Flash fiction created for the Door to a Pink Universe contest co-sponsored by Seattle Public Library, Norwescon, and Clarion West. (Criteria: 750 words or less, set at any of the SPL branches, and evoking the themes of Octavia Butler’s work). Nisi Shawl was a judge, and selected it as one of 3 winners.
(As if Nisi’s praise and getting to read to an audience at SPL weren’t reward enough, I also got to take a workshop with Cat Rambo.)
It was also published in Poplorish, a regional literary magazine by Old Growth Northwest (all rights now remain with me).
Chameleons at Central
I know you’re here. Your imprint is all over the building. I can tell where you’ve been – in the auditorium, listening to authors read, on the computers, in the map room. So strong here in the Living Room, under the latticed sky, I thought for sure I had you.
I scanned them all, certain I’d catch you out, hiding in a borrowed body. Maybe the Filipino woman in the wheelchair, patting her service dog, listening to that girl drone on about her long-lost puppy. But then she replied, and I knew it couldn’t be you. Damn tricky, speech. You’re much too new at this yet.
You have been eavesdropping, though. Getting the hang of dialogue, listening the way that Seattle Writes speaker told you to. Yes, I know you were there – such a residue inside the conference rooms, down that red red hallway. Who were you then, scribbling notes on how to translate what you’ve seen and heard and felt into a story? Maybe a middle-aged white woman, shy and quiet, the most innocuous of creatures.
No dreadlocked men for you, no second glance attractors. Down here, you’d be one of the easily overlooked. That guy with the backpack, or the tattooed teen sipping a mocha. Surely you’ve borrowed a body by now to experience tasting? You should. Tastes and smells mean so much to these people. Your story won’t capture them without all the senses, so you’d better dip a toe into the haptic pond.
See? I’ve been in those workshops, too. That’s why they sent me to find you. I know what you want.
If I had to conduct this search on foot, I’d start at the top of the building. I’d take the escalators up, past the talking eggs. And then I’d work my way down, using those tucked-away stairs. Wander along the spiral, notice the lingering trace of you on the reference books like the pale, glistening trail of a banana slug. Imagery lost on you? Borrow a body and go walk in the woods. Look closely. Touch one. But don’t taste! Trust me on that.
The way you danced towards the spiraled shelves and away, drawn in and repelled by the overwhelming Dewey cosmos, stops at the how-to-write section. The path between those shelves and the desks nearby is as easy for me to read as footsteps in muddy soil, as the groove of droplets worn into a granite boulder, as … never mind.
And when did you find the galaxy of shelved fiction? By the impression you’ve left, you practically moved in. Did you even leave at night, when the river of traffic on Fifth Avenue slowed to a trickle? Did you hover all night, anxious for the doors to re-open and carry in the wave of morning visitors? I hope you took advantage of the full range of bodies available here, felt how they differ, and don’t. That’s good for you, for what you’re trying.
Yes, we know about the manuscript. It’s not terrible, by the way. That’s the problem.
You should never have stopped sending your reports in. That’s always the red flag. Then they send one of me. If there’s a library, I head there first; and the tracks are always strong. You’re just supposed to observe the people – the real, living people – and give us the data we sent you to collect. Is that so hard?
Apparently so, for some of us… er, you. Once you find the people between the book jackets, they become so real. You disappear into their worlds, enter the stories. Until some librarian comes over to make sure you’re awake, and well. Here’s a tip – set an alarm, get up every hour or so. Act like you experience hunger, fatigue. Go use the bathrooms, like they do. The body you borrow will appreciate it.
In my day, it was easier to put the off-mission observers back on track. They just waited until you’d submitted a paper story, then squashed you with rejection slips. With those gatekeepers gone, now, they’re right to worry that you might get that subversive story out, find readers who’ll believe what you’re showing them about how briefly they borrow their own bodies.
So, if you want a shot at this, get that data coming back in. Neglect your day job again, and I’ll have to haul you in. Then you won’t get what you need: practice. And an editor. One who understands you.