“What the **** is that?”
Nope, I’m not proud of my initial response to the picture prompt in my Facebook fiction writer’s group.
I don’t usually attempt any of the challenge prompts; I much prefer to slave over my work-in-progress and bang my head on the desk. It must have been the whole end-of-year revelry vibe that made me think it was a good idea to STOP and look around. And it was a good idea; only I didn’t know that when the picture was released and those words fell from my mouth.
And that’s where the story idea for “Time to Move” came from.
What if someone didn’t know what that tower was?
Who would be the kind of person who wouldn’t know what it was?
And why would they be wondering what it was?
This challenge was fun but also daunting. As the story evolved, I chose to let go and enjoy the creative process. I wrote in a point-of-view I wasn’t comfortable with, in a genre I know next-to-nothing about, and found it liberating. I can’t say I did it perfectly, but I enjoyed the research and joy that comes with trying something new. I hope you enjoy this short story (around 2000 words), and the little discussion that comes after about writing with psychological theories in mind.
Time to Move
“What the hell is that?” Dylan’s dirty hand pointed across the plain to the defiant white structure in the fields. He closed one eye and sized it up, moving his fingers as if he could pinch it. Zack held his hand up to his face, shielding it from the sun and squinted in focus. The burn on his face from the flamethrower was almost healed, and he’d found a way to wear his hat to keep it protected from the sun.
“I thought you knew about country stuff,”
“I know ‘some’ okay – some,”
Zack strode down the embankment that fell into the plain, gliding when the hard balls of dirt under his boots gave way. Dylan followed, rolling on some smaller rocks and landed heavily on the pillow of stolen protein bars in his backpack.
“Bear Grylls made this survival sh!t look easy. Seriously dude, how much further to your Aunt’s place?”
Zack didn’t turn, he shrugged and kept walking.
Walking. That’s all they’d done, for how many days? Or was it weeks now? It felt like years. It didn’t matter anymore anyway. Nothing mattered. Dylan’s feet were hot – so freaking hot they felt they were on fire. Stupid freaking wool socks, stupid old man boots. The night they’d broken in to the camping store Zack had dragged him away from all the cool GPS stuff and made him find boots and threw socks at him. He sat and watched Zack crawl along the floor and stuff a couple of backpacks with all those sh!tty tasting bars and dried food. The knives – in that moonlight- they were cool.
“Let’s get knives,”
A bang outside made them both hit the floor. Zack made stupid hand signals at him and swam over to him along the floor.
“Have you got your boots?” he spat.
“Look at these cool knives bro,”
Zack’s hand stabbed at his shirt, scrunched and twisted it and held it under his chin. “Get your freaking boots on now,”
“But I like my kicks-”
“What are you, my mother or something?”
Zack released his grip on the shirt and patted Dylan’s chest. “I’ve got the knives. Get boots and socks. Meet me at the back,”
In a flash Dylan remembered his mom talking about the Johnson kid from down the street, some Judo champion or something. Could Zack really karate chop him in half? Now was not the time to find out. Weird how they’d ended up breaking into a camping store, the cool middle-grader and a ninja senior. School, now there’s a distant memory. All those faces, all those bodies. You could swim in the sea of people there. And now he couldn’t remember the last time he saw a face other than Zack’s. Wait, it was at the mall. There was a kid; she had a red bow in her hair, with spots like Minnie Mouse. Then there were explosions and gunfire and screaming and smoke and Zack grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him away as the mall tumbled to the ground. After that there were no people, just shadows and shouts. And dust. So much freaking dust.
Dylan regretted kicking the lump of dirt as soon as he’d wasted energy on it. He watched the dust float away from the clod each time it bounced in the field in front of him. Dust. This dust was clean. It didn’t have a grey memory of once being something bigger, something it should have been – but just wasn’t anymore. Zack trudged ahead in his usual place, about twenty feet in front. The white thing loomed in the distance and Dylan decided it looked like a metal spider on tip toes, like the ground was too hot and it wanted to be anywhere else but a field somewhere near – what did the last sign say?- Frail. Stupid name for a town.
“What do you think it is?” he called to Zack.
Zack didn’t turn but his voice carried itself back to him on the breeze, otherwise he wouldn’t have heard his simple reply, “Dunno,”
“For someone that’s meant to be smart, you don’t know much do you?” Zack didn’t respond. “Do you think it’s one of them?”
“One of what?”
“The aliens – or maybe it’s like their base or something,”
Zack’s shoulders dropped and even without seeing it, Dylan knew Zack had pulled that face. The one where his eyes closed but the muscles on his neck tensed and you could tell he was clenching his jaw. Zack’s walk slowed, and Dylan shut up and kept a safe distance between them. After a while Zack exhaled and called over his shoulder.
“It’s not an alien base, nothing to do with them.”
The hat balancing sideways on Zack’s head nodded. “Legit,”
Zack was the first to step into its short shadow. He stared up at the white spider, hands on hips and one eye closed against the sun. Dylan discarded his backpack at Zack’s feet, ran toward its legs and clamped his hands around the painted steel. When Zack joined him and tapped on the legs, they listened to its hollowness but didn’t speak. Peeling paint curled to the sky and crunched under their hands and they compared the coolness of the shaded side to the heat soaked legs exposed to the sun. Their hands moved all over the structure and when they pushed it, and it refused to move, they laughed. Dylan tried to climb it using the narrow cross beams while Zack stepped back to stare up at its height again.
“It’s a water tower. But no help to us now, ‘cause the pumps need pow-,”
Dylan stopped climbing. “The pumps need what?”
“… Probably needs maintenance,” Zack spotted a metal tag with a date stamped on it, “See, overdue for a check,”
“So someone’s on their way,”
“It’d be really cool if you actually knew something y’know,” Dylan jumped from his perch. “I’m gonna wait for the maintenance guy,” He kicked his backpack along the ground for a stretch before he picked it up and headed to a small grove of trees a farmer had planted around a pile of rocks. He threw his backpack into the shade and when he was close enough, fell face first onto it. All he could smell were those bloody protein bars. When he turned his head for fresh air, the grass still grew, still swayed in the breeze for as far as he could see – as if he and Zack weren’t even there, as if they didn’t even exist.
Zack slept through the first stillness of morning and woke only when his space blanket rustled in the breeze, lifting up and down with the sweep of each passing draft. He grabbed and pulled at it, his sleepy state convincing him it would act like a blanket, but it crunched to nothingness under his hand before flapping alongside his body. He resisted his body’s urge to turn over. It wouldn’t be long before he could expose his burn to something more solid than air, but it wouldn’t be today. He propped on his elbow and looked out across the plains. Little mounds of distant mountain ranges looked like the decorative edge of the silver platter his grandma used to bring him his breakfast, and his stomach growled right on cue. Within arm’s reach, Dylan had somehow presented this morning’s breakfast; a squished protein bar laid out on a rounded leaf and then disappeared. Zack’s teeth tore at the packaging, and he peeled back the wrapper that promised ‘real caramel flavour’. Little pieces of the chocolate coating bounced free, victims of Dylan’s tender care. The corner of his mouth turned into a smile; even protein bars only become palatable when they pretend to be something they’re not. With each chew he reminded himself to be thankful, there were worse places to be than here, resting and watching Dylan do whatever it was he was doing at the base of the water tower. What was he doing anyway? Zack sat crossed legged in the shade as Dylan rolled rocks around the field. He carried some like medicine balls, hugged tight to his chest and forcing his back into an arch. Zack winced each time he dropped one, waiting for the scream of rock-versus-foot that didn’t come. What the hell was he doing? Zack exhaled and shook his head, at least he was busy and not asking stupid questions.
Why him? Whiny little sh!t. He just happened to be closest when the mall came down. Zack would have grabbed anyone -helped anyone- because there’s one thing he did know. Any life is worth it. Even one. Even a whiny one with a delicate mental state. Dylan said his dad was an engineer; would that help them later? Who knows? Maybe it was fate. All around him the grass bent and swayed and fate suddenly became as solid as that steel water tower.
Zack tried again last night. This time he tried gentle logic, explaining to Dylan that aliens would bring their own weapons. They wouldn’t use guns and flame throwers and bomb the sh!t out of your neighbourhood, but Dylan’s eyes glazed over and he didn’t hear.
“You wouldn’t let me go home to save my mom,” Dylan pointed a finger at Zack. “You chased me all the way to my house,”
“No. You, – it wasn’t safe,”
“You don’t know sh!t. There was an alien in my house. You saw it!”
“Yes, I saw-”
“There was an alien in there, all red and screaming, it didn’t even have skin, you could see its muscles remember, and those crazy eyes? We could kill it! Why didn’t we grab knives then? Why’d you drag me away?”
“Because there was nothing we-”
“Because you’re an a$shole that’s why! My mom was waiting for me and that alien probably ate her or something,”
“Dylan you need to-”
“You don’t know sh!t remember?” Dylan bobbed his head from side to side and performed his impression of Zack. “I dunno. I dunno. I dunno,” before he trembled into a heap and gasped for air. Zack moved to calm him before the wailing began. When Dylan’s breathing was steady again, Zack brushed the ground around him free of stones and twigs, laid him down and tucked a space blanket around him.
Whatever Dylan was doing at the water tower completely absorbed him. Zack watched and tried to remember anything from his science classes that might help Dylan’s frame of mind. The only phrase that kept coming to mind was ‘Ignorance is bliss’. How he wished he had some of that bliss right about now. He fell into his own daydreams of green yards and backyard grills on summer afternoons, but even they weren’t real anymore. It was like watching a movie someone else had made.
“I’ve made something for you,”
Dylan’s voice snapped Zack to the present. “For me?” He looked up at Dylan but could only see the silhouette of his head nodding in front of the sun before it beckoned him to follow to the water tower. Zack stood and wiped grass and twigs from the back of his jeans as he approached the white spider,and noticed the rocks Dylan had moved formed some sort of sacred circle around it.
“Yeah, it’s ’cause you don’t know anything,” Dylan spoke to the ground at first, then looked to Zack, “So I made this for you, so at least you’ll know ‘one’ thing,”
“Um, and what’s that?” Zack was unsure whether this whole thing was some bizarre joke.
“The time! Look-” Dylan swept his hand at the sacred circle, “I made you a sundial,”
Zack smiled at the scene before him, the white water tower and its circle of stones that had performed a magic trick and made something solid from nothing.
Dylan returned his smile, “It’ll be like that thing in England,”
“What thing in England?”
“You know the rocks,”
“People will know we were here. They’ll really know. My mom will know I was here,”
“Yeah but I don’t think Stonehenge was a-,” A burst of smoke appeared on the distant ridge behind Dylan. The sound wave was barely discernible on the wind but Zack couldn’t deny what was coming. “Hey Dylan, thanks buddy, that was so cool,” Zack patted him on the shoulder and tried to remember what his dad used to say to encourage him. He steered Dylan back to the trees and packed the backpacks. “You’re right y’know – now I know what time it is,”
“What time is it then?”
“Time to move.”
I asked five readers to tell me what they thought Dylan and Zack looked like.
Given I’d only hinted at their ages with school levels, and provided the barest physical details, (Dylan was dirty, they both wore boots, and Zack had a burn on his face and wore jeans/hat), it intrigued me to hear how the characters developed in their minds. No doubt you have your own visions of how these guys looked, just as I do.
The descriptions varied widely, some envisioned Zack with dark hair, moody with an ’emo’ type attitude, yet others saw him with blond curls, an all American sporty type. The descriptions of Dylan varied from tubby in a striped tee shirt to tall and lanky with glasses. This is a basic example of a psychological theory called the gestalt principle. This principle explains that our brains need things to be in order and make sense to us, and if the details aren’t forthcoming, our brains panic and we make our own.
Check out these pictures of partly drawn circles and squares.
These are actually just lines on a screen, but we KNOW these are a half drawn shapes because our brains have already continued the lines to make them complete.
The world is still okay.
This what puts the fun and creativity in our reading. We like to be autonomous, we don’t want the author to tell us everything, we want to guess, we want to dream, we want to live with the characters and that’s how they become our own, part of us. We know them because we helped create them in our minds.
Contrast that with a writer who. Tells. You. Everything.
From what colour the carpet is, to the length of the fringe that surrounds the green and yellow tapestry cushions on the beige microfibre couch. It’s as if the writer doesn’t trust us to form our own pictures, that they don’t trust us to ‘get their scene’. Remember it’s our imagination as readers that works with the writer to create spectacular worlds and breathtaking scenes.
Physical descriptions help to create that world of course, and there’s a fine balance between what is described, implied and hinted at, and what is left purely for the reader to decide. In this story, it didn’t matter whether the boys had dark or light hair, and we all enjoyed the mental process of ‘creating’ them ourselves. At other times, a writer might use a description of dark hair to subtlety describe heritage, and a woman’s hair in a tight bun might be a nod to her personality or profession.
Whether a description tells us directly, or gently hints at something, it always offers an invitation to imagine, and enter another world.