Thursday, May 22, 2008

Curse/Or: Up In Smoke

Prologue: Up In Smoke

(Five Years Ago)

People say, time passes quick.

People say, just pay it no mind, it'll go by soon enough.

People say, tend to the moments and the years'll tend to themselves.

These people, they ain't never been in jail. Time passes like a fucking ice cube here, ain't got nothing to do but slowly melt all over the place. And the worst part is, you can't never get away from yourself. It's just you, and your thoughts, and whatever you can do to make those thoughts go away. That's the real hell of prison, if you're at all sorry about what you did: you got all these reminders that you're a bad person, and that you deserve all the shit you're forced to eat here.

It's one more day out of thirty years. Smile. Take a big bite out of that shit sandwich. Chew. Swallow. Sleep. Another day, another bite. You gotta find ways to kill your that part of your brain that measures time, or you'll go loco.

Some people spend time reading. Some go to school. Some exercise. Some sleep their lives away. And some kill themselves. Me, I smoke.

Got a system and everything. One cigarette, takes me 10 minutes to smoke it. Ten minutes where I don't do nothing but smoke. I experience that cigarette fully, completely, like I'm a fucking Japanese monk. I am the Zen Buddhist Goddess of Smoking. Completely in that moment, counting down every second but unaware of the passage of time. When I'm done, I've lost ten minutes in a haze of nicotine. Then I light another.

One cigarette, ten minutes. 6 smokes an hour. About 80 smokes a day; that's 4 packs. 28 packs a week; ten packs in a carton; about 73 cartons a year. 73 times 10 times 28 is... a lot of fucking cigarettes a year. And I've been here for nearly 15 years now.

Some people kill themselves quickly. I'm going the slow, painful route. Hacking cough, tightness in the chest, voice that sounds like I'm gargling concrete. I spend half an hour every morning coughing up bloody phlegm. I've got cancer, and it makes me glad.

I wish I had a tumor I could touch. I'd call it Tommy. I'd talk to it every day, and sing it lullabies at night. I'd tuck it in to bed at night.

But I know I have one, I've got a Tommy deep in my lungs. I feed it every day, and it's growing up so big and strong. One day, it'll be ready to go off on its own, and when it leaves I'll die. But I'll be happy, because I gave birth to something so wonderful. I made it, in my body.

I've hurt a lot of people for you, Tommy. I've killed seven cellmates for you, all of them sacrificed to cancer with secondhand smoke. Each time, you've gotten bigger and stronger. And because you're in me, I've gotten stronger.

When I give birth to you, baby, it'll be loud and bloody and violent. Just like that night twenty years ago, when you died.

When I killed you.

*** *** ***

Tonight's the night. I'm in labor, Tommy. I'm giving birth to you and the nicotine is singing in my head like angels on acid, acid that burns my veins and makes me sick to my stomach. I'm dying tonight, my dearest, my love, all so that you can be born.

One last drag on the cigarette, and exhale. I try to breathe in but you won't let me, you're filling my lungs with blood as you struggle to be born, my beautiful baby cancer boy.

The smoke goes everywhere. It stick to the walls, soaks into the mattress... and spreads out into the ventilation system.

Into general population.

Who've been breathing my smoke for fifteen years.

Oh, my baby boy. I understand now. My eyes are opened. I know your power, and know it's now mine.

The power of human sacrifice. I willingly took you into my body; I gave cancer to my cellmates; and now, everyone who breathed my air for the past 15 years has breathed you, too.

Crucifixion. The Sun Dance. Human Sacrifice. Life energy for magical power.

You don't want me to die, do you, baby? You want mama to live. You want her to spread your message across the world. I'll bear you on my back. Mama will be your camel, and you can be my hump. My burden and my source of power.

I accept.

*** *** ***

It's the damnedest thing.

The night I became the Camel, the cancer left my body. I breathe easier now than I did before I was in jail. Still have the cough, though, and the gravel voice. That's my mark of power, my witch's teat. Least I don't hack up blood every morning.

Know what else is weird? So many people want cigarettes now. Smoking's always been big in prison, but I swear the entire goddamn place is hooked now. And they all want mine.

Cigarettes are money in prison. I control their distribution now. The people who used to... they all died. On the same night. Lungs filled with bloody phlegm.

Everyone in this prison is addicted.

Everyone's my bitch.

Funny, ain't it?

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...


  1. Not quite right, but almost. Lot of raw surge of power, there, I think...but not quite directed in the correct fashion.

    You've made a story that ends fast, Erin, and I think that's your major error, and all the minor errors descend from that. From about where it says "But I know I have one" the authenticity of the voice falters...and the story goes to pot.

    Very decent beginning, though. However may I recommend putting the horse before the cart? Our protagonist smokes, wishing for cancer, trying to summon cancer...but doesn't get cancer. Now that is good stuff, real Neil Gaiman stuff, why that is like a character being the Wandering Jew. Also, "The nicotine is singing in my head like angels on acid" is quite good, except not quite focussed: I would suggest "the love of nicotine is singing in my head like angels on acid." Because as any good smoker knows, it's in the forced withdrawal period where the angels seem to sing electrically...everything in fact seems charged with electricity, including one's fingertips...and so the smoking is just medicating, to keep everything normal and on an even keel, and not electric at all. Smoking becomes, or perhaps enables, a consensual backdrop that insulates rather than conducts. Except the first one you have again after a nicotine drought gives you that "buzz" standing up too fast while drinking a cup of very strong coffee...and that one makes all the things in the world look like cardboard cut-outs. Which is a thing that will make any smoker rally around you: to this extent anyway, there's honour among thieves.

    Hmm, but maybe not in prison.

    But anyway.

    Also by my measurements a regular-sized cigarette (as distinct from a King) takes between five and seven minutes to smoke, if you're rich; if you're poor, between four and six. Sometimes three, if you're sufficiently motivated.

    Anyway you've taken a story and made a blogpost of it, which is (I make ass-u-me assumptions) perhaps not what you intended. I'll suggest another horse-before-cart correction, based on what you've written here: the protagonist, once he/she figures out he/she doesn't have cancer, imagines the smoke she smokes giving cancer to everyone else. And imagines herself cursed, by being immune to cancer. Even in her daydreams, she can't get sick.

    The ice cube thing is very nice indeed, well-spotted (did you get that from someone? Because it's very accurate), and also versatile: everyone's seen smoke blown into a glass of ice cubes, haven't they? And that mood seems to me to be where you're going.

    If you go, that is.

    It's brilliantly ominous, but underdeveloped. Because the character isn't there. Oh, you instantiate character very well, but to date I have not seen you explore character, though you set everything up for it, tickety-boo...and so in the end, it doesn't meet me as a reader Therefore, to go to the X-Files thing in this story seems to cheapen it somewhat; you introduce the idea of being a camel extremely well, but it's still too close in my opinion -- it's paid off too quickly. There are so many neat things to be done with addiction and a camel's hump and a sort of possession, before you make the reader see Joe Camel or imagine a Grendel-Camel or say "hey Scully, come and take a look at this Camel"...and is that really what you want, anyway, at the top of the top level of meaning of this story? Anyway, do you really want to get there so quickly? My advice would be, take your time on the smoking/character/theme stuff, build it up, forget Joe Camel and magic both...the reader will make those connections anyway, so you needn't, unless you MUST. And forget the fantasy-element, at least for the next ten thousand words. See where your character goes instead; because you write him or her well. Mostly.

    To boil it down: don't rush.

    Build, instead. Get past the acute observations, and into what kind of person observes as acutely as that. I want to know that person a bit better, actually. Well-drawn character is the foundation of the reader's ability to suspend disbelief, so develop what you've made, and don't worry about the Big Ideas. At least: not for now.

    And I know I can sound like quite the dick, when I'm giving constructive criticism, and I apologize for that. But you have got an awfully good base, here. And, you can talk convincingly. Fabulously convincingly, Erin! But it's a matter, not of playing to one's strengths, but of playing to one's weaknesses, that is the winning matter here. So often, our genre affections blind us to what needs to be done, what the story really wants to be, in itself. And thus we contrive to miss our own point.

    Example: stripped of its fantasy/horror genre trappings, doesn't this story get better? Camel and all?

    So put the fantasy/horror stuff to one side, like a good pot of chili. Let it simmer. Grill a steak. Come back to the chili later, maybe tomorrow morning, or the day after.

    And here endeth my thoughts. I officially give you permission to redact this comment -- I know it may be more critical than you'd like. But I would not waste this kind of time on someone who didn't, if one could only peel away the coolness and the zombie zaz, have a very great talent indeed for pushing letters around. I was going to say to you once, LR seems like your Voice, and that's the difference between you and me because Trout is not my voice but my Eye...I mention that now, because it seems to me that I ought to tell you: you've got that Voice thing down pat. But maybe it's a little too pat.

    A million and one writers would sell their soul to have the Voice you do. But you can't buy this shit, even souls are not hard enough currency to pay for it, it is simply not on the market. But that's no excuse to rest on any laurels: your intention ought to be as strong as your skills. And a strong Voice just means: "lotta work to be done yet"...

    But anyway I really enjoyed this, up until the "But I know I have one" part, when it started to peel away from me. I eagerly await the next installment. But I may not comment again.

    Apologies again if this sounded harsh, Erin. You really do, very evidently, have more than just a pickup truck full of talent. Heck, you've got a semi. But you lost me halfway through this one, so fix that, if you wouldn't mind.

    Okay, peace out. That's my two cents.

  2. While your analysis was a very detailed and incisive one, plok, I think you missed something. Up at the top of the page, in the title: Prologue. This isn't a short story, it's the opening to a novel-length work, so full characterization isn't needed. Just a taste, just enough to get the reader intensely interested in What Happens Next.

  3. But does it make a reader all that interested in reading it?

    The text doesn't seem to invite the analysis that would make it an enjoyable read. A prologue needs to capture the reader and hold him/her in a stranglehold of "I need more", it needs to invite the mentality necessary to enjoy the book.

  4. Fair enough. It works for me, and knowing it's a prologue I want to know what this person is going to do with this newfound power. YMMV.

  5. I may have gotten carried away with some potentialities I saw here which were never really intended as more than spice, C.A., that's probably true...

    Still, there's nothing wrong with having a longer prologue.

  6. Well, I like it. Maybe because I know where it's going a bit, but still, there are some absolutely brilliant beats in here. Some rough patches, yeah, but they'll get worked out. And cancermancy is creepy. As it should be.

    Erin, good on you for getting off of your ass and starting this. You make most of the rest of us look bad. Don't get discouraged.

  7. Also I should say "thanks" to C.A. for calling my analysis incisive -- that's high praise.

    Reading it over, I did in fact get somewhat carried away: I proposed Erin make the Prologue ten thousand words long, and that's just nuts.

    Okay, peace once more.

  8. Wow, a corrupt individual who upon accepting their total corruption, masters it and then uses to to control others nearby.Plus, perhaps a bit of supernatural thrown in.
    While this is much darker of a story than I normally enjoy (I like high fantasy style), I think I could get into this, but I'd probably feel dirty for enjoying it =)
    Good (bad/evil) stuff there PalPal, up to your usual writing style. You seem to have the ability to make the reader (at least myself) BECOME the character.


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