“Now, Carol, MSG Hartmann is going to be a good boy and coach you through how to move the Suit. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that he plays nice,” Lambert spoke into his end of the radio, then gave Hartmann a warning scowl as he handed it over. “I mean it,” he growled. “Follow orders, and play nice.”
“Yes, sir,” Hartmann replied sulkily, then found his throat too thick to speak to Carol. He had to clear it first, then pushed the button to transmit, “The best way to explain it is that you connect your mind to the Suit, and after that walking should be as intuitive as it is with your own body. Don’t overthink it; just let it happen naturally.”
Silence answered, and Hartmann wished that Carol was more verbal. He missed the nonstop noise that usually surrounded women, that left no mystery as to what they were thinking. Dealing with Carol felt a lot like going up against a wall, with no way of knowing what he was going to find on the other side if he managed to break it down. It was frustrating. Unnerving.
Then the Suit took a step forward, and the two men jumped back as the screech of twisting metal filled the bunker. In one fell swoop, Carol had completely destroyed the ramp.
Hartmann stared as a grin crept across his face, then doubled over in laughter. Lambert cussed profusely, shouting into the radio, “God fucking dammit, Carol! Watch where you’re going!” It was satisfying to imagine her crying inside the cockpit as the captain continued ranting, “You are in a formidable piece of equipment, so do not destroy the base through stupidity and incompetence. Do you understand!”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” Carol’s voice sounded broken, but her mental connection with the Suit was continuing to improve. Hartmann could see that it was imitating her body language, trying to curl up and disappear, which was comical for a 12-foot mecha. There were definitely tears on her cheeks, and it was time for him to wipe them away, so to speak.
He reached over to take the radio back, and purred, “Don’t sweat it, that was only the ramp. Give your legs a stretch, and see how it feels … just remember to be mindful of your surroundings.”
Lambert crossed his arms over his chest and growled, “Get her to the airfield, then join me in the jeep.”
Hartmann was satisfied as Lambert stormed away, certain that his sour mood wasn’t over the wrecked ramp. “All right, the captain wants us outside,” he spoke into the radio. “You up for it?”
“Yes, sir,” Carol replied dutifully, so he answered playfully,
“Save that for the captain. I want you to call me … master sergeant.”
She was silent, confused by his behavior as she went through the massive double doors that had been pulled open, and Hartmann followed her outside, ordering her to jog down the length of the airfield.
He dropped his affectation as soon as he was seated next to Lambert in the jeep. Carol was adapting to the Suit much faster than he had, despite his intuitive grasp of it, and the way she moved around the airfield was too natural – to the point of becoming unnatural. Hartmann knew that he was the best damn pilot to ever climb inside the Suit, but that was all he did: pilot. Carol, on the other hand … she was inhabiting it like a second skin, especially as she was becoming more and more comfortable with moving around the airfield. It crossed his mind that, with the way she was catching on, the Suit could have been made for her.
Hartmann had been in the military for far too long to let anything show on his face. His instructions to Carol over the radio became more mechanical and routine, but his thoughts remained perfectly hidden. He almost managed to keep them from himself, but as he stared it was undeniable that she was better at maneuvering the Suit than he was, even despite lacking the discipline that would have given her grace and efficiency.
“The Suit is following her body language more than I expected,” Lambert muttered beside Hartmann, though he was speaking more to himself. “She’ll need to be physically trained to clean up that sloppiness.”
Hartmann shrugged, muttering “Yes, sir,” when he failed to come up with an obnoxious reply. He had never watched the way he piloted the Suit from the outside, and he wondered if it responded similarly to his movements, or acted more like a robot.
Lambert continued, reluctantly saying, “You will work with her on the track this afternoon while I attend to other duties. You will be courteous, considerate, and respectful, and you will not make her cry. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Hartmann echoed. He had to stop himself from asking why the captain cared so much about the cleaning lady’s feelings in a world where tender emotions were a dangerous weakness. He already knew the answer.
Sometime later when they were back inside the bunker, Carol parked the Suit in its usual place, opened the doors, then stood hesitantly looking down at the drop to the floor. Hartmann wondered why she hadn’t kneeled in the Suit first, given that she was the one who destroyed the ramp and knew damn well that it wouldn’t be there, but Lambert stepped forward and held up his arms.
“Come on, we haven’t got all day,” he snapped, but Hartmann recognized the false gruffness of someone who had adapted to his rank to survive.
She cautiously dropped down to Lambert, and his hands closed around her waist as he lowered her to the floor. His fingertips curled in slightly, and trailed along her t-shirt as he pulled his hands away, his face too stony to be anything other than a mask. Carol was appropriately oblivious, which Hartmann found soothing; he wasn’t the only one she completely failed to notice.
“Get some lunch, then report to MSG Hartmann for physical training,” Lambert ordered. “Like it or not, we’re going to beat the civilian out of you, commander.”
“Yes, sir,” Carol replied, then turned and trotted to join some corporal that Hartmann only vaguely recognized. An assigned escort, he hoped.
Having time alone with Carol was going to give Hartmann the advantage, and if he worked his magic right, Lambert wasn’t going to stand a chance. Underneath the boring beige of her existence, he’d bet anything that Carol was still a woman, and still susceptible to his charms.
If the Suit couldn’t belong to him anymore, then he was going to claim ownership of the next best thing.
Writing a dark story is turning out to be more of a challenge than I expected.
I have an idealist inside of me that tries to insert insights and epiphanies that would prevent the Traumatic Climax from happening, so I have to pull back and rewrite. The result is that the characters keep coming oh-so-close to redeeming themselves, then turning away and clinging to their dysfunctions.
It’s realistic enough; I’ve watched plenty of people do that in real life.
I’m not the sort of writer than deliberately sets out to manipulate the emotions of readers. The only reason why I’m writing this story at all is because it’s stuck in my head too badly to be ignored, and the only person intended to ride this roller coaster is me. There is no sadistic glee happening behind the scenes.
Perhaps this is a concept that’s difficult to grasp in our society, but I don’t write for money or popularity. I write for me. I write because I gained knowledge too heavy for me to bear, and my childhood hobby became my vessel of expression. I need it to remain artistically pure for the sake of my sanity. That’s why I always pull away from online groups and self-advertising — anything that could influence my writing away from what I need it to be.
Is there anyone out there capable of understanding?
So here I sit, feeling bad that Hartmann is too caught up in self-pity to realize what he’s doing, that Carol’s personality is too weak to resist, and that Lambert’s too checked out to notice. All it takes is one sentence to turn everything around, but I can’t let myself write it until it’s too late.
If this story wasn’t pounding at my head, I wouldn’t be writing it at all.
Hartmann was summoned back to the Base the next day, and waited in the bunker with no explanation of what was supposed to happen. He stared at the Suit and ached to touch it the way the cleaning lady did, but his training kept him in his position, ready to salute the moment a superior appeared to deliver orders. He mused over the possibility that some new intel had dropped, and he was on the verge of being sent out on another mission. In a matter of time, he would return home a hero, and the incident with Carol would be as forgotten as completely as she was.
What he did not anticipate was Captain Lambert to appear with Carol in tow. She was pale, and hid behind Lambert’s large frame to avoid Hartmann’s burning gaze, seeming even more timid and nervous than she had before. If he hadn’t been so annoyed over her reappearance, he would have found her behavior cute.
“MSG Hartmann,” Lambert said brusquely, “You are to assist me in training a new pilot for the Suit.”
Hartmann’s hackles rose sharply. “Who?” he demanded without any of the expected deference. “That bitch?”
Carol’s eyes teared up as her head swung away, her hands wringing together as she tried to shrink into herself behind Lambert’s back. It wasn’t the captain’s barked out punishment that twinged Hartmann with contrition, so much as the way Carol failed to defend herself against the word. He had expected her to bite back at him, to fling insults and posture as if she had a chance in a fight against him. Anything that would show that she thought of herself as too tough for him to feel guilty over. Compared to all the other women Hartmann had known, Carol seemed unnaturally quiet.
The way Lambert moved to shield her filled him with jealousy.
There was no way the captain was smitten with Carol. She was too pathetic and plain. All she had going for her was the fact that she cleaned the Suit … and the way her hair brushed the top of her petite shoulders, promising a feminine clavicle hidden underneath the neckline of her t-shirt. Hartmann thought about how she had felt under his hands, and how her soft muscles had struggled to pull away from him without any success.
Hartmann was the Suit’s pilot, and Carol was the cleaning lady. If she was going to belong to anyone, it was going to be him.
But he was determined to punish her for turning his world upside down.
Hartmann added extra energy into every push up, boosting himself off the floor to clap before catching himself again, purely for the sake of showing off. When he was through, he smugly noted the displeasure on Lambert’s face, and the amazement in Carol’s eyes.
“As I was saying,” Lambert continued gruffly, “The Suit considers Carol to be its ‘commander,’ and orders have come down for us to train her on how to pilot it for combat use.”
“You expect me to believe that, sir?” Hartmann narrowed his eyes.
“I verified it myself.” Lambert crossed his arms over his chest. “During the incident you created, the Suit automatically turned on and welcomed Carol as the ‘commander’ while she was inside. She has full access to all the Suit’s records, as well as a number of features that we never dreamed of. While you were lazing around at home, Carol and I were up digging through as much information as we could.”
Hartmann was lost for words. The muscle in his jaw twitched, but his teeth were locked together. He stared as Lambert proceeded to brush Carol’s hair back and clip a receiver onto her t-shirt, stared as the cleaning lady looked to the captain for reassurance who in turn gave her a small nod, and stared as she climbed up the ramp and enclosed herself inside the Suit. His Suit.
“Carol,” Lambert spoke into his radio, and it crackled as she replied,
Then, disbelievingly, a computer voice sounded over the radio: “Welcome back, Commander.”
Was that why Carol had slid out of the Suit in an inexplicable daze the day before? Did she genuinely have a connection with it that he could never understand?
It wasn’t fair.
He was the best pilot.
He got the most important missions.
Why should the cleaning lady appear out of nowhere and take away his glory?
I was comparison shopping yarn and browsing through reviews, when I came across someone complaining that 100% wool yarn smelled weird when wet.
Well, yeah … being wool and all, it does smell like it came from an animal — especially when wet.
Last year I made inquiries about different self-publishing avenues, and was warned that I needed to be careful about the sort of readership I catered to. I’m not talking about “target audience,” but rather something more specific that has popped up with the rise of social media.
For example, the general consensus was that people who wanted to read books for free, were also the most entitled, demanding, and critical. So, while it might be easier to get readers, the “fans” were abusive enough to make you regret it.
To get back to the beginning, the review complaining about the wool yarn made me think about self publishing.
On the surface, you might think that “crafty yarn people” counts as a specific group, but once you dig deeper, you discover that some of them can’t stand things like inconsistent thickness, knots in the yarn, or the smell of animals fibers. Others, like me, prefer the unique personalities of handspun yarns, don’t mind working around knots, and enjoy the characteristics of natural fibers. The two groups might fit under the same crafty umbrella, but the sort of yarn they want is completely different.
Self-publishers need to think about more than a general target audience. Metaphorically speaking, trying to sell handspun wool or acrylic yarns to the wrong subgroup is going to end miserably.
And frankly, with something like writing, authors need to be mindful about where they go searching for their readers. No one wants to get sucked into catering to an audience that kills all the joy out of writing.
She didn’t notice when he approached her, intent on wiping down the headrest inside the Suit with a soft cloth to remove all traces of Hartmann’s earlier presence. He didn’t know what he wanted to accomplish, exactly, but he laid his hand on her shoulder and startled her. When her head twisted around, their eyes met for the first time.
“Can I help you?” she asked, fidgeting uncomfortably as her knuckles turned white around the cloth. He stared, taking in the strands of brown hair stuck to the side of her face, and the awkward water spill that soaked the front of her thick, baggy t-shirt. It was a shame that she was oblivious to her appearance, he considered, because the curves of her neck and jawline weren’t half bad.
“You ever been inside?” he asked, nodding towards the Suit. Compulsively, his fingers found the crook of her neck, but she flushed and pulled away.
“Of course not. I’m not authorized,” she replied sharply, though her voice trembled. Hartmann was satisfied to know that she was afraid.
“You know who I am?” he asked, and he grabbed her arm to keep her pinned.
She had to swallow hard before she could hoarsely reply, “One of the pilots.”
“I’m the fucking pilot,” he hissed, pushing her back against the door frame of the Suit. “Master sergeant Hartmann. You’re just the fucking cleaning lady.”
She nodded and squeaked, “Okay.”
“You have no right to love the Suit – you’re a nobody.” He wondered why she didn’t scream. The back of his neck prickled as others in the bunker were beginning to take notice, but as long as they kept their distance he didn’t care. Something kept her paralyzed, even as he pulled the stuck strands of hair loose from her cheek. “You’re going to quit this job,” he said softly.
“No!” She jerked against him then, but he easily pushed her back.
“I better never fucking see you near the Suit again.” His voice was low and dangerous.
Somehow, she slipped through his grip like water, and was inside the Suit before he could stop her. For a split second he considered yanking her back out, but her eyes and expression no longer matched the woman he had spent weeks watching. The look she gave him triggered his battle instincts, and he reflexively drew back, narrowly avoiding being caught by the Suit doors as they closed. His heart stopped as he realized what had happened, then he shouted,
“The Suit’s been hijacked!”
Hartmann drew his sidearm, knowing full well how futile it would be if the cleaning lady decided to blow him to smithereens. He very carefully backed down the ramp for the Suit, then moved to stand with the other soldiers who gathered with their guns held ready. Captain Lambert appeared at his side and growled, “What the fuck is going on?”
“I was messing with the cleaning lady, sir,” Hartmann replied slowly. “She jumped inside, sir.”
“The fucking cleaning lady?” Captain Lambert was surprised. “I want her file! The rest of you, keep ready but don’t move.”
“Sir, there’s something wrong with that bitch,” Hartmann muttered, narrowing his eyes at the Suit. So far it had remained motionless, and it was impossible to tell what was happening inside.
“Shut up,” Lambert snapped, then snatched the manila folder that had been brought to him. He skimmed over it, slapped it against Hartmann for him to take, then moved forward as he cussed, “We’re in for a fucking shit storm over this.” He boldly climbed the ramp and pounded on the Suit as he shouted, “Carol Smith! Get out here this instant!”
Hartmann watched in disbelief as the doors opened and the cleaning lady practically spilled out onto Lambert’s chest. She was dazed and unsteady as the captain helped her down, as if she had been drugged. Lambert’s eyes met the master sergeant’s, and he said gruffly, “You. Come.”
He took them to a small meeting room with a table and chairs, and ensured that Carol was seated before stepping back and folding his arms. Hartmann remained standing.
“You wanna tell me what the hell happened?” Lambert demanded.
Hartmann shrugged. “Already did, sir.”
Lambert rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Carol, what’s your side of the story?”
Hartmann expected her to let loose and demonize him in every possible way, but instead she echoed his shrug and murmured, “I don’t know.”
“How could you not know?” Lambert couldn’t keep himself from raising his voice.
“Something came over me, I think.” Carol nervously began to pick at her fingernails.
Frustrated, Lambert slammed his hand down on the table, causing her to flinch. “I selected you for this job based on your psych eval, and in all this time there hasn’t been a single incident. You expect me to believe that ‘something came over’ you?”
“I was … overwhelmed.” She squirmed and stared down at her hands as she bit her bottom lip. “The master sergeant told me to quit my job.”
“So you decided to get yourself fired instead?” Lambert scowled as he looked over at Hartmann. “Look, I know that MSG Hartmann was probably being an unreasonable prick towards you, so you need to focus on protecting yourself, not him. Got that?”
“I honestly don’t know how I ended up in the Suit.” Carol’s mouth twisted downwards and her chin quivered. “I was really scared that he’d find a way to force me out of my job, and I love cleaning the Suit.” For a moment she choked on her words, and Lambert’s expression softened. “I don’t know what happened,” she finished weakly.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Lambert murmured, putting a reassuring hand on her arm. “I have to file a report on the incident, and someone is going to take the blame. That was a breach in security, and it’s not going to blow over on its own.”
Hartmann looked between Carol and Lambert with his eyes narrowed, mulling over the possibility that the captain was attracted to the cleaning lady. It was no secret that Lambert had suffered a nasty divorce several years back, and as far as anyone knew it had completely destroyed his interest in anything outside of work. It occurred to Hartmann that his hadn’t been the only gaze focused on her as she cleaned.
Out of curiosity, he opened the personnel file he still carried. Carol had a long history of showing up on time and following all the rules; she was described with words like, ‘respectful,’ and, ‘content,’ all of which boiled down to a polite way of saying that she was easily controlled and had no big dreams in life. Hartmann looked back up at her, noting the way she hunched over and kept her elbows close, and he thought that she likely considered any clothing brighter than beige to be too flashy. Carol was someone who had perfected invisibility, so why had the captain noticed her as well?
“I didn’t mean to cause any trouble, sir.” Her voice was growing smaller.
Lambert sighed. “I’m going to recommend that your clearance be revoked, and that you’re reassigned. Wait here while I bring in your supervisor.” He then turned to Hartmann. “Your ass, on the other hand, is entirely at my mercy.”
“Go ahead and satisfy yourself, sir. I like it rough.” Hartmann smirked at the way Lambert’s eyes flashed angrily, then nodded at Carol as he tossed her file down onto the table. She was too shocked and pale to do anything other than stare.
“Move it, soldier!” Lambert barked, and pushed him out the door. “Consider yourself reprimanded for disrespecting your commanding officer.” He continued to shove Hartmann down the hallway. “Now, I want a detailed report on everything that happened, then you are to go home and await further orders. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Hartmann wasn’t thrilled at the idea of being removed from the Base, but the fact that Carol had jumped into the Suit on her own, combined with his status as the best pilot, made him expect that he wasn’t going to get more than a slap on the wrist for harassment in the end. The best part was, Carol was never going to be allowed anywhere near the Suit again. It was a small price to pay for the victory.
Lambert spoke into his radio, then informed Hartmann that someone would escort him off Base as soon as they were done, and a few minutes later they were in another small room. Hartmann wrote a glib statement, then signed his name with an exaggerated scrawl. Lambert’s radio crackled, and he stepped outside to answer it. Hartmann set his pen down then followed, but discovered that Lambert was already jogging down the hallway. He raised an eyebrow, but an MP approached him, and he knew that he wasn’t going to be privy to whatever had lit a fire under the captain’s butt.
He was going home to enjoy a little R&R before returning to duty.
It felt too much like taking all of the worst traits of these characters and amplifying them into a sordid and depressing story. I very much didn’t want to do that.
But the idea has been niggling at me for months. It won’t leave me alone.
I’ve caved. Fine. I’m writing it.
But this is a very sordid and depressing story.
Master sergeant Hartmann wasn’t certain when he had first begun to notice the cleaning lady. Two years prior, more for the sake of politics than anything else, the General had declared that they were going to improve national security by limiting the soldiers’ access to the Suit, and a civilian was picked out of the Base’s janitorial staff to be the designated caretaker of the military’s top asset. It turned out to be a plain, mousy woman, who quietly devoted herself to the job then faded into the background as another functioning cog, and business moved on as usual.
Hartmann was by far the best at piloting the Suit. Although it was obviously alien technology, he had an intuitive understanding of how to operate it, and was consequently given all of the important missions. He had already been considered something of a hero due to his ‘bravery’ and ‘leadership’ beforehand, but the Suit had skyrocketed him to the status of a superstar. He was worshiped by those below his rank, and greatly respected by those above. It was unspoken, but everyone pinned their hopes of winning the war on his abilities, and he was more than willing to accept the mantle.
Yet, somehow, the moments he had spent basking in the adulation of a job well done melted away as the cleaning lady took up more and more of his awareness.
There were moments when it was comical to watch her, a slim 5’4” woman standing on a stepladder with a soapy sponge, contrasted against the 12-foot mecha that she rigorously scrubbed. However, when she worked on detailing the interior, it stung to realize that she was more intimately familiar with the Suit than he was. He felt like the interloper, good for a wild ride before the Suit returned home to its loving family. He never had the liberty to simply touch and examine the Suit, no matter how much time he spent inside.
To make it worse, the cleaning lady was completely unaware of him. Hartmann was attractive and muscular, with sandy blonde hair and sharp eyes, and took it for granted that women would preen and flirt as they competed for his attention. The cleaning lady, however, never smiled or brushed her hair behind her ear; her eyes slid over him as if he was any other uniform in a sea of soldiers. He had even bumped into her deliberately to see her reaction, but she had tersely apologized then skirted around him, never quite managing to raise her eyes to his face during the entire exchange. The other soldiers had snickered, and someone had said, “I guess you aren’t her type,” as Hartmann stared after her, his face hard.
That was two strikes against her.
In between missions, he kept an apartment off Base, and he liked to amuse himself by taking out a few of his buddies to pick up women at bars and clubs. The thrill of simply bedding them had vanished years ago, but he still got his kicks out of playing with them. He had developed a good eye for finding the ones that were attractive enough to be worthwhile, but still had the shadow of desperation that spoke of a willingness to do anything. That night, he imagined that he had the cleaning lady in his clutches, and pushed the woman to a level of filthy that he had never gone to before. Unsatisfied with how easy it had been to control and degrade her, he sent her away from his apartment with one of his friends, and from the way she giggled he knew that she was up for another round of debauchery.
Alone, he knew the folly of his fantasy. The cleaning lady was the sort who spent her evenings curled up with a book and a glass of wine – she would never be under his power.
So he watched her. He watched her clean his Suit, watched her love what should have been his, all the while knowing that she was untouchable. The cleaning lady was ranked above him, the master sergeant.
For my cheerful, light-hearted, postpartum reading, I decided on The Shining by Stephen King.
As my husband and I like to joke with each other, compared to the existential horrors we now call reality, nothing is scary anymore. LOL
In fact, the weird part is how open and honest the characters are about their dysfunctions, and no one calls social services on them or prescribes anti-psychotics. WTF?
This is the second Stephen King novel I’ve ever read (the other being Misery, which is also set in snowy Colorado), and I have to say that he knows how to suck the reader in; I don’t have to force myself to pick up the book. On top of that, he uses enough run-on sentences, interrupted paragraphs, and other random grammatical weirdness that I don’t find myself spacing out and skimming over the words without really understanding them.
The dialogue is corny at times, but since the book was written in the 1970’s, I think it’s more a reflection on that particular decade than anything else. It also annoys me that none of the characters seem to have any sense of self-preservation. It’s hard to feel bad for them when they were very much asking for it.
I know enough about violence that the climax is too unrealistic to be remotely scary.
Because of those existential horrors we now call reality.