Form: novel in stories

This Day’s An Invitation

This Day’s An Invitation

It was summer in Berlin and time for a family to disintegrate. Emma, 16, had refused to even pretend she was with the others because after the way Martin had treated her she wasn’t interested in patching things up, only breaking them down.

She deliberately went five paces ahead of everyone else whenever they dared sortie from the hotel to navigate the bustling metropolis that seemed to have gotten a second lease of life after the pandemic.

If only there had been a second lease for her parents, it might have gone differently, but despite Jon and Carrie walking hand in hand, Emma had no doubt that it was all for show and that the recent arguments about divorce were about to come true. They might as well just get it over with like Martin had when he dumped her – by text message – just before they were to fly out of JFK and head for her second trip to Europe.

Making out the rearguard were grandmother and her new man, Marcus Chen. Well, he wasn’t that new. This was the third time, apparently, they were a couple and Emma could never really figure out what it meant. Were they good friends who had sex? Were they lovers? Were they, well, a real couple? She wanted badly to figure it out because it would give some stability to her world. It would show her that things could be for real and forever and all the things you could read in the books, at least.

She turned left and the ugly slab of concrete that was the Bahnhof Zoo station greeted her, but she went right past it hardly bothering to look at the map on her phone. With a bit of luck, she thought, she might stumble into a jungle part of the actual zoo on the other side and become lost if she kept going without looking. Or lose the others. She almost stumbled into a truck instead, as it pulled out from the parking lot behind the station.

“Wait up, young lady,” her father called. Voice firm as always, even if joy had long since left it.

Emma reluctantly slowed, feeling more caged than the animals in the Zoo they were going to gawk at any moment now. Or so she imagined. 

She suddenly felt all energy leave her. Even her anger at feeling lost and alone for the nth time wasn’t enough to keep her moving. Her heartbeat like a heavy machine and the sound of the traffic around her was like a silent dream. Dust from the park ascended in the heated afternoon, and the whole day felt tired from the lead in the air. Like it was seeping into her pores. She hated Yuma but at least they had clean air in the desert, even if it was always hot as hell to breathe this time of year.

In Berlin, the air was just heavy, and there was no redemption. It was supposed to be a marvelous chance to see an old city in Europe …

“You feeling alright?” Marcus Chen asked as he came up. They had all stopped in the parking lot as if they dared not go any further. As if there had been a crack in the collective agreement to have a conciliatory family trip to the zoo, as the first of many sights. 

“I’m okay.” Emma brushed away Marcus’ hand as she felt it closing in on her shoulder. 

Marcus sighed and looked at Emma’s grandmother. “Well, it’s just over there. But if you feeling like going someplace to sit down first, have a cup of coffee … ?”

“We’re fine,” Carrie said through thin lips before her own mother could answer. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah.” Emma’s father nodded but it was clear the lead had gotten into his pores as well. 

Then Emma’s phone buzzed and, of course, it was from Martin. Messaging her all the way from his safe hideout in some desert suburb on the other side of the world.

Emma held the phone up and looked at it as if it was a cockroach. Then she muted it.

“Who was that?” Her father asked because he needed to ask about something that had nothing to do with the decision they had to make. To go on, into the zoo. To be tourists, normal, find something to smile at.

Her mother had looked like she wanted to ask, too, but instead, she had fallen back on her usual ask-me-no-questions demeanor, as if she was the one everything devolved around. Emma wanted to ask her many things. Like, what was going to happen with her and dad? Emma and Carrie had always been able to talk about anything, but right now that was almost non-existent, like a muted Facebook message.

Emma’s screen kept lighting up with one more message. Then another. Then she realized she was looking at it and hadn’t pushed the button that darkened the screen.

“Perhaps we should go ahead?” her grandmother suggested, smiling her wizened smile, her gray-green eyes not having lost any of their steadiness. “I’m sure Emma can find us. You have those tracking things in your fancy phones, haven’t you?”

“I’ll text you,” Emma said, not sure why she said it. She was definitely not going to forgive Martin. But she wanted to be alone.

“You can’t stay here in this … ” Her father looked around. A steady stream of cars passed them, trying to find space either to park or a way around other cars that wanted to find a way out.

“I’ll sit over there, on the bench,” Emma said and pointed.

“Let’s go,” her grandmother urged, letting her hand rest on Carrie’s shoulders that slumped a bit.

It was a done deal then, and the rest of the family were led away by grandmother, as usual, like driftwood for uncertain destinations. 

Emma said the standard things she needed to say to reassure her father especially and then she was finally free. She looked at the messages: 

<Can we talk?> The last one said.

Emma hesitated, then began typing:

<What is there to talk about?>

She smiled, but it was a sad smile. He had a guilty conscience because she had refused to talk to him after he broke up like that, and it was kind of sweet. Also kind of useless.

But if she refused to talk and at least try to mend some things, what then? School would be so awkward … 

She gazed after the others. They were out of sight, probably standing in line somewhere in the zoo.

There were other things that had to be mended, which she had no control over. But at least she had this.

Emma typed again.

The lead felt as if it was evaporating slightly in the summer air.

Not To Tell Another Lie

Not To Tell Another Lie

“We’re sorry, but your profile is not what we are looking for.” The voice at the other end of the phone line sounded almost meditative, like crushing the hopes of other people had become so routine that it conferred a strange trance-like state on its owner.

“On behalf of Dymo I wish you good luck with future applications,” the voice continued, rounding of with a tone of expectation. Expectation of consent.

“Okay,” Carrie said.

“Once again, we’re sorry. Goodbye,” the voice said.

Carrie hung up. Then she went back into the living room, walking slowly in her bare feet, trying not to touch the floor.

She had taken the call in the tiny hallway. Somehow it felt better to have taken it there like she was in a sheltered place. In reality, the house was protective in the same way a prison was, and she knew it.

She sat down on the sofa and noticed the dust had become so thick that it was also on the armrests, not just the window sills which were easier to ignore. Jon didn’t mention it anymore. In fact, he didn’t mention much about anything anymore. Just buried himself in work, and, of course, paid the bills as his reward for the effort.

Work …

Carrie looked at her cell phone, which was almost out of power. Then she hurled it away into a corner.

So of course they had not hired her. Her resume sucked. So why the feeling of surprise and disappointment?

Fortunately, she had other strategies. She thought of going upstairs to draw in the attic, but then she noticed the corner of a pad, sticking out under the sofa. One of the kids must have pushed it out, trying to find some toy or other. Probably Michael. Emma was too old but Michael still played with his model cars, for hours.

Carrie bent down and took out the drawing pad. There was no pen, but sure enough – there was the last drawing she had made – six months ago. Somehow nobody had cared to pick it up and give it to her. Or nobody had dared.

She had cared, but she had just been too busy. Her head exploding a million times a day with job applications, chores, arguments with Jon and her mum and Emma, and dealing with Michael’s autism.

She looked at the only picture on the pad. Did she really like it?

Then the phone rang, and Carrie had to scramble to find it before it was too late. But when she saw who it was, she figured that perhaps it had been a mistake to rush. And there was only 5 percent power left.

Jenna … 5 percent is not enough.

She answered it. “Hello?”

“Carrie – daaarling!”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Carrie slumped down on the sofa again.

Why talk to Jenna – now?

Maybe because it was so easy.

“I called because you left the messages.” Jenna was all bubbly. Carrie breathed deeply but felt like she was breathing quicksand. She had forgotten those messages. It had to have been at least two weeks ago.

“Yes … I didn’t hear from you, and there was nothing on Facebook, so I thought … ” 

“We’ve just been away for a while. Steve and I.”

“Oh.”

“You know. That hotel in Phoenix. I got mom to take care of the kid.”

“Sure.”

“Your mom still coming by to look after Emma and Michael?”

“No, she’s back in L.A. For like a year … I mean, the kids are big now. No problem.”

“Okay, well, it was a totally great weekend. We really caught up, if you know what I mean.”

“I think I know. That’s good. Very good.”

“How are you and Jon?”

“Oh, you know. We’re … ”

“Why don’t you come over?”

“Sorry, the power is getting a little low here. I’ll message you.”

Carrie hung up. For a moment she rested her head in the palms of her hands. Then she slowly let her fingers slide through her hair and was reminded that she really needed a bath. Like she needed a zillion other things. But there was never enough.

For a long time, she watched her cell phone as its remaining power died. It felt morbidly calming. And as if she had just won a little strength test of her own will, being able to concentrate for that time, and not think about Jenna or the people who had shredded yet another of her job applications.

Outside, the Yuma sun scorched the quiet suburbs. The neighborhood was like a warehouse for empty houses that were stowed away for the day when life had left them, lost by people who were looking for all the wrong things, and buying all the wrong things.

Carrie slowly stood up and went over to the window facing the road. There was a barbecue grill standing solemnly on the lawn of the house opposite theirs. But no chairs or signs that there had been or was about to be a get-together. She hardly knew the new people over there, anyway. So it wasn’t important, was it?

At least she had made her choice. She went to the kitchen, found the cranky laptop, and got it going, albeit under protest as usual.

She found all the scattered litter-like notes about how and when she would draw more. Because when she would be able to do that then she could also film it and put it online, as a course or something. Monetize via short videos on YouTube about the process or any of the crapload of other initiatives that seemed to work so well for everyone else ‘living from their passion’. Everyone who had managed to escape the need to apply for a job.

Carrie looked at the date of the most recent document. It said 2019. She closed it quickly.

Then she found the empty YouTube channel she had set up for this specific purpose and the blog, which still only had one entry. Obviously, there was nothing on them, because she had not had the time or the head to produce something, but they were there waiting. Waiting for success … So she wouldn’t have to apply for crappy jobs. If she could just make that transition.

The Twitter account and Facebook pages were also empty. Obviously. She knew that. Why did she have to look?

But she would start today. Today would be the day she would turn things around. She could write a blog post about that. Or do a video.

Then she felt like concrete. She still had a long list of jobs to apply for. And all the other shit. If she could just gain some measure of stability. How could you start a business if you had nothing to invest?

So maybe I am never going to live off my passion?

The thought was almost scary because it felt like … relief. She quickly choked it.

She had to live from her passion. She had to transit from the rat race of jobs to the passion of her own creative online business.

If only we had more aspirin. I should go buy some. But I have to get started …

The phone in the kitchen chimed. The landline. It had been ages since anyone had used that.

Carrie snapped the phone from its hanger. “Yes?”

“It’s me.”

She could hear the distance in his voice immediately. “Oh God, Jon … What’s happened?”

“No, no, it’s all right. I mean, yes, something has happened but it’s all right. I wanted to tell you before it hit the news.”

She turned and found the local channel on the small TV on the corner shelf, right under that board Michael had made for her in school, with perfectly sawed angles.

“It’s a fucking mess,” Jon continued, clearing his throat more than once, while he told her in a few terse sentences what had happened. “They had to fly Fred to Phoenix. I think he’s going to make it, but … ”

Carrie zapped through the channels. “There’s nothing but ads on here!”

“Try the web. Try—”

But Carrie had already switched off the TV and plumped down on the chair next to the laptop. She scrolled feverishly through the police Twitter feed until she found it.

“Oh God … ”

“Yeah, but it’s over now like I said. It’s over.” Jon sounded firm like he had to stop a bleeding somewhere.

Maybe he had. “Are you hurt?”

“No, no – just a bit roughed up, that’s all. After I got his gun away from him, he hit me right in the face. Think that damn tooth may have come loose again.”

She grinned, but her eyes were full of tears. “You know the dentist. No escape from her, ha-ha.”

“Yeah,” Jon said. “Yeah, life’s a bitch, ain’t it.”

“When are you coming home?”

“We need to make the report. The Chief will let everyone off for the day then. Will you call Emma and Michael? I’m afraid Emma may already have seen it. She is an addict. She shouldn’t even subscribe to news channels at her age.”

“She would have called if she had seen it,” Carrie said, feeling again some odd measure of control in stressing a pure belief as if it mattered more than getting off her ass and calling her children. “She should have that phone transplanted to the palm of her hand,” Carrie continued. “She should—”

“Yeah. She should.” Jon broke her off. “So how was your day, hon?” He was never good at being funny, and especially not now.

She wiped tears off her cheeks. But she also smiled and hoped he could feel it, even if he couldn’t see it.

She felt relief again, and it was overwhelming. A different kind of relief but no less valuable. Absolutely no less …

“I … made a decision,” Carrie tasted the words.

“A decision?”

“Yeah, I didn’t get the Dymo.”

“Fuck.” Jon sounded like the news hit him harder than the guy he had arrested this morning. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” Carrie said. “It was shit, anyway.”

“Most jobs are. Except policework, of course,” Jon deadpanned.

They both laughed at that. Fragile laughter, but laughter nonetheless. More relief.

“Brent found you that video cam,” Jon then said. “For your YouTube Channel. But I forgot to tell you. There’s been so much …”

“It’s okay,” Carrie said. “Forget about that.”

“Forget about it?”

“Look …” She breathed deeply. The air was dry but at least the quicksand was out of her system. “I’m – I’m going to look for another shitty job and then draw when I can. For myself.”

“For yourself? I thought you already did that.”

“Well, apparently I didn’t. It’s a long story, but I … am not going to kill myself anymore trying to find that business idea. I miss just drawing. What time did you say you were home?”

“It’s probably going to be a couple of hours.”

“Okay.”

“There’s one of your pads under the sofa, by the way.”

“I know. It’s out now.”

*

Last updated 30 May 2021

Silent Running

Silent Running

Once again I am home because there is no job.

Once again I’m thinking if Jon can handle the strain of working for both of us in a job he hates and if I am any good at taking care of my autistic son when he can’t be in school.

Once again I am wondering about a lot of things. But most of all I am wondering about why I am sitting for the nth time in front of fucking Facebook trying to find some company, which has all but evaporated in real life. It’s not as if it has ever worked before, has it?

Friendship. Such a strange thing. I had a lot of that when I was young. But then things changed. I screwed up a lot but I ended up with a family, and that was it. Or so I thought.

This desert town … it has been difficult to wring friends from it. And the few I have been able to catch have slipped again. Jocelyn moved. I don’t know what the hell is going on with Jenna these days. And that’s about it.

I’m not sure a job would help, although it sure would help a lot of other things. But at least it might give me the feeling of being with other people, no matter who. That’s like fast food when you really need a good lunch, but it’s better than eating nothing.

So Facebook … why don’t you give me something, at least some distraction I have not seen a hundred times before? How about the news?

I should go out. But where to? COVID is only retreating ever so slowly and we haven’t gotten our jabs yet. It would break a lot of things if we got it in the house, maybe some things beyond repair.

Who is active on Facebook aside from people who don’t know how to help themselves, or who fancy insulting others from a distance, or who are eternal lurkers like moi?

So what are the strategies? Aside from getting a new job, holding the family together, trying not to get COVID, getting this mess of a house in some order, getting something on with my husband so we can remember why we married, getting … well, the list is bloody long. But aside from all the immediate shit that’s always trying to flood my mind and my life, all the incessant demands, then what?

What strategies do a 42-year-old woman have in this little piece of nowhere on the border to Mexico? Should I wait for somebody to find the money for a new NGO, like the one that closed where I did a lot of interpretation for scared shitless immigrants while Jocelyn kept the legal stuff together for them in this strange new world? There are still some to go around.

It’s not as if I have a lot of time, because the flood is coming after me. But I’ll drown in my own fucking alone-ness before it reaches me if I don’t do something. I can’t be in my own skin a day longer. I have to get out.

I get up from the computer and get ready to go pick up Michael from his special needs class in school. It’s not his early day, but recently his anxiety has been messing with him so we agreed that I should get him early and drive him home at least until this one passes, too. If it does.

So the car is home for once, and that is nice. But I will only use it for this. In a little more than a few minutes, I will be on my way and my strategies will prick in my mind and try to breathe and get air, while the flood is coming full force.

I will think about what I can do to meet some bloody people again and get some bloody connection going, and at the same time be a little guilty that it’s not enough with my son (or my daughter who does not hate me this week, for that matter).

Or Jon, whenever he gets home. And we should try to wring some quality time from that homecoming, right? Even after 10 PM, right?

I will have to do at least one thing while my head is relatively clear, before I go out of that door, fetch the car keys, having wasted another day in paralysis.

I will have to reach out. Somehow. Somehow for real.

Even if I get nothing, I will have to do something real, but what?

I don’t know, but I close Facebook and get off my butt. Then we’ll see.

Newest stories

Newest stories

New stories - 2021

These are the most recent new stories, including flash fiction. 

That Imaginary Desert

Carrie chats with her stepbrother about choosing between war or peace, in the family and elsewhere.

Crystal

Every day Carrie counts 78 houses together with her autistic son.

Reunion

Sometimes you can go home again.

The Seven Words Left On Paper

The Seven Words Left On Paper

“Isn’t that the bag dad uses for his guns?” 

“No, it’s an ordinary bag,” Carrie said, “like yours.”

Emma had her own new pink bag with the large Japanese letters slung over her shoulder, so it was obvious that she was going over to Mika, probably to try again to make a positive impression on the new smart girl in class.  

Emma nodded at the bed again. “It looks like dad’s bag.”

Carrie adjusted her ear ring, even though she had already done it. But at least she had somewhere to put her hands. “I’m going shopping. Is there anything special you want for dinner, sweetie?”

“Dinner?” Emma still tripped in the doorway to her parents’ bedroom, staring at the big black bag her mother had on the bed.

“Yes, is there anything you want?”

“Er, for dinner?” Emma repeated as if her mother had asked her about the site of an alien landing.

“Yes, I was thinking about fries and chicken … ” 

“We had that yesterday.”

“Oh, right.” Carrie left the earring alone and pretend she was all clear. “Well, your brother likes it so no harm in having it again.”

Emma smiled briefly. “I think I will eat over at Mika’s … if you don’t mind?”

“The rest of us will certainly miss your excellent company, but we will try to manage.” Carrie was about to say something more, but it was already too late.

“Okay. Bye now!” And away she was. Carrie could hear the stair groaning in protest as Emma flew down to the front door, like a soldier to battle.

Carrie hooked up in the straps of the black bag and felt its weight. It didn’t feel like going off to battle, although perhaps it should. The bag was there, but it did not feel it belonged to her. 

Her summer dress with the knee-length skirt—that belonged to her, even if she’d rather have a newer one. Her sandals that were a little too tight, and which she had to replace soon. A whiff of nail polish, deodorant, lipstick, all familiar. All belonged to her. She had just dressed for shopping, after all.  But she did not feel like it.

She felt like an intruder in her own life. And it wasn’t the first time. She wondered if it would make a difference what was in the bag or that she was going to give it to Jenna, before going anywhere near Costco. In fact, she felt no appetite at all … 

After a moment of hesitation, Carrie heaved the bag up once more, felt the strap bite into her naked shoulder but ignored it. She listened instead. There were the expected sounds. Michael was playing his games. This time it was strategy-something. And he was well into his own autistic world, as usual. He probably wouldn’t notice if she knocked on his door, anyway.

She went out, to do what she had to do.

*

Emma watched her mom walk over to the car, heels click-clacking on the sun-cracked cement that made for a driveway to their small house. 

She was in her usual hide-out behind Mr. Taylor’s fence, which he luckily never got around to replacing. The old planks had long since come apart as rain and sun had done their job, each season, and it was easy to find an opening wide enough to look through, but not wide enough to be seen. Or at least she reckoned so.

Mr. Taylor himself was at the nursing home, looking after his wife, as usual. Or at least she reckoned so.

There were a lot of routines in Emma’s world that she depended on to get by and crazy as it sounded one of the routines was that she knew her mother’s dark moods well enough to be able to predict fairly well, when Carrie would be angry or just distant. Emma also knew when to look out for worse things. Her father had had a long conversation about that one night when Carrie had been at her friend, Jenna’s, with some other of her friends.

That conversation had frightened Emma, and she had felt crushingly alone, and her father as usual had kind of left it there and didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it again, although she desperately needed to.

Her mother started the car and it pulled out onto the street and then quickly disappeared between the boxes that went for houses in their suburb. She didn’t make the usual turn at the end, so Emma knew she wasn’t going into town. She was heading out of it. The only person in eastern Yuma that Emma knew her mom knew was Jenna Banks. Otherwise there was nothing for her there.

The sun was in the sky, as it was so often here in Arizona, but it felt cold.

Emma pulled her phone from her Japanese bag and called Mika.

“Look, I can’t come over now.”

“What?” Mika sounded both disappointed and a bit like it was what she had expected. “Not again!”

Emma bit her lip. “I’m really sorry. It’s mom. She’s gone over to a friend, I think, but something is wrong.”

“Last time you thought your mom would kill herself, she went to a barbecue party.” Emma could hear Mika chewing gum, and … someone else in the background. Were there other girls from her class? Mika had said that tonight was ‘their night’.

“It’s not her this time. I think she might kill … I don’t know.” Emma stalled. She couldn’t say it. And it was crazy, wasn’t it? The only clue she had was dad’s black bag. But it had looked … heavy.

“You think she’ll go on a shooting spree?” Mika’s voice became serious, all of a sudden. “Is that what you are saying?”

“I don’t know what I am saying … ” Emma felt something in her stomach, like acid. It was eating away at her insides. “I don’t know, I’m just worried. She has had a lot of arguments with Jenna recently.”

“Maybe you should call your dad. Isn’t he a police man?” Mika chewed the gum again. “I want to help. Tell me if I can do anything.”

“I’ll call my dad. It’s probably all right. She hasn’t been doing pills or booze or anything … ” Emma hung up, but the acid was still there and it was spreading.

It was that feeling that she had had more and more often. It was both acrid and ice cold at the same time, and it nailed her to the spot.

She couldn’t move. She felt her heart beat faster and she had trouble breathing. Doctor Maryam had called it anxiety attacks and had given her some pills, too, but the only pills Emma could think of was the ones she knew her mother sometimes had in her drawer. The ones against depression. Had she taken them recently? Were they enough? 

Despite what she had told Mika, she really didn’t know if her mother had been skipping her pills or if she had been drinking again or anything else. It was easier to keep an eye on mom due to COVID 19, of all things, because they had been home so much, but on the other hand, it wasn’t as if Emma could survey the attic or the bedroom 24/7. Emma suspected mom already knew that she was sometimes watching her.

She finally tore herself loose of the cold and started walking down the street, her pink bag bopping at her hip. She was only 15 but it felt like she had already spent whatever life had been allotted to her. She wanted to go over to Mika’s and have fun and watch those series they had talked about, because Mika and her brother had both Netflix and HBO.

But instead she got on her bike and began half-heartedly cycling in east, towards the Foothills where she knew Jenna lived. She wrestled with the question.

Should I call dad?

There could be a million reasons her mother had borrowed that bag. It was one of the biggest they had. Maybe her mother would go to Costco on her way back? Maybe her mother thought it was none of Emma’s business that she was going to Jenna’s first? Maybe she wasn’t going to Jenna’s but somewhere else?

Emma knew it was stupid to continue biking. She had to do something. Stop and call. Decide this was normal and ignore it. Go back to talk to Michael. But as long as she was biking at least she felt she had direction, as crazy as it was.

If only she felt that her own life in general was heading in some kind of direction. A direction that gave you hope. Not one that made you feel like you were driving towards a deep dark tunnel that nobody knew the length of.

Perhaps one that never ended.

Then the thought struck her. 

If mom really wanted to do something crazy, she would have left a note, right? That’s what they always do.

It was pretty absurd, but the thought gave Emma what she needed. Hope and another direction. She went back to the house to search for a sign, some indication. Then she would call her father.

I might be ten thousand times too late … but I have to do this right.

The doctor said she should always think twice. Think about what really could have happened. The possibilities. Not just the worst-case scenario. If only the latter wasn’t so hard.

For a moment, she considered calling mom. It would be the obvious thing to do. Except that her mom would probably lie, as she had done so often before. No, not lie. Lie was a bad word. More like her mom was always hiding, not telling her how she really felt.

Emma went to the bedroom. There was nothing.

Then she went to the locker in the basement where her father kept his guns. It was locked. But her mother knew where the key was. She knocked on the locker. It sounded as if there was something inside. She tried moving it a little bit. It felt heavy, as usual. There was definitely something inside. Yet, her father had many guns … 

She couldn’t stand it any longer. She went upstairs to get a better signal for her cell phone and began punching her dad’s number. She wondered if she should take the extra pills, Dr. Maryam had prescribed for ‘difficult situations’, but she wanted to call first.

Then she saw the note in the hallway.

It had to have fallen out of mom’s purse. No, it looked crumpled, like she had thrown it away. She sometimes did that with the strangest of things in the strangest of places. Once her mom had left an entire Happy Meal on the pavement, because she had decided she wasn’t hungry, and then went home to cook late. It had been one of the bad days, so nobody had said anything about how hungry they were and things had dissolved into workable normalcy the next day.

Emma picked up the note. It said:

Chicken 
Juice
Rice
Chocolate
Milk
Michael
Emma

Questions & Answers

Questions & Answers

Below you can find some of the frequently asked questions and their answers – about the Shade of the Morning Sun project and its creator, Christopher Marcus.

Table of Contents

GENERAL QUESTIONS

What is Shade of the Morning Sun?

Shade of the Morning Sun is a chronicle of a family over three generations from about 1968 and forward. It is told as an ongoing series of connected short stories with the same main characters:

Carrie Sawyer (b. 1979) – recovering addict, restless traveler, and searching artist

Jonathan Reese (b. 1975) – Iraq war veteran and state trooper, married to Carrie

Lin Christakis (1979-2000) – Carrie’s high school friend who wanted to be a famous author but found a tragic end

Emma Sawyer Reese (b. 2006) – Carrie and Jon’s smart, but anxiety-ridden daughter

Michael Sawyer Reese (b. 2008) – Emma’s younger brother, who is having to handle his autism as well as his sometimes dysfunctional family

Deborah Sawyer (b. 1952) – Carrie’s American mother and disillusioned flower child

Calum McDonnell (b. 1949) – Carrie’s Scottish father, ex-Highland ranger, Falklands veteran, and recovered alcoholic

And many others …

Why should I read Shade of the Morning Sun?

If you like to read contemporary upmarket fiction with strong characters, linked short stories, and reading online Shade of the Morning Sun may be something for you.

Where do I start reading?

Go to the Index for all stories and start from wherever you like.

There are, however, some specific ways to read Shade of the Morning Sun, if you like, and I will get to all of those below!

ABOUT THE FORM

Is Shade of the Morning Sun an online novel or short story collection?

It is neither. Shade of the Morning Sun is a (constantly growing) collection of linked short stories, also known as a short story cycle or a novel in stories. This form is also sometimes called a composite novel or interrelated short stories.

Classic examples that you might be familiar with include James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherman Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time.

My own personal favorite is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. which was published in 1990. It deals with Vietnam veterans and their experiences both before, during, and after the war. 

More recent examples are the Olive Kitteridge books or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

And of course, there are many, many more … 

What is a linked short story?

In a nutshell, each short story in such a collection has a – more or less subtle – connection to other stories in the collection.

For example, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is about of group of Vietnam war veterans, but the stories about their experiences are stand-alone and not chapters in a novel.

So the stories in a linked collection aren’t completely independent, although they can certainly be read as such. However, they are not chapters in a novel, either!

Each short story in a linked collection still tells a full, complete story in itself.

Without this definite beginning, middle, and end of each short story, they become one and become chapters in a ‘real’ novel.

Many linked short story collections are marketed as a ‘novel in stories’ – or even as a novel. So it is no wonder that the form can be a bit confusing to recognize!

By the way: Shade of the Morning Sun also contains a number of vignettes. But the main body of work consists of actual short stories. Although mixing short stories and vignettes isn’t to my knowledge seen very often, there are some examples, such as Ernest Hemingway’s in our time.

What are some of the links between these kinds of short stories?

The most common is probably setting, as is the case in one of the classics – Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

Characters are another common link (as is largely the case in Shade of the Morning Sun)

You also have links like:

  • objects (like the desk in Nicole Grauss’ Great House)

  • themes (e.g. parenthood, as in Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones)

  • a certain year or period in time (Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year Before the Storm comes to mind, although it’s more of a collection of linked vignettes … )

There are probably other types of links I haven’t thought of.

And often there is more than one type of link in a collection of linked short stories, like in the aforementioned Winesburg: Ohio and others.

So there is no big plot or story arc?

Not as such.

You have some events and associated themes that come up again and again, like  Carrie’s recovery from addiction and how she deals with it. Or Jonathan’s PTSD from the Iraq war. But that’s about it.

As the collection grows, obviously there will be sequences that may eventually grown into storylines that resemble novels, such as Carrie’s sojourn to South America 2000-1, but it is by no means a given.

ABOUT PUBLISHING 

Why do you publish these stories on a website?

Because I really can’t think of any better medium than a dynamic website to share my vision of what Shade of the Morning Sun should be like.

Shade of the Morning Sun is meant to be a big web of interrelated stories that link to each other.

The vision is also that the collection is constantly growing – with past, present, and stories set in the future all being added continually. There is no definite end to the collection.

In principle, if someone cared, they could continue it after I am no longer alive!

Why do you publish the stories in non-chronological order?

Because it makes it possible for me to write whatever I like when I like it – in the same collection of linked stories!

I really like being able to choose any given point in my characters’ lives to write about, depending on my mood and inspiration, without the need to progress chronologically.

HOW TO READ

What are some of the ways I can read Shade of the Morning Sun?

There is no single ‘correct’ reading of the entire novel in stories, nor is there a requirement to ‘mix’ the stories.

Do feel free to read some or all stories in a more traditional, linear way starting with the first story here – or pick and choose and mix as you go along.

The main reading sequences are:

  • You can read stories with a single, recurring character only, at any point in his or her timeline. If you use this filter you will get both 1st and 3rd person POV-stories.

  • You can filter to read from a certain POV only (e.g. Jon’s 1st person POV – but not stories with his 3rd person POV).

  • You can filter by musical inspiration.

  • You can filter by mood.

  • You can also jump between stories when a story features a hyperlink to a story that is related.

I also have stories that overlap in time and can be read both separately or as part of the same whole. For example, “The One I Tried To Destroy” is overlapped by “That Imaginary Desert”. Both take place on the same day with the same protagonist, but you can also read them separately. I plan to do plenty more of those.

There aren’t stories about all characters yet or stories enough to use all filter options equally, but the 70+ stories, chapters, and vignettes should give you a good impression of where the project is heading, as well as an engaging reading experience!

MORE ABOUT THE FORM

Is Shade of the Morning Sun web fiction?

It is also webfiction, and it is also more than that. 

A more precise definition would be electronic literature

E-lit can include many subforms, such as:

  • Animated poetry 
  • Computer art installations
  • Chatbots
  • Novels that take the form of emails, SMS messages, or blogs
  • Poems and stories that are generated by computers
  • Video novels
  • Hypertext fiction

Shade of the Morning Sun is closest to the last e-lit subform on the list: hypertext fiction. 

In hypertext fiction you navigate through a story using hyperlinks, choosing many different ways of reading as you go along, while still (hopefully) getting a coherent reading experience. 

Is Shade of the Morning Sun like an ebook?

No, e-lit is not an ebook. The two types of media do share similarities, though.

An ebook, like webfiction, is really more like the digitization of print literature.

E-literature, however, is ‘born digital’. 

This means that e-literature could not exist in other forms than digital.

You may be able to convert parts of e-lit to print media (or an ebook), but you cannot 1:1 transfer the story and maintain the same reading experience.

For example, none of the ways of filtering and mixing stories on this site are available in a print book. 

Nor are all of them available in ebooks at the time of writing (2021), although some ebooks do mimic certain superficial features of a website, e.g. hyperlinks in the body text to various footnotes.

Are there other reasons Shade of the Morning Sun is e-literature?

Aside from the filtering options for reading that I already mentioned, I can think of two other major qualities that single out Shade as e-lit:

1) The pace of change to my own stories: Shade of the Morning Sun is constantly changing, growing, and being revised, for example, to match stories taking place in the future closer with actual events when they happen.

2) The cooperation with readers in creating the stories: It will be possible for readers to submit their own vignettes and stories, at some point. In the beginning, these will be submissions I have to vet, but in the future, I would like to create a membership site where vetted members can publish their own vignettes and short stories in real-time, with my characters or their own (as long as they make sure the stories link to other stories in the collection).

This frequency of addition, change, and revision could never be done in print or ebooks, even if you take into account different editions of the same book!

INTERACTIVITY

Is Shade of the Morning Sun interactive fiction?

Yes, with some qualifiers.

Interactive fiction, as I understand it, is another name for hypertext fiction. However, Shade of the Morning Sun is interactive fiction on the lower end of the complexity scale.

Some of the most complex interactive fiction (or hypertext fiction) allows you to complete many different narratives and require some effort to read because there are more choices and more complexity. (Take a look at one of the web’s first interactive novels, Sunshine 69, for an example.)

But whether you have an old ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ paper book or an e-lit story like Sunshine 69, you ultimately get a lot of options for shaping the narrative, maybe ending up with a completely different story than the next reader.

In contrast, the options to interact with a Shade of the Morning Sun story allow you to experience the same narrative but in many different ways, such as choosing to read all related stories inspired by the same musician, or focusing on a more immersive reading experience with a single character by reading her 1st person POV stories only.

For all intents and purposes, the reading experience, as well as the story itself, will be somewhat different depending on what you choose to focus on. But there will be a story.

In other words, you may choose to read the story non-linearly, but it is still there. You don’t need to create it first.

Why haven’t you created more options for interactivity?

The mission behind Shade of the Morning Sun is to create a modern hypertext fiction work that will appeal to a broad audience both in terms of the stories themselves and their accessibility.

It is my hope that the level of interactivity I have chosen of Shade of the Morning Sun supports that.

I won’t rule out future modifications and additions, though. For example, I have toyed with the idea of incorporating chatbots that would allow you to talk to the main characters and complete your own ‘we meet at a cafe’-like story with them, but chatbots are time-consuming to create so it is not something that you can expect to see in the near future.

Also, I honestly think that if I made Shade of the Morning Sun any more difficult to read, it would scare away people just looking for a good, albeit different, read – and who don’t want to invest too much in trying to figure out how to read.

But I’m still learning how to do this, so expect adjustments of the ‘how’ down the line!

ON UPDATES

What does it mean that stories are ‘updated’?

That from time to time I edit stories and clarify language or add new paragraphs or make similar changes. The date denotes the most recent version.

Why do you update the stories?

Because it is too tempting 🙂

It is simply something that seems obvious to take advantage of, given my inclination to polish my stories over time – as most authors and other artists often do. 

ORIGIN OF THE PROJECT

Why did you choose to write electronic literature and linked short stories?

I started writing a traditional novel 20 years ago with some of the characters but was not able to finish it, being occupied with education, work, and a period of serious illness. It soured on me around 2009 but I wanted to do something with the story ideas and characters, so I started writing short stories. I was impatient and just put them out on the internet and it sort of took on a life of its own since.

There was definitely also a drive in me to actually do something different with my creativity than go the traditional route, or even self-publish on the then newly established market for that (Amazon). I remember thinking about publishing my stories on MySpace (ah, those were the days … ) and collaborating with artists who had written music that inspired me and then combine the presentation of both story and music, but nothing came off it at the time.

I did invest time in converting some of my stories for ebooks, but I didn’t have the resources to market them properly. I also felt conflicted between publishing some of the best stories in ebooks, charging money for them, and at the same time wanting them to be on the site for free, as part of a greater whole. So although I did ebooks a few times over the years, I have always returned to investing most of my time on the website.

Why is your project called ‘Shade of the Morning Sun’?

I’ve taken the project title from part of the lyrics of New Order’s 1987-song “True Faith”:

I used to think that the day would never come
I’ve seen the light in the shade of the morning sun

The song is about drug use, but I also see it as a song about wanting to escape from life and searching for ‘the light’ – i.e. happiness, even if that happiness is not always what it seems. The duality of this interpretation, and the title, I think are very fitting for the overall mood of the Shade of the Morning Sun stories.

FOLLOWING SHADE

How will I know when new stories come out?

Sign up for my newsletter, and you will be the first to know!

How often do you write new stories?

It varies a lot. I have written on average 5 stories per year since 2011, but many of them are in the drawer still. The average word count is probably around 3000 words per story, although a few are between 8000 and 13000 words (!). In 2021 I plan to write more flash fiction (below 1000 words) to get more stories out.

Can I follow you on social media?

Not yet, because I simply don’t have the time to maintain social media accounts for this project as well as the ones I have for my IT business. However, they will come up at some point and then you will be the first to know if you visit this site regularly – or sign up for my newsletter.

ABOUT THE IMAGES

Why are there different people posing for the same character photos?

Originally because I could only afford to use royalty-free photos from Unsplash and Pixabay and similar sites, but as time has gone by I feel that it is rather fitting. Even though the same cast populates the stories, I like to think that many of their experiences are universal.

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Last updated 22 Oct 2021