Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: fiction

Short Story – The Sodomite

This is a new one. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while but was never really able to make it work until just now. And I think it works now. It’s a bit of an exercise in trying to understand myself and my thoughts about life, Jesus and everything good. I was raised in a very conservative religious environment and have been moving toward something different over the past few years. The Sodomite is a bit of a parody of some very popular modern Christian parables linking the idea of substitutional atonement with a judge condemning a guilty crook and then serving his sentence. Anyway, enjoy it and pass it alone!

Strange Things I’ve Learned About Writing

Some of the strange things I’ve learned about writing and all the sucky struggles that come with it.

  • Busyness does not even enter into it. When I first started writing I was working as an elementary school teacher. I taught two grades at once, every weekday. I received my textbooks a few months into the term so I was always very busy with lesson plans, homework marking, test writing, math re-learning and all that silliness. And within a year I had the first draft of a novel finished. The next year I was gloriously unemployed with nothing but leisure time. Despite my desperate yearnings, I wrote nearly nothing. The amount I write, I found, has nothing to do with how busy I am. Like Jello, there is always time for writing if I want it.
  • Multitasking sucks. Driving while listening to music. Cleaning while listening to audio books. Eating while reading. All these multi-tasking habits that I was raised on have been nothing but a burden to my craft. When I turn them off I have more success. So I’ll often drive to work in silence. I try to eat with nothing in front of me. When I read, I do nothing but read. When I work, I do nothing but work. And the mind is sharper for it. And the work is better for it.
  • The search for the ideal environment hamstrung my writing. Not because it was hard to achieve. But because when I finally got it (and I did), it sucked. A huge desk. An optional typewriter. Epic music in the background. It all served to distract. Now I try to write in places that are uncomfortable. I use the tiny ledge of a counter in the kitchen. If it’s too hot, I let it be hot. If I want a snack, I refuse to get it. Writing under perfect conditions is distracting because life is never perfect. And stories are elevated reality, not idealized reality.
  • Glorious things only look glorious from the outside. Remember Dragonball Z? Remember how in nearly every episode there was a scene of Goku flexing like a crazy person while golden flames danced around him and glorious power filled his body? It was always kinda inspiring. I used to figure the same sort of thing would happen in a perfect writing session. So I was always disappointed when it turned difficult. But look at Goku again! From the outside all we, the viewers, get to see is the fire and light and power. But look at Goku’s face. There is pain and effort and heartbreak there. The end result was wonderful, of course. But the summoning of the power was harsh and bloody and raw. That’s the way it is with writing. Pain and blood in the inside. Glory and beauty on the outside.
  • Writer’s block is a lie. Or at least a misnomer. It’s just what happens when the mind and heart turn lazy. And there are two good cures for laziness. Sleep and work. The situation dictates which one is needed.
  • Everyone’s process is different. Stephen King hates outlines. Brandon Sanderson loves them. They’re both right. There is not a lot of writing advice that is true across the board for everyone. Finding my own process instead of relying on the processes of others was one of the best things I ever did for my writing.
  • Resistance is everywhere. Crouching the the corners. Sneaking up from behind. It never leaves you alone. Best be on the lookout for him.

Short Story – Found in a Room

I really think that nerds are going to save us all when the zombie apocalypse comes.

Found in a Room is the result of my over-active mind examining my apartment and mentally preparing myself for the inevitable invasion. When it comes I think I’ll be decently prepared. I wrote it more than a year ago with a great little writing circle I was a part of. I’d love that circle to come back!

Enjoy.

Ontario Writers Conference

Was a blast! I’m still reeling from the exhausting glory-fest that it was. Here are some things that have stayed with me so far:

  • Setting is powerfulGwynn Scheltema led a great workshop on crafting setting to push your reader in the direction he ought to be. It was probably the most informative session of the day.
  • Connections are powerful – I had never really taken my writing ‘outside’ before. To meet others who were at similar progress levels to me was a very comforting experience. I made some great new friends and I hope I’ll see them again as we chase our stories.
  • Spirituality must be practical – There was an amazing author who helped me one-on-one with some of my writing (which is now listed as one of the most encouraging moments I’ve ever had) told me an amazing story of two Taoist monks which brought forth that life-giving truth about how anything spiritual must be practical.
  • The first draft is the hunk of marble – Just get it down. Then begin to chip away to reveal the masterpiece.
  • Stories are sacred things – Because they are acts of creation. Because they hold meaning. Because they give life. Because they hold so much more meaning than sermons or lectures or lessons. And that makes the writing of stories a sacred thing.
  • Writing is hard work – I knew that already. I also knew that anything good is hard. But I think I know it even more now. That’s a great thing to remember because it means I won’t be seeking the ‘ideal’ writing mode or mindset or environment. It’s like a job. Show up every day. Play hurt. No calling in sick.
  • While the specifics of publishing look confusing the core is very simple – Write well.
  • Your writing space ought to be ugly and uncomfortable – You’re not on vacation, after all. You’re writing, for crying out loud.
  • I am a writer. – My one-on-one session was one of the positive experiences my writing life has ever had. It went just about as good as it could have. But that’s not why I’m a writer. Even if it had been a horrible experience, I’d still be a writer. Even if my Blue Pencil mentor had written pages of harsh criticism and marked up my whole piece with piles of corrections, I’d still be a writer. Because writers are just people who write, not people who get paid for writing. And I write. I create stories. And stories are little universes. So I look at the label with respect and a touch of awe. And then I step forward and own it. And that feels pretty damn good.
  • Thanks, OWC. It was a great time. See you next year.

    Short Story – Layali

    I was hoping to throw something else up before putting up another short, but Easter weekend being as busy as it was there was not much else to do.

    Layali is a short story from about a year ago. It’s about a young Afghani girl struggling to find her identity in suburban Canada.

    People are a lot more complicated than we usually give them credit for. We prefer things to be black and white. We like our films to have definite good guys and definite bad guys. We don’t like ambiguity. We don’t like things we can’t label. And that hurts people. Hurts lots of people.

    Enjoy.

    Short Story – Cleaning House

    Cleaning House is one of my newer stories. It’s about a father trying to get his kids to clean the house. Sounds boring, but I don’t think it is. It’s funny and has some witty dialogue. It’s a lot more representative of the type of voice and writing I’m dabbling in than the last short I posted. Read it. Enjoy it. Tell me what you think.

    New Story: The Dark Man

    The Dark Man

    I wrote this in the last few weeks of 2009. I was a fan of anagrams back then and supposed they were a clever and subtle way of putting hidden meanings into my stories. Not sure it worked. In this story, it only succeeded in giving my protagonist a really awkward name. Live and learn, eh?

    The story itself isn’t all that original, I think. You’ll find similar themes in Star Wars and Mistborn and other fantasies. But I think it’s a theme that bears retelling. The theme of monolithic evil turning out to a bit more complicated and, maybe, earning a fleeting sliver of sympathy. And then the questions of whether or not that makes a difference.

    I like this story because it came around the time I was trying to stretch and change as a writer. It’s my first experience with fantasy, my favorite genre, and even though I wouldn’t count it as an especially well-written work, it’s got a special place in my heart. Enjoy it.

    Jim’s Jinn – Part 2

    “Where on earth are we?” Jim asked.
    “Rajasthan.” Frank said as he pulled a pair of Rebook Pumps out of his cap. “It’s a neat little province on the western border of India. Lots of lovely folks live here, but the weather sucks if you ask me.”
    “Oh, I get it!” Jim said. “So the smartest man in the world is like some scientist or something studying stuff out here, right?”
    “No, but come on, they’re about to serve up some tea.” Jim turned around and saw a small group of buildings about a hundred meters off. Just simple little stick huts with a few goats and chickens running around. He followed Frank toward the village. Brightly dressed women walked around the buildings, attending to various daily chores. A few old men relaxed on straw mats on the ground, leisurely talking to each other. It seemed like a rather odd place to meet the most intelligent man on the planet. Frank approached one of the men and began talking in a language Jim didn’t understand. The men stood and welcomed Jim and his green companion into the largest hut of the village. They either didn’t notice or didn’t care that Frank was green and mostly naked. As they sat down on the floor a woman wearing every color imaginable scurried in with a tray of clay bowls filled with hot, creamy tea.
    “This stuff is great.” Frank said to Jim. “Drink up.” Jim took a bowl and drank. It was indeed good, but he was wondering where this super-intelligent person was.
    “She’s coming.” Said Frank, hearing Jim’s thoughts. “She’s killing a chicken at the moment and she’ll come in once that’s done.”
    “She’s killing a chicken?”
    “Would you rather eat a live one? Shut up and drink your tea.” Frank resumed his chatting with the bearded men. Jim couldn’t understand what was going on. What was the smartest person in the world killing a chicken for?
    “For lunch, dumbass.” Frank said, interrupting Jim’s thoughts again.
    “I don’t think I like you poking into my brain whenever you feel like it.” Jim said.
    “I’m not poking, I have limited omniscience. I simply know all there is to know about all people. It’s impossible for me not to look at what’s going on in that puny brain of yours.”
    Jim was trying to think of a witty comeback when a small, dirty woman in her early twenties appeared at the doorway. She was brightly dressed like all the other women of the village with five or six pounds of bracelets hugging her arms and a nose-ring the size of Texas hanging from her left nostril. She was wiping chicken remains from her hands. Frank stood immediately when she entered the room and said many flowery-sounding things to her. He placed his hand on her head and she smiled shyly.
    “James,” Frank said, “I’d like you to come meet my friend, Ajoti, the most intelligent human being on the planet.”
    Had Frank said that Ajoti was an alien from Jupiter doing reconnaissance work among the tribal people of Rajasthan, Jim would not have been more confused. He gave Frank the Jinn a sideways look. He tried to understand what Frank was saying.
    “You mean, one day she will become the most intelligent person in the world?”
    “No, she is already. There is no-one alive today that has a better brain than my little friend here.” Frank said, putting his arm around Ajoti.
    “I’m quite confused.” Jim said with a not-so-bright look on his face.
    “I know you are.” Said Frank. “And let me tell you why. You’re confused because you assumed that the most intelligent person alive would be some sort of doctor or mathematician or something. You can’t understand how this simple-looking girl at my side, who is at present picking her nose with chicken-soiled fingers, could possibly have an intellect greater than all those scientists you see on TV. In fact, she strikes you as rather dumb, doesn’t she?”
    “Well, she is picking her nose.”
    “I’ll tell you what makes Ajoti special. Ajoti has the finest working brain of any person alive today. In fact, it’s the best brain that’s come around for a few hundred years. She really is quite special. However, Ajoti will never become famous. She will never even learn how to write her own name. In fact she will never leave this little village or go to any school, even though if she did she would shock and amaze the world with her staggering intellect. If she studied mathematics, Pythagoras would be quickly forgotten. If she studied theology, she would be able to teach St. Paul a thing or two. If she played chess, Bobby Fisher wouldn’t stand a chance. As it is she studies cooking and cleaning, and I promise you that you have never had chicken like the chicken you’re gonna get in half an hour.” At this Frank said a few quick words to Ajoti and she left shyly.
    “I still don’t get it. If she’s so smart why doesn’t she go to school or try to make this village better?”
    “Do you remember what you learned in elementary school?”
    “I remember I got beat up a lot.”
    “But do you remember what the classes were about? Or even in high school, can you remember the facts and figures you learned?”
    “Not really, but no one does, which is why I think it was a waste of time.”
    “Ah, but it wasn’t actually a waste of time. You know, the brain is like a car. Everybody has a different kind of car for a brain. Ajoti was given a Lamborghini Diablo, your brain is more like a Volkswagen. The thing is that Ajoti’s Diablo has never had a tune up. It never went through the testing and tuning that you got with a basic education. As a result of that it doesn’t run as well as it could. It runs fine, to be sure. She’s quite bright on he own even without education, but it could run so much better. Your education wasn’t actually designed to make you remember facts; it was designed to give your brain a workout. And as a result of that workout in some areas you brain runs just as good as Ajoti’s Lamborghini.”
    “Wow.” Said Jim after the minute of silence it took for him to understand. “I guess it’s pretty tragic that she’s stuck in this village.”
    “Maybe. But she doesn’t think so. She’s quite happy here.”
    Eventually food was served and indeed it exceeded Frank’s predictions. After eating, drinking, eating a little more and having one more cup of tea the two travelers were getting ready to depart. They bid farewell to Ajoti and the tribe and began to walk back into the desert.
    “It really doesn’t seem right.” Jim said after they had walked a ways.
    “I know. It’s far too hot here. But I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it.”
    “I mean about that girl. It seems…evil to let her float along without reaching her full potential. The leaders of whatever country we’re in must be totally corrupt.”
    Frank laughed. “First, tell me, what makes you think she hasn’t reached her full potential? She’s attained a level of happiness higher than most folks. Secondly, lemme tell you, if the most upright, ethical person in the world was running this country, this would not be much different. It’s not always morals that hinder governments from making good changes in their countries. Sometimes it’s just manpower. We’re out in the desert. There’s about five more little villages like that one within twenty miles of this place, how could you build a school here? It’s pretty tough.”
    “I bet a good man could figure it out.”
    “Dude, trust me, I know who the goodest man is, and he really couldn’t do much that’s not already being done.”
    “Who is the goodest man? Could I meet him next?”
    Frank paused for a moment. “What?” He said with what might have been interpreted as fear in his voice.
    “Yeah, that would be pretty interesting.” Jim said. “Let’s go meet the most good person in the world next.”
    Frank looked at Jim thoughtfully and took a cigarette out of his hat. He chewed it slowly and finally said, “No.”
    “Hey man.” Jim said crossly, “I gave up my last pack of smokes and you promised me three wishes. You better deliver!”
    Frank spat out his cigarette indignantly. “First,” he said, “I did not promise you any wishes. I only said that I could do a few things for you. Second, I have already taken you around the world to a place that no Canadian has even seen, I think that makes up for the half-pack of smokes you gave up. Third, I am a powerful Jinn from a higher plane and am accountable to no man, who are you gonna tell even if I did break some sort of deal? I will not take you to the best man alive. I can’t do it.”
    “Why not? I thought you could do anything in regards to people and stuff.”
    “It is within my ability to take you to him, but not within my will. I don’t want to do it, therefore I can’t.”
    “But why not?”
    Frank thought for a moment and said, “You wouldn’t like him much. You wouldn’t appreciate him. It would be a waste of time.”
    Jim paused to take that in. Frank changed the subject before he could think about it too much. “Now, I could take you to the most evil man alive. I think you’d understand that guy a little better.”
    “Why would I understand him better?”
    “You’ll be able to relate better.”
    Before Jim could object green smoke began pouring out of Frank’s shoes. It soon enveloped them completely and Jim noticed the temperature drastically change again as the smoke blinded him. The smoke faded and Jim’s ears were bombarded with a voice over a loudspeaker speaking what he thought was German. It later turned out to be French.
    “Where are we now?” Jim asked, looking around for Frank, who seemed to have disappeared. Jim examined his surroundings and found himself in a desolate subway station. He wandered around a little, wondering if Frank had gotten lost on the way. He heard a train approaching. Above the sound of the train he could hear Frank’s voice approaching in the form of a gleeful scream. The train pulled into the station and Jim saw Frank hanging off the front with a wild grin on his face. He had added a white golf shirt to his wardrobe and was evidently enjoying himself. As the train slowed Frank leapt off like a jungle cat and strolled over to Jim as if he was walking out of a convenience store.
    “Hey there.” He said, doing up the buttons around his collar.
    “What are we doing in Germany?”
    “Switzerland.” Frank corrected. “And we’re waiting for the most evil man in the world to step off the train.”
    “He’s on that train?!”
    “Not anymore.” The train door opened and scores of people poured out. Jim’s jinn took Jim by the hand and pulled him roughly toward the crowd. Frank must have pulled rather hard because Jim noticed his feet lifting off the ground. Soon he noticed that his feet couldn’t touch the ground at all. By the time Jim realized that he and Frank were shrinking they were perched on the right shoulder of a man in a business suit. Jim was about to scream in uncontrollable fear when Frank slapped him in the face with such a force as to throw him against their transportation’s neck.
    “What did you do that for?!”
    “I thought you were about to scream out in uncontrollable fear.”
    “I was not.” Jim said, rubbing his cheek. “What’s going on? Where are we?”
    “Well, I thought that this would be the best way to get to know the most evil man in the world. I personally don’t want to talk to the guy; from here he can’t hear or see us. We’ll just watch him for a while.”
    And so they did. For hours they stayed in their invisible perch atop their host’s shoulder. They watched as he went to work. They watched as he ate his lunch. They watched as he talked with friends, clients and other people he bumped into. Jim was anxiously waiting for him to flip out in crazy evilness or something. But it never happened. Five hours from the time the jinn slapped his human companion Frank decided they had seen enough.
    “What the crap was that?” Jim asked in the coffee shop they retired to after their long day of observations.
    “No kidding.” The jinn said. “Can you believe the nerve of that guy? I’m surprised God lets that one walk around breathing!”
    Jim was confused. “What? He didn’t do anything bad. He was just acting like a normal guy. What was so evil about him?”
    “I keep forgetting that your brain is far too small to pick up the thoughts and attitudes of others.” Frank said this while gulping down a steaming mocha and chewing on the last of his cigarettes. “You should have heard what was going on in his head.”
    “What?”
    “Hate. Just pure hate. With everyone he talked to he was pulsating with hate. He actually longs for the pain and sorrow of pretty much everyone he meets.”
    “How could that be? He was friendly with all those people.”
    “Only because society dictates that he must be friendly. You need to realize that evil is not what you’ve thought it was. Evil starts in the heart. Sometimes it is allowed to grow and exert its power outside through the body. Hitler wasn’t the most evil man to ever live, but his hate was given a lot more freedom than most. I tell you the truth, if that man on whom we sat was ever given the same power that Hitler had there would be a conflict far bloodier than WWII. I feel dirty just having listened to his hate-rants for the last five hours. Evil, evil, evil.”
    “But I saw him give money to the beggar.”
    “Yet you didn’t hear what he was thinking at the time. He hated that beggar. He actually had imagined how it would feel to strangle him to death with his bare hands!”
    “I don’t understand how he would be considered so evil if he didn’t do any evil.”
    “He did do evil. The evil dwelling in his heart was enough to convict him. Evil, evil, evil.”
    Jim computed this in silence over the next five minutes while Frank drank two more caffeinated drinks. Frank stood, took out a few gold coins from his Tupperware hat and tossed them on the table.
    “Well, I’m outta here.” He said, pulling a motorcycle out of his hat.
    “What? You’re leaving?”
    “Yeah.” Frank pulled his hat at the corners. It elongated and formed a helmet of sorts. “I’m done. I have a few buddies I haven’t seen in a couple hundred years. Lots of catching up to do.”
    “But I only got two wishes!”
    “And that’s two more than you deserve. Don’t worry. I’ll drop you off at your home on my way.” Frank started up the bike. Green smoke poured out of the tailpipe. As the smoke blinded Jim he felt something like a fist plunging into his gut. He fell backward against a cold, dirt wall and slumped to the ground. He was back in the cave in which he started.
    “Whoa.” Frank was nowhere to be seen. Jim picked himself up and walked out of the cave. The weather was unchanged from when he entered. He was mildly disappointed with his adventure and mused about that on the slow way home.
    “Why are you disappointed?” Said a voice beside him.
    Jim jumped and turned to see Frank, standing gloriously beside him wearing flowing silken robes and a great gold and red turban. “Holy crap!”
    “Not at all. No crap is holy.”
    “What are you doing here?”
    “I finished catching up and I decided to grant one more wish.”
    “How did you…”
    “Shut up and listen.” Frank said gently. “You got something great and you shouldn’t feel bad if it turned out differently than you thought it would. You’ll find most things that turn out for the best are way outside our best laid plans. You’ve got to realize that the things you see and feel only represent a tiny percentage of what is reality. If you don’t grasp this you’ll never be happy, holy or wise. Unless you’re insanely brilliant you’ll never be able to judge things by their appearances. Remember these things because they are very important: The things you desire most in life will often kill you. The things that hurt you most are often the most helpful. Also remember that you and everyone else are very sinful. The difference between you and Adolf Hitler is negligible compared to the different between you and God. Lastly, only he can give you any amount of joy in this life. Find him and don’t let go. Trust me.” With his last two words he started to sink into the earth.
    “Wait! Why did you tell me all this? What does that even mean?”
    “I just granted your third wish.” The path was at his waist now.
    “I didn’t even make it yet!”
    “I granted the wish that you would have made forty years from now had I not talked to you. Bye bye!” He disappeared in the path, leaving a peach in the place he had stood. Jim picked up the peach. He looked up at the sky and back at the peach. He dusted it off, took a bite and started walking hope. Yep, he thought to himself, August is the best time for peaches.

    Jim’s Jinn – Part 1

    Southern Ontario’s Niagara Fruit Belt stretches from the mighty Niagara River in the east to the tip of Lake Ontario in the west. A visitor would be advised to travel there in August, as the peaches grown in late August are among the best on the planet. Because of the great beauty of this area’s woods and farmlands a few biblical scholars have suggested that the Niagara Fruit Belt is the location of the original Garden of Eden. Some further speculate that the fruit eaten that set the human race on its present course of sin and sufferings was, in fact, a peach. Most agree that if said peach had been eaten in late August, Adam and Eve made a wise choice. A large, wooded escarpment runs through the fruit belt, parallel to the shore of Lake Ontario; a favorite spot for people who like leisurely strolls while eating peaches.
    Jim Marcy lived in a small red apartment building on Murray Street in the little town of Grimsby, just a ten-minute walk from the escarpment. One particular Saturday morning in late August Jim decided to enter the woods for a relaxing walk. He waved farewell to his cat, grabbed a delectable peach and bounced down the front steps, face set towards the bush. The trail that Jim usually followed on his walks was called the Bruce Trail, though Jim didn’t know that. The Bruce Trail began down near Jim’s house and ran west and north for hundreds of miles, one of longest trails in Ontario, but Jim didn’t know that either. He didn’t really care that he didn’t know. Why care about those things that you don’t know about anyway? If you don’t know about it, it must not be important.
    Jim entered the forest and slowed his pace to breathe in the fresh, foresty air. He looked around at the trees and rocks with delight. On his left a small creek trickled in the bottom of a small ravine.
    “What a lovely place, so untouched by human civilization,” he thought as he past a large steel garbage can filled with broken beer bottles. He skipped through the forest, examining the trees with an eye he assumed was trained. He glanced at a mighty oak off to the right of the trail.
    “What a lovely maple,” he said to himself. A little further he eyed a birch.
    “Hmm,” he thought, examining it, “no apples this time of year, I suppose.” Eventually he came to a part of his walk that he had come to many times before: the long stairway up the escarpment itself. On most days he took the stairway up and enjoyed a magnificent view of his entire town and Lake Ontario. Today he hesitated. He looked at the stairs climbing to his right, and then he looked at the creek in the ravine, trickling to his left.
    “I wonder what lies down that way.” He had never strayed from the path before. All his life he had continued down the same road that everyone else had made. Of course, that meant he had never seen anything that a thousand people had not seen a thousand times before.
    “Here is a chance for grand adventure!” he thought as he turned to the left and began tripping down the edge of the ravine. “Who knows what I’ll find! Maybe a rare animal, or some old bones, or something wonderful!” Unfortunately, Jim was thinking far too hard and getting far too excited at this point. His brain momentarily stopped communicating with his feet and he slipped and fell the rest of the way down, landing on his posterior in a cold pool of water at the edge of the creek. Jim was, of course, undaunted. This was merely adversity, and adversity was to be expected because he was a brave explorer searching out strange new lands. He picked himself off and headed off up the creek, wondering what oddities he might find. He past some things of minor interest. He found an old license plate that he was sure must have belonged to a crime lord of the past. There was a rusty shopping cart half buried in the creek, perhaps dropped from the plane that delivers shopping carts to the area. He even found an old doll covered in mud on the right shore of the creek. He left that alone, fearing it may be cursed or diseased. At one point the shore disappeared and was replaced by sheer walls of mud outlining the creek on both sides. Jim was forced to hop from rock to rock in order to continue his quest. And so he did, with great joy at first. He found that he was rather good at the rock jumping. He began to feel rather proud of himself for being so skilled. Very shortly thereafter he was reminded of what naturally follows pride.
    He didn’t notice one rock covered with a green, slimy blanket. As soon as his foot touched it he found himself falling backwards into the creek. His head struck a rock and he was struck unconscious.
    Three seconds later he awoke with a rather unpleasant headache.
    “Look at the sky!” he thought. “It’s gotten so dark. Why, I must have been unconscious for hours, even days for all I know. What a grand adventure!” Jim sat in his place in the water for a moment, wondering what to do. Should continue his journey, or should he turn back and let the rescue teams know that he still lived? As he was contemplating this he noticed a strange-looking boulder sitting up against the wall of the creek on the left side. He couldn’t tell you why it looked strange, only that it did. He got up to investigate it. The boulder was leaning up against the wall in a very unnatural way. Upon a closer inspection he saw that it was actually covering a small hole.
    “A cave!” Jim said aloud. “Who knows what would be inside?” He grasped the bolder with both hands and pulled with all his might. Gradually the bolder moved and fell into the creek with a loud noise and a small splash. Jim gazed into the newly-discovered portal with wonder. Having no fear of rats or snakes or any of the other horrid things that dwell in such holes he ducked in and looked around.
    “How big might it be?” He asked himself. “It could go on for miles under the city. It might lead to the lake or to America even! What luck I found it!” Suddenly he walked into a wall. He took a step back and took his lighter out of his pocket. Lighting it he saw that the cave was disappointingly small. Perhaps five feet high and twenty feet square. He was almost depressed at this until he saw some writing on one of the walls.
    “Perhaps there are some ancient hieroglyphics or cave paintings!” He got close and examined the writing on the wall.
    Frank wuz here.
    He read it again. And again. Disappointed, he sat on the ground with his back to the wall. As he sat he noticed cigarette butts strewn about the floor. Obviously this was no ancient cave. It was just a crummy hideout for kids to smoke without their parents finding out. What a stupid place! What a dumb quest! This certainly wasn’t what Jim had expected when he set out. He sat and stared into nothing for a while.
    “Oh well,” he said, “I suppose I should get going home. I should let the police know they don’t have to look for me anymore.” As he stood to go he noticed something on the floor that had evaded his glance up to this point: a yellow plastic sandwich container. Odd that he didn’t see it earlier. He wondered what was in it. Perhaps a sandwich! That would make his failed quest a little less of a failure, now wouldn’t it? He crawled over to it and picked it up. It was heavier than it looked. That was a good sign. Something must be inside! He stood and began to lift the corner of the lid.
    BANG!
    There was a loud noise that startled Jim so much that he dropped the container and fell back to the floor by the wall. He looked at the upside-down lidless container on the ground. Nothing happened. He eyed it suspiciously and slowly made his way toward it, sad that whatever sandwich might be inside was now on the ground. Suddenly the container twitched a little. He heard a grunt and a trickle of green smoke began to flow from under the container.
    “The sandwich is obviously older than I thought,” he said out loud. Green smoke continued to trickle until it covered the floor of the cave. Suddenly Jim heard a tired and cranky voice coming from the plastic box.
    “Oh, for crying out loud!” it said. With disbelieving eyes Jim saw the container lift off the ground, pushed up by some green shape wreathed in green smoke. The box lifted up to the top of the cave, and there it stayed, the shape under it still clothed in smoke. Jim heard coughing coming from within the smoky pillar and the smoke began to fade away, out the small door. As the smoke cleared Jim saw that a man was standing in the center of the room, wearing the plastic container as a hat. He was short and a little chubby. His face was covered with the sort of stubble a man gets when he hasn’t shaved for a day and he was completely naked, except for his Tupperware hat. He was also green, though that didn’t seem too odd to Jim when he considered that he appeared out of a sandwich container. Jim stared at the green man in front of him, vainly trying to put logic on recent events. Meanwhile the green man began to pick his teeth and look around the cave.
    “Ya got a smoke?” He gruffly asked Jim. Not knowing the rules of etiquette in a situation like this Jim simply nodded and tossed a pack of cigarettes at the green man.
    “Thanks.” The green man took two out of the package and began to chew on them nonchalantly. The rest he returned to Jim. For a few moments nothing was said and nothing was done. The green man continued to chew on his cigarettes and Jim continued to stare in awe and disbelief. Eventually awe gave way to slight boredom.
    “Um,” Jim began hesitantly, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what are you?”
    The green man looked at him blankly for a moment. “Frank,” he said.
    “Frank?”
    “Yeah. Frank. That’s my name.”
    “Well, my name is Jim,” Jim said as he stood. He held out his hand toward the green man Frank, mainly because he didn’t know what else to do.
    “I know your name, Jim Marcy,” Frank said as he shook his hand. “How ya doing?”
    “I’m okay,” he said, still trying to convince part of his brain that he was shaking hands with a naked green man who seemed to live inside a sandwich container. “What are you?” He asked.
    “Me?” Frank said very casually. “I am a jinn, created by the Great Power millennia ago from the smokeless fires of Jannat. I have beheld with my eyes that which no man can see and live. I have contemplated truths that would drive the wisest of men to insanity. I have felt the undying bliss and the never ending sorrow of omniscience. I am jinn.” He yawned.
    “Jinn? Like genie?”
    “Same thing, pretty much.”
    “So I get three wishes?” Jim asked, his astonishment giving way to excitement and greed.
    “No.”
    “What? Why not?”
    “I think you’ve been reading the wrong genie legends. Most genies don’t actually give three wishes. Some are pretty bad-tempered, actually, and would kill a guy for opening their container without permission. You’re pretty lucky I’m easy going.”
    “So I don’t get any wishes?”
    “You might,” Frank said as he swallowed his chewed-up cigarettes.
    “Might?”
    “Yeah. I might do a few things for you if you give me the rest of your cigarettes.” Jim quickly handed his pack over. Frank took them out and stuffed all but one into his Tupperware cap. The other one he placed in his mouth and began to chew, smiling.
    “So…” Jim said after a few seconds.
    “So?”
    “So do I get some wishes?”
    “Sure,” the green jinn said. “What do ya want?”
    “I wanna be the richest man in the world!” Jim said excitedly.
    “Sorry. No can do,” Frank said shrugging.
    “What do you mean? You said I could get some wishes!”
    “Yeah, but there are some things I can’t do for you.”
    “But it’s so easy; just give me a bunch of money. Do you need my bank account number or something?”
    “It really doesn’t work that way. Listen, how much money do you want?”
    “I dunno, just a few billion.”
    “Okay, do you have any idea what a few billion dollars appearing out of nowhere would do to the economy? You’ve already got a nasty problem with inflation; injecting a billion dollars into circulation would just make it worse. On top of that, how would you explain such a massive bank account to the government? Do you think the income tax guys are gonna believe that a green genie just gave you the money? You’d probably be audited and you don’t want to know what sort of taxes you’d have to pay on a billion dollars. Trust me, kid, it’s not worth the hassle, you’d regret it later on.”
    “Oh, I never thought about it that way.”
    “Few people do.”
    “Hmm.” Jim thought for a moment. “Okay, I got an idea. Why don’t you make me a super-famous actor or something? That way I can get the money myself and have a really easy job too!”
    “I should probably tell you something right off the bat; genies are not nearly as powerful as your movies make us out to be. We all have our special talents, and if you get us all together you could probably get whatever you want, but every jinn is pretty specialized. There are only a few super-cool things we can do.”
    “So what can you do for me? What kind of genie are you?”
    “I’m what you might call an anthropological genie. I know pretty much all there is to know about every country, people group, culture, race and individual on the planet. I can tell you all about folks if you want.”
    “That’s it?”
    “Hey!” Frank said, looking defensive. “I think that having anthropological omniscience is pretty impressive, boy!”
    “Sorry. I just thought I’d be able to get something out of this.” Jim wanted his cigarettes back.
    “Dude, you can get something out of this. You know, I can introduce you to anyone on the planet. I can take you anywhere on the earth and you can visit the most unusual people there are. I think it’s a pretty good deal. Is there anyone you want to meet or see?” Frank swallowed his cigarette and pulled another one out of his hat. Jim thought for a moment. Maybe this wouldn’t be a total loss.
    “Okay.” Jim said. “There is one person that I’ve always wanted to meet.”
    “Who?”
    “Uh, I can’t remember his name.” Jim snapped his fingers, as if that would help him to recall. “I don’t know his name, but he’s the smartest man in the world. He’s in a wheelchair and he can’t talk.”
    “Oh. You mean that Steven Hawking guy?”
    “That’s it! Steven Hawking. I’d love to meet him!”
    “Sure thing.” Frank said, pulling a pair of red boxer shorts with yellow smiley faces out of his hat. “But are you sure you want to see him? He’s not really the smartest guy in the world.”
    “He’s not?”
    “Hell no. He’s not even in the top ten. I could take you to the real smartest person in the world.” Frank but his boxers on, much to Jim’s relief.
    “Sure, yeah, take me to the smartest guy in the world. I’d love to meet him and talk to him.”
    “Giddiup, on we go!” Frank said with a wicked smile. Smoke poured out from under his hat and in a minute the cave was full of smoke. Jim noticed the temperature suddenly rise. When the smoke began to clear he found himself standing in a sandy desert. Beside him Frank was hopping from foot to foot, cursing the hot sand.

    TO BE CONTINUED

    How to Eat

    I was thin. We all were. No. Thin is the wrong word. Thin is what you call someone who is not overweight. I was worse than thin. I was stick-like. My bones seemed to be fighting to break free from my skin. I once held my belly so tight that I was pretty sure I felt my spine on the other side. We were not thin. Thin is a hundred pounds. We were something else. Something wrong. Something that would have made you stop if you passed us in the street. Stop and stare and point and retch.

    It was the hunger, of course. I live in a land where there is no food. Not just a shortage of food, mind you. No food. None. Ziltch. Nada. We are born starving, live starving and eventually die of starvation. So when I heard about a restaurant opening up in my town, I was intrigued.

    I didn’t tell my friends I was going. They would have laughed at me (have you ever heard a starving man laugh? It’s nothing you want to hear). None of us really believed that those places actually had any food. But the hunger was sharp that evening, so I went.

    It took up the corner of an out-of-the-way intersection. The night was arid and dusty, like it always is. The dust made me think of rain – something I had never seen but heard of in the fantasy novels I read. It made me thirsty. The lights were on and there seemed to be friendly sounds coming from within. I quickly checked to see that no one I knew was watching, and I went inside.

    You have never been truly hungry, so you will not be able to appreciate the sensation those first smells caused. The thick and heavy aroma of beef was in the air, twisting at my insides and fanning my desire so that the pain of hunger brought tears to my eyes. I almost collapsed. But there was hope in the pain. Hope of a meal.

    A man in a black suit came up to me, trying to pull his sallow face into a grin.
    “A new customer! Yes, how nice. Table for one? Of course. Yes, follow me!” He turned and led me to an empty booth and bade me sit. “Just a moment, sir, and I shall be back with your meal. Yes? Yes. Now you must be patient, of course. Good things come in time and in time you shall see that the time you timed paid off in the end, yes? Yes. But now stop your fidgeting and sit up straight, for this eating business is a serious business, yes? Yes. And try to wipe that spittle from your lip, yes that’s a good lad. You wouldn’t want to dishonor your meal by coming to it all sloppy and ravenous. That just wouldn’t do, would it? So, yes I shall go and bring everything you will need in order to enjoy your meal. But you must be patient, yes? Of course yes.”

    And so he went. The smells were stronger this far into the restaurant. I could see other customers, talking with each other, but the walls of the booths were so high I could not really make out what it was they were dining on.

    Time passed and I suppose the pangs had gotten worse because when the man returned he gave me a look and shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, dear sir. You mustn’t look so pained. That’s no way to approach a meal. But no matter, put on a cheerful and controlled face and all will be well soon, yes? Yes. Now I’ve brought you all the things you’ll need in so that you may enjoy your meal decently and in the correct order.”

    Here he started taking things off his tray and placing them in front of me.

    “First, of course, you have your dining clothes. The outfit you’ve come in with might have served while you were a pitiful starving wretch, but now that you are well fed you need to dress the part. It’s not the clothes that make the man, of course, but I could hardly call you a proper man with the clothes you have on. So chop chop and get dressed.”

    I obeyed. As I dressed he continued to talk while piling my table full of things. Plates and utensils. Cups and saucers. Napkins and finger bowls. There was a book about the nutritional value of the meal. Another book about the journey the raw materials took from the farm to the plate. Another blank book was for me to record my thoughts of the meal. Higher and higher he piled the junk, so that it covered the table. And, as it creaked and wobbled higher than my head, I realized the sickening truth. There was no food to be had at this place.

    I was about to ask, but he seemed to see the question in my eyes. With a glimmer he put down the tome he was about to heave atop the other objects and spoke. “Impatient, hmm? Don’t trust, eh? Tsk, tsk, dear brother. What shall we do with you? You think you can just demand the meal in the way you want it? Hmph! You must come on the meal’s terms. There are no others! But, no matter. May I present your dinner.”

    Here he made a flourish and pulled a plate from the tray. The food steamed and drove me wild with its smell. What was it? I cannot remember. I only remember that deep, glorious sensation running through me. That inexpressible thought: I shall soon eat! He placed it on the table in front of me.

    I drove at it, reaching with my hands, drooling at the mouth. The sallow man moved and intercepted my hands.

    “Been here so long and yet learned nothing? Tsk, tsk,” he said. “Patience!”

    “But I’m so hungry,” I croaked. I felt tears forming in my eyes.

    “But to eat with your hands is so vulgar! And you still haven’t read the books I’ve given you about the meal! Read them, first. Learn to use a fork and knife. Then you’ll be worthy to take part in the feast, yes? Yes.”

    I stared up at the books. At the utensils. At the daunting barrier this sallow fool had put up between me and my meal.

    I pushed him aside, gripped the food in my hands and bit down hard. My teeth met plastic.

    I gnawed on the chew toy for a while before fully realizing that it was fake. I looked down at the pathetic waiter and realized that he was as thin as I. Indeed, as I gazed about the restaurant, I saw that no one was eating – they talked about food, read about food, but ate nothing. No one was healthy. We were all starving to death like everyone else.

    I left. The man cursed at me as I went. He called me a rouge, a delinquent. He said that I lacked the digestive strength to devote myself to my food when times were hard. But what was I to do? Why pretend to be full when I still starve?

    I stumbled into the street, my hunger made more clear and sharp than ever before. And I fell to my knees and screamed at the sky, begging for food. There was, of course, no answer.

    I started to walk home. But I kept walking after I arrived. I walked right past my door. I couldn’t get food out of my mind. Nor the sensations of the near-food I had encountered. I almost turned back to return to the restaurant. But that thought was sour in my mind. And so I walked and walked. I walked all over the world, searching for food. Searching for a people thick and healthy. Searching for a man who makes true food, and who only bids me eat. I searched a long time.