“Invisible Boy” is my best known and most frequently anthologized story. It appears in my collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination and has become one of my signature tales.
I’ve performed it frequently at live readings but, for some reason, resisted recording it.
I’ve rectified that oversight, adding some music for dramatic effect.
Hope you enjoy my rendering of a favourite short story:
Endless processions of driverless cars.
Delivering their contents to automated houses.
Under the constant scrutiny of cameras, overhead drones.
Smart appliances reporting preferences, behavior, patterns; mined for data, narcing to their corporate masters.
Election night: voting by remote control, hardly bothering to check the results.
Keeping your head down, mouth shut.
Addicted to livestreaming porn sites.
Disgusted by the state of affairs but powerless to effect any change.
Buying stupid trinkets to fill the void.
Drugs when nothing else works.
An epidemic of suicide in your age bracket.
Desperately lonely and neurotic, verging on anti-social.
In your solitary rooms, secured by triple locks.
Talking to yourself and the listening walls.
Waiting for the knock on your door.
© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
One final plug for my short story “The First Crime Scene”.
Remember? Or maybe I “Tweeted” about it…
Anyway, I entered it in an on-line contest because I liked the site, Inkitt, and its founder was nice enough to issue a personal invite. I’m a sucker for civility.
You can check out the story here, decide for yourself if it’s worthy—and if the answer is “yea”, please click on the little red heart to register your vote.
It’s a good story and if I get a few more tallies, “The First Crime Scene” might sneak into the top five.
It’s not prize money I’m after, my name in lights—no, I genuinely believe this little, itty-bitty tale manages to accomplish a lot in 500 words. Have a look and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ll close off this brief post because, well, I can’t sit here any longer. My first really serious bout of sciatica. A week of pain and finally the meds and my wife’s TLC are starting to make a difference.
An intimacy only death allows.
Forced into close alignment to conserve space.
A press of upturned faces.
Rows and rows, near a field of spring wheat.
Bright sunlight, a perfect cloudless day.
In defiance of this latest atrocity.
* * *
The Last Room
Is someone there?
Why don’t you come nearer?
Step into the light…
I can barely see you.
There’s so little time.
Please, show yourself.
I don’t want to be alone.
Take pity on my penitent soul.
* * *
—careening down a narrow path, bucking and weaving through the forest, in headlong flight.
“Hurry! It’s catching up with us!”
Realizing my mistake when the trees around us begin to glow, giving off a vivid, blue light.
The ground vibrating, feeling it through the floorboard beneath my feet.
“Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus, help me—”
The light coruscating, fierce, accompanied by a blaze of heat, the exterior of our vehicle starting to blister and smoke…
* * *
Reporting as ordered, funneled in with the rest.
Hemmed and jostled, barely able to move.
Exhausted and compliant.
A clipped, officious voice from the loudspeaker, appealing for calm.
Distant shouting, the news spreading in visible ripples through our midst.
The gates are closing…
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
My chum Yury Sabinin has been very busy of late.
If you recall, he’s the chap who has taken it upon himself to translate some of my best stories into Russian. Originally, he set himself the task because he had a acquaintance back in Russia (Yury currently resides in B.C.) who he thought might appreciate my work. But she spoke no English so he very magnanimously decided to do the translations himself—he got in touch with me to secure my permission for the endeavor and I was genuinely touched by his devotion to his friend.
Here are his translations of two of my most well-known short stories, “The Hibakusha” and “Cattletruck”. Both are post-apocalypse tales from my very first collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination (1990)…but they couldn’t be more different. You’ll find the original English versions on my Novels & Stories page. Meanwhile, for those of you fluent in Russian, check out Yury’s translations. Click on the PDFs below and away you go:
And each time I’ve tried to explain that I after I finished So Dark the Night, I fully expected to write more accounts of my partners in crime…but it just didn’t happen. I could no longer hear Nightstalk’s voice and, after awhile, moved on (with regret) to other things.
But a few weeks ago, my old friend Evgeny Nightstalk dropped in for a visit. Not an extended stay, I could only pry a short story out of him, a case from their first months together, an affair (wouldn’t you know it), set around Christmas time. Maybe Nightstalk was cutting me some slack for his long absence.
Here’s the first part of “Finding Charlotte”…if you’d like to read the rest, click on the link and you’ll find the complete PDF. Free reading, I should add: read it, download it, share it with friends. And if “Finding Charlotte” strikes your fancy, have a look at So Dark the Night. It’s a grand adventure, my two supernatural detectives involved with all manner of Lovecraftian monstrosities and occult-oriented schemes. A fast-paced yarn, I think you’ll love it.
* * * * * * * *
Finding Charlotte (A Zinnea & Nightstalk Mystery)
Cassandra Zinnea called them “C.O.N.C.s”. Cases of no consequence. She could be snooty like that sometimes. I told her once, hey, even Sherlock Holmes realized they can’t all be Studies in Scarlet or whatever. When you get handed a lemon, y’know, make lemonade.
She didn’t buy it. She got bored pretty easily. Very Holmes-like that way. Only she had different diversions than a seven per cent solution of cocaine. It’s debatable if they were any healthier in the long run but, well, that’s a discussion for another time.
The affair involving the disappearance of Charlotte Bednarski didn’t have a promising beginning and you’ll have to decide for yourself if everything worked out for the best in the end. I’m not what you would call big on analysis. That’s my partner’s domain. Smart and gorgeous, the complete package. Miss Marple and a Victoria’s Secrets model all rolled into one. As kind and decent a human being as you’re likely to encounter this side of Heaven. And that’s why it was nearly killing her giving the Turnbulls the bad news.
“—so terribly sorry,” Cassandra said, standing in front of our shared desk, her voice quaking with emotion. “It’s official policy and I’m afraid there are no exceptions. We don’t handle missing persons cases or divorces. We’ve found they both involve too many…complications. You say you’ve already been to the police—”
Dennis Turnbull snorted. “Fat lot of good they were. Wouldn’t give us the time of day, would they, hon? What’s this world coming to?” He was chubby, forty-ish, some kind of nerd. Baby fat and large, soft features. Likely cried during sappy movies and was good about helping with the washing up. A “girly man”, as my buddy Arnold would say.
I was hearing warning bells. The cops in Ilium may not have been top drawer in many respects but they tended to ramp up their game when there were children involved. “How long did you say your kid’s been missing? Two days?” They nodded, tired and discouraged, leaning into each other. The wife seemed older, utilizing a full palette of makeup to disguise her true age. Offhand, I’d say she applied it with a trowel. But they were nice people, just addled, desperate. “You gave us the impression she was quite young…”
“Around nine, I would say,” Cheryl Turnbull confirmed, “but small for her age.”
That sounded funny but at that point Cassandra jumped in. “So this isn’t any ordinary runaway. She’s under-aged, alone out there…” She choked up. Mrs. Turnbull nodded, the two of them close to blubbering.
“That’s what we tried to tell the police,” she croaked, “but they wouldn’t listen.”
I could see my partner wavering and decided enough was enough. “Yeah, that’s, uh, definitely strange and if I were you I’d, uh, definitely go back there and get them to put out an A.P.B. on your daughter and—”
Dennis Turnbull was shaking his head. He tapped his wife’s leg and they rose together. “We’ve been humiliated enough, thank you very much. That Detective-Sergeant or whatever he said he was. Snowden…” I glanced at my partner. “You must know the man. He’s the one who told us to come down here. ‘The court of last resort’, he called you.”
“He’s an idiot,” Cassandra said.
“What she says,” I added.
The Turnbulls helped each other on with their coats. We could only stand there and watch.
“I have to correct you on one point, Mr. Nightstalk.” Dennis Turnbull tugged brown leather gloves over his thick fingers; it was a cold night, a week ’til Christmas, the wind off Lake Erie downright lethal. “Charlotte wasn’t our daughter. My wife and I are childless by choice.” She offered us a thin smile. Not entirely by choice, it seemed to say.
Now I was really confused. “So…she was a niece? A neighbor–”
“Oh, no, she lived with us.”
Cassandra and I exchanged befuddled looks. “Adopted?” she ventured.
“No, she was there when we moved in.” She saw our bafflement. “She came with the house.”
Nope, still didn’t get it. But Cassandra did, I could tell from her spreading smile. Suddenly the case had become much more interesting.
I blundered on. “She was living there? Like…squatting?”
“No, Nightstalk,” my partner corrected me. “She’s always lived there.”
The Turnbulls smiled at each other. “She’s the reason we bought the place,” Cheryl Turnbull confided. “The location is nice but the backyard is far too small for our tastes.”
“We both like to garden,” Dennis chimed in.
“But once Charlotte made herself known to us…we knew we couldn’t let it go.” They were standing by the door. “It’s been ten years now and we’ve never regretted it a moment.” They clasped hands. Forming a common front.
Cassandra’s demeanor had undergone a radical transformation; all at once she was in full hunt mode. “Now that we’re more fully apprised of the situation,” checking with me for confirmation, “I think we might be of service to you after all.”
“Just don’t call her a ghost,” Cheryl Turnbull pleaded, crossing toward us, holding out her hands, a big purse looped over her wrist. “That awful Snowden man kept saying that. I hate it. Ghosts are feeble and sad and pathetic. Charlotte is none of those things. She has a personality, a—a—”
“Easy now, dear,” her husband coaxed her, “we’re among friends here.” He regarded us hopefully as he patted her shoulder. “It’s nice to be with folks who don’t make you feel like you’re, y’know, coo coo.”
“We’ve lost friends, even our families won’t come to visit.” Cheryl Turnbull managed to look hurt and defiant. “Just because we set an extra place at the table or put on her favorite show when it’s time. What’s that to any of them?”
I could only manage a sickly grin so they focused their attention on my lovely colleague. She, in contrast, gave off waves of understanding and empathy.
“Come over here and have a seat. We’ll start again.” Signaling me. “My associate, Mr. Nightstalk, will take down the particulars. Give us a bit of background and talk about the day she went missing. All the details you can think of, no matter how inconsequential they might seem.” I found my steno pad and a pen. “Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this…”
To read the complete story, click here: Finding Charlotte
From his favorite hideaway, five storeys above the ground, Little Po is an inconspicuous witness to the chaos below.
There has been talk of trouble for weeks, soldiers and police regularly taking up stations on street corners, stopping and harassing people, making a nuisance of themselves. Intimidation is the norm with the ruling junta but this time, it seems, their tactics have only succeeded in making things worse.
Shouts and screams, the rattle of automatic weapons and crak-crak-crak of small arms fire. Smoke drifts over the neighbourhood, a grey, evil-smelling pall. There are makeshift barricades and men roaming about with home-made clubs and pop bottles filled with gasoline. The building shudders from a nearby explosion, a crump as a burning car bursts its seams, provoking whoops and cheers from the surrounding crowd.
Little Po is safe or, at least, safer than he would be down there, in the midst of the mob. Some women have joined in, adding their unmistakable shrieks to the din. Most of the men are intoxicated, swilling alcohol looted from a nearby store. They swagger about, brandishing crude weapons, their courage fortified by drink. The boy creeps back under the overhang created by ducting and ventilation works. Finds his tattered blanket and slips into an uneasy sleep, sucking his thumb for comfort when the tumult disturbs his slumber. This sooty rooftop, shared with none but the occasional stray cat and roosting pigeon, is a refuge, shelter from a dangerous and hostile world.
He wakes to dull morning light, the stench of burning rubber.
His hunger is an undiminishing ache, a twisting, voracious worm in his guts. He spends most days in a surreal netherworld; sick, confused and disoriented. Bumping into buildings or colliding with passersby, clutching at them for support and being swatted and cursed for his trouble. He begs, he steals and still only manages to scrape by.
As he descends via the rickety fire escape, he is aware that slowly but surely he’s losing the battle. Malnutrition is eating his frail body and soon he will be reduced to nothing. When someone reaches such a state, people say that person has “joined the invisibles”. One day, they’re simply gone, evaporating into the air, leaving nothing behind, not even an ounce of bone dust to bury or mourn over.
The first person he spots when he ventures out is Old Fania. Her pet monkey chatters on her shoulder and she makes a warding gesture at him. He gives the witch a wide berth. The monkey eyes him sullenly but is constrained by a short leash made of twine. The little beast has been known to inflict a painful and septic bite.
The streets and avenues have been transformed overnight. Rubble and debris are scattered carelessly, gutted buildings stripped of everything that can be carried or dragged away. He scours the ground for leftovers, something to eat or barter. But he’s competing with other scavengers who fiercely guard the meager leavings, growling and threatening him if he approaches. He is smaller and weak and therefore must go without. It is not that ordinary folk are unsympathetic or hard-hearted, it is merely that deprivation has become a way of life to the people in this part of the city. They have been herded together, marginalized, made to feel they must fend for themselves. Poor and increasingly desperate, they have lost any sense of shared or communal suffering.
The riot last night followed days of demonstrations, spontaneous protests against the inhuman living conditions. There have been scores of deaths, nervous soldiers shooting into crowds, protesters beaten and dragged away by security forces.
And finally the world press has taken notice. Reporters flood in and, congruently, the economy goes into a tailspin as investment money dries up, foreign nationals leaving in droves. It is a familiar, sad story in this region of the world.
Little Po drinks from a puddle and forages from a dumpster behind a restaurant. He is covered in rat bites and festering sores that won’t heal. He knows that his situation is increasingly desperate but there is nothing to be done about it. As he clambers out of the stinking bin, the back door of the restaurant bangs open and an employee toting a five gallon pail of grease and slops spots him. They regard each other for a long moment and Little Po finally slinks away, what little food he has found clutched in his fist.
There are rumours that local businesses have hired a squad of off-duty cops and given them the job of ridding the city of riff-raff. Some kids were gunned down as they sat on the steps of a church. A church. In the last two weeks, several dozen street urchins have been either killed or spirited off in dark vans, never to be seen again.
Later that morning, Little Po is walking through a park and spots Fish and the Silent One. Fish has fresh bruises on his face, rolled for pocket change. And the thing is, everyone knows Fish has absolutely nothing worth stealing. He tells the joke that he’s so poor, someone once cut him open and stole his heart. And he’ll show you the long, zippered scar to prove it. The Silent One glowers behind him, a menacing presence. His head is squashed, misshapen. He can’t speak but his dangerous mien says don’t fuck with me, brother.
Little Po falls in alongside them and they head off to the mission together, stand in line for a bowl of watery soup. Supposedly there is a piece of chicken in there somewhere. Either donations are down or the priests have been dipping into the collection plate again. Little Po deftly palms an extra slice of bread, the maneuver escaping the sharp-eyed Brother’s notice.
When they finish, they hang out in the graveyard for awhile. Fish produces three precious cigarettes but smoking only makes Little Po queasy so he puts his away until later. Soon afterward a cranky old caretaker shows up and chases them away.
Fish says he wants to stop by Ven’s place, that he’s heard something and Ven Ficus is the one to go to if you have information to trade. Depending on his mood, he’ll either reward you generously or snap his fingers and have you turned in to a human pretzel. But Taft, Ven’s imposing gatekeeper, says his bossman isn’t in today and hints that it’s in their best interest to fuck off. Now.
Fish is disappointed but vows to come back later. Taft goes back inside and they hear him say something to the other hoods. Mocking laughter follows the trio down the street.
As they walk, Fish has to keep stopping to retch. Every time he does, he groans. He says something feels broken inside. Little Po and the Silent One exchange grim looks. Who knows when the free clinic will open again. The French doctors who ran it were declared persona non grata and given forty-eight hours to clear out. No one has replaced them. Word is the junta was embarrassed to have foreigners tending to the needs of the poor. This past winter Little Po caught a bug that made him cough until his ribs ached. He truly believed he was going to die. His lungs still feel tender, especially on cool days.
In the early afternoon he parts company with the others, waving as he angles away.
Despite the soup he is still famished, light-headed. He thinks about the slice of bread in his pocket, the one he is saving. Little Po takes out the bread, raises it to his mouth and bites off a piece. This is the way it is. You are hungry and when you have food, you eat.
Later he will curse his greed. This, too, is the way of things.
But for Little Po, time has shrunk, contracted, the future no longer measured in years, months, weeks, but days, perhaps hours. His skin is transparent, his arms and legs thin, meatless. His joints ache; pain and hunger and despair are constant companions. The world around him is losing definition, leaking away at the edges.
Soon he will join the invisibles. It is almost certain. He knows this. Maybe even tonight, on his rooftop haven, under the high, eternal stars. He wonders what it will be like to be dead. His undernourished imagination has a hard time grasping the notion. The priests speak of heaven and hell during the sermons that are mandatory with the free meals they dispense. In the afterlife our sins are remembered and judged. The worthy are rewarded and the evil ones consigned to an all-consuming fire where they burn forever and ever, a-men.
Little Po steers a course toward the only home he has, occasionally stumbling, nearly falling. Traffic rolls heedlessly by. The soldier on the corner stares past him, through him. A few moments later, Little Po looks for his shadow and can’t find it.
Perhaps it is only the angle and intensity of the sun. He moves on, seemingly lighter than air, no longer able to feel the hard, unforgiving ground beneath his feet.
© Copyright, 2009 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
* * * * *
“Among the Invisibles” was written the last time I entered a short story competition.
It didn’t even make it past the initial round of readers.
You understand now why I rarely enter these stupid contests?
To read more of my tales (and some novel excerpts), go to my Fiction & Novels page.