There She Was is a short story I wrote in 2018, between novel projects. It’s a little dark, a little sad, a little funny, and a little hopeful. Like all my favourite stories tend to be.
I was given the following short story prompt: “Write a scene that incorporates the following three things: espionage, a bagpipe player, and bacon.” (1000 words or less)
It’s a little unorthodox, and fairly preposterous, but here it is.
THE FIRST DEGREE
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“I know that. You’ve been telling me for years now. But shut up, okay? The scene’s about to start.”
“Fine. I’ll whisper. How about that?”
“Better. I’d still prefer if you just shut up though.”
“You know, I told myself the last time I helped you that it was going to be for the last time. And now? I’ve snuck onto a movie set with you, and we’re wearing kilts and carrying bagpipes.”
“Honestly? If you truly want to never help me again, you’ve got to start making some better excuses.”
“Come on. You were clearly giving me the first — and worst — excuse that popped into that tiny head of yours.”
“I was not!”
“You told me you were bedazzling your grandma’s purse today. Now, granted, that’s maybe not the worst excuse you could have come up with, but it’s got to be pretty close.”
“No, you shut up. And you’re holding that bagpipe the wrong way again. Don’t you remember anything I told you?”
“What makes you the bagpipe authority anyway?”
“My cousin played the bagpipes. He was in a marching band and everything.”
“So he knows how to play the bagpipe song?”
“Every song on the bagpipe sounds exactly the same. I thought there was only one song. Isn’t it just called ‘The Bagpipe Song’?”
“How do you know?”
“Because that would be a stupid name.”
“My feet hurt. How long do we have to stand here for anyway?”
“Didn’t you log the plan away the last two times I told you?”
“I just like the reminders. And really, I still have no idea why you need to do this so badly. What’s with you and Kevin Bacon anyway?”
“Listen to me. Kevin Bacon is the center of the Hollywood universe! And the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ defines how close you are to the center of that universe. If you’re a First Degree, it means you’ve made it.”
“Wouldn’t a Zero Degree be even closer though?”
“Well, yeah. I guess technically Zero would be closer than One. But that would mean I’d have to basically become Kevin Bacon.”
“Like John Travolta did in ‘Face Off’?”
“Kevin Bacon wasn’t in Face Off. That was Nicholas Cage.”
“What’s his Bacon Number?”
“Two. Same as Travolta, actually.”
“So you’re better than the both of them?”
“Not yet, I’m not. But once you start shutting up, I’ll be one step closer.”
“Can we go over the plan again?”
“It’s simple, really. We already paid off the guys whose parts we’re taking, and we paid them more than they were getting for this gig in the first place. So everyone wins, right?”
“I don’t see how I win in this scenario. That was my money.”
“You know I’m good for it.”
“Of course you do. But can we please just focus here?”
“What’s this scene we’re in, anyway?”
“Kevin Bacon is the President of the United States, right?”
“No he isn’t.”
“In the film, dummy. Are you telling me you didn’t even read the synopsis?”
“I’d say that’s rather obvious at this point.”
“Okay, so he’s the President, and he’s tasked with stopping a nuclear war before it happens.”
“What year is this? That sounds like every action movie from the 80s. And we’re wearing kilts, because?”
“Because he’s on a Hail Mary mission to Scotland and needs to diffuse a bomb in the middle of the Highland games.”
“The President diffuses bombs now?”
“The details of the thing don’t matter. The fact is that I’m playing an undercover Scottish intelligence officer who happens to be a bomb expert and I help the Leader of the Free World decide which wire to cut.”
“I thought you only had one line?”
“It is only one line. I say, ‘Snip the blue one, me laddie.”
“I don’t know the first thing about writing, but that is terrible writing.”
“I’m not going for an IMDB screenwriter credit here! It’s a minor character role with only the one line. And I’ll get my name in the credits and a First Degree Bacon Number.”
“I don’t think you can stop a nuclear bomb simply by snipping a wire.”
“I didn’t know you were the expert on the subject. Now shut up, we’re almost on.”
(Director) “PLACES EVERYONE! AND…ACTION!!”
“Oh my god. Here he comes!”
PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.A.
“You fellers play some mighty fine pipes there.
Now what can you tell me about this bomb?
And hurry now, we don’t have much time!”
BAGPIPE PLAYER #1
“Snip the blue one, me laddie.”
(Director) “AND….CUT! THAT’S SCENE EVERYONE!”
“Is that it?”
“That’s it. Mission accomplished.”
“Hey, I think Kevin Bacon’s waving you over. I think he wants to talk to you.”
“Probably congratulating me for making it to the center of the universe.”
“Hi, Mr. Bacon. It was an honor to play that scene with you.”
“Listen to me carefully, kid. I’m going to personally make sure this scene hits the cutting room floor. Nobody gets within one degree of me without my authorization. You hear me?”
“Yes, Mr. Bacon.”
“So what did he say to you?”
“He told me I look good in a kilt.”
“Really? What about me?”
“Sorry. He didn’t mention you.”
“Say, why are those security guards charging towards us?”
“I think it’s best if we got the hell out of here. And fast. Run!”
I was given the following story prompt “write about blue without using the word COLOR”.
Here’s my attempt. Enjoy!
Sometimes Blue wishes he could jump. He figures when the time comes, it will be when he’s not considering jumping at all. When he’s not thinking about it. Will he take a deep breath and see how long he might last? See how deep he might go before blacking out? Or will he let the water fill him immediately, like a pasta strainer submerged in the kitchen sink?
The fog has moved in quickly, as it often does on nights like this. The old, wooden footbridge over the creek is his favorite spot to sit when he doesn’t wish to be anywhere else. To his left is everything that pisses him off. But to his right lies the unknown. Surely there must be something in the unknown, or there wouldn’t be a bridge in the first place, would there?
But nothing is ever really for sure in Blue’s world. When something feels obvious to him, he couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s fine though, all things considered; terrible instincts have probably killed billions of men throughout history.
Of course, Blue may as well be dead. He has no car, no real friends, and no relationship to speak of outside of those he has with video games and his fantasy baseball league.
Blue muses over the sound his body might make upon contact with the water. He’s never learned to swim, and has never so much as jumped into the town’s wading pool. In the game Big Stolen Vehicle (Number Five),of the countless times he’s driven the misappropriated sedan off the pier, the sound effect is always strangely similar to breaking glass. It’s the same melody when he drives the delivery van off the pier too. How accurate are these things, really?
There’s an empty beer bottle just out of reach, and Blue stretches for it. The bottle is dry but sticky in his palm. He takes a curious whiff before putting it to his mouth in the hope that there might still be something salvageable at the bottom.
Blue tosses the bottle out towards the murky water, but a tugboat’s fog horn interrupts the splash. What a waste.
His mom and dad were both home tonight, unusual in the way that two leaders of warring nations might spend a cordial evening together. Their arguing had driven Blue out of the house, and where else would he think to go but here? To the wooden bridge.
Blue hears a shuffling off to his right. Not as far away as the unknown; no more than ten yards away. The fog tries its best to obscure the figure, though Blue can make out someone standing atop the guard rail. Blue doesn’t react at all as this unknown person jumps, but listens closely for the sound the body makes as it hits the water.
It’s a lovely crash; a beautiful splash. It’s perfect.
And then, without thinking, Blue jumps; plummeting into the fog himself. Maybe someone can still be saved tonight?
So let’s get into this. The Falling: Chapter One.
PART I: The Letter
First off, you’ll notice I’ve not only divided the book into chapters but into parts as well. There are five parts to The Falling, and the titles of each are homages to my favorite TV series: Seinfeld. In Seinfeld, each episode had very minimalist titles (“The Voice”, “The Opposite”, “The Contest”, etc) and I’ve laid out my titles similarly. In fact, two of these coincide directly to Seinfeld episodes: Part I: The Letter and Part III: The Revenge.
Chapter One: Tom’s Restaurant – Morningside Heights
An even more obvious Seinfeld homage. Tom’s Restaurant is, of course, the stand-in for Monk’s Coffee Shop. An exterior shot of Tom’s in New York was used in the show, with the interior shots coming from a sound stage in LA. Morningside Heights is one of my absolute favorite NY neighborhoods and once I got to know my main character Tommy a bit more there was no better place to have his favorite diner be situated. In fact, the working title for The Falling was originally TOM’S. I liked it; it was short and catchy. But the more I looked at as a title it the stranger it seemed. I had never actually been in the restaurant but when a couple of my friends were headed to NY I’d asked them to snap some photos inside so I could use them as reference, which they did. Thanks Mike and LeeAnn!
My decision to set the story in 2004 came about because of a few reasons. I wanted the novel to feel timeless, and the best way to do that is to have it take place at a point in the past. I don’t know why that is exactly, but I’d heard it said somewhere before. Also, a key chapter was to take place as a flashback, back to September 11th, 2001. I realized there had been – and still are – plenty of novels cashing in on the emotional events of 9/11, and I really wanted to avoid it, but the further my story went the more I knew it had to be there. Because of the nature of The Falling’s timeline following that day October, 2004 was to be the right moment for my story to take place.
I’ve known Thomas Mueller long enough to know most everything about him, except perhaps the most important thing of all. I watched Tommy that morning as he took a bite out of the big apple.
My narrator, as mentioned in a previous post, is meant to be the great city itself: New York City. The City watches over all of its inhabitants, following their ups and downs, good moments and bad. And even though readers will not explicitly know for sure who the narrator is, there is a feeling of comfort with having The City tell the story, as opposed to a traditional 3rd-person narration. The “most important thing of all” is the twist in the novel, which doesn’t reveal itself until Chapter 25 (Tommy and his identical twin brother were accidentally mixed up as babies, so he is not actually “Tommy.” Literally losing his own identity comes as a major blow to the character later). “…as he took a bite out of the big apple” is an obvious metaphor for Tommy’s self-perceived conquering of the city.
The CKY Grocery on Amsterdam had giant, bright red Spartan apples every day of the year.
The fictitious Morningside Heights grocery store’s name comes from the name of a local grocery store I grew up down the street from. I don’t know what CKY ever stood for – and the place has since been demolished in favor of townhouses – but I had fond enough memories of walking there as a kid that I chose to use the name here.
He loved the four seasons, although autumn was easily the most anticipated. To Tommy, Central Park’s bright, almost copper hues in the fall were the epitome of orange. He loved the unique perfume of deli meats and subway steam. He loved the rain with such verve that every time it so much as drizzled, he would turn to the sky so he could feel the drops sprinkle onto his teeth. Because every raindrop that hit him had already experienced that much-envied journey from the tips of the skyscrapers all the way down to the cracked and foot-stamped sidewalks.
This was one of the very first paragraphs I wrote for The Falling. And using words like epitome and verve really helped set the tone and solidify the type of language I would use for the rest of the book. Even though this was to be my second novel I really didn’t feel like the use of language was too exciting in my first book. The Falling changed the way I write, and I still get that fuzzy feeling when I read excerpts from it. I’m proud of it and of the word choices that helped make the novel what it is. “the unique perfume of deli meats and subway steam” is one of my favorite lines from the whole book.
Everything was perfect in the city, and as long as things remained the way he wanted them to, Tommy would continue to love the city forever.
This line is very obviously the crux of the story. It’s clear that things are bound to change, but could Tommy possibly ever fall out of love with his city?
Finding the letter in the mailbox was another reason for me setting the story in 2004. We still received letters from people in 2004! It almost seems too ancient a concept now. But having Tommy simply open up an email from Patrick rather than a letter felt too lifeless; less dramatic.
“You guys are not going to believe this,” Tommy said as he removed his coat and scarf. He sat down next to Kate and across from Jesse, placing the still not-quite-yet-brown apple core onto Kate’s empty plate. She hated that about him, how he’d walk into the coffee shop everyday as though he owned the place.
“Not now Tommy,” Kate interrupted. “Jess was just about to spill the details of his date last night.”
Jesse struggled, but managed his best ear-to-ear smile. Still, Jesse’s fake smiles were far more beautiful than most of the city’s genuine ones.
Immediately we are introduced to the three main characters: Tommy, Kate and Jesse. And I waste no time in having the readers really get to know them at their most basic. In three quick paragraphs we get a lot of information: Tommy is controlling and always assumes whatever thoughts are on his mind trumps whatever his friends might be discussing; Kate is brash, quick to voice her opinion and never afraid to tell someone to shut up; Jesse is a bit more socially awkward, but there’s no doubt he has a big heart and has a hard time disguising his feelings.
“Dinner?” [Kate] asked, with one of her infamous one-word questions. Kate didn’t like to waste words, unless of course it was to tell someone how disappointed she was in them.
The one-word question was intended to be something that resurfaced in varying forms throughout the book. As it happened, I probably only used it a couple more times. Partly due to me finding the right situation for it hard to nail down; Kate simply had too much to say most of time. She’s a chatty one. Still, I think it’s still an interesting character trait and the line above about not wasting words was too perfect to remove. It’s true that writers do find it exceptionally hard to cut their favorite lines sometimes.
Jesse sprinkled two packets of sugar into his steaming drink. He focused on the granules as they plopped in one by one. It was almost as though he was attempting to count each single glittering speck. The tiniest droplet of coffee arced from the cup to the letter on the tabletop. Observant as ever, Tommy was the only one who noticed. He rubbed the globule off with the back of his hand.
Coffee plays a big part in the book too; if you’re going to have a bunch of scenes with characters sitting around chatting what better prop to include than a cup of coffee? Movie directors do it all the time. You’ll see coffee pop up within scenes in The Falling many more times throughout. I wanted to note here just how observant Tommy is. He’s aware of everything and is always taking everything in. It’s part of what makes him a writer, and – as the main character in the book – it makes him the perfect character for the reader to live vicariously through.
The shadow from a crowd of people outside spread across the tabletop. “Hey!” Tommy banged on the window to get their attention. “Fuck off already!” He cursed seemingly at random, but there was nothing arbitrary or illogical about it to Tommy. He did it all the time….On the other side of that glass were a million faces Tommy did not want watching him slurping coffee and stuffing breakfast sausages into his mouth. He banged his fist on the window again. The crowd scuttled away like startled spiders.
This was an idea that I always found amusing: if you have a famous location that lures throngs of photo-snapping tourists on a daily basis, how does that make its regular visitors feel? There was a story earlier this year about the “Goonies House” in Astoria, Oregon. This was the house used in the cult 80’s classic. So many fans (a thousand a day, the owners claimed) came by and would generally leave such a mess behind that the owners eventually just shut down public access to their home. It’s probably similar to Tom’s Restaurant in New York, with so many Seinfeld fans wanting to have their picture taken in front. Probably even standing by the windows where regular customers sit. Maybe even every day. Naturally, Tommy would find this extremely annoying and I think I turned it into a pretty funny character moment, one that could repeat itself in later chapters.
This takes us to about page ten. Stay tuned for the next part.
In my new novel (“THIS NEVER HAPPENED“), I’m exploring the novel-within-a-novel concept. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. It’s true, I already did this in my second book (“THE FALLING“). In The Falling, my main character (Tommy) is a novelist whose debut work (“BLANC“) was essentially a detective story set in 1940’s New York. Tommy based the detective character on himself while modelling the amnesiac serial killer he was chasing after an old friend (Patrick) who Tommy had been harboring negative feelings for. When Tommy gets it into his head that Patrick has returned after ten years in a grand act of revenge, he also decides that Patrick is using the scenes in Blanc as inspiration. I used three “excerpts” from Blanc and placed them sporadically within The Falling, at points in the story where Tommy’s feelings might be justified by the reader. But these were also scenes that intended to help readers better define the true nature of Tommy’s and Patrick’s close relationship.
But where the fictional novel within The Falling served the story as non-linear character development, my new story utilizes the concept in a very different way.
In This Never Happened, the protagonist (Epic Small) is riding the F-Train through Brooklyn when he finds a tattered copy of a book on the seat beside him. Below is an excerpt from Chapter Four of my book:
“The novel is entitled The Third. The cover is a painting of two identical left forearms, with their wrists facing out. Somebody has defaced the cover with a bright green marker, having drawn juvenile slits along the wrists with blood streaming out. Like they are bleeding pesto or possibly belong to some sort of space creature who has assumed the form of a man. Checking the front matter, I discover this is an English translation of a French novel by the author Jean Trepanier, first published in the Seventies. This translation was published a few years after that. The back cover offers no synopsis, no indication of what the reader might be in for.”
Epic begins reading the novel right there on the subway, and realizes without a doubt that this is going to be a confusing tale. It is a story about twins, though the two men (Tristan and Luca) share no relation and don’t really look alike. The fictional author (Jean Trepanier) continues to describe Luca’s physical features differently; he’s Chinese, he’s an Eskimo, he’s a little girl, or he’s morbidly obese. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why the descriptions change but the reader and Tristan and all the secondary characters are meant to simply assume they are identical twins. Luca proposes that the two men switch lives, and without much of an argument from Tristan the two swap jobs, apartments and girlfriends.
The Third is written in a way and perceived by Epic to be something that is worth questioning. Is this a real book? Was it intentionally planted on that subway for Epic (and him specifically) to discover? And in another twist, when Epic discusses the strangeness of this book with his therapist (Gideon), it turns out that Gideon has read it too. But Gideon’s version of The Third is a little different: there is a whole other character in his version, one that does not exist in Epic’s: a third twin (er, triplet, I suppose) plays a key role in this alternate version, and his name is simply The Third. Why the divergences in the two books? Who holds the “correct” version? These are all questions that I’m hoping readers will ask, but ultimately, the two copies of The Third play a key role in the bigger picture of This Never Happened. They serve as clues towards the secret within the entire story.
Still transitioning from the outline-to-writing stage, my goal is to have This Never Happened completed at the end of 2014.