Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"Mass Effect 2"'s loading screen is not what it appears to be...

So I realized something the other day. I was playing "Mass Effect 2" because I'm too broke to afford new video games and consoles and "Mass Effect 2" is one of the best games I've ever played. Maybe this is something other people have noticed...it only just occurred to me for the first time recently.

So, if you're unfamiliar with the game, "Mass Effect 2" is a direct sequel to the first game of the same name (besides the "2", obviously). It pioneered a feature that would import data from the first game (if you played it through to completion), thus applying the consequences of said choices to your new game in "ME2", the first game in history to do this. It begins by establishing that you are, once again, Commander Shepard...the same Commander Shepard from the first game. Without spoiling anything, I'll simply add that in the first five minutes of the game, it makes things pretty clear that aside from Shepard, everything that was true and baseline for "ME1" has been thrown directly out the airlock.

Instead of fighting for the Alliance Navy, Shepard takes up with a shadowy black ops organization backed by an eccentric multi-billionaire, known only as The Illusive Man, who is voiced by none other than Martin motherfucking Sheen. He's basically Kevin Spacey's character from "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare" if he were about 1000% wealthier and 10,000% more charismatic. In the picture below, he's wearing the future space equivalent of a $3,000,000 Armani suit. The bourbon isn't fancy future bourbon, though. It's just damn good bourbon.



You know he's a bad dude because he smokes CIGARETTES. 


If you played through "ME1", you might recognize the name of the organization - Cerberus. If you didn't, all you need to know is that Cerberus funded a number of illegal genetics labs you can find in the first game, and ordered the assassination of an Alliance Admiral, whose corpse you eventually find should you seek out on the necessary side-missions.

It's obvious Cerberus aren't exactly the good guys. A big part of the game's first few hours are characters addressing the moral grayness of Cerberus while considering that their current goals, stopping the abduction of hundreds of thousands of colonists outside the Alliance's jurisdiction, is an unambiguously good one. Still, your new ship includes an illegal artificial intelligence, most of the specialists you're told to go recruit are mercenaries and criminals, and the crew all speak glowingly about Cerberus and how happy they are to work for them in a way that, before long, makes you start to feel like you've joined a cult.

It's established several times throughout the game that the Illusive Man is shrewd, but definitely not trusting. He's laid bugs all over the ship, and your XO, one of his most trusted agents, regularly sends him secret reports about your activities. Which brings me to my revelation.

The loading screen of "Mass Effect 2" is quite different from "Mass Effect 1", or even "Mass Effect 3". In the latter two, your loading screen is of your ship traveling through space at Faster Than Light speeds. If you travel to significant locations, like the Citadel, sometimes there's an omniscient third person shot of that instead...that is, an objective perspective outside of any character's point of view. The only exception is that your loading screen is sometimes that of Shepard's personal work computer. That's not the case in "Mass Effect 2."



See the difference?



That's not the only thing that's different. In "ME1" and "3", there are generally only ambient sounds accompanying the loading screen. In "2", you hear ominous music, a far cry from the silent hum of mass relays in "ME3" or "ME1". No loading screens where the Normandy is shooting through space from planet to planet, either. Just ominous music, and an orange technical display of the Normandy SR-2 that highlights different areas as you move through the ship. It appears to be tracking your movements.

Occasionally you need to make landfall in locations and situations where a bulky spaceship wouldn't fit or would attract too much attention, so you get transported to your mission in the Normandy's UT-47 Kodiac drop shuttle. In such situations, you see the readout of this as well.

The presence of the spooky music does a great job of supporting the tone of "ME2", which is intended to be the dark middle chapter of the series. It's also the only installment in which Shepard fights for Cerberus. I kept coming back to the music and the weird tech readouts of your ships. It just seemed strange that this was the only game whose loading screens were designed this way.

Then, I realized something...earlier in the game, we see a similar HUD somewhere else, being read by someone very significant to the plot. I still can't believe I never realized this before.








The loading screen isn't just a loading screen...you're seeing what the Illusive Man sees. The loading screen is his perspective while he's spying on you.

It's an old game at this point, but it still holds up. I first played through "ME2" in 2011, yet now in 2017, I'm still finding new things about it to love. Brilliant, subtle game design choices like this are the mark of a truly great video game.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The euphemism of "Fan Service" in anime and how it normalizes sexual misconduct


WARNING: Discussion of the depiction of sexual assault in popular media below. Reader discretion advised.




It all began when...


I like a nice anime every now and then. I've re-watched Season 1 of "One Punch Man" so many times Netflix now regularly displays recommended anime shows on my home page.

One such show, bearing the proud mark of "a Netflix original" and a "93% Match", appeared to me a few days ago. It's an anime called "The Seven Deadly Sins." It looked to me like a schlocky generic fantasy anime at first glance, which almost caused me to skip it. I hesitated, remembering Bill Burr's bit on how he fell in love with "One Punch" after trying it out on a whim. So, I decided to be adventurous and give it a shot.




The first episode was what I expected out of any first episode; slow to warm up, the introduction of a cast of characters I thusfar had no reason to care about who would no doubt be fleshed out in later episodes, and a dramatic intial scene that established the setting and the stakes of the plot. It turns out, the show isn't about the Seven Deadly Sins in the biblical tradition. The eponymous "Sins" are actually disgraced knights from a medieval fantasy world who are wanted criminals, each personifying a different "Sin." There's a character for gluttony, wrath, lust...and so on. I thought this was a cool premise and continued watching, eager for the "Sins" to make their first appearance.

After watching the first episode, I concluded it was a competent if run-of-the-mill medieval fantasy anime with one crucial flaw, a flaw which totally soured my impression of the whole thing.

One of the show's main characters, a young male named Meliodas, gropes an unconscious female character  named Elizabeth within the first eight minutes of the first episode. I'll write that again...within the first eight minutes of the first episodethe main character sexually assaults a sleeping girl

It's played off as a "light-hearted" joke; the unconscious character was seen walking around in a heavy suit of armor before passing out from exhaustion, and the groping was explained by the character to be his attempts to discern the sex of the poor girl. As if he needed to touch her breasts to, you know, fucking see that she had them. 

SDS: Get it? It's funny because he's a creep!

ME: ...can you put your pants back on, please?


Most of these, the supposed central characters, hadn't even been introduced
before this took place. Though she's not pictured here, this includes the
sleeping girl Elizabeth, whose name was only mentioned after she
had been established as an overtly-sexualized character.

Besides the egregious sexual misconduct, the odd thing about this scene is that Meliodas seems puzzled that a woman was walking around with a full suit of armor, which would normally imply that she's a knight. It's later established that female knights are not an oddity in this world and that he has close personal friends who are so.



"Fan Service" and its role in anime


This kind of shit, unfortunately, is a rampant problem in anime. It's called "Fan Service", in that the creators of the media in question are attempting to "service" fans by indulging in their assumed, unspoken desire (in most cases presuming that the audience is male and heterosexual) to see a female character in a revealing or deliberately tantilizing state of dress, regardless of its contextual congruousness. "Fan Service" often manifests as blatant objectification, sexual assault, or even rape.

Anime that are guilty of this attempt to file the edges of these acts down by painting it as an "endearing" trait of a character. The perpetrators aren't sexual predators, they're "scampish" or "hopeless romantics". "Fan Service" is so common in anime it's often treated like an invisible, inextricable element of it. Most fans claim that they watch such shows for things like magical sword fights and interesting characters, and that "Fan Service" is something they don't pay attention to. Yet, "Fan Service" is a prolific feature of a shocking number of popular anime shows, most of which do not have plots that actively revolve around the sexuality of its characters.

"Neon Genesis Evangelion", for example, is an extremely popular and venerated anime show that features a character-driven plot and copious giant robot fights, not to mention tremendous amounts of this manner of gratuitous titillation. One could make the argument that a significant aspect of the plot is the ascent of several protagonists into puberty amidst the show's other plot elements, but keep in mind, we're talking about the sexualization of children there.

The story of "Evangelion" is of humanity's struggle against powerful monsters and is streamlined with copious metaphors and imagery from Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Hideaki Anno, creator of the show, originally promised that fans would have "something to drool over" in every single episode. In later episodes, he stopped doing this, and episodes that did include something of the sort often included the character in significant emotional distress - one might presume this was an attempt by Anno to retract his former attitude and express that the objectification of women is harmful to them. I'm not sure if that's a genuine attempt at redemption on Anno's part, but it seems the guy might have taken a step backward when he meant to go forwards.


Pretty sure this character is like, fourteen.


"Shonen/Shoujo" vs. contextually-ambivalent titillation



"Shonen" and "Shoujo" are genres of Japanese books, movies, and television shows specifically tailored to fit either a primarily male or female audience. Plot-oblivious nudity and sexuality are widespread in both of these genres; in many "Shonen" shows, for example, there are typically numerous instances of characters in revealing swimsuits, scenes where the audience's point of view is specifically angled to best view a female character's breasts or butt, or outright female nudity. Female characters in this genre, even young girls, often have large breasts and slim figures. In "Shoujo", this trend is present as well; male characters are either extremely slim and handsome or have physiques akin to superheroes. They also frequently appear in tantalizing situations.


Because of this practice of compartmentalization by genre-to-sex, corresponding characters whose sex are opposite the show's intended audience tend to be overtly sexualized. However, acts of sexual violence or misconduct are far less common in "Shoujo" than in "Shonen".

Some modern anime shows have begun to address this curious trend; the subversive "Monogatari" series, for example, consists entirely of archetypical "Shonen" and "Shoujo"-inspired characters and situations. Each episode attempts to deconstruct these tropes by emphasizing their incongruousness with the plot, as well as the salaciousness of the characters perpetrating them, especially the primary male protagonist, Koyomi Araragi. The parodical element of this comes from the show's rejection that such situations are in any way normal or even ethically permissible, as opposed to the tendency of similar anime accepting them as such.

Though this example is of a show that often manages to succeed at this, in many cases attempts by "Monogatari" and anime like it fail to create effective parody and end up simply indulging in the same tropes.


Is it hot in here?


Not just an "Anime Thing"


While gratuitous titillation may be a common thing in many popular anime shows, movies and manga (a specific style of graphic novel originating in Japan), similar examples of non-contextual gratuitous titillation can be found in other cultures, including that of the United States.

Cheerleaders in the NFL are one example. They don't need to be there. The point is supposed to be football, not hot women doing high kicks. Also, have you ever noticed that football is the only sport that engages in this practice?

Another is Marvel Comics' release of "Marvel Swimsuit Specials", in which popular Marvel characters were drawn in lithe, form-fitting swimwear. This sort of "Fan Service" was supposedly extended to female readers, as male superheroes were depicted in roughly similar circumstances...despite the audience of Marvel at the time being overwhelmingly male. This is to say nothing of the frequent gratuitous sexualization of female characters throughout the Marvel universe.

Captain James T. Kirk of "Star Trek" and James Bond, lauded as pop culture icons, are frequently sexually aggressive, transgressive, and abusive towards their female counterparts. Though these "romance" scenes are meant to vicariously actualize the (male) audience's presumed sexual attraction to their female leads and supporting characters, in the case of the original "Bond" films especially, this sometimes includes physical violence against sexual partners and several instances of rape.





Normalization and wider influence


"Fan Service", gratuitous titillation - whatever you want to call it, isn't simply harmless or merely annoying. It normalizes things like, well...groping an unconscious woman on a whim, and worse.

Back to that horrific scene in "The Seven Deadly Sins"...I managed to push through the rest of the first episode after that, despite it and the vapid characters and plot. I wanted to see if there was more to the show, and if the aforementioned transgressive scene was thrown in as a one-time thing out of some twisted sense of genre-specific obligation, like the first episode of an HBO show usually includes gratuitous nudity in the hopes that viewers will tune in for the rest of the season. 

There was no further groping, but the blatant objectification of Elizabeth continued. Then, it happened again in Episode 2, even sooner than in Episode 1. Pissed that this show apparently intended to constantly force me to watch a young girl get sexually assaulted ad nauseum as a condition for hearing the rest of the story, I immediately shut it off.

I began reading articles about "SDS" online, and apparently, I'm not the only one to have been super upset by this show. As I suspected, it doesn't stop in Episode 2. It actually gets worse. 

Later in the series, Meliodas is propositioned by a potentially consenting sexual partner, whom he rebuffs, saying with haunting sincerity, "sorry, but it's not the same if you're told to do it." Yep, he specifically says that someone consenting to sexual behavior is a turn-off for him. He literally says, "non-rape just doesn't do it for me." And this is the guy we're supposed to be rooting for!

I've heard the argument that since the characters aren't real, there's nothing to fault the creators of the show because no real people are actually getting hurt, and that "if you don't like boobs, then just don't watch the show, bruh." 

These and other equally flawed arguments are of course part of the problem. They end the conversation just as it begins by concluding that there is no problem, without presenting any evidence. The thing that makes this dangerous is that it prevents anyone from addressing that there are very real consequences to things like this. If sexual assault in fictional media is considered, not even necessarily normal, but morally acceptable or "okay", then those unable to dissociate fiction from reality, or those lacking real-world experience or guidance from a trustworthy teacher, may also conclude that such things are "okay" in the real world as well. 

This show is marketed towards teenagers and mature adults, but with its TV-14 rating on Netflix, you bet your ass that kids even younger and more impressionable than 14-year-olds have and will see it. Teenagers are in a part of life where they are particularly suceptible to influence, and the things that influence them at this stage in life are readily internalized for life. This is even more true for younger children.

Young boys don't need more negative influence from any culture. Boys and young men are encouraged by cultures across the world to view sexuality as a "challenge", a contest of will and determination, rather than a means to emotional and physical connection with a consenting partner. 

Dog trash like this show is why college athletes get pardoned from blatant sexual assault because serving time would "hurt their sports careers." It's why women all over the country fear walking alone at night and carry a can of mace in their pockets. It's why sexual assault and rape survivors, tragically, don't always come forward and report their encounters or pursue justice for them...because it's seen as so normal, a male character can do it in a kid's show, and it's just par for the course.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Junk Drawer # 1

Whoops! Missed my release date.

I meant to publish something yesterday afternoon, but unfortunately, something came up and I wasn't able to write a post. So, I'm doing it now.

I decided to post a quick update about my life. The weather's been rainy and cold all week, and my brain has been rather sluggish, so I'm having trouble finding things to write about. That said, I figured I'd just post a few things that have drifted through my thoughts lately, similar to Reddit's "r/ShowerThoughts" section. This is going to be very, very experimental, but it might be something I turn to whenever I literally can't think of a single thing to write. I'm calling it a "Junk Drawer" post because where else do you put loose shit you don't have any other place for?


Junk Drawer # 1


1. The generation that grew up loving "Lord of the Rings" in childhood became college-age right around the time "Game of Thrones" first came out. I don't know if it was intentional, but it seems like perfect timing. "Game of Thrones" is like "Lord of the Rings", but with deeper characterization and more violence and nudity.

2. Every time Trump comes close to impeachment, some new controversy steals the media's attention for weeks. Despite all of his advisors turning on him, somehow he's still in office. Seems uncanny.

3. Dogs have noses that are 10,000 times more sensitive than humans, yet they love smelling gross stuff. Maybe that's because they have different mental attitudes towards things humans consider foul-smelling, or maybe it's because dogs can smell awesome things in poop and garbage that humans can't?

4. What's the point of getting into political discussions on Facebook? Nobody's mind ever gets changed and it usually just ends with two former friends shitting on each other. If one side is persistent enough, the other side always ends with the cop-out, "well that's your opinion", or something similar. Sometimes they block communications with the person they disagree with entirely. I can just picture a cartoonish corporate CEO floating above the digital realm of Facebook, rubbing their hands with glee at the futility of all that misdirected anger.

5. I keep wondering about a very arbitrary scenario...wine and whiskey, or beer and gin and tonics. If I had to keep one combo and get rid of the other, which would I choose? I think I'd go with wine and whiskey because wine is technically better for you and bourbon is my preferred spirit. Yet I would undoubtedly miss beer and the odd G&T, which is my go-to when I'm ordering cocktails at a bar. Framing your own opinions like this really puts your own thoughts and behavior into perspective.

6. I definitely need business cards, but I think I need to change the name of this blog first. I liked the cute pun for awhile, but with the implied connection to a Confederate warcry, and especially in light of the current political climate, I really don't think that's something I want associated with my brand.

7. I should start referring to my own career and image as my "brand." Sounds cool and professional.

8. Honey badgers are the worst. I'll not add contact to that statement. Better that way.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Goat


Happy Halloween!

I'm trying to keep to a more regular posting schedule. I'm trying for shorter posts Tuesdays, longer ones Thursdays.

I figured since Halloween falls on a Tuesday, I'd try to post another scary story that I literally wrote on Halloween...tonight!

I originally posted this short, short story for the "Short Scary Stories" subReddit. You can check out the original post here. If you're not familiar with it already, the point is to write the scariest story you can, using the least words you can. 

I may release one more after this...I wrote a scary story about a bizarre dream I had last December, but I may also hold on to that until next year...it's rough, and I think I need to work on it a lot before it's ready. Otherwise, I'll post something else Thursday, so keep an eye out for that for sure.





The Goat


Never go out after midnight. If you have to, wear all black and don't bring a flashlight.

Never let your pets go outside after dark, unless you're not particularly attached to them.

Never count on your cell phone. The towers are too far away, and the light will draw Him to you.

Never try to meet Him. You don't want to meet Him.

Never chase after cries for help...especially if they're coming from the woods.

Never believe someone's voice if you can't see them. Even if it sounds like someone you know, someone you trust. If it's dark, don't try to see. Just run.

Never eat meat the night before Summer begins, not even fish...don't let fresh blood hit the open air. Not even indoors.

Never talk about the ones who break the rules. They deserve to be forgotten.

Always remember: He's closer than you think. And He's very patient.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Faye

Image from Flickr

I'm continuing my streak of regular posting for the second week in a row! Since this is the last week before October, I figured it'd be appropriate to end the month with one final horror story. This is one I wrote over a year ago, as part of a series of four stories I wrote in a month for submission to a short story collection. Of the four, only The Summit (see in earlier posts this month) was selected for publication. This one won the silver medal, mostly because it needed a LOT of workshopping. 

While I still think there's more I could do with it, I think it's at a point now where it's publishable, at least on my own blog. I have a thing where I write all the time, but I never try to publish anything I write, nor show anybody. I'm trying to do less of that.

I've enjoyed posting this stuff, but I have to admit, I feel self-conscious about my work, which is probably why I don't post it or submit it for publication more. I also want to stress that none of my stories are based on people in my own life, nor do the characters necessarily share interests, opinions, or experiences of my own. Just really, really want to stress that - these are all works of fiction, and they're based in the horror genre, so they get a bit dark. I feel like I shouldn't need to offer such a disclaimer, but being as we are in the dawn of the age of Social Media and it's not uncommon for speculation to turn into accepted "fact", I recognize that you have to watch what you post these days. If you're reading this, and you're someone I know personally, just remember that I never base a character wholly on one person in my life, if anyone. Most stories that I write like this are dark fantasies, and coming up with those are fun for me.

That said, without further delay, here's my final horror story for the month. I'm planning on doing something similar, but more fleshed-out next year, so check back October 2018 if you want more stories like The Summit, Eyes in the Dark, and this one...












Faye



I don't know how it happened. I don't know why it happened – yet every person I've dated for the past few years…I don't know how she did it – it always turned out to be her.

Sometimes she was blonde or a redhead. Sometimes she had dimples. Sometimes she was shy, sometimes totally indiscreet and forward. Sometimes she was great in bed – sometimes not so much. 

No matter who she disguised herself as it would always turn out to be her. Somehow, it was always "Faye."

I first met Faye when I was twenty-three. I was working at a small PC repair shop fixing hardware for a living. She was allegedly still an undergrad. She had red hair, blue eyes. She had the slightest overbite, which I found super cute. I'd never taken a woman home from a bar before.

That night was mostly a blur, but what I remember wasn't just the sex and booze. It was almost like a spiritual experience. It was as though our bodies spoke to each other for the first time in a language I thought only I spoke. We folded together like we were made for each other. She made me feel more alive than I’d ever felt. I would give almost anything to feel like that again.

Almost.

One night, she'd told me she was into witchcraft. She read me tarot cards, talked about crystals and healing energy…I remember thinking, okay, she's one of those people. I don't want to judge her, I told myself. Whatever weird stuff she was into, I wouldn't let it ruin everything.

She told me one night she wanted to try "something new." I told her I trusted her.

She tied me up and blindfolded me. She said she'd be right back – that the waiting would make everything "more intense." I was actually getting pretty excited until I heard a sharp, metallic sound…

I wiggled the blindfold off just in time for Faye to appear in the doorway…

…only it didn't look like Faye. Not exactly. I didn't know what she was...I still don't. Her body looked human enough. Same collarbone, shoulders, same waist and hips I'd come to know with great intimacy. Her face was the only thing different, but it was so different. It kept getting more different. I swear on my soul, her face was changing.

Her eyes, her lips, her hair, the shape of her skull, the color of her skin kept shifting and changing so quickly her features blurred all together. Like a television screen flipping through every channel. I don't know how else to describe it…she had a million faces and one, all at the same time.

In her hand was a huge, curved knife.

I panicked. Somehow, I don't remember how, I struggled until I was free and escaped from my own apartment.

I found my way to a friend's house, where I stayed the night. In the morning I was too scared to go back to my apartment, so I stayed another. I didn't sleep much. I couldn't stop looking out the window. I had a panic attack every time there was a knock at the door.

I swore I would never let my guard down again.

I went to the police, but Faye had disappeared. I told them where she lived – I had been over to her place a few times. Turns out, "Faye's" apartment belonged to a woman who had disappeared about a week before I started seeing Faye. Her body was found in a ditch outside of the city. I have slept with a murderer on her victim's bed.

I tried to continue a normal life. I moved to a new apartment. I changed jobs. I changed phones. I made a new Facebook account with a different name, one that was harder to search. Eventually, after years and lots of therapy, I was ready to date again.

I started seeing someone new – Beverly. She was a nursing student. She loved hip hop and scary movies. She had blonde, curly hair and brown eyes. For months, everything went really well between us.

Beverly had mentioned she was concerned about my unwillingness to talk about my past, especially my dating history. She kept trying to get me to open up, but I would always change the subject. I could tell it annoyed her. We started getting into arguments about it. She became more distant, and I knew I was about to lose her. 

She was just worried about me. She was just doing what people do in normal relationships. I wasn’t going to let Faye ruin it for me.

I told her we could talk, but she had to be patient with me. I’d never shared it with anyone before. She said she was there for me, and I could take all the time I needed.

I started at the beginning. I’d met Faye at a bar, but I was too shy to ask for her number. It was weird, but we kept bumping into each other after that – at the library, at the gas station…once on the street. It was maybe the fourth or fifth time we met that I finally worked up the courage to ask her out.

I told her about the last night I saw her. Beverly’s eyebrows curled when I described hearing the sound of the knife, the hopeless feeling of being stuck in the restraints as she approached…her face…

Beverly gave me a hug. She was warm. I felt safe with her. Finally, for one moment I didn’t feel scared. I had forgotten what that felt like.

Then she asked me what the woman’s name was. I told her.

“Her name is Faye.”

At first, she didn’t react. Then I saw her eyes light up. She started laughing, first a hearty chuckle, and then it got more intense. She was cackling. She was laughing so loud, it hurt my ears. I kept waiting for her to stop, but she kept laughing.

Her laughter became so intense, it seemed almost painful. If she was in pain, she seemed to enjoy it.

“You said it!” she cried, practically sobbing with laughter. “YOU SAID IT.”

I couldn’t believe it.

“YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT! YOU SAID IT!”

I ran as fast as I could. I didn’t even put my shoes on.

So it went for years. It was harder and harder each time to trust people enough to let them into my life. Lightning probably wouldn't strike the same place a third time, right? Well, it did. I mean, it almost did – though I guess I don't even really know if it was her. I'm pretty sure, though. We were talking about bands we liked, and she said something the first version of Faye said a lot…I think it was a philosophy quote? I wouldn't know…"without music, life would be a mistake." That was it. Faye had said it more than a few times. I guess it could have been a coincidence? I think it's supposed to be a pretty common quote, so it may have been a coincidence. If it was, I may have dipped out on someone who may have been a normal person for no reason. I feel like a dick when I think about it that way. I wondered if I should try to reach out to her, apologize for disappearing, hope she would understand, but of course, she wouldn't…who would believe me if I told them? How could I explain without sounding crazy? Plus, at that point, I wasn't going to risk it. It was just as likely to be a coincidence as it was Faye mocking me, dangling a smoking gun right in front of my face, knowing I would wrestle with it until I forced myself to pretend not to have noticed, or question my own sanity until I could no longer tell reality from paranoid delusion. Not if I wanted to hold on to the hope of ever escaping her and living my life again. She knows me too well.

I thought the last one was different. She really put up a hell of a charade with that…form, or whatever it was. I really thought it wasn't her…but then she said that goddamn quote and my brain sank into my stomach and all I could think about was that last night with Beverly. 

I don't care about feeling lonely anymore. I just didn't want her to find me again...but she has.

She always does.

Someone, anyone who finds this…I want someone to know what happened to me. She's outside, I've seen her. It's got to be her. She's standing under a pine tree just over a hundred yards away. She's been there for around two hours now. It's dark, and she's someone new again, but it's definitely her. She's got black hair now, and blue eyes.

Please, tell someone, anyone. Tell everyone you can. I just want someone to know what happened. I don't want this to happen to an

oh god


the window

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Cooking with Matt: The Broke-Ass Millennial




I want to start a new creative project, and I need your help.

As November draws closer, I begin my annual ritual of telling myself I'm going to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a sort of event where aspiring writers try their best to write a 50,000+  word piece of literature in only a month.

For anyone who's never tried to write over 10,000 words a week...it's a lot. I wrote a novel for a class once and I barely got there in five months (on top of other classes, of course).

Still, lately, I've been thinking about a writing project I've wanted to do for over a year. It would be a collection of cheap, nutritious, and most importantly, tasty recipes. The hook is that they're specifically for, as the name implies, broke-ass millennials who want to eat cheap and healthy, but don't want to eat nothing but salads with iceberg lettuce and scrambled eggs.

I've also toyed with the idea of creating a Youtube channel based on this concept. Basically, I want to create an amusing and informative channel for people who want to save money, or even learn how to cook from scratch. To this end, I want to have it be similar to "You Suck at Cooking" or "Binging With Babish", but to have its own style and voice that is distinctly my own.

I have a list including breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and dinners. I don't normally do dessert, so I'm thinking I may leave that out for now. I also don't know how to bake. That's where you come in.

If you have any ideas for recipes you think I should try, leave a comment below. Who knows? You might see it in a book one day. Or a Youtube video.




Thursday, October 19, 2017

Eyes in the Dark






Billy Jo woke to see a pair of cold, white eyes with plain, black irises staring at him from across his hotel room.
He screamed inside. He wanted to scream with his mouth, but his vocal chords were petrified. He tried to force them. He tensed his throat. He squeezed his diaphragm like he was trying to push the scream out. A weak moan escaped his lips, but no more than that. He wondered if he were dreaming. This was one of a dozen thoughts knocking about his panicked brain like the plastic balls in the machine they use to draw random numbers for the lottery.
Am I going to die?
What is that?
Why is it staring at me?
Oh god, why do I have to die?
I don’t want to die!
I don’t want to die!
“Hello, Billy Jo,” a voice said, fuzzy like the audio output from a blown-out speaker. “Sorry, did I wake you?”
Billy Jo couldn’t speak. His throat felt like it was full of cement.
“Today’s your lucky day.”
His hotel room was pitch black, so it was hard to tell who the eyes belonged to. There was a great, bulging shape crouched at the foot of his bed. The eyes seemed close to the middle of the shape, as though the head sunk much lower than where its (perhaps they were) shoulders sat. It was tall. Taller than most human beings would have been.
When it moved, its speed seemed impossible, because in half an instant the eyes went from the foot of his bed to eight inches from his right cheek.
This time, he screamed.
He jumped from his bed and crawled as fast as he could for the corner of the room. It was on his bed. It had been sitting next to him on his bed!
“My apologies. I thought it would be best for you to get that out of your system so we can actually have a conversation.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m also called Billy Jo. Isn’t that a funny coincidence? Nice to meet you.”
“What?” Billy Jo said. “…do you want?”
“I want to offer you something you very much want.” It was still sitting on his bed, but the eyes were bobbing up and down slightly. He still couldn’t make out what shape it was, but from the way the bed springs creaked as it moved, he could tell it was heavy. “Also, I was just joking. My name isn’t really Billy Jo. Sorry. I thought I’d try to lighten the mood.” The eyes shifted gently to the left. “Do you want the light on or off? Actually, you probably want them off, right? I don’t think you want to see me in the light. I’ve got, what do you call it…uh…’a face for radio,’ I think the saying goes.”
Billy Jo’s heart was beating so hard his whole rib cage was vibrating. He was so scared that he’d barely noticed his back was jammed up against his phone charger sticking out of the wall outlet. “Are you going to hurt me?”
The eyes bobbed again, shifting slightly. “No. I mean, I could. I don’t want to, though. Technically you could harm anyone, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’d do it.” Bob, bob, bob. Both eyes blinked, one at a time. “That’s what you always tell yourself, isn’t it? You’d never be able to actually go through with it? You’ve wanted people dead before, haven’t you?” Bob, bob. “Everyone has at some point.”
“W-what…how do you…wait, how did you get in here?”
The eyes blinked slowly, then narrowed in a peculiar way, as though their lids were tightened by a wide grin. “I can go wherever I want.”
“L-look, I want you to leave,” Billy Jo said. “I want you to go. Please leave. I don’t know who you are, but you’re freaking me the fuck out. If you’re not going to hurt me, then please, please go.”
Bob. “As I said, I can go anywhere I want. Right now, I really, really want to stay here. To talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Billy Jo said. “You’re fucking scary, and I don’t know you, and I just want you to leave. Whatever you are. I don’t even care what your name is. Just go.”
“Well, that’s rude,” the eyes said. “My name is Nüluk, and I am here to kill for you.”
“I – what?” Billy Jo cried out.
“Shhhhh,” the thing called Nüluk hissed. “You’ve already screamed at least two of your neighbors out of sleep. Do you want to wake up the entire hotel?” The eyes drooped to their original level again. “No, I can’t see through walls. I can hear them, though. They’re concerned. Talking to each other. Also, no I can’t read your thoughts.”
Billy Jo slowly stood up. Not because he began to feel braver, but the phone charger really fucking hurt.
“Therrrre we go. Now we can talk. Man to…man.” Nüluk’s eyes bobbed.
“…how did you know I wanted to kill –”
“…the President?” Nüluk said.
Billy Jo tried to form words, but all that came out were sharp stammers.
“Again, can’t read your mind, just inferring. Based on how the man has served his station so far, who doesn’t want him to die? Understand, though I am an instrument of death, I’m not a servant of evil. That…is, not something that exists. There are no ‘evil’ gods. Just as there are no truly ‘evil’ humans…intelligent beings are more complicated than that. For example, you may say that I’m evil because I exist primarily to end lives at the whim of a mortal who is chosen. Chosen at random, before you ask. Again, not a mind-reader, just inferring. Anyway, some would say I’m evil for this reason, because in your culture, murder is considered one of the worst crimes one can commit. Yet, a little over two hundred years ago, your country’s government paid citizens to murder wanted criminals in exchange for money. Over one hundred years ago, one of your Presidents killed a man in a duel and was allowed to continue serving as a leader. And that’s to say nothing about all the wars you people love to start.” Blink, blink. Bob, bob. “You people are so hard on murderers, yet you sure love coming up with ways to legitimize murder.”
“You have to,” Billy Jo said. “Killing people is wrong. There’s always another way to deal with someone who hurts people. If society didn’t think so, people would do it all the time”
Blink, blink. “You people do murder each other. All the time.” Bob, bob. “Although one could say that any killing is bad, which is worse – killing someone simply because someone offered to pay you money for it, or because they can’t be stopped from hurting others?”
“That’s why we imprison them. We leave them their lives, but we separate them from the rest of society.”
“Have you been to prison, Mr. Washburn?” Nüluk said. “Some would say death is more merciful. The suffering one endures in a maximum-security prison is terrible. Even if someone has caused a great deal of pain to others, is it not also cruel to subject them to a lifetime without freedom or dignity?”
“God said, ‘thou shalt not murder,” Billy Jo said. “I’m no theologian, but I’m pretty sure most religions say killing is wrong.”
“Many of your so-called gods allegedly sent avatars to do just this throughout history. So say many of your species’ myths.”
Billy Jo blinked. “Hang on. Hang on a minute…are you a servant of God?”
“I – ” the eyes bobbed, then blinked. Bobbed, then blinked. “…yes, Billy Jo Washburn. I am a servant of God.”
“You’re saying the Lord God wants me to kill someone? Is that why you came to me?” Billy Jo said.
Bob, bob, bob. “No, Billy Jo. The one who sent – I mean, God wants you to kill simply because he wants you to feel powerful.”
“…He wants me to feel powerful by murdering a man? Hang on, hang on now,” Billy Jo said. “You’re telling me the Lord God in Heaven wants me to – ”
Oh, shit.
“…you’re not a servant of God,” he said. “You’re the Devil! You’re Satan!”
“No, Billy Jo. I’m not Satan. I’m not even an angel.”
“You’re lying,” Billy Jo said. “I’m a good man. You won’t corrupt me.”
“Billy Jo, I’m not a servant of Satan. I’m not trying to deceive you. If anything, I’m your servant now. I exist only to bring relief to your darkest desires. If anything, I’m here to help you purge the darkness from your heart so you can go on being a do-gooder, or whatever it is you choose to do.”
“If you’re my servant,” Billy Jo said, “I order you to go away. Leave me alone and never come back.”
The eyes twisted now, one on top of the other, like the thing turned its head sideways.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. If you send me away, I’ll have to kill you.”
The ceiling fan spun gently, brushing a cold breeze against Billy Jo’s bare skin.
“You have a choice, human.” The eyes, it seemed, were getting closer…so slowly that he couldn’t tell how fast, or if it was really happening until it was less than seven feet away. “Fulfill my purpose. Direct my hunger. Choose wisely. Or, I’ll cleave your body in two and feast on your insides. Not because I want to. I’ll do it because I have to.”
Bob, bob, bob, bob. It was so close he could smell its breath. It smelled like a sewer full of corpses. “It’s still up to you, of course. But you must choose now.”
Billy Jo swallowed. “Why are you doing this?”
“You don’t get to know that part until after the deed is done. If you still want to know.”
“…can I choose when it happens?” Billy Jo said. “Can I choose how it happens?”
“You can’t choose how it happens. You can choose when, as long as it’s within a fortnight from when you accept.”
Billy Jo was up against the wall. The room was silent for a long time, mostly because he was so scared he had to work up the nerve to speak.
“…okay.” He nodded. “Okay.”
Bob, bob, bob. “Splendid!”
Billy Jo gasped as a cold, slimy thing, like a huge worm, wriggled around his left hand and wrist. He pulled away at first, but it was incredibly strong. It shook his hand, firm, yet surprisingly gentle.
“What a robust handshake you have, Mr. Washburn!” Nüluk said. Its breath wafted over him like hot fumes from a pile of trash. He could almost feel it sink into his clothing. “So…it looks like we have much to talk about.”

***

The cell was cold stone. It had been two weeks since the President had been killed.
The bed was little thicker than a life preserver, one that had been laid in by dozens of men much heavier, and less sanitary than he. The mattress stank heavily of human filth and chemicals. It was so soiled, it seemed they had tried and failed numerous times to wash the smell out.
Each morning, he was surprised to see the 6 A.M. sun peeking through the window in his cell. Each night, he lay down on his foot fungus-smelling mattress expecting to be woken by those two bobbing eyes blinking at him from the darkness…then a cold, sharp pain as his body was torn asunder.
One night, he awoke around 3 A.M. His bunkmate was snoring with particular vigor tonight. He had never slept well, but he had long suspected he suffered from some sort of insomnia. He rarely had much trouble falling asleep, usually within 20 minutes or so he was dormant until morning. He had learned to know better from years of trying in vain to fall asleep. He knew the signs now; the vivid consciousness like he’d just finished his second cup of coffee. The crispness of perception, as in those days when he woke from having just the perfect amount of sleep. No, his mind was ready to move now, but the world would not wake with him for at least another few hours. He wasn’t that old – only 36 years had he been on the Earth. Yet experience had taught him not to waste effort fighting his own body. He had learned to stay optimistic. The benefit of being up so late (or early) was that he had absolute peace and quiet with which to reflect. He sometimes liked to look at the ceiling. He found that when you stared at a blank, black ceiling, your brain makes sense of the random nothingness by creating shapes and muted colors which, while they don’t always make sense, are deeply thought-provoking. Some people counted sheep, or tensed their bodies and relaxed them, or got in the Sun’s Dog pose, or whatever the hell Yoga pose you were supposed to do to make you relax.
Tonight, the ceiling show displayed characters that looked like the Royals in a deck of cards…Jack, Queen, King…their faces floated eight feet above his head like they were synchronized. He saw, emerging behind them, the lake where his family spent their summers. He could almost feel the Sun on his skin, the beer on his tongue and the beer breath in the back of his throat. The Royals were floating over the lake, like dragonflies, hovering in a gentle circular pattern for a few moments in one spot, then jetting over to another. He could almost smell the moss from the lake, the earthy aroma of the trees and weeds off past the distant shore.
Then the royals gathered together in two stacks, spinning and spinning together until they looked like white blurs. The lake disappeared. The white blurs began to look like eyes, hovering over his head.
Bob, bob, bob.
“We had a deal, Billy Jo Washburn.”
Billy Jo swallowed. His body tensed, waiting for the cold swipe of a claw, or something feral and terrifying. He watched the eyes bob above him. Something cold and sticky dripped on his face, but he did not wipe it off. He never broke eye contact with the two bobbing eyes. Nüluk did not speak, it seemed to be waiting for him to do so, yet the words caught in his throat. Finally, he found the strength to speak.
“I knew you’d come see me again.”
Bob, bob, bob. “Of course I did. You cheated me out of a meal. I’m a little upset by that, to be honest.”
“Then take your wrath out on me,” Billy Jo said, “and not on another innocent.”
The eyes raised higher above his head. Then, the creature called Nüluk did something he did not expect. It expelled a heavy sigh. The smell of its breath was overpowering, like a sea of maggot-infested cow carcasses.
With a series of minute squelches, the lumbering form moved to the corner of his cell, still obscured by darkness. There, it stared at him.
“What are you waiting for?” Billy Jo said, sitting up. Never before had he ever once expected that there would come a day in his life where he was disappointed at not being killed. Yet, here he was. “My family’s disowned me. All the news channels on TV are doing these stories on me, calling me a psychopath, a cold psychopath. None of them realized I saved him. None of them will ever know I saved a man from something like you.”
Bob, bob. “Don’t say he was innocent. Don’t say he’d never hurt anyone. Did you know he had several people killed last year in secret? Nobody knew about it because he paid someone to kill the person who killed the person who knew a secret that could have cost him the election. Of course, it ended up leaking anyway, so he had the person he’d hired to kill the trigger man killed by a different trigger man, another to kill him, and so on. It went about six hired gunmen deep before he was satisfied. Here’s something else: did you know he was working on getting one of the amendments repealed? I know because I can see across dimensions, you see. Because I come from somewhere higher than the plane that houses all of your possible realities.” There was an odd squelching noise from Nüluk’s direction. “I won’t say what guaranteed rights he was set to strip from your legal system, but the deals he made with your Congress and Senate would have made it pass before your media organizations could broadcast a single message about it. I can also guarantee, it would have meant the deaths of a lot of innocent people.”
Billy Jo laughed. It felt good. For the first time in his life, he felt like there were no consequences to anything he did. He felt invincible. “You can lie to me all you want, my conscience is clear,” Billy Jo said. “I only have your word that’s how it is. Far as I know, you’re just lying to me. Far as I know, that’s all you’ve ever done.”
“Why would I need to do that?” Nüluk said. “Look at you. Look where you are. I can do anything I want to you, and nobody could stop me. You’re no use to me anymore. You’re no use to anyone. I can’t use you and your opinion means nothing to me.”
“So what happens now?” Billy Jo said. “Aren’t you going to kill me? Don’t you have to kill me?”
The eyeballs flipped again so that one was on top of the other. As though Nüluk’s head had turned sideways. “Well, in all honesty, I did lie about that. Just a little.”
“W- are you kidding me?” Billy Jo said. “This whole thing happened because you said someone needed to die – either me or someone of my choosing!”
“That part was…sort of true. I would have killed you when we first met, had you refused my offer.”
Billy Jo slumped on his bed. “Then…you’re no servant of God. Are you even a servant of the Devil?”
The eyes flipped to their original, horizontal orientation again, though they sat now at a slight droop. “I’m afraid not.”
Billy Jo stared at his white, prison-issued sneakers. There was a faded yellow stain by the pinkie toe of his left foot from a fight that had broken out between him and an inmate. The man flipped his lunch tray over, spilling food on his prison uniform. When that didn’t spur Billy Jo to violence, he’d pounced on him, beating him senseless once his back hit the ground. The guards watched for five whole minutes before they broke it up. Their official reports read that he had been the instigator, rather than the victim. Nobody spoke up on his behalf.
“There is always a choice, Billy Jo,” Nüluk said. “Either way, someone was going to die. I wanted to give you the chance to do something your society may not have approved of, something that would have changed the world, instead of just devouring your guts in your sleep. You chose to go back on your word, shooting him in the heart while making a speech in a rural town. Choices have consequences. You could have chosen one that would have ended the same way as what you actually chose, except that there would have been no negative consequences on your part.”
“Yes, there would have been,” Billy Jo said. “My conscience. I would’ve spent the rest of my life haunted by the notion that I’d let some monster from space or, wherever you come from…I gave the order to have a man die a horrible, painful death. Instead, I spared him that by shooting him through the heart. It would have been quick, nearly painless. What I did was a mercy killing.”
“He and you, your places switched,” Nüluk said, “he would never have done what you just did. Didn’t you hear what I said? He did order someone to die. He ordered lots of people to die. He didn’t lose a night’s worth of sleep over it. I know – I watched him sleep as peaceful as a babe. The next day, he was smiling in front of a TV camera as he lied to the people who gave him his power.” Bob. Bob bob. Bob bob bob.
“Still,” Billy Jo said. “Better a quick death.”
“Better a quick death if it means you, a compassionate soul, spends the rest of his life in here? I don’t know how you think this works, but – “
“Shut up!” Billy Jo said. “I have nothing to say to you. Only God can judge me now.”
Nüluk paused, almost as though it was genuinely surprised at Billy Jo’s blatant defiance. “Mortal, let me explain something to you. Even I don’t know if there’s a God, and I can see all realities, past, present, and future. I will say this to you, though. From the look of it, if there is a God, it’s less forgiving to this version of you than the others. You lied, you killed a man, and you will spend the rest of your life in jail, disgraced. Your memory will be disgraced. Your family will be disgraced. Your actions have made their lives harder forevermore, and the same curse will follow their offspring and their offspring. You have helped no-one and nothing, except your precious ego. Your nieces and nephews, your cousins and aunts and uncles, your parents and your sister, they all will lose friends, jobs, even sanity because of you. Your mother will go to her deathbed weeping, because of you.
“If you’d let me do it, there was no chance it would have ever been traced back to you. All those people affected by your actions would not have been so. Your precious ego tells you that what you did makes you a good person. What good is that if it’s the only thing you got out of this, and that you’re the only one who will ever, ever think so?”
“Enough with the lies,” Billy Jo said. “Either kill me or leave me in peace.”
The eyes stopped bobbing. Now, they seemed to be trembling. “Since I entered this cell, I haven’t said a single thing to you that wasn’t true. You’re a stubborn person, so it doesn’t matter what I say. I fed on another mortal, a father of three; because you killed the marked one before I could get to him. I was starving, I didn’t take pleasure in it. Not that I need to explain anything to a self-centered fool like you. I want you to know what you’ve done. I answer to no-one; I am eternal. You are not.
“You will never see me again. I hope someday you realize your actions were not worth what you bought with them.”
Billy Jo blinked, and the figure called Nüluk was gone. His bunkmate stirred.
“Are you fucking talking to yourself again?”
Billy Jo would remember that day up to the last moment of his life.
As time passed, he came to know his cell exceptionally well; there were fifty-four large rocks embedded in the cement holding the brickwork together. He knew the cell was constructed in 1963 and had housed twenty-two inmates before him, all convicted killers.
Slowly, his connection to the outside world faded. His family stopped returning his calls, his letters. They stopped visiting him and sending him packages in the mail. He developed a reputation among the other inmates. Apparently, the late President had been popular with a number of them.
Billy Jo felt himself change over the years. He stopped trying to make friends. He stopped talking as much. He felt angry all the time. He was moved to solitary confinement. There, he found a small measure of peace. There, he could think clearly.
Every day he thought about Nüluk. Every day, he thought about the man he’d killed. Every day, he questioned his decision. He never found an answer, for all his ruminations, that brought him lasting peace. Why didn’t Nüluk kill him in his prison cell? Would he return one day? Was Nüluk right about everything? Was he lying about everything?
His last moments were filled with thoughts like these. A small audience watched from behind a shatter-proof glass window as he lay strapped to a table facing them. The needle in his arm ached, but otherwise, he felt nothing.
There was a surgical light fixture above his head, slightly behind him. It shone on the scene like the lighting fixture on a film set, bathing his soon-to-be corpse in blinding light. Billy Jo looked into the crowd. All their eyes were on him, watching his every move with morbid fascination. The end of his life was a spectacle for them, and that was all. His whole life was simply to bring him here, to be watched by a handful of anonymous human beings as his life ended.
The cold rush of poison slipped into his bloodstream and all went dark. He knew as soon as it started, this was it…this was the end.
The End is calmer and colder than I expected.
The edges of his sight began closing in on the central focal point of his vision. Everything became blurrier…except for the eyes of his audience. The light reflected on their eyeballs with stark brilliance. Soon, there was nothing but the dark, and the eyes, bobbing in the darkness.

Then, there was nothing.


********************

Author's Note: So, if you didn't already know before reading this kinda sorta dark thing I wrote, my thing is horror and dark fantasy. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and if you really liked it, go ahead and mash on that
ol' "Share" button to spread it around. Otherwise, thanks for reading!

Also, I'm going to start posting more regularly. Some of the stuff I write will be
more editorial type of stuff, some of it will be reviews, some of it may be more prose, some of it might be completely different, like audio or video media. I know, WHAT? Turns out I know how to do lots of stuff that I'm going to actually try harder to do more frequently! So. Check that out. 

I'm going to try to publish a shorter post every Tuesday, and a longer one every Thursday. Keep an eye on my Twitter account @MattRaebel, and check out my Instagram @mattsraebels too. Why not? My Snapchat username, if you're one of those people, is 
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Just kidding. I'm totally one of those people. That's why I have an account with Snapchat.


Image from "Kraken", for Oculus Rift by Reddit user rat2255