you anyway, Linden.” Carrie didn’t turn away from the sink. “It just came… I mean it was delivered. By a man. In some kind of uniform.”

“ Like NUPS? A brown uniform?”

“More like a military uniform. Maybe army. I don’t know.”

“Army? Mom, turn off the water and come sit down. I hate talking to your back.”

She moved the few steps from the sink to the table, dabbing at her hands with a towel, then bunching it up as if she didn’t know what to do with it. Her expression scared him. The fake smile was gone, but now she looked almost the way she’d looked at his dad’s funeral. Whatever was in those papers, it couldn’t be as bad as her face said it was. He had to straighten this out.

“Are you sure the guy had the right house?” As soon as he said it, he knew it was a stupid question. She wouldn’t have opened the envelope if it hadn’t been the right house.

“He asked for you by name. And he knew my name. I tried to ask him what it was about, but he just handed me the envelope and walked away. I watched to see if he was going to stop anywhere else, but he got into a car parked down at the end of the block and it just drove off.”

“It still has to be some kind of mistake, Mom. It wasn’t for me. They just got the name wrong. Anyway, if I did win a college scholarship, even if I don’t want it, you ought to be at least a little happy about it. Scholarships are good things, aren’t they?”

Carrie fluttered her hands over the papers without saying anything, then gathered them together and pushed them across the table toward him.

“Mom? You’re scaring me.”

“I just don’t understand it, sweetheart. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe you can see something I’m missing, but I don’t like what I read. It says you have to leave in three days.”

Linden put down the cookie that was halfway to his mouth. “I have to leave? In three days? That’s crazy! It’s the middle of the school year. Colleges don’t do that. I’ve never heard of such a thing, and I bet nobody at school has, either. Nobody can make me leave if I don’t want to.”

Carrie bit her lip. “I hope I read it wrong, but it does seem like you can’t refuse to go. It’s a government program, so I guess they can do whatever they want.” She stood up and hovered, looking down at the papers, and then at her son. Loss and hopelessness were written in her posture, just as they’d been that horrible time before.

Linden couldn’t bear to see her like that. He forced a laugh, but even to his own ears, it sounded false. “You must have read it wrong. They probably have some squirrely language in there. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out and then we can throw all that stuff away and forget about it.”

“I’ll leave it to you then. I’m going to start supper. Is fish all right?”

Linden’s nose wrinkled. “Is it real fish or that fake stuff?”

“It’s almost the end of the month, dear. We can’t afford real fish right now. I’m not even sure I want to buy the real stuff any more. We had to throw out the last that I bought because it tasted so awful. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, yeah. It almost made me barf. Fix whatever you want. I promise not to complain. I can always fill up with cookies.” He gave her a big smile, but when Carrie turned back to the sink without returning it, it slipped away.

Linden looked for the envelope the papers had come in. If it was hand delivered, there probably wouldn’t be a postmark, but at least it was a place to start. But there was no return address, and his name and address were machine printed. Disappointed, he laid it aside and picked up a letter with an official-looking letterhead. It was short and to the point, and he thought it was probably like what he’d see if he did apply to some colleges. He snorted as he skimmed over the formal language. Congratulations. Chosen for an intensive two-year program at Merriman College, which he’d never heard of. An elite government program. Did the government run colleges? He’d never heard of anything like that. Very strict selection, blah, blah, blah, looking forward to having you join us. Sincerely, above an illegible signature.

He hesitated between the brightly colored brochure and the sheet with ‘Instructions’ written at the top. Whatever the instructions were, they weren’t for him. So the brochure first. He’d seen a lot just like it in his counselor’s office. Too many times, as far as he was concerned. Mrs. Kinney kept calling him into her office because she seemed to think he needed pep talks. Even though he was almost at the top of his class, she kept pushing him to work harder. It was important for him to do his very best so he’d be ready for college. It didn’t matter how many times he told her he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, she just kept at him. And he was only half-way through his junior year. Why was she in such a rush, anyway?

And what was the point? There was no money to pay for college, and his grades weren’t quite good enough to get him a full scholarship. Without that, he wasn’t going anywhere, and he didn’t really care. His dad’s pension, and the amount his mom had been awarded because of the company’s negligence, kept them comfortable enough if they were careful. There was usually a little left over for a few small luxuries once in a while, but college? That was just a dream—his mother’s dream. He could pull his grades if he worked a little harder, but Mrs. Kinney’s nagging just made him want to push back and let them drop instead.
His chest ached every time he thought about why they were so poor. Even if the settlement could have paid for two college degrees, it would never make up for losing his dad. He’d never said anything to his mother, and certainly not to Mrs. Kinney, but half the reason he really didn’t care about going to college was that his mom needed him.

He rubbed his finger over the brochure’s glossy pictures of smiling students in front of classical buildings. There were lots of shade trees and endless swathes of green grass. Was there any place that still looked like that? But he guessed the government could figure out how to keep the grass nice and green, no matter how bad the weather was. There was lots of stuff—with pictures—about the comfortable dorms, the library and the gym. It all looked unreal. He kept glancing over at the page of instructions. That had to be the one that was upsetting his mom. There was nothing in the brochure about having to accept the scholarship or leaving in three days.

He wanted to take everything—the envelope, the brochure, the welcome letter and instructions—tear them into little pieces and throw them in the trash. With a sense of dread, he finally picked up the page of instructions. Why had it been hand-delivered? Frantically, he he looked for an address, a state or a part of the country, realizing now that even the letterhead lacked an address. Where was this college, anyway? The instruction sheet was mostly a list, and a quick scan told him what he was already sure of. No address.

“Mom? Did you see an address anywhere? Like the name of a town where the college is?”

Carrie had gone back to washing the dishes. She put down the dish in her hand, but she didn’t turn around. “No. I didn’t even think about it. It must be there, somewhere.”

“It isn’t.”

She turned then, and looked at him with that strange expression. “I suppose the people who are going to pick you up will tell you.”

“Pick me up?”

“Yes, didn’t you read that part? It’s near the bottom of the instructions, I think.”

She made an attempt to smile.

“I’m just about to read it.” The weird shivery feeling that had been growing while he hunted through the papers was starting to become a queasy roiling in his stomach.His mom was acting just like when they found out his dad was dead. That fake smile, and her voice without any expression in it.

The instructions didn’t even take up the whole sheet. It was impossible to misinterpret anything. He couldn’t refuse the scholarship. He had three days to settle his affairs at home. He wasn’t allowed to take anything with him. Everything he needed would be provided by the college. He would be picked up early on the morning of the fourth day and would be escorted during the entire trip.

He grabbed the brochure again and tore through it, looking for something that he couldn’t possibly have overlooked if it had been there. There was nothing about vacations, about visits home. Not even summer vacation. He sat back and stared in front of him without seeing anything. His mind had been processing all the little details and the missing pieces, and now it all came together in a terrifying way.

He’d been recommended by an unknown person, for a scholarship to a college in an unknown location. He wouldn’t be allowed to refuse, and he would be taken away from his home and his mother in three days. He almost laughed, but it choked before it turned into sound. He was going to be kidnapped. No matter how he turned it around, trying to see it from every possible angle, that’s what it really was. Don’t be a dope. Nobody gives you advance warning that you’re going to be kidnapped. You’re just dramatizing again. That’s what Mom would say. But he couldn’t convince himself. If someone could just come and take you away, that was kidnapping.

He knew, when he looked up at her, that his expression must be as bleak as her own. She’d been waiting for him to find the way out, and he hadn’t. He stood up, wanting to go to her, but he couldn’t get his legs to move.

“I don’t want to leave you, Mom. I can’t.” It was true, but not what he wanted to say, if only he could get it out in the open where he could see it. Then, all of a sudden, he did see it. “How do we even know this is real?”

“What do you mean? Of course it’s real. Look at it. I don’t want it to be real, and neither do you, but if it isn’t real, what is it?”

“A hoax, maybe? A really nasty practical joke? If it was real, why would they hide where this college is? And why would they do it this time of year and only give me three days?”

“But why would anyone play a joke like that? You don’t have any enemies at school, do you?” Linden shook his head. “How could anyone hate you—or me—enough to do something so awful? Maybe it’s a top-secret program and they can’t tell you more until you’re in it.” She smiled hopefully, just long enough to see that Linden wasn’t convinced. “I guess that does sound silly, doesn’t it? Like one of those ridiculous espionage movies.”

“It feels like…” Linden shut his mouth. He didn’t want to say the word. His mother would panic if she really thought he was going to be kidnapped. And it was such a wild idea, anyway. He couldn’t really believe it, himself. But there had to be some explanation. “Never mind. Forget it. I had an idea and then I realized how crazy it was.”

“Are you sure? Sometimes those weird ideas you get turn out to be right. Tell me, Sweetheart.”

Carrie looked so hopeful again that Linden forced himself to smile. “It really wasn’t anything worth thinking about any more. Do you want some help with supper? I wouldn’t mind having mashed potatoes, and I’ll even peel the potatoes.”

Carrie gave him a look that said she wasn’t satisfied. But she wouldn’t argue with him. Not until supper was over, at least. Maybe by then he could think of something to make this all go away.

“Okay. You’re on potato duty.”

The Tide Rolls In, The Tide Rolls Out

The energy tide, that is. I’ve had to take several breaks from the revision of Privileged Lives, but I’m down to the final chapter today. A lot of tightening up reduced the word count enough that I’ve been able to build up weak areas without making the book longer. 93,000+ words is a good length to maintain. Next will come several editing runs, then spell check, a round or two of ProWritingAid, and a final proofread. The cover is still ahead, with the first viable idea since I wrote the darn thing.

Oops. I was going to start serializing it yesterday. Fibro fog or just old-fashioned forgetfulness? Since the first two chapters introduce the two protagonists, Maybe I’ll post both those chapters this weekend. Nope. They’re both around 5,000 words, so I’ll have to split them.

The renewal notice came up for PWA the other day, and it was somewhat alarming to realize I’ve had it for a year and only used it for one book. The cost was probably more than I earned all year, so I’ll have to keep that in mind from now on and get more work finished. Which I intend to do anyway.

I’ll be so glad to get this novel out of the way. As usual, new ideas keep nagging at me along with the WIPs that are demanding my time.

Serializing Privileged Lives

Back when I was active on Live Journal, I serialized my first novel, Hidden Boundaries. It worked out pretty well in most ways. I got some very helpful critiques, and when I finally polished it up and published it, there were actually readers waiting to turn into buyers. Granted, the book fit nicely into a fairly big niche with a lively community on LJ. It appealed to readers of slavefic, most of whom want sex in their stories, so my deliberate avoidance of the usual cliché tropes of slavefic and the near-absence of any sex, and that only suggested was a bit risky. But I wanted to challenge expectations, and present slavery in a somewhat more realistic way, even though it still took place in an unlikely alternate universe.

A lot of the serial readers were oblivious to the ethical aspects of the book, and loved it mostly because they could cry over the protagonist’s sad plight. Still, it was satisfying that some readers did see what I was getting at. The book was fairly successful by my very low standards, and still picks up a sale now and then. I’d probably shudder if I ever read it again, but at least it would be cheering to know that my writing has improved considerably since then.

Blogging here is very different from Live Journal, and I have no idea whether serializing a novel would work. But since it’s being pretty extensively revised and edited, it would be nice to get some feedback to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Future sales would be nice too, but that isn’t something I would count on — maybe as an extra bonus.

So I’m giving serialization very serious thought right now, if for no other reason than curiosity. How would it work out? I’m thinking two posts a week, which should be enough to keep up readers’ interest. Some of the chapters are pretty long, around 5,000 words, so I’d split those.

Editing, Kitty Adoption, News

The revision of Privileged Lives is going well, although stuff got in the way yesterday and I only did about two chapters. Still… Cutting the fat, expanding scenes, combining chapters, all on the way to a final rewrite. It’s down to 29 chapters, from 38, and I’ll probably combine several more before I’m through. It’s kind of amazing how much I’ve learned since writing it back in the Spring of 2011. And it’s hard to believe it’s been hanging around that long. This is one of those cases where you have to decide whether a book that’s never sold more than a few copies is worth overhauling. It might still languish unread, but it’s worth it to me.

The “stuff” that got in the way of book work yesterday, was one of the massive shopping trips I go on almost every week with my son. Usually, it’s two grocery stores and one or two thrift stores. Yesterday’s started with the local Humane Society. I decided a month or two ago that I missed having a fur ball, so I kept checking out the photos on the HS site. The cat I’m adopting is a ten-year-old orange female who might not have found another owner at that age. She wasn’t exactly abused by her previous owners, but they put her in their basement because of their little kids (no details on that except her inability to cope), and lived down there for a year. She’s still skittish, but didn’t have any trouble with my petting her, leaned right in, in fact, so I think she’ll be fine once she settles down. We’ll probably go in tomorrow to sign the adoption papers and take Stella home.

As part of getting my life somewhat normalized, which used to mean being owned by a cat, I’m cutting way back on the news. I’ve accepted that things are mostly going to get worse as the new “president” lays about him with an axe handle. There’s nothing I can do about it except put my little bit of money where I hope it will do some good. I made a second donation to the Standing Rock Sioux this morning, even though I know that particular battle will probably be lost.