Writing Goals I: Filling the Toolbox

artists toolbox

Typical toolbox: Palette, brushes…and somewhere in the background, annoying husband

The other day my wife and I were on a long walk and we started talking about a class she’s scheduled to take next month. It’s a week-long painting workshop in which she’ll be working on the same large painting for five full days. This will be somewhat new territory for her, as she doesn’t usually paint in large format like that. This is part of the plan: it’s time to add that skill to her artistic toolbox.

The reason we were discussing it is she had just asked me, earlier in the day, for my opinion on which subject she should paint – the instructor had emailed her several photographs and, prior to the class, she was supposed to email back and let the instructor know which one she planned to tackle.

We had looked at them together and narrowed down the list. On the walk, we were discussing the merits of each of the potentials. I could tell she had a clear favorite.

“Why that one?” I asked her.

“It has the best light,” she said. Good.

“I like the spark of red in the window,” she said. Good.

“It has the most variety,” she said. Good.

“I think it would be the easiest one to sell afterward,” she said. Wait.

“Is that your goal?” I asked. “To create one painting to sell? Or are you trying to learn the skills to paint a hundred paintings? Does how that particular one comes out matter that much at all?”

And of course she said it was the skills she was focused on, that the idea of being able to possibly also sell the painting she created was just a potential bonus in her book. Icing on the cake.

I know her well enough that I already knew this was the case. I was just asking to make a point, to make sure she went into the class with the proper mindset.

In related news, yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

But really, her focus – anyone’s focus in a class or workshop-type setting, in my opinion – should be on filling her toolbox with the skills necessary to do one hundred great large paintings. A thousand.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about writers having toolboxes. It’s a great concept, but a lot of times I see writers meandering away from the toolbox mindset and toward the tangible-result mindset. They go to a conference or workshop or retreat with a pointed result in mind – finishing one book, one story, getting an agent or a publisher – and often consider it a failure if they don’t achieve that result.

A good friend runs a local writing conference with lots of activities. What’s interesting is that he finds it much easier to fill the ones that have the potential for that pointed, tangible result associated with them (like Agent Pitch sessions – direct result: getting an agent, of course) than the ones that don’t have as clear of a direct result.

Case in point: the Query Letter critique. It’s much harder for writers to pinpoint the direct result of this activity – since you don’t get to select the agent / editor you end up meeting with, writers don’t see it as a clear gate to signing with an agent. And I’m coming to the conference to sign with an agent, so what good is it, right?

Here’s the thing, though. All the activities at the conference are great and educational in one way or another, but the Query Letter critique is actually the one that fills the toolbox most clearly. It should be the FIRST activity to fill up, not the LAST.

You get your query – a letter you might use to later query one hundred agents – critiqued by experts. Rather than focusing on a pitch session that lets you talk to one agent (who may or may not even be a fit for your work, by the way), the query critique session potentially adds a polished letter to your toolbox. A letter, again, that you can use over and over again to query dozens upon dozens of agents. At least one of whom is far more likely to be a fit for your work.

I see this also in critique groups, which typically allow you to bring five to ten pages, which you either read aloud during or share prior to the meeting. Most writers try to use these groups to get critique on their entire novel in sequence. But if your book is 300 pages long, five pages at a time means it will take sixty meetings to get through it all. That’s almost THREE YEARS if your group meets twice a month!

This is simply not how I view these groups. I love critique groups, but I’m not there to run through my entire novel five pages at a time.

I’m there to fill my toolbox.

If I’m working on adding humor to my project, or the relationship between two characters, or how the antagonist is portrayed, whatever, I bring a section that is representative of that thing, get my critique, then add the reactions I hear to my toolbox. I then apply what I learned (I USE THAT NEW TOOL!) to the entire book on my own. This means I often share my book out of order, skip chapters, switch from one book to the next, then to a short story I want reaction on, and so on.

I am definitely in the minority on that front. In fact I think my approach downright annoys people sometimes. But I don’t really care.

Have I mentioned the related news? Yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

Let me sum up what I’m trying to say with a bit of advice: when you’re heading to a writing conference or class, a retreat or critique group, a workshop, I suggest trying to think less about that particular direct result you’re hoping for – these five pages to critique (which MUST be the NEXT five pages in your book), that one agent I MUST convince to sign me, this one book that MUST be completed during this retreat, and try to focus a whole lot more on your TOOLBOX.

How does what you’re about to do fill it with more tools you can use over and over again? To query fifty agents. To write a dozen books. To fix your entire novel, rather than just this lone five-page sample.

Over the past year or two, as I’ve continued to traverse the ups and downs of the publishing industry, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing goals. First and foremost my own, which it’s probably fair to say I’ve transformed quite significantly, but also other writers. It can’t be helped: we writers are all bobbing up and down in own own rafts along this strange river filled with dangerous, unpredictable rapids. We’re on our own, but we’re right next to each other, too. We see it when some other writer’s raft gets flipped over by unexpected rocks. And we can’t help but wonder, from afar, what happened to cause it.

More and more, as I see those overturned rafts, those writers sputtering for air, I’ve been noticing a cause-and-effect relationship between these accidents and writing goals.

This post is the result of some of those ruminations – hopefully the first in a series on Writing Goals.

Stay tuned for Writing Goals II: Don’t Quit That Day Job.

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Strap, put Ollie on your shoulders (1K A DAY)

HoosiersEarlier this year, I finished a somewhat arduous revision of a manuscript that’s currently on submission. I’m really proud of the results of all my work but without a doubt it was A LOT OF WORK.

I needed a break from full length novels so I entered a period where I worked on a lot of short stories. I fell in love with the short form all over again, even getting a few of my pieces placed for publication (see my Stories page for more details).

I started to question myself, though. (Isn’t that the way we keep our writer cards? Questioning ourselves?)

Could I return to full-length novel work? I mean, short stories and flash fiction are moments of light, flashbulbs of inspiration. Different from novels in so many ways.

Looking ahead to tackling another novel started to feel like looking up at a mountain I had climbed before but wasn’t sure I had the stamina to climb again.

But I had a new, great idea burning a hole in my mind. It needed to come out.

Continue reading

My Favorite Short Story Collections

You Only Get Letters from JailI’ve been on a short story kick lately – writing them, reading them, being generally obsessed with the fantastic work going on in this area by a lot of the talented writers out there. As a result, I’ve been talking to everyone who will listen to me about the various collections I appreciate (that’s right, both of you…).

Sometimes I draw a blank, though. Like last night at my critique group, after I did a quick reading of the first half of one of my new short stories, one of the new members asked me for a list of collections I thought they should check out (in conversation, I’d mentioned one or two). Although I knew I had a long list of writers and collections to recommend in my head, I froze, unable to name even one more (such pressure!).

So tonight I decided to document a list right here on my blog that I hope to keep updated as I continue to enjoy more of these collections. I’ve read a lot more collections than these, but if I really enjoy one in its entirety, I’m going to try to include it here.

Continue reading

Every Now & Then

Sun Blinds

Then, the world seemed so big. Full of endless possibilities. Someday he’d see it all, do it all. He’d visit Paris and Thailand, Japan, New Zealand. He’d jump out of planes, cruise the Nile, write that novel. He’d remember to call his son on his birthday. Next year he would.

Now, the world has shrunk down to this tiny room with its incessantly beeping and blinking equipment, the shafts of sunlight streaming through the blinds striking his half-closed eyes at the wrong angle. Most days it’s too much effort to turn his head away from that blinding light. Lying in this stiff bed, he feels everything, even that constant itch in the sweaty small of his back. It’s a part of him, that irritation, one he can’t reach. There are so many parts of himself he can no longer reach.

Then, he knew his sons had to be successful. It was his job to push them, to force them into Ivy League schools, make sure they achieved the highest grades, won the most prestigious awards. He found them those internships at the bank, set them up to compete against each other until the best man won. He knew all along they’d both win as a result, even if they lost the love for each other brothers should have. Nothing but President or CEO would do for his boys. It didn’t matter if it hurt them when he applied so much pressure, set so many deadlines and milestones. It didn’t matter if they hated him for it. Because they were too young to understand it was all for their own good. Too young.

Now, he wishes they weren’t both CEOs like he wanted them to be, that they didn’t make quite so much money, that there weren’t so many nameless people depending on them to keep working day after blessed day. He wishes his sons didn’t have to say, “Sorry, Dad, but I just can’t get away right now,” when he calls them and tells them how sick he is.

Then, he’d curse those damn kids and their loud music, driving past his two-story on Elm Street, through his respectable, quiet neighborhood with their booming base shaking the pictures on his mantle, interrupting the nightly news, all those stories about murders and kidnapping and political feuds that were so important for him to hear. It was noise, that rap; goddamned noise and he couldn’t comprehend how anyone could bear to listen to such garbage.

Now, there’s only one nurse who can move him without hurting him. He’s big and strong, with soft, black hands. His name is Kenny, and he knows Kenny’s shift is about to begin when he hears the young man’s car pull into the hospice parking lot, the booming rap shaking his bed, rattling the metal guard the other nurses keep raised so he doesn’t accidentally roll out. How he waits for the sound of that droning beat. It matches the rhythm of his own heart.

Then, she stared at him with those sparkling green eyes tucked under that mop of curly brown hair and above her crooked nose. He was lying on the floor, propped on his elbows, and she stretched across the couch, the used one that shifty Indian guy on Sullivan Street sold them from the back of his U-Haul. She leaned against the cushions at one end, her long, lean legs crossed, feet bare. Her red heels were stacked, one atop the other, just inside the door. He kept peeking at them. Behind him, the late night laugh track from some old sitcom echoed in his inebriated brain. She was telling him her dreams again. Where she’d go, what she’d do. As she talked, those sparkling green eyes asked him a question. They asked him to sleep with her.

Now, he wonders if she told anyone else how she got that crooked nose, the backwards tumble from the monkey bars when she was twelve that broke it. The fumbling family friend of a doctor who didn’t set it right. Nearly every night he walked up two flights to her room and, on the rare occasion he didn’t, she somehow knew, and came to his instead. He realizes, for that short space of time, only a month, maybe two, he was her best friend. The idea simultaneously thrills and devastates him. He remembers sending her upstairs without sleeping with her, mostly because his roommates had warned him she was a slut. “Megan’s been places you don’t want to think about, man,” they told him. “I’d stay away from that, I were you.” Besides, she had that crooked nose. And he lets himself picture, just for a moment, that boring boy from Philadelphia, the one who seemed to start coming around almost the very next day. That humorless kid who told the God-awful knock-knock jokes and didn’t care about her crooked nose. The nice Jewish boy, just like her mother wanted her to meet, who wouldn’t hear the rumors and innuendos about her. The one she married. The itch on his back grows worse. He still can’t reach it.

Then, he had IRAs and 401Ks. Stocks and bonds. Hidden accounts that had hidden accounts. Money inside his money. Because there were formulas for such things. Everyone was living longer, and he needed enough money stashed aside in case he was one of the lucky ones. In case he lived forever.

Now, he considers the odd shape of things like Africa and boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He recalls a boy on a street corner, holding up a box of glazed and a sign that said he needed to raise money for a mission trip to Zimbabwe. He remembers turning his head slightly in the car, avoiding eye contact so the boy wouldn’t step to his window and ask him to buy a box. This was discipline, he told himself. He wasn’t supposed to eat sweets anyway. He wonders whether the boy ever made it to Africa. He wonders what harm there would’ve been in buying the doughnuts, then dropping them off at a homeless shelter. Like counting sheep, he stares at the ceiling and tallies the lives the boy might’ve touched, changed. In the corner of his vision, an abnormally large drip tumbles into his IV bag, sending ripples across the surface of the pooled liquid. It splashes up the sides and fills the bag for a moment before settling down again.

Then, he drank too much. It helped him to feel something, anything, during all the numb years.

Now, his liver is failing. The fibers on the sheets are sharp against his skin, like pins and needles, agonizing. The sounds of the machines increase in frequency, as if trying to warn him of something approaching. “What?” he wants to shout, but his mouth is dry and no words emerge. Desperately, he tries to recall the sound of his own voice and can’t.

Someone else is speaking. He thinks it’s Kenny. The voice is saying, “Hold on, Mr. Davis. Stay with us.” It says this over and over again, somehow more urgent but quieter each time. The light from the sun knifing its way through those slats in the blinds seems suddenly brighter than ever.

And then? Then?

Then, he finally hears the sound of his own voice again, but it isn’t coming from his throat. It’s all around him, calling out.

Calling him home.

Now he hears nothing at all.

====================

Every Now & Then, a short story by Chris Negron. Copyright 2013.

Short

Devito and Stone

So I’ve been reading a really horrifying collection of short stories called Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock. If you feel like being depressed beyond measure by the lengths people in small, desolate towns will go just to get from one day to the next, by all means, pick it up.

In truth, I’ve been reading this collection for a little while now. I’ll tackle a few stories in succession before I’ll become exhausted emotionally and mentally. Then I’ll have to take a break for a bit.

Most of them are about drugs in one way or another, but Pollock doesn’t discriminate: he touches on every flavor of depravity that I know of (and honestly, quite a few I didn’t know of – the kinds of things that now he’s made me aware exist are difficult to get out of my mind).

Here are some sample first sentences in the Knockenstiff collection, just to give you an idea of what I’ve been going through. I tried to select stories without profanity in the very first sentence, which was difficult.

  • “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.” (from Real Life)
  • “When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely.” (from Hair’s Fate)
  • “I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.” (from Bactine)
  • “Half the time now the only thing crawling around in Howard Bowman’s worn-out head is that four-letter word, the one swear his wife no longer allows in the house.” (from Honolulu)

You get the idea. Apparently there’s even a name for this genre. Wait for it … it’s called ”Hick Lit.”

These stories are raw. They’re about real life, or at least a version of life I get the sense Pollock’s spent considerable time around. I understand many of them were written as assignments for the MFA he earned from Ohio State University in 2009, after spending 32 years working in a paper mill in Ohio, not far from Knockemstiff. (Yep, you read that right, Knockemstiff is an actual place in Southern Ohio).

Meanwhile, a few other things are going on that make me feel the short story is in the air.

Though I’m supposed to be finishing up the latest revision of my novel (I’m working on it, promise), I’ve been writing a short story of my own on and off. See, what happens to me is when I get hit with an idea that I know is the size and shape of a short story, I can’t seem to get it out of my head until I actually write the darn thing. Short stories are like flashbulbs of inspiration – as if a bright light went off in front of me and now the residual image is burned onto my brain. The only way to rid myself of it is to write it down.

Meanwhile, Ann Kingman, co-host of one my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, has declared this “The Year of the Short Story.” She’s trying to read one story per day and is tracking her progress through entries on a page titled “Project Short Story.”

And the other day I heard this really great podcast from Selected Shorts with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Colbert and Leonard Nimoy. Gaiman served as host, introducing Colbert reading a story by Ray Bradbury (The Veldt) and Nimoy reading one from James Thurber (The Catbird Seat). Both were excellently written and performed. In his introduction, Mr. Gaiman had this to say about the short story:

Short fiction is like close-up magic. You look, you try and figure out how it’s done. All the pieces are laid out in front of you. And then suddenly it wraps up in a way you weren’t expecting or in a perfectly satisfying way.

On the same day, the most recent issue of Esquire winged its way through the electrons to my kindle and within I found an article titled “In Celebration of the Short Story” by Benjamin Percy. Mr. Percy describes the short story this way:

A short story is a red-faced sprint. A short story is a one-night stand you’ll remember years later in the shower or on a two-lane country highway. A short story is a precisely cut diamond. A short story is a glimpse – like the flash and buzz of a hummingbird – that stills your breath with its beauty. A short story, because it is short, can forgivably push boundaries, take risks. A short story attends to language in a gymnastic way that would exhaust any reader past twenty pages. A short story is impressionistic. A short story is a shot of whiskey, a snort of cocaine, a hand on a hot stove. A short story demands strenuous attention, supplying only the most essential components of character and narrative, asking the reader to infer the rest. 

A short story can be perfect…

So there you have it. Short stories seem to be everywhere. And, apparently, they can be perfect.

I’d better get back to work on mine. If only to get it out of my head.

Orbital: A Halloween Story

Orbital Jack-O-Lantern

I discovered my brother-in-law was a serial killer over breakfast one morning, while I was eating oatmeal and looking inside his brain.

And…I should probably explain that.

See, I’m a neuroscientist at Yale University. My name is Mark Cornell. Last summer, my sister Faith got married. Finally. She was so happy because she’d met the perfect guy: a talented chef with his own restaurant up in Boston. They were a dream couple.

Over winter break the newlyweds drove down to New Haven for a visit and I snuck them into the lab so I could scan their brains. It was supposed to be harmless – in fact my other sister and her husband had done the same thing years ago after they got married, as an amusing way for me to tell them the differences in their personalities and warn them of the inevitable times they’d clash. It’s sort of like a Meyers-Briggs thing: I can tell you the type of personality you have from the lights in your brain – flashes of blue, red and yellow amid darker patches of black.

It’s what I do.

I remembered how amazed Jenn, my youngest sister, had been when I gave her and her husband Tom their readings. “Oh. My. God. That is totally me,” she’d said. Then, punching Tom in the arm, added, “And that is definitely you. Tell me that’s not exactly the way you are.”

Tom reluctantly agreed with my findings, but not before shooting an annoyed look at me over Jenn’s shoulder that told me – guy to guy – I’d just made his life hell for a few weeks. And thanks a bunch for that. So I’d been a little worried about running the same tests for Faith – one angry brother-in-law seemed enough – but the way Jenn raved about her results forced my hand. “You have to do it,” she told Faith. “It’s so cool.” Great. Now Faith would think I was playing favorites if I refused her request for the same treatment.

The one thing I decided to do differently was avoid providing them immediate results in person. I told them I’d mail them later and we could discuss over the phone. That way if there was anything embarrassing for Faith’s husband Sam, I could decide whether or not to share it, and avoid any repeat brother-in-law angst.

Orbital Brain Scan

And that’s how, a few weeks later, I ended up reading their scans over breakfast before heading out to teach my morning class. That’s when I saw it, right in front of me: a dark patch in Sam’s orbital cortex, just behind the eyes. I recognized it immediately. The orbital cortex is the part of the brain involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control. It acts like a damper on the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with aggression and appetites. Every serial killer’s brain scan I’ve ever seen – and I mean every single one – has had that dark patch in the orbital cortex. The same one I saw in Sam’s brain, right behind his eyes. The one that means there’s an imbalance and the orbital cortex isn’t doing its job.

It’s on strike.

And the result of this particular work stoppage? The amygdala – the part of your brain driving your id-type behaviors – your unchecked rage, violence, eating, sex, drinking, all of it – takes over. You become a sociopath. According to my data, you’re likely to be a serial killer.

I felt I had no time to waste. As far as I knew, the behavior dictated by his profile had yet to manifest, but who could tell when it would? How could I live with myself if I waited too long before taking action? What if my sister was killed by her maniac husband in the interim?

First I called Faith. She answered with a surprised tone. I didn’t call that often. “Hey, Mark. Everything okay?”

“Yes,” I answered quickly. “Everything’s fine. How about you? Are you all right?”

“Me? Sure, I’m fine. Just getting ready for work.” I listened for any change in her tone, something to indicate she wasn’t telling the whole truth. “Mark, you sound a little odd. Are you positive you’re okay?”

“Sure, sure, I’m great. I just hadn’t called in a while…and I was thinking about you this morning. Where’s Sam?”

“Oh, he’s still sleeping. He won’t get up until almost noon. He’s at that restaurant so late every night. But you know, it’s his dream. I’m already asleep by the time he gets home. We’re like ships passing.”

I remembered Sam complaining about his daily schedule: because he tried to minimize his staff’s hours as a way of keeping costs down, he did most of the afternoon prep and late evening cleanup all by himself, starting at two and ending after midnight. “It’s one killer of a day,” he had told me once, laughing as he said it.

I checked the clock. Not even 8 a.m. yet. I had plenty of time.

“Say,” Faith continued. “You read those scans we did yet?”

Hesitating just a moment, I tried to keep my voice even. “Not yet. I will soon, though. Promise.”

She thanked me for calling but apologized that she really had to run or she’d be late for work. We said goodbye and hung up.

The next call I made was to my assistant Travis. I told him I’d had an epiphany of sorts – this wasn’t all that unusual a claim for me to make – and asked him to cover my classes for the day. He took it in stride. He’d covered for me many times before – one of the crosses he had to bear to earn a Masters degree was to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the nutty professor. “Wait. Is this about a serial killer?”

My heart thumped in my chest, but then I realized he had no idea what I planned to do with my day. No, he was referring to the paper we were working on together, the one we were close to publishing, on serial killer profiling. “Sort of. I just need to take care of something before it leaves my head.”

After I hung up from that second call, I headed to the bedroom, pulled out the little footstool I kept next to the closet and mounted it, standing tiptoed and reaching deep into the back of the top shelf, above my suits and belts and ties.

It took a moment, but finally I grasped the metal lockbox that held my handgun and pulled it down.

# # #

I spent the morning trying to convince myself I was wrong. That all the work I’d done my entire life was a sham, every article I’d written baseless, all my research conclusions mere conjecture. I tried to believe my brother-in-law Sam couldn’t possibly be a serial killer.

But it wasn’t true, and I knew it. I’d never seen the scan he had in a non-killer before. I trusted my results. After all, this is what I do.

I kept checking the clock. I’d originally planned to drive up to Boston and be there by two, to confront Sam alone in his restaurant before the rest of his staff arrived. To do that, I’d have to leave for the two and a half hour drive no later than eleven, just in case there was traffic. I-95 was rarely a picnic. But as the morning marched on and I argued with myself, it occurred to me that wasn’t the best plan after all. If I arrived in the afternoon, it wouldn’t be long before his staff started coming in. And what if one of them was early?

No, if I was going to kill my brother-in-law, it’d be better to do it late that night, under the cover of dark, when he was closing his restaurant alone.

# # #

During the drive up to Boston, every single moment I’d ever spent with Sam Byrd ran through my mind. The time he taught me how he cooked steak at his restaurant on his backyard grill, including showing me the precision he employed to trim the fat first using the sharpest knife I’d ever seen. The kind of knife a killer would use to cut someone’s throat. The angered expression only I’d noticed when Faith hadn’t been ready to walk the aisle when the music started at their wedding, the one I’d mistakenly attributed to his stress and nerves. His claim to be a passionate Patriots fan followed by a complete lack of emotion when “his team” lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl and their perfect season was ruined. The blatant flirting and ogling of every attractive woman he seemed to come into contact with, even at his own wedding reception.

It all seemed so obvious now that I’d seen his brain. The man was a classic sociopath.

I arrived at nearly ten p.m. and discretely parked several blocks away from his restaurant, walking to it so there would be no witnesses who could claim to have seen my car in the area. There were only a few tables of customers left inside, and most appeared to be wrapping up their meals. I snuck around the back and found Sam’s car parked in its usual spot. Crouching near it, I finally caught sight of him sneaking out the back kitchen door for a cigarette break. This gave me all the confirmation I needed – my brother-in-law was working tonight. I slid the gloves I’d brought onto my hands and waited for everyone else to leave.

Once they were gone, the head chef and I were going to have a nice, long talk.

# # #

“Mark?” Sam asked, surprised, when I walked in through the back door from the alley. Everyone else – all the customers and his staff – were gone now. I’d seen the last of his cooks drive off just minutes before. That same sharp knife hovered in his hand over the remnants of a side of beef. Early prep for tomorrow, I guessed.

“Hello, Sam,” I said.

“What are you doing here? I didn’t know you were in town.”

I hastily pulled out the gun from my jacket pocket. It got stuck on the flap a moment and I had to wrestle with it until I finally had it pointed straight at him. “I’m here to talk about your brain.”

Sam dropped the knife in shock and his wide eyes fixed on the barrel of my weapon. “Mark, what the hell?”

“Take a step back.” He did, towards a chair near the industrial ovens. “And sit down. Right there.”

He looked around, and a smile hinted at the corners of his mouth. “Wait a minute,” he said slowly. “This is a joke, right? Some kind of prank?”

“Sit down!” I yelled, brandishing the gun.

His face lost all color and he backed into the chair without uttering another word. I took advantage of the silence and started talking then. I told him all about his orbital cortex scan, about my research, about my memories of his previous sociopathic behavior. I finished with “I won’t let you hurt my sister. I can’t.”

“This is crazy,” he said, his voice pitched higher than I’d ever heard it. “Mark, I’m no killer. I love Faith. We’re going to start a family. You can’t believe – ”

“Just shut up,” I yelled.

He must’ve decided he was in real trouble then, because he started screaming for help. I charged over and touched the cold metal of the gun to his temple. Just as suddenly as he’d started, he stopped.

We waited several minutes in the new silence, my unmoving gun still making contact with his skin. I watched as a bead of sweat slid from his hairline to the gun, around it and down his cheek, and hoped I wouldn’t hear sirens or see flashing blue lights through the windows. I didn’t.

I grabbed several large, wet towels from a bin waiting to be brought to the cleaners with my free hand and wound them up like a bully in gym class about to torture some poor nerd. Then I used them like rope, securing Sam to the chair.

While I worked, every time he tried to implore me to hear reason, every time he assured me he’d never, ever hurt my sister, I threatened him with the gun again. “Shut up!”

When I was sure he was secure, I finished my job with a smaller, wet, dish cloth from the sink and some duct tape I found on a shelf, using them to form a rudimentary gag. “Now, we can talk,” I said with a smile.

He muffled something back, but I couldn’t make out the words. Perfect. He wasn’t going to talk me out of what I had to do. My sister’s life was at stake here.

I never planned to use the gun. I didn’t know all that much about forensics, but I was pretty sure they’d eventually trace it back to me if I did. No, as soon as I’d remembered his teaching me to trim the fat off a steak with that sharp meat knife, I knew what I had to do.

Turning, I found the knife he’d dropped when I first entered lying atop the side of beef he’d been working on. I looked around for a rag to wipe it off with. After all, it had just been in contact with raw meat. Then I laughed out loud at myself, at the idea that I was worried about passing along E-coli or Salmonella or whatever-the-hell disease with the knife I was about the cut his throat with.

I tucked the gun back into my pocket and approached him with the knife extended. He started to squirm, but the towels held fast. His eyes went wide and he screamed again, but the muffled sound would go no farther than the room I stood in. No one would hear.

Halfway to him, I stopped. This wasn’t right. It couldn’t be.

It was almost as though I watched the scene from above, detached, like a movie, trying to figure out how in the world this guy with the knife had gotten in here, had made the decisions he had. Then I realized the guy with the knife was me. And I remembered standing on our deck as a teenager, babysitting my sisters, watching them chase each other in the yard with huge smiles on their faces.

What if, after he killed Faith, he went after Jenn next? What if I lost both my sisters to this madman?

I felt myself sink back into my body, and began moving forward again. Frantic, he strained and strained against the towels as I approached, and one looked as if it might be starting to loosen. I couldn’t allow that. In two quick steps, I charged forward and ran the knife along his neck the long way, cutting both his jugular veins cleanly.

Blood, more blood than I could ever imagine, streamed out his neck, down his shirt and chest, along his legs and onto the floor. He convulsed, then began to shiver before going slack. The blood didn’t stop.

I backed away slowly and dropped the knife to the floor with a clatter. The still-pooling blood quickly overtook it. I turned and strode out the same door I’d entered, being careful not to touch anything as I removed the gloves from my hands.

I maintained a quick walking pace, not a run, keeping a careful out eye out for any witnesses. But at this hour, no one saw me. At least none that I could tell. As I turned down the street where I’d left my car, the streetlight above it blinked out, and shadows crept toward me, reminding me of the creeping blood from only minutes before.

Walking into those shadows, that darkness, without hesitation, I climbed back into my car and drove the rest of the night, straight back down I-95 to New Haven.

# # #

The next morning, on no sleep, I arrived at my office early, prepared for what lay ahead. I set my cell in the center of my desk so it could be ready for the call that would inevitably come. Faith would wake up and find Sam never came home from the restaurant. She’d call the police, and it wouldn’t be long before they’d discover his body, sitting tied to that chair and surrounded by a pool of his own blood. She’d probably call Jenn first, weeping, but soon after would look to her older brother, to me, for consolation as well.

And I’d be here for her this morning, just like I’d been there for her last night. I’d saved her life. It was only a matter of time before that animal killed her, I was sure of that. I didn’t feel guilty over what I’d done. Not in the least. My sisters meant everything to me. I’d do anything for them. I always said I’d kill for them if I had to. Now, I’d proven those weren’t just empty words.

I watched the phone so intently, trying to estimate how long it’d take for her call to come in, I didn’t hear Travis’ light tap on my door. I didn’t realize he was standing there at all until he spoke. “Professor?”

Shocked, I glanced around my office as if there might be something visible to indicate my guilt, to make him aware of what I’d done. But I knew there was nothing of the sort. I’d taken care of the gloves last night, depositing them in an anonymous dumpster outside of Mystic. I hadn’t used my gun and now it was locked back up in my closet. In the end, my dark deed would be untraceable. I had nothing to worry about. “Travis. Come in.”

I could see he held the tell-tale envelope containing another brain scan. We had so many of them, discussed them so frequently during our meetings, that wasn’t surprising. He held it up. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”

“Tell me what?”

“I think we’re going to have to hold off publishing your paper on the serial killer profile.”

“Why would we do that?”

“Because,” he started, pulling the scan out of the envelope. “Remember we both got scanned last week, for the final baselines?” I nodded. “This one’s yours. Look at the orbital cortex.”

I did and immediately saw what he referenced: a dark patch, right behind my eyes. Almost identical to what I’d seen in Sam’s scan. I stared at it in silence as Travis continued. “So, based on this, I don’t think we should be so certain of our theory. I mean, we thought everyone who had this profile would end up being a killer, right? But you having it sort of refutes that whole thing, doesn’t it? You’d never kill anybody.” He laughed. I hoped I didn’t wince at the sound of it, like nails on a chalkboard. “So I figure we must be wrong. At least, we might be – the theory needs more work, anyway. That’s why I don’t think we should publish. I don’t think we can. Not in good conscience.”

I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. I just stared at that dark, orbital patch, my vision becoming blurred by the sheer depth of it, descending into its…blackness. I could almost feel the empty spot behind my eyes, knowing now it had been there all along, only I hadn’t been in touch with it yet. Not until what I’d done last night.

Thinking about how comfortable that darkness made me feel, how I wanted to pull it over me like a warm comforter, I realized how attuned to it I’d already become. It mesmerized me; I found myself unable to move, unable to tear my glare away from its location at the center of the scan Travis held in his slightly shaking hands.

My gaze didn’t shift one iota. Not even when my cell started to ring.