Monday, November 27, 2006


Sometimes I write a story and there are nods. Sometimes there are shrugs. Mud produced shrugs. It's the product of another assignment. We were to write a story with Mud in the title.

Mud sat on the curb outside his home, blonde hair sharply parted to one side. His clothes looked new and he fidgeted in them, tugging at a pant leg, pulling at a sleeve and collar. He didn’t look like Mud at all. He looked like nineteen-year-old Henry Druery, except for when his head jerked involuntarily, or he suddenly squinted.

A shadow slid along the pavement and over his polished shoes. Mud glanced up and smiled with broad lips and crooked teeth. A younger teen stood over him, a heavy youth in baggy blue pants and a brown shirt.

“Whatcha doin’, Mud? Why you dressed like that?” asked the newcomer, whose name was Steven.

Mud shrugged, picked up a stick, and started scraping it along the curb. Steven dropped to the curb beside him. As a light breeze whispered over the boys, bringing the knell of summer’s end, Mud caught a scent and raised his face in bliss, swaying slightly and making a low whistle. Steven watched him and then turned his own face into the breeze. They sat for a long time like that. When the breeze spent itself, Mud lowered his face again.

Steve leaned forward and touched Mud’s shadow. “I wish I could stop time,” he said.

Mud continued to rub the stick against the curb.

“Right this second,” Steve added.

Mud stopped and grinned broadly. Steven grinned back.

Fingers moving spastically, Mud swayed from side to side and and groaned. Steve pressed a palm to Mud’s shoulder and the spasmodic motions calmed.

A white, official looking van rounded the corner and came up the driveway. The boys stood. The driver, a square-shouldered man, climbed stiffly from behind the wheel, straightening a gray suit and black tie. His skin appeared colorless in the sunlight and his mouth was a straight line.

“Henry Druery,” the man said spoke in a clipped fashion.

Mud smiled.

The man’s head swiveled and his gaze locked on Steven, who looked away quickly and dug his hands deep into his pockets. The man from the agency turned back to Mud.

“Why don’t you go on up and get your mother, Henry? She’s expecting us,” the man said.

Mud’s squint became more pronounced. He moved toward Steven, but at the last moment turned and headed up the walk to the front door of his house.

The man from the agency leaned back on his heels , clasping hands behind his back and gazing down the street before once again. He turned to Steven again, a smile creeping over his face, a grimace of white even teeth. The smile snapped shut.

“What’s your name again?” the man asked.

Steven remained quiet.

The front door opened and Mrs. Druery emerged, pulling Henry behind her, his face scarlet and his cheeks glistening with tears. She made clucking noises at her son, producing a tissue from her purse to daub at his eyes.

A slender woman who moved lithely, Mrs. Druery was attractive, possessing large brown eyes and full lips. She wore her black hair in the style of a younger woman and that, along with her unblemished skin, often drew expressions of surprise and admiration when people discovered her true age. Those expressions turned to pity and embarrassment when they realized her son was Mud.

“Where is Mud going?” asked Steven, stepping to intercept them.

She flinched slightly at his approach. “Henry is going for a treatment for a couple of days.”

Mud’s legs stiffened and she pulled harder to keep him moving.
“Is he sick?"

Mrs. Druery didn't look at Steve. The man who had come for Mud rescued her.
"He’s going to have a good time there," the man said. "He’s going to come back and be close to normal. Just like other children.”

“Mud is normal,” said Steven, blinking rapidly.

“Of course he is, Steven,” said Mrs. Druery. Placing an arm on Steven's shoulder, she attempted to gently nudge him to the side so she could maneuver Mud to the sidewalk. Steven followed, his breath coming more quickly.

”What are you going to do to him?” asked Steven.

The man from the agency placed his perfectly crafted face at Steven’s level. Steven drew back, off balance.

“He’s going to receive gene therapy, Steven. We’ll give him a shot with some special vitamins in it and some very friendly tiny robots that will help fix what’s broken. Nanobots. And he’ll be fine.”

“But he is fine.”

“Then, he’ll be better. He’ll be smarter. He’ll be happier. Isn’t that what you want for Henry? Don’t you want to see him happy?”

Steven’s speech came quickly now, almost lost in a horrible stutter. “B-b-but, what about me? He’ll b-b-be like ever-r-ry one else. He won’t want to b-be with me. I’ll b-b-be alone.”

The stuttering appeared to amuse the man, who smiled over Steven's head at Mrs. Druery.
“Don’t be selfish, Steven,” said Mrs. Druery.

The man from the agency had the van’s door open and was gesturing for Mrs. Druery to bring Mud along. Her fingers closed around her son’s upper arm, and she gently cajoled him the rest of the way down the walk and into the van. Struggling as they belted him in, Mud began mewling like a kitten and calling for his friend.

“Steven,” Mud wailed. “Steven, help me.”

The man closed the door and turned around. Smiling at Steven, he reached into his pocket and pulling out a small vanilla business card, pressed it into Steven’s hand before going around to the other side of the van. The engine started. The van backed down the drive and rolled down the block, making a neat turn around the corner.
Sitting on the curb outside his home, Mud watched Steven waddle toward him from the other side of the street. He smiled at his friend, head jerking involuntarily and mouth twisting into a grimace.

“Did you just get home today?” asked Steven. He tried to look into Mud’s eyes, but his friend kept his head down.

“Are you okay, Mud?”

Grunting to himself, Mud twisted his body around. A tremor passed through him and his fingers moved as though tapping out Morse code. Steven watched carefully and at last put a hand on Mud’s shoulder.

"I think I want to be alone," said Mud. "I just need some time."

Steven raised his eyebrows, surprised by these words.

"You're different," he said.

"Yeah," said Mud. Voice thick with bitterness, eyes suddenly tearing, another tremor hit and Mud involuntarily rocked back and forth like an exotic bird.

Steven sat down and patted his friend on the arm.

"You're alright," he whispered. Mudd looked away.

The two boys sat still in the autumn sun.


miller580 said...

That was really good! Shrugs really? I will have to digest this and read it again in order to offer a critique, but damn. I thought one of the best lines was "Steve leaned forward and touched Mud’s shadow.“

OK, Steve or Steven?...that is my critique. I think you have something here. You should keep this one alive.

Jon said...

Frankly, I think the nano-bots take away from the frightful impact of this story. I would so much rather have seen electro-shock therapy, or sensory deprevation therapy or something else equally creepy but contemporary. Or maybe don't tell us at all...the horror of the unstated treatment.

The writing is slick as always. Fine sense of the reality of the persons involved.

Creepiest line of the whole story? "What did you say your name was?"

Stewart Sternberg said...

What's more contemporary than nanobots? Actually, some of the work that is being done with these things is frightening.

Susan Miller said...

This is my favorite story of yours. Brilliant, touching, honest & brutal...I loved it, Stu.

SQT said...

I have to admit I had a hard time with the nanobots too. Don't know why, I guess I was thinking labotomy. I know, very One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest but I guess I can't help it.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I went online and researched nanobots. The day will come when they will be used for all sorts of diagnostic purposes, along with all manner of surgery. Bots will be able to go into the heart and destroy built up plaque and they will be able to go into the brain and perform operations in delicate tissue.

My character here has a form of my mind the nanos were to be used for assessment and a new form of treatment. I'm surprised people stumble at this. What if I had just said that there was a treatment? No mention of bots?

The nanobot thing is really nothing other than a mcguffin..a literary device. It brings about change and pushes the plot.

The issue here is does the theme come across. Is Mud better off when the surgery has left him smarter, but more aware of his differences and handicaps? Now the surgery has driven a wedge between him and Steven?

I'm not defending my work, just raising questions.

Susan Miller said...

Stu, I think the term nanobots (yes, I've read about them) takes away from the story.

It's almost as if it was too purposely thrown in there when your reader was so touched by the boys and their situation.

Yes, I believe everyone got the meaning of the story and would have without your literary device. It just doesn't go with the emotion felt, which is what I loved so much about this.

Once again, great work.

SQT said...

Wasn't it Michael Crighton that used nanobots as part of a story? I don't remember for sure, I've read stories that used nanobots very well actually, and I don't mind them as a literary device. I think it would have worked more for me if it had been expanded a bit. To me it just felt like it was thrown out there without much support.

Just a personal opinion.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, JON, SUE...good feedback all. And according to the unwritten law...if three people tell you independently that you have a tail, then a person had better start braying.

I will lose the nanobots. I think if I just mention treatment, its all the reader needs.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Nicely paced story. I'm not so sure Steve's hurried speech worked though. I understand that he became excited, and your descriptions of the characters movements works, but that piece of dialogue slowed down his thought process. Maybe it's just me. Still, overall, damned good story.

SQT said...

No need to bray Stewart, it's a good story. It was only the one element that stood out to me as off kilter; the rest works IMO.

Lori Witzel said...

How this could have gotten shrugs I'll never know. The heart of the story is so understated and fine.

Anyway, the nanobots was less an issue for me, it made the story a nice conflation of "life as it is" and "life as it will be." Sci-fi set in the projects was what came to my mind.

Bird on a Wire said...

Great writing--I really don't know where the shrugs came from. However, I DO agree with the other comments about the term nanobots. I think that you could give a little more description, otherwise its very disorienting (has me thinking Star Wars); or you could discard the term altogether. I do like the idea that you mentioned in your own comment about the various uses of nanobots, and I personally think that this story could really feed off of that.

Jon said...

Shrugs? I was there. The shrugs weren't about the story or the writing. It was that the subject of the story was to have something to do with mud, you know...wet dirt.

Jessica said...

Interesting story. My son used to dress like that, with the baggy clothes.

Nanobots, I just read a book about them recently, Dean Koontz. Scary subject!

Your blog is fun to read.

Christina Rundle said...

lol. I love your short stories. You are very creative.

My cousin was talking about nano-bots a few days ago. Freaky. . .

Hope everything is well.

gugon said...

Nice story. Sent a chill, which is always good.

Interesting stuff here.

I just stumbled on your blog and thought I'd say "Hi", from a fellow Michigan writer.