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The sharp blade makes an effortless cut, and the first thing I think is “like plastic,” a stupid, stupid thought, but then I wonder why my mind would drift at all given how the knife is now stuck in the bone that’s inside of my husband’s neck. Here I went and hesitated, and him always going on about being deliberate and committing, and I saw what I did wrong right as I was doing it, a stupid novice who would know better next time. If only I had been a bit more deliberate, his knife would have lopped his head clean-off so that the jagged, fleshy bits that kept his blood from evenly seeping out would have instead been smooth and sweet, at least to the naked eye.

Still, the blood creeps over my hands and down his front as his head lolls, his heart nearly defeated but still swinging in final, jabbing spurts that are thicker and more viscous than anything else it threw out during its entire final fight, and I let the knife go so that he drops to his knees and pitches forward so fast and hard that his mouth twists into an odd expression, a misshapen, stupid hole that can no longer speak about needing to leave his woman in the desert with nothing but spoiling blood, nothing for miles and it is so hot that all she can do is sleep through the days to forget about the empty freezer, nothing to drink but the gallon jugs of blood that had spoiled before the end of the week, the only company out here being stars and endless sand, and never any rain.

His fault for showing me how to use the knife after he couldn’t get away from the shop one night. “A butcher’s wife should know how to kill and carve her own meat,” but I knew nothing about hunting and couldn’t learn since all but the smallest animals were extinct.

When he had come home today acting like nothing happened, I dumped the jugs of bad blood on his hood and threw the empties at him, screaming, “I could have died!”

“Shut up,” he had said. “I said I’d be back, and I have fresh blood and some fruit too except now I’m feeling less than giving.”

“What kind?”

“Thought so.” He pushed me aside and went into the house. “Bring the bag in with the cooler.”

He worked in town at the butchery where those of us who wanted to cash in could be “let” by an expert, your blood drained out after being strapped upside down so that men like my husband could more easily remove your head. Advanced filtration removed most of the impurities until the blood became safe enough to drink, and the dehydration chiefs took care to press the moisture out from the meat, which left us with something like a kind of water and a kind of jerky. The water trucks that passed through the wild, out where we were, were guarded with guns, and besides, we were all dying. We had downpours three, maybe four times a summer, and the pollution and the synthetic food gave people every kind of ailment. Eat enough of what the plastic packages called nutrients and you’d live a year at most.

“You hear about the comet?”

I tore off a hunk of meat and savored it even if the first thing that came to mind was whether it had also been a woman. “Yeah, but still a year off.”

“Doesn’t matter. You should see what’s frozen. Feed the whole city for at least three years.” He poked his straw, a rigid piece of plastic, its end encased in metal, into one of the bags and began drinking the pinkish liquid. “Nice to think I could stop this shit. And you could stop eating Eve. Or was that Juan? I forgot.” He jumped back when I grabbed the knife, but I was too quick to think through what killing him meant I would have to do.

“Protection and money,” my mother would say. “In the end, that’s all they’re good for.” My husband had felt sorry for me until his disgust won out sometime during our sixth or seventh year and he put me up out here and lived his real life in town with the other butchers who did what they pleased throughout the week.

The fruit he mentioned is an overripe lemon wrapped in opaque plastic at the bottom of the cooler beneath the bags of blood. Once you get past the skin, the insides taste just like how I imagine the beach regions feel, the water in the air, the sunshine more kind. One time, a beach-region outcast changed his mind about being let at the last moment, and my husband uncharacteristically listened to his plea to be saved in exchange for an orange. My husband still strapped him in and slit his throat though. “Can’t beat free.”

Two hours later I’m almost in the next zone but my fuel’s low, so I stop and flash his chip under a scanner and notice others eying my car’s waxy black sheen and its streaks of dried, pink blood. For all I know my face and hair are also spattered, and when the chip doesn’t read and the attendant looks up, my hand is shaking and I think I’ll just drive away until a man at another pump speaks up.

“Do it faster.”

I try and the reader beeps, so I smile, but he’s noticed the car. “My husband’s a butcher,” I say as if this will explain such flagrant waste, and the man nods without asking the obvious question about why I’m out here alone, a woman out-of-doors in summer.

“Be safe now.”

I fumble with the gas hose and spill a drop that burns its impression into my skin it is so cold, and I can almost hear my husband blurting out how we found enough energy in time to run out of water, one of the many phrases he restated like the slogans from the old ads he had amassed—”From cars to freezers, we found enough energy to get you to the next oasis,” which would be true if you could choose where you were born and didn’t have to navigate past an army at every border who would only let you pass with the right papers.

My car rockets down the road with a full tank that will last through Flagstaff where some lucky fuck will trade me for my mostly new car and the small fortune in its trunk, and when the streetlights end and I turn on my highbeams the darkness covers them like a skin.

Every summer the stations play the sound of water at least a few times an hour, a metal squeak followed by flowing H2O, the rush of gushing, dripping liquid bringing to mind an actual wet bath and not the dry sanitizer we always used at home, and by now I’m tired, it’s halfway through the night, and I turn into a dusty motel parking lot that’s empty excepting one other car. I swipe my chip under the scanner to receive a plastic key, but when I step into the room, something immediately feels wrong. I can’t quite see him, but a shadow in the corner speaks.

“Get on your knees,” it says, and I do, and it turns on a light and he stands there, huge. The walls in the back of the room have been knocked out to make a crazy, makeshift floorplan that he must have designed with what looks like a giant hammer now resting by the bed. When he moves, his heavy steel-beam legs extend the structure of his body, his head nearly brushing the ceiling. “What did you bring me? Do you have blood?”

I want to say five quarts, a bad joke and probably the wrong approach, but instead I say nothing and he kneels down to see my face.

“Well?”

But something in my expression changes his demeanor and then he’s turning me over and I’m kicking and clawing until he pins me.

“Struggle and I’ll knock you out,” he says, and I must have moved because I come-to and my brain’s throbbing and the giant is driving and it’s almost night. I’m roped up in the backseat and he’s hunched forward in order to see, and there’s a stinging between my legs that I refuse to believe.

“You wouldn’t stop wriggling.”

“Where are you taking me?” There were several quiet seconds. “This car’s a nice fit.”

He laughs, which is the best start I can hope for.

“When I first saw you, I thought that you must go through a lot of blood. So you have to be resourceful,” I say. “And smart.”

“No, just observant. You ever see a spider?”

“When I was a kid.”

“I’ve watched and I’ve learned. I only take what works.” Big swirls of dirt blow over the road, and we drive right through them, nothing but dust for a half-minute and the giant spider keeping up speed, and when it clears, the desert looks different, the hills striped in bands of red, brown, and pale green. “They call this the painted desert.”

“How long was I out?”

He laughs. “I gave you something to make you sleep.”

I have a dim memory of waking and him pulling over, but it didn’t feel quite real. “Can we have some music?” I ask but it’s nothing but ads, so he changes the station and as the sound of the running water plays we become exactly the same if only for a moment, and he squeezes what’s left of one of my packets, draining it through his straw.

He tosses it back and it hits my head. “There’s still a little left.”

I manage to twist my shoulder and tilt the few inches it takes to get to the straw, and as the blood coats my throat I immediately want more. “You know they play those to make us thirsty?”

“I know.”

Before my husband there was Mike, the Southwestern Regional Media man who left as soon as he made enough to buy a visa to the Pacific. He promised we would leave together after his next promotion, but when it finally came he left in the night without waking me. It was SWRM that first hawked blood to solve our problems with water, and the butcheries came soon after that first summer.

They scaled-up their ads in the summer, water audible almost everywhere within city limits, footage of gentle streams and soft rain on every device with a screen. You could stop watching about as easily as you could keep your mouth from watering at the smell of roasted meat, and the tagline, “The source of all good things,” was redundant when faced with the spectacle of real, flowing water. No one in the desert had ever seen a mountain stream or a river bursting with meltwater, but being transported to one, even for a moment, answered the prayers we all asked on those days of driest heat.

At summer’s peak, you couldn’t buy water, and the price of blood went up. People stayed inside and only went out at night when the billboards weren’t as visible and the sounds played less often. The number of people willing to be let escalated.

“You know that years ago we had huge underground lakes? If you dug deep enough, water would bubble up.”

The giant turns off the radio and listens.

“My mother’s grandfather dug wells when he was a kid, back when there were states, and he’d go out on their ranch, out past the pens, and wander around with the same stick his grandfather gave him. He was so gifted that was how he made his living.”

“Lie.”

“It’s true.” The car hums, cutting through the desert, and I’ve been flexing my wrists against the bite of the ropes. “Back when he dowsed people sprayed water on their dry fields to grow crops. Big, thirsty animals like cows drank up more water than an entire family and they thought nothing of it.”

“Which ruined us. No one cares about the future.”

“Just the same, I’d like to go back. I wish I could see one of those underground lakes. I would take off all my clothes and jump right in. I wonder how it would feel, wet everywhere, the smell of it, water all over your skin. I would get all the way under and just drink. I would let it wash over my body and my hair. I would live down there.”

“You’d drown. Unless you can swim?”

I look at the back of his head, the dense brown tangle of hair, his neck thicker than the headrest. “I like to dream about it. I want my naked body to be covered in water, waves of it.”

“Stop talking.”

Through the windshield a new moon appears on the horizon. The stars are coming out. “You ever been with a woman?”

“What’d I say?” He accelerates, and the engine whines, but he can’t help himself. “More than one.”

“I figured. But you never know. Some worry about the exertion.”

“No, it’s the best use of fluids.”

“You ever hear of induced lactation?” When he doesn’t answer, I keep on. “It’s a treatment to get for your breasts to produce milk. When you’re with a woman who’s induced, you can suck her dry. My husband loves it.”

He turns around to see if I’m serious, and I smile.

“After the first time, he wouldn’t fuck me otherwise.” This time, I think he forgets to breathe and the car fills with tension.

“When were you last treated?”

“Last month.” I wait. “Keep me hydrated and you can drink until you’re full.”

The car slows, and the giant pulls off the road and kills the engine as I shift my head and lift the straw with my mouth and fling it behind my back, close to my bound hands, and I try gripping the slippery thing between my fingers, but then the door opens.

The giant tugs on my legs, and I hit the ground, hard. He’s got a knife, and he turns me over and cuts the rope around my feet, and I stay utterly still as he cuts the ropes from my hands and takes off my pants.

“I tried before but you were dry as a bone.”

“Please,” I say when he pins my arms back. “Please, I want to touch you.”

He grunts and lets go and slips the knife into a sheath, and he flips me onto my back one-handed, breathing hard as he straddles me and rips my shirt open. He squeezes my breasts with his massive hands, and when he buries his head in my chest, I run my fingers through his hair, tugging it and then bringing my hand to his cheek, his neck. He moans, and with my other hand I find his ear and tease it with the finger I don’t have wrapped around the straw, which I pull back, measuring its angle just before plunging it straight into his skull, and he howls until I bang it in further, and he rises, screaming, blocking out the sky—and then it’s over. Whatever’s inside of him leaves, the light in his eyes, and he topples to one side.

I wriggle and push him the rest of the way off me before I can stand up, and his body lies in the sand, blood dribbling down from his mouth, and I reach into his pockets for the keys.

In the trunk, the cooler is wedged between his things—a black bag, the sledgehammer and a box of tools. I’ll take stock later, but I need a drink, so I take out a cold bag of blood and swallow every drop, thirsty for more but knowing I should hold out even as I linger over the open cooler. In a few hours dawn, will come and I’ll make my way through another hot day. I reach to shut the lid, and I see it—my little bag. The giant threw it in there, and I’m grateful because I’ll change into the fresh clothes, and at the bottom I’ll find something else, the cold lemon.

Back on the road, I’ll bite through the rind into the cool fruit, its juice bright, and I’ll drive.

 

Sean Wheaton

 

Sean Wheaton is a buttoned-up college writing instructor whose heart beats with punk fury. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

141 comments

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  11. bow-guy ( Likes: 77 ) says:

    Sean, referencing one of your earlier comments about “what ifs”… so many “what ifs” have come true over years gone by, anything is game and I feel your story reflects that. I can’t recall how many times in my life I have said, “what if” and then it came true (good or bad). Anything in this world is possible.

  12. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

    I couldn’t stop thinking about a How I Met Your Mother joke where Ted says, “Anything sounds weird if you say it 100 times” and then proceeds to say the word “bowl” on repeat throughout the rest of the scene. I haven’t read the word “blood” so many times in one story since…maybe ever. Maybe that’s to emphasize how weird the scenario is? Anywho, this is a fairly well written story; at first I didn’t like the quick shifting of time and place but then I settled into it as if Edgar Wright were directing Mad Max. I don’t buy the science, though, and that really held me back from enjoying the story. I need my sci-fi to be rooted in some kind of real science (as silly as Douglas Adams’ infinite improbability drive is, it still has some *cough* logical justification) and I can’t imagine that drinking blood would ever become a means to combat drought. If you can point me to some articles that say otherwise, I’d love to read them!

    1. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Thanks for the comment, Simon! I was hoping someone might raise questions about the science, so let’s see if I can answer them satisfactorily:

      1) The blood was not intended to solve the drought so much as to work as a really shitty stopgap when the season was driest. It’s all (quickly) summarized in the few sentences where the narrator breaks down the system:

      “Advanced filtration removed most of the impurities until the blood became safe enough to drink, and the dehydration chiefs took care to press the moisture out from the meat, which left us with something like a kind of water and a kind of jerky. The water trucks that passed through the wild, out where we were, were guarded with guns, and besides, we were all dying. We had downpours three, maybe four times a summer, and the pollution and the synthetic food gave people every kind of ailment. Eat enough of what the plastic packages called nutrients and you’d live a year at most.”

      Water comes through town, but it’s such a rich commodity that people also buy filtered blood and eat meat harvested from the donors, all of whom are presumably already dying because they’re riddled with disease (which means the blood and meat is probably not all that nutritious, but hey, what can you do when the packaged stuff will supposedly kill you faster?)

      Nothing about the system is sustainable, especially since the amount of blood in a human body (5.5 liters) wouldn’t sustain a single person for much longer than a few days, and the stopgap only works because of the supply of refugees making their way from the drier regions to the “beach-region,” which the narrator mentions in relation to the few pieces of fruit she remembers tasting, fresh food being another precious commodity.

      The thinking here was that North American borders had been redrawn according to resources and that they are heavily guarded, and her hope is that she can trade her “mostly new car and the small fortune in its trunk” for a visa when she gets closer to the border.

      That said, blood, because it’s so rich in iron, is potentially dangerous to drink in large quantities (hence the “advanced filtration”), though I’ve copied an article link about modern day “vampires” who purport that it helps them feel more vital and cures certain conditions:

      http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151021-the-people-who-drink-human-blood
      https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/life-among-the-vampires/413446/

    2. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Oh, and I’ll have to take a few minutes and count up how many instances of “blood” I wrote. Yes, it was to emphasize how weird it was and, in part, to demonstrate that there was no euphemism or “brand-name” for it yet it is foremost in everyone’s mind.

      I appreciate the joke though. It’s maybe a bit much!

    3. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

      I can fully accept a filtration system to remove proteins, leukocytes, lymphocytes, platelets, pathogens, yadda yadda yadda. I assumed that people were drinking blood plasma. The issue I’m concerned with is that the salinity and dissolved ion content of blood plasma is similar to that of sea water. If this world created a way to desalinate blood plasma to a drinkable level, they would have also figured out how to sufficiently (read economically) desalinate ocean water too. Problem solved?

    4. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Yeah, “advanced filtration,” I imagined, would be the protagonist’s and even her husband’s term for reverse osmosis even though it’s imprecise. In this outpost in the desert, I figured they would not, even in narration, discuss the technicalities of the process or even fully understand it, kind of like how a good many folks cannot explain exactly how the internet works, just that it does.

      When I first drafted this, I was reading (mostly layperson) articles about water shortages and the feasibility of largescale desalination in places like California, some of which has already been happening, but you know how expensive, energy-intensive and polluting it is and the kinds of problems they’re running into in the middle-east where the tech is most advanced.

      Anyway, here were my basic premises for this world based on my sometimes hazy speculations:

      The borders have been redrawn: VERY BAD things have happened. Oceans have risen faster than coastal infrastructure could keep up, flooding and fires have become even more frequent and intense than they already are, and two major Pacific Rim quakes made everything worse (Why not?), destroying more infrastructure as well as the well-laid plans to build more desalination plants.

      People migrated: Not everyone, of course, but millions went north, which was also recovering from similar problems and was affected by the quake, yet because it was more water-abundant (and had less need for desalination, it had less incentive to continue developing the technology. There was a lot of violence, and now there are heavily enforced armed borders.

      Energy: Arctic melting has freed up huge reserves of oil and gas that are controlled by Canada and Russia, and while they also continue to frack in the U.S. southwest and drill in the Gulf of Mexico, the north has no real need for it. Most of this passes through the story’s setting on its way to what was formerly Mexico and California, and while that region has slowly picked up the pieces and rebuilt some plants, the process is still inefficient and energy intensive.

      What they use for the RED STUFF: The RO tech they use in the story’s setting is outdated and old, and it’s been modified and juryrigged for the red-stuff, in part because they don’t run the most sophisticated of operations, but it’s efficient enough to work at such a relatively small scale.

      Now, why didn’t I include any of this in my story? For one, I’m not big on exposition. In the stories I like I appreciate when things accumulate on their own or go completely unstated, although I know that’s not the best of traits if I’m aiming for sci-fi,

      Anyway, I found the exposition especially unwieldy in such a short format (This is about 2700 words). I could have worked it into dialogue, but that gets clunky too, and I decided instead to just leave it at a couple of signifiers that simply hinted at how things had changed.

      Ok, I think that’s it. This gave my brain a workout, and I’m thinking maybe I should have kept notes instead of thinking I could easily recall the path of my original thinking.

    5. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

      That’s a lot of back story! If it takes that much explanation to understand, it’s usually a sign that something is amiss in the writing. If the story has to be compromised to shorten it’s length, maybe the novel or novella form is where it has to stay. Though the point of the story remains intact here and that’s what is important. My point, however, was strictly about the science and if ocean water is plentiful and desalination technology has been sufficiently developed to clean blood plasma, then I can’t see that technology not being applied to sea water instead. There are still tonnes of sociological problems in this world based on the exposition you outline above but the water crisis seems solved.

    6. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Thanks, Simon! As I read through the comment threads in the other stories, I’ve noticed the other comments you’ve made, and I appreciate your criticisms.

      In regard to the backstory, I’ve always been an extremely willing reader to the point that when I was sitting in graduate lit seminars, seemingly ‘way back when,’ I always admired how easily others came up with questions and criticism. I could interpret the critical ‘F’ out of a piece, but I’ve never been one to question the particulars of a plot point or whether a character was believable. I need some verisimilitude, sure, but I’ve spent my life observing people do contradictory things that are entirely ‘out of character,’ myself included, so I trust that all people behave in myriad ways. (Maybe I should copy this part of my defense into the discussion below too.)

      “Could this have happened?” is all I ask, and if the answer is yes, even if it’s just an intuition, I’m willing to get started, especially if things are described well, the dialogue feels realistic, there’s a character who’s doing something interesting, and there’s a larger point at work.

      There were a couple of comparisons to Mad Max, and although that wasn’t an influence per se (mostly ’cause I started this before I had seen the film), what I appreciate about that film is how we are immersed in action from the get-go and that everything else is secondary. A viewer doesn’t need to have seen the other films to understand it (I hadn’t seen any the Mel vehicles–pun definitely intended–aside from a few stray scenes on cable when I was a kid), and I didn’t much care how they manufactured bullets or what that weird silver shit was that they sprayed on their faces.

      Obviously it’s a film, so its advantage is that it can quickly establish particulars visually. In trying to bring us into the moment of my narrator’s impulsive (though clearly warranted) decision to kill her abusive husband and set her on the path that resulted from that act, I am trying to similarly focus on what she’s doing now rather than what she did or what she might do in the future.

      If I think back to what originally influenced it, it was one part reading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and another part using that text in an undergrad creative writing class where I was trying to practice that old command to “show not tell.” Did it work? I thought so, which is why I decided to submit it.

  13. bow-gal ( Likes: 72 ) says:

    “Cracked Red Landscape” must have hit home if it was like watching a horror movie. Having to survive by drinking blood would be horrible, but could actually be a way to survive once we drain all our water resources. Which, could very well happen. Take care of our water.

  14. VickiNikolaidis ( Likes: 180 ) says:

    reading this is like watching a horror movie, that is why I can’t vote for this story. what if the universe sees the upvote and interprets it as a vote for “yah, let’s do it in the future”

    1. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Let’s hope not. My hope is that our better instincts would of course win out, but part of the fun of writing, at least for me, is the freedom of the imagination to speculate and wonder about “what if,” and there is enough in life that ain’t pretty to make me wonder about bleak, horrific possibilities.
      If anything, this might serve as a cautionary tale about our darker nature and how that is reflected in both people’s greed and the insidiously easy ways in which we might dehumanize others, especially when there’s a popular mandate to do so.

    2. kogara ( Likes: 197 ) says:

      For some reason this dialogue is making me flash back to the first time I read “The Lottery.” That short story has stuck with me for years, just as I feel this one will as well.

  15. rgy ( Likes: 11 ) says:

    I remember reading an earlier version of this a while ago. This version is even tighter, leaner, and sharper: a great marriage of style and content. My favorite line is this almost throwaway phrase: “when the streetlights end and I turn on my highbeams the darkness covers them like a skin.”

    Great work, Sean!

    1. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Thanks for the kind words, senor! I definitely spent a bit of time revising it and reworking a lot of the sentences like the one you mention so that they really “pop,” so it’s great to hear that they’re actually working!

  16. jeggerts ( Likes: 8 ) says:

    Sean, I have been enjoying your writing for years and this piece was very thought provoking and extremely well-written. It clearly also resonates (and on many levels) with your readers. I appreciate both the detail and care you took writing the story AND the detail and care your responses to the comments from your readers have been. Individual perspective colors our experiences in such unique ways and nothing shows a writer his effective use of words more than criticism at times. I appreciated the story for all of its’ complexities. Thank you.

    1. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      I appreciate that, Jen. It’s been a great experience to hear so much positive feedback as well as the bits of criticism. I think hearing from as many readers and as many points of view as possible is good for every writer.

    2. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      L O L at Sean’s response. The criticism is our best takeaway from this competition! This is how we get better in future drafts. Walk the walk, friend.

  17. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

    “and there’s a stinging between my legs that I refuse to believe” – you accused me of being too casual about suicide in my story while you’re over here being casual and careless about rape??? You’re KIDDING. I think you’ve got a cool concept here, but I think you could tell it in half the words. I also challenge you to read some more work written by women if you’re going to write about them, especially if you’re going to write from the perspective of a female character.

    1. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Shoot! I was putting my daughter down for a nap otherwise I would have replied sooner. Let’s see, as I sit here at my desk I have Emily Dickinson’s complete poems, a Muriel Spark novel, Adrienne Rich’s “The Fact of a Doorframe,” two volumes of stories by Diane Williams (she’s AMAZING!), a heavily underlined copy of Renata Adler’s “Speedboat,” Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird,” and I literally have a post-it note pasted on a drawer with a quote by Flannery O’Conner (“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Granted she uses the antiquated “he” rather than “they,” which is usually my pronoun of choice when not referring to someone by name.)

      In terms of somewhat more contemporary work, I am a huge fan of anything Karen Russell puts out, and I love Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, and Yiyun Li,

      In my classes I regularly teach essays by Joan Didion and Cheryl Strayed, and in my lit classes I’ve included everyone from Harriet Beecher Stowe, Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Zora Neal Hurston, and Alice Munro alongside other favorites like Miranda July.

      My first readers always include my partner and my mother-in-law and often my mother as well.

      That said, what are some recommendations you can make? What writers do you like who offer fresh perspectives?

      -Sean

    2. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      I guess my point here is that I don’t take rape lightly. It’s horrific. Sure, the detail is given one line, but in a brutal future where men kill humans professionally and women are discouraged from going out at night (an exaggeration, of course, of a fear that some–many–women already experience) I imagined that my protagonist would 1) want to block out the trauma, a fairly common reaction, especially in the immediate aftermath; and 2), focus her attention on figuring out how to get out of her bind in order to stay alive.

      If I were writing a story of her subsequent drive to the border and what she thinks about, I imagine I would focus almost exclusively on her interiority and how she would process not only the trauma of her horrific rape, a horror so great that she could earlier barely give it a name, but also the killing of not only her husband but her rapist as well.

    3. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      I appreciate all of those things. I also get that it’s a short piece and you don’t necessarily have time to delve into every emotion. This just feels very much like a man writing what he thinks women are like, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. We’re allowed to write about characters who aren’t like us, but the male writer creating a female character to use as a 2-dimensional story device is a trope that the market is saturated with, and has been saturated with for a very long time. Sometimes even female readers don’t recognize this as problematic because it is so normalized and traditional. I criticize because I think you can do better! It seems like your character is really only defined by her relationships with men: her ex who abandoned her, her husband, her rapist. I want to know more about her as a fully realized being, as right now she feels like little more than a vehicle. All I really know is that lemons remind her of the beach. I feel like this story was one you had to write for world building purposes, which is an important step, and this character helped you explore and map out your ideas. Now take this world you’ve established and write a story about her or someone else actually living in it!

      I haven’t read some of those, I’ll have to check them out! I recommend Margaret Atwood (obviously! The Handmaid’s Tale and Edible Woman are the first recommendations that come to mind, but she’s written a million books and they’re all great). I also HIGHLY recommend New American Best Friend by Olivia Gatwood, I think she captures her experience as a girl and a woman in really accessible and amazing ways. Along those lines, I recommend Peluda by Melissa Lozada-Oliva, and anything by Rachel Wiley or Anna Binkovitz. I also recommend baberoar.com, they publish a lot of fresh and interesting work by contemporary femme/non-binary/otherwise disenfranchised voices.

    4. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      “All I really know is that lemons remind her of the beach. I feel like this story was one you had to write for world building purposes, which is an important step, and this character helped you explore and map out your ideas.”

      Good points, Christina. There are not a whole lot of details about who she is or where she came from aside from her experiences with her husband and her ex. Most of the story exists in the present as she’s on the move, which was part of the challenge when I first conceived it–to keep the action continuous.
      At the same time, she has agency, especially in her conversation with her rapist captor. She’s formulated a plan, she’s working on a number of appeals (water, sex) so that he will stop the car, and throughout she is taking a risk that it might not work–and she would die–but she is desperate, and then it works. She has intelligence, strength and resilience even though we see earlier, like at the gas station, that she doesn’t entirely know what she’s doing. Navigating the outside world is somewhat new to her (again, in a brutal future where men and masculine tropes have become even more exaggerated and awful), and yet she prevails because of her innate wit. That’s two dimensional?

    5. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      As a reader, most of the story didn’t seem to happen in the present. Most of it was about establishing the world she was in, which was definitely necessary as it’s specific and the details about her world affect her life. She still felt two dimensional to me, in the way that she didn’t seem to react to anything specifically and her ‘agency’ felt vague. Like, when the tall guy tells her to get on her knees, what does she think about it? Is she even afraid? It’s almost like the story is being told in third person limited, which could also potentially work. If you’re trying to highlight hypermasculinity in dystopia then I would definitely suggest The Handmaid’s Tale. The Hulu show is great but read the book first.

    6. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Below, Simon had the opposite criticism, that the world-building wasn’t detailed enough and that the basic premise raised too many questions.

      It does mostly take place in the present, as in much of the action is written in the present-tense and is strictly that, action. And there’s little interiority, most of it being subtle and understated, but she does react to things, and that strikes me more as a preference than a legitimate criticism.

      For example, in the moment you described, when the “tall guy tells her to get on her knees,” there is probably a blend of emotion taking place, and part of it comes out as unexpected humor, another stupid joke (like the one that opens the story) that might raise an inward smile, as well as some confusion, despite the situation’s gravity (fear and grief can elicit strange reactions), but whatever he notices in her face (“But something in my expression changes his demeanor”)–my guess is fear and hate, but how can we really KNOW what he was thinking or KNOW entirely how even we are thinking when thoughts, like the bad joke, arise haphazard and sometimes suddenly–causes him to get, presumably angry enough to attack her.

      She reacts as I expect most people would react when faced with something unexpected. You would try not to panic, and you might be more confused than frightened, at least in the first seconds, and then you might try to bide your time by being silent while still unable to hide the emotion displayed on your face.

      And can you please stop presuming what I’ve read? I find it incredibly condescending. Yes, I’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale. Yes, I’ve read Margaret Atwood.

      But that’s not what I’m writing.

    7. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      You asked for suggestions! How is me offering them in response condescending?

      Look, I don’t like this story. In my individual opinion, it comes off as very problematic and borders on rape fantasy, something that I’m just not ok with. I’m sure that’s not your intention, I’m sure that’s not how everyone reads it. Take my suggestions or leave them, or send your mom after me. This is deathmatch. I like aspects of your story, and I recognize that I’m probably not your target audience. Varying opinions are allowed.

      Also, I didn’t get the systemic aspect you’ve been talking about. I guess I have trouble placing your female character in the larger society because I don’t see enough of the system? I see that people think it is weird that she’s outside on her own, but that having a butcher as a husband makes this more understandable. If you’re building a hypermasculine dystopia, I want to see where other women fit into the new system, and more men who aren’t butchers or bleeders. I think that context would round out your world tremendously, and also explain her actions and reactions without you having to tell us, which is something you’re understandably avoiding in the story.

      One more thing – I’m not a biologist but I’m pretty sure that consuming human flesh damages your brain. I’m personally willing to suspend my disbelief on that for the sake of the story, but sci-fi fans often aren’t, from what I understand. Definitely something you could explain away though, i think.

    8. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      My brain keeps coming back to this. I think because it’s so close to being so many things. Like it’s almost ecofeminism, it’s almost a cautionary dystopian tale, it’s almost an indie movie. Your point about the word count in one of the comments makes sense, i think you need more space to flesh (I am SO punny) everything out, you’ve taken on quite an endeavor. Do something cool with this though. And please no zombies (or ALL of the zombies?).

    9. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Alright, I hear you, and no, I won’t send my mom after you. She’s a nice lady, and I’m, by most accounts, a pretty sweet guy–good father, partner, friend, teacher etc. (Good “your mom” jab, btw)

      When I asked you for suggestions in my earlier post, I was being (subtly, perhaps even indeterminably) cheeky. I am a feminist, my wife is a feminist scholar who recently did a communications study on maternal identify and attitudes towards organizational support, and I’ve always admired women’s voices in fiction.

      The point you raise about my detail of eating humans being something that can be explained away is of course fundamental to fiction–the ability for us to set up conditions and work out how people can live inside them and have it actually work–but also fundamental to fiction is its ability to transport us into other lives whether we’re writing it or reading it.

      Anyway, “YOUR mom!”

    10. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      That wasn’t a your mom joke! What’s funny is that very shortly after I posted that I think your mom responded to another one of my comments. Moms are cool.

      I’m sure you are all of those things, although asking someone for reading suggestions in a sarcastic way is condescending and pedantic, you’re better than that!

      Also, insert joke about you admiring women’s voices in fiction and not in real life. That feels like a set up and I didn’t want to let you down.

      My mom is probably somewhere labelling her jewelry or reprinting her will.

    11. rgy ( Likes: 11 ) says:

      “One more thing – I’m not a biologist but I’m pretty sure that consuming human flesh damages your brain. I’m personally willing to suspend my disbelief on that for the sake of the story, but sci-fi fans often aren’t, from what I understand.”

      If you’re going to attack someone, you should probably get your facts straight first. Both of these “points” read like grasping at straws. At least drop the qualifiers if you want to really go for it.

      On another note, have you read Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion?

      This is the entirety of the chapter following one where the protagonist gets a traumatic back alley abortion:

      “I want a very large steak,” she said to Les Goodwin in a restaurant on Melrose at eight o’clock that night. “And before the very large steak I want three drinks. And after the steak I want to go somewhere with very loud music.”

      “Like where.”

      “I don’t know where. You ought to know where. You know a lot of places with loud music.”

      “What’s the matter with you.”

      “I am just very tired of listening to you all.”

      Compression, concision, and elision are powerful techniques. Just because a particular subject isn’t treated volubly doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry significant weight.

    12. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Hi rgy. Attacking is the name of the game, this is death match! Sean attacked my story too. It’s cool, we have both consented to this via email to Broken Pencil.

      I included the qualifiers because I am not actually a cannibal so I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not eating human flesh makes you crazy from personal experience. But it’s a discussion that comes up in every workshop I’m in (somehow someone almost always writes a cannibalism story? It’s an interesting topic to write about so I totally get it). Everyone has a different opinion about it, I just wanted to bring it up to Sean for consideration. I’m also just one reader offering feedback, so I’m sharing my own reaction and questions, which are not representative of how every other reader reacts to the piece. He can take or leave it, which is why I presented it that way.

      I think even that excerpt from the novel gives the trauma more space than Sean’s story does, but I don’t think that takes away from Cracked Red Landscape. The novel is a different form, she had more space to work out characterization outside of the abortion scene and the excerpt you provided (thank you for pulling that out, by the way!). They’re entirely different stories. Everyone experiences trauma differently, so naturally fictional characters do too. I just personally think that this portrayal of sexual assault is irresponsible.

      My knee jerk suggestion is to write more, to make this story part of a larger piece. But I also hate giving that feedback because I know it’s usually useless. Sean, if you happen to have time to write a novel I would suggest doing so (what an absurd thing to say), that would give you the space to explore your character(s) and the dystopian hyper-masculine social system you’ve talked about in the comments. If this remains a short story forever, I’ve already offered my suggestions and you’ve dismissed them, which is fine. It’s your story. The talk about this story as a screenplay also sounds interesting.

    1. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Mike. I love trying to evoke little details and textures while still keeping things concise and without sounding too overblown.

  18. Sophie-anneBelisle ( Likes: 1076 ) says:

    I enjoyed the Waterworld meets Mad Max sort of atmosphere. The induced lactation bit made me laugh, it was just so unexpected. I also appreciated that the main character was a woman as opposed to a dudely dude which is so common in this sort of post-apocalyptic story.

    1. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Thanks, Sophie-Anne! I remember the induced lactation not surprised me as well when I was writing it. I love the serendipity of strange little details like that.

    2. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Whoops! I’ve been posting comments from my phone. I meant “induced lactation BIT” not “not”

  19. kogara ( Likes: 197 ) says:

    Awesome!! Like one of the commenters mentioned, I could absolutely see the story as a movie. You might be a prophet, Sean Wheaton, but let’s hope not. 🙂

  20. beggerts13 ( Likes: 33 ) says:

    A lot to think about after reading your story Sean – great work and such a visual story! And clearly it makes me very much appreciate the cup of water I am drinking right now;)

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