Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Mirror, Mirror Chapter 1

Today, the mirror showed me the same reflection. I toyed briefly with telling Karen, but chickened out again. Like yesterday, I just showered, dressed and left for work. Jack stared at me again all day. Two windows reflected my image in his direction, concealing my actual position.

Later that morning, I spent some time scrutinizing my reflection in the gents, almost too long, as Alan Seaman walked in the door while I was standing by the sinks. Fortunately, I moved aside to let him by, before he could see my reflection, too. That reflection, I've discovered, is like me in many ways. She has a similar bone structure to my mother, although again, my mother wasn't a blonde, neither did she have blue eyes. I can see myself in her now, especially as we have the same mole on the left side – in the mirror, it's on her side just below the left breast. She has beautiful breasts, by the way, perfect, and I find it difficult not to look at them. I would like to touch them, if only ...

Perhaps that is what Jack stares at all day. At least he is a confessed breast man.

When I arrived home, Karen looked like she had seen a ghost.

"What happened?" I asked putting my arms around her.

"All our pictures ..." she trailed off, sobbing.

"What about them?"

"I was dusting, and ..." Again, she couldn't continue, and I was starting to have a terrible feeling.

"And what?"

"Look!" she exclaimed, pointing at our wedding picture.

Standing with her arm around Karen in her wedding dress was ...

I always thought she looked stunning in that dress, more beautiful than at any other time in our lives. She looked so happy that day, as she stood there held by my naked, female reflection.

"Not just that one," she sobbed. Pointing at other pictures of us, or more specifically me.

Every picture that had ever been taken of me looked like her. I pulled my high school yearbook off the shelf, and there she was, by my name, and in the band and jazz band photos – even the one of me high jumping. In earlier pictures of me, she was age-adjusted. The picture of me with my brother at a Cubs game when I was five, had her there looking five years old, too. Fraternity pictures of me smashed with the guys – they looked particularly lurid – although my graduation picture was a scream, standing there with the President of the University in the buff. I could just imagine the blackmail possibilities.

"Aren't you going to say something?" Karen asked.

"I'm sorry," I said, still at a loss as to how to explain it.

"What did you do?" she asked, always keen to blame me for something out of my control.

"I didn't do anything!" I protested.

"Why?" she pleaded.

"I don't know. Come look," I said, walking in front of the bay window.

"It's her!" she pointed.

"I know. Every image of me is now her."

"Since when?"


"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I thought it was a bad dream, and it would go away. Believe me, I've thought a lot of things yesterday and today."

"Every reflection, every image."

"I'm not going to be able to hide it much longer. Anyone that looks at my yearbooks, every shop window I pass ..."

"Why does she have to be naked?" Karen asked.

"Why does she have to be so beautiful?"

"Is that what you wished me to look like?"

"Heavens, no! I love you as you are." I reached out to hold her, but she backed away.

"No, it feels too weird, especially since I can see us in the windows."

"Let's close the curtains then."

"I don't think that really changes anything."

"I haven't changed, Karen. It's just my reflection."

"It's still too weird."

"Let's just sit down and have some dinner. I'll order out for some pizza. What you need is comfort food."

"I'm not really hungry. I think I might just go to bed."

"I'm sure this will all blow over. Let's see what it's like tomorrow."

"I'm afraid," she started crying, still not letting me hold her.

"It will be fine. Don't worry."

"You order yourself some pizza. I'm going to bed," she said, not able to get away from me quickly enough.

She obviously wanted to be alone, so I stayed downstairs and ordered a pizza. Oddly, I had an inexplicable desire for mushrooms and olives, as well as my usual pepperoni. I often eat mushrooms, but I usually don't touch olives. Tonight, though, I had a taste for their saltiness, and finished my meal with a bar of Karen's dark chocolate, resolving to pick up a few bars for her the next day.

There was nothing on the television, so I went onto the Internet, to be greeted by a flood of email messages:

Facebook admin: Your Facebook account has been suspended, due to non-compliance.

Tim Peterson: Who's the babe?

Holly Anderson: Hacked?

MySpace: Message: Buttercup wants to be your friend.

Claire and Glenn Hopkins: Missing you. Call us.

Ning: Your profile picture has been blocked.

Friendster: Dianysus has commented on your profile picture

Friendster: Dal McAllen has commented on your profile picture

Friendster: Slimey Pervert wants to be your friend.

Classmates.com: Faye Goretsky has signed your guestbook

Classmates.com: Faye Goretsky has sent you a message

I didn't make it past that one. Faye Goretsky (nee Burns) was the red-headed high jumper. In the absence of a field events coach in high school, I coached her. There were pictures of us together, one when we had both won at Regionals, the one in the paper had us wearing our medals, but I knew Faye had one with us holding them. She was very proud of that. Considering the circumstances, the other messages were predictable, even the one from my parents. They had pictures of me all over the place.

I logged onto Classmates and picked up Faye's message:

That was something I had to reply to.

I knew exactly what happened. Faye dumped me. She was getting too close to an old boyfriend, and I didn't trust her. She sensed that and never spoke to me again. That email was our first communication.

As much as I welcomed her message, it hurt. Maybe she wasn't to be the love of my life, but there was no explanation – just silence. I wasn't going to tell her the full extent of my predicament, until I got more from her.

I couldn't bear more emails, although I did act to clean up my Facebook, Ning, MySpace and Friendster accounts. Replacing the revealing pictures with a non-descript photo of irises. There was an old photo of me lying amongst a bed of irises, which Karen had taken. Obviously, I couldn't put that one up, but she had also taken one without me. That, at least, would be significant to anyone who knew me well.

I pulled out my scrapbook to look at those pictures with Faye. I still thought she was pretty, even next to the new female version of me. We looked good together, holding our medals, even if I didn't have any clothes on. A small part of me wished that I had indeed been a girl then. Maybe we would have stayed friends.

That was ridiculous, I told myself, even as I felt a tear dribble down my cheek.

My brain was just going nuts, so I decided to go up and take a shower, knowing also that I would take another in the morning after my run. I needed to get back to my normal routine, and that was a start.

Showering was a mistake. I must have stayed in there an hour as Karen pretended to sleep.

But I shouldn't have looked in the mirror. My wet reflection was so sexy that it hurt. I couldn't drag myself away until I had almost dried. Desiring one's reflection seemed so ... well ... worse than narcissistic.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Mirror, Mirror

The beginning draft of a new story. I don't know how long it will be yet. I've got most of another chapter after this one. I may write it in a diary format.

Imagine the fright I got this morning: a slightly overweight, 48-year-old balding male, graying at the temples and at the corners of my beard, looking in the mirror and seeing ... well, no ... I still can't say it. It does too many strange things to my self image. I was wearing the blue velvet bathrobe that my wife bought me, and it brings out the blue in my hazel eyes, eyes that, though starting to dim with age, are still good enough to see myself in the mirror unaided.

No, I've got to face it. What I saw in the mirror this morning was not me. They say vampires are invisible to mirrors, so I guess I'm not a vampire or any other lycanthropy that I know of. That didn't stop me from looking for puncture marks from fangs or claws, either on me or the image in the mirror.

In the mirror, I saw ...

You must understand, I have always had unusual tastes in women. In high school, while the other boys were oogling well-formed bleach-blond cheerleaders, I had my eye on a red-headed brainiac that was thin as a rail and nearly as tall as I was. Although she was a high jumper on the track team, she betrayed no other significant athletic prowess.

Although you would never guess it now, I was a high jumper, too. It was one of the few things we had in common, with the exception of our course load. We were in all the same classes, at least until she quit band. That was before we dated a while, but all the same we didn't date long. The woman I ended up with didn't fit the cheerleader mold, and she is probably even less like me than the high jumper. Perhaps that is how we have stayed together for so long.

I still can't say it. In the mirror, I saw ...

I suppose I shouldn't say only that mirror. In every mirror, or even a shiny surface, the bell of my trombone or reflecting off the water in the sink, I see ...

Mark, spit it out! Sometimes I talk to myself, especially now when what I see in the mirror is so different from what I feel. I need to remind myself that I'm Mark Hopkins, part-time musician and computer nerd. Even now, as I type this, what I see in the reflection of my monitor is ...

Unsettling, to say the least. Karen doesn't see it, at least not in the flesh, but I haven't asked her about my reflection yet. I dare not admit it for fear that I am losing my mind. Last I heard, senility doesn't usually manifest itself this way – not at first, in any case. I wouldn't know about later.

The worst thing about it is what it does to my self image. I feel different, as if I'm becoming the person in the mirror. I've always had blond hair, so that isn't new, and the blue eyes aren't that different from my hazel ones. I'm not even sure it's the nudity. I can handle that, especially when it is supposedly me on the other side of the glass.

What I see as my reflection ... is ... a woman. A naked woman, regardless of what I am wearing, a beautiful, naked, blond haired and blue eyed woman, probably in her early twenties. She does everything that I do, and even shows the same facial expressions. She is somehow ... me ... even though she is probably a foot shorter and nearly 30 years younger. My reflection is that ideal cheerleader that I wasn't interested in when I was in school, and if I smile at her the wrong way, I find the reflection, um, stimulating. I can see it in her, too, though not in the same way, as we are anatomically different.

If I was the only one seeing that image, I could live with it, but I've seen shocked and puzzled looks in my direction as I pass shop windows on the street. I've also caught Jack Davis staring at my reflection at work. Several times, he tried to find the origin of the refection, but finally gave up and began staring. I'm glad I drive to work, or the reflections in the subway train would give me away – or should I say "us."

No, as much as I try to disprove it, we are the same. A man with the wrong reflection.

Monday, 14 September 2009


Note to self:

1. Write a note to yourself.

2. OK, that was easy. I want to write a new story. This is the real note-to-self. I have an idea about a story that involves an invisible friend. She isn't an ordinary invisible friend. She's someone who the protagonist meets when she is five years old. The invisible friend stays 5 while the protagonist ages. The IF is prescient, and can jump around in time (and space?) - past, present and future. She helps the protagonist through problems, personal issues, etc. Those I haven't decided on yet. She is wise, yet cynical - and is occasionally economical with the truth.

The IF might be a sliver of the protagonist's soul that broke off, so they have remarkable similarities, likes and dislikes, but they don't look alike. I'll figure out a reason for this later. I also need to figure out an event that cause the soul to split. I also need to decide whether to put it back together. (Probably not.)

3. Don't think in public, it might get messy.

4. Practise your damn trombone, you've got a bunch of gigs coming up.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

AC on Authonomy

The Shot, my novella contemporary with my ABNA quarterfinal entry (The Ark Project), is now available to read on Authonomy.com. My ranking is currently in the mid-700's, but it hasn't been around all that long. So far, everyone who has read a chapter or more has backed it.

Here is the link: The Shot

I'd be grateful for any support. Every month the top 5 ranked books go onto Harper Collins' editor's desk for review and consideration for publication.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

This is part of a dream I had the night before last, and it has stayed with me, so I thought I would write it down. Maybe it will be the source for a story.

It began with one woman. She was dressed in a silver fabric that looked much like the back side of aluminum foil. With her long brown hair tied back, her face shone brightly with a mixture of joy and devotion. Her deep blue eyes betrayed a fervency that would normally make me run a mile. I've always feared blind fundamentalism, but this was different. It seemed Pagan, but her bold red lip gloss told me otherwise.

She said something and the crowd that had suddenly gathered around me responded - it sounded like Latin chant. I don't know where they came from. Perhaps they were just like me - other dreamers called forth by an unknown voice from a deep slumber. All gazed forward at the dais. We were gathered in a large rectangular room, only slightly better-constructed than a barn with wooden walls dyed in pale blue.

More silver-clad people joined her on the dais. In knew then that this wasn't an ordinary dream. Aside from everyone being fully-clothed, I was too, but I can't now remember what I was wearing. Another sure sign of a dream was missing, too. The room was equally filled with both sexes, but I wasn't certain of that until later.

The woman that had started the ritual had ceased being the focal point of it for the time being - all on stage were equal, and all chanted this Latinate response.

I felt awkward, not part of the crowd and not part of the ritual. I didn't know where it was taking me or what it celebrated. I should have felt nervous, but my curiosity kept me there. I think there were candles and incense, but I don't remember any smells. It was the closing of the ceremony that seemed to wipe all that away.

A woman stepped to the front of the dais and looked at me. I don't know if it was the same one as before, but I immediately knew what she wanted. That was to follow her through a door at the side of the stage. I couldn't. I knew that by following her, I was enroute to oblivion, a loss of myself and all that I stood for. She offered me sensual delights and physical fulfillment, but that didn't seem enough of a temptation.

She didn't wait for me. Instead, another man from the crowd followed her. Soon the audience members and ritual cast were pairing up and leaving through that same door - all except me.

All except me, that is, and a woman to my right with short, dark red hair, bright blue eyes, and a fiery red dress. I can't be certain, but her face was that of the first woman on the dais, complete with the shiny lip gloss.

In a glance, her smile told me I had made the right decision. She would fulfill me in every way, without compromise and without passing through the door to oblivion.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Help wanted

I just learned that I'm an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarterfinalist.  That means I'm in the top 500 out of 10,000.  The next cut is down to 100 and it will be based partly on Penquin's evaluation of "customer reviews" of my excerpt.  That's the first 5000 words of the book.  I need as many people to review it as possible, i.e. preferably balanced good reviews, so I'm writing everyone I know in the US (we can't seem to download it here in the UK) to let them know about it.   If any friends wish to read the excerpt, I can email a pdf to you.

US residents can download it free from here:  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B001UG3BLI

Here is my official "pitch":

On April 17, 2000, human civilization changed forever, and it began with a phone call. Paul Stirling, a divorced, semi-retired NASA engineer was summoned to become the leader of the most important project in the history of mankind. Earth was doomed to be struck by a giant asteroid in 2009, and he was charged with leading a team that would save a representative proportion of humanity on an orbiting ark for at least two centuries before the surface will again be inhabitable.

The Ark Project is a saga of potentially vast scope, depicting the beginning of an extraordinary journey, where in their quest for survival, societal norms must be discarded. It begins with Dr. Leon Rachlin's matching program, in which couples are paired using exhaustive test scores and genetic compatibility, rather than leaving the proliferation of mankind to chance. This is a story where the tiniest detail can bring about the strangest of consequences.

In adversity, the members of the team must be strong characters, yet show their vulnerabilities as they are thrust unprepared into Rachlin's program. Unassuming and insecure, Paul Stirling thrives in a leadership role next to his assistant, the physically awkward but fiercely loyal Nina Price, with whom he has been inexplicably matched, instead of his ex-wife, whom he still adores.

While placed firmly in the Science Fiction realm, The Ark Project begins in an alternative present, exploring unusual relationships while the characters prepare for an unprecedented event. Approaching it as a challenge, rather than with trepidation, they live with the constant reminder that Rachlin's hand is guiding them in the background, even after his death.

Overtaken by an unforeseen calamity, the survivors cling to each other in their hope that people might one day again call Earth their home.

I hope you enjoy reading the except, and with luck the book.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Year of Macaroni and Cheese

Nineteen-eighty-four was the year of macaroni and cheese. I lived to cook macaroni and cheese, and I cooked macaroni and cheese to live. I ate it almost every meal. If I wasn't eating it, I was cooking it - or at least thinking about cooking it. It was a meal that I ate alone. Alone, not because I had no friends, but because I was too embarrassed to admit my obsession with macaroni and cheese.


Why macaroni and cheese? Because it was cheap, almost as cheap as the soggy lakefront air I breathed. I was in my masters year, and my assistantship and student loan only covered my tuition and rent. The rest of my expenses, like food, came out of my already depleted savings and my job on the orchestra staff, which provided an extravagant $1200 for the year. The university, which shall remain nameless, divided up its assistantships so that if one took the maximum student loan available, that added up to tuition plus a room, but not board. (Hint: private Big-10 university north of Chicago.) It was a practice in only my department, unfortunately, cruel to those of us not receiving money from our parents. At 22, I shouldn't have had to. I was above the age of consent, owned a car, was about to cast my anti-Reagan vote in my second Presidential election, I could drink legally, and I lived over 400 miles away from my parents who were busy paying for the education of my siblings.


At first, I experimented: mac and cheese with hot dog pieces, mac and cheese with ground beef, and if I felt extravagant, chili mac. I tried to make enough for two or three meals, but soon as my funds dwindled. I more often than not stuck to unadulterated Kraft Macaroni and Cheese - $0.39 at Dominick's (a short walk away).


In April my finances became dire, and I knew my lease in student housing would expire at the end of June, coinciding with the end of my loan. To save money, I started buying generic Macaroni and Cheese ($0.19 at Jewel, a longer walk away) and powdered Kool-aid ($0.59 for enough to last almost a month). I must admit that I wasn't feeling very "Kool," not stepping out of my house other than to buy macaroni and Kool-aid and go to classes.


By May I discovered that one could make macaroni and cheese without milk, saving an extra expense - just butter, salt and a little water. It was a step down, even from the taste of the generic variety, but it was a warm home-cooked meal every day. Surprisingly, it remained one of my favorite foods. After my macaroni and cheese year, I often joked that I could eat pizza at every meal, having almost entirely gone off mac and cheese, but I wonder now if that is entirely true.


By the end of May, I regularly hid in my room - studying, as I told the few friends that I had left – not looking forward to skulking back to my parent's house for the summer. That would have been too embarrassing, so I started looking for a job, certain that another summer at McDonalds was out of the question. That would have been worse than going home, and it wouldn't have earned enough for my rent, even if I could find a cheap place.


On June 1, my net worth was $14, not counting my car and the musical instruments required for my graduate studies. By June 15, it had dropped to £4 with two weeks left to find a place to live. A friend of a long-forgotten friend gave me a name of someone who had a room going. It was in a two-bedroom apartment that had the living room partitioned – that would be my room - and I was to share with two women around my age, Juliet and Mo, not forgetting Jasper, Juliet's cat. Of course, my lone allergy is to cats.


Juliet invited me over to have a look around, but my priority was whether I could survive the cat. Juliet was cute, and I so wanted to make it work. My corner room was on the ground floor of the front of the building with two large bay windows, great for natural light, but horrible for privacy.


Juliet was cute. Did I say that before? She had a boyfriend, but I didn't care. She was cute enough to brighten the cloudiest day, and she liked to wear spaghetti-strap halters. That was a change from elbow macaroni, but I dug bare shoulders.


I did my best to avoid the cat, ignoring the slightest of tickles in my throat. The next day, I found a job in the University Library. It was part time, but it covered the rent and would keep me in macaroni for the summer. The only problem was that it would be six weeks before my first paycheck. I desperately phoned my father and begged him to cover the deposit and first month for me, which he thankfully did. I should have phoned him earlier, but I had expected him to say no.


The next day I phoned Juliet and agreed to rent the room. That night, rather than celebrating with a large plate of macaroni and cheese, I succumbed to a delayed reaction to the cat, sneezing, coughing, spluttering, and generally feeling miserable for the next three days.


But I had a place to live, a car with half a tank of gas, and would be starting a new job the following week. I was happy, and I was going to make it work.


My father's check arrived three days later, so I paid my deposit and rent, banning the cat from my room, and made plans to move in. In graduate school that usually doesn't take much planning. The entirety of my worldly goods fit in the back of the boat of a car that I drove, a 1971 Plymouth Satellite. (A rust-bucket of a muscle car without any muscle.) I didn't even need help moving, and someone was kind enough to leave a mattress, so I didn't have to sleep on the floor.


A week later I had moved in, barricading myself in my room away from the cat, and stacking my stereo and books on board and cinderblock shelves. It would be the end of the summer before I had enough money to buy a cheap drafting table to work on, but it was summer - a hot Olympics summer - and I had no plans to do anything other than my job, jog along the lakeshore occasionally, watch the Olympics or the Cubs on television, and eat macaroni and cheese. At the time, I could think of nothing I would rather do.


I donated my hand-me-down black-and-white television to the communal cause, but rarely saw Mo, and Janet never seemed to leave her room. My only companion, therefore, was Jasper, who nestled on my lap as I watched my sports. The TV had to be placed by the front window to get any reception at all, but when I got bored, I could watch the comings and goings from the building, which were often much more interesting than watching the Cubs lose.


Jasper and I had a love-hate relationship. He loved me when I sat on the couch, but hated me when I walked to the bathroom in the morning, often digging his claws into my hairy legs when I wasn't paying attention. He was also angry that I wouldn't let him in my room, as the previous tenant had. I often sat on my bed eating my macaroni and cheese watching his little paws probe under the ill-fitting door, as if he thought he could drag himself through. Although he succeeded in gaining entry a few times, my efforts at self-preservation succeeded in keeping me relatively sneeze-free for the summer. I can feel my nose becoming itchy just thinking of him.


I later decided Juliet wore that spaghetti strap halter just to lure me into subletting my room, for she and Mo were gone by the end of the summer, taking my fair-weather friend with her, leaving me with new roommates, and a new lease with its annual 10% increase. With the new school year came my next year's financial aid, as well as a new job. To celebrate, I fixed myself a large plate of chili mac, a meal that I wouldn't eat again for a long time, since there was a by-the-slice pizzeria around the corner, thus beginning the year of pizza.


I often wonder what happened to Juliet, whether she finally broke up with her boyfriend, as I had hoped. Although I've regained my appreciation for macaroni and cheese, it still brings back memories of that summer, Juliet and especially Jasper, a summer that I was (mostly) self-sufficient for the first time, spending my days on the sofa in front of the television, daydreaming about Juliet and watching the world go by without me out the front window.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Last Train

waiting for the last train
alone on a moonless night
it's late
I'm late

a fruitless evening, a waste
no reason to hurry
I thought we'd catch dinner, a film
I thought we'd catch each other

an hour by the frozen steps
Wellington's plinth, our rendezvous
too cold to wait,
but wait I did

a simple explanation, maybe
your cell was off
I gave you time,
time to think

it was what you wanted
peace, quiet, away from it all
breathing space
cavernous space

I put myself in a box
hid the key for you
you lost it,
I'm lost, too

an empty platform, a broken heart
trains each way, none stop
15 minutes, it says -
said that 15 minutes ago

home will be an empty place
when I get there ... if
train coming now
train still going

three minutes, two, one, nothing
must be invisible, no sign
more text ... wait!
"Train cancelled."