This is the kind of day I had.
“I think that a lot of writers who go through writing programs feel the same. They may say, “I feel really comfortable now writing gorgeous sentences.” Yet every story is so much more than a string of beautiful sentences.
“Writing a story requires you to understand how the world works, how characters think, how their emotions drive them to do surprising things, and so on. In other words, as a writer, you have to be more than a stylist. You need to learn to become a master of storytelling.” — David Farland
David Farland has become, for me, a writer that I really enjoy and look up to. In the above quote, he hits on something that I believe strongly, but didn’t know how to define when I was younger. I couldn’t understand why I loved fantasy and speculative fiction books so much when there were other, more “literary” books that were more beautifully written. It wasn’t until college that I figured it out — a lot of those beautifully written books were missing a powerful story.
Art without story doesn’t mean anything to me. I can appreciate the beauty, but it’s like wiping raindrops off my windshield. It doesn’t stay with me; it just runs off. I’ll take a great story with average writing over a lovely collection of sentences any day.
Every Friday, Chuck Wendig posts a Flash Fiction Challenge that gives writers a prompt, word count, etc. to respond to. This week’s involved randomly choosing a who, a where and a what from a list he wrote.
I got Android, Trailer Park and Warring Against Nature.
The Old Android
It wasn’t a bad place to live, for a trailer park. Sure, the grass underneath Nathan Hale’s feet was a dead brown that crumbled into dust at the touch of butterfly, and there were still soda cans from last week’s 4th of July picnic skulking under the bushes, but at least there was grass, and people around to have 4th of July picnics.
The only thing that really got to him was the rust. It climbed up the metal walls of every trailer within shouting distance, curled up in the crevices of the chain link fence that bordered the place, even spread, unbelievably, across the sidewalk leading up to his doorway, like an old bloodstain that had never washed out. When Nathan had first moved in three years ago, he had tried to scrub the rust away before it got a chance to set in. Now it was making its way up the metal of his legs. He’d lost them in his thirties – car accident – and no longer had the money to repair the robotic replacements they’d given him. Besides, he was old. He wasn’t going anywhere.
He sat in front of his trailer on a wooden lawn chair, staring hard at the jacaranda tree that sat across from him. One week ago, a squirrel had lodged an apple firmly between two branches and been carried off by a hawk before it had a chance to move it. Now that same apple was rotting, the pale flesh long gone from brown to a fuzzy black.
It had taken Nathan two days to identify the smell from his spot on the lawn chair. It reminded him of the smell of leaves choking up the gutter two days after a heavy rain. A damp, rotting sort of smell. Not wholly awful, but persistently unpleasant.
He could pry the apple loose and throw it away. The tree was only three steps away and the branches were low. Nathan knew he could reach it.
Instead he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
When he woke up, Charon was there, shaking his shoulder and handing him a glass of water.
“Seriously, Dad, it’s like you never leave this chair. Have you even eaten since the last time I came by?”
Nathan sipped his water slowly. He didn’t know the answer to her question, so he said, “It’s too warm inside. I like the breeze out here.”
Charon sighed and pulled out a lunch bag for him. He watched as she unpacked a sandwich, a bunch of grapes and a cup of pudding onto a paper plate. She brought him food often, much more often than he expected her to. She was good to him.
The plate was pushed into his lap and Charon disappeared inside, probably to clean his kitchen. He ate the sandwich with small, mechanical bites while he contemplated throwing the pudding cup at the rotting apple. It might be enough to knock it loose, and then the breeze would blow most of it away.
Or he could just stand up. He was sure that he could reach it. It really wasn’t that far.
Charon came out again, the door shutting noisily behind her. In her hands was an empty trash bag, and she set about picking up the empty cans scattered around his trailer. Her movements were swift and efficient. They might have even been graceful if she hadn’t been wearing those heavy boots, or if she’d been picking up flowers instead of trash.
As she passed by the tree, he considered pointing out the apple to her. She had been nearly as tall as him since she was 15 and the apple really wasn’t that high up. But he held his tongue, not wanting to bother her with something so small.
“You don’t have to clean up after me,” he said to her as she finished and tied off the garbage bag.
She just smiled and gave him a quick kiss on his cheek. “I don’t mind. It’s good to see you.”
Then she left, just to toss the cans in the big dumpster a few trailers down. He watched her go, before picking up his pudding cup and peeling off the foil lid. It was vanilla, but he ate it anyway.
A sudden bang woke him up, and it took Nathan a startled second to realize that it had only been a car door slamming. His chair creaked underneath him as he shifted his weight to see if it was Charon. He realized that it was dark around him, probably at least 10 o’clock. He’d fallen asleep.
It wasn’t the first time. The summer nights were so hot that he preferred the cool chair to his bed and blankets. Besides, it was easier to simply stay outside. He’d only come out again in the morning, anyway.
A breeze hit his face and he enjoyed one refreshing second of it before the stench of the rotting apple hit him again. His nose wrinkled and he growled in annoyance.
In the dark, the apple was just a shadow between two lighter ones, but Nathan had spent enough time staring that he knew exactly where it was. Three steps, and then if he just raised himself onto his toes, it would be well within his reach.
Nathan braced his hands against the arms of his chair and pushed himself up. Some people grew fat when they aged, but he had become a wisp. His robotic legs had been made for a bigger man, his younger self, and now they were bulky, clumsy things that groaned and shed flakes of rust as he stood. He slowly lifted one and made his step cover as much distance as he could. His right foot clunked against the ground. Two more to go.
The second one was easier. He didn’t know why, but the left joints had always been smoother. He made this step even longer than the first, but as his foot hit the ground he was already panting with the effort. The force sent a shock up through his spine, almost as if he had bruised his tailbone. He paused to catch his breath and looked up at the tree.
He had miscalculated. It would take four steps, not three. But he could see the apple more clearly now. He could even see the stem still poking from the top of it. Nathan braced his back and lifted his right leg once more.
Slam. He went down even heavier this time. His right leg was locking up, and Nathan wondered if it was the rust or just his own frailty that was making this so difficult.
The breeze washed his face in another wave of rot, and he lifted his left foot quickly, wanting to get this over with. Too quickly; he overshot, banged his toe right into the trunk of the tree and went reeling forward. His hands grasped for the branch above him, found it, then gripped with all their might. He managed to catch himself mid-fall, his left leg still perched awkwardly against the trunk.
He slid it down slowly until he felt it hit the ground, then pulled it back. Maybe he should have waited until morning.
His eyes wandered up the height of the tree. He could definitely see the apple now, resting just above him. He reached his fingertips as high as they would go and fell a few inches short. It took him a couple more minutes to position his legs into a better stance for shifting all his weight to his toes.
He rose, his arms stretched overhead, and Nathan felt his hand slip up past the tree branch and straight into a pile of lukewarm slime.
He jerked back in surprise and went wheeling. His right leg locked, forcing his left to suddenly lift up. His hands grabbed for the branch, but he missed it this time and went down in a cacophony of groaning metal and man.
It was minutes before he could hear past the sound of his own heart beating. He lifted his hand to his face before wiping it off on the grass in disgust. Of course the apple had gone to mush; he should have expected that. Instead he’d gone in thinking it would be hard and whole and easily removed.
Nathan chuckled slightly to himself, because really, what else was there to do? Several attempts proved that he was not getting up anytime soon. Whatever had made his legs lock up had locked them up for good. And the smell. The smell of the apple was still on him and next to him and above him. He’d never be able to get rid of it by himself.
He closed his eyes and waited for someone to come and find him.