My short story “Unzipped” is now live at Dogmatika.com.
“They say Jimmy made it out. But the postcards we get, well, they don’t seem…real.”
When an experiment with population control works too well, and the planet is decimated, seven broken people are united by a supernatural bond in a modern day Eden. Most on the island are fully aware of this prison disguised as an oasis. Unfortunately, Jimmy is on the mainland, desperate to get back, in a post-apocalyptic stand-off, fighting for his survival and that of his unborn child. Back on the island, Jacob stares at the ocean through his telescope and plots his escape, reluctant to aid the cause. Marcy tries to hide from her past, sexual escapades that may be her saving grace. X sits in his compound, a quiet, massive presence, trapped in his body by ancient utterings and yet free in spirit to visit other places and times. Roland, the angry, bitter son of Marcy is determined to leave, and sets out on his own. Watching over it all is Assigned, the ghost in the machine. And coming for them, to exact revenge, and finish the job that the virus started, is Gordon. He just landed on the island and he has help.
Transubstantiate is a neo-noir thriller, filled with uncertainty at every portal, and jungles overflowing with The Darkness. Vivid settings, lyrical language, and a slow reveal of plot, motivation, past crimes and future hope collide in a final showdown that keeps you guessing until the final haunting words.
Transubstantiate: to change from one substance into another.
May 12, 2024
They say Jimmy made it out. But the postcards we get, well, they don’t seem…real. Wish you were here, and all that. Wherever here is. New York City? Really? So I play along and wait for my break.
Sometimes I’m the shopkeeper, sometimes I’m a priest. But I’ve never been it. Not sure if I want to be it, but on the days it rains and oil is in short supply, the corn running out, I wonder what is really out there. I wonder what is true, and what is speculation.
Walking down the streets of Libertyville, the fall leaves changing color, you can scan the horizon, and it seems endless. I’ve only been down the highway that one time. They just turn you back. I jangle the keys and insert one into the storefront. Time to open shop. New guy coming today. He doesn’t know the ropes and it’s our job to teach him. Not everything mind you, but enough so he doesn’t get himself killed. Sorry, I mean relocated. I miss Jimmy, but he wanted out. And he worked hard to get there. Nobody can say he didn’t work hard.
To the left and to the right I see the other shopkeepers opening up. Coffeehouse. Dry cleaner. Jewelry store. Movie house. We all nod, and grimace, as we open these doors. I wouldn’t call them jail cells, but they are.
I ease into the musty bookstore, and shut the door behind me. With a dull thud, the ringing of brass bells fills my ears and I rest my head on the pane of glass.
New kid coming today. Gotta put my game face on.
“Can somebody do Jimmy for me? I can never get the handwriting down. Alphonso? You’ve got a knack for him. I need another postcard. Doesn’t have to be New York, can be someplace else. Just keep it vague.”
Pushing that damn lock of hair out of my eyes, I survey the cramped quarters, flush from the stress of it all, but happy as a squirrel with a nut.
“Sure Marcy, you have one there you want me to use?” Alphonso runs a black pick with a muscled fist at one end through his quickly expanding afro.
“No, go ahead and grab something out of the bin. You can handle the stamp and all that too, right?I showed you how?”
“Certainly did. No problem. I’ll get right on that. Can I finish that letter to Mrs. Mayberry first?You know she’ll be all distraught if something doesn’t show up from Chester today. It’s been a week, and personally, her crying is getting on my nerves.”
“Sure, just hop to it.”
The shutters let in a hint of dusty light. Watching the six members of PS1 as they hunch over stacks of mail, an assortment of pens and pencils scattered across the folding table, I don’t feel the slightest twinge of guilt at setting Jimmy up. He wanted out. And he got out.
A smile crosses my face as I unbutton one more ivory disc on my crisp, white blouse. The tan cleavage goes from subtle femininity to holy-cow, what-do-we-have-here? I smooth out the nonexistent wrinkles in the seat of my tan capris for the hundredth time. Fascinated with my ass today. A subtle tingle vibrates through my body, anticipation fueled by secrets.
Racing down the alley, the stench of the garbage is overwhelming. I usually avoid any sort of enclosed area, especially where the decomposition is bad, but there is no time. A hint of orange light floats down the dark side street as the sun sets fast across the buildings. In my jeans and leather jacket, I blend into my surroundings. Smoke covered shells of former apartment buildings squat next to rusted husks of what used to be cars. When the gas started to run out most people realized they wanted heat over transportation. And with the acceleration of the drug dealing, most people stayed inside anyway.
Pausing at the edge of the chipped brick complex, I peek around the corner. Maybe they moved on. The Blisterheads must have found something more interesting to occupy their simple minds. It’s one thing to shave your head and spout racist white-power sentiments about anarchy and revolution. It’s another to pour gasoline over your head and set yourself on fire. Shaking my head, and catching my breath, I adjust the straps on my backpack as they dig into my shoulders. I am sick of corned beef hash, but canned goods are canned goods. She is waiting for me, and I have to get back. The Magnum revolver is more than she needs, but I always get uneasy as the sun goes down. I can’t confirm all of the rumors. But I’ve seen enough weirdness that I can’t just dismiss the stories outright. The Blisterheads are real. Cranked up on meth and PCP their strength comes from the drugs, but the radioactivity and other strangeness paired with the hybrid pills and powders that are floating around have created some unimaginable freaks.
Taking a deep breath, I prepare myself for the final leg of today’s journey. Back home. I pull the 9mm Glock out of my jacket, and count to three.
The thundering of boots echoes down the alley, as Ming and his boys set their sights on my hide. I fire two shots into the crowd, winging one thug who spins to the asphalt, and buzzing Ming’s skull with the other. They hesitate, some hitting the ground, some diving into the overflowing dumpsters. I’m off in a second, my destination known, my path already planned. They’ll never catch me. I’ve been charting the tunnels, the sewers and the buildings that were still structurally sound for months. I have mountain bikes hidden in front of every Starbucks. There are motorcycles and compact sports cars stashed in garages all over downtown St. Louis. They’ll never get me.
Good thing I got out.
This old typewriter never fails to give me a rush of excitement. In this time of advanced technology and immediate satisfaction it relaxes me to pound away slowly on this ancient Remington Quietwriter. Its squat black metal sits on my desk with a toothy grin. Today I’m gonna bang her like a two dollar hooker, until my fingers ache.
I fear that the fallout from the mainland may reach us, but I’ve been told not to worry. It seems that every day I question aspects of this experiment and why we still cling to its obsolete and meaningless systems of order. Usually I’m told to shut up and keep my comments to myself. It is unwise of them to continue to treat me like this. This last bastion of order, this oasis, this Eden compared to the outside world could easily crumble with the flick of my wrist. They obviously like playing with matches. But sometimes you get burned.
If it wasn’t for the flowers, I think I’d go mad. The Irises are pushing through the earth, and the Goldenrod continues to shine. Every morning I go out to the patio to see if the Hibiscus has another surprise and am invariably rewarded with an eager blushing bloom.
The spot of red in this monotone setting brings a moment of peace to
my shackled existence.
Marcy is coming today. That should be interesting. I don’t know if it is true love, or that she simply wants a child. Either way I think I have to make the best of it. A little slap and tickle never hurt anyone. Well, that’s not true, but it’s what I’m telling myself.
New guy today. Lots of excitement. Hard to believe that in the midst of this chaos they continue to send us new citizens. It’s on some sort of autopilot that we can’t seem to shut off. Much like the way we free our captives. Freedom. Funny word. Was it Janis Joplin that said “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose?” I think so. And at this point I have nothing left to lose myself. Except everything.
Time for the regime. Up to 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups now. Thrice a day. It gives me a Zen focus when I can shift my gaze to my physical being and the strain of torn muscles. It takes me out of my head for just a little bit. But you know, I can always feel the hamster wheels turning in the background, no matter what I’m doing. That poor guy needs a break. Maybe I’ll head over to the Opium fields today and restock. Plenty of mushrooms left, but the Poppies have run low and the Cannabis is diminishing. Always something to do on my tiny farm here at the edge of the world. God’s work.
“Wake up, newbie. Time to get to work.”
I push my lids open and the harsh sunlight shatters my skull. I grab both sides of my head, lean forward, and vomit violently onto the deck of the ship.
“Damnit Rodney, you gave him too much.”
“Not my fault he’s a lightweight, I did it according to height and weight like we always do.”
“Figures. Couldn’t get some good day labor, just another weak and useless pawn. Well, buddy here’s your first job. You get to swab the deck, matey.” A wet, filthy mop lands by my head, splashing fetid water in my face, the handle clacking to the deck.
“We’ll be on the shore waiting…what’s his name Rodney?”
“I don’t know man, look at the sheet.”
“Seriously, what good are you?”
“Here we go…Madison, Jamal, Vanity12, John…you a John?No, John’s a 2-cybernetic, we’d know if that was you,”he laughed, cackling in the hot sun. “Gordon, here it is. Human98, caucasian100, male100, straight84, six foot two inches, 160 pounds, emaciated with an IQ of 160. That looks like you, brother. Another skinny geek that can’t hold his meds.”
Lifting my head to stare at the strange man, I memorize his face. Blue eyes. Brown beard. Under six foot, say 5’10”. Fat, say 220. Left handed, with a mole on his right ear. Zeke. How I’d forgotten that face. He’s a dead man. His buddy, not sure yet. I squint into the blinding light. They think I’ve forgotten everything. Forgotten where I came from, and forgotten why I am here. They’re wrong. In time I’ll snap his neck, and feed his flabby ass to the fishes. They’ll eat you down here, not just the Piranhas and the Oscars. The hybrids. The Garshark, the Black Eel. I grin at him, make a gun out of my right hand index finger and thumb and point it at him.
123…123…123…is there anybody out there
plaksjd jf-098aierm ;lksmdf PIJASOEF;LKMAS DF
Good morning. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen…it was a pleasure to burn…the man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed…we were somewhere
around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…deleted. DELETE. DELETED.
Good morning. At your service.
Running through the fields of tall grass, the paths wind up and down, beaten to dust by my faded Nike Air Jordans, ladybugs and grasshoppers springing into flight, out of breath, approaching the village. I have to tell mom, have to let her know what I’ve seen. She doesn’t want to know, she doesn’t want to see any more, she told me that. I know. But I have to tell somebody. Max wouldn’t be able to handle it. He puked at the sight of that rotting German shepherd. It wasn’t that bad.
I have to get home before lunch, before everyone sits down, because then it will be too late, too much going on, too many people watching. I have to catch mom before she takes the loaves of bread out of the stone oven, before she makes the trek to the communal table.
T-shirt in my hand, stained with blood that isn’t mine, dirty rivulets of sweat run down my back, an excruciating river of itchy salt. Bug bites and grass cuts fight for my attention. But my burning lungs are winning. It’s too far, I can’t run any further. The clearing is coming to an end and I have to think. What to say. She won’t believe me. I have to show her. How will I get her away from work? Water. We’ll make a trip to the Artesian well. We always need more water, we all do. She’ll think it’s a good idea, that I’ve come around finally, that I’m chipping in, helping again. Then I’ll take her to the cave. Show her the body. Bodies. And the bones. The stack of bones, piled high to the ceiling. What does it mean? Are we safe?
Stopping at the edge of the high grass, hands on knees, chest heaving, a strand of drool hangs to the ground. In and out the hot air moves, my face flushed, bloodied knees like lipstick kisses. Regaining composure will be tough, but there is no time. Just a sip of water, then inside.
It is finally, public. I am the winner of the 2009 “Enter the World of Filaria” contest by ChiZine Publications. This is the first time I’ve ever won anything writing related. I get published online and $250 bucks! WOW! My first paycheck as a writer. The story, “Maker of Flight” will be posted April 1st.
1. What have you learned from writing your novel CAST OF SHADOWS?
Hmmm. Well you write your first novel in complete despair that anyone will ever read it, convinced that you’re wasting your time, along with precious parts of every day for maybe years of your life. On the other hand you write it with no pressure. No outside influence at all. If you’re fortunate enough to get it published, however, you write your second novel without the despair, but with significantly larger amounts of pressure and expectations. And so writing your second book is nothing like writing your first. The third book is easier. You start to get a handle on what you’re doing and it’s only then that you kind of take what you’ve learned and put it to some use. You’re still making it up to some degree. No matter how many times you’ve done it, if you’re not improvising a little bit you’re probably writing a crappy novel.
The most important thing you learn from writing your first novel, whether it gets published or not, is that you’re capable of finishing one.
2. Your novel, COS deals with cloning, and related subjects. Do you believe in doppelgangers?
No. Although when I lived in Texas, every time I went to the bank the tellers would call me “Mr. Dixon.” And then they’d look at my license and appear very confused.
3. Would you say there is a big difference between crime, noir, neo-noir and thriller these days?
I saw a thing the other day where a bunch of mystery writers were describing the kind of books they write and it was like, “I write medium-boiled, amateur sleuth, post-noir, domestic, techno-cozies…” or something. I’m not even sure what neo-noir is, unless it’s a book written after 1980 where the protagonist drinks a lot. I can tell you that a mystery is generally about finding out “what happened?” and a thriller is generally about finding out “what happens next?” After that genre distinctions seem like bullshit to me…
4. It seems that genre writing is getting more and more support these days, is becoming more acceptable. Any thoughts on the future of genre writing?
…at least as far as the actual writing is concerned. Just about anything can be pigeonholed into a genre. I could subdivide the general fiction section of the bookstore into a hundred literary genres and subgenres if I wanted, each with its own cliches (the struggling young New York writer trying to suffer through his first novel while he/she looks for love; the private school novel; the rural American family novel), but literary novelists pretend they don’t exist until a critic starts throwing words like “bildungsroman” around. The only thing different about “genre” writers is that they have embraced those labels in an effort to find an audience. And it actually works a little bit because genre labels are fairly helpful to readers in a marketplace with literally hundreds of thousands of choices. If you like this sort of thing, here are a bunch of books kind of like it. I’m okay with that as long as the writer doesn’t think about it too much while he’s writing. Cast of Shadows has been called thriller, techno-thriller, medical thriller, mystery, clone-lit, sci-fi, crime, literary fiction, philosophical thriller (Phi-thri? Did I just make that one up?). It’s all good. After the book is done you can call it whatever you like, as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t like it when novelists start writing to some imagined formula.
5. So how did you find an agent? Any good stories there? If I remember from The Hideout it was rather fast and painless.
In 2001 I co-wrote (with John Warner) a cartoon book about George W. Bush. But the publisher basically came to us, so even after I had published a book, I didn’t know anything about selling one. I finished my novel in 2003 and basically knew the name of one agent in the world because he was a friend of an acquaintance. I sent him a query and didn’t hear back right away and so instead of doing the sensible thing and sending it to somebody else, I queried this agent again, because I’m really that lazy, and this time he agreed to read my manuscript. About three weeks later he called to say he wanted to represent me and about six weeks after that we had an offer from Knopf. I just got very fortunate and that’s really not a blueprint anyone should follow. I wouldn’t suggest anyone should cocoon themselves in ignorance the way I had.
6. Any suggestions on how to get published these days, as far as short stories and novels? Agent or small press?
The first thing you need to do is finish your novel. I think a lot of writers never finish their manuscripts because they’re thinking too much about how they’re going to sell it when they finish. When you’re writing, don’t even read trade magazines or web sites that talk about how the publishing sausage is made. It will just depress you and it’s not even relevant because every book is going to take its own path. Every book makes its own odds.
Once you have the end in your sights, I think it’s okay to start thinking about the other stuff–which agents or publishers you’re going to submit to and how you’ll craft your pitch and so forth. As for agent vs. small press, there’s no blanket answer for that. You need to ask what kind of person is going to read your book, and try to figure out what other books that ideal reader has been reading. Those are the examples you want to follow.
7. Do you think attending events like AWP is becoming more and more mandatory for serious writers?
I don’t think anything is mandatory. If you asked TC Boyle how to get published he’d probably tell you to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you asked Emily Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole they might tell you to live a life of writerly despair and then kill yourself. Both answers are correct! Before I wrote my novel I hung out with musicians more than writers, and I didn’t really know any novelists at all. That probably wasn’t the best thing for my book. The community of writers is an invaluable thing, and it’s important to be plugged in to other people who do what you do.
8. If you were trying to get your first novel published right now, and didn’t have an agent or publisher, how would you go about trying to get noticed?
I’m not sure getting “noticed” is really the goal, unless you want to be an author the way Rod Blagojevich is. There’s a lot of cynicism around publishing, but the people that I know in publishing, from the small houses to the big ones, from the publicists to the agents, are all sincere about trying to get work they love to a broader audience. Actually it’s the writers who are all cynical. The editors and publishers are frequently the uncompromised ones.
Getting published is pretty simple on paper. Write a good book and get it into the hands of someone who likes that sort of thing. It’s more complicated to put that plan into practice. If I were doing it over again I would think about writers who weren’t necessarily like me, but who write books who would appeal to the same readers as my book. Then I would go to the acknowledgments of those books and find who their agents are. Those are the first people I would query. If those authors are published at indie presses, I would approach those publishers.
I don’t want to sound like a shill for the literary agent trade association, but there are other things an agent does for you besides try to get you published. If you have an agent you really trust, he or she can be a first reader, a second editor, a guide, an advisor, a friend. Perhaps most importantly he can have all the business discussions with your publisher so that your interaction with them is never about anything but the work. All agents are probably not created equal, but mine is a bargain. Which is a horrible thing to say about your friend.
9. Tell us a bit about your process: when do you write, how much a day, where?
I have a five year old and a two year old, so I write when they let me. Most days I have a babysitter in the mornings, which means I write mostly in the mornings. But I carry a notebook with me all the time and try to write whenever the ideas come. When it’s working right, the time I have in front of my computer is really about typing as fast as I can. Hopefully I’ve already done a lot of the writing.
I have an office in my house. It has a lot of good books on shelves and some movie posters–an Italian poster for The Godfather, the original needlepoint poster for Fargo, and an amazingly creepy Czech poster for The Birds. I also have a beautifully typeset copy of Poe’s The Conqueror Worm in a frame, as well as a painting by a woman in New York who puts random quotes from Home Alone over abstract images of bookshelves and sells them on the internet. Mine says “The Salt Turns The Bodies Into Mummies,” my wife gave it to me for Valentines Day, and it’s awesome.
10. Are you an outline or write by the seat of your pants kind of writer?
I try to have a pretty good outline when I start, but the story rarely ends up where I think it will. I think you owe it to the reader to at least think you know where the story is going when you start to tell it. But at the outline stage, your characters are still paper thin. You don’t really get to know them until you start writing and once you get to know them you often find out that these characters wouldn’t do the things you had planned for them to do. So you have to ask yourself, “If this character chose to do B instead of A, how does that affect everything that comes after.” For me the outline is sort of like the picture on the cover of the puzzle box. It helps guide you and gives you the overall shape of what you’re trying to accomplish. But the novel is the actual puzzle where you can see every edge and how each piece fits perfectly with every other piece.
11. As a fellow Chicago writer, how can I get more involved with the local scene? What can you tell us about the Outfit?
Sadly, I’m the last person who could tell you how to get involved with any kind of scene. I became involved with The Outfit when its founder, the terrific mystery writer Libby Fischer Hellman, generously asked me to join.
12. Who are your greatest influences? Most recent influences? And what are you most excited to read in 2009? If you haven’t read Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger yet, they both have new novels coming out this year, and I’m very excited about both of them.
If I had to pick only three, my all-time favorite writers are probably Walker Percy, T.C. Boyle, and Martin Amis (up through THE INFORMATION). I m just finishing up a marathon eight weeks where I attempted to read all 16 novels (including a couple of backbreakers) in this year’s Powell’s/Morning News Tournament of Books, for which I am both Commissioner and co-commentator. I’m going to make it through 15-and-a-half by tourney time it looks like. I’ve got a good backlog already waiting, including the new Boyle, and upcoming novels from a couple of my favorite crime writers Stephen White and CJ Box. My good friend Dave Reidy, another Chicago guy, has his first story collection coming out. It’s called CAPTIVE AUDIENCE and I’ve already read it but I’m excited that other people are going to get a chance to. I am generally terrible about scanning the horizon, though. When a book I know is published, I rarely know it was even on the way unless somebody more plugged in to the business gives me a heads up about it.
13. Your next book is coming out soon, if I remember correctly. What can you tell us about it, and where else can we follow your writing? The Morning News? Any short stuff coming out soon?
I don’t have a pub date yet, but the next book is called THE THOUSAND and it’s about a Chicago defense attorney who murders his own client; a former professional poker player who is asked by a wealthy art collector to find out if a prominent outsider artist is a fraud; and a casino security guard who’s convinced that someone is trying to murder the woman he’s secretly in love with. It should be out the end of this year or the beginning of 2010.
Thanks so much. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I hope we can work together real soon. I’m not that far away, in the neo-noir neighborhood, so I’d be glad to buy you a coffee or beer, any time. And let me know what I can do to help more readers discover your work.
Likewise, Richard, and thanks for the opportunity.