Horrible sci-fi stories! The world wouldn’t spin without ’em. Well, it would, but it would spin a great deal less awesomely.
You know the drill by now, folks. Every five weeks I put up one of my most insanely awful trunk stories: pieces of short fiction I’ve written that have been rejected by almost every major New York science fiction publisher there is. This is universally awful stuff, here. I’m putting it on the web so I can teach you how not to write science fiction.
And so, without further ado, I present…
“I’m starting to think I should never have become a trauma nurse. You can’t save everyone, you know? It’s so hard to accept. Every day I go to the hospital and emergency cases come in, and I see their faces—grey-headed old ladies, sweet teenage boys, angelic little girls—and I hear their voices, and I know that in three or four minutes, some of them will be dead. Dead, Nils. Dead and gone. I’m getting tired of seeing so many people I can’t help. Honestly, I don’t know how much longer I can do it.”
I didn’t really hear or process what Mariah was saying, because her teacup was screaming too loudly. Mariah’s tea was too hot. The poor thing was being scalded. I reached over, grabbed my plastic cup of iced tea, drained it in a few gulps, and poured the steaming tea into it. The plastic cup grumbled, but the ice ameliorated the tea’s sodden heat, and the plastic cup shouldered the teacup’s burden without further complaint.
“Nils, for God’s sake,” Mariah said irritably, snatching the plastic cup away from me and sipping sullenly at the tea. “You’re not even listening to me. And why’d you pour my tea into your cup? If I’d wanted iced tea, I would have ordered iced tea.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. How could I have explained?
I scooted a foot or so to my right, deeper into the diner booth; the seat was beginning to moan. I could hear its sigh of relief as I took my weight off the outer edge.
“I swear,” Mariah said, putting her now-lukewarm tea down in disgust, “you are the strangest man I’ve ever met. Always pouring drinks into different containers, scooching around in your chair, readjusting pictures on the walls…”
“What can I say?” I asked her. “I’m obsessive-compulsive.”
I started to drum my fingers on the laminate tabletop, but stopped when I heard it yell out in irritation. Must’ve hit a sore spot.
“Obsessive-compulsive, my left butt-cheek,” Mariah said, pushing a thread of brown hair behind her ear and staring out the window at a 300-pound man levering himself into his tiny Ford Fiesta. “You’re downright neurotic. You treat everything like it’s made of glass.”
I heard the Fiesta scream in agony as her blimp of an owner dropped his full weight upon the driver’s seat. The transmission sagged and squeaked as it took the load. I winced.
“Well,” I said between clenched teeth, “it beats being a bull in a china shop.”
“You never used to be like this,” Mariah said, her face softening, freckles popping into greater relief, her greenish eyes standing out more sharply against the muted grey light coming in the window. “What changed?”
My hearing got better, that’s what.
“I dunno,” I said. “I suppose I just started caring more about what was around me.”
“There’s caring, and then there’s what you do. What the hell was up with you and that table last weekend, anyway?”
I grimaced again. The table. I’d been trying to forget it.
“I just didn’t like the way one of its legs was hanging loose,” I answered. “I wanted to pry it off and set it down before it…before it fell on somebody or something.”
I also didn’t like the way the table was yammering and howling and shrieking in blind agony as its leg hung loose by a flimsy particle-board tendon, but of course I couldn’t tell Mariah that.
“So you spent—what—twenty minutes in the middle of the street trying to yank it off?”
I wanted to ask Mariah what she’d have done if she’d happened upon a horse or a cow or a dog on the Fifth Avenue curb, its leg swinging by a thread and cruel pain searing through every nerve—whether she wouldn’t have stolen a gun off the nearest traffic cop and blown the poor thing’s brains out. But of course, I couldn’t.
“I just hate to leave stuff like that alone.”
“Jesus, Nils. If you go around trying to fix every inequity you perceive, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Don’t I know it, Mariah. Don’t I know it.
We got up and paid for breakfast. The cashier, a sallow-skinned, sour-pussed teenage girl, slammed my change down on the countertop. I distinctly heard both the counter’s growl of protest and the individual coins’ yelps of pain. I gingerly scooped the change into my palm and stuck it in my softest pocket.
“You know, you should try being a bit more gentle with things,” I said to the girl, before I could stop myself. She looked at me like I was some obscure, seldom-seen relative handing her a vomit-colored sweater at Christmastime.
“What for? I didn’t break anything.”
I shook my head and followed Mariah out the door.
I secretly hated these little walks she and I took on Sundays, but with her doing rotation after rotation at Mount Sinai and me compulsively spending every evening painstakingly rearranging the contents of my refrigerator and silverware drawer, the walks were our only opportunity to spend time together. Still, they were never all that fun. Today was no exception.
“Have you finished taking up your carpet yet?” Mariah asked me. I shook my head, trying to ignore the tortured cries of the Persian rug being beaten with a tennis racket a couple of alleys up. I took Mariah under the elbow and sped up a bit until we were out of earshot.
“Do you want my help? I bet it’d be fun. I could help you throw out some of your junk. You’ve got so much useless crap in that little place.”
“Yes, I do,” I said. Because if I threw it away, I’d have nightmares about it all being ground into a pulp in some waste management facility.
I took Mariah under the arm and steered her down Tenth Street. There was construction a little further south on Fifth Avenue; I could hear the jackhammers from here. I could also hear something else—a thin, high-pitched, keening wail. Asphalt or concrete, one of the two. No matter. We’d just have to take University Place to get to Washington Square. Scenic detour.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Just want to avoid the construction. It’s too…noisy.”
We walked for a while in silence. Mariah said something, but I didn’t hear it because someone in a third-floor apartment had left their window open and I could hear the tiny, agonized shouts of their Rolex watch banging around in the clothes dryer. I shut my eyes until I couldn’t hear it anymore.
Mariah stopped walking, hands on her hips. “Nils, pay attention to me. I’m talking to you. For Pete’s sake, you never act like you’re quite all there.”
Could anyone be “all there” hearing what I heard every day?
“Sorry. Please repeat yourself.”
“I was just asking whether you’d given any more thought to moving in with me and Betty…”
I pulled up short. My eyes were glued to the window of the first-floor apartment across the street. The one with the flower box with the loose screws. Barely hanging on. Screaming for help.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I breathed.
Three weeks. Three weeks that flower box had hung there, loose. Dear God.
“Nils?” Mariah said, but I paid her no heed. I put my head down and dashed across the street. A blue Honda screeched to a halt, blaring its horn. I dodged around it and flung myself, Spider-man style, onto the wall of the apartment building. I grabbed the flower box. It wasn’t even screaming anymore, not after three weeks. It was just kind of a low, throbbing, continuous moan.
“There, there,” I crooned. “I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you. Everything’s going to be all r—”
The screws tore loose.
I watched, as if in slow motion, as the box ripped away from the brick with a shower of rotted mortar and rust-colored dust. It fell fifteen feet into the recessed stairwell and shattered into a million pieces. Its moan rose to a final, terrified crescendo—one last shriek of mortal terror—and then died away to a rasping, gasping sigh. It might have been gratitude.
I turned. Mariah was there. So were about six or seven passersby, a young blonde woman with a tiny dog, a chubby Hispanic dude in a Jets jersey, a curious black kid on his bicycle, and others. Staring at me.
Awkwardly, I jumped back down, stepping to Mariah’s side and ushering her away.
“Nils, what in God’s name was that all about?”
“Nothing,” I said, my voice a cracked, soggy mess. “I just…I know what you meant when you said you couldn’t save them all.”