When I was in college, I had a lot of pretty typical college-kid writing foibles. I thought critical feedback spoiled my vision, I thought imitating Jack Kerouac was cool, and I thought I was going to be above petty little things like "genre." (For the record, I still think imitating Jack Kerouac is cool, but I know better than to do it in public.)
My sophomore year of college, I had the gall to trot that business out in a workshop writing class, where I listened to the other students explain the difficulties they'd had with my stories. I gave them very grave little nods when they debated the physics of my fight scenes, and I manfully restrained my rolling eyes when they collapsed into a writhing mass of folklore over my four-page zombie story. I wanted to be on my best behavior, because it was a class and not a pro wrestling arena, but frankly I fantasized about thwapping the lot of them upside the head with a folding chair. They didn't get my vision—and I was maybe nineteen years old, so of course I had a vision.
"Do you realize that you've written a romance?" the professor asked me, while we were workshopping my story about a pair of queer college kids hunting ghosts and finding each other. "I think this is the first romance we've had in this class." I cocked my head at that like an excessively obtuse Jack Russell terrier, because of course it wasn't a romance. I wrote it; I didn't write romance; thus, it wasn't a romance. QED, or some other Latin abbreviation. Clearly the woman was delusional.
In short, my first creative writing class kicked my ass.
You have to understand, it was kind of a delayed ass-kicking. An ass-kicking deferred, if you will. I got out of that class with my asshole notions of my own superiority still intact, still pretty damn sure I didn't write romance and didn't need critique and couldn't get better if I tried. I didn't actually realize how thoroughly I'd been schooled until I started teaching writing, when I got a chance to rip kids' papers and stories apart the way my teacher had ripped mine apart. I got the same asshole responses from my kids that I gave my teacher, all "This is good the way it is" and "That's just my style" and "Stop trying to box me into your stupid little categories." The pupil has become the master, and the master wondered what the fuck the pupil had been thinking.
Over the years since that class, I've come to understand what I was missing when I walked into the classroom—and part of it was humility, sure, but the bigger part was self-awareness. I went in thinking that writing was this sort of magical process where the author would go into a semi-conscious, energy-drink-fueled trance and then THE WORD would appear. Any failures in my fiction couldn't be failures on my part; they were obviously failures of the magic.
I wrote a lot faster in those days, channeling pure inspiration onto the page, but I had only a little control and not even a smidgeon of self-awareness. If I couldn't watch myself writing and see why I made each choice, then I couldn't see those choices as choices that I could un-choose at will.
Just because I wasn't aware, though, doesn't mean I wasn't watching. Some part of me—the real, writerly part—had its eyes open as I glugged cans of Amp and had WWF-related workshop fantasies. When I finally pulled my head out of my ass and got ready to be an active agent in the creative process, that open-eyed part of me unfolded my choices for me and showed me where and how I could intervene.
No, of course that zombie story didn't work; it was structured all wrong. No, the kind of gun my character was using was really fucking heavy; I should've used a lighter, more maneuverable one. Yes, that ghost-hunter story was totally a romance. Thus, I was the kind of person who wrote romances. QED.
I could revise. I could rewrite the fabric of the universe and transform dreck into gold. I could make the magic happen.
That long-delayed boot to the ass finally connected.
The other men on first watch went to their stations at the observation deck or the con, and the night crew of engineers went aft to spell the men in the engine room. Edouard walked with them, as he always did, and they ignored him, as they always did. They, too, had their reasons for serving on the Flèche; better not to ask what debts a fellow crewman was repaying beneath the waves.
They’d been submerged for three days now, and the air was thick and hot and stale. The engine room hummed faintly. Behind their tight steel cages, the electric lights gleamed white and steady.
An assistant engineer on dog watch gave Edouard a worried look, and he raised his chin at the pity in it. “Go to your bunk, Valancourt,” he said. If he didn’t have the rank to enforce the order, neither did Valancourt have the will to stay. The crew knew why he passed through the engine room to the captain’s cabin night after night. If they didn’t, it was only willful ignorance.
He ducked his head and slid through the aft portal sideways, like a long-limbed crab. Stork, Ruiz had called him back in la Légion, when they’d all been looking for new names. All long legs. For a moment, Edouard stood in the narrow passage between the officers’ quarters and the engine room, remembering the way the sun had beat down on his brow in Algeria and the way Ruiz had laughed. He passed the alcove where the officers bunked, and rapped on the door of the captain’s cabin.
“Come in,” said a voice from inside—inside the cabin, or inside his own head, he’d never been able to say. It made his ears ache; it made his blood heat and his heart thrum in time with the engines until he thought his skin would burst.
He turned the handle and swung the door open, then shut it behind him. Closed away the light of the engine room, and closed himself into the darkness.
“Sir,” he said, and swallowed against the constriction of his collar. “Reporting for duty.”
“Good,” said the captain, and a limb like a wet cable fell cool and slick upon Edouard’s wrist. His lips found Edouard’s throat, sharp teeth catching there as he undid those carefully-closed shirt buttons.
A second mouth brushed over Edouard’s ribs, tongue wet with a viscous fluid that chilled his skin. A third latched at his hip, needle-teeth scraping, seizing. “Very good,” said the captain, against his throat and chest and hip, as his boneless fingers wrapped slowly over Edouard’s cock and coaxed it hard. Edouard’s skin crawled, but he willed himself still.
Two of those hungry mouths smiled, and the third whispered, “Then let us begin.”
My dear Farid Ruiz,
I cannot say how many times I have begun this letter and failed to send it. At first I thought I would charm you in French, but I have nothing charming to say, so I beseech you plainly in this formal Spanish: Come to Tarifa with all speed. My letters may be read, so I will say only that it is an urgent matter requiring your utmost discretion.
I will be waiting for you in a restaurant known as El Pobrecito, and there I shall remain at six o’clock every night until I am forced to depart.
3 July, 1926.
A flash of lightning illuminated Edouard’s cup, casting a stark shadow along the curve of the rim. He brought it to his lips, sipping only sparingly at the coffee. They made it black here, and bitter; Edouard had never much cared for coffee, but they hadn’t any tea, and he needed his head clear.
Beside him, the wind dashed braids of rain against the windowpane. He tilted his chair back, letting it rest on the rearmost legs as he raised his arms in a stretch. He glanced out the window as he cracked his neck from one side to the other, but the rain was too thick for him to make out the far side of the street. Come on, Ruiz, he thought, as though it would bring the man running with the lightning at his back. Come out of the rain.
He would have counted the seconds before the thunder came, but the peal rolled in on the lightning’s heels and rattled the glasses behind the bar. In the relative dimness after the flash, he finished his coffee and frowned at the dregs.
“More coffee?” asked the young serving woman, and he raised his cup for her to fill anew. She spoke Spanish with an accent he couldn’t place; it wasn’t Castilian or Catalan, and it certainly wasn’t from the former colonies. He ought to have found it unremarkable, in a port city like Tarifa, but his hackles were already up—and she must have seen that he was giving her a hawkish look, because as she poured his coffee, she said, “If I can help you with anything . . .”
“I’ve been trying to place your charming accent,” said Edouard, and his own native French colored every consonant. “You’re a long way from home, I suspect.”
“Asturias,” she said. Her eyes crinkled a little at the question; she looked so delighted to have been asked he felt his suspicions evaporate. “I followed my husband from there when he was called to serve. He’s a lieutenant—”
The door crashed against the wall and sent the hatstand spinning, and the serving-woman startled at the clamor—she canted the coffee pot up too quickly, spilling a long line of tepid coffee across Edouard’s sleeve. The storm swept across the threshold, and with it, a man in a black Mackintosh coat. He drew off his hat, shaking his head like a long-haired pup and scattering drops of water over the nearest patrons. “Where’s Montreuil?” he demanded. “Edouard Montreuil, where is he? I’m here to meet with him.”
Edouard rolled his eyes up toward the ceiling. He hasn’t changed a bit. “Farid Ruiz,” he said with a rather fixed smile. “When I tell you that I’ve an urgent matter requiring your utmost discretion—”
“I nearly didn’t get your letter,” said Ruiz, his wet boots squeaking on the polished wood as he crossed from the doorway. “If it had come even a day later, I’d have been on the next flight for the Canary Islands, and then you’d have been drinking alone—and so much for your urgent matter! So much for your utmost discretion! Buy me a glass of good beer, Montreuil; I’m soaked to the skin.” He dropped into the seat across from Edouard’s, propping up his elbows on the table. He was indeed soaked to the skin, and the rain slicking his black Mackintosh had already begun to puddle beneath his chair. The Asturian serving woman smothered a laugh with her hand and brought him a cup and saucer, but he only gave her a tragic look when she began to fill it with coffee.
“Not a drop of beer?” he asked, and he fluttered his long, dark lashes at her. “Not a drop of rum? It’s not proper coffee without a drop of rum in it.”
“Not a drop,” said Edouard firmly. “We’ve business to discuss, and we’ll drink once we’ve concluded it.”
“Then on to your business, you old stork.” Ruiz downed the coffee in a long gulp, grimacing at the bitterness. “There, I’ve fortified myself. I assume it’s something to do with la Légion, if you wrote me about it?”
“Something like that,” replied Edouard, voice lowered—he didn’t particularly expect Ruiz to take the hint, but at least his own half of the conversation might be quiet. “Do you remember Algeria?”
“I’ll never forget Algeria. Mosquitoes everywhere, skirmishes with the locals, damn Belaire with his Carthagum delendum esta.”
“Carthago delenda est,” Edouard corrected absently. “And you remember what you did, when your colonel took that little Algerian boy and—”
Ruiz’s hand tightened on the coffee cup until the delicate handle cracked free. A shard of porcelain must have scored his skin, because a drop of blood fell to the saucer. “That bastard,” said Ruiz, and now his voice was as soft as Edouard might have wished. “He deserved what he got.”
“And la Légion went on functioning just as it should. No snags in the business; no pauses for the damn courts-martial to decide whether he’d disqualified himself for duty; the men decided the sentence and carried it out. Everyone was happy with it.”
“As happy as you can be, when you’ve killed one of your own,” said Ruiz. Behind him, the serving woman was turning up the gas lamps against the oncoming darkness; the occasional flash from the window was blue and sharp with sea-lightning.
Pobrecito, indeed. Too poor to have been electrified.
Ruiz sucked the blood from his thumb, then rested his chin on his fist. “If you dragged me here to bring up the worst parts of my service, I’m putting my hat back on and going to find a drink.”
“I’ve dragged you here,” said Edouard, “because my captain is a monster, and we go to sea as soon as we’ve a full crew.”
Ruiz tilted his head at that, his dark brows going up. He had strong features, only very faintly Spaniard—Edouard imagined he was the scion of conversos and morenos, simmering for generations under the Spanish thumb. Small wonder Fernando Ruiz had changed his name and joined la Légion. And small wonder he’d put a gun to his colonel’s head and blown him away.
Edouard’s hands were shaking. If he were to put his cup down on the saucer, the rattle would give him away.
“By the time we reach port in Tartous,” said Edouard, “I want him floating belly-up the Mediterranean. I want the crew to come out of it thanking me for killing him.”
“And following your orders? That’s what you’re after, yeah?”
“I don’t like your tone, Ruiz.” He took a long drink of coffee, giving himself time to calm his nerves, then set the cup very deliberately down. “I can live with another man’s command. If he’s a good man.”
“You don’t get many of those,” said Ruiz, bracing his chin on his hand. “I thought I could kill all of the bastards, and then the good men would rise to the top. But all I got were more bastards.” He raised his empty cup, and that toast said, To the revolution that never was.
Edouard raised his cup in answer, letting it click against Ruiz’s before tossing back the last of his coffee.
Outside, lightning cut across the street. Three seconds later, thunder rolled in behind it. “Promise me,” said Ruiz. “Promise me you have good reason to want your captain dead.”
A dozen clinging mouths, a long limb like a rope, wrapping around his throat and squeezing until he saw stars . . .
For a moment, Edouard’s throat closed. He couldn’t bring himself to meet Ruiz’s eyes. “If I thought there was any other way to do this, I’d have done it,” he said, still thick-tongued and aching. “If I thought for a second I could just kill him myself, or even walk away—”
“You can’t walk away from a monster,” agreed Ruiz.
“You can’t. Because he’ll find you.”
Ruiz brought his hand up to gnaw lightly at his thumbnail, but he said nothing. His breathing was even, his gaze clear and steady.
“Will you help me?” Edouard asked, and he hated how small and weak he sounded. “I’ll be happy to repay you—”
“I’ll help you because you need helping. Now, buy me a fucking beer, stork. If I’m to turn mutineer, I’m going to need a damn good drink.”
Peter's debut book, First Watch, is available at Riptide Publishing.
Peter Hansen is a teacher, writer, and former spelling bee champion who lives a stone's throw from the Erie Canal. He got his start in publishing with his college newspaper, where he was forced to write "I will not rake the muck" one hundred times on the chalkboard before they let him write editorials. With that gritty, real-world experience under his belt, he promptly turned to science fiction and fantasy. He spends his days teaching young writers about the pathetic fallacy, his evenings mainlining iced tea, and his nights building a time machine in his basement.
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