“Artificial”

Hey all, happy middle-of-the-week.

Growing up, in the war between Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, also known as the ‘Great Conflict of Sci-Fi Nerds and Fantasy Nerds of Forever,’ I always had my flag pitched pretty firmly in the camp for Fantasy Nerds. That’s right, you science nerds can suck it with your “lasers,” and your “spaceships,” and “anti-gravity-whateverthehell,” I’m over here with dragons, immortality, ethereal curses, and all the rest.

And even now at twenty-seven, I still do kind of hold that stance, but am waaaay more of a mercenary now than married to either side. My heart will always be with the art of High Fantasy, but I’ve come to see the love for science fiction a great deal and have really become a sucker for things like the cyberpunk genre (R.I.P. CD Projekt Red). Movies like Upgrade, Blade Runner 2049, Ex Machina, Ghost in the Shell, and to a lesser degree of genre, Arrival, Inception, and Tenet.

As it turns out, Sci-Fi is awesome.

Alright, I was writing something out, but then I began to notice all I was doing was spoiling the story here today, so I bumped it to the bottom. Without further adieu….

“Artificial”

April 6, 2034

This day…just…keeps coming back to me.

You’d just died maybe two months before, and I’m standing at your grave. The headstone your family got for you is nice, nobody seems to go out for real marble anymore. Others have been by and left flowers too, I guess. But you didn’t tell too many people you liked sunflowers best, natural ones. The synthetic daises under your name smell right, the petals even bruise if you press them, but they never wilt. And they don’t bob in the same way when the rain drops hit them either.

I want to stand in the rain because with you gone at least it would feel like I have someone to cry with. But of course Lucille’s right there with the umbrella.

“Are you cold?” she asks me.

“No,” I tell her.

“Are you sad?” she asks after a pause.

I almost laugh, but there doesn’t seem to be a point in it. “Yes. Of course.”

“Barry,” she says again. “May I ask you a personal question?”

“Shoot.”

“Are you afraid?”

It’s hard to say what it was, but the question stopped me. I had to swallow a lump in my throat before I found I could answer. “Of what?”

“Dying,” she says.

All I did was watch the rain break against the marble and run along the letters of your name. She’d struck a chord.

I want to tell her I am, but am also not. After all, you’d done it, so had everyone in history, so it can’t be that bad. I think of all sorts of reasons to be or not to be, but in the end all I say is, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“May I ask you another personal question, Barry?”

I don’t say anything, but just nod.

“Are you afraid of me?”

This time I look at her, and she looks at me. It’s tough to say what it is – at first I think it might be because she looks like you – but I think instead it’s the way she looks at me. I look into her eyes and every second longer I do, I see something else. Her eyes aren’t steadfast, they flutter subtly, searchingly, minutely quivering like yours or mine. Her lips flex so slightly, the way they do when your teeth don’t touch and your jaw is uneasy, so subtle you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t locked in such an intimate moment with someone.

“It isn’t fair,” I say.

“What isn’t fair, Barry?” she asks.

“To be so unsure.”

And why shouldn’t I be? The small signals in her eyes, her face, her hands. The soft cues of inner feelings we all use, all wrestle with. Our emotional responses have outward signs, just because she’s different doesn’t mean they can’t come from the same place. And how is she so different, anyway? Because she has a production date? I have a birthday. She has a serial number? I’ve got a social. Because of her programming? I’m a creature of habit and education too, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a person beneath it all. And that “unique cipher” DigitalBio is so proud of each of their products having…

I look down at my hands and think of the countless times since androids were first announced that I’ve done that. The runic layout of our fingerprints, the ridges of those tiny lines, the creases in the palm – it’s hard to see how that’s really any different.

I look back at her and she looks at me. Just like you she’s beautiful. The way her hair rests on her shoulder, the way the blue of her eyes contrasts against the gray background, she reminds me of you a lot.

Two men walk past and I catch their sneers. “They let you bring that thing onto the grounds?” they mutter. Of course she hears them, I’m sure, but she won’t move.

1’s and 0’s. Plastic, carbon fiber, and alloys. A machine of intelligent design is what we’re supposed to see. Programmed responses, algorithms, protocols, functions, and nothing else. But why is it foolish to see more than that? Once upon a time, the animal kingdom was thoughtless and bereft of conscious intelligence, but look a little further and gorillas take up sign language, whales and dolphins speak, crows remember faces, elephants lament and mourn their dead – all just like we do. Hell, even mushrooms communicate with each other. It only took a small amount of respect to see humans aren’t as alone as we pride ourselves.

So why am I so unsure when I look at her? I’m standing there, in a city cemetery, and she just stands there looking back at me. I feel the first tears burn down the side of my face and I know exactly why: because I don’t know whether or not to feel alone there.

“Do you,” I say still wiping my face, “do you ever get that way?”

It would have stuck with me no matter what, but what really got me was that she didn’t answer straight away.

After a few seconds of silence, I look at her again and her eyes are in the grass. I see her squeeze the grip on the umbrella, barely, hardly perceptible but it’s there.

“Yes,” she says.

Arthur C. Clarke had this great quote once upon a time where he said, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” He’d meant E.T.’s, I think, but here I was confronted by a one-word answer that scared me, relieved me, excited me, lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders, and settled a new one on them all at once. I’d never felt those words more heavily than I did in that moment. The rain began to pick up again and drum against the umbrella’s hood.

“Come on,” I say.

“Where are we going?”

“Let’s go get a coffee for starters. This talk should take a while.”

Maybe she’s more like you than I thought.

Funny thing since you named her, eh?

END

I’ve harped on it at length before, but the game Detroit: Become Human may have faults here and there, but I ultimately found it to be an incredible ride in narrative. The piece below (now above) started, I’m pretty sure, was born of inspiration from playing that game. It was a Mental Movie that featured a man and a woman in a hospital room, at first. The man would be older and sort of plain, looking sort of like Paul Giamatti, and the woman would be young, fair, and beautiful. She would be in the hospital bed, and he would be standing beside her, and all that would take place is a conversation about humanity. Slowly, it would unfold that one of them was an android while the other was human, and I felt the natural assumption would be that the woman would be the manufactured android, giving how beautiful she was, but in reality it would be the man – I don’t know, an attempt to show the separations of what we value, humanity, and how those things influence our assumptions while at the same time being intrinsically linked. Then, one morning, I sat down, slapped some keys, and we got the above little piece.

Anyway, something to think about, maybe.

Til next time.

Pocket Story series #2

Woof, back so soon! Been rainy near these parts, so I’m stuck inside, which means I get to chain myself to my desk and rattle away on here. Livin’ the dream.

Brief thought experiment before diving into The Goods here today: Without googling it, and be honest, how many ants would you guess are there estimated on the surface of the planet? Don’t be surprised if it’s way more than you think, or weirdly way less than you’d imagine. Either way, it’s part of an essay-project I’ve had brewing, and I don’t think I’ve ever done so much math in my life.

Just…stay tuned for that.

Anyway, if you forgot how this works or are just getting started, the little ditty to follow comes from a premise generator from a book that I got at a yard sale some time back. It gives a circumstance, a character, and an action (and all usually pretty weird ones). So, getting on with it…

Where Are They Now?

Winston Turtledove closed his eyes tightly, gritted his teeth, and rubbed his temples. The noise was getting to be hard to handle.

I hope there’s leftover lasagna in the fridge. That hot sauce ain’t gonna use itself.

…if I can return these pants for store credit, and if they let me use that coupon since it only expired yesterday, then those new shoes will only be five dollars, or three if I scuff up the edges while they’re…

…those cards better show up in the mail today. Tracking said two to four days, but they’re usually early and the shipping update was pretty fast, so then maybe…

“…just call my name, I’ll be there in a hurry, you don’t have to worry, ’cause baby there AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIIIIGH ENOUGH, AIN’T NO VALLEY LOOOOW ENOUGH, AIN’T NO RIVER WIIIIIDE ENOUGH, to keep me from…”

…wasn’t he the one from ‘Three-Ring?’ Little Andy?Aw, he used to be so cute.

The voices started about a week ago. At first, he thought he was insane, his personality fragmenting into different shades, but now he was just concerned about being driven to madness. As it turned out, through magic, a curse, solar winds, or a cosmic joke, he was hearing other people’s thoughts all of a sudden. At first, he thought it was cool. He’d listen in on neighbors, other patrons at coffee shops, and rather enjoyed the new dimension given to his people-watching hobby.

But the voices kept piling on and piling on, and he couldn’t shut them off. It’s fun to listen in one at a time, but when you’re never alone and have a crowd in your head at near all times, it was enough to mill one’s sanity.

It had also been a disappointing revelation to have, too. He caught passersby occasionally recognize him from his childhood role as Little Andy on ABC’s hit comedy ‘Three-Ring Circus,’ and he’d always like to imagine subtle awestricken ripples at his minor celebrity, but now he knew what mostly occupied their reaction was how old he’d gotten. Not shyness at asking for a picture, not fondness over the show, just pity for how he was now.

So he sat on his usual park bench, now a grumpy man in his early-fifties, and watched the birds whose thoughts were blessedly one-note enough to meditate out the other visitors of the park: “Coo? Coo. Coo? Coo? Coo? Cooooo. Coo.”

That’s when he saw old Harold, a man in his eighties who came to the same park regularly. Winston hadn’t seen Harold since his newfound powers had taken root. And the intrigue at some familiar thoughts pulled him from his meditating on the pigeons. It took some time, but as the light crowds of joggers, babysitters, and dog-walkers began to clear out, he found he was able to focus in on Harold’s thoughts.

“…some day. With Martha gone, a man would think the guilt would have gone away some day. But nope. Sure, everyone has their theories. They’ve sold their books, their movies, their crack-pot bits, and TV specials, but holding onto the secret truth? Outliving all the others and being the last one holding onto the secret. Now that…that’s a real Magic Bullet. Shit. Why do I even still come here? Is it the knoll? Maybe. I think the lake helps keep the images out. Killin’ a man, an important one…fuck. And poor Jacky, never got to…”

Winston blinked his eyes in disbelief, sitting on a bench in a park outside Missoula, Montana, with the man who might have assassinated JFK…

After a few minutes, Winston simply shrugged.

We never know where life will take us, do we?

END

So, I’ll be real, wasn’t entirely sure how to end this one, which might be pretty evident in the text itself. The attributes this time were as follows: “Suddenly able to hear others’ thoughts, // a former child television star // discovers who really killed JFK.” And full confession, the first mixture had the last part as “steals a baby,” but I wasn’t totally sure how to work with that one. The JFK thing at least worked with the telepathy, and besides, it was that or he “grows at extra arm.”

Anyway, hope all is well, take it easy, much love, and see you next time.

Pocket Story Series #1

Good…God.

Well’p, we made it. We’ve made it to a point where we might be able to start watching the dust settle rather than whip around in a heinous maelstrom of bad news and general caca. I’m all for fresh starts. In fact, just behind Thanksgiving here in the States, New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday. I appreciate Christmas and Halloween for the things they do, but I just prefer silver to gold, the lieutenant to the captain, the…crow’s nest to the…figurehead- I dunno. This is starting to fall apart, but you get my point: The Underdog.

And in an effort to embrace that, I’m starting this up: the Pocket Story Series.

A little bit ago at a yard sale, I picked up a little book called the “Amazing Story Generator,” and I think our goal here will be to do our best to disprove that.

The gist: The book gives a circumstance, a character, and an action, then I’ll whip up a little diddy here for us to enjoy, marvel at, laugh at, or whatever else, then I’ll show what the elements were that I had to work with.

Cool? Cool.

Oh! Also, quick plug: I’m gonna have a few published stories come out this year that are already in the pipeline, so expect to be bombarded with news about those when they approach and/or come out.

Cool again? Cool again. Without further adieu…

Working Late

Geoffry Hanson set down his cup of coffee, folded his finger over his belly, and enjoyed a contented sigh. The outdoor cafe was nice, and it had been a long while since he’d been in Amsterdam. When he was here last, must have been, what, ’93? And that was for work, so he hadn’t really been able to enjoy the city.

Funny enough, as the thought hit him, the job site had been close to where he was now. Very close, in fact. He paid for his coffee, got up, and left to go for a stroll. He walked along the canals and paused at a house by one of the embankments. There it was. He looked on at the gabled facade, a remnant of the seventeenth century Golden Age, and smiled.

That was where he and his team had busted a trade between a couple of Turkish gun runners and their Soviet partners. Across the street was where they’d surveilled a Chinese-national informant to verify what she’d had to say before taking her asylum. Aaah, and just down the canal there was where they’d saved the city from a terrorist plot involving a threat to its water treatment. Geoff smiled.

A life working for MI6 had been a rewarding one.

He ambled down along the waterside, reminiscing on the good he and his team had done. As he strolled, something caught his trained eye. A briefcase, sitting alone next to a discarded beer can underneath a nearby bridge. It’s nothing, he told himself. Definitely nothing.

This was his first vacation in his 25-year long career, and he wasn’t going to let work spoil it…

…much.

Despite himself, and mostly to convince himself of what he was telling himself, he meandered over to the discarded case. He gestured to an invisible crowd of onlookers the futility of the observation and tested its weight as a means of showing his instincts were misplaced. To his dismay, the case was heavy. Very heavy. Too heavy to house simple papers.

He pinched his nose and heaved a great sigh.

Geoff clicked the briefcase slowly open and revealed its inner working: wires, nodes, and a digital reader showing a countdown. It was a bomb, and a very big one at that. Disgruntled, Geoff clicked the heel of his left shoe, detached the sole to retrieve the bomb disposal kit hidden therein, and set to work saving the world yet another time.

Retirement couldn’t come soon enough for Geoffry Hansom; but, he supposed, perhaps for the sake of the world, it could.

END

Aaah, that was dorky.

Okay, so the pages turned up, as you may have guessed: “On vacation for the first time in years / a world-weary intelligence agent / finds a buried atomic bomb.”

We missed the “buried” bit, and let go of the “world-weariness” as well, but it came together adorably enough. This being just a warm-up, keep an eye out for more of these and again for news on bigger stories I’ve got coming our way.

Til then, take it easy, y’all.

Ooopy Spoooky

Happy All Hallows Eve, guys n’ gals.

Whether you believe in them or not, we all have a couple ghost stories. They might be for telling around a camp fire, sharing between friends, or recounting to a therapist. They have a habit of ranging from “just weird feelings” to seeing an apparition of some sort at the foot of your bed.

I won’t lie to you, I’ve never seen anything, but that’s SO MUCH for the best. I’ve heard things, felt things, and felt things, but never laid eyes on anything beyond the grave. I am completely convinced, however, that if I did, that would kick me straight into fight-or-flight mode. I realize there’s also a ‘freeze’ option there, but nope; if I see something, there’s going to be motion.

(First up, I want to remind you to check out a post from earlier this week, Lady Death, just as it’s a little appropriate for today. And what’s more, if you’re REALLY feeling a good ghost story, do me a favor and check out Episode 209: “The Scars of Eliza Gray” on the NIGHTLIGHT podcast. It was one of my first publications and remains one of my favorites.)

And now, a series of ghost- or near-ghost-experiences:

  1. The Christmas Ornament
    Little bit of backstory to start off: my father passed away when I was nine, December of 2003. As one might imagine, that had a certain impact on Christmas that year. For the first time, it was just my mother and I, and looking back, I think on it less of how I remember it as a kid and more of how well she handled it as a newly single mother – which was, for the record, very well.
    We moved house that next summer, and when December ’04 came around, as the story goes, mom had an encounter.
    I had gone upstairs and gone to bed, she was downstairs closing down the house preparing to do the same. The way the house was situated, her bathroom was at the end of a short hallway that connected it to the now darkened living room. She’s standing there, brushing her teeth, when she hears a sound coming from the Christmas tree standing at the opposite end of the hallway.
    There was a little electronic train ornament that was a staple of our Christmas decorating. It had my name written on it, and when you pressed the button on the steam spout, it would sing a little song out of choo-choo noises. Thing was, the button had stopped working years ago.
    So there she stands, toothbrush in mouth, watching this little, long-silent ornament sing its song at the shadowy edge of the bathroom light’s furthest reaches.
    As she tells it, she addressed my father by name, calling out, “Vern, you don’t live here anymore. Go upstairs and see your son, but after that, you need to go.”
    I joked the next morning that I found it pretty irresponsible to think there was a ghost in the house and have your first response basically be, “There’s a defenseless, sleeping boy upstairs. Go bug him instead.”
  2. Suddenly Awake
    This one remains my hallmark experience, and apologies up front as I still haven’t yet found that words do it justice, but here goes…
    It was a night like any other. I was maybe eighteen or nineteen at the time, fast asleep. Middle of the night, time unknown, I open my eyes. I wasn’t groggy, wasn’t sleepy or coming to consciousness. I was just suddenly awake, as if I had been for a while and was just now noticing; not startled, not scared or anxious or energetic, just suddenly conscious. I know that, because it was moments after I woke up where I began to wonder why I’d done so, that a dreaded creeping sensation came over the room.
    I didn’t hear anything, but some other sense was telling me that there was another person in the room with me. I felt myself being looked at, being observed or examined. It wasn’t sleep paralysis, necessarily. I could move if I wanted to, but chose to play possum, like if I’d looked over my shoulder at that moment it would incense whatever was in the room with me.
    The pinnacle of the experience came in two parts.
    The first was that – and as certain as I remain of this, the part of me that’s objective knows to acknowledge it may be the fault of memory – I finally heard something. There was a whisper, clear-as-fuckin’-day, right next to my ear. Couldn’t make out what it said, just that there was a voice inches from my head. And not a sound that’s half-heard, prompting a “Did I just hear something?” response; it was undoubtedly something.
    The second was that moments after the whisper, that anxious, defensive dread that had blanketed the room evaporated. It was a palpable change. As cliche as it is to describe something this way, it’s as though there was this weight to the air, and suddenly it vanished. It didn’t “lift,” it just…ceased. Right after it did, the exhaustion of sleep immediately took hold, like I’d been awake for days, and I konked out.
    Really, it was the suddenness of the experience that spooks me, here. Suddenly awake, there’s a presence, whisper, then nothing, then sleep again.
  3. “Can’t get me now, bitch.”
    I’ll be honest, this one’s more funny and a moment of pride than anything else.
    If you’ve ever seen the movie The Grudge, you’ll know that, especially for it’s time, it was goddamn terrifying. I’ve always had a weakness for horror films, and not in the sense that I can’t resist watching but in that they affected me A LOT when I was younger.
    The gist to the film, if you haven’t seen it, is that an American gal goes to Japan for reasons and gets haunted by a dead girl for other reasons.
    There’s a scene somewhere near the middle where she’s in her high-rise apartment and receives a phone call from a friend of hers, another American. He tells her he’s downstairs and wants to be buzzed in to come up and visit about something in person. She hits whatever button that unlocks the ground floor gate to let him in, and not moments later, there’s a knock on her door. She goes to look through the peep hole and sees it’s her friend who was supposedly just on the ground floor, some twenty-odd stories below her.
    She makes a joke about “why go through the antics if you were already up here?” and opens the door for him. Of course she opens the door to an empty hallway. A ghostly sound comes through the phone and lights in the hallway begin ominously going dark. So, like a responsible adult, she flings the phone to the ground, slams the door shut, runs to her bed, and hides under the covers. While there, a lump rises at the end of the bed and starts snaking towards her, and INSTEAD of wildly kicking her legs like she should, she anxiously lifts the covers and gets dragged into the abyss by the ghost only to awake an untold time later.
    I was maybe twelve years old when I saw that and found it ghastly amounts of frightful. But what did I do? I didn’t let fear get the best of me, I got creative.
    For the next two weeks, I slept on TOP of my covers in a zipped-up sleeping bag, confidently safe in the knowledge that, “Ha! Bitch can’t get me if I’m in a BAG! Winning!”

Take it easy and goodnight, everybody.

Lady Death

Did you know there’s a saying that goes a person’s fate can be read on the wings of a butterfly? That’s what makes fate so hard to know, because the little creatures that carry it rarely stop fluttering long enough to read their wings. I’m sure that’s also what makes them so naturally mystifying, what we don’t realize draws our eye whenever they pass us by, bobbing through the air just out of reach.

They’re with me wherever I go. And wherever I might be, they find me. They are beautiful little things. Gentle, innocent, fragile, small.

Something else not many people know is that butterflies love salt, and a common place they find it is the remains of a dead animal. Flesh, devoid of life and giving way to nature and time – they love it.

I think that’s why they follow me. Like cats that know what doors leave out bowls of water or scraps of food, they’ve caught on to where they can get their salt fix. It’s invisible to us, but maybe their eyes see power over death like a color in the air, a magenta dust on the wind.

It’s a tale as old as time, really; and always the same motivation. A loved one who’s died, their memory growing more distant with each passing day, or one who’s sick and will know death shortly. I was different. I just…wanted to know.

Is it like everyone seems to think, something to be scared of and staved off? Is it “just a part of life,” or is that something we tell ourselves to assuage the anxiety of uncertainty? Is it sleep, or is it just…nothing? Are we just our bodies, our minds, or is there really a spark that drives the whole thing that remains eternal? After all, everyone in history has done it, so it can’t be that hard. It’s the biggest mystery of our time, and always has been.

Anyway, yeah, I think that’s why they follow me. And maybe I misspoke earlier. It isn’t a power over death, because everything that lives dies. That’s an immutable law of existence: everything that is, once was not; and everything that is, will not be again. So, not over death, but a power with it.

And the little buggers can’t get enough.

FIN

(Hey guys.
The astute among us might note the date on this post, that on the one prior, and the distance between the two. Like with all of us, life has had a lot of moving parts lately. Plus, I just haven’t had a lot to say, I guess. But this little ditty came to mind while on a walk earlier today, and it seemed like a good time to post again.
I haven’t been quiet that this is just a place to work out for me: run thought experiments, shout into the void, practice, blah, blah, blah. Feeling now, though, that there might be a good time of creative productivity on the way; a breath of air amidst all the chaos, if you will.
So, yeah, get ready to see more o’ me. This’ll be cool.
Peace, everybody.)

Keep Swinging the Axe

First things first: it bugs me to no end that often times spellcheck will give the little red squiggle to “axe” if you spell it with an ‘e’ at the end, but “ax” is perfectly fine even though “axe” is already perfectly fine.

Whatever.

That was stupid.

What’s up everybody?

I’m not sure what reminded me the other day of the following story, but I’m glad whatever it was did. Back in 2016 was when I tried submitting my first-ever piece of fiction to an outlet. I didn’t know how to format it, hadn’t really tried writing like that ever before, never tried researching a market before, or had any practice addressing editors – I just went for it. You know who the outlet was?

Tor.

For the uninitiated – they’re big; at the very least much, much, much, MUCH bigger than a kid trying his first EVER tale had right to reach for. But they were cool, polite, and cordial when they dutifully rejected the piece I rushed to compile for their submission window.

But I thought that was how you did it. I thought you went for the big fish. Adjusting my approach (still incorrectly), I then thought it was about thoroughly researching a market, tooling a piece of fiction tailored to them specifically, and spending months finely polishing it for them before perfectly and carefully crafting the impeccable cover letter to whet their appetite for the fruits of your labor; like a sniper lining up for a half-mile bullseye: check the wind, curvature, your breathing, your trigger discipline, time it between beats of your heart.

Turns out, a better approach is a lot more like laying down on the trigger of an uzi. Spray and pray, til you’re empty, reload, rinse, repeat. Tenaciously.

There’s a publisher called DreamForge that’s pretty great, and on their site they have an essay that attempts to outline why a story submitted to them might be rejected. And the answer in a nutshell is thus: any of a million reasons.

It could be that they find it poorly written; could be too many typos; could be they didn’t understand it; could be they didn’t care for the expression of the stated genre; could be they find it doesn’t fit their project’s theme tightly enough; could be word count conflicts with their budget; or it could be that it’s well written, but the editor wasn’t quite in the mood the day they read yours; or they love your story about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon, but they just happened to read and accept another story in their stack about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon right before finding yours.

The point is that it’s sort of a lottery, if you’re an independent writer starting out. Making sure your work is well-written, cleanly done, strong in concept, and appropriate for the market you’re submitting it to are all the right ways to increase your chances, but in the end you’re still competing with an unknown amount of other writers, of unknown quality, against unknown standards and tastes – a gamble.

Captain Picard said it best:

It is possible to commit no errors and still lose ... " ~ Captain ...

This tortuously long preamble brings us to a few summers ago in 2018. I was working in an optics lab at the time, preparing to leave that job for a writing sabbatical. I was feeling burnt out, tired of my day-to-day, and wanted to embrace the daydreams I kept cooking up. The budget I wrote up figured I had about a year to do that before reality would come calling. (Reality would catch up way quicker than that, and I’d find myself caring for my ailing mother two weeks after leaving my job – but we’ve talked about that life-asteroid to death already.)

About a month before leaving my job, Mandy and I were at a friend’s birthday party. Also present was a young woman we’ll call Delilah. Before I say anything moving forward, I want it clearer than crystal that I’ve nothing but fondness, respect, and best wishes for her, for reasons we’ll lay out here and in great part for the lesson my encounters with her taught me.

Turned out, Delilah was also going into writing freelance at about the same time, or had started about a month or so before. She talked about how (I believe I’m getting this right) she was a housewife at the time, and wanted to pursue it while she had the time. She went to an event or workshop of some sort down in San Francisco, delivered a stand-up set she’d prepared, met an editor, and snagged a gig for a that outlet.

On the one hand, easy-peasy; two weeks into freelance writing and you’ve bagged a job and a contact. On the other, it takes guts and no lack of panache to do what she did.

So she shares this with us and while the group dissolves a little into its various chat circles, I overhear Mandy and Delilah talking. Mandy’s sharing that I had an intent to pursue something similar, and Delilah’s asking questions. I’d wandered away, but was told later than Delilah’s response was more or less: “Oh…that’s his plan? I wouldn’t, if I were him.”

Even though it was just birthday party hearsay, probably said off-hand, it was a little dismissive remark that stuck with me. It bit me with this sort of stinking moral superiority that would gnaw at me for months later. The first five months of my sabbatical were literally nothing but hardship and rejection; and every time, I would think of Delilah’s quick-won success and her “I wouldn’t if I were him,” remark.

And every time, I would close my eyes, tell myself to shut up, and get back to it. I didn’t have a network, hadn’t made contacts, was learning through trial and error, had a lot outside of writing work on my plate, but dammit I would make it work out.

Then, luck struck, and I had my first story picked up. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck twice and I had a second acceptance, which came with being an interview on the podcast where the story aired (as well as a follow-up appearance later to talk movies). And since, I have had three more fiction sales, some traction in fiction contests, and been fortunate enough to work for a few local papers and magazines. It’s been hard-won, organic, independent, and with large amounts of tenacity and dumb luck.

A year after that party, the birthday boy had another (as is usually the case with birthdays), and we bumped into Delilah again. We caught up around a little campfire circle and naturally were each asked about how well writing was going. Delilah recounted how it was going well, but [paraphrasing] “her editor had relocated to a different outlet and gone radio silent, so that was dead now and a bummer; and while she was going to produce a podcast with a partner, said partner was being a c*** and so hadn’t come to fruition yet.”

When the question came to me, the host of the party (birthday boy’s wife) did me one of the greatest compliments/blessings I’ve received in my life.

“And you were going to be a writer too, right?” came Delilah’s question. And the host interjected with, “He’s been published, in fact,” then motioned for me to explain.

Doing me that honor, saving me that modesty, and acknowledging that achievement all in one swoop has been, to date, one of the deftest moves in etiquette I’ve witnessed in person; and I was thrilled to be its subject.

I did my best to continue that modesty through my explanation, but I’m sure some pride leaked through. I give myself a pass, though, because the truth is I was proud of it, and especially in that moment I felt vindicated. The slow, steady, organic grind of failed attempt after failed attempt after failed attempt finally becoming a small success triumphing over – at least as was the way my mind viewed it – over the model of quick but fleeting satisfaction…felt great.

But in that was also a lesson. And the markets and guidelines I’ve seen all point to an average acceptance rate of somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3%; but usually it can be more like 1%. That means, if you do everything right, you can hope for or expect one success for every one hundred attempts.

So, try one hundred times. And after that, try a hundred more. So on and so forth until you can begin to count your successes. And be okay with them being small, they’ll get bigger.

At least, this is what I tell myself. But I will say that the math checks out.

My plan was to join the California Writers’ Club after my third independent fiction sale, and while I still plan on it because I’m eager to see what opportunities that might afford, the struggle of the independent author has been one I’ve come to enjoy the fruits of.

Ah, I just remembered what kicked this all off, actually. The other day, I was looking on my body of work (which feels hilarious to say, given how tiny it is) and feeling unsatisfied where I used to feel proud. And so mentally running back through the journey of the past couple of years was a good chance to review, take stock, and realize the accomplishment it is; especially as any beginning writer would likely agree, five months is actually a startlingly turnaround for one’s first printing. So I recognize the element of luck in this experience.

In the end, the message doesn’t really change. Help or not, friends or not, network or not: keep swinging the axe, keep trying.

Hasta.

Watch the Time go By

Life is funny.

One minute, you’re writing a poem for your crush in the fourth grade, and the next, you’re thinking back on the decade since you last saw them, quietly browsing through their life on Facebook, wishing them well.

One minute, you’re a ten-year-old kid opening their bright blue lunchbox on the first day of fifth grade, and the next, you looking at that same, now-gray and weathered lunchbox while you’re twenty-six, emptying the pantry to move your mother out of her home.

One minute, you’re just a bunch of teenagers. Pot smoke, skateboard bruises, burgers, and savory high school politics, and the next, you’ve just come home from work, maybe you have plans with your colleagues maybe you don’t, and you’re reminiscing on those times you hadn’t thought would end.

Maybe you think of the cousin you’ve grown up with. Think of the man or woman they’ve become, then think back to the child you grew up alongside and realize that somewhere in the middle one became the other.

Somewhere in all those memories is the splendor of watching a huge web roll out (because “unfurl” would sound a bit pretentious here) like a gigantic road map of lives, seeing where the kids we knew somehow became the adults we know (or don’t, anymore).

“It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. This is not a weakness. This is life.” – Captain Picard

Moments like this, where we zoom out for a second, realize we’re twenty-six now, and we get to see how far we’ve come and how far we still get to go (if we play our cards right).

We knew kids…that became adults and then died.

We knew kids that didn’t make it that far.

We’ve probably seen friends accomplish really cool things.

And known others that have spun out.

Maybe we’ve fallen away from people who we were really close to.

But then again, met new people we’re glad to know now.

Nihil nove sub sole – “There is nothing new under the Sun.”

None of this is meant to be some epiphany or great revelation, some wisdom I’ve found that I’m sharing to waiting ears. This has all been figured out before and gets figured out all the time. It’s more like a moment in a reaaally good meal – just taking a second to savor what you’ve got. It’s a way to harness the good times, to get more out of them. We tell ourselves to do it all the time with struggles. “When times get hard, just think about how strong you’ll be on the other side.” Same thinking here. If you don’t take a moment here and there to examine the life you’ve had and the one you’ve got, how can you ever be sure of what’s important?

Pain sucks, but it’s part of the human experience, and thus can be a pleasure.

Loss sucks, but its memory can be used to make warmth.

Regret sucks hard, but its lesson is a real straight road to wisdom and experience.

A long time ago, a farmer would walk to a far away well for water. He had a yoke on his back which held a bucket at either end. He would fill the buckets and carry the water home. Well, after the years, one bucket became weathered and cracked, unable to hold water with its leak. “I’m sorry,” said the bucket. “I’m old now and cannot work like I used to.”
“Not to worry,” replied the farmer. “When next we gather water, look to your side of the path.”
When next the farmer gathered water, the bucket saw that its side of the path was covered in fresh flowers, watered from its own leak.
“I planted seeds,” the farmer explained. “You see, as we grow older and acquire new qualities, they may all be turned to good advantage.”

Love hard, take care of yourselves.

A Scene from my Phone

Hiram looked over his shoulder.

The rain was thick, falling in sheets and pelting the edges of his hood, but he saw a figure standing in the distance. It stood on the road, slumped but not seeming to mind the downpour or mud. It wore a cloak of reeds draped over massive shoulders, a dark cowl, and a mask over its face with shadows obscuring the eyes.

Hiram looked back to his companions, to tell them of the strange figure on the road, but they had walked far ahead of him, too eager to leave the rain to idle as he had. He looked back and saw the figure, while while it remained still, was now much closer than before. Here, he could see the thing’s shoulders heaving with the rhythmic breath which froze in large clouds beneath its mask. The head slowly lurched, revealing two hollow, ghostly white rings in place of eyes.

Feeling for the hilt of his sword, Hiram wanted to posture, to shout at the figure in the road and drive it away. He was thinking of what he might say when the figure began to change. The shoulders quickly ratted and grew, the skirt of the cloak lifted as black, spidery legs worked their way out into the mud. Hiram watched arms the weight, depth, and speed of shadow shot along the sides of the road, and the creature flew at him. Hiram drew his sword and shouted.

But another sheet of rain fell and erased the figure from sight like a blemish of dust wiped clean from glass.

Hiram spun around on the spot, to see where the thing had gone, fruitlessly. He was alone.

END

What the Gosh-Dingle-Damn?!

Won’t lie, y’all, forgot what day it was. That goes for yesterday, too – which is why this is late. ALSO, I’m writing this from a potato pretending to be a phone, with a keyboard that doesn’t have a Return key. So in that spirit, today, I’m going to pose a question that we’re going to answer tomorrow: What was going through the mind of the guy who discovered cheese? (Scheduled post subject to change based on the author’s whimsy.)

Time is all we Have

Happy Wednesday, e’erybody!

(For those of you that have been following this chain of posts, please take this as my sincere half-promise that this is the [likely] second-to-last blast this story will get. But the response has been pretty nice and, again, this one meant a lot. So we’ll cheers to it once more as I fan the hammer on it, then onto another of my more recent favorites.)
(If you’re new: Weeeeeee! Glad you’ve joined us!)

Without further adieu…

Fifteen Years

Rachel watched from her perch while Eddie got her son into his wet suit. The breeze salted her cheeks and she quietly hummed a tune in rhythm with the waves. He had been so good with Wesley since losing his dad the year before. There was a period of adjustment, to be sure, but she had been so much happier after he’d moved in. “Thanks again for doing this,” she said as Eddie approached and gave him a kiss.

“Hey, no problem,” he laughed, his Hawaiian accent sweetening the smile that came with it. “Besides, I have to show him those trophies ain’t fake. What better way than to get him out here with me?”

“Still, you didn’t have to. Hey, Wes,” she called over Eddie’s shoulder. “Be careful, honey. Wait for Eddie to go out there with you, okay?” The boy looked over and gave a halfhearted smile, but stayed standing with his feet in the tide. Eddie gently brushed her sandy-blonde hair with his hand.

“He’s gonna be fine, okay? I’ll keep him close.”

“I know. I just worry.”

“You worry too much.”

“Maybe,” Rachel sighed. “I don’t know. It’s just been really hard on him. He was doing so well in school, helping around the house, he even got his purple belt, and then it’s like he just let it all fall apart on purpose.”

Eddie raised a timorous eyebrow. “You think it has to do with me?”

She was quiet for a beat before saying with a smile, “It’s okay. Kids are kids, after all.” She kissed him again before breaking away suddenly. “Wes? Wesley!” she screamed.

Eddie spun around to see the ten-year-old boy walk slowly out into the waves and get pulled down by the undertow.

***

After they checked him out of the hospital, Wesley’s mom wanted to take him to see a therapist that afternoon. It was Eddie who suggested they come home first to let things settle. So they called his school and Wes had spent the last two days mostly in his room. He lied in his bed, staring up at the popcorn of his ceiling and listening to the adults in the hallway outside.

“Let me try and talk to him,” came Eddie’s muffled voice.

“Listen, honey, I love you and I know you want to help, but he doesn’t need to talk to you. Not right now. He needs a psychiatrist.”

“Probably, sure. Just let me try first. He’s been stone-quiet ever since he got back. If he shoos me away, then what’s the harm?” It was quiet for a bit after that, but there came a soft knock at the door about a minute later and Eddie stepped through. “Hey Champ, mind if I come in?”

Wesley didn’t say anything at first, but just sat up against the wall. He folded his arms around his knees and hid his chin behind them. “Sure.”

Eddie closed the door behind him and sat at the edge of Wes’s bed with his hands folded. “So,” he began slowly, “you weren’t too keen on surfing, hmm?” Wesley replied with a chuckle but didn’t say anything. Eddie gave him a minute and then continued. “You know, you really scared your mom and me.”

“I know,” said Wes, with more a tone of irritation than guilt. “You don’t have to tell me that. I know.”

“Hmm, sure, sure. Then you know what I’m gonna ask next then, yeah?”

“Probably.”

“Well, why’d you do it?”

Staring into the covers of his bed, Wesley was quiet and contemplative. Eventually, he lifted his head and looked out the window at the clouds. Heavy tears welled up in his eyes before breaking and rolling down his cheeks. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Hey bud, I’m hear to talk, but I’m mostly here to listen. I’ll believe you, whatever it is.”

“You say that,” Wesley laughed between the tears. He wiped his eyes and saw the sincere look on Eddie’s face. “Alright,” he said and sighed. “What if I told you that I wasn’t ten years old?”

“Okay.” Eddie held a waiting pause. “What would you say you are, then?”

“I’m twenty-five.” Eddie couldn’t hide his reaction, despite his efforts, and gave a suppressed, coughed chuckle into his fist. “Yeah,” Wes continued, “get it out of your system.”

“No, no. I’m sorry. Just, you’re going to have to explain this one to me.”

“I’m not really sure where to start.”

“Okay. How about with how, if you’re that old, you came to be a…a little brah…again?”

“Because,” Wesley sighed, “because I wished for it. I was going through a real tough time and made a stupid, fleeting wish. And it worked.”

Eddie took a deep breath and leaned back on his hands. “Wow,” he said. “You know, if I could go back in time, I’d probably play-”

“The lottery?” Wes interrupted. “Yeah, I talked to people at work before all this happened and that’s what most people said, too. Listen, I get that you don’t really believe me and you just think you’re playing along, alright? But trust me that it’s way more complicated than that.”

“Okay,” Eddie agreed, nodding his head. “Then walk me through it and how that leads to what happened on Saturday.”

Wesley tossed his hands up. “What does it matter? I’m mostly just telling you any of this because it feels nice to finally let out. Besides, no one will believe you and I can’t get back anymore, anyway.”

“Why’s that?”

Wes groaned into his knees. “Because I lost my lucky coin.”

“That old one your grandpa got you for your birthday?”

“Yeah, I kept it in my wallet but it’s been missing for a week. It’s what I made the wish with to get here. I was going to use it to get back, but now I’m stuck.” Eddie made a puzzled look on his face that annoyed Wes. “What?” he asked.

“No, sorry. It’s nothing.” Eddie smiled at the boy and shook the thought away. “Come on, you were saying?”

It took several minutes of tug-of-war with Wesley before he opened up, but eventually he started explaining.

“It’s not that simple. ‘Play the lottery’, ‘stop crime’, ‘graduate early’. Everyone has a plan they think will work out. Firstly, I never played the lottery, and if I did, I don’t remember people’s phone numbers, let alone the Super Jackpot from fifteen years ago. Secondly, stop crime? If I have to remind you, I have the authority of a ten-year-old. Even if I did start telling the cops about a robbery, vandalism, or arson I knew would happen, that doesn’t turn me into kid-friggin’-detective. They’ll rightly assume I heard it somewhere and either dismiss it or it’ll implicate the adults around me. And fly through school? Okay, assume I do that. I ace every single spelling test and math quiz until I graduate high school at fourteen. I don’t want that.”

“Really?” said Eddie, wide-eyed. “Why not?”

“Because,” said Wesley, standing up forcibly from the bed and pacing around his room, “I won’t be some genius, exceptionally dedicated, or anything, just a guy who’s unexpectedly smarter than middle-schoolers. Plus, then that shoots me passed everyone I knew or would come to know and brings me into a world I don’t want. Never knowing my friends, probably prompting moves to new school districts, or whatever. And not doing that? Well, now I’ve been spending my days trying to pay attention, feeling patronized, surrounded by kids I’m supposed to but do not relate to. Every day is an act, every word is a sham.”

“Poetic.”

Wesley gave him a frustrated look from below his eyebrows.

“What? Listen, I’m not saying that it sounds a little over dramatic – which it does, but – this all means you should know how many people would kill to be kids again. Heck, man, you’ve heard me joke about it.”

“Oh, no. It felt like a vacation at first – having meals made for me, going to a super easy job, having a ton of energy. Not to mention getting to see my mom again, being as nice as I should have been when I grew up the first time, and making her super proud just with my grades. Not so much fun after a few months, though.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Hard to find anyone to have a good conversation with, first off. Can’t really do it with my classmates. I can’t do it with any adults because I’m trying to keep this cover going or because they won’t take me seriously.”

“Hey, whoa. I take you seriously when you want to be serious, Wes.”

“Really? Would you say that like that to your buddy Tom? Or be interested in discussing Machiavelli or the government’s response to 9/11 with me? The point is, we talk differently to adults than we do with kids and in this circumstance, Eddie, it’s annoying. Besides, the internet sucks now.”

“Okay, then if you want to be serious,” Eddie said with a sudden grim tone, “that thing you mentioned about getting to see your mom again. Does something happen to her?”

“What?” replied Wes, embarrassed. “Ah, no. Not really, anyway. It’s just…hard to raise a teenage boy by herself. It took a lot out of her.”

“So, you guys never met me?”

“No. Because, in my life, I’d quit judo by now, so we never went to regionals. Which means I’ve already messed up and gotten something wrong.”

“Hmm, is that so bad, though? Say this life goes differently than your last one. I’m not such a bad guy, am I? We have fun.”

“Yeah, sorry. I don’t mean it in that I dislike you for you. You’re…you’re pretty cool. I just…”

“What?”

“I need things to say the same. There’s someone I can’t risk not meeting, and it scares me to think that I might not.” The tears began to well up in Wesley’s eyes as a soft knock came from his door. Eddie placed a compassionate hand on the boy’s shoulder and answered it. Wesley saw his mother briefly while the door was open and when Eddie came back in he was smiling.

“Hey, do you want to go for a hike?”

Wesley looked at the clouds through his window and replied with a shrug and a thumb’s up.

***

“So,” Eddie panted as he pulled himself up onto the overlook with Wesley, “you sounded like you were in the middle of a big point.” His words may not have, but there had been a change to the way Eddie spoke to Wes over the course of the afternoon – his tone, his voice, his eyes – it felt like the two were speaking on the same level. Wesley wasn’t being spoken down to and he appreciated it.

“Yeah. Just that things are scary.”

“I’m sure. But come on, there was more than that. You were saying you wanted to get everything right, keep things the same?”

“Yeah, but even all of that is a craps shoot, and I’m terrified. I’m terrified because I don’t know the rules. I’m not the person I was when I was nine, nobody is. People change. People change because they have experiences and they grow. But what if this is some Back to the Future shit? What if I don’t have an experience that shaped me, either because of butterfly effect happenstance or because now I know how to handle it? Do I lose the part of me that grew from that in the first place like an old photo? Because if so, to keep who I am, I have to live every day frantically trying to relive every day, as it happened, for years. I’ll spend fifteen years never changing, never growing, constantly paranoid, ‘learning’ the same lessons, or else I lose getting to be me in the first place.”

Eddie stayed quiet but just looked at the boy. He shuffled off his pack, set it beside the both of them, and took a seat on the rock with his legs dangling off the side. He took out a couple of sandwiches and handed one to Wesley. “Hmm, and that was enough to make you wanna end it?”

“Not…really,” Wesley said, timidly taking a bite of bologna.

Eddie watched Wes closely. “Why, then? A few years with us seem so bad you need that way out?”

“No. It’s not that.” Wes was staring at the rock, away from Eddie.

“Mmhm. Who was she, this person you need to meet again?” Wes looked back up with redness in his eyes and a quivering chin. Eddie wrapped a strong arm around the boy’s shoulders and held him while he cried. “I know, brah,” he said. “It’s always a girl.”

***

“Her name’s Carmen,” Wesley said between sobs.

Wesley told his stepfather everything. He spoke about how the two had met in high school and made fast friends. He told him the tumults of their relationship then and later, and how he’d known the moment a friend introduced them that he wanted her in his life in a meaningful way. He told him of how even though their life together wasn’t perfect, he loved those imperfections. He loved the way she would talk about the things she wanted to do in life, and how he imagined doing them with her. He loved the way she would joke about things she would change if given the chance, and how he would quietly think of how grateful he felt to have her as she was. He loved deeply how, despite the infinite number of ways they couldn’t have wound up together, the universe had seen fit to provide the one where they did.

“And I know,” continued Wes, “that they’re all the cliches, but I really do miss just being able to look into her eyes. I miss waking up to her voice, to the dimples on her cheeks when she’d smile. I miss comforting her when she was ever scared. I even miss the crushing pain of crying with her if she was ever hurt. And most, I miss listening to her heartbeat like it’s the only sound that exists, praying that between us I get to be selfish enough to die first because I don’t want a world without that sound.

“We’d been together for seven years before all this happened. It’s been hard sleeping in a bed by myself for the first time in that long. I miss her, a lot, but what’s worst is that now she doesn’t even know me yet. And she won’t for another five years, and if everything goes as it should, we won’t be together for another five after that. And even if that does happen, now I’ll have a secret I can never tell the woman I tell everything: that I knew her before we met and I waited a decade to be with her again. Try telling anyone that without it ending in some kind of paperwork.

“Our life had gotten hard, real hard, and all I wanted was a way out. But now that I’ve had it, all I want is a way back. Meaning yes, badly enough to walk straight into the ocean hoping to wake up like this was all a dream. So,” he said, wiping his nose and standing as the wind picked up, “what happens now? Do you tell mom and you guys sign me up for therapy or check me into some loony bin?” He sniffled with resolve.

Eddie was very quiet. He sat with his jaw jutting and was very clearly just watching the clouds roll by in thought. “Maybe,” he finally said with a big exhale. “But I don’t think so. Those places get pretty expensive, so I figure it’ll be easier to just give you this.” He reached into his pack and tossed Wesley a small, brown, folded leather wallet.

Wesley was stunned. “How?” he stammered.

“Taylor’s dad called yesterday and dropped it off while we were in your room. Apparently your buddy took it the last time you had him over. I told you it wasn’t a good idea to brag about your allowance like that. What were you saving up that much for anyway?”

“It was, uh,” the boy choked, “it was for the bus. I was going to take the bus to San Francisco. That’s where the fountain I toss my coin into for the wish gets built next month.”

“Oof, San Fran?” Eddie let out a puff of thoughtful breath. “Might be kind of a tough to swing it with your mom given things right now. But…”

Wes looked to the man with a dumbfounded, hopeful stare which Eddie returned with a wink and a smile.

***

The sun shone bright and clear through the window. Wesley reached over to turn his clock to face him. The time was 11:11am. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the almost unfamiliar sheets. Where there had been Spider-Man, there was now a checkered cream-colored pattern.

“Good morning,” came a sweet voice. Wesley felt a kiss on his cheek. “Aw, hey, are you alright?”

“It’s just good to see you.” Wesley wiped the tears away and hugged her. “I love you.”

“Oh honey,” Carmen said, laughing. “I love you too. Bad dream?”

He laughed with her. “You have no idea.”

THE END

The Take: This was a good one that came out of my short-lived Soapbox Writers’ Workshop. The parameters were: Romantic Comedy, featuring a surfer and a lost wallet. It came together pretty quickly, but took a lot longer to edit and sharpen. I’d shopped it around for a while, but I to-date haven’t quite found the right market for it, and also realized I’d passed it by a while ago as one of my best/favored manuscripts – I still love it, there’s a lot of me in there, but I’ve grown past it a bit.
It started off with me asking around work, “If you could go back to any age and keep your current consciousness – world view, knowledge, history, memories, opinions, everything – but you had to live your life forward from there, would you?”
The responses were awesome.
Many had the expected knee-jerk responses of “zoom through school” and “play the lottery.” But if pressed, reminding them that, y’know, their history is no longer their history – family, friends, jobs, events – none of that is guaranteed, it became less of an easy question.
Others I respected immensely. I explained the question, they had me clarify, thought on it, and then went, “Oh, hell no. I love my (girlfriend/family/dog/job/friends/you-name-it). Wouldn’t want to risk that.”
Others still, left me pretty flabbergasted…
“Oh, hell yeah.”
“Even though you won’t have your family any more?”
“Yeah, they’ll be fine.”
“No, like, you wouldn’t have your kids anymore.”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“Jesus, man. Didn’t you adopt?”
To this day, I’m unsure whether or not they were having my leg, still didn’t understand the thought experiment, or were being serious and just genuinely did not enjoy their life.

Anyway, to cap it all off, writing ‘Fifteen Years’ was an adventure, one that helped me chart out just how goddamn grateful I am for the life I’m swimming through.

Have a good one, y’all.

Ciao.