Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Human Café: A Brand New Pledge Option!

Hey guys! I am super excited to announce some brand new pledge options ready for you to freak out about (like I am). 

Thanks to the amazing efforts by my great friend Aaron, we have finally managed to get some Art Options up. 
There are PLENTY more designs coming, so if none of the ones below seem like your thing, don't worry, there will be tons more in a range of subjects! For all of those who pledge to receive a poster, you'll get to choose from the whole array! 

For $15 (a new and theoretically convenient amount) you can get a poster of your choice, while for $50 dollars you can now get a copy of the book AS WELL AS a poster. 

Already gave $50 or more and want a poster? Considering staging a mutiny against the system? Already rehearsing choruses from Les Miserables? Well fear not. For anyone who already pledged $50 and now wants a poster, you will definitely have the chance to get one at the end of the Campaign! 

Without further Adieu, here are the first few designs for you! 

Click through to the Kickstarter Page to make your pledge! 

The Stranger

The Life and Death of John Trudor 

Through the Kaleidoscope 

Curiosity is my Curse 

The Room was a Mouth 

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Human Cafe: Chapter 3

3. the place where i was me
Lana was on vacation. It was an annual event, one that I tried to talk her out of hating every time it rolled around. I had not yet succeeded. I don’t know why she disliked leaving so much, but she always did. Caesar’s situation was not much better.
“It’s so stupid,” he had announced to us. “My stupid cousins are coming over. Which means that mom will make me wear that stupid freaking mask, so I don’t get sick.” He had kicked the foot of the locker as he said it. We should have been hurrying off to class, but we were lingering in the hallway trying to wish away third period. “I hate that mask,” he’d growled.
I had seen him wear the mask before; it was like putting on a lead jacket. It dragged his soul into the ground, even as it pulled his thin eyebrows into a scowl. The elastic straps made his ears stick out even more than usual. I suppose it was his version of Lana’s rain, but as he said, “At least rain doesn’t make her look like a chimpanzee.”
“It’s better than getting sick,” Lana said, when we got to the café.
“Sure,” he replied, “remind me of that the six-millionth time my cousin asks me why I’m wearing it.” He kicked the locker again. “It’s just…”
“Stupid?” I suggested.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
I nudged him. “You’ll be fine. I can come over and play God of Conquest if you want. I’ll even wear a mask.”
In light of this, Lana had not complained much, about her own predicament. I only hoped that, wherever she might be, just then, it was not raining like it was here. The rain had not let up since the last time we had sat together at the booth, which I now occupied alone.
The smiley face on the window had been wiped away long ago I noticed as I sat staring through the window it had once decorated. The protocol, I decided, did not apply, when I was the only one present, as I was that day. My notebook was still sitting in front of me, patient as always. But so were a stack of other books, all tapping their metaphorical feet and wondering how long they’d have to wait their turn. I was in no real hurry.
A coffee cup snared my attention back to the real world as it slid across the table in front of me.
“Hey there, Champ.” My mom slipped into the booth across from me. The blue of her little dress nearly matched the blue the seat behind her. In some bygone age, they probably would have been exactly the same. I accepted the coffee happily and she stared out the window with me, and I wondered what she saw there. I wondered whether her eyes and mind settled in the same places as mine, or if we were both just restless.
“How was your day?” She asked. Her breaks were never long, but she always made the best of them now. Three years ago she’d begun to trade a cigarette and a half, behind the building, for ten minutes with me.
One of many things she had traded, over the years.
I think that’s why I started coming here first. But now it was because I belonged in that booth, and the whole world knew it. That spot, in that place, was everything that I ever could have called home: the tear in the padding beside my leg with the yellow foam oozing out and the initials (RD), carved into the tabletop by someone’s fingernail. (We’d once spent a solid month trying to discover whose initials they were. But they might as well have been mine, now.)
There, in the flickering shadow of the neon light, where the air smelled like safety—and coffee—and the world was securely on the other side of the glass—this was where I belonged. 
The place where I was me.
I shrugged in response to her aging question. “Yours?”
She returned the gesture identically but bobbed her eyebrows in that way I knew. “Tips are good.” She winked over a mug of her own, as I smiled.
“Did you write another one?” She asked.
“No,” I shook my head. “I can’t decide what to write. And it’s not as fun alone.”
“Well you’re not alone now,” she said, and then frowned. “I should tell you, though; Angelina’s called in sick and I grabbed her shift. It’ll be good for us, but I won’t be done until late tonight.”
“No worries,” I said. This made little change to my day.
“Want me to swing you by Caesar’s later?” She asked. “I could take you on my lunch break if you want.”
I shrugged again, but chuckled. “He’s not answering my texts. Which probably means his mom took his phone to make him play with his cousins.”
My mom had known Caesar practically as long as I had, and this just made her smile. There was a little, birdish laugh that I’d observed before, sometimes stuck in my mother’s throat; it chirped out, alongside or between her words, . I suspected that it was shaking itself awake now. Coffee always seemed to bring it out. And I suppose I did, as well.
“When did Lana say she would be back?” she asked.
“A week, I think. Maybe longer. It depends.”
“Well I hope she comes back soon,” she said, and there was the little laugh I’d expected. “You boys always fall apart without her.”
For a few moments we enjoyed the comfort of the silence, easily as worn and familiar as the cushions, before she checked her watch, sighed slightly, and slid out of the booth. “Are you hungry for anything?” She asked.
“No,” I shook my head. “But thanks for the coffee.”
“You bet, Champ.” She gave another wink and tossed her curly hair back over her shoulders.
“Any ideas what I should write?”  I mumbled. 
“You could write about this place,” she replied, straightening her nametag and smoothing her apron. “See you soon, Honey.”
I watched her leave and then returned my attention to the window and beyond. But the nametag remained at the forefront of my mind.
It was my mother’s name. A very old, dusty name, handed down in lieu of any actual inheritance. She had never been fond of it, but it grew on her, very slowly.
Like this place.
Like black coffee.
I sipped again and cracked open the notebook. The blankness in my mind snapped with it, and I felt that I could breathe a little more easily. The words bled out black and natural, like a sigh spilled into the afternoon.

the society of esthers
In another time, she might have made an excellent Viking. In another, an excellent sort of nursemaid for unruly young boys, a drill-sergeant for cats. Her yellow coat, the color and smell of apricot marmalade, she wore like armor. Her black umbrella she carried something like a sword, with which she seemed more likely to threaten away the raindrops, than shield herself from them. 
She was, at barely over five feet, not the most impressive figure. But whatever she lacked in height, she made up for with her wardrobe shoulders and the flat-lined mouth that she kept tightly closed, even when she smiled—which she didn’t very often. And yet, despite the collective ferocity of her countenance, it was a somewhat understated one. When she approached the Café, it was in a quiet way. She did not stand out with her steel gray hair and her sturdy chin.
The café was tiny from the outside. She could only assume that it was just as tiny within. The aging, flickering sign, traded winks with the throbbing yellow traffic-light across the road; they had been flirting in the same manner for years.
It was a humble little place, she thought. A ridiculous little place that, even from a distance, smelled like unbearably cheap coffee and ketchup and grease. But there was the smell of pie, too. And for pie, many unbearable things could be endured.
She enjoyed the rain as much as a household cat, and as she stepped inside the café, the bell on the door yelled a greeting in her ears. A little brown-haired woman in a little blue dress wiped off a table and smiled over at her. “Good mornin’,” she said.
The woman grunted. She scanned the café briefly, taking in all the smells and sights that indicated life, in any of its numerous forms. An old man was sitting in one corner, armed with a newspaper and a veteran’s hat and facing an oversized cinnamon roll. A pitiful variety of cacti decorated the counter (dreaming of dust and heatstroke). Apart from these and the little bustle she sensed from behind the kitchen door, the whole place seemed empty.
She made her way to the first booth beneath the window with the painted letters and sat down. This was a matter of ritual—with no room for deviation—as the woman propped her umbrella up beside her. From her great coat with its many pockets, she drew out a very severe-looking pen, a pair of ancient spectacles, which she perched with both hands upon the tip of her nose, a pocket-watch roughly the shape and weight of a doorknob, and a small notebook, very black and very square.
Each of these she laid in its intended place all squared to one another before she took a deep breath (for which she opened her mouth a small, catfish amount) and opened the notebook delicately. The words on the page looked back at her without blinking, and she read them over again. This was the page that had brought her here, with its scribbled address, and the very bold name:
Esther Hollens. Waitress/Cook.
She closed the notebook and set her spectacles down with the utmost care.
So she had come for a pancake-flipper, a coffee-pourer. A floor-sweeper. She may as well have been dressed in rags and sporting a pair of shackles. But this was of little consequence really, and no real inconvenience; the name may as well have read Cinderella. And the woman in the marmalade jacket may as well have been a Brick-Shaped Fairy-Godmother. She felt rather like one, and she rather liked the feeling (though she allowed no indication).
So this was the palace of Esther Hollens. The woman looked up at the roof. 
The radio was about fifty years behind the times. Posters of assorted celebrities were looking at her over microphones or automobiles or sports equipment, with a dusty lack of interest. Most of them—if not all—were dead by now. But the notebook had brought her here, to this little place that time forgot. This dustbin.
A roadside museum curated by the lonely.
It took only a few moments for the dark-haired waitress to trickle over to her table, all dimples and cheap hairspray and re-hemmed uniform. Her nametag said Katie. “Good mornin’ Shugga,” she said, in an accent so thick that the woman was almost surprised that it made it all the way out of her throat. “What’re we havin’ today?”
“Tea,” said the woman stiffly, “with lemon, an egg, fried, and pie.” She sniffed deeply. “Blackberry?”
“You bet, Shugga,” Katie nodded, still smiling. 
“The whole pie, if you don’t mind.” The woman looked the waitress in the face. “Are the berries fresh?”
“Fresh delivered,” Katie said. The order of the pie had rattled her; it had stopped her pencil, on its pad, but it took to moving again.
The woman in marmalade returned her eyes to the roof. “They will suffice,” she said. “Tea first.”
“You bet, Shugga,” Katie continued to nod. “Anything else for ya?”
“Is there a woman here by the name of Esther Hollens?”
The incessant nod. The woman wondered if Katie might not actually be a bobble-headed ornament tossed from some trucker’s dashboard. “Oh yes ma’am, she’s just in the back. You a relative a’hers or somethin?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I hoped I might have a word.”
“You bet, Shugga. I’ll send her right out.”
The woman looked back down at the little notebook and twitched her nose. Secretly, she was beyond glad that the nametag had said Katie rather than Esther. She might not have survived an entire day of nodding and Shugga. Of course, women like herself tended to curb the enthusiasm of whimsical youth.
She could only hope that Esther Hollens was a more sensible creature.
Cinderella. She entertained the thought again.
Soon, her tea and egg came to keep her company. The tea was weak, the lemon old, and the egg more scrambled than fried. But she pushed them each away only after she’d finished them, and waited with her hands folded for her pie to arrive.
For something so bright and yellow to devour so much of something so dark purple, without slowly turning to some shade of green, was remarkable. For the woman had nearly finished the entire pie when the bouncing curls and serious blue eyes of Esther Hollens presented themselves.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said. “Katie said you wanted to speak with me?” She held out her hand. “My name is Esther.” She was perfectly and delightfully devoid of any kind of ridiculous accent. This pleased the woman very much. For the first time, she produced a smile, dabbing at her square mouth with a napkin before speaking.
“Yes,” she said. “The baker of pies.”
“Yes ma’am,” said the young woman, her smile quiet.
“Your pie is excellent.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” And then, more hesitantly, “Katie said that we were relatives…?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said the woman. She offered her hand. “I am Esther Mae Melbourne.”
The young Esther, looking somewhat uncertain, took the hand that was offered to her. It was warm, but oaky, and made its up-and-down bob almost mechanically. “Pleased to meet you,” said the young waitress. There were no dimples, here; but there was a crease, across her nose, that appeared when she smiled. The older Esther quite liked it.
“I don’t meet many people with my name,” said the younger.
The older looked woefully at the sky. “Indeed. The greater generation is behind us. A dying breed, but faithful.”
She reached into her jacket pocket and drew out a single rectangle of paper, crisp and sharp as metal. She looked the young Esther in the eyes and handed it to her. “I have come a long way to meet you,” she said.
A line formed on the young Esther’s forehead. It was nothing a little discipline couldn’t iron out. “Not just to eat my pie, I hope,” she chuckled.
Esther Mae smiled very faintly. There were certainly no dimples here; only creases of concentration, like slips from a chisel. “We Esthers need to stick together,” she said. “There are more of us than you might think. But less than there once were.”
Esther Hollens took the card with a very confused expression. When she looked back up, the confusion had settled into her voice. “Is…is this a business card?” She asked.
The other Esther smiled again. “An invitation.”
The young waitress said goodbye, very briefly, and slipped back behind the counter. Miss Melbourne finished her pie and pushed the plate away. She clicked the doorknob watch open, examined it for a moment, and then tucked it back into her breast pocket. The spectacles went back around her neck; the notebook and pen to her thigh. The umbrella was sheathed under her arm as she stiffened and walked back out into a world too gray to fully support her coat’s choice of shade. 
On the other side of the road, at a ruin of a bus-stop, not far from the winking traffic-light, Esther Mae sat down beside a very tall woman with hair the texture and shape of cotton candy and the definition of periwinkle. Her lips were ridiculously red, and her dress—and shirt, and stockings—a ridiculous clash of plaid.
“Good day, Esther,” said the tall, thin woman.
“Good day, Esther,” said the woman who was brick-shaped.
“Will she join us?” Asked the woman with the blue hair.
“Not yet,” replied the one with the steel. “But we shall see. In time, when she realizes that she has nowhere else to go, perhaps we may make the acquaintance of young Lady Hollens once again. Desperation shall, as ever, be our ally.”
The bus trundled in. And the bus trundled out. And the town was two Esthers less.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Human Café: Chapter 2

2. how we hate the rain
The world was practically caged in gloom. It hung outside like curtains so thick and dreary that it was hard to lift even my own spirits, let alone Lana’s. Caesar, as ever, was himself. It took more than meteorological dysfunctions to change that. Some new video game had captivated his attention so thoroughly that he had not even touched his food.
Outside, the downpour had puddled on the asphalt like little black mirrors reflecting the sky, oceans with their own raging tides. How terrifying it would be, I thought, to be a sailor on that sea, with drops the size of houses hammering down. To ants, perhaps, on a boat made of leaf, this might seem like the end of the world.
But then again, ants had survived enough of these storms that I’m sure they were no longer fazed. They were, after all, the inventors of the storm cellar. I wondered, for a moment, whether theirs flooded or not.
“I hate the rain,” Lana muttered.
The warmth of the café had fogged up the windows. I watched the blinking of the blurry traffic-lights beyond them, and the way they reflected on the beaded moisture before I reached over and drew a smiley face on the glass beside Lana. She hadn’t looked up from her drawing in quite some time, but she gave me a brief glance. The light was casting streak-marks over her face; they looked like tears.
Personally, I didn’t mind the rain so much. It was comfortable—warm and flannel. It made that itch in my mind grow even if it chased off all the pictures in the process. It slowed everything down.
But she had never liked it—at least not in the times that I had known her. It changed her, I thought. It was as though, when the rain began, all the best parts of her retreated. She saved those parts only for the sunshine.
Gradually, I think some of her dislike had rubbed off on us, in the nature of being changed by the people you love. Caesar and I had no reason to be anything but ourselves—but she did. And that, I supposed, is how we came to hate the rain.
I turned my attention back to the black-skinned notebook in front of me; it seemed nearly as dismal as the day itself. I skimmed over the last story I’d written, but felt no lurch of color or excitement in its words as I had when I’d first conjured them.
Atlantis was waiting. I needed to go back. I needed to speak to the stranger and the Queen. But I didn’t. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that I even knew what was supposed to come next. I flipped to the next page and studied the blankness for a moment.
“What are you playing?” I asked Caesar, and this may as well have been a verbal abandon of all hope of productivity. Lana identified it as such.
“It’s a new one,” he said, his eyes glued open and staring. “It just came out yesterday. It’s called Titan’s-Blood: Vengeance.
“Oh,” Lana muttered, looking up fully for the first time, “Let me guess: Fueled by a cliché tragic backstory, an invincible hero must undergo a series of identical trials before finally facing an underdeveloped villain with just enough unanswered questions to sell the next game.” She blinked at him. “Anything like that?”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded, a tight smile flattening his mouth. “They must have sent you the demo packet,” he said.
“No,” she replied gruffly. “I just suffered through listening to your commentary on Titan’s-Blood: Alliance and what was it? Titan’s-Blood: Awakening?”
“Don’t forget Titan’s-Blood: Doomsday,” I added.
“Oh yes,” she chirped, “let’s not forget Doomsday.” 
He chuckled dryly, setting down the game momentarily to scoop a substantial amount of ice-cream sundae into his mouth.
If the rain had any effect on me, it was to make me quieter; if it had any effect on Caesar, it was to increase his already substantial desire for sugar. “Vengeance is totally different,” he said.
“Oh?” Lana challenged. “What’s the difference?”
“The graphics are better,” he said, happily. “And the blood is a lot more realistic.”
“Yay,” she said. The rolling of her eyes seeped into the language of her shoulders. “Realistic blood.”
“Not to mention you can skip the tutorials and all the boring narration,” he added.
Lana mustered all the sarcasm I thought one person could hold. “Oh yes, let’s skip the only part of the whole game that could have any substance.”
“Well you have to admit,” I chimed in, “that way he’s technically spending less time on it.”
“Yeah, obviously,” he said, stuffing his grin with ice cream. “Geez, Lana. Why else would I skip them?”
She scowled at him—and me, by extension—but had no other words to add. So she looked back down and blocked the notebook with her arm. 
My smiley face had mostly melted back into fog so I drew him again. This time I gave him eyebrows but thought they made him look somewhat psychotic immediately afterwards. An angry clown.
“Are you going to go back to Atlantis?” Lana asked, after a few minutes.
“I probably should,” I muttered. My arms felt like the pillars that held up my head, which seemed heavy and empty at the same time. Filled with cement, and hardened by rain.
All of our collective homework sat in the backpacks under our table. But none of us had even looked at them, yet. For a moment, I considered breaking protocol and pulling it out. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. It might just be easier.
Caesar saved me from considering it further. “You should write the werewolf one,” he said.
“Oh my word, Michael,” Lana snapped, facing him. “Are you ever going to give that one a rest?”
“Well yeah, duh,” he replied. “When he writes it!”
Lana reached under the table, pulled out Caesar’s backpack, and slapped the little copy of Henry V down on the table. “Read,” she said.
“But mom,” he whined. She took his ice-cream sundae and stuck it on the windowsill. He scowled and set down his phone to reach for it. She grabbed the phone off the table, and promptly sat on it. “Ew!” he barked. “You’re gonna break it!”
“Read,” she commanded.
His frown was a pouting child’s. It was too dreary to laugh, but I offered my most entertained smile. Lana returned to drawing. I returned to pen-clicking.
I didn’t have to wait long to feel her hand, under the table, passing the phone to me as sneakily as she could. The pencil didn’t stop moving for a moment in her other hand. Not for the first time did I reconsider Caesar’s assertion that she was a classically trained ninja.
I set the phone on the seat beside me.
“What should I write about?” I muttered, looking out the window.
“Write about something different,” Lana said. “Something you haven’t done before.”
Caesar looked up. “You could write about—”
Lana pointed her pencil-tip at him. “If you say one word about werewolves, so help me—”
“I wasn’t going to,” he jabbed back, meeting her eyes. “I was going to say that you could write about a poor little boy who has his only toy stolen by an angry old woman who wants to take away his ice-cream and eat his soul—”
I kicked him under the table and he hid his face behind the book. “Sorry ma’am,” he said. Lana leaned back into her drawing. I could see frustration in her shoulders, the way she hunched over the paper. But she was not really angry; not yet, anyway. Caesar would not push his luck, today—but he couldn’t keep his stiff face for more than a few seconds. He soon uttered a malcontented sigh and waved the book around somewhat disdainfully. “Seriously though, have either of you even read this book?” He asked.
Lana and I looked at one another, and I raised my eyebrows. “Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more—Or close the wall up with our English dead.
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,” quoted Lana, “would men observingly distill it out.”
Caesar scowled. “There’s something wrong with you two.”
“Oh come on,” I chuckled. “Or close the wall up with our English dead? Even you could get into that. It’s like the Shakespearian version of the Three-Hundred Spartans.”
“Thank heaven Shakespeare didn’t write about the Spartans,” Lana teased, “or Caesar would have to reject the whole thing out of principal.”
Caesar pointed at me, suddenly looking curious. “Have you ever wondered if somewhere in the ancient East, people told stories about the One-Million-Persians instead?”
I laughed but shrugged. I drew the smiley face again, leaving off the eyebrows this time, and looked back out at the gray sky. In a few moment’s time, everything had reset. Lana to her notebook, Caesar scowling to his Shakespeare. I was left with the empty page and a swelling dissatisfaction with its blankness.
Each of those little teardrops had a story, I thought; albeit the same story. The same birth, the same growth. They fell the same way, I supposed. They even fell at the same speed (thanks to a man in a leaning tower, a few hundred years ago). Gravity was their version of time, pulling us forward, dragging them down.
But they still had their differences. Some of them fell straight onto the street. Some of them hit rooftops first. Some hit dirt, and the grass swallowed them up. Some fell on cars and got to see the roaring in their bellies up close for a moment or two. Others got struck by lightning before they even had a chance to touch down, vaporized (or polarized).
Some of them collected and built rivers, trickling down the gutters, launching little cigarette-butt canoes and leafy warships. Drowning ants. Or maybe the ants knew how to swim, by now. Maybe they were manning the little boats, shoving off in frigates and men-of-war, breaking tiny little bottles of champagne and cheering, off to discover new lands.
The sky kept firing on them, and the ants, I guess, had no way to return fire. Their only means of defiance was survival.
Dragonflies hummed by. The rain didn’t bother them. They were born underwater.
For some reason, worms crawled onto the street to die. Sacrifices to appease whatever angry worm-gods were sending the destruction. I imagined their slimy pink councils meeting somewhere to discuss which members of society to offer up. Perhaps the old; perhaps the young. Little worm-virgins, for the dragons (or volcanoes) of the sky. They were drinking themselves to death. (And they were getting run over by cars.)
There was no story in my head, though there was one all around me. But there were plenty of words. They were desperate, yearning words, but everything was calm inside of the café and inside me, quiet despite the sort of static in the air.
I didn’t resort to poetry often, because it was always hard to force; but when it came, I didn’t stop it. I set the pen down, and stammered out the few lines that I could:

letters in bottles
Like rain, we all are born the same.
To fall, and land—and there remain.
We pool, and splash; and for a while,
Forget we fell in single file.

Like bottles full of desperate words,
We bob along, until we’re heard.
Like ants upon this earthly skin;
Breathe out. And then breathe in again.

Once more unto this breach, my friends
‘Twixt earth and sky, ‘twixt start and end.
Once more unto the break of day,
Where all shall soon be wash’d away.

(So mount your cigarette canoe.

I’m just an ant. But so are you.)

Enjoy what you've read? Check back soon for Chapter 3! If you are interested in reading the book in its entirety, please consider helping me out by pledging a gift on my Kickstarter page to help me get it printed, and receive a copy as soon as it's ready!