“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)
Yesterday I was feeling completely listless and dull-witted. Couldn’t work up the energy to do much of anything.
Then I remembered a couple of photos Sherron sent me. Sometimes, in the morning light, our kitchen walls get these really cool shadows and patterns projected onto them; my visually-oriented wife noticed this pair and took some shots with her cell phone.
I called up the photos, placed them side-by-side on my computer screen, stared at them for about thirty seconds.
Then I grabbed my blue Hilroy exercise book…and started scribbling. No thought, no pre-planning, just went for it.
It’s an old trick…worked for the surrealists and, by God, it worked for me.
Here’s the story, accompanied by the images that inspired it:
* * * *
The Test Subject
ALL RIGHT, TERRY, YOU KNOW THE ROUTINE. WE NEED YOU TO TAKE US THROUGH WHAT YOU’RE EXPERIENCING AND DESCRIBE—
It’s hard…I don’t…there aren’t any…
COME ON, YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT. WE NEED SENSATIONS, COLORS. PAINT US A PICTURE.
(Laughter) You don’t…it isn’t like that. God, I wish I could explain, show you…but there’s no (indecipherable), no, ahhhh, common reference points.
ARE YOU DISORIENTED, DO YOU—
What? Did you say ‘distortion’? Everything’s distorted. It’s like…like…
…this kaleidoscope…constant movement…twisting and spiraling…
ARE YOU FEELING NAUSEOUS?
I feel—oh, Jesus! Jesus! Did you see that? It just…wow…this bolt of pure blue light…zipped right past me and it—I swear it smelled like cinnamon.
THAT’S WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR! YOU NEED TO DESCRIBE THE EFFECTS, HOW THIS THING MANIFESTS ITSELF. TERRY? TERRY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
I know. I see what you’re…but it’s really got on top of me and…and…it’s just too…and then everything just changes, like that! Did you see it? Like the whole universe suddenly switched polarities and—and flowed in the opposite direction. Whoa, trippy. And there’s something…I see something…
I dunno…a shape…presence…now it’s up there, by the ceiling, sort of floating…
POINT. SHOW US WHERE YOU MEAN.
There. It keeps shifting, flowing, like I said. I can’t quite…it blends in with these other blob things…they kind of swirl and mesh…yeah…swirl and mesh…mesh into a mess…
WHAT ELSE? DO YOU GET A SENSE OF ANY—
–someone turn up the heat? It’s freezing in here.
THE TEMPERATURE IS KEPT AT A CONSTANT 24 DEGREES CELSIUS.
I’m telling you—fuck! That time it zoomed right past me. This bright-colored blur…I could’ve reached out and—
TELL US WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE. GODDAMNIT, TERRY—
It’s made of light and…uhhh…wow! Oh, wow…there it is. Hovering, just in front of me. Holy shit, I think it’s looking at me—
EASY, TERRY, COME ON NOW. YOU’RE TRIPPING, REMEMBER? IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD. SO GET A GRIP—
It’s staring at me, man. Studying me. I’ve never…I’ve seen little green men before but…this thing knows…
KNOWS? WHAT DO YOU—
–knows I’m here and it’s curious too. Wondering who I am, what I’m doing. This is its backyard and I’m trespassing on…
–ONLY AN HALLUCINATION—
Bullshit! Bullshit! There’s something in here and it isn’t just the fucking drug. It sees me. It sees me and I want out. Get me out of this! Somebody! I need to–
Gimme the fucking antidote! I want to (indecipherable). This is fucked, this is totally—
AT THE REQUEST OF THE TEST SUBJECT WE ARE DISCONTINUING THE SESSION AND—
What the fuck are you? What do you want from me? Keep away from me—
IT’S OKAY, TERRY, WE’RE COMING IN. BOB AND ANGELA ARE RIGHT OUTSIDE AND THEY’LL—
Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus– (Heavy breathing, panting)
It’s coming, it’s—ahhhhh…Christ, it’s got me…help me…it’s–(indecipherable).
(Shouts of alarm, a woman screams)
BOB? ANGIE? SECURITY! SECURITY! WE HAVE AN EMERGENCY SITUATION UP HERE AND WE NEED A COMPLETE LOCKDOWN, REPEAT—WHAT? WHO’S THAT? WHO’S THERE? IS SOMEONE OUT THERE? HELLO? HELLO?
I. The First Crime Scene
The suspect toes the ground resentfully, tight-lipped, shrugging in response to the Magistrate’s queries. Evincing probity and incomprehension, but also giving the impression of barely concealed insolence.
The man is a pitiful liar.
Again the Magistrate demands that the creature divulge the circumstances of his crime and reveal the location of the body. Corpus delicti. Yet despite Supreme Jurist’s obvious frustration and rising anger, the guilty party continues to fend off his remonstrations with hostile silence.
And then, miracle of miracles, the accused mutters something, a curt, sly rejoinder, sotto voce, practically inaudible.
The wretched beast actually raises his eyes, no longer cowed and obeisant, meeting the Magistrate’s gaze directly. “I said, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’”
The Magistrate is stunned. Everything abruptly freezes, a complete cessation of sound, movement extending across twelve dimensions and countless timelines; the equivalent of a collective, celestial gasp.
Oblivious to the dismay he’d wrought, Cain is washing his hands in a nearby stream, immersing them in the pure, clear water.
Frowning at the stubbornness of the stain.
II. The Last Crime Scene
ARU-2466/TLS-13 spots a glint of white at the base of the escarpment, near a recent slide or rock fall, descends to fifty feet, hovering.
It looks like…could it be…
There are mandatory protocols to follow, the ARU unit knows this. Any evidence of the Ancestors must be recorded and transmitted, the site left undisturbed. After all, this is sacred ground.
But the drone lingers, awed by the scale of its discovery, observing at once that the skeleton, though well-preserved, shows indications of massive trauma. The legs shattered, spine and skull split and sundered. An accidental fall from the precipice above?
A series of rapid, almost instantaneous calculations. Answer: unlikely.
Like many of its counterparts, ARU-2466/TLS-13 is aware of the legends surrounding the End Days. The Ancestors, once a great species, reduced by war, famine, disease and deprivation. Squabbling over increasingly scarce resources, raiding and killing until they were all but extinct.
Could this be one of the last survivors? Isolated, forsaken, appalled by the poisonous wasteland its kind had made of the planet?
Remorseful, perhaps, capable of one final act of contrition, a form of ritual self-slaughter.
The evidence is persuasive but hardly definitive.
ARU-2466/TLS-13 drops a beacon, dipping its wings respectfully as it makes one final pass.
Others will investigate the site, draw their own conclusions.
The drone returns to its regular search pattern, a virtual grid superimposed over a bleak, exhausted terrain.
Continuing an eternal, seemingly fruitless search for signs of life.
© Copyright, 2015 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.
Regular visitors to this blog know that these days I rarely submit my work to outside publications (why should I when I can publish anything I want either here or through my imprint Black Dog Press?).
But this year I came up with a tale that was so good, I really wanted to see it featured in a respected magazine, one boasting a literate readership. So, in March, with some trepidation, I submitted “Restitution” to two of Canada’s premiere literary publications, The Malahat Review and Descant.
TMR got back to me last month with a form rejection slip upon which some arsehole editor had scrawled “Cool concept, try us again!”. You wanna know why CanLit sucks, look no further. The vast majority of editors in this country belong in a fucking head injury ward. And then yesterday, after almost nine months, I hear from Descant magazine. It was the proverbial good news/bad news scenario: my story had successfully navigated the vetting process but, unfortunately, Descant is closing its doors after its next issue (Winter, 2014).
Okay, that does it. Rather than wait around another year to see this fine tale in print, I’m posting it here and over on my Scribd page. To hell with it. “Restitution” is the best story from 0-2000 words you’re going to read this year. You don’t believe me? Fine, have a look for yourself. Afterward, I’ll be waiting around for your fulsome apologies:
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)