Spotlight: Thirty Flights of Loving

“Thirty Flights of Loving” begins as more games should: with some smooth jazz.  After walking downstairs and encountering these fine gentlemen…

 

Stop looking at meeeee!

 

…we make our way through a secret passageway into the basement where we run into our two comrades, Anita (at least I’m assuming that’s her real name) and…uh…Other Guy.

 

 

 

Clicking on either of them brings up a flashy series of images denoting their skills.  It’s clear that Anita is the muscle of the group, as her skills include demolitions and sharpshooting.  Other Guy has a more utility focus, as he is a forger and a safecracker.

 

Evidently he’s also good at weddings.

 

You make your way downstairs to an airplane and the three of you take off.  The scene quickly cuts and it’s obvious something went horribly wrong.  Anita has a gun pointed at you that’s clicking empty and Other Guy has a bullet wound in his chest.  You pick him up and begin making your way through the crowded airport.  But soon enough the scene shifts again.  This time it’s a flashback, as you and Anita are in an apartment, peeling and eating oranges.

 

Why oranges? Why NOT oranges?

 

As you walk toward the door time jumps forward and Anita is joined by Other Guy.  The three of you make your way up to the building’s rooftop and sit down at a reception.  People start dancing.  You and Anita start drinking…a lot.

 

I’m not sure if this makes me want to drink less…or more.

 

The two of you then make your way downstairs to the apartment, where Anita waits for you on the bed.  Before you get to her, the scene shifts back to the airport, where you use a luggage carrier to help move Other Guy.

 

Oh wait, his name is Winston? Ah screw it, I’m still calling him Other Guy.

 

Making your way into the main entrance for the airport, you suddenly find yourselves trapped and set upon by police cameras floating from balloons.  Other Guy pulls out two guns and begins shooting them down.  Eventually, you are allowed to make your way through the entrance where the cops are waiting.  The scene jumps forward and apparently the two of you were able to steal a cop car.

 

Oh no, they’re chasing us through the highway of love!

 

You have a sudden flashback to you and Anita riding together on a motorcycle.  She turns around to you, love clearly in her eyes.  But the scene is quickly interrupted by an on-rushing semi-truck, snapping you back to the present.  However, it’s too late, as you collide with it head on.

And then, in what is either a self-aware jab or a display of pretentiousness, you are catapulted into a museum scene where people are standing around drinking champagne and marveling at various exhibits related to the game.

 

Mmm yes quite…that is a lovely police vehicle…mmm yes….

 

All in all, the game takes about 10-15 minutes to beat.  It’s not very long, and there’s no dialogue at all.  In fact, whenever someone talks it reminds me of the adults from Charlie Brown.  But the big question is, did I like it?

Honestly…not really.  The game is too short and lacks the detail that would normally get me invested in a story.

Now, before someone says it, I understand that was the point.  “Thirty Flights of Loving” is an experiment in telling a short story with all the context ripped out of it.  So you either have to poke and prod to find the context or make your own.

I get what the game was going for.  It just didn’t resonate with me.

But apparently it did with video game journalists when it came out six years ago.  The site Rock Paper Shotgun praised the game in a recommendation back in 2015, saying that “it’s more thrilling, funny, romantic, and tragic than many games manage in fifteen hours.”  Now, I’m not sure if I missed something, but I didn’t feel that emotional at all when I finished the game my first time through a few years ago.

In fact, my reaction was more “wait…that’s it?

 

There’s also a weird section in the museum about Bernoulli’s principle…because reasons.

 

I understand that many video games can get bogged down by bloated storytelling.  You don’t have to look much further than “Modern Warfare 2” as a good example of this (I did a story analysis of the game way back when too).  In the game the main villain’s motivation is literally “I lost a whole bunch of soldiers when a nuke went off, so I started World War Three to drive up recruitment numbers”.  Because logic.

And yet, the context of a story is what makes it worth it for me.  I like learning a character’s backstory, their motivations, their hopes and dreams.  It’s part of what makes reading books so engaging.  You get to see how the character thinks and feels.  “Thirty Flights of Loving” doesn’t have that.  If anything, stripping out the context only made me understand why I like that context in the first place.  Hell, it’s a big part of the reason why I enjoyed “Cryostasis” the game I talked about last month.  And I couldn’t even explain half of what happened in the game.  To me, “Thirty Flights of Loving” feels more like a hollow shell of a story.  It’s got charm and style on the outside, but the inside is just air.

All of this is going to make my next statement seem very strange:

I’m glad this game exists.

I may not have liked the game, but I still think it’s good that the game is out there.  It’s good that independent game developers are able to experiment and get their creations noticed.  They may not appeal to everyone, but the nature of artistic expression cannot always be held down by what is profitable or what has wide market appeal.  Because sometimes, you don’t know what has wide market appeal.  Something new could come along and drastically reshape things.  It’s kind of like how superhero movies experienced a downturn for a while, then Marvel came along and started their cinematic universe.  Suddenly BAM…it feels like we can’t go more than two or three months without another superhero movie opening in theaters and making hundreds of millions in revenue.

I may not have cared for “Thirty Flights of Loving” in much the same way that I don’t really care for superhero movies anymore, but I can appreciate that it exists.  Experimentation should be encouraged, because even failed experiments can teach us valuable lessons.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month.

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

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Spotlight: Cryostasis

 

…I have no idea what this game is about.  At least not entirely.

On the surface, “Cryostasis” doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary.  It’s a survival-horror game where you as the player make your way through the frozen wreck of a ship, doing battle with mutated monsters and making the best of your limited resources.  But there are some unique elements.

For example, your health is determined by temperature.  The colder you get, the weaker you are and the easier it is to die.  This means that the only way to gain health back is to seek out heat sources.  You can regain health by warming up at a smoldering pile of wood…

 

 

…light bulbs…

 

 

…and other, less conventional heating sources.

 

 

This interplay of heat vs. cold also plays into one of the major thematic motifs of the story, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

As you progress through the ruins of the ship, you’ll do battle with the mutated denizens with a variety of melee weapons as well as some guns you’ll find later on.  Combat is slow and clunky, but purposefully so.  Being in such a cold environment and clad in heavy winter gear, you’re not going to be running around and jumping off of walls like an action hero.  No, the game forces you to play methodically.  Because if you don’t, you will die.

 

Hello sir! Do you mind if I…AXE you a question? Ha ha ha…follow my blog for more top tier jokes!

 

So now that the basics of the gameplay are down, let’s jump into the story.

Spoiler alert: it’s weird.

As the story begins, we’re treated to a very optimistic and upbeat quote…

 

I lied.

 

But before we even get control of our character, we’re introduced to this strange parallel plot of a group of villagers and their trek through a dark forest.  It almost feels like a fairy tale of sorts.

 

This plot runs parallel to the events of the game and helps provide some insight into the themes, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

 

After this brief introduction, the player is then given control of their character.  Through a series of flashbacks (triggered by interacting with a faceless figure in a coat), it is revealed that the player character (known as Alexander Nesterov) traveled to the wreck of the icebreaker via sled dogs, but was forced to continue on foot after the ice broke and wrecked the sled.  As Nesterov progresses through the ship, he experiences flashbacks to when the ship was operational, and it becomes clear that some type of disaster took place.

But just when you think you might have a handle on things…this happens:

 

 

The game prompts you to use your “mental echo” ability to travel into the man’s past and fix his mistake so that he survives (because, you know, that’s a thing…that…that normal people do).  These sections are often like puzzles where you have to figure out what to do.  Some are simple and logical, while others are more obtuse and frustrating.  For example, a later section sees the body of a man dead in his chair after a window exploded and pierced him with glass shrapnel.  The simple solution would be to just exit the room and shut the door behind you, right?  Wrong.  That doesn’t work.  Apparently the real solution is to hide behind the chair and let the chair take the hit.  Only then will you be able to progress.

Because logic is for suckers.

 

You get this message upon the completion of your first “mental echo” segment. I love how even the tutorials are cryptic.

 

As the story continues to progress, more flashback events give insight into the story of the ship and its crew.  And we start to get an idea of the major players in the story.  Most notable in these beginning sections are the ship’s captain and his first officer.  The first officer wants to use some sort of divining rod equipment to help steer the ship through the ice, but the captain decides to rely on sheer intuition alone.  This leads to a confrontation between the two men where they argue over the dangers of the course the ship is taking.

 

Famous last words…

 

The captain disregards the first officer’s advice and, predictably, the ship finds itself stuck.  The first officer decides to go behind the captain’s back and send a message back to the company that owns this ship.  He gets a message back and, despite being advised by the ship’s security officer not to share it with the captain, does so anyways.  The contents of the message are kept hidden for a while, but its effect on the captain is evident.  He gradually grows demoralized and finds that everyone he turns to seems to despise him.  When he goes to the chief engineer of the ship to share the message, the engineer rebukes him and tells him to just go away.

 

 

Eventually there is a flashback with the captain standing on the deck, looking forlorn as he holds the message in his hands.

 

 

After a moment, he releases the piece of paper and it floats away from him.  It is then that the contents of the message are finally revealed: the owners have decided that, following the ship’s completion of its current journey, it is to be decommissioned.

 

 

This feels like a good time to pull that parallel fairy tale story back into play.  In the fairy tale, the people are trying to escape a forest, but the forest seems alive and wants nothing more than to  prevent their escape.  It is in their darkest hour that a man among them named Danko takes charge and leads them onward.  At first, the people rejoice at Danko’s leadership, feeling hope swell within them.  However, as the journey continues and grows harder, resentment begins to take root.  They begin chattering among themselves, becoming doubtful of Danko’s ability to lead.  Eventually the people rebuke him entirely, to which Danko fires back, criticizing them for how easily they allowed themselves to be led.  The people then start surrounding him, clearly intending to kill him…

Numerous parallels to the game’s story can be found.  For example, the idea of man vs. nature becomes a very strong motif in the latter half of the game, with the shifting ice around the ship a parallel to the malevolent forest from the fairy tale.  There’s a “mental echo” segment where you play as someone in a slaughterhouse, and the solution is to open the gates and let the cows go free.

 

Damn liberals and their environmentalism…

 

Not to mention there’s a later, optional segment where you help a polar bear escape from the people hunting it.

But I digress.  As the story continues it becomes clear that something bad happened to the ship’s nuclear reactor considering…you know…there’s a giant hole where it used to be.

 

 

It’s also revealed that the crew began to suffer some kind of massive medical emergency, which appears to stem from some kind of radiation leak from the reactor.

 

 

On top of that, the ship’s layout starts to become more surreal.  Doors begin to disappear, entire areas shift around you as you interact with things, and there’s even one really bizarre scene where, after activating an old-fashioned film projector, you’re forced to battle enemies shooting at you on the screen before one of them walks through the damn thing into the room itself.  All of this seems to imply that the ship you travel through during the game might not entirely be real.  But it’s hard to say.  The game is metaphors layered on top of parallel allegories.  It confuses the hell out of me sometimes.

In any case, following his thrashing by the rest of the crew, the captain makes one last desperate move.  He orders the ship full speed ahead in an attempt to brute force their way out of the ice.  During the attempt, he is injured as the first officer and security officer break into the bridge.  They order the ship in reverse, which only makes things worse and ends up dooming the ship once and for all.  While the crew deals with fluctuating temperatures and radiation sickness, the main officers hatch a plan to take a helicopter and abandon the ship and its crew.

One popular theory is that the captain of the icebreaker is the parallel to Danko in the fairy tale, and I can see why.  They both lead their people.  And they’re both rebuked by their people when they fail to lead them to safety.  The parallels between the two of them are numerous, and it seems to be the most solid conclusion.  However, it is only but one interpretation, as I’ll explain shortly.

As the game nears its close, the two parallel tales come to a head.  In the fairy tale remember, the people are circling around Danko, ready to kill him.  But Danko finally sees that it is not hatred that drives them, but fear.  His resentment is then swept away by a wave of compassion, which causes his eyes to start glowing with light.  The people misunderstand what’s happening, fearing that the glowing is another symptom of Danko’s anger.  But then, Danko rips his still beating heart out of his chest, the sheer light of it obliterating the forest and giving way to a new land.

Danko looks upon this new world with a smile, then falls over dead.  Because happy endings are for losers.

On the icebreaker, the first officer and the security chief carry the captain to a helicopter piloted by the chief engineer.  The crew watches anxiously as the helicopter begins to take off, leaving them all behind.

But it’s not over yet…remember that whole flaming heart thing from the fairy tale?  Yeah…the ship’s nuclear reactor functions as that parallel as it decides to go all ker-plooey and explode.

 

Hooray! Everybody dies!

 

The helicopter is vaporized, and the following scene implies that the explosion transformed the crew into the monsters you fight throughout the game.

So yeah, that’s it.  That’s the story.  I mean, there’s no way things could get weirder or anythi-

 

 

 

 

Hold on a second…I have to go make sure nobody spiked my drink…

So the final boss of the game is Father Time.  No, I’m serious.  I’m dead serious.  The title of the level itself is “Chronos”, which is the ancient name for the personification of time.  So yeah, the giant blindfolded man with the hourglass is literally Father Time.

And you must do battle with him by shooting mystical orbs at the people who appear around him.

Yeah it’s definitely one of the most out of nowhere moments I’ve ever experienced in a game.  I mean, this game was bizarre to begin with, but when this happened I think my jaw literally dropped.

Anyways, after defeating Old Man Time (I can’t believe I actually typed that), he rewards you with an opportunity to go back and change one singular moment that alters the fate of the ship and its crew entirely.  There are multiple ways this can take shape, but for this playthrough it takes the form of the chief engineer.

 

 

There was that scene earlier in the game where he basically told the captain to piss off.  Well, you can change that by having him express sympathy for the captain, a small act of kindness that averts the tragic fate of the entire vessel.

 

 

The story then shifts back to the beginning scene, with Nesterov approaching the vessel by dog sled.  Only, this time people are waiting for him.

 

 

After the sled falls through the ice, the captain appears above and extends his hand, saving Nesterov from falling into the water.  He is joined by the chief engineer, the security officer, and another officer.  Together, the five of them head off toward the ship as the story reaches a close.

 

 

Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this craziness…

Like I said before, the fairy tale story is a clear parallel to the tragic tale of the icebreaker.  And like I said, a popular interpretation is that the captain is Danko’s parallel.  However, I’ve also heard it as the ship’s crew being Danko’s parallel, although I don’t particularly agree with that assessment.  It seems more fitting for the crew to be the parallels of the villagers in the story, as they gradually succumb to fear and begin fighting among each other.  Another interpretation could be that the ship itself is Danko, as the captain does personify the ship during an early scene in the game, saying that to be a true captain the ship must “respect you”.

There’s a lot more to unpack with this game, but I think I’m gonna leave it alone for now.  This post has gone on long enough.

I know I made light of the game’s weirdness at points, but in all honesty that’s part of what makes the game so fascinating to think about.  It’s so weird and so out there at times that it makes you want to understand, makes you need to understand.  And there are lots of things I didn’t even go over, like the theme of confinement or being trapped that’s a motif throughout the game (many of the enemies are horrifically constrained within their armor, with one tough enemy having only a keyhole on his helmet to see through).  There’s also references to other obscure Russian works of literature and art that I haven’t even begun to delve into myself (the game’s subtitle “sleep of reason” is one such reference).  But despite how cryptic and obtuse it is, the game has a charm to it that cannot be denied despite some of the technical shortcomings (i.e. the game chugs along at times, even on powerful hardware).  Unfortunately, the game doesn’t seem to be available on any digital storefronts.  In fact, the only way I can see buying it now is via a physical copy from Amazon.  So if you’re interested in trying it out, that might be the only way to do it aside from other…less reputable means…if you catch my drift.

In any case, thanks for reading my long ramblings about some obscure game barely anyone’s ever heard of.  Have a wonderful rest of April and check back on the third Wednesday of May for my next post.

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

Let’s Talk About Video Game Movies

With the release of “Tomb Raider” this past Friday, we find ourselves with another movie based on a video game.  Only, this time it seems like the movie has fared decently well.  It was still outperformed by “Black Panther” at the box office (or “buried”, as news outlets like to put it…you know, because puns), but people who liked the video game also seem to have liked the movie as well.  Now, I haven’t seen the movie myself, but from what I’ve heard it seems like there might be one big reason for that:

It mirrors the video game almost exactly.

 

 

Now, I can’t speak for everybody, but I think what most people want to see is an adaptation.  They want to watch a video game they love made into movie form.  They don’t want to see Hollywood get all cute and switch things around to try to make their own version of the story.

Which is exactly what happened with the 2016 “Assassin’s Creed” movie.

If you’ve never played any of the “Assassin’s Creed” games before, here’s the rundown: they center around a device known as the Animus, which allows a user to relive the memories of their genetic ancestors.  The first game has you playing as Desmond Miles as he wakes up in a mysterious location, kidnapped by an unknown organization with sinister motives.  The sections in the present day are very brief and low-key, building up an overarching mystery as to who these people are and what they want.  But the majority of the game takes place in the Animus.

Apparently the movie didn’t get the memo, because from what I understand the majority of the film takes place in the modern-day.

Seriously, how do you take a game that features super cool stuff like jumping off tall buildings and landing in a pile of hay, and make a movie where the main character only does that twice and the majority of the movie is people sitting around talking about shadowy conspiracies?  In the games, the modern-day segments are largely kept in the background, an overarching element to the franchise’s story.  But the main focus has always been the Animus segments, with whatever assassin character it happens to be for that game.

Now while I can’t speak for the quality of “Tomb Raider”, having not seen it myself, the simple fact that it has fared better than most other video game movies would seem to indicate that it at least did something right.  I honestly think people just want to see something that compliments what came before instead of trying too hard to be its own thing.

Another failed case study of that can be found in the 2008 “Max Payne” movie.

 

 

 

In what seems like another incident of Hollywood trying to play cute, “Max Payne” only shares surface level elements with the game.  The movie keeps the names of most of the characters and the drug known as Valkyr, which plays a crucial role in the story.  Other than that, the progression of things seems  entirely different.  In fact, the main villain of the game doesn’t even die in the film.  No…instead they keep her alive so they can force in a post-credits scene to hint at a sequel.  Of course, that never came to be because of how poorly the movie did.

Hey guys, I don’t know if anyone told you, but the game already has a sequel.  And it’s certainly far better than whatever you had planned.

The sad thing is the movie should have been good.  All of the elements were there for them to turn the game into a stylish, gritty revenge movie.  But instead, they tried to twist things around to give their own personal interpretation on it.  Maybe they thought they could do better than the game’s writers did?  I don’t know.  You’d think with the history of video game movies being so terrible they’d stop and think “maybe this is a bad idea”.

I think a large part of the problem is that the people who make these movies either have never played the games themselves or just don’t have respect for the source material.  Or possibly both.  It’s almost as if they just read a synopsis of the plot somewhere and wrote a script based on that.  You’d think that if you really wanted to adapt something and do it justice, you’d actually bother immersing yourself in it.

But I guess that’s just me.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post and have a wonderful month.

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

Spotlight: Star Trek Discovery Season 1 (Full Season)

Warning: some spoilers for the first season of “Discovery” follow.  Read at your own risk.

Space…the final frontier.

I mentioned this already when I did a brief review of the first three episodes, but “Star Trek: Discovery” initially inspired little more than skepticism in me.  It seemed like it was going to go too hard into the dark and edgy territory, forgetting what Star Trek’s roots were all about.  But after watching the entire season, I can safely say my fears were completely unfounded.

“Discovery” not only succeeds as a show, but proves that Star Trek still has a place in modern television.

 

Reusing old images is fun!

 

Back when I reviewed the first three episodes, I said that the two-part premiere had some rough spots.  And, looking back on the season as a whole, I can definitely say that it is probably the weakest of the entire season.  It does its job well enough, but it throws a lot of elements at you at once.  It sets the tone for the rest of the season, and gives the crew of the Discovery motivation to do what they’re doing.

I won’t spoil too much, but suffice it to say that Burnham’s character becomes infamous after the events of the two-part premiere.  She’s being carted off to a new prison roughly six months later when her trip is interrupted and she finds herself on-board the USS Discovery on the whim of its captain, Gabriel Lorca.  He offers her a position on the ship, which she initially refuses but quickly comes to terms with what her options are and decides to accept.

At first I thought the show was going to revolve around the mystery of Discovery and what was happening on the ship, because the first episode (episode three) that features the ship gives it a very mysterious air.  But the mystery of what the ship is working on is very quickly revealed.  I wouldn’t call it a detriment though, as most shows that hinge on a mystery like that tend to get drawn out and stale.  Rather, dealing with it sooner allows “Discovery” to move forward and into new territory.  And that seems to be a common theme.  The show shifts and changes as the season goes in, due in large part to some serious re-tooling going on behind the scenes.  The original show runner, Bryan Fuller, was asked to leave the show about a year before it premiered.  Some of his original ideas were left in place, but the show seemed to struggle with them.  Eventually, it seems that the show moved off in a different direction, and all for the better.  The second half of the season is even better than the first.

One of the greatest successes of “Discovery” comes in how it was able to combine the meaningful plots of the older Star Trek shows with the lighter, more action-oriented pacing of modern television.  But what might be an even bigger success is how it managed to create an appealing, engaging cast of characters so quickly.  Paul Stammets, Discovery‘s engineer, is a breakout favorite among show watchers, but I grew particularly fond of Sylvia Tilly as well.

 

Sylvia Tilly

 

Tilly is one of those characters whose defining trait upon first meeting her is her social awkwardness.  She talks a lot when she’s nervous.  Much like my initial reaction to “Discovery” as a whole, I was prepared to grate my teeth and be annoyed by her character, because television shows usually play up this trait so much it becomes annoying.  But Tilly becomes a great character in her own, taking on the mantle of Stammets’ protege.  She is often a source of comic relief, but doesn’t become the useless character I feared she might.  She’s actually given a decent amount to do.  And later on in the season, when Stammets is out of commission for a time, she is given an opportunity to show off what she knows and directly contributes to the success of the ship’s missions.

One of my favorite scenes with her happens fairly early on in the season.  Take a look.

Speaking of characters, it’s also one of the only major places where “Discovery” drops the ball.  Most of the show’s issues can be chalked up to the re-tooling going on behind the scenes and are forgivable.  But there are a couple of character arcs that could have been better.  For instance, Michael Burnham herself, who functions as the lens through which the audience views everything.  I mentioned before that Burnham becomes infamous after the premiere episode, and that’s due to a key choice she decides to make.  Well, at the end of the season the show attempts to tie together her character arc, insisting that she’s learned a lesson about violating principles and that her character is a better person for it.  And that’s nice and all, but I don’t feel like it’s entirely earned.  After the premiere and first couple of episodes, Burnham’s character development is mostly left on the back-burner in favor of the rest of Discovery‘s crew.  Sure, she’s is typically front and center when it comes to the action sequences, but it isn’t really until near the halfway mark when she gets a love interest that her character begins to show more development.  The second half of the season definitely showcases it better, giving her situations of moral complexity that force her to make decisions based on her principles.  But the sudden “I’ve learned my lesson” speech in the season finale seems a little misguided to me.

Another disappointment comes in the form of Discovery‘s captain, Lorca.  When he’s first introduced, there’s a distinct air of mystery around the character.  What his motivations are and why he decided to recruit Burnham in the first place are some of the questions that go unanswered for most of the season.  The only problem is, once the mystery around him is cleared up, Lorca becomes a very one-note character, almost cartoonish in a way.  It’s a disappointing endpoint for such an ambiguous and interesting character.

I could go on and on about “Discovery”, but I’ll spare you the time.  All I’ll say is that it’s definitely worth a watch, especially for those Star Trek fans who have been pining for a new show ever since “Enterprise” ended back in 2005.  It doesn’t do everything right, but everything that is there is damn good.  It’s a first season worthy of the Star Trek name, and I’m glad that they wrapped up the major plot lines in the season so that with the second one, they can go in newer and better directions.

Because let’s face it: an entire show about a war would get tiring eventually.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of March for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month.

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

Let’s Talk About Personal Time

You’ve likely heard or used the phrase “personal time” at some point.  Whether it’s used to explain why you don’t want to go socialize or why you’re going on vacation from work, so on and so forth, “personal time” is a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  Ever since I posted my scheduling change announcement a couple of weeks back, I’ve been unwinding with the start of the new year, taking some time to just relax.  After last year, where I worked pretty much every weekday (working at a television station, you don’t get many holidays off, if at all), wrote a blog post every week and a short story every month…things started to get to me.  But I detailed all that in my announcement so you can read it there if you want.

Long story short, personal time has been on my mind these past couple of weeks.  It’s something I think is taken for granted far too often.

Here, in the United States, we have this widely held idea that you work until you retire and only then should you relax.  You’ll have your pension and your social security…you can truly enjoy the twilight of your years.

However, that’s not always the case.  Just recently, Senator Tina Smith (who replaced Al Franken after he stepped down) met with retired Teamsters to discuss a looming problem: they’d been asked to take a 60% cut on their pensions…pensions they say they’ve spent forty years paying into.  But because of a looming federal budget impasse, they may find themselves out of luck.  And I think this shows a key problem with the “all work and no play” mentality:

You might spend your entire life working and saving money, only to find out that the money is gone.

This is why I think it’s important to enjoy the time that you have.  I’ve never liked this whole idea of working a job you may not even like just so you can save money for the future.  Unfortunately, it’s a reality many in my generation face.  Which is why I think the idea of taking personal time off is more important than ever.  You could spend your entire working career slaving away for a business only to realize you won’t get what you were promised in the end.  You lose your pension and then what?  For some, the only option they have is to go right back to work.

Because that’s the thing with the world: it shifts and changes as time goes on.  This is something the older generations seem to misunderstand whenever they criticize “those dang kids” for complaining about their jobs.  In fact, they only seem to recognize that things are different when those differences start affecting them.

Now, this is not a blanket condemnation of old people, but it is a truth that is hard to deny.  Every generation thinks that the generation after theirs has no idea what they’re doing and is just a bunch of lazy, entitled kids.  And while that may be true in some cases, it is not in all.  Why bother drilling in this belief that “hard work is all you need” when we know that’s not the case?  Often a person who is perfectly qualified for a job and has trained for it through years of secondary education will be passed over for someone who is far less qualified simply because they happen to know someone at the company: be it a friend, former co-worker, or a family member/relative.  I’ve heard members of the older generations complaining about it too.

There’s even a word for it: nepotism.

But even beyond that, constantly working all the time eventually takes its toll on you.  I know it did for me.  By the end of the year, I was sick of writing a short story every single month, but I did it anyways.  Because that was the promise I made to myself.  And while I fulfilled that promise, I’m still left questioning whether it was worth it or not.

In 2016, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that around 16.2 million adults in the United States suffered at least one major depressive episode.  That’s nearly seven percent of the total population.  And while that may not sound like a lot, keep in mind that this is specifically major episodes.  There could be millions more that suffered from more minor cases.

I’m not trying to call what I felt at the end of last year “depression”.  I honestly don’t know if I can even qualify it as that.  But the fact remains that the constant nose-to-the-ground work ethic isn’t really doing people any favors in this current economic landscape.  People work longer for wages that are lagging behind inflation rates, forcing those people to work multiple jobs, sometimes in conjunction with going to college.  If you don’t take some time for yourself, it can get to you fairly quickly.

I frequently find myself on Youtube watching videos about video games and other subjects as a way to unwind, and I noticed that in the past year, some of the larger Youtubers expressed a similar thought: that they were working too hard and not taking enough time for themselves.  Something not a lot of people really understand about Youtube is that it’s algorithm based, meaning that how much money you make off of it is based on things like how many videos you upload in a span of time and how much average traffic your videos get.  For a lot of the larger Youtubers, this means having to consistently upload on a schedule they set for themselves.  For those video gaming channels that upload two videos a day?  Yeah I can see how that would wear a person down.  And taking time off means possibly doing irreparable damage to your channel’s status in the Youtube Trend-o-Sphere (copyright, trademark, patent pending).

For people who depend on Youtube for their living, things can get dicey.  But even so, people have to take time off.  Because the moment you start losing your passion for your work, people will take notice.  And then you’ll lose your audience regardless.

So please, remember that taking time to yourself is not a bad thing.  It allows you to recharge and refocus, to figure out where you want to be and what you want to do.  Sometimes, you need a break.  Sometimes, you need a moment to relax.

Sometimes, you just need to breathe.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of February for another post, and have a wonderful January!

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

Scheduling Change

Hello there.  You’re probably wondering where my regular post is for the day.  Well, I’m writing this because I want to announce that I’m scaling back my posting this year.  Instead of posting once a week, I will be posting once a month on the third Wednesday of the month.  Why am I doing this, you ask?  The reason is simple: I need to give myself some breathing room.

A common theme going around is that 2017 wasn’t a good year, for a great many people.  Whether their reasons were political, personal, financial, or otherwise…people just did not like 2017 as a year.  I can safely count myself among those people.

Quite frankly, 2017 left me frustrated, depressed, and above all else, exhausted.

Those who follow my blog know that I spent the last year fulfilling my New Year’s resolution: writing a short story each month, twelve in all.  Well, on top of working all the time and posting a regular blog post each week (aside from the last Wednesday of the month, which was when I’d post the short story of the month), I eventually just found myself drained.  It started feeling less like a passion project and more like contractual obligation.  And I hate that feeling.  I hate that something I feel strongly about became a source of self-imposed misery.  I hate that it happened.  I hate that I let it happen.  But there it is.

Another part of the problem had to do with feedback.  And I don’t mean that people were commenting things like “you suck” or “your writing is trash, you should just kill yourself” on my short stories.  I can deal with that crap, because it’s just garbage posted by people with nothing better to do with their lives.

No…it was the silence that eventually got me.

I think it all really comes back to July.  That month, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with health issues.  I’ve already written at length about it, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  But on top of that, I had also written a short story that I ended up being really proud of.  It was something different, and fun to write.  It was a dialogue heavy story where the majority of the time it was just two people sitting in a room talking.  It was a challenge, but a fun one.  And I was more than satisfied with the final product.  So I posted it at the end of the month.

And didn’t hear anything for almost a week.  Even when I did, it was from one person, and that was it.  I think that, combined with my grandma passing away, is what did me in.  Slowly, but surely, my passion to write waned.  Soon enough, writing the short stories became little more than a chore.  That’s the thing with negative thinking like that: it becomes a vicious feedback loop that sucks you down.

I know that it’s unrealistic of me to expect the people around me to read everything I write.  They’re busy.  They have lives.  But after a while, that logical, reasoning part of my brain lost the fight and the irrational side took over.  And then, it didn’t matter anymore.  It was all just work to finish a task I had set for myself at the beginning of the year.

The people who I care about who are reading this probably feel a little stung after reading those last few paragraphs.  And I hate that too.  I hate that I’m being a selfish turd and complaining about these things.  It makes me feel like I’m being a drama queen.  But in the end, I need to do it.  It’s catharsis…just like when I wrote following my grandma’s death.

Now that the year is finally over, I feel like I can breathe again.  I don’t know if I can call what I was feeling depression, and I don’t want to presume that my stupid problems are such a big deal.  I know they aren’t.  I just…I needed to pour some of this out in a way.  Some of it I put into my final short story for the year, which went up last week.  Quite frankly, there’s more of myself in the main character than I’d care to admit.

I’m still not out of the woods yet.  I need to take time to do a little self-reflection, figure out where I want to go and who I want to be.  Scaling back on the blog is just the first step.  But it’s a step in the right direction at the right time for me.

Anyways, thanks for taking the time to read my self-indulgent ramblings.  Check back on the third Wednesday of the month for my next post.  Let’s look forward to the new year with happy expectations.

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.