Friday, December 31, 2010

week thirty-eight: better off dead

This story is a "prequel" to this one, although the other is meant to be read first. I recommend reading week thirty-two first as it handles most of the exposition and setting.

London, England

The year 2247 (approximated)


“Hello, this Io with RoboLub, the finest makers of-”

“Yeah, I know what you make. Look, you called here last week-”

“Oh, I do apologize, but sir, we have some brand new deals on our best products, including our patented MechLube XL with Nanocleansing technol-”


Io looked up at the clock. Twelve-thirty. She had only to work one more hour....

Luck, it seems, comes only in limited supplies, and, ironically, only comes to those fortunate enough to get it. There are some who are lucky and blessed in abundant amounts. There are some who have exorbitant amounts of money, fame, wealth, or power; such people are inherently very lucky people. These, people, however, are not far from the luckiest of them all. The luckiest, the most fortunate, and the most blessed, are those who have love. Whether it be family love or the more romantic variety, the most fortunate are truly the most loved. Unfortunately, for Io Lewis, her luck ran low.

She had nothing more than a small, two-bedroom apartment in London. Her mother, father, and brother had all passed away in a car accident two years before and since struggled making connections with anyone. Io, however, managed a late shift job as a telephone salesman for a robotic machinery lubrication company that operated in both London and Los Angeles. To save costs, RoboLub, inc, which was originally based in London, had all of its marketing offices based in the English capital. Since Los Angeles was in such a different time zone, RoboLub had to hire late workers such as Io.

Without complaint or a sigh, she looked down at her list of calls for the day and found that she had only one left before she filled her quota for the day. With a faint grin, she pushed back her ash blond hair and dialed in the number.

A man answered, “You've reached Peterson Brothers Robotics Corporation, this is Crius. How may I help you?”

“Hello, this is Io with RoboLub.”


“Yes, we have some exciting offers for you, Mr. Crius!”

“Go ahead, I'll listen.”

“Is your nanite-based lubricant losing effectiveness faster than you'd like? Or do you feel as if you're paying too much for your lubricant?”

“We actually don't use nanotech in our lubricants, Miss Ion.”



“It's Io.”
“Sorry, Io, look our company builds our machinery from scratch and one of our selling points is that we don't use nanites for any purpose. I am looking for a new lubricant, so do you have any offers on any non-nanite lubricant?”

Io cringed, “I'm not allowed to negotiate on the price right now, so you'll have to pay the standard fare on our regular lubri-”

“Well, that's too bad... the company I'm with right now is giving a small discount and I'm going to have to stick with that, Miss Io.”

“Oh, please, I haven't made a single sale all day and-”

“I can't help you. Goodbye.”



Io disconnected her headset and threw her arms down to her side. She looked her reflection on the small mirror by her computer screen and asked, “What's wrong with you Io? Why can't you do this?!” She made very few sales and wondered whether she would make enough off of her commission to keep her apartment.

Suddenly, an all too familiarly raspy voice said, “It's like they're getting ruder, isn't it?” It was the man they all called Echo. Everyone in the office knew that he had a thing for Io... even Io.

“Sometimes,” she sighed as she began collecting her things. “Other times I think it's just me.”

“You think it's just you,” Echo scratched his head. “You heading out?”

“No point in sticking around; I just finished off my list for the day.”

“Yeah, no point, me too,” Echo quivered. It was clear to plenty of people that Echo had never had much of a chance with women and that Io was his best shot. The man tried his best, and Io felt bad for turning him down, but Echo was a good four years older than she was. His belly was growing rotund, his head shined more and more each week with pattern baldness, and he was, frankly, annoying. “Say, why don't I walk you home? It gets dangerous out this late, what with the cyborgs lurking.”

“You're sweet, Echo, but I have an errand to run,” Io stood and put on her jacket.

“An errand? I can go with you; I don't mind,” Echo pleaded.

Io tried her best to be nice, and she hated turning people down, but... “Look, I'm sorry, but I'd rather go alone tonight, alright?”

“Okay, I understand,” he slumped and then turned back to his own desk.

“Hey, you can walk me home another night, okay?” Io tried.

“Yeah, sure, another night.”

Io felt terrible for disappointing him, but she knew that there were better fish in the sea for her. She still had a serviceable figure, her eyes were a pleasing shade, and just a few days ago, a not-so-unattractive man had given her a... look. It may have been nothing, but the prospect was enough to brighten her day. She checked one last time that her computer was off, grabbed her bag, and then left without looking back. She left hurriedly for two reasons. One was because she did not want to see the saddened Echo and another was that her boss terrified her.

Echo looked at his own list and noticed that he still had one more number. He dialed it in and then hung up. Hopefully his boss would only see that he had dialed it and would not notice that he said nothing. This trick usually worked. Echo shut down his computer and then gathered his things. Before making his way out, he stopped over by Io's desk. He was not sure what he was doing; it was simply something he did. But quickly he noticed that she had left behind her hairbrush. He took it and put it in his bag. Echo decided that he would give it to her on the next day. She would be so happy!

Io made her way to the small supermarket between home and work. It was a simple place with really on the necessities of such a store, but it suited her needs. She only needed milk and another canister of MassShake, which was a glorified protein shake. Io did her best to keep in shape, though it was difficult on her budget with such a small place to live and such a messed up schedule. Somehow, she managed.

It was dark out and the store was mostly empty. Io made her way to the back where refrigerators were and searched for the milk. She opened the door glass door and sighed when she discovered that they were out of skim. To herself, she whispered, “Fine, two percent it is.” She took the milk and turned around to find a strange thirty-something man standing behind her, simply staring. “Can I help you?”
He shook his head, “Oh, sorry, I just need to get to the milk.”

“Right,” she grimaced. What a creep... the weirdest thing was shat she had seen him before somewhere. She could not say where.

Io walked away with more fleet to her foot. She found the protein shakes and then stopped to try and find the kind she liked. The brand was MassShake but she specifically wanted the strawberry flavor. It did not take her long to find it. She grabbed the canister and looked to where she had come from to find the man staring at her again. He quickly turned away and acted as though he was doing something else. Io hated being out late at night, but this was, sadly, necessity. So many creeps!

She headed up the check out aisle and handed the cashier her products and credit card. The woman behind the register was almost always there. She and Io never really said anything to one another. As Io pondered this, she looked around the room and again found the man looking at her. When he noticed that Io had seen him, he shook and quickly made his out of the store. “Does he come here often?” Io asked the cashier.

“Beats me, hon,” the cashier handed back the credit card then bagged the groceries. “Come back soon, darlin'.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Io took her things and walked out the door. Outside was the usual scary mess. There were small congregations of men who you knew were gang members and there other out who could only be described as desperate in so many ways. Io felt sorry for them, but knew there was nothing she could do.

It was not long before she arrived at her apartment. She climbed the stairs to the fourth story and opened the door. Home sweet home. Everything was in its place and proper; that is to say that the place was a cluttered mess. Immediately, she made her way to the refrigerator and put the milk inside. She took off her jacket and then sighed. This was life. Yeah.

For a moment, Io stopped and considered what she had left to do. She should probably straighten up, but the more she thought about it, the more she recalled just how tired out she was. It had been just another ordinary long day, but still, she was tired and bed sounded wonderful. She left her main room, which was all at once the living room, dining room, and kitchen, and went into her bedroom. Immediately, she unbuttoned her shirt and let it sink to the floor.

And that was when she realized something was off.

Despite being in the comfort of her own home, she belt bare. Normally when one is improper, but alone and safe, they feel nothing, but Io felt a tinge of embarrassment. It was strange. She still wore her pants and a bra, but felt as if the world had just seen her naked. She shook her head and whispered, “You're going crazy, Io.” With an extra touch of awkwardness, she removed her pants. She simply could not shake that... feeling.

Io shook when she heard the knocking. Without thinking, she grabbed her bathrobe and covered herself. Her face flushed until she realized the person knocking was outside the door. She exhaled and rubbed her head. There was simply no way she could feel more ridiculous about herself and the way she was thinking. “Nobody is watching you, Io. Nobody. You're alone.”

She went to her front door and pulled it right open. To her surprise, standing outside was the strange man from the grocery store. “What- what are you doing here? Who are you?” Io quivered.

“I am sorry,” the man said.

“Wha-?” Suddenly, a firm hand covered her mouth and another her stomach. She fought and squirmed, but the man came in took her arms. Io knew then who was watching her in her apartment. She was not alone after all. Oh, you fool.

She fought until the needle pierced her neck. When it was pulled, she found herself growing weaker and weaker, her eyes getting heavier and heavier. Finally, there was no fight left. Her body gave out and she slipped from consciousness... never to return.

Echo changed his mind. He had to give Io the hairbrush as soon as possible. She would be impressed that he went out of his way to get it to her. And besides, she may need it for tomorrow. He had been by her place once when he had walked her home on one of her first days of work. After that, however, they never did it again. Echo knew how people felt about him. He knew about his weird habit of repeating what people said, but there were some things he could not help. He tried hard to fit in, but some things cannot be changed.

One of the reasons Echo too such a liking to Io was that she was one of the few people who, if she genuinely disliked him, at least had the decency to try and be nice. The people working for RoboLub were all minimum-wagers with attitudes and had no reason to put up a front. Io, however, was different. Many thought Echo was oblivious, but he knew how things were.

He climbed the stairs up to the fourth floor and walked down the hall, but stopped when he got the feeling that he was in the wrong building or the wrong floor. A strange man pushed a metal crate into the room he thought was Io's. The door closed behind him. Had she moved?

Echo pressed on anyway. Perhaps that was a delivery man of some kind and- but wait, what kind of delivery man makes his deliveries at this hour? And then it hit him. He rushed to her door and put his ear to it. He wasn't sure what he listening for, but he would know it, wouldn't he? He heard nothing more than the odd rattling around and almost decided that he was being paranoid... but then he heard the soft whirr of a drill.

Better safe the sorry.

He whipped out his mobile phone and dialed in the police.

“Emergency services.”

“Yes, hello, I think my friend is being turned into a cyborg and-” a firm hand took his cell phone and then crumpled it. Echo turned to find the strange man looking into his eyes. He gulped and then fainted. He was unconscious before he even hit the floor.

Cybernetic Contingencies Unit Officer Terrence Vicar sat outside his company Cadillac smoking a long cigar and drinking a stout cup of black coffee. A year before, it would have been a cigarette and the coffee would have been decaf. Somewhere down the line, however, he had discovered that long cigars not only had better flavor, but were also not quite as bad for the health. So, he switched. And just that year before, he had been trying to cut out caffeine, but came to discover that his late shift job required a good pick-me-up every now and then. Just getting through the night was difficult, but if something happened, Vicar needed to keep himself alert and ready.

This was a bit of an odd time for Vicar. His old partner had just transferred to the homicide division and so Vicar was stuck alone until a replacement could come around. Vicar had been on the force just over twenty years and was a senior officer; probably the most experienced in the CCU. His new partner would be a young gun, someone who needed hands-on training from someone who had been there. Much to Vicar's dismay, that was him. As strange as it was though, he enjoyed the time he had partner-free. It made the job a bit more dull, but also a bit less aggravating.

“Charlie Unit Six-Forty-Fourteen, we have a possible code two near your location,” the radio from inside Vicar's Cadillac buzzed. “Sending location to your GPS, please investigate.” Vicar took no time to process this information; there was no need. He jumped right into his vehicle hit the gas. A code two meant that there was an active cyborg assimilation taking place. If the report was accurate, then some poor soul was being cut open to be transformed into one of those cybernetic monstrosities.

Vicar's job was to kill these monstrosities.

Echo's eyes crept open. He looked up to see two people standing around a table working on... something. His vision was all fuzzy... but... no... there was blood all over. And was that? He focused and... no, no... it was Io. She was there sprawled on her table all cut open. The two people, one man and one woman, were operating on her; installing metal components.

Echo tried to scream. Echo tried to move.

But he couldn't. He was tied. He was tied there and had to watch. Was he next? Oh no... He groaned and shook. The male looked over to him, said something to the female, then came over. A tear dripped down Echo's cheek. The man looked into his eyes and Roamer watched as his irises danced, which was one of the telltale signs for a cyborg. Oh God... poor Io....

Vicar arrived at the apartment complex and used a set of advanced thermal/chemical binoculars to scan for cyborgs. The system was bulky and required a large power supply, but it was a good way of spotting a cybernetic. Vicar would never use one and then immediately pull the trigger. He hated depending on technology. By nature, his job depended on technological skepticism. This, however, was textbook. He could see the two people who seemed to be cyborgs standing around another person who lay on a table, likely being transformed. Vicar considered going up and after them, maybe he could save the person, but that was just stupid. If the cyborg were alone, that might have been an option, but he would be outnumbered against a pair of beings far superior to him.

He got back into his car and gave the signal for backup. He requested a full CCU SWAT team. Their ETA was twenty minutes.

Not good enough.

Vicar exhaled sharply as he popped his trunk. From it he withdrew his trusty old Mossberg compact shotgun and a few extra rounds of ammunition for his Smith & Wesson revolver. He thumbed in a full four rounds into the shotgun and then slammed the trunk shut. From his wallet, he took out his badge. He clipped it to his jacket so that none of the residents would open fire on the man open-carrying the shotgun. Time to go.

He rushed across street and into the building. Fortunately, it seemed that most of the residents were asleep or at least in their homes. Quietly, Vicar climbed the stairs until he reached the fourth floor, where he had spotted the cyborgs. He knew that they were in the apartment closest to the street. So Vicar walked down the dimly-lit hall until he found the right door.

Policy for the Cybernetic Contingencies Unit was to shoot first and ask questions later. No warrant was ever needed. If an officer could provide reasonable justification for opening fire, then he should. At first, Vicar tried to be an exception. At first, he tried his very best to only shoot when he was sure, but over time, he found that shooting first was easier. And that is what he will do here.

With a mighty kick, Vicar kicked down the apartment door. Its hinges crumbled as the senior policemen stepped inside, shotgun raised. Standing directly across from him and across a table was a female, who held a drill in her hand. There was no doubt. Vicar pulled the trigger. The shotgun roared to life. The slug burst from the flaming barrel and flew to meet the woman at the end of the table. Her head exploded in a flurry of blood and electrical mayhem. Of her head, there was nothing left except that which was scattered and pooled all over the floor.

As he pulled the pumping lever, Vicar checked the room for the second cyborg. Where was that cybernetic bast-

Suddenly a mass slammed into his side. Vicar's body rushed to floor. When he hit the ground, his shotgun sprang from his hands. Vicar turned to find a creepy-looking man holding him down. The man's hand balled into a first and it hammered to Vicar's face. He spat blood as the same hands snaked around his neck and squeezed. He gasped for air.

And then he remembered: his revolver.

He reached down to his belt and felt his fingers wrap around the handgrip. Using all of his energy, he pulled it from the holster and brought it up to the cyborg's chest. He yanked the trigger.


The cyborg recoiled and let up his grip very briefly before resuming.


Vicar fired again. The cyborg squeezed tighter. The policeman angled the gun towards the cyborg's neck. This was the only sure-fire way to kill them. But he couldn't be sure of his aim....

Suddenly, he felt the pistol disappear from his hand. Vicar knew this was the end... until the cyborg's head exploded, leaving metal bits and blood all over Vicar's suit.

Gasping for air, Vicar pushed the cybernetic body off of him. Before him, he saw a hand. Vicar took it and it helped him to his feet. “Thanks, that one almost had me,” the policeman sighed as he brushed off his suit.

“Almost had you,” the man who helped him said. “Yeah, they had me tied up, but I got free just in time.”

“That you did,” Vicar took his revolver back and holstered it.

“That I did,” the man sighed. “But they got Io.”

Vicar turned to the table and the saw the woman lying there. Her head was cut open. There were metal components inside, some of them blinking in various colors. “Is that Io?” Vicar asked.

“Yeah, that's Io,” the man told him. “I came to bring back her hair-”


Vicar blasted Io through the skull.

What did you do that for?!” The man exclaimed.

“She was one of them,” Vicar reholstered his pistol.

“One of them,” the man sobbed. “She couldn't- you couldn't save her?”

“Look, what's your name, kid?”

“People call me Echo.”

“Look, Echo, once you're one of... them... you can't turn back. They say that whispers of the old person live on, but they're trapped inside thinking thoughts that aren't theirs and doing things they don't want to do. She's better off dead, Echo. She's better off dead.”

Vicar sighed as he went over and retrieved his shotgun. He took a good, long look around for his report. This would be a long one for sure. This night was bad... bad indeed, but Vicar knew he had seen worse. This was bloody and he had nearly been killed, but this was not the first time. He took a long cigar out of his jacket and lit it. The good thing about an encounter like this meant that he could turn in early. As he puffed, he realized that he regretted only one thing: that damn cup of coffee. Even if he went to bed, he knew he would never sleep.

But perhaps coffee was not the only reason....

Echo stood over Io's body. Her face was mangled beyond recognition and her body was mutilated. Under his breath, he repeated over and over, “Better off dead... better off dead...”

Friday, December 24, 2010

week 37: the adventures of humphrey holdsoworth and richard aldwinkle: christmas with mr. cody

This was a special project. With Christmas on the horizon, I knew that Story a Week would need to participate somehow. The answer became a Christmas special. At first, it was a concept about having a regular story with new characters centered around Christmas. But then my mind hit the point that part of Christmas is family. I'm already enjoying my real family this season, but there's another family that needs love: the Holdsworth family.

The Holdsworth's have been around in my life for many, many years. They something of a staple in my writing. They've had a lot of time to be developed in my mind and I'm quite attached to them. Humphrey, Richard, and Dolores are very real to me.

Moving on, it became apparent that the Christmas special would need to be another Adventure of Humphrey Holdsworth and Richard Aldwinkle. And so it is. I could not be prouder of the result! Read on! I promise you'll love it!

Christmas time. Oh, Christmas time. Everyone loves it, don't they?

I most certainly do.

Oh, it's stressful, and, oh, it's chaotic, but it's Christmas. It's a time of giving, it's a time of friendship, and it's a time of family. I love it. And the stress and bloody hell that comes with it is all worth it. Sure, you doubt it while it's happening, but in the end, you're always filled with that cheery, fuzzy, Christmas-y feeling. And this was all especially true of last Christmas.

It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve and all hell had broken loose at the Holdsworth home. The plan was to have a very simple family gathering with just a few of the relatives and, of course, Richard. Oh, Richard is my husband Humphrey's best friend. Somehow that mutt has managed to tag along with Humphrey his entire life; even somehow leeching off Humphrey's Oxford education. I'll never understand it, though I've tried. So, there'll be my father, Humphrey's parents, Richard and his wife, Delilah, Humphrey and I, and our son, Dennis.

I was already frustrated with the weather. I had hoped for a nice snow, but instead we got ourselves rained on. It almost never snows in London, but sometimes one can get their hopes up for the impossible. The results are always, of course, catastrophic. Still, I didn't let that get to me. I'm the wife, after all, and, even in our “modern household,” I have things to do. Humphrey can't make toast, much less prepare a goose and all that goes with it. For the evening dinner, I was preparing a roasted goose, a few vegetables, a pair of casseroles, and a ham. And also, I had to try and get the house in order.

Now, let's get this out of the way: I'm a perfectionist; especially when it comes to having company over. It is my house and I will have it presentable. I know that I let it get to my head and I know that I can be a pain in the buttocks about it, but once everything is perfect, I can really enjoy my Christmas. Part of the proverbial Christmas spirit for me is a job well done. Truth be told, I enjoy getting myself stressed out. It's a good kind of stress. And the payoff is always worthwhile.

As I chopped up a potato, Humphrey came into my kitchen and asked, “Honey, look, I understand you want things perfect, but do I have to wear this God-awful sweater?!” He pushed his glasses back up his nose.

“Yes, Humphrey, we've talked about this,” I pulled over a second potato and began to chop away. I looked up to him and saw that red Christmas sweater. I suppose that had I been in my right mind, I would have seen that it was rather tacky. In fact, I know now that it is rather tacky. Nevertheless, having the family all wear a Christmas sweater was part of my vision of a perfect holiday.

“But it's so scratchy!”

“Put a shirt on underneath it,” I started chopping loudly, hoping he would notice that I had a knife. “Maybe a nice tie.”

“Oh, but-”

“No buts,” I held the knife up as I took another potato. He would have to get the message this time. “You're going to wear that sweater.”

He sighed.

“Now, what time are the Aldwinkles coming over?”

“I told Richard that we would start at six.”

“But we aren't starting until seven...” and then it dawned on me. Of course. This is Richard we're talking about! “Oh, smart thinking, love.”

The telephone rang.

“Could you get that, darling?” I asked.

“Of course,” Humphrey went into the living room and answered the old-fashioned telephone we had. I listened in, but could only hear his side, “Hello, mum!” … “Oh, yes, everything looks simply smashing.” … “Well, what time are you and dad coming-?” … “Oh.” … “Well, I don't-” … “Right.” … “Oh, sorry to hear about that.” … “So, you can't come?” … “Well, we'll miss you then, mum.” … “It's alright, we'll have to get together some-” … “Right, goodbye.” As soon as I heard the click of the phone, I heard Humphrey bellow a sigh.

“Was that your mum?” I asked. Of course, I knew who it was, but I like pretending not to hear.

He walked back in, “Well, um, my parents won't be coming.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, mum said that Snuggles has broken his leg and-”

“They're not coming because of their ferret?”

“That's what she said.”

“They're not coming because of a damned rodent?!”

“You know how much they love that ferret,” Humphrey was, I believe, trying to defuse the situation. Fat chance, love.

“I don't care how much they love that stupid rat!” I chopped as hard as I could, this time cutting my thumb. “Ow!” I exclaimed as I recoiled it back .

“Ooh, are you alright?”

“I bloody hate Christmas!” I snarled as I made my way over to the sink to was it off.

Humphrey followed me, “You don't mean that, darling.” He turned on the faucet for me.

I sighed as I put my hands under the water. He put his hands in with mine. At first, I just tolerated it; I didn't like it. But as he helped me wash off my hands, I remembered just much I love how smooth and warm his touch can be. I remembered how much I love my husband. And because of that, I remembered what the season was all about. I, ever so slightly, smiled and said, “You're right, dear. I don't hate the holidays. I'm just so stressed out over it all.”

“I know, I know,” he said quietly. “And everything's going to be great. You can't stand my dad's jokes anyway.”

I laughed, “There's always a bright side, dear.” I kissed him on the cheek.

But, of course, our little moment was ruined.

“Mum! Dad!” Our twelve-year-old son, Dennis, called. “Horatio's in the tree again!”

To make matters worse, the doorbell rang. I said, “Ugh, Humphrey, you take care of the door and I'll get the cat.”

Now, you're probably thinking that Humphrey should have taken care of the cat so that I don't get my hands dirty. Well, that's exactly the problem here. Horatio hates everyone. Except for me. And Richard, actually. But he's beside the point. Where he should stay. As soon as I walked in, I found Dennis standing in front of our Christmas tree trying to lure Horatio out. It wasn't working. He tried putting his hand out to grab the cat, but it lashed out its paw and hissed. “Mum!” Dennis exclaimed. “That idiot cat of yours won't get down! And he's eating the branches!”

“Oh, dear,” I wiped my forehead. Then I switched to my higher-pitched pet voice. Oh, come on, we all have one! “Horatio! What are you doing in my tree? Why don't you come down? Here, come to mummy,” I reached in and gently grabbed my cat. He immediately started purring. “Oh, that's a bad kitty. Don't get in the Christmas tree. You're not an ornament! No you're not!”

“Mum, you look like an idiot.”

“Quiet, Dennis,” I set the cat down and he scampered away. “Now, go back in your room and get your sweater on.”

“Oh, but I don't want to wear that idiotic-”

“Do not start!” I snapped.

“Fine,” Dennis groaned as he walked off.

“Dolores!” A very familiar, very warm voice exclaimed. I knew it immediately. I turned to see my father, Lionel Travers, walking into my home with a bright grin. He set down the suitcase in his hands and then wrapped his arms around me. My father is a terrible hugger, but I loved being with him. “Oh, I've missed you so much, Dolores!” He let me go.

I asked, “Well, you're here early, how was the trip?” There was still about an hour to go until dinner.

“Well, it was good!” He kept his warmness up somehow. “Customs at the airport was faster than usual and the taxi ride was a breeze!” He had come from the airport because he lives in America now. New York, specifically. He went there with my mom once on vacation and loved it very much. So, he decided to retire there. I've never seen my dad happier. I've wanted to visit him there for a while now, but simply never had the opportunity.

Humphrey walked into the room and set down my father's luggage, “You pack light, don't you?”

“Always have!” My father smiled as he gently rubbed his fairly rotund belly. “Oh, yes, Humphrey! I heard you got that job! How is that working out for you?”

“I'm going to let you two catch up,” I smiled as I turned back for the kitchen. “We'll talk later, father!”

“Oh, we must!”

As I turned, I noticed the disarray on the tree. Ah, yes, the cat's mess. “Dennis, when you get the chance, get in here and straighten out the tree!”

“Okay!” I heard coming from somewhere. Good enough.

In perfect timing, as soon as I walked into the kitchen, I heard the oven go ding! The goose was ready! I put on my oven mitts and was delighted as I pulled out the poor, dead, cooked bird from my oven. It looked absolutely fantastic (if I do say so myself). And it was perfect because all I had left to do was put the chopped potatoes into a baking pan, pour the mix over them, and add water. I never let anyone outside the family know that I use a mix for my potatoes, so consider yourself lucky.

And don't tell anyone!

I'm serious, I have a knife and I'm not afraid to use it.

Of course, I had to finish chopping a few potatoes and I got that done without a hitch. I put them into my glass baking pan, put on the mix, and put them in water. Perfect! But there was still the issue of the dinner table. I sighed, but then realized that I have a husband, a father, and a child to do that for me. I still needed to get myself proper. So, I called, “Humphrey, Dennis! I need you to get the table set!”

I walked past Humphrey and father as I went to the bedroom. I knew that they had heard me because they were walking to the dining room. I also knew that they would probably screw something or another up, but I decided that I would cross that bridge when I got to it. I got to the bedroom to find Horatio all snuggled up on my bed. “Scamper off!” I said as I pushed him off the bed. I love my cat, but I don't love his hair all over my bed.

It didn't take me long to put on my make-up, my perfume, and my sweater. As I looked in the mirror to try and make myself look good, I found it difficult to find perfection. Was it the hair? Perhaps the lipstick? No, no, no, none of these. It was the sweater. In some form of weird personal-appearance feng shui, my sweater managed to offset the balance of my entire look. It was then that I was convinced that Christmas sweaters are a force of supernatural evil. Despite this, I am so profoundly stubborn that I would not ever remove my sweater because that's the way I decided to have it before and that's the way I will have it now. I know I'm stubborn and grumpy. You can't say I'm not self-aware.

And then the doorbell chimed. I knew exactly who it was: Richard and Delilah Aldwinkle.

Being the good hostess, I pushed open the bedroom door and went down the stairs to find my living room finally in order, the dining table set to a reasonably (but not perfect) standard, and... Richard. Humphrey and my father had let him in, apparently. I told them how I feel about strays....

But anyway, I then noticed that there was no Delilah... actually, that's not so surprising. I said with an imperceptibly false smile, “Richard! How nice you could make it!”

“Hullo, Dolores!” He then looked down to his chest and then back to me. That was when I noticed. We were wearing the exact same design on our Christmas sweaters. Dear God. “Nice sweater!”

“Oh, um, you too, Richard,” I said, completely revealing my discomfort. All at once I regretted the whole sweater ordeal. Of course, Richard, Humphrey, and my father were laughing it up. But then I saw the good news, “Oh, Richard, where's Delilah?”

“Oh, she couldn't make it. You see, she doesn't like the cold so much.”

“It figures,” Humphrey chuckled. “Seeing as she's cold-blooded and all.”

“If it were sunny, I'm sure she could bask outside, but alas we're in London,” Richard sighed.

“Ah, well, I guess I'll have to meet her some other time!” My father smiled as he gave Richard another one of his disastrous hugs. For some reason, Richard and my father got on great. I would never have expected my father and Richard to get along, but alas. When my father let go, he asked, “How have you been, Richard ol' chap?”

“Just dandy, Lionel, and yourself?”

“I need to go and finish with the food,” I whispered to Humphrey before returning to the kitchen. Things went swimmingly here. I got each dish looking proper and presentable, and then set them on the table. I took a step back and smiled. I remember that smile well. There were actually quite a few mixed emotions; all of them pleasant, of course. I was content, happy, and relieved. There was one more though. One which I thought I had experienced fully, but I was wrong. I'll get back to that later, though!

The doorbell rang.

“Now, who could that be?” I heard Humphrey saying as he walked to the door. I walked into the living room.

“Oh, I know who that is!” Richard exclaimed just as Humphrey opened the door. Standing at our doorstep was a man dressed in rags and dust. He was completely unshaven and missing several teeth. Actually, that's not uncommon in England. His general stature and appearance reminded very much of a velociraptor. Curious.“This is Mister Cody!”

“Hullo,” Mister Cody wheezed.

“Um, what is Mister Cody doing here?” I asked.

“Ah, I forgot to tell you,” Richard said. Don't kid yourself. There wasn't a hint of embarrassment or remorse or anything in his voice. “Mister Cody lives on our street. He's homeless you see-”

“You mean, 'I smell,'” I joked.

“That too,” Richard sighed. “He's homeless and I took pity on him so I gave him your address and told him to come!”

“Absolutely n-”

Humphrey interrupted, “Well, my parents aren't coming, so he can have their portion of the dinner!”

“But Hum-”

“Now Dolores, let's be charitable! It is Christmas Eve after all.”

I saw his point, but only accepted it reluctantly. This Mister Cody was not a part of my plan for a perfect Christmas Eve dinner. “Fine, but I have a feeling we're going to regret this,” I whispered to my husband.

“Um, thanks for, um, having me,” Mister Cody wheezed. “Was afraid I, um, wouldn't have a proper Christmas at all.”

“Join the club,” I quipped before turning to a false cheeriness, “Well, dinner is on the table and ready to be served!”

“I say we get started then,” Humphrey said before leading us all into the dining room. He took his seat at the head of the table, I sat next to him with Richard on his other side. Mister Cody, of course, sat next to Richard, my father next to me, and Dennis finally showed up and sat at the other head.

And then it hit him, “Wait! Who is that?”

“Don't be so rude, Dennis!” I snapped.

“Sorry, mum, but who... gah, what is that smell?”



“This is Mister Cody,” I explained evenly. “He is Richard's guest.”


“Humphrey, I believe we should begin,” I said licking my lip.

“You're right,” Humphrey smiled politely. “Mister Lionel... dad... would you do the honors in saying the blessing?”

“Of course,” my father stood from his spot and bowed his head. We all bowed our heads. “Our God in heaven, we thank you for this meal. We thank you for the meal provided for us here tonight. We thank you for sending your son, Jesus Christ, down to earth to show us all how to live and to ultimately die for our sins. We thank you God for that we can be together as a family. And we thank that Mister Cody could join us and we pray that we can be a blessing unto him, father. In your name we pray, amen.”

“Amen,” we all repeated as my father sat.

Except for Mister Cody, who flatly put it, “I don't believe in God.”

Humphrey ignored him as he stood up with the carving knife. He smiled and then said to us all, “Doesn't this simply look scrumptious?”

“Oh, it does indeed!” My father exclaimed.

“Well, let's get this goose carved!” Humphrey said excitedly as put the fork into the breast of the bird. I could only watch as he skillfully cut pieces off.

“Save a leg for me, dad,” Dennis said.

“I'd be much obliged to have a thigh,” was my father's request.

After a silence, Mister Cody said, “I'll have the neck.”


Humphrey simply acknowledged his request and continued cutting pieces of the goose. All the while, the side dishes were passed and everyone got their fair portion. It wasn't until after I had filled my plate that I looked up to see Mister Cody eating with his hands. I squirmed before I finally spoke up, “Excuse me, but could you please eat with your fork?”

“Huh?” he noticed the food in his hands and then looked down to his fork. “Oh, sorry, yeah, I'll start using it then.”

“Thank you.” I'm not rude, you know. Well. Usually not.

“This turkey is simply delicious, dear,” my father said.

“It's goose,” Dennis corrected him.

“Oh, well-”

“Don't correct your grandfather,” I gave Dennis the eye. He hates eye. Everyone hates the eye. I hate the eye. It's scary.

“Oh, it's quite alright, I'm terrible at poultry,” my father never seemed to lose his sense of humor, although, I could tell he was genuinely annoyed with Mister Cody. It actually takes quite a bit to get on my father's nerves. He was a social worker for so many years, so his patience is exemplary. I expected him to try and get to know Mister Cody, but I believe to this day that my father shared my expectations of a perfect Christmas. This Mister Cody figure was ruining that.

Mister Cody finally stopped his meal and then simply stared at it. I watched him for a minute, but said nothing. Richard finally asked, “Something bothering you, Mister Cody?”

“No, it's, um, actually, I just wanted to say how much, I, um, really apprishyaight letting me, um, eat with you, yeah,” Mister Cody wheezed.

“Well, it's not a problem at all,” Richard answered before Humphrey or I could. And that's a good thing; I probably would have said something nasty and Humphrey would have said something awkward. And of course, Richard's courtesy was misplaced. Therefore, this was a no-win scenario.

Kobayashi-Maru. I'll bet you weren't expecting a Star Trek reference, were you?

Despite this, I felt a certain sense of warmness for having done some kind of charity for Christmas. Isn't that what it's about? As I realized this, I set down my fork and, likely impulsively, said, “Mister Cody, you're welcome to come by here whenever you need something.”

“He is?” Humphrey's eyes went wide. I slapped him on the arm, “Ow! I mean, yes, you're welcome anytime!” He grinned. I gave him the eye. The grin disappeared and was replaced with a false, yet believable “warm smile.”

In my family, we always believed in exchanging gifts on the evening of Christmas Eve rather than Christmas morning. The reason we did this was because we prefer to leave Christmas for the Lord. It's not a common practice, but it's one we hold to. As soon as dinner was over, we moved our way into the living room. My father slipped away and grabbed his gifts from his suitcase. We all sat down and began the process of giving to one another.

Dennis, was, of course, the focus of the evening. The grandkids are always the center of attention. I remember that year we got Dennis an Xbox and a few games. His grandfather gave him a few games as well. We made one of his dreams come true. As a parent, we always love seeing our children happy. And Dennis was truly happy.

Humphrey and I bought my father a jacket; a very nice jacket. It was something of a casual sportcoat, which he wore all the time. He appreciated it. Richard bought my father a... I don't remember, but it was stupid and I suspect he had it in his closet for ages. You see, Richard is the master of the regift. What is a regift? When someone gives you something you don't want and then you give said gift to another. It actually got worse this year.

You see, about four years ago we gave Richard a red scarf. It's quite a unique item, actually, we got it hand-knit. When Humphrey opened his gift from Richard, you can guess what was inside the bag. Yes, the bloody scarf. Being the polite people that we are, Humphrey and I decided not to mention it. A few weeks later, we actually decided that we would give the scarf back to Richard and see if he notices. Humphrey and I even placed bets on it. I bet him his choice of dinner out on Richard not noticing. It was vice-versa if he did.

And what did I get? My father gave me one of my mother's old frocks. Now, that sounds like a horrendous gift, but you see, my father is a terribly sentimental pack rat. When my mother passed on, he kept absolutely everything of hers. It all had some value to him, especially her nicer clothes. For my father to give me one of mother's frocks is a very big deal. I honestly came very close to breaking in tears. I was happy then. But my father was even happier than I was to see me experience such joy. My father was not always such a selfless man, but sometime when I was a girl he changed. I think he finally came to grips with real responsibility.

Humphrey's gift to me was thoughtful as well. I've always had a thing for William Blake's poetry. In fact, Humphrey actually used William Blake when we were going out. He figured out exactly how to impress me. Blake is strange, but there's a beauty to his work. And there's a certain mystery to it, which I love. Anyway, Humphrey bought me an old leather-bound collection of Blake poems and paintings. Sure, I owned a copy of all of the poems in some form or another, but this collection was something special. A normal husband would have bought me jewelry or something clichéd like that, but Humphrey knows me much better and for that, I love him very much.

To Humphrey I gave something he had been wanting since he was very young. Now, this will sound ridiculous to you as it does to me, but it's what he wanted. I gave him a pair of plane tickets to Africa and a pass to go on safari. It wasn't for me to go with him, it was for Richard. He and Richard had been planning a trip to go to Africa to hunt lions since kindergarten. I cannot explain it nor can I really find a reason to warrant it. However, I have never seen my husband quite so gitty. I knew I had hit the right note. Richard was happy about it too, but I really don't care.

And from then on, we shared a moment laughing and enjoying the “Christmas spirit” together. Do you remember before when I mentioned that I was feeling that I would explain later? Well, this is it. There is no word for it. It's a feeling of warmth, but you can feel it in the coldest of temperatures. It's something that only comes together in the right moments. It can't be duplicated, replicated, or reciprocated; it's something mutual. And that's what we had there; that's what I felt in that moment.

Humphrey and I sat together holding one another at the fireplace. Dennis and Richard occupied the telly trying to figure out Call of Warfare 6: Modern Duty, or something like that while my father tried desperately to understand exactly the appeal in video games. I never understood either, but Dennis loves them and that's that. All I can hope is that Richard doesn't see Dennis's Xbox as an excuse to come over more often.

That moment is one I will never forget.

I'll also never forget how it was very rapidly shattered like thin ice under a sumo wrestler.

My father suddenly noted, “Where in God's name is Mister Cody?”

My eyes shot wide as we heard the front door slam closed. Humphrey was the first off his feet (my hero) and at the door. I followed at a distance as he threw the door open and stormed out. A few seconds later, he came back inside and said, “Oh, it's no use, he's gotten too far.”

I had a hunch about why Mister Cody had run. I went to the bedroom to check and I was right. Every last bit of my jewelry was gone. And you know me: I should have been furious. My night should have been completely and utterly ruined. I should have gone off on Richard, Humphrey, and everything in between, but I didn't. I wasn't angry. No, not angry... it was something else. I tried to be angry. I should have been angry. I had every right to be. Richard... oh, Richard.

But instead, my dear father came to me and he pulled me tightly into one of his awful hugs and he whispered to me everything he used to tell me as a little girl when I had a bad day, “It's going to be alright, I promise. I'll make sure it all goes right. And you did nothing wrong. Things simply happen sometimes. I love you.” I cried. I cried for a long time. I can't remember exactly how long, but I learned there that it isn't the quality of the hug that matters; it's who's giving it. I can't tell you how wonderful it felt to be in my father's arms. After so many years of playing the grump, I found my place to break down and let it all out. Actually, I had it all along. I just never realized.

As soon as my father let go, I found that my husband hadn't left my side at all. He was there the whole time, doing what he should. When my father let me go, I found my hands in Humphrey's. He pushed my air out of my eyes and told me, “Whatever was lost, we can replace, darling. We can make Richard pay for it, if it will make you feel better.”

I remember wiping tears as I looked deep into his eyes. For a second, I broke that. I looked over to my father, who still stood by me, waiting to see if he was needed again. And that was when I realized, and I said it aloud, “Even if Mister Cody had stolen absolutely everything we own, it would be a price worth paying for this moment; to be reminded of just how much I'm loved and how much I love you both so much.”

I went back into an embrace with Humphrey. My father sat down on the bed and put his hand on my shoulder. This was another moment I will never forget.

But sometimes things do have a happy ending.

Suddenly, there was a pounding on the door. Humphrey looked into my eyes one last time, as if to tell me that he wouldn't leave if I still needed him. But I nodded and let him go. He arrived at our front door and I tried my best to listen in, but couldn't hear a thing. Finally, the door closed and Humphrey came back in, holding a black bag. “That was the police, Dolores. They caught Mister Cody and they made him return everything that was stolen!”

“See, it's not so bad after all!” My father exclaimed with a big smile.

For some reason, I felt petty crying over it all. We returned to the living room and enjoyed each other's company until very late at night. It was picturesque, really. But it wasn't until a few days later that I actually realized that I wasn't crying over lost jewelry or my plans for a perfect holiday coming under constant attack. I was crying that night because I felt as though I was losing that perfect feeling I mentioned before. Sometimes when you get so high up, it just hurts all the more when it comes crashing down.

But do you know what I also learned? It's a price well worth paying. There are some feelings, some moments, that are worth all the hurt and price to have because they are so once-in-a-lifetime. And even still, these feelings and moments can't come close to the value of the people that make them.

And that was Christmas last year at the Holdsworth home.

The End.

Addendum: Richard didn't notice the scarf.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

week thirty-six: bluebird (special post)

It's the holiday season and I've been incredibly busy. That's my excuse. My head's been in a lot of other places and I needed to take the week off. So, there will not be a new story this week. However, I wouldn't be satisfied with leaving a gap in the weeks, so I looked for a compromise and managed to find something I think we can all appreciate.

Over these last thirty-five weeks, I've been pouring myself out to you by showing what goes on in my dark, twisted, yet sometimes delightful mind. You've probably learned more about the real WA Ross through reading my material than you would actually meeting me. There have been some low points on Story a Week, but there's also been some highlights that I will keep, treasure, and be proud of forever. The thing I most pride myself in is you; the people who come here and set aside their time to read what I've written. I treasure you. I'm proud that you think my work is worth your time. And I hope that you'll keep reading as long as I keep writing. It means a lot to me. It really does.

I've shown you the original things I've written, but I've barely shared the writings that inspire me. I haven't showed you the things that have brought me to where I am. I could never show you everything, but I can give you a glimpse.

One of my favorite poets is a man named Charles Bukowski; I wouldn't be surprised if you've heard of him. He wrote a poem called "Bluebird" and it changed me forever. I don't have quite the colored history that Bukowksi has, but, like him, everyone has a 'bluebird' in their heart. Ever since reading this poem, I've been determined to let mine out. Story a Week is a huge part of that. You'll understand what I mean when you read the poem.

Charles Bukowski

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pur whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

Here is a YouTube video with a recording of "Bluebird." This clip is actually how I came across the poem. It's a great reading and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

week thirty-five: death magnetic review

This is a review of 2008's Death Magnetic by Metallica. The review was actually a large undertaking and I'm proud of my work. It's pretty unusual for Story a Week, but I did promise that I would have all sorts of writing. This should be no exception.

I've wanted to write a review of Metallica's Death Magnetic for a very long time. But the thing is, I have to go all the way with this review. I have to call every shot, make a point about every nook and cranny, and give the most honest opinion I can possibly give. This has to be it. This project has been a huge undertaking and it's finally here.

Let's start with me. First off, I am a huge fan of Metallica. Their first four albums are easily some of the best in heavy metal history. Kill 'em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and ...And Justice for All were simply revolutionary for their time and still stand today. During the 90's and early 2000's, they strayed from greatness, but nevertheless were pretty much always solid. That's my opinion on the band. I love them, but not everything they've made. Even great artists like Michelangelo made crap at some point. We don't remember him for his screw-ups though, we remember him for his magnum opuses, such as David or the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.

Second off, I am a meticulous music listener. I am, generally speaking, more interested in the composition of a song rather than the pleasing nature of the sounds. Pop songs can make good sound, but I hate pop. I hate pop music because the composition itself is inherently unsophisticated and made to be easy to digest. I like my music to be complicated and for it to be necessary to devote time to be fully appreciated. And that's what I do. I like to sit down and listen to the same song more than once in order to fully digest it. I take apart each and every piece in order to appreciate all of them.

Thirdly, I've detected certain things in music that I appreciate more than others. I've already mentioned that complexity of composition is a big one for me, but there are other things that draw me to music. Another biggy is that I look for skill in the musicians themselves. If a musician puts out a work that took a lot of technical skill to pull off, then I find an easy appreciation for it. The third most important thing I look for is depth, both in the emotion of the music and in the lyrics. That's another reason I'm turned off by pop music; most of it is corny love music with no real depth.

Reading this review, you'll probably gain a lot more insight about me and my musical tastes than if I just told you. I felt what I wrote above is necessary for clarification's sake. But now that that's out of the way, let's get back to Metallica.

Five years after the release of the abomination called St. Anger, Metallica finally release a record. Death Magnetic hit stores in September of 2008 and instantly topped the charts. Chart-topping is almost irrelevant for Metallica though; they're so huge of a band that they can release just about anything and have it sell. In other words, unlike with some smaller bands, sales are not at all a component in observing Death Magnetic's quality. St. Anger was horrible and it still made number one.

The hype around Death Magnetic was huge, and Metallica had quite the challenge ahead of them. It was clear that Metallica's dabble in hard rock was wearing thin and that they wanted to return to making thrash metal, which is what made them famous in the first place. St. Anger actually tried to return Metallica to their garage-band roots with a raw sound, but it ultimately came up short. There were a lot of original ideas in St. Anger, just not good ones. The fans were calling for this return to thrash metal as well. It doesn't take much to notice that pretty much everyone prefers Metallica's old stuff over their new stuff at concerts. Even the band themselves prefer playing their older material.

So, this lays out the first challenge Death Magnetic: it needs to be like the old material.

The problem with this is that it's 2008 and the eighties are long gone. While releasing a Master of Puppets sequel would be awesome, it simply wouldn't be something marketable to a more mainstream audience. Now, I'm not big on caring about sales, but the producers behind the album are. I'm just laying out the objectives and needs for the record. Anyway, Death Magnetic would have to be like old-school thrash, but at the same time, it would have to be modern. And this raised the question, could 1980's thrash be adapted for modern styles and recording techniques?

That's the second challenge: it needs to be like the old stuff, but it has to be modern.

The next problem is that Metallica's audiences are two-fold. On one hand is the larger, more mainstream crowd which would much prefer simpler, lighter music. On the other hand is the more hardcore crowd, who want something heavier, more complex, and older-sounding. The more mainstream crowd tends to be much more casual and not quite so vocal, meanwhile the hardcore crowd will make their voices heard. A new album would have to somehow please both audiences. If one is favored, the other is alienated.

And now we have a third challenge: it needs to be like the old stuff, it must be modern, and it has to a strike a balance between hardcore thrash and mainstream metal.

Metallica is old. Each member is in their mid-forties and many, including the publications which govern popular opinion, see them as just four old men trying to relive their glory days. The solution couldn't be to simply try to be young again. St. Anger was just that and it failed. It became clear that the answer would be to acknowledge their age and work with it. Metallica is old, but Metallica is classic. The answer clearly became to admit to being forty and live with it.

So, there's a fourth challenge: it must sound like the old stuff, it must be modern, it needs to strike a balance between the hardcore and the mainstream, and it has to be relevant despite the aging musicians.

These four challenges are far from easy to overcome, especially considering the situation Metallica faced. Failure was much more possible thanks to the inclusion of two people: Rick Rubin and Robert Trujillo. Now, I'm not bashing either of them, so let's explore what I mean.

Rick Rubin is the producer on Death Magnetic. It's not unusual for bands to use multiple producers over the years, but Metallica's case is a special one. For nearly fifteen years, Metallica had been using producer Bob Rock. Metallica, Load, ReLoad, Garage inc., and St. Anger were all his projects. Introducing a new element and replacing an established one is always risky.

Robert Trujillo was recruited into Metallica just after the recording of St. Anger as the new bassist. Trujillo had previously worked with a smattering of other bands, including Ozzy Osbourne and Suicidal Tendencies. There was a lot of doubt around Trujillo. Sure, he could play Metallica's material, but how much could he contribute to an album?

The bassist has always been important to Metallica. Each and every member will tell you that the best musician and songwriter for Metallica during their first three albums was Cliff Burton, the bassist. When Cliff passed away in 1986, Jason Newsted from Flotsam & Jetsam replaced him. While Newsted's writing abilities were never prevalent in the subsequent albums, his live stage presence became essential to Metallica's image. Of course Robert Trujillo would face a lot of doubt; he had to fill in some massive shoes.

With all of these pressures, challenges, and obstacles in the way, there was a lot of doubt that Metallica could put out a satisfying record. While many were hopeful, many more were skeptical. Surely they couldn't put out something as bad as St. Anger... or could they? Could it be worse? Or, by smattering chance, could it be the greatest album Metallica has ever released?

It is none of these. Instead, Death Magnetic satisfies each and every one of the challenges mentioned above with flying colors. Death Magnetic is a solid record with relevant, powerful, heavy, and surprisingly complex songs. The structures and general style match Master of Puppets much closer than Load. In short, Death Magnetic is an extremely good record, but it's not quite on par with the golden age of Metallica. The devil, however, is in the details. Let's go over the songs:

The very first thing on Death Magnetic is a heartbeat. Thump-thump, thump-thump. The guitar creeps in slowly with an eery plucking and new, heavier parts are added to build it up. It's all slow and it's all intro here. The atmosphere is being built and Metallica takes their time in doing it. This intro lasts a good minute-and-a-half before the main riff of the first track finally kicks in. This track is “That Was Just Your Life.”

This main riff is fast and bears a taste that recalls ...And Justice For All's “Blackened.” The most important thing to note here is that any who doubted Death Magnetic's metal cred are silenced here. This isn't another hard rock cop-out like Load, no, this is pure fricking thrash metal. The guitars are going fast and loud; even drummer Lars Ulrich's drumming is solid. It's gonna take more than this to impress though.

Fortunately, the song shifts into a bridge that keeps promising that more is coming. It's still fast, it's still loud, and it's still impressive. The chorus comes along finally and doesn't fail to dazzle, but then James Hetfield stops singing and the guitars take center stage. You can hear both Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield playing their hearts, but you know they're building up to something. And suddenly, Kirk Hammett starts shredding a monumental solo which reflects the stuff that got Metallica where they are.

The solo here is much bigger news than it seems. In St. Anger, there are no guitar solos whatsoever. That's not necessarily a bad thing, not every record needs to have a solo on every song, but bands like Metallica do. A lot of people buy metal records just because they love hearing a skilled guitarist work the frets at mach five. Just having solos signals a return to goodness for Metallica.

Following this is a somewhat slower version of the verses, but it soon changes into a gorgeous instrumental break, which is my favorite part of the song. It has a simple sound to it, but all the parts are working here to give it a hidden complexity. It's a great warm-down from the work-out solo section from before.

Finally, it all finishes with the chorus coming back and then a swift outro. What a ride. “That Was Just Your Life” is one of my favorites from Death Magnetic. It's fast, heavy, and fairly complex. There are multiple distinct melodies and it has a good sound to it. Lyrically, “Life” is lacking. It's not particularly about anything specific except death in a whole bunch of different manners of speaking. It all fits and it's not particularly bad, just not particularly noteworthy or deep. It's pure metal pulp.

The second track, “The End of the Line,” opens with a bang; a very heavy bang. It's pure Metallica and it's pure thrash. After the heavy intro, “Line” accelerates with some fairly catchy and fast riffage from the guitarist. If you're paying attention, you can hear some excellent bass work from Trujillo. “The End of the Line” is catchy, but doesn't produce anything particularly impressive until the solo comes about. The instrumental break down is riotous and chaotic in the best of ways.

But it all stops, symbolic of the end of the line. The guitar plays quietly in the background as James Hetfield sings out a somber bit about the slave becoming the master. It's a good break from the loudness and leads right into the chorus coming back full swing. This sort of thing is not terribly uncommon, but it is difficult to make it work. Metallica does it and they do it beautifully. It ends with ringing guitars and leaves you breathless. All in all, it was all build up for those last moments.

The End of the Line” is about drugs. Welcome to heavy metal. Drugs is a cliché topic in metal culture and Metallica has hit on it before. “The End of the Line” seems engineered to remind us all of Metallica's classic song, “Master of Puppets.” The lyrics are basically about the same thing and they've got quite a few gaping similarities. It isn't that huge of an issue, as “The End of the Line” manages to stand well on its own. It's a great second track.

The third track is “Broken, Beat & Scarred.” It builds to a crescendo of metal manliness that I might use to work out to. That could be construed as an insult; it's not. It definitely gets you going. It's also pretty clear that Metallica wrote this one for the fans. This song was designed to be played live and to get the audience in on it. It's fairly repetitive, the lyrics are simple and easy to master, and it's overall not a bad song.

To discuss the lyrics a bit, it's about being a tough guy. Just saying some of the words can get you pumped. If I were to pick a similarity for this song, I would say that I get a vibe from ReLoad's “Fuel.” It simply seems to serve the same purpose of really getting you pumped. “Broken, Beat & Scarred” doesn't fail to get the adrenaline going and it doesn't slow down for a second. It's gripping, but, in the end, it outstays its welcome. It goes on for too long with James singing some frankly stupid lyrics. Case in point, “What don't kill ya make ya more strong.”

And, most notable, “They cut and rape me.” Okay, James, you were just singing about how tough you are, but now you're being raped? It's like it's trying to be heavy but it just comes across as trying too hard and it contradicts the “message,” if it can even be called that. Now would actually be a good time to note that a lot of lyrics on the entire album seemed forced. It's like they're trying way too hard to be heavy again. There was a time when James Hetfield wrote really beautiful lyrics that had great meaning. Check out “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “Fade to Black,” “Master of Puppets,” “One,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And those are just to name a few.

But Death Magnetic? Nuh-uh. Metallica's past music dealt with heavy handed themes with intelligence. It's like these songs deal with these sames themes, just stupidly.

The fourth track is a nice break from the heaviness of the others. “The Day That Never Comes” is another Metallica ballad that echoes “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “Fade to Black,” and, most closely, “One.” It starts off with a slow bit, which is literally ripped off of a Joe Satriani bit. I'm not terribly offended by this, but come on.

It doesn't particularly speed up, but things do a change a bit as the drums and the second guitar kicks in. Right away you know a more downbeat song is here. It immediately feels down-on-your-luck and reflective. Listening to this for the first time, it's easy to worry that the first three songs are exceptions and that this is Metallica going right back to the Load days. Well, yes, there is a bit of that in here, but hear it out.

James starts singing and there are some of the better lyrics on the album. They aren't particularly clear, but they're spoken with conviction. Like a couple of the songs from the 90's era, it's pretty clear that James has some of himself in here. Ultimately, the song is about a father-son relationship and it does get awfully cheesy at points (“The 'son' shine never comes.”) It's respectable though and very personal. The problem is that the lyrics are vague. Even James Hetfield himself admitted to them being vague, but tried to cover it up as being something of beauty.

I refute that. Ambiguity can be an effective tool in communicating a message. For instance, moral ambiguity is a popular tool used by writers to have a reader think. Or being vague on certain details can build suspense. The problem with Metallica using vague lyrics is that they ultimately become pointless since the message itself is shrouded. Vagueness is a tool, but it should be used sparingly. I'm a believer that an artistic work should ultimately have a point. It can be about a certain message or a certain theme, but this point has to be there. Ambiguity or vagueness can be used to reach this point, but leaving a work completely ambiguous leaves the point shrouded so deeply that it's gone.

The choruses pick up a bit more anger. It's got a repressed sound that seems to want to boom, but doesn't. That isn't a bad thing. It communicates a feeling of hidden emotions that are stuffed away and need to come out. There's a desperation that is totally beautiful.

The verses and chorus are repeated and then everything really kicks off. The entire second half of “The Day That Never Comes” is an instrumental madhouse of solos and melodies. It's complex and skillfully done. The fray gives a good reminder of “One,” which “Day” seems to really love reminding us of. “One” was about war, “Day's” music video is about war. “One” had a balled structure, so does “Day.” Earlier we had a “Master of Puppets” reminder, now we have a “One” reminder. We're starting to hit some of that old-men-trying-too-hard stuff here.

Fortunately, the song itself is a great one. It doesn't need “One” to be good. In fact, it actually is a good enough ballad to stand among Metallica's others, although it's probably the weakest. That doesn't mean it isn't a great thrill ride. It starts out slow and then ambushes you. Awesome.

Next up is “All Nightmare Long,” which is a horror-centric beast of a song. It starts out with an intro that has an evil flamenco vibe to it before finally building up into some fast horror bits. It's got a scary vibe and it's speedy and strong. Also noteworthy is that it's fairly complex.

In true metal fashion, it takes almost two minutes before the lyrics kick in. They're obviously about a man being hunted by some (again) ambiguous enemy. While these certainly aren't deep, they certainly are effective. Unlike “Day,” “Nightmare” has a pretty clear point to it. It's angry, it's scary, and it's heavy.

The typical instrumental section breaks out again with some insanely strong, frantic melodies, and a very fitting guitar solo. This song will not let up. It picks up, getting more and more frantic and crazy. It's even getting heavier and faster. Seven minutes through and it still hasn't climaxed. It breaks down just a little with James singing a quick bit... and then all goes quiet. Is it over?

No. Boom. The vocals come back to signal and all-guns blazing climax from the entire band. Everything's going and everything's pounding at full strength. “All Nightmare Long” is one of the best on Death Magnetic and it's one I believe will stand the test of time. It's great to watch live and it meshes with the 80's stuff incredibly well. It also recalls some of Metallica's older, more progressive material. I got a bit of a “Damage, inc.” vibe from the overall aggression, but I also felt a bit of “Creeping Death,” but the biggest likeness is probably “Enter Sandman.” What interests me most though is that it doesn't have a direct parallel. If modified a little bit, I could honestly see “All Nightmare Long” on an older Metallica record.

Fortunately, it is modified to fit modern standards and includes some innovation, such as the flamenco elements I mentioned before in the intro. “All Nightmare Long” is a great, original song. It's arguably the best on the entire record.

Moving on, is “Cyanide,” which is one of the simpler, shorter tracks on Death Magnetic. It's aggressive, heavy, but uses higher notes. The first part that will impress you is the bass work that comes just after the intro. A simple tune played on the guitar soon overshadows it and the song begins. The lyrical topic is quite clear: suicide. It's also another song the screams to be played live. There are so many parts that are clearly designed for audience participation.

Everything's very simple on “Cyanide.” The composition isn't designed to impress, but the song works and it's a joy to listen to even with the rather dark theme. It's also probably the song that I've heard most on the radio. “Cyanide” is pretty clearly aimed at the mainstream, but it's not without its charm. It has a similar slowdown to “The End of the Line” and it works just as well.

Next up we have one of my favorites on Death Magnetic, but also one I have the biggest gripe about. Anyway, this song is called “The Unforgiven III.”

Yeah, another one.

No, seriously. It's “The Unforgiven III.”

And curiously, it didn't have to be. The music is emotional, powerful, moving, and solid enough to stand on its own without having to reference the old days. I'll get back to that later.

It opens up with a piano and orchestral introduction that lasts an entire minute. It's a risky, but appreciated step away from the ferocity and distortion of the previous six songs. “The Unforgiven III” is a chance to slow down and catch your breath. The guitars kick in soon to give us a nice, moody transition before a heavier verse begins. It's reminiscent of the original “The Unforgiven” in the way that the verses are heavier than the choruses.

Curiously, “The Unforgiven III” is actually a treat vocally and maybe even lyrically. This is James Hetfield's best, most emotional vocal performance on Death Magnetic. It isn't the most impressive vocal performance ever, but it's a great fit for James Hetfield, who seems to give it his all. The lyrics are actually a story of someone lost on the seas of life struggling to forgive himself for something or another. There's clearly something personal that Hetfield is referring to here, but we aren't sure what. Perhaps it has to do with mistakes he made during his career? Or maybe it's something related to his alcoholism? Who knows. Either way, these lyrics are ambiguous in something of a good way. It's easy for a listener to relate to Hetfield's pain. I would prefer the actual theme to be a bit clearer though. I do have to comment that I'd take “The Unforgiven III's” lyrics over most other music out there.

But anyway, the song slows to a crawl after the second chorus. The guitar and the orchestra come back right before James returns to repeat, “Forgive me/forgive me not” over and over for a bit. It's actually not bad because he's building up. Sure, it's a little on the cheesy side, but it's also executed well enough. The build up is soon released with an explosive and highly emotional solo from Kirk Hammett. This is the solo that I like best on the entire album. You can really feel some emotion here. There's resolve, but also pain. It's brilliant.

The song finishes strong with another iteration of the chorus.

Before, I mentioned that I was upset with it being called “The Unforgiven III.” I feel like they just called it that because they wanted to make a cheap nod to the old stuff. It's as if they feel the need to use the old material as a crutch but there's really no reason to. It's a form of cowardice that I actually feel hurt the lyrics. They had to put the idea of forgiveness into it somehow to justify the title of the song. When in reality, if they had made this just to stand on its own, I'm betting that the lyrics could have come out as something stronger and something deeper.

Basically, with “The Unforgiven III,” the older material referenced actually weighs it down. It could have been that good of a song.

The eighth track is “The Judas Kiss,” a heavier affair, but also one that's not quite as fast as the others. Don't get me wrong though, I'm not really criticizing it just yet. The introduction is nice and dark, which is perfect to the lyrical theme: betrayal.

Of all the tracks, I would say that “The Judas Kiss” is the darkest. Its religious overtones and general vibe remind me of “Leper Messiah” from Master of Puppets. If you want a head-banging, anger-inducing, feast of darkness, then this is your song. Even the solo, which is certainly impressive, even for Kirk Hammett, is a dark little bit. James Hetfield clearly has fun singing this one. He evil-laughs at a few parts and there's a slowdown like “The End of the Line” and “Cyanide.”

The lyrics are ultimately about betrayal with metaphoric applications of demons and Judas. It is a Satanic song? Nah, I wouldn't say so. Is it an angry song with some dark overtones? Yeah, definitely. The lyrics are mostly well-written, except I do have a few gripes. A couple of lines are completely stupid. “Venom of a life insane/Bites into your fragile vein.” Sorry James, but that's ridiculous.

“The Judas Kiss” is an evil blast. The guitar work is great, but not really as impressive as other bits on the album. This song isn't a standout on Death Magnetic, but it's overall a great track.

Next up is a surprise and a real treat: “Suicide and Redemption.” On the first listen, I kept thinking, “Well, where's the singing?” I wondered for the whole ten minutes because “Suicide and Redemption” is an instrumental. It had been almost twenty years since Metallica put out an instrumental track and Metallica's instrumentals had always been monumental. “The Call of Ktulu,” “To Live is to Die,” and “Orion” are simply amazing tracks. Having an instrumental here is a great way to do a throwback to the old days. But is it done right?

Yes. Yes, it is.

While it isn't as good as the previously mentioned instrumentals, it's still a darn good bit. Both James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett perform admirably with dueling guitar solos and some pretty sick melodies. While it isn't quite as impressive or unique as instrumentals past, it certainly is a good track.

The star in “Suicide and Redemption,” however, is the bass. This is Robert Trujillo's chance to shine and boy does he ever. The only issue is the production makes the bass hard to hear, but the playing is, nonetheless, pretty insane. His sound is a great addition to Metallica and “Suicide and Redemption” proves it.

Finally, “My Apocalypse” finishes things out. It doesn't waste time in making itself known. Ka-boom and it's off, literally. “My Apocalypse” is a track that ditches all BS in favor of delivering one of the fastest, and easily the most aggressive track on the whole album. It's loud, it's heavy, and it's very, very 1980's. That's a good thing.

If any of these tracks is a throwback to the old days, it's this one. It has a slight “Master of Puppets” feel to it, but it's mostly completely an original piece. The guitar, drum, and bass work is all fast and aggressive. The guitar solo is strong, the song is fun... It's a great way to finish the album.

But I have a few complaints. For one, it never really seems to go anywhere. There isn't much of a buildup or anything. The heaviness is good and it's aggressive, but “That Was Just Your Life,” “The End of the Line,” and “All Nightmare Long” were heavy and they each went somewhere. They had a certain progressive element that “My Apocalypse” is missing and it seems to me that it would be better if it had it. “Apocalypse” does change it up a bit with a slightly lighter bit in the middle, but it pretty much keeps up the whole way.

The other complaint that I have is, again, the lyrics. The whole thing is stupid. I mean, it's got some of the stupidest lyrics known to man. Sure, it isn't as bad as “I Whip My Hair Back and Forth,” but come on, people. Here, let's look at a few choice parts:

Crawl out of this skin
Hard explosive
Reach in, pull that pin

Fear thy name extermination
Desecrate inhale the fire

So we cross that line
Into the grips
Total eclipse
Suffer unto my apocalypse!

Deadly vision
Prophecy revealed
Death Magnetic
Pulling closer still

Fear thy name annihilation
Desolate inhale the fire

So we cross that line
Into the grips
Total eclipse
Suffer unto my apocalypse!

My apocalypse Go!

Crushing metal, Ripping Skin
Tossing body mannequin
Spilling Blood, Bleeding Gas

Mangle flesh, Snapping spine
Dripping bloody valentine
Shatter face, spitting glass

Split apart
Split apart
Split apart
Spit it out!

What makes me drift a litter bit closer
Dead man takes the steering wheel
What makes me know it's time to cross over
Words you repeat until I feel

See through the skin the bones they all rattle
Future and past they disagree
Flesh falls away the bones they all shatter
I start to see the end in me

See the end in me
See the end in me

Climb out of this skin
Hard explosive
Reach in, pull that pin

Violate, annihilate
All wounds unto my eyes
Obliterate, exterminate
And life itself, denied

Fear thy name as hell awakens
Destiny, Inhale the Fire

But we've cross that line
Into the grips
Total eclipse
Suffer unto my apocalypse!

Tyrants awaken my apocalypse!
Demon awaken my apocalypse!
Heaven awaken my apocalypse!
Suffer forever my apocalypse!

Oh, no, wait, that's the whole thing. Whoops!

It's almost as if they took out a dictionary and a thesaurus and decided to look up the darkest, most “metal” words they could find and made them into lyrics. I mean, sure, there does seem to be a bit of a story in here. A lot of the lyrics seem to imply a car crash or maybe a war or something, but nevertheless, it's just too much. It's almost self-parody. I actually laughed at a few of these lines when I read them for this review. They really are terrible.

Overall, “My Apocalypse” is my least favorite on Death Magnetic. It's not a horrible song, not even a bad song, but it's certainly not great.

Well, that's it for the tracks. Just after going through that review, To rank the songs, I'd go in this order:

1. “That Was Just Your Life”

2. “The Unforgiven III”

3. “All Nightmare Long”

4. “Cyanide”

5. “The End of the Line”

6. “The Day That Never Comes”

7. “Suicide and Redemption”

8. “The Judas Kiss”

9. “Broken, Beat & Scarred”

10. “My Apocalypse”

Understand that some of these songs are very close. I had to force myself to rank a couple of these. The first three, for instance, are very close. Four through eight were also really tough to rank. The last two, however, were pretty easy. I'm not saying that they're bad. They aren't St. Anger tracks. They just don't stack up to the others, in my humble opinion.

Okay, so the biggest theme you'll notice in the review so far has been that the music is great, but the lyrics are pretty dumb. That's my second biggest gripe. The next complaint, in my opinion, is even bigger. The production on Death Magnetic is completely ruined, almost to the point of ruining the entire album. The songs themselves are great, but the production is... wow.

I'm not referring to the mixing, mastering, or equalizing. Those are all done fantastically. Death Magnetic is mixed very well. What's the problem then? The volume. Death Magnetic is recorded at ludicrous volumes. It's recorded so loud that it completely kills the dynamic range on the entire record. The bass becomes almost inaudible and the drums are totaled. A lot of albums these days are recorded way too loudly, but the average listener wouldn't know. In fact, most headsets couldn't even really detect the difference other than a general volume decrease.

But Death Magnetic? There's noticeable distortion even on my crappy laptop speakers. It's totally flat and totally terrible. Sure, I'd take this over St. Anger's horrors any day, but we can't let St. Anger be an excuse for this kind of garbage.

You might be asking yourself why they would do this. Well, I have answer for you: money. You see, to the untrained ear, louder is better. When a track is louder, it stands out more. Say you've put your iPod on shuffle or you're listening to the radio. The track that you're going to notice is the track that's loudest. In the music business, this is called the “loudness war.” Death Magnetic takes this to entirely new extremes and it's really unfortunate.

I've had the chance of hearing a mix of Death Magnetic without the bad production. It sounds miles better, but my review is based entirely on the commercial product in stores. I can't just ignore that the final product is this terribly produced. It really is.

I understand the logic of wanting your song louder, but this just seems like a dumb, last minute decision. According to a few sources, the band isn't responsible for this. They were on tour when the final mixing was taking place. So, apparently, somebody just said, “Alright, screw it, just make it really loud. No, louder. Louder.” And then they released it. They had this beautiful work of art on the table and then someone spilled coffee on the edge. Sure, it's not that huge of a deal, but the work is always going to be stained.

So, in summary, the musicianship is excellent on Death Magnetic. While Metallica have come back, I would say that they're a bit like a runner who got his leg chopped off. During the Kill 'em All through ...And Justice for All period, they were a championship runner who won lots of Olympic gold medals and performed amazingly. Then, they got their leg chopped off. They simplified their sound and went to a place where we really don't want to see them. During this time, they resorted to other things, but the whole time we just wanted the runner back. Well, with Death Magnetic, Metallica is running again, but they're running on a prosthetic leg. We're glad to see them back on the track, but they're never going to be the same again. Still, it's great to see them back and their performance is actually much better than expected.

Will they get back to making Master of Puppets-quality material? I doubt it. However, Death Magnetic isn't a bad place to be. It's not the best possible, but it's great nevertheless. Metallica is back where they should be. They've changed, we've changed, but we're all back at the party. It's kind of like being at a class reunion after twenty years. Everyone's different, but Metallica's back to playing their old games. And for that, we love them.

To give Death Magnetic an overall score, I would give it a solid eight out of ten. The production and the lyrics are both awful, but every other element works well to produce a solid record. There are no bad songs on Death Magnetic, just songs that aren't as good as the rest. A seven is too low, because Death Magnetic is much more than average record, but there's definitely room for improvement.

If, however, the next album can fix the few issues on Death Magnetic, we could be looking at a masterpiece. I really doubt it'll happen, but Metallica really surprised us with this one. Can we hope for another surprise? Yes. Should we expect it? No. What should we do? Just appreciate the goodness we've already got.