Muse

Welcome to the last of twelve!  It’s been an undertaking, that’s for sure.  If you don’t know, my New Year’s resolution for the year was to write one short story each month, posting them to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month.  But enough self-indulgent nonsense, let’s get right into it.  I present to you, my final short story for the year, “Muse”.

 

Do not ask where he comes from, for he does not know.

Do not ask what he is, for he cannot tell you.

Do not ask his name, for he is Nameless.

He only knows two things: he exists, and he is curious. This curiosity drives him, completely and utterly.

For an incomprehensible amount of time, all The Nameless One knew was the void: a pitch blackness dotted with tiny specks of light. He floated through it aimlessly, no sense of purpose or direction. Then, at some point, he found himself drawn to one of those sources of light. He found a series of rocks, all of different shapes, sizes and colors, that orbited this light. One in particular, a bejeweled rock that glittered colors he had no name for, drew him in.

And he discovered it was not barren, but full of life.

Beings made of a bright, almost spongy material wandered the world, some so tightly packed together in massive networks of metallic structures that it was a wonder they could function at all. Seeing their form: walking around on two large appendages with two other appendages that were able to bend, contract, and grip objects, was one of the strangest things he could ever fathom.

Nevertheless, after a while of observing, he decided to mimic their form as best he could. He focused until his shape better approximated theirs. The two appendages which carried him around felt strange at first, but gradually he became used to them, although they did not bind him as they did the people he observed. He was free to float through the walls of their structures at will; the bonds of gravity only affected him if he willed it so.

The “humans”, as they called themselves, were unable to see him. If they could, they would describe him as a strange entity made of what looked like wispy blue flame. Two smaller flames, made of a lighter shade of blue, appeared to be his approximation of eyes. Nevertheless, his image was a fairly accurate silhouette of a human.

And so he glided from place to place, observing all he could. He became aware of the human obsession with some thin, fragile material called “money” that featured curious notations indicating an amount. The happiness of a great many humans appeared to revolve around acquiring this material and their society was driven by it. And yet, even those who had an immense amount of it were insatiable and desired more.

Things like this baffled him, for it seemed that for every rule humans came up with, there were contradictions. Out in the void, things followed a very rigid pattern. Lights were born, grew, and then died…some by collapsing into an absolute absence of the light they used to give. Yet, humans fluctuated all the time. Even individual members would change over time. Some of those who insisted on money not being the key to happiness would gradually become consumed by a desire for it. It was as if they died and were reborn as something utterly different from what they once were.

It was as if this inconstancy was an innate feature of the species. It made so little sense to the one who had spent an immeasurable watching the cycle of the universe.

And still, he desired to learn more. He had to learn more.

One day, he was wandering through an area of smaller structures where the humans lived when he heard a sound. It constantly rose and fell in pitch, following a very definable rhythm. He knew the sound. It was from a device they called a “piano”, part of some “music” activity which many of them derived pleasure from.

He couldn’t explain it then, but something about that particular noise called to him, beckoned him closer. And so he did, strolling through the wall of one of the houses. Inside was a large, warm colored room with a wooden floor and wallpaper that lined the sides. One lone light stood hanging from the ceiling which lit up the entire room. A large piece of fabric on wooden pegs and sat in the center, a place where humans tended to relax. More fabric lined the floor in front of it, and a rectangular black screen sat on top of a wooden altar. It was currently devoid of light, although The Nameless One had seen other variations that displayed images.

He found the man seated on a hard, black wooden seat. He was hunched over the keys of a large, glossy black piano. He had medium-length reddish hair and was of slightly above average height for a human. His dark green eyes were securely fastened on the ivory keys, his fingers moving over them with ease. The piece he was playing was repetitive, but…alluring in a way.

He wandered around the piano, watching the man play. It was clear he was a younger human, although not so young as to be considered a “child” in their culture. He seemed as if in a trance, absorbed by the task at hand. It was fascinating to him, as he had yet to see a human like that.

Eventually, he sat down on the bench next to him, watching the man’s fingers flow over the keys as though they were liquid. The ease at which the human operated the piano device was utterly fascinating, as if he had been born with a natural aptitude toward using it. It was as though his very purpose was tied to the piano device.

He watched for a while. Then, he shut out all vision, giving himself over to absolute listening. In this state, he let the purity of the sound flow over him. It was an almost intoxicating sensation, listening to the man play.

But he was abruptly shaken out of it when the piano struck an unintended note. His vision rushed back, and The Nameless One turned to the human. The man was staring down at the keys, his fingers clenching.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself, then picked up a small brown pencil and made some changes on the piece of paper above him. The Nameless One leaned in close to it. The notations were still unknown to him, although he knew they had something to do with the music the man was playing. His best guess was that it was some sort of guide, a set of instructions on how to operate the piano.

The man resumed playing, but struck another bad note. He grumbled again, marking more changes on the sheet.

The scene continued this way for another couple of minutes. The man cursed every time it happened, the growing frustration evident on his features. Eventually, he leaned back and stared forlornly at the keys.

He scoffed.

“Typical. I can’t ever get it right…”

Then, he reached forward and lowered the cover onto the keys. After that, he just sat there staring at his hands.

The Nameless One didn’t want him to stop. He needed him to continue.

Keep playing, he thought, as though the human could hear him.

He reached out, azure fingers of fire encircling the man’s wrist.

Keep playing…

 

Shit,” Daniel Tyner cursed, falling backward and pulling the piano bench with him. The two hit the floor with a loud crash. His head and back throbbed from the impact. He groaned, his legs hanging awkwardly over the fallen bench. Carefully, he swung his legs off and got to his feet. Rubbing the back of his head, he bent over and picked the piano bench up, setting in back in its proper position. As he did, he noticed obvious scuff marks on the wood where it fell.

“Damn it,” he muttered to himself. With a sigh, he let go of the bench and stared at the piano for a moment. He did more of that than he did actual playing these days. He wished he could generate the motivation and desire to play, but it was difficult. And every time he did play, it sounded awful.

What the hell was that anyways, he thought to himself. It was like my wrist caught fire.

He looked out the window. The sun was beginning to set on the cold fall day. Might as well make some supper, he thought, and began walking toward the kitchen.

The light in the living room began to flicker, ever so subtly. Daniel paused and stared at it. But a moment later, it stopped. Probably some random power fluctuation, he thought to himself. Weren’t they working on the line somewhere in the neighborhood? Regardless, he continued making his way through the house.

It wasn’t anything too special. The front door led to an entryway with a staircase leading to the upper floor and a set of doors on either side: one leading to the living room where the piano was, and another leading into the kitchen and dining room area.

Daniel filled a small pot with water and placed it on the black stove, turning the burner on. He reached into the cupboard and pulled out a box of pasta, setting it on the counter nearby. As he waited for the water to boil, he walked into the dining room and sat at the table. He pulled the black laptop that sat nearby closer to him and opened it up, hitting the power button. Once the computer woke from sleep mode, he clicked his way into the web browser and went onto a music sharing site he frequented. Signing into to his profile, he looked to see if any new people had taken a look at his music samples. He clicked into his account page.

For a moment, the computer froze. He tried moving the mouse, but nothing happened. “Come on,” he grumbled, slapping the side of the screen. A moment later, it caught up and loaded the webpage.

The view count on his newest pieces added up to eight, which was the answer he had expected. Daniel sighed, closing the laptop and leaning back in his chair. What was the point of doing any of this if no one ever seemed to notice?

Then quit, a voice in his head said. If you don’t enjoy doing this anymore, then just quit.

But he couldn’t. And he knew he couldn’t. That wasn’t how it worked.

It was something he could never explain to people, even if he tried. There was a constant battle going on inside him. On one side, he knew he played because he had to play. But on the other side, he was afraid to keep going because there was no guarantee it would ever lead anywhere. There was no guarantee that any of it would ever even matter.

Right now, the fearful side was winning. Every time he sat down at the piano, every note he hit seemed to taunt him. Little voices in his head poked and prodded him.

Why are you doing this…

There’s no point to this…

Everybody knows your music sucks…they just don’t have the heart to tell you…

A faint gurgling reached his ears. The pot was ready.

Daniel got up from his seat and went over to the stove, opening the box of pasta and dumping it into the pot. He set a timer and started stirring.

A long time ago, things had been different. Daniel discovered a passion for the piano at a very young age. At twelve, he was playing Beethoven. At fourteen, he was playing Debussy. By the time he graduated high school, he knew them all and played them all. Classical music had always been a source of inspiration for him, and it was only a matter of time before he attempted making his own.

He used to play for his friends when they came over. Every now and then, when they were just sitting around, he would hop on the piano and play a tune. And they liked it. They kept saying he had a natural talent and that he should pursue it.

And he did. Five years of college and what did that get him? A framed piece of paper and thirty thousand dollars of debt.

“Back in my day,” he imagined some old person saying, “I worked a part-time job during the summer to pay for my college tuition. You young people today are just so entitled and lazy”.

Yes, everything was better back in the good ol’ days, he thought with thinly veiled sarcasm. Back then you could vote for politicians who would cripple the economy and not have to take any responsibility for it. Yep…everything was so great back then.

Once he finished making the pasta he dished it up on a plate and grabbed a soda from the fridge. Sitting down at the table, he began to eat. Eventually, his eyes drifted to a cruddy looking cardboard box in the corner of the room.

He remembered.

“Ah crap,” Daniel muttered aloud. Tomorrow Melanie was coming over to pick up some of the things she forgot when she moved out. The two of them had been dating for about a year when they broke up. He didn’t really know why they did.

But it was probably his fault. It usually was.

In any case, he would have to go around and collect the things she left behind. It was simple things: a hairbrush, hair curler, blow dryer…that kind of stuff. He would put it in the box so that she wouldn’t have to stay long. He imagined she would prefer it that way.

When he was done eating he placed his dish in the dishwasher and plopped the soda can in the recycling bin. He took a final look at the empty cardboard box and sighed.

 

Saturday.

He was sitting at the piano when he heard the knocks: three short raps on the front door. With a sigh, Daniel picked himself up off the bench and walked to the door. A brunette woman with long hair and bright blue eyes stood on the front steps as he opened it. The once, soft gaze had been replaced by something akin to hardened steel.

“I’m here for my stuff,” Melanie Watkins said flatly. He stepped aside and motioned her in.

“It’s in the kitchen,” he replied as she walked past him. A moment later she came back, cardboard box in her arms.

She was halfway down the front steps when suddenly she stopped in her tracks. The light breeze blew back her dark brown hair, whipping it about her face. The scene reminded Daniel of what drew him to her in the first place. A moment later, Melanie let out a sigh and put the box down.

“Why do you always do this Daniel,” she asked. When she turned to look at him, there was a genuine expression on her face.

“Do…what,” he asked.

She motioned with her arms.

This,” she emphasized. “This whole…thing. I can tell all you’ve been doing since I left is moping around the house.”

He scoffed.

“I’m not moping,” he said. It was a bad lie, and they both knew it.

“I just…” Melanie paused, looking down at her feet for a second. “I just want you to be happy,” she finished, looking back up at him.

“Well you sure have a hell of a way of showing it,” Daniel shot back before he realized he was saying it. A look of hurt flickered in her eyes for a brief second before it vanished.

“I suppose I deserve that,” she said, glancing at her hands

The brisk fall wind was the only sound for a while…the bright light of the sun hanging high in the sky. The trees had begun to change color: from green to yellow and orange.

“How did this happen,” she asked. “Why did this happen to us?”

“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted.

“I cared about you Daniel…I still care about you. Why couldn’t you just let me in?”

Suddenly, and inexplicably, Daniel saw red.

“Why couldn’t I let you in? I tried letting you in! You just didn’t care,” he fired back, his voice rising.

“That’s not fair,” she insisted.

“Isn’t it?” He pointed to the living room. “I sat you down in front of that piano! I played for you! Don’t make it sound like I made no effort when you know damn well I did.”

“Well maybe I’d be more interested if you didn’t play the same songs all the damn time,” Melanie shot back.

“Those are the songs I grew up with! Those are the songs I love! They help me focus! And how the hell would you know what songs I play Mel, when you barely paid any attention?!”

“Oh that’s rich…blame it all on me.”

“I never said-”

“This is so typical of you Dan. You just keep pushing people away.”

“Because we all know the way to a man’s heart is to take a dump on the things he loves,” Daniel fired back.

Melanie glared at him. This was not going to end well.

 

The Nameless One watched as the two humans flung words back and forth. His time among their race meant that he could understand what they were saying, but it still was difficult untangling their meaning, especially when they were shouting faster and faster. Their voices kept rising in such a discordant way that he wanted nothing more than to leave.

But he couldn’t. Something about this human…the way he cloaked himself in an aura of sadness…compelled him to stay…compelled him to help.

However, at the moment, he wanted to go away. He wanted them to stop.

He just wanted them to stop…

 

“-never think about the things I want to do!”

“Wow that’s not selfish at all.”

“Oh and you’re not selfish?! Jesus Christ Dan, you spend so much goddamn time on that piano that it’s no wonder you can’t keep a girlfriend…you hardly know how to!”

Daniel gave her a harsh look.

“You know what Mel…you really are an uptight bi-”

A sharp pop from behind them cut him off, causing them both to jump.

Jesus,” Melanie cried out. Daniel turned around and saw the shards of glass littering the floor. He looked up and saw that the light bulb in the entryway had spontaneously shattered. Jagged edges of glass and a sad-looking filament was all that remained.

“What the hell did that,” he heard Melanie ask behind him.

“No idea,” he mumbled.

There was a long period of silence where he just stared at the shattered bulb.

“Look I’m…I’m just gonna go,” she said.

“Yeah that’s probably a good idea,” he replied. But he could already hear her retreating footsteps. He turned around and watched as she got into the car and drove off. Well that went about as well as expected, he thought as he closed the door. Going into the kitchen, Daniel dug around in the drawers for a little while before giving up and sighing. No spare bulbs, he thought. Looks like I’m gonna have to go out and get one.

The thought irritated him, because he was hoping to be able to spend the weekend at home and not go anywhere. For a moment, it struck him how stupid it all was…such a minor thing, but it kept getting under his skin.

Once that realization hit, it only made him feel worse. It was a feedback loop with no end…

 

Monday. At least…he figured it was a Monday from his understanding of human time.

The days following his observations of the human known as Daniel greatly perturbed him…perturbed him in a way he never even thought possible. He need time to think.

The light bulb…had he done that? In the moment, he had felt the light. He had felt the heat. He had felt the slithering, snaking charge of electricity running through the walls that gave it power. But at the same time, he just wanted it all to go away.

And it did. The bulb exploded…and silence reigned.

Now he knew he could affect their world. But what could he do with such a power?

He wandered through the nearby city, watching as the humans went about their daily business. But somehow, this time it was of little interest to him. It was of little consequence. All of his thoughts were turned to Daniel. He wanted to help him somehow.

But first…he needed to better understand the phenomenon of music.

When he had first arrived on the planet, music all seemed the same to him. He had observed that humans derived pleasure from it to varying degrees. Some, like Daniel, were compelled to create it. But at the time, he was unable to really differentiate between the different styles. He observed it on a general level, focusing on how the humans interacted with it.

Things were different now.

He watched a television in a place where humans gathered to eat in large numbers. It had initially shown some type of game where the participants carried some kind of oblong shaped object across a field of grass. It was a very violent-looking game, the players slamming into each other in an attempt to retrieve the object for their side.

But there was an intermediary period focused entirely on a display of music.

The singer was a human female, dressed in a revealing black outfit that sparkled like glitter under the intense lighting. The music itself was rapid fire, repetitive beats in a steady rhythm. He had never paid much attention to it before. Music was just music to him…something to be observed and recorded. But now? Now he found he actually disliked this particular variety.

He couldn’t explain why, but as he watched the humans on the screen dance and twist their bodies in seemingly unnatural ways, he found that he had no desire to listen.

A proper human description would be that he found the music, “obnoxious”.

So he stepped out into the bustling streets of the city, feeling a pleasant sensation at being away from the noise. To him, it was as though the music felt…artificial. It seemed obvious it was created for some primary purpose other than the simple act of creation itself. It was clear there was some other motivation driving it, and the creation of the music was of secondary importance.

The form did not matter, it was simply a means to an end.

Even the humans playing stringed instruments on the street corners failed to hold enough appeal to him. He could feel their passion for the creation of music. He could hear it in their voices as they sang. But no matter where he went, nothing had the same effect on him as hearing Daniel play the piano.

It was as though there was some purpose for him, something that called him to Daniel…but he could not ascertain exactly what it was. Nevertheless, he knew what the first step had to be.

He had to reach out and inspire Daniel to keep playing.

 

Tuesday.

The gas station where Daniel worked was nothing particularly special. It was one of those large chain stations that felt the need to have five different locations within the same city. It functioned as a poor man’s grocery store as well, carrying items like milk and butter as well as all the sugary garbage customers could want.

The job was simple: punch in, get behind the counter, fire up the cash register, and wait. Someone comes up, ring up whatever items they grabbed from inside as well as whatever gas they might have, then take their cash or card and send them on their way.

And today was no different. It was clockwork…horrible clockwork.

A couple of hours into his shift, Daniel noticed a woman coming toward the register. She had curly, reddish hair, a fairly plump body, and dull brown eyes. The black cell phone looked like a tumor growing out the side of her head.

She slapped a candy bar and a box of doughnuts onto the counter.

“Any gas ma’am,” he asked as he began scanning the items.

“Pump four,” she said, then immediately returned to her phone conversation. As Daniel rang up the total, he caught a snippet of her conversation.

“-not even out of high school yet and is already thinking of where he’s going to go for college.” She said that last word with such distaste that Daniel imagined she would spit up bile…acidic bile that would burn through straight through the counter. “Says he wants to be a writer. Typical nephew…always with his head in the clouds. I told my brother-in-law that kid should learn a trade, get a real job and contribute to society!”

“That’ll be thirty-three, seventeen,” Daniel told her. “Cash or credit?”

She evidently didn’t hear him.

“I mean he’s a mechanic right? He should take the boy into work with him and show him the ropes. That way he sees what actual work is like and stops with this ‘writing’ nonsense.”

Daniel raised his voice a little.

“Cash or credit ma’am?”

She shot him a look, then pulled her wallet out of her jeans pocket and dropped a credit card on the counter, sliding it across to him. Daniel stared at it blankly for a second, then picked it up and leaned over the counter, sliding it into the credit card machine on the other end. It beeped, letting him know it worked.

“Credit or debit?”

No response. The woman kept blabbing away on her phone. Daniel fought against the urge to groan aloud.

“Credit or debit,” he repeated, making sure to enunciate.

The woman sighed again, then pressed a button on the machine. A moment later she picked up the stylus and signed the screen. Daniel pressed a button to confirm and the receipt began printing out next to the register. He tore it off.

“Would you like your-” he began, but the woman was already halfway out the door.

“-wrong with society these days. Kids are too lazy. They want everything handed to them. I remember when my parents were young they…” Her words faded out as the door shut behind her. Another customer, this time a man, walked up to the register with a bag of candy in his hand and asked for a pack of cigarettes.

As he rang up the items, Daniel’s thoughts turned to the boy the woman was discussing over the phone. Poor kid, he thought. All he wants to do is have a dream. But soon he’ll grow up and realize that the world wants nothing to do with that dream. The world just wants to mold another mindless drone for the workforce. Dreams don’t matter…unless they’re profitable.

Hours passed. The sun had already dipped below the sky when he punched out and exited the station. He got into his car and stared at the steering wheel for a minute. How had it come to this? When did he get so bitter? When did he give up on his dream?

But of course, he knew the answer: when he let it all get to him…when he let it wear him down.

He turned the key in the ignition and the car sputtered to life. Slowly, Daniel pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road, the dim yellow lights of the streetlamps casting shadows across his face as he drove home…

 

Friday. At least it was something different for once.

Daniel had taken the day off of work and decided to head into the countryside. He liked the trees and the open air. There was something about the sounds of nature that had always made him feel at ease.

He made his way to an old train station outside of the city, which was now used as part of a historic train museum. Friday through Sunday, during the summer and fall, a scenic train ride was offered. This was one of the last weekends it was available, and Daniel wanted to take advantage of it. He had ridden it many times before, but it held a particular charm for him. Maybe it was the beauty of nature passing by the window. Maybe it was the nostalgia, the memories of going here when he was a kid. Maybe it was the chance to get a break from the routine.

Or maybe he just wanted to get out of the house. Things had been behaving oddly. Lights would flicker. The TV would randomly turn itself off while he was watching. Even his laptop continued to freeze up from time to time and strange, visual glitches would appear on screen.

He couldn’t explain it, but it unnerved him…like there was a ghost in the house.

In any case, he had bought his ticket the day before so he boarded without much of a wait. The train was made up of three separate rail cars. He picked a seat in the rear car, near the middle. To his pleasant surprise, no one sat next to him. A couple of younger girls, probably around college age, sat in the seats in front of him but he could always just tune them out.

It was only about ten minutes before the train left the station. Daniel watched as the old, metal structure slid away from him, replaced by serene pine trees. The train chugged along slowly, the floor vibrating beneath his feet. There was a pattern to it, a rhythm that he liked.

Daniel closed his eyes, shutting out everything except the sound of the train itself.

Cha-chug…cha-chug…cha-chug

It got faster and faster as the train picked up speed.

Cha-chug cha-chug cha-chug

His fingers drummed against the windowsill of their own accord, mimicking the rhythm of the train. He was focused intently on the pattern, using the train as a makeshift metronome.

Tick tick tick

Cha-chug cha-chug cha-chug

Tick tick tick…

“Hey, can you stop that?”

Daniel’s eyes snapped open. One of the girls sitting in front of him had turned around and was glaring at him.

“Wha…what,” he stammered.

“Stop making that noise! It’s annoying,” she said.

“I…I don’t-” he sputtered. The girl sighed.

“Stop doing that thing with your hands,” she explained.

Daniel glanced at his hand on the windowsill.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

The girl turned around and let out an exasperated sigh.

“Ugh,” she huffed. “Some people right?”

Ashamed, Daniel glanced down at his feet.

Either I’m invisible or I annoy people, he thought. I can’t do anything right…

 

The seat next to Daniel was anything but empty. The Nameless One sat across from him, watching in fascination as he tapped his fingers against the windowsill. He could see the pattern in it, and made the connection to the sound of the train.

“Hey, can you stop that?”

He watched as the human female sitting up in front of them turned around and admonished Daniel. He tried to apologize, but could only utter half-words and incomplete sentences. The girl was clearly frustrated. Eventually, she turned back around in her seat.

“Ugh,” she said aloud. “Some people right?”

Something pulsed within him. It burned, compelled him to do something.

Anger, they called it? He wasn’t sure. Distaste maybe…that was a better word.

He reached out, an wispy hand of azure flame extending forward, encircling the human female’s bright strands of hair…

 

Oww!

There was a brief rustling noise.

“What the hell, why did you do that?!”

Daniel turned to see the girl glaring at him again.

“I’m talking to you, prick! Why did you pull on my hair?!”

He gave her a blank stare.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything.”

“Well there’s no one else back here…what did a ghost pull my hair?”

“Maybe your hair got caught on your seat,” Daniel offered, trying his best to be helpful.

The girl scoffed.

“Stop trying to deny it…I know you pulled my hair you creep!”

“Ma’am?” Daniel turned to see one of the train conductors standing nearby. He was an older man with gray hair and blue eyes, wearing an old-fashioned black uniform. “I’ve been standing here the whole time…and I can tell you for certain that this gentleman did not lay a hand on you.”

“Well then who did?!”

The conductor shrugged.

“Maybe he was right and it got caught in the chair.”

The girl scoffed again.

“This is ridiculous. I can’t believe you’re defending this…this pervert!

The conductor’s eyes hardened.

“Ma’am, from where I’m standing, you’re the only one causing a problem. Now…I can find another seat for you two if you like.”

“That’s fine by me,” the girl said, briskly standing up. She stole a harsh glare at Daniel. “Creepo,” she spat at him.

Just then, the old man’s eyes flared.

“Lady,” he said, dropping the previously friendly tone, “I can throw you and your friend off this train if you like. Is that what you want?”

The girl averted her gaze and let out a huff.

“No,” she muttered eventually.

“Good,” the conductor replied. “Now, I’ll guide you to your new seat. Please…do mind your manners from here on.”

The old man escorted the two into the next train car. Daniel turned his attention back to the window…gazing out at the trees as they whipped past. A moment later, the trees opened up and he could see across a large, clear lake. The blue water sparkled under the sun, as though it had little white crystals of light hiding just beneath the surface.

Daniel had always liked the water. Something about the sound of waves crashing against the shoreline was the epitome of peace…

The rest of the train ride was uneventful. As Daniel disembarked, the incident with the girl kept running itself over and over again in his mind. It wasn’t his fault. He stopped drumming his fingers on the windowsill once she asked him to.

But like always, he’d beat himself up over it for hours to come…

 

Monday.

“Gah…”

With every stroke of the ivory keys, Daniel’s face contorted itself into an expression of pain. The Nameless One had watched this happen for the last few days. And it only seemed to be getting worse.

Ow! God…damn it.”

With a grimace, Daniel rubbed his right hand softly. Then, he tried one more time. He got a little further in the song this time, but the pain seemed to only intensify. Finally, he gave up. With a look somewhere between pain and frustration, Daniel lowered the cover onto the keys.

The Nameless One sat still as Daniel looked down at his hand for a long time. He flexed it for a moment, grimacing as he did so. Then, he stood up and walked away into the kitchen. The defeat and sadness in his gait was evident.

It wasn’t clear what was happening, but even he could tell something was seriously wrong…

 

“Fuck,” Daniel muttered, the pain in his hand making it hard to lift a pot out of the cupboard What the hell, he thought to himself. This has been going on for days now.

He set the pot down on the burner with gritted teeth. Things were not going well. Everyday chores were now almost unbearable with the pain in his hand. Playing the piano was nothing but impossible. Each stroke of the keys felt like a needle piercing his wrist.

Daniel knew he should go to the doctor. Pain like this wasn’t supposed to last for days on end. Something was wrong. He was certain of it.

But what of the bill? He wasn’t sure how much his insurance would actually cover. He had barely ever had to use it. The thought of getting a receipt for hundreds of dollars was terrifying to him. He could barely afford house payments as it was. Originally, he and Melanie were splitting the cost. But that was clearly no longer in the cards.

He could ask his parents for help. They wouldn’t turn him away. They had already basically paid his way through college.

A drain…that’s all he was. A drain on their wallets…

Cooking his meal took nearly twice as long as it should have. Once he was finally sitting at the table and eating, he thought he could relax. But the pain was still there. Even something as little as lifting a fork caused him discomfort.

After a while, he glanced at the cellphone lying on the nearby counter. With a heavy sigh, he stood up from the table. It had to be done…

 

Tuesday.

“There’s no doubt about it, it’s Carpal Tunnel.”

Daniel stared straight ahead at the white wall, a vacant look in his eyes. He could barely even register the words for a moment.

“Are…are you sure,” he asked finally.

“The tests are conclusive Mr. Tyner.”

“But…but how? All I do is play the piano.”

“It’s actually more common than you think,” the doctor explained. The man was of average height with a bald head and thin-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a white lab coat. “Repetitive use of your wrist in a particular way tends to cause the syndrome. Actions like playing the piano, for instance, rely on these heavily repetitive acts. Fortunately, your case is not severe.”

Daniel was silent for a moment.

“How will I play,” he asked.

The doctor shook his head.

“You won’t. You can’t. If you continue attempting to play in this condition, you will only make things worse. We’ll get you fitted with a brace to keep your wrist in the proper position.”

“How long will it last?”

“Well…it varies…but with your symptoms, I would guess a month.”

“A month?”

“At the very least.”

Daniel lowered his head, staring at his hands.

“A whole month,” he mumbled to himself, stunned.

“Don’t fret about it too much,” the doctor said. “With cases like yours, a full recovery is all but certain.”

Daniel barely heard him.

A month…

The words kept spinning around in his head.

A month

A month

A month

At the very least…

“I’ll be right back. And then we’ll get going on that brace, okay?”

“Okay,” Daniel said, his voice nearly a whisper.

Once the doctor was gone, Daniel could only stare at the ground. It was just so perfect. The one thing he enjoyed, the one thing that gave him purpose…and it was gone.

Despite all the frustration, the blocks, and the unfinished songs…playing the piano was, in a lot of ways, the only thing that kept him going. It was the only thing that made him feel like he was worth it. It was the only thing that he really had. He certainly had no other talents. He was terrible at social interaction. His failed relationship with Melanie was proof of that. Playing the piano was the one thing he felt like he was actually good at.

Well…on days when he could pull himself out of his self-imposed misery long enough to do it.

I had a chance, Daniel thought, and all I did was waste my time. With my luck, this shit will end up being permanent.

It felt like an eternity before the doctor finally came back. He left the hospital a half hour later, a white hunk of plaster wrapped over his right wrist. The cold wind chilled his face, hinting at the coming onslaught of winter. That’ll be fun, he thought. Cooped up in the house for months with nothing to do besides watch television. I’m sure looking forward to that.

At least my sarcasm will keep me company…

 

Wednesday. Thursday. Friday.

A whole week went by. Then another.

The Nameless One watched as Daniel woke, went to work, came back and slept. Nothing ever changed. His face was always the same. His routine was always the same.

But even then, there were subtle changes.

For those first few days after the doctor visit, Daniel spent a lot of time sitting in front of the piano, looking at it with a forlorn expression. He could tell Daniel wanted to play, needed to play. But it had been taken from him by something out of his control. Before, it had been his own frustration that was blocking him from progressing with his music. Now, his own hand had turned against him.

And Daniel knew it…that much he could tell. But whatever will had kept him playing even when inspiration seemed thin was gone. He spent most of his time sitting on the couch, watching the television…his vacant, sad eyes lit by bright liquid crystal displays. They were mostly vapid wastes of space…but every once in a while something about music would pop up. That was the only time he saw a reaction in Daniel. And it only hurt him more.

He ate. He slept. He worked. But it was as if the human known as Daniel was fading…being slowly replaced by a husk consumed with routine.

After two weeks, The Nameless One had seen enough. One night, he was standing at Daniel’s bedside, searching for something he could do.

He knew he had power. The light bulb…the girl on the train…he had demonstrated the ability to affect things, even if he couldn’t be seen. He had no way of understanding it, had no others like him that he could turn to. It was like instinct. And now, he was wondering…could he use that same instinct to heal Daniel?

He reached out again, focusing as much as he could. Blue, fiery fingers disappeared through the plaster of Daniel’s cast. And he could see it, the ribbons of muscle and flesh that made up his wrist. He could feel the tightness, the pain.

In one swift motion, he wished it all away…

 

The sharp blaring of the alarm pulled Daniel out of his dreamless sleep. With groggy eyes, he lifted his left hand and slapped the snooze button. Ugh, he thought, seven already? Feels like I barely got any sleep.

But that was common these days. How much time had actually passed since that doctor visit anyways? Weeks? Months? He could barely tell time anymore. Day after day it was the same damn thing. He woke up, took a shower, went to work, came back, ate and slept. Oh, and watched TV. He had watched more TV than he ever wanted to.

Getting out of bed, Daniel wrapped the brace in a plastic bag and made his way into the bathroom. But he didn’t watch where he was going and slammed his bad hand against the door frame.

“Gah,” he yelled aloud. “Fucking hell!”

He paused, gazing down at his wrist. Strange…there was no pain.

Then, a crazy thought occurred to him. He began attempting to flex his wrist. The cast held it firmly in place, but he could feel it shifting slightly. Still no pain…

A moment passed. Then he tore the bag off his hand and dashed for the phone.

 

“I…I’ve never seen anything like this.” The doctor was dumbfounded. “It’s as if the carpal tunnel never existed in the first place.”

“But how,” Daniel asked.

“I honestly can’t say. Maybe your condition wasn’t as severe as I thought and you healed quicker as a result. That would be the most logical conclusion.”

There was something in the doctor’s tone that bothered him.

“But what, doctor? What else is there,” he asked.

“Well…” the doctor began. Then he shook his head. “No…you’d think I was crazy.”

“Try me,” Daniel said.

“It’s like you’ve been…healed. You haven’t gone to any…mystical people or anything like that, have you?”

“…No.”

“I thought not,” the doctor said. “You didn’t strike me as the type who believed in that sort of junk. If you had and it had actually worked, I’d have to start seriously reconsidering my career. But even so…this is something I cannot explain.”

A crazy idea began to take shape in Daniel’s head. There was something that had been bothering him for the last few weeks. Lights had been turning off and on in the house. Electrical things had started acting funny. And then, there was the light bulb exploding. It was like he had a ghost in his house.

A ghost…

Daniel stood up suddenly.

“Are we done here,” he asked hastily.

“I do believe so…just give us a call if you need to make another appointment.”

“Will do,” he replied, already halfway out the door.

 

The front door slowly closed behind him as he stood still in the center of the foyer. There was nothing but silence.

“Hello,” Daniel asked aloud. “Is there anybody here?”

No answer. Of course not, he thought to himself. I’m just being stupid.

And yet, he couldn’t deny all of the strangeness that had happened over the last few weeks: the light bulb exploding, his laptop behaving erratically, even the girl on the train having her hair pulled from behind. It seemed ridiculous. There was a completely rational explanation for all of those things.

But sometimes, life was anything but rational.

“I know you’re here,” Daniel said to the seemingly empty house. “Can you show yourself?”

For a moment, there was nothing. Then suddenly, the light bulb above him began to flicker. A brief pang of fear hit him, as he was afraid it might explode again. But it didn’t. Daniel watched the flicker, certain there was something oddly familiar about it.

He heard a click. Voices came from the next room.

“-when a pickup truck lost control on Highway 4 and spun across the median into on-coming traffic, colliding with a four-door sedan. Four people were involved in the crash. There were no fatalities, but the driver of the pickup truck was taken to the hospital with possible life threatening injuries.”

Daniel walked through the doorway. The flat screen television he had spent so many hours staring at over the past couple of weeks had turned on as if of its own accord. A woman with blond hair and hazel eyes, wearing a black blazer, was droning on about the day’s traffic accidents.

The television clicked off. A sudden change in lighting drew Daniel’s eye. The light fixture situated above the piano was flickering, as if something was affecting it with its mere presence. He walked toward it, squinting. The flickering had a strange timing to it…a pattern. He knew it…but from where?

Tick…tick…tick…

It all fell into place. The rhythm the light was flickering to…it was the same exact rhythm of the song he had been trying to write for months now.

He had to be dreaming. It was impossible.

And yet, it made sense…somehow.

Daniel had gotten the sense a number of times over the past month that he was being watched. Only, whenever he turned, there was no one there. But still, the hairs on his arm would stand on end, his skin prickled with goosebumps.

Something was in the house with him. But why?

Operating on an almost dream-like instinct, Daniel sat down at the piano and lifted the cover off the keys. It had only been a couple weeks since he touched the thing, but it looked dusty and forgotten. He brushed off the keys and looked up at the unfinished sheet of music still sitting there. Even now, he couldn’t visualize the end of it. But something was compelling him to try.

It was a slight tingling at first, concentrated around his cheeks. Then, it gradually moved to his shoulders, growing into an almost uncomfortable sensation of warmth. He had a flash, an image in his mind of hands made of blue fire. The sensation grew stronger and stronger until-

 

Two became one.

“What…what is this?”

It does not matter

“What…are you?”

It does not matter

“It matters to me. How long have you been watching me?”

Long enough

“So what…you just invaded my house without asking? Did you even stop for a moment to consider that I might value my privacy?”

Privacy? I do not understand that word

“Of course you don’t.”

It does not matter

“What does matter then?”

Keep playing…

“I-I’ve tried. I can’t. Every time I start to play, I just hit a block and I-”

Keep playing…

“I just told you. I can’t. I-”

The warm sensation grew stronger. Daniel felt his muscles relax of their own accord.

Do not focus on the prospects of failure. Do not focus on the fear of disappointing those whose opinions you give great power. None of that matters. All that matters…is the music. Keep playing…

“But how will I know if it’s right?”

Right or wrong have no meaning. Just keep playing…

 

Daniel laid his fingers on the ivory keys, feeling an intense wave of trepidation as he did so. The familiar voices reared up in his mind.

You’ll never succeed…

There is only disappointment if you keep trying…

No one will ever-

And then suddenly, they vanished. It was as if they had been swept aside by a cascading flood, washed away into oblivion. Instead, there was only one voice, powerful and clear.

Keep playing…

He pushed a key down. A powerful, strong note of music filled the room, echoing off the walls.

And then, his fingers grew a mind of their own. The music flowed effortlessly and perfectly, without hesitation or provocation. He could feel the song in the air, could see the progression as if it was just natural and instinctive. The notes seemed to float in the air in front of him, little black stems flying past as he played. All other colors in the room seemed to fade and grow dull while the piano and its keys grew stronger in hue, sharp and focused.

For a moment, he thought he must be having a stroke or something. He figured he would wake up on the floor, numb and drooling. But it never happened. And the music just kept coming.

It was so perfect. And then, it was over.

Daniel lifted his fingers off the key, feeling the stress just washing away.

That’s it…you did it. Just keep playing…keep playing and you’ll be happy…

He stared at the keys for a long time in silence, his body tingling with wonder.

“But why did you help me,” he asked.

There was no answer. Whatever it was had gone.

But what it left behind was more important…

 

Things happened quickly after that.

Daniel finally managed to hammer out a full album of piano music and posted it online. It didn’t get much traction for the first two or three weeks. But then, after being featured on a prominent music blog, things exploded faster than he could react. Suddenly, his music had hundreds of views. Then thousands.

It was more than he knew what to do with.

A local music store began selling physical copies of his music. Daniel even held a couple of signings. Virtually overnight, he had become a local celebrity.

It was late December now, and Daniel had just finished writing a new song. With a smile, he lowered the cover onto the keys and gazed out the window. It was certainly going to be a white Christmas this year. Even now, large clumps of white powder were falling from the sky, blanketing the suburbs.

He was even okay with the regurgitated, commercialized Christmas music playing everywhere this time of year. Nothing could bother him now that he found his purpose again.

A pounding noise came from the entryway. Someone was at the door. He went to open it.

Standing on the front steps, clad in a bright red coat dripping with snow, was Melanie.

“Hi…Daniel,” she said, her voice a little sheepish.

“Hey Mel,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“I…I understand if you don’t want to see me right now,” she said, her eyes downcast. “We didn’t exactly leave things on the best of terms last time.”

Daniel waved it off.

“Ah…that’s all in the past,” he said. “Come on in.”

Melanie looked surprised, but a moment later stepped in, stomping her boots on the carpet and pulling them off along with her coat. She followed him into the kitchen as he grabbed a glass of water. A minute later, they were both sitting at the dining room table.

“I’m glad to see you’re doing better,” Melanie said. “I saw one of your CD’s at the music store the other day and I knew I had to buy it. I’m going to listen to it on my way to my parent’s house for Christmas.”

“Oh yeah, don’t they live like three hours south of here,” Daniel asked.

“Yeah…it’ll be a long drive, especially with the holiday traffic. But I’m looking forward to it. After all, I’ve got your music to keep me company.”

Daniel took a drink of water.

“I hope I don’t seem too forward…but what changed,” Melanie asked. “When we broke up, you were so distant and withdrawn. Now…it’s like you’re a completely different person.”

Daniel set the glass down. It took him a moment to find the words.

“I think it was time,” he said, looking up at her. “That’s all.”

“You must hate me,” she said, her eyes drifting downward. “After the way I treated you, I couldn’t blame you if you did.”

“No no Mel,” he assured her, placing his hand on top of hers. “The only person I hated was myself.”

“What do you mean,” she asked, meeting his gaze.

Daniel sighed.

“It’s…difficult to explain. But for the longest time, I couldn’t write any music. There were all these little voices in my head, telling me that I was just going to fail and disappoint everyone. And I listened to those voices. I let them get to me.”

“And now?”

“Now…I think I finally managed to silence them. I realized that it’s not about success or failure or disappointment…it’s about doing what you want to do. And if success comes from that, then it’s just a nice by-product.”

Daniel shrugged.

“Of course that’s easy for me to say now,” he added, “given that I’m so rich and famous.”

Melanie laughed.

“Yeah…you’re a regular celebrity.”

“Ha…piano music will never be as popular as I want it to be. But even so, there’s still an audience for it.”

“Maybe you should branch out a little,” Melanie suggested. “Start adding lyrics or maybe some other instruments. I know this one group that got really big online. They fused familiar classic music with things like electronic rock. Maybe there’s something in that for you.”

Daniel’s eyes lit up.

“You know what? That’s a great idea Mel. Thank you for supporting me.”

“It’s the least I could do…after everything that happened between us.” She paused for a moment. “Speaking of which…do you think there’s a chance we could make it work again? I mean…between us?”

Daniel smiled at her, a wide and pleasant grin.

“No,” he said.

Her mouth quivered in confusion.

“Wha…why,” she stammered.

“It just wouldn’t work out,” he explained. “I know that, and I think you do too.”

“Was…was it something I said?”

“No no…things are never that simple. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t me. It was both of us.”

“What do you mean,” she asked.

Daniel thought for a moment.

“I think…what it comes down to…is that we both wanted something that the other couldn’t give.”

Melanie nodded.

“That’s pretty profound.” She flashed him a sly smile. “So, where’d you get that line from? A movie?”

They both laughed. Daniel looked her right in the eyes.

“I could see us still being friends though,” he said.

She smiled at him.

“I’d like that.”

A profound silence passed between them. Then, Melanie pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, glancing at the screen.

“Well…I should probably hit the road,” she said, getting up from the table. “I’ve got a long drive ahead of me.”

“That you do,” Daniel said. He got up and escorted her to the door. She slipped her boots and coat on. A minute later, they were standing on the front steps again.

“What are you doing for Christmas,” she asked. “Going to see your parents?”

He shook his head.

“Nah,” he replied.

“What? That’s sad…you’re going to be alone for the holidays?”

He shook his head again.

“No…they’re coming up here.” He grinned. “We’re going to celebrate my newfound stardom.”

Melanie laughed again.

“That sounds nice,” she said. She smiled at him for a moment. “Well, I’d best be going. See you in the new year!”

Daniel waved at her as she got into her car. It fired to life a moment later and then it drove off out of sight. But Daniel didn’t go inside right away. Instead, he stood on the steps and turned his head to the sky, watching the snowflakes fall to the ground.

He still wasn’t sure if what happened to him that day actually happened, if there was actually someone or some thing that wanted to help him find his passion for music again. It could have easily been a dream, a figment of his imagination. But in the end, Daniel knew it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it helped him turn the page on one chapter in his life and begin another.

A minute later, Daniel stepped back inside the warm house and closed the door.

 

Months passed.

Somewhere else, in a small, one bedroom apartment, a young man was painting. But he wasn’t having a good time of it. Every little bit he painted looked like nothing more than a third grader’s art project. He lowered his brush from the canvas with a sigh.

The sound of the television in the background grabbed his attention. Normally it was just white noise to help him concentrate. But now, something was drawing him in.

“Welcome back, and good morning,” a brunette woman with a red dress was saying. “We are joined today by a local man who has made a name for himself over the last year. He started off by making traditional piano music, but his latest album fuses classical piano with the stylings of modern electronic music to create something truly unique. Please welcome, as a guest to our show, Daniel Tyner!”

The show cut to a wide shot, showing a man with dark green eyes and reddish hair sitting in a chair across from the anchorwoman. He was dressed in a clean black polo shirt with tan dress pants. A black microphone was clipped to his lapel.

“Daniel,” the woman said, turning to face him. “I’d like to thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me,” he replied.

“Now, I’ll skip the part where I ask you where you get your ideas from.”

Daniel laughed.

“Thanks…I hate that question.”

“I know you do. Instead, I wanted to ask you something a little personal. You’ve made it no secret that you struggled with depression for a long time. Care to tell us a little about that experience?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “It’s a little hard to put in the right words…but for a long time I felt trapped inside myself. Any time I tried to make music, I would get these little voices in my head. And they’d keep saying things like ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘no one will ever think you’re good’, things like that.”

“That sounds rough,” the anchor replied.

“It was,” Daniel admitted.

“So, this might seem like a broad question, what got you through it?”

Daniel didn’t say anything for a moment. He looked down at his hands, deep in thought.

“I told a friend of mine this a while ago…but I think it was just the right time for me. I had finally found what I needed to get through that funk I’d been having.”

“Do you have any advice for other artists who might be suffering from the same thing?”

“The only thing I can say is: don’t lose hope. Keep your mind and your heart open. Because inspiration can show up at the most unlikely of times.

“Well,” the woman said, “certainly seems like you found your muse.”

Daniel chuckled.

“I think it would be more adequate to say my muse found me.”

“Well I think that’s all the time we have for now. Thanks again for joining us Daniel, and we’ll be right back after a short commercial break.”

The anchor and Daniel shook hands as the camera zoomed away from them. The scene faded to black and was replaced by the chattering of advertisements.

Lucky for you, the painter thought bitterly. He turned back to his canvas, the very sight of it upsetting him. But what could he possibly do to make it better? All he had been trying to do was paint the scene outside his window, but he couldn’t even do that.

There was a slight tingling in his shoulders…a warmth that grew and grew as the seconds passed.

Then, there was a voice inside his mind.

Keep painting…

 

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.  I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and wish you a happy New Year.

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Let’s Talk About Creative Risks

 

So it’s finally out…Episode 8.  “The Last Jedi”.  And fan reaction to it has been…well…all across the board.

There’s no denying that the movie is different.  It does not progress in the way you would expect a traditional Star Wars film to progress.  It does not do the things you would expect a normal Star Wars movie to do.  And some people loved it.  Other people hated it.  I found myself in the former category.  I liked it because it was different.  But some people didn’t, and that’s perfectly okay.

However, I do think it highlights the importance of taking creative risks every once in a while.

In North America, “The Last Jedi” opened with a box office of roughly 220 million dollars.  By contrast, “The Force Awakens” opened with 248 million.  I bring this up because I know some people are going to point to it and use it as proof that “The Last Jedi” is a weaker movie than “The Force Awakens”.  But that’s not really accurate.  The amount of hype surrounding this movie was unreal.  People were going to see it regardless.  It’s highly doubtful that the film’s quality or perceived lack thereof would have much of an impact.  They could have made a movie that mirrored “Empire Strikes Back” in the same way that “The Force Awakens” mirrored “A New Hope”, and it probably would have had a similar box office result.

On the contrary, I think that “The Last Jedi” being different is what will make it stand the test of time better than “The Force Awakens”.  That’s not to say the movie is perfect by any means.  “Last Jedi” certainly has its flaws.  But when compared to “Force Awakens”, “Last Jedi” feels like an actual progression of Star Wars rather than a nostalgic rehashing.

First off, the obvious: “Force Awakens” cribs from “A New Hope”…and it shows.  Many of the story beats are nearly identical, down to the “orphan on a desert planet” routine and the massive planet-destroying battle station.  I mean they even have a character call it the “Death Star 3”, to which another character essentially says “but this time it’s different because it’s a planet…see?”  There’s nothing like fake self-awareness as an attempt to cover up lazy writing.  And that’s to say nothing about Rey being almost impossibly good at everything, almost to the point of being a Mary Sue (an idealized or perfect fictional character that is often seen as a form of wish fulfillment).

In that sense, “Last Jedi” feels like the stronger movie because it isn’t bound by the relics of the past, but instead informed by them.  In some ways, it takes the tropes of Star Wars and turns them on their heads.  I hesitate to say any more for fear of spoilers, but it definitely does not follow the standard Star Wars format.  I don’t think “Force Awakens” is a bad movie, and I see why they had to make it the way they did, what with “A New Hope” being nearly forty years old.  But there’s a difference between using nostalgia to bolster a film and using it as a crutch.  “Force Awakens” tended toward the latter in my book.

If “Last Jedi” does end up performing better than “Force Awakens” (which it very well could), then it’ll stand as a testament to the value of taking risks, especially within an already established franchise.  Think of it this way: if Marvel had never taken the risk to try creating a massively interconnected cinematic universe, the way we see storytelling in movies wouldn’t have evolved the way it had.  Sure, nowadays Marvel movies often feel like factory regurgitations of the same old tropes, but at the time creating such an interconnected series of stories was unheard of.  And if anything, the stylized “Thor: Ragnarok” proved that taking risks can pay off, as the movie was one of the most well-liked comic book movies of this year.

Let me put it another way: remember the craze with alien invasion movies back in the early 2000’s?  Why do you think they eventually died out?  Because people got sick of seeing the same old characters, the same old stories.  It got too predictable and mundane.  We can only see so many movies about the undaunted human spirit triumphing in the face of superior alien technology before it becomes rote and dull.  In that sense, the main Star Wars series was due for something different.

Whether it pays off in the long run remains to be seen…

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Plot Twists

The Sixth Sense

 

Warning: spoilers for multiple stories lie ahead.  Read at your own risk.

Love ’em or hate ’em, plot twists are an integral part of modern storytelling.  You know what I’m talking about…those moments in stories that make you go “HOLY CRAP” or “WHAT THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”  But the question is: when is a plot twist good and when is it bad?

For my personal taste, a good plot twist is one that makes you reevaluate what came before.  To start with, I’m going to use an example from something I’m betting not all that many people know about: the television show “Fringe”.

For those who’ve maybe never watched the show, it’s similar to “X-Files”, only instead of investigating weird, far-fetched supernatural stuff they investigate weird, far-fetched science stuff.  The basic premise is this: FBI agent Olivia Dunham investigates after everyone aboard a commercial airline flight is killed by a strange contagion that caused their skin to fall off (in spectacular, gooey fashion).  The case leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop, a man known for extreme experiments in science…who is also now in a mental health facility.  Because of the facility’s rule allowing only family members to visit, Olivia must track down Walter Bishop’s estranged son Peter.

 

Over the course of the first season, the three deal with bizarre and terrifying cases, ranging from killer computer viruses to a bio-engineered monstrous animal.  As the season progresses, an overarching plot involving parallel universes starts to unfold.  In the season finale, the trio stop a bad guy from crossing over into another universe to do bad things.  As things come to a close, we realize that the three have grown close together.  Peter finally starts to accept his father despite his failures.  And Walter has a poignant moment standing in front of-

 

 

…hi-his son’s grave.

……

Wait what?!

And this is where, if the twist is good, your mind goes into overdrive.  You start seeing the clues, putting the pieces together, realizing that certain little things you initially thought were innocuous actually hinted at a bigger truth.  In this case, the truth is that the Peter we know in the show actually belongs to a parallel universe.  And, in this case, your mind is likely to go back to a scene earlier in the season where Walter is talking to Peter and mentions a time when Peter was deathly ill.  Walter says he became consumed with saving him, but that Peter eventually just got better.  Obviously, with the twist at the end of season one, we know that’s not what happened and Walter’s version of Peter died.

There are also other, smaller hints throughout the season that you’d probably never catch on your first viewing.  For example, during one very early episode, Walter is rambling about eye color when he says Peter’s eyes are green.  But when we cut to Peter, we can clearly see that his eyes are blue.  Initially, you likely brushed it off as just Walter being not altogether there.  However, with the added information we get at the season’s close, it takes on a newer significance.  Same with another scene where Peter is holding a G.I. Joe toy and says something like “weird…I always remembered the scar being on the other side”.  Again, innocuous on its face, but hinting at a greater truth.

Another great instance of this kind of plot twist comes from “The Sixth Sense”.  I’m sure most, if not all of you, know the story by now: Bruce Willis plays a psychiatrist who helps a young boy that claims he can see ghosts.  Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is actually dead the entire time.  He’s just another ghost that the kid can see.  But what’s genius about this twist is that unlike “Fringe”, where most of the clues are only really recognizable upon re-watching the first season, “Sixth Sense” actually replays snippets of scenes from earlier in the movie during the climactic reveal, giving them new meaning and context.  That scene with his wife in the restaurant?  It shifts from being the portrayal of a couple falling out of love to that of a widow grieving for her lost husband.

And it doesn’t even show all the clues the movie had in it.  There’s actually a scene where Bruce Willis is standing behind the kid as the kid reaches for a doorknob.  There’s a quick close-up shot of the knob that shows that Willis has no reflection.  It’s truly crazy how much foreshadowing the movie does right under your nose.

Now let’s move on to the other side of things.  When is a twist bad?  For my money, it’s simple: when the twist is done for pure shock value and offers very little payoff.  For example, one of the seasons of “24” reveals that the president of the United States (or former president at that point…I can’t remember for sure) is in league with the bad guys to do…something I guess.  I don’t remember if there was a good explanation for it.  What little I remember tells me it was more done for shock value than anything else.

Another example comes from the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”.  In the game, a character named General Shepherd sends one of the playable characters to an estate in the middle of a forest somewhere to retrieve data on the enemies operations and help stop World War III.  Only, at the end of the mission, Shepherd shoots and burns the playable character alive upon receiving the data, revealing that he was the mastermind behind it all and was just covering his tracks.  It’s a moment that screams “epic” at first, but once Shepherd reveals his motivation later on things fall apart quickly.

It’s as if the writers had to hamstring together an explanation last-minute.  Basically, there was a nuke that went off in the previous game, killing a whole bunch of soldiers.  This made General Shepherd mad or something, so he came up with a convoluted plan to start World War III in an effort to drive up recruitment and get more soldiers…

…who will then more than likely die in the ensuing global conflict, leaving General Shepherd with a far larger body count than he would have had otherwise.

It’s best not to think about it too much.

(If you’re curious, I did write an entire story analysis of Modern Warfare 2 over two years ago.)

Another example of a twist that underperforms is in “The Village”, another movie by M. Night Shyamalan.  For my part, I actually liked the twist itself.  But at the same time, I admit that it does have a lack of payoff for the story.

The plot of “The Village” is as follows: a colonial era village lives in fear of monsters that lurk in the woods around the town.  But later on, it’s revealed that the monsters are nothing more than the village elders wearing outfits in an effort to keep people from moving away from the village.  And the noises they keep hearing in the woods are made by things like wind chimes.  Then, at the very end, it is revealed that the movie actually takes place in modern times, with the village elders starting the village in the 1970’s as a way to escape the traumas they experienced in modern society.  They’re basically an Amish-like cult.

While the twist is cool, there’s very little payoff for it.  We already know that the spooky noises are fake and that the monsters are just old people in costume.  It does give us an explanation for why the elders did all those things, but it doesn’t feel very satisfying.  It feels…anti-climactic in a way.  Not only that, but the twist has some serious explanations with plausibility, the most notable of which being how did no one ever see a plane flying over the area?  The movie tries to explain this away by saying they set up a no-fly zone over the area the village is set in, but it still seems far-fetched.

I could talk about more plot twists, but that would make this post go on longer than it needs to.  And it’s already long as it is.  So to recap, for a plot twist to be good, it needs to redefine or alter the arc of the story in a way that makes sense.  Twists that are thrown in there for shock value (which is something broadcast television shows seem obsessed with these days) tend to collapse under the weight of their own implausibility.  The quality of twists can be highly subjective, but in the end I think most people would agree that it needs to be logical.  It needs to follow some sort of common sense.  Otherwise, its artificial nature is plainly obvious for everyone to see.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Net Neutrality

It’s under attack…again.

On December 14th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) here in the United States will vote on repealing the net neutrality rules set by the Obama administration.  As of right now, most experts think the vote will go through.  From what I understand, there will be five people voting on it.  It looks like two of them will be voting “no”, whereas the other three (including FCC chairman Ajit Pai) will vote “yes”.

Now why is this important?  Well let’s start by defining what net neutrality actually is.  Google defines it as “the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites”.  What this means is that, under the current law, you pay one price to gain access to all the internet has to offer.

Currently, the internet is classified as a Title II public utility.  It has been that way since the FCC in 2015 voted 3-2 to enact these new rules.  Now the tables have turned and it’s looking extremely likely that the current FCC will vote to roll those rules back, classifying internet as a Title I, which was the case before the 2015 rule change.

But what does this actually mean if the vote goes through?  Well…no one is really certain.  Supporters of rolling internet back to Title I typically frame their argument as pushing back against what they see as restrictive government regulation over Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  But supporters of net neutrality are worried about what ISPs might do without the restrictions.  One of the scenarios that could come to fruition would be introducing tiered service packages, which would essentially mean that if you want to access something like Netflix, you might have to pay more money.

This is a graphic that has been circulating for a long time, showing what this scenario might look like:

 

 

Yeah…it’s not pretty.  And there is at least one real world case of this in the form of Portugal, where internet plans look a lot like cable plans do here in the United States.  Now it isn’t one hundred percent certain that it’ll happen, but if a huge company like Comcast is given the opportunity to make more money, do you really think they won’t jump at the chance?

This is where net neutrality opponents (like Pai himself) will say that if an ISP does something that people don’t like, then the market will decide their fate.  This means that people will switch to another service provider who doesn’t do those things, and the service provider who does will go out of business.  Now that’s all well and good as an argument…

…except that it’s total bullshit.

Here’s the thing: this argument only makes sense in a market where there are many different companies competing for the same space.  But that’s not so with internet service providers.  Many places only give you one or two choices for internet providers.  Where I live, for example, I have the choice between CenturyLink and Charter, which is essentially the choice between DSL and Cable.  Which is basically the choice between crap and not-crap.  I had CenturyLink for internet back when I lived with a roommate, and we had random disconnects all the time before they managed to fix it.  We called them more times than I care to remember, and it took them literally almost a year before they figured out “oh hey, if we switch the port they’re on, it fixes the problem”.  So switching to Charter was a no-brainer.  But if Charter starts throttling my internet speed or forcing me to pay extra for Netflix, I don’t really have any other place to go.  I just have to deal with it.  And that’s the case for many people, some of whom have less choice than I do.

A lot of net neutrality opponents love to phrase their agenda as “restoring internet freedom”.  But with the current market, the only thing repealing the Title II classification stands to do is allow internet providers to gouge their customers.  And while Pai has argued that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will protect consumers from unfair practices, an Ars Technica article points out that a pending court case is poised to strip the FTC of its authority on the matter.  Without any protection, consumers will find themselves at the mercy of internet companies.  And that is not a situation that is likely to turn out well.

Also, does anyone else find it just a little too convenient that Ajit Pai previously worked for Verizon?  I’m sure there’s nothing going on there at all…

Now, there are ways you can voice your opinion on the matter.  There are sites like Battle for the Net which will help you contact Congress and inform them of your opposition to the vote.  You can call the FCC itself at 1-888-225-5322 and inform them of your opposition as well.  And it’s not like you’ll be alone.  When the FCC did an open comment period on the issue of net neutrality, a study estimated that a whopping 98.5 percent of non-spam comments were in support of net neutrality and against the FCC’s intention to roll back the Title II classification.  And not only that, but another Ars Technica article found that 50,000 customer complaints against internet providers were excluded from the FCC’s net neutrality repeal docket.  It’s as if the FCC is willfully ignoring these comments in favor of pushing their agenda.

Will our voices actually sway the vote?  I can’t really say.  But if you’re one of those people who feels the need to do something, there are options out there.  Tell them your opinion.  Scream it at them if you have to.  At the very least, they’ll know we won’t be silenced so easily.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.