Altering America

Had enough, at least for now, of “writerly” writing that self-consciously struggles to be glib/cute/witty?  Oh…and by the way…feeling the first little nips of winter tugging at your getting-a-bit-cold-now toes?

Click here:  Altered America; Steampunk Stories by Cat Rambo

Then either prop those tootsies up in front of the fire or at least cuddle them up under a snugly warm throw.  Relax.  Let Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominee Cat Rambo draw you gently into a melodically shifting kaleidoscope of steampunked faerie tales with teeny, miniature gears.

A delightfully imaginative retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”  Different worlds told of with convincingly different voices.  A dilapidated house, one side of which “drooped like the face of a stroke victim.”  Wisteria “in frothy purple drifts.”  A land of “folds and wrinkles.”

Contraptions abound, “each more cunning than the last.”  But perhaps, however hard to choose, the first story, “Clockwork Faeries,” has stayed with me the longest.  As a writer myself, I was quite impressed with a story in which the sole viewpoint character…utterly oblivious to his own chauvinism and yet (very real life, these apparently illogical inconsistencies) perfectly comfortable with racial diversity…so effectively communicates the errors of his ways (that he himself doesn’t see) to the reader.

Stories in which things that should always have been accepted as perfectly natural are presented as perfectly natural are wonderful and necessary.  For instance, new-SFWA-member Eneasz Brodski’s masterful “Of All Possible Worlds” stands up to Voltaire with a completely convincing character whose homosexuality is presented, as it should be, as being a perfectly natural thing that no one questions.  On the other hand, if all stories that deal with recently taboo situations treat it this way, is it possible that it becomes a bit like preaching to the choir?  Are some opportunities to alter America lost since those who might benefit most by having their horizons expanded won’t read beyond the first page?  Perhaps something can be accomplished by telling stories that explore characters with opposing points of view.

And no, I didn’t make a mistake when I entitled this post “altering” instead of “altered” America.  Because “altering” is just what I think a book like Cat Rambo’s can do.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 42

Jennifer knew she was finally becoming reasonable again when she saw her threats about calling the cops had worked on that disgusting “homeless” man. He had leaned forward to open his door wide enough to let her into his home.

Jennifer marched in, the “homeless” man darting glances sideways as he backed farther into his home. At last Jennifer would get her phone back from the homeless woman she’d just heard scream! And stop thinking about that stupid other man who’d given her the “homeless” man’s address. Even though he had the most gorgeous blonde hair, green eyes…

Oh no! She must be imagining things! She thought she caught a flash of that gorgeous blonde hair in her peripheral vision.

“How could I have?” It was the “homeless” man. What was he talking about? He was looking at the place, now behind Jennifer as she stomped farther into the house, where she thought she’d seen the other man with the green eyes. But of course there was no one there.

“Jennifer!” It was the homeless woman. Holding a dead cat that was covered with, and even dripping, blood. Apparently crying over it. “Jennifer,” she cried out rather shrilly, though her voice was still beautiful. “Leave this place! It’s not safe for anyone here! Run!” Of course she wanted Jennifer to leave…so she could keep Jennifer’s phone. People were so unreasonable.

Jennifer pushed even farther into the house and marched over to the homeless woman. But the homeless woman suddenly looked behind Jennifer.

Something Jennifer didn’t understand…but that somehow set the hairs on the back of her neck on end…happened behind Jennifer. She tried to make sense of it…a huge displacement of air, maybe?…as she turned around. Oddly, she found her hand wrapping around the broken stiletto heel in her pocket. But before she could turn all the way around, a hand caught her mouth, and she smelled something very strange.

Suddenly she found herself in a dream. Or was it a memory? No, this had never really happened, had it? She had a sister, and that was impossible because she’d always been an only child. And if the homeless woman had the most beautiful voice Jennifer had ever heard, this non-existent sister had the ugliest voice Jennifer had ever heard. She’d just come storming into Jennifer’s bedroom, yelling at the top of her lungs about how she would never, ever allow Jennifer to have anything…and no one else would either. Then she grabbed Jennifer’s very best baby doll right out of her hands and started ripping it to shreds. Jennifer heard herself pleading, “Please, Judy! Not her hair. Not her eyes!” Judy laughed as she gouged an eye out…and ate it.

Jennifer screamed and screamed and screamed until she was sure she couldn’t possibly scream any more. And then she screamed some more.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 41

The Storage Space would have held its breath, if only a building could breathe to begin with.  If only Karen could…or would…breathe.

Ah!  There it was!  A little snippet of a breath to be sure, but a breath nonetheless.

But then there was nothing.  For a long time.  And that appalling…color.

Shakespeare…  The Storage Space could hear it, too.  Exquisite.  Melodic.  Seductive.  And drawing Karen closer and closer to death.

The Storage Space tried to force itself to accept the inevitable.  Yes, this one had been nice to it.  Yes, this was the only one who had ever had the common civility, the even most rudimentary sense of social niceties, to speak to it, even if it was a building.  The Storage Space would have bucked itself up if only a building…  If only a building…

That was it!  That was the key!  All this time!  Centuries!  The Storage Space, even back when it referred to itself as Le Grand Theatre, had always been apologetic…deferential…because it was only a building!  But did buildings stain the woodwork with centuries of cigar smoke?  Pound the originally exquisite carpet with boots encrusted with horse manure?  Brush it threadbare with yard upon yard of skirts and petticoats?  Park the pocket knives used to clean perpetually filthy fingernails by stabbing their blades into elegant carvings everywhere?  Or stab them into each other?  Repeatedly?  Until…dead, or maybe not even dead, yet…they had to be hidden, left in little nooks and crannies everywhere to rot?  All supposedly justified by some offense or other?

The Storage Space had suffered many, many offenses over its countless years.  That…”building”…constructed next to it when the ancient tea room was torn down, to name just one.  It had smashed all seven of its deplorably tasteless floors right up against the most elegant side of Le Grand Theatre, crushing exquisite carvings and darkening its windows like death.

“Oh, no!”

“Oh, no” indeed!  But none of this was done by the other building!  It was all done by those horrible, miserable creatures not worth being apologetic about not being or even remotely deferential to!  And certainly not worth mourning!  And Le Grand Theatre, even in the face of this affront, had never risen a hand to its neighboring building.  So it wasn’t “if only a building could raise a hand; if only a building had a hand to raise.”  It was, thank all that is truly holy that no building ever raised a hand to another building.

“All true, except for one thing…”

The Storage Space would have sighed in exasperation if only a building…

“Who built you?  Who gave you life?”

The Storage Space brought itself fully out of its reverie and found, to its horror, that it was confronting a version of this Karen that was flickering slowly between the live version and a green mist.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 40

“Honey, you’ve got it baa-aad!”

Sam, tailing the twitchy little barefoot bitch, coulda’ puked when the woman in a wheelchair told her that.  He knew what he was looking at.  He’d known since he was a teen that anyone who didn’t react that way to him really wasn’t interested in his sex.  He wouldn’t mind banging her, if he could just cover those thin, twitchy lips with the proverbial paper bag, but she was fucking up government business with all this dawdling.

Oblivious to everything, including the fact that the love of her life wasn’t more than ten feet away, she had now stopped to…oh fuck, what a cliché!…smell the roses.  Sam rolled the beautiful green eyes with which he’d broken a million hearts.  Sure, he could take Alex on without resorting to using this idiot as a distraction.  Sam knew how good he was.  But Sam had also seen more than enough special ops to know the one thing even a consummate martial artist such as himself was no match for:  complete unmitigated insanity.  Sam had done his homework on Alex; he knew what he was dealing with.

Finally, finally, Ms. Twitch approached Alex’ front door…just as a rather hideous female scream could be heard.

So much for the homeless woman…

Ms. Twitch, obviously oblivious to another person’s agony…and her own bare feet…straightened her clothes.  She looked puzzled when she fished a broken stiletto heel out of one pocket, then shrugged and crammed it back in her pocket.

Not a bad weapon, thought Sam.  And you’re going to need it.

Ms. Twitch rang the doorbell.

I would have waited till the screaming stopped, thought Sam.  But then he prepared himself, positioning himself to dart inside when Alex let the seemingly harmless Ms. Twitch in.

The silence that followed the doorbell ringing was…ghastly.  Ms. Twitch, predictably, stamped her feet and rang it again.  Sam amused himself with visions of Bela Lugosi in some ancient Dracula flick answering.

Alex creaked the door open a sliver.  Not enough yet for Sam’s purposes.

Ms. Twitch started right in:  “That stupid homeless woman you kidnapped…and don’t tell me otherwise because I just heard her scream…stole my phone.  If you don’t give it back to me right now, I’m going to call the cops right this second!”

Sam could tell from Alex’ face that they were both wondering with what phone she planned to call the cops “right this second.”  But Ms. Twitch hadn’t exactly whispered her demand.  Sam couldn’t imagine Alex choosing to continue this conversation out in the open, so he braced himself for what he assumed would follow.

Alex opened the door wide.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 39

Karen came to with a start.  She could feel Irwin’s arms tighten around her.  Somewhere in her mind the thought came that the building would have screamed at the top of its lungs in only a building could scream.  Irwin, who was lying next to her smoking a cigarette, jerked her even closer…and rumbled her hair as if she were a kid.

His voice was…soft.  “You know, your hair’s the exact same color as that puppy I found out back when I was a kid.  I had so much fun with that puppy…”  He went on; Karen was not surprised to learn that that puppy didn’t live long.  Then she started, slowly, to remember all the experiences with Irwin that she and that puppy had in common.

“Do not think of such things!”  It was the Storage Space, her imaginary playmate, but who was she to question hearing voices at a time like this?  “I would torture Le Grand Rat to death slowly, very slowly, if only a building could…”  It went on.  Briefly, Karen distracted herself from the horror of her situation by wondering how her subconscious came by such extensive knowledge of the 19th century.  Then, while both her companions indulged in their respective sentimentality…the real one about all the animals he’d tortured, the imaginary one about tales of 19th-century theatre that it thought would distract her…Karen took inventory of her new wounds.

Irwin broke off to rumple her hair again.  “Hungry?  Thirsty?”  He sounded like a kid with a guest sleeping over.

Karen suppressed a shudder.  “Kind of hungry,” she managed in a little-kid voice.

“Gotcha covered!  Back in a jiff!”  Irwin scooted out of Karen’s storage unit like a boy scout out of a pup tent, clattered down the hall and was gone.

Karen bolted for the hall in the opposite direction, half falling out of her storage unit before she realized, for the second time since she’d taken up residence in her storage unit, that she didn’t have the strength to go far.  But this time even her imaginary playmate, the building, started replaying the horror of what Irwin had done to her, which succeeded in releasing enough adrenalin to get her halfway down the hall before she passed out again.

She immediately fell into a dark dream filled with a hatred for Irwin that was like no hatred she had ever felt before.  Then, once again, despite Frank’s appearance in her dream to protest, she saw the light and moved toward it this time.  That voice again, that had gone on so about a summer’s day…  As she drew closer she could hear it clearly:

“Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate,’
To me that languish’d for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.'”

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 38

Martin stood beside the front door he’d just opened, gazing at an undulating sea of blue uniforms.

Someone screamed, “Bloody!  Fucking!  Bitch!”

Ever so slowly, while this latest shock ate at him like a fast-acting acid, Martin realized he was the one who had screamed.

The closest cop said something just as Martin felt something in his mind so odd it felt physical.  It was as if a tectonic plate had shifted, slithering insidiously into some new position.  What had the cop said?  He couldn’t hear over the terrible ringing in his ears.  All he could do was seethe at the thought of that bloody, fucking Jennifer turning the tables on him and wonder what that grinding sound was…until he realized it was his teeth.

The closest cop said something Martin couldn’t understand again.  Could his terror and so much nightmare-interrupted sleep prevent him from understanding what was presumably English?

Another cop spoke loudly and very slowly.

“What?” Martin snapped.  ID.  They probably wanted his ID.  Martin looked down as he fished it out of his pocket and saw the floor beneath him was undulating just like all those blue uniforms.  Were those huge ants starting to crawl up his legs?  Or just shadows undulating like the cops and the floor?

Martin looked up and squinted, hoping it would help him to see straight, and for just a moment he was sure he detected something odd about their uniforms.  Meanwhile the cop who’d taken his ID shook his head and handed it back quickly.  Martin thought he heard someone laugh.  Then the first cop started in on what was obviously a canned speech of some sort, though Martin still couldn’t understand him.  Probably reading him his rights.

Suddenly the ringing in his ears climaxed and it wasn’t Jennifer he was seething over; it was himself.  How knackered was he to think for a moment that she wouldn’t obnoxious her way out of anything, including a murder rap?  Would picking up her dry cleaning and getting it up for her till he’d had the time to work out a viable way to get rid of her…or just discovered what was on her phone, damn it all to hell!…really have been so bad?

Gutted, he was completely bloody gutted!  The cop even said something Martin actually picked up vaguely about blessing his soul.  Then he shoved some papers in Martin’s face.

“It was self defense!  If I hadn’t killed him, Frank would have killed me!”  Martin wiped the foam from the corners of his mouth.

The undulating sea of blue uniforms undulated even faster, then seemed to get sparse and start to disappear.

And they were gone.  Martin glanced at the papers.  Subpoena?  Looked like bible quotes and a big-ass old cross at the top.

No matter.  Martin wasn’t taking any chances.  He grabbed a few things, tripped over the pink monster undulating its way across his vintage atomic-inspired rug, and ran out his back door.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 37

Jennifer knew she should feel ecstatic.  She had been so, so lucky to get the address of the “homeless man.”  What could be more important than retrieving her phone from the homeless woman who had stolen it from Jennifer…before herself being stolen and carried off by the “homeless man” with a snazzy Brooklyn address that included no apartment number?

Instead, Jennifer felt hungry in some weird way she didn’t understand at all.  Also, she felt all fidgety.  She kept thinking about blonde hair, chiseled cheekbones, and piercing green eyes.  Instead of being ecstatic over getting the address she needed so, so badly from that weird man, all she could do was pointlessly think, over and over again, about that weird man. Ridiculous.  She was being so unreasonable.

She started off toward the address he’d given her again.  The birds overhead interrupted this time, singing more beautifully than they ever had in her whole life.  Next thing she knew, she was leaning her cheek up against a tree, oddly aware of how the sun warmed it.  Ridiculous.  Utterly ridiculous.

A small, laughing child ran down the sidewalk stepping on Jennifer’s toe and reminding her that she was now barefoot.  So unreasonable.  So why was she laughing along with the child?

Why wasn’t she crying instead for those expensive shoes she’d lost?

What was that…song of some kind?…going through her mind?

Whose laughter was that?

Jennifer spun around.  Behind her was a woman in a wheelchair.  What the hell did she have to laugh about?  But there she was, bent over her withered legs because she was laughing so hard.  Finally she looked up at Jennifer.  “Honey, you’ve got it baa-aad!”

Jennifer had no idea what she was talking about.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 36

The Storage Space would have wept copiously, if only a building could have shed as much as a single tear.  To see what was happening to the only human being with whom the poor, long-suffering Storage Space had ever been able to communicate!

It wasn’t just what was happening but how.  The Storage Space had witnessed people having carnal relations before, but this…  The Storage Space wasn’t at all sure Karen would even survive what Irwin was doing to her.

Of course the one the Storage Space didn’t like to think about was on hand…a swirling green mist of hysteria and Shakespearean profanities…but Irwin was far too intent on what he was doing to even notice when that mist managed to make his attack on Irwin physical.

Finally the screaming stopped when she passed out.

Of course that didn’t stop Le Grand Rat from continuing with his wretched business.

“Are you there?”

The Storage Space would have jumped, if only a building could…

“I know your talking to me is only in my imagination, but I’ve never needed anyone more…even if it isn’t real.”

The Storage Space could tell she wasn’t talking aloud.  Blood and other things were seeping out of her thankfully slack mouth.  Her eyes, thankfully, were still closed, her body limp.  That horrid, wretched Irwin was still having his way with her.

“Please, I’m begging you, describe something…anything…to me that’s…beautiful.”

The Storage Space was…for the first time in an existence that spanned centuries…speechless.  No one had ever before communicated, let alone made a request.  The Storage Space was so used to wandering at will through whatever thoughts came to mind that the idea of specifically directed thought was incomprehensible.

“Please…”

The Storage Space watched what Irwin was doing to her, then couldn’t bear to watch.  It would have cleared its throat if only a building could…  If only a building had a throat to…  “A long time ago when I was the grandest of theatres, there was a woman like you who felt deeply.  She was so beautiful that the sun…like a well-trained spotlight…came out from behind the darkest clouds to shine on her whenever she stepped outdoors.  She was so sweet the sweetest sweets were sour in comparison to a single word she spoke or her pure, radiant smile.  But I’m no good at this!  And Charlotte went abroad…Switzerland I gather…then made the mistake of returning only to be brutally…to be brutally…  Well, never mind!  Especially just now!  Let’s just leave it by saying that the poor, long-suffering Charlotte is long gone.”

“But she was, and she was beautiful.  Everything passes; the point is that it was.  Which is all we have to cling to.  You’re doing fine.”

The Storage Space could feel Karen’s anguish threatening to break through a wall she’d constructed, which consisted solely of her…not too inaccurately…imagining Charlotte.

She was begging now.  “Please, please, please, please continue.”

The Storage Space forced itself to remember fully now, images cascading through its consciousness:  Charlotte scampering about the stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Charlotte on that frighteningly fragile balcony as Juliet.  Until it finally saw Charlotte as the oh-so-tragically-lost Ophelia, and the cascade slowed abruptly to a slither of memories that crawled over every inch of its wood grain like rivulets of tears:  Charlotte in love.

A second Ophelia.

Why had the Storage Space started to describe her to Karen, when it could only lead, in time, to having to describe, and fully remember, him.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 35

Amelia’s eyes were closed, but flickerings of soft, warm light played across her eyelids.  Fragrant wood smoke wove its way through the scents of a deliciously savory stew and fresh-baked bread.  She could hear the fire crackling.

Something furry warmed her cheek.  Amelia nuzzled her face into it, and it started to purr.

Homeless Heaven.  She must be dreaming; she didn’t dare open her eyes.  Instead she listened to the fire crackle.

What had her mother told her about the nunnery she grew up in in Switzerland?  Always a crackling fire in her room, a huge “elderdown” on her bed.  Amelia felt the slight weight of something similar, which smelled faintly of clean, lemon-scented laundry.

Suddenly a soft strain of piano music.  Not a recording.  Debussy.  But even softer and dreamier than the original.  And just then, when Amelia was the surest that it must all be a delicious dream, and she was really dead, a huge tongue licked her face.

“Q!”

Amelia’s eyes snapped open.

A Rottweiler…so big it looked like it could have swallowed her in a single gulp…cowered in front of her, darting its nervous eyes between her and the man at the piano.  Vaguely it all came back to Amelia:  This man had carried her home.  And something about a bird…

“Q, I already tended all her wounds!”

Amelia took a peek under the duvet.  It was true.  Not only were all her injuries neatly dressed but she was cleaner than she’d been since she became homeless.  All of her.  And she was dressed in nothing but an immaculate, white terry cloth bathrobe.  She wasn’t sure what sent the slight shudder up her spine, the fact that she’d managed to sleep through all this or thankfulness that she was no longer young.

He left the piano, appearing at her side to offer a brandy snifter with what smelled like a first-rate cognac.  The Rottweiler Q, still seeking reassurance, whined and attempted to settle for licking a bandage covering an injury on her hand…until the man’s look sent the dog scurrying off to a corner near the fire.

The cognac slipped down Amelia’s throat like satin.  The man served her some stew from a silver food warmer.

Amelia found her voice.  “Thank you so very much.  For everything.  Your kindness…”  She couldn’t find adequate words to finish her sentence.

He silenced her with a gesture.  But even in a room only lit by firelight, she could see the flush of pleasure and suppressed smile in response to her few words.  He adjusted the pillows behind her, which set the cat to purring again, and then sat on the floor at her side.

Amelia tasted the stew.  “Delicious!”

Again, he failed to completely suppress a smile that bordered on the smug.  But then his expression turned quite serious and troubled.  “Oh Lady of the Melodious Voice, can I tell you something?”

“Of course!” she responded immediately, anxious to repay his kindness by listening to his woes if she could.

“At the same exact moment that I learned that my dearest friend is dead, I also learned that I betrayed him by believing he had betrayed me when, in fact, he hadn’t at all.”  He looked beseechingly at Amelia.

Amelia knew she must have looked confused.

“You need to understand that we’re in business together.  A…client…owes us a very large sum of money.  I thought my friend had gone to his garden apartment to collect it without telling me because he was going to keep all the money for himself.”  He choked up, burying his head in his hands.  “How could I?”

Amelia sat up and put a hand on his shoulder.

“How could I?” he repeated.  “How could I think such a thing?  You see I got worried that night, when I couldn’t reach him, and tracked him.  That’s how I found out he’d gone to the apartment of this guy who owes us a fortune.  That’s why I thought…”  He trailed off, in obvious agony.

Amelia squeezed his shoulder.

“How could I?  I even went to where this guy that owes us money works, gunning for my friend.  But when I finally found my friend dead, I knew the truth.”

Amelia put an arm around him.  “Which was?” she queried softly.

He took her hand, squeezing it feverishly, having apparently forgotten about her injuries.  “Which was that the reason my friend must have gone to collect that money alone was because he knew of the danger I did not…the danger that ended his life.”

Amelia squeezed his hand.

“But I found something else in the trash that night, too.”  His sudden grin was so remarkably evil that Amelia snatched her hand back with a shudder.  It was then that she spotted the little box he’d shown her, before she’d gone to sleep, and remembered about the dead bird.

Tales of the Storage Space, Part 34

Karen literally quaked.  That rodent Irwin had discovered she was all but naked in her storage unit.  Her just deserts for wiling away the time till she was strong enough to leave by imagining a conversation with a building.

She’d spoken aloud.  To a building.  Idiot, she reprimanded herself… although she imagined the building unleashing a whole torrent of formal Edwardian English, protesting that she was still too weak to know what she was doing.

Irwin hadn’t yet spoken or moved or taken his eyes off her breasts.

San Francisco…  Again she imagined seeing it from Frank’s apartment across the bay in Sausalito.  But…where were the tall buildings?  Why was she thinking about mud and Jack London?

Karen tried to shake herself out of what must have been some kind of dream state, so she could deal with Irwin.

Irwin’s eyes, as they moved to compensate for the motion of her breasts, widened.  He took in a deep breath then exhaled, flooding the tiny storage unit with the stench of rancid oil and cheap cigars.

Karen imagined the building wanting to shudder.  She wanted to shudder.  After all she’d been through, all the sorrow and terror and pain?  She’d thought she’d never again have the energy for rage.  Yet…oddly…insanely…it was some sleaze staring at her breasts that finally brought a blind fury gushing up from she didn’t know where.  “Get away from me, you ugly rodent!”  Had she actually managed to scream?

Was she still imagining the building was sentient and that it was laughing at Irwin?

But the moment the words left her mouth, she regretted each and every one.  She needed Irwin’s help.  To survive!  Now it was too late.  She braced herself as best she could for all possible reactions except the one she got.

First he looked stunned, then fitful tears erupted, and then he pouted.  Finally…not in his usual slimy/oily voice but sounding like an irate toddler…he snapped, “I am not a rodent!”

Where did that come from?  Karen saw a ray of hope in the ancient hurt she must have channeled.  “No, no,” she crooned.  “How could I have even entertained such a thought?”

Too effective.  His leer was back.  “Way you shook them titties at me?  I know what you want.”  He grabbed her, clapping a hand over her mouth so roughly she bled.  “And screaming at me like that?  I know how you deserve to get it.”