December 28, 2020: “Alien Eye” by Michelle Ross

And a good Monday to you, Story366!

I acquired a new obsession of late and it spooks me out to no end: true-crime mystery videos. This all started with the Zodiac 340 cypher being uncoded a couple of weeks ago, sending me down my yearly spiral of Zodiac investigating. I don’t actually investigate the crime, but merely read all the websites, follow the case leads, and watch the David Fincher film. This year, my surfing led me to a web series called Buzzfeed Unsolved, where two guys joke around in a studio while detailing a different case each episode. Their Zodiac episode was okay—certainly not the more revealing program I’d seen on the subject—but the suggested Up Next videos looked interesting and I clicked on one of those, some other unsolved serial killer case. Then I clicked on and watched that. Then another. And so on. Before long, I started to get into the rhythm of the series, took a liking to the co-hosts, and eventually found the home page and started consuming the case files in order. The episodes started out less than ten minutes long, but evolved into half-hour programs, going more in-depth as their fandom and budget grew; seasons leading up to COVID actually take the hosts to the crime scenes before they were forced back to a studio setting in 2020, though outdoors and socially distanced, sitting around a campfire (which is creepy in and of itself—that’s where ghost stories are told!).

This is all fine and good—gotta watch something, right?—except these grizzly crimes are starting to have their effect on me. The production value of the show got better and better and some of the more mysterious, odd cases are presented in that disturbing-ass way—foreboding music and voices and such—that watching this show has turned me into a shivering wimp. It doesn’t especially help that I watch these while sitting in my dark house, alone, late at night, my family safely asleep upstairs. People in these cases disappear, or worse, they’re found dead under strange, gruesome circumstances. On the whole, there’s a sense of hopelessness—after all, the series is called Unsolved—that makes me feel like any of theperpetrators could be watching me as I watch the show. It doesn’t help much that my cats run around the house making literal bumps in the night, like every few minutes. Do I know that these noises are my cats? Yes. Do I nonetheless believe it’s a hooded man with a fillet knife, trying to jimmy open a window? Also yes. Do I turn all the lights on when I walk through the kitchen and living room to go the bathroom? Yep. Do I avoid looking at the windows just in case I’d spy someone staring back, someone who’s hunting me, just waiting for me to let my guard down? You know it.

Worse than this, when I eventually muster the courage the bolt upstairs and go to bed—once I’m under my blanket, I’m safe, of course—I have nightmares. In these dreams, I’m either the victim or the perpetrator of some horrible, convoluted murder/kidnapping plot, and honestly, I’m not sure what’s worse: being the victim or being the killer. I wake up fully disturbed, though happy that I’m alive, not a killer, and most of all, that it’s light out.

I’ve only have a few more episodes of the show left and will probably stick it out, then move onto something else. What’s this My Little Pony series about again? One positive I can take from these “murder shows” (as the Karen has taken to calling them) is I’ve gotten some good ideas for stories. Inspired by a source like this will inevitably take my work in another direction in terms of themes and tone and batshit craziness. But I need a change of pace, so why not? Could be fun.

Request: If I disappear or am found in pieces in the woods, if the police can’t solve the case, at least make a compelling half-hour TV program about me.

Today’s post continues on with the Moon City Short Fiction Series, Moon City Press‘s annual short story collection contest. I’ve been wanting to cover these books here for a while, so when I ran out of titles to review, leaving me with six open slots to end the year, it seemed like a good time. Today I’m featuring Michelle Ross and her collection, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award and out from MCP in 2017. I had been an admirer of Michelle’s work before she won or even entered the book contest, having published one of the stories in Moon City Review not long before that. Seeing a name I recognize in the entry list is always good, and when we got into the entire book, we were of course taken, shooting her entry to the top of the finalist list and eventually choosing it as the winner. Working with Michelle has been a real treat ever since, and we’ve published a couple more stories of hers in the meantime. I’m happy that her second collection, Shapeshifting, is coming out next year from Stillhouse Press, that even more of her brilliant writing will be available to the world.

There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You is a mix of short-shorts and longer stories, intertwined, almost, as in going back and forth between the forms. I like that format, a shorter piece, then a longer one, and so on, and I think this is one of the characteristics of this book that drew me to it four years ago. The first story is “Atoms,” a short one, and is about this girl in elementary school who learns about atoms, that mostly, we and everything else in the universe are just a bunch of empty space. This blows her away and she wonders why no one’s told her about this before—in fact, she gets downright accusatory and angry about it (like a precocious insane person). Someone on the bus hears her griping and tells her about some other things, leading to the book’s titular line—”There’s so much more they haven’t told you,” leaving our hero in a daze.

“Prologue” is a complex retelling of the Hansel and Gretel myth, the narrator claiming that her mother is the one who pushed the witch into the oven, but only after an apprenticeship with said witch, no brother or sweet tooth mentioned.

“Alien Eye” is a long story and one of my favorites, so I’m going to focus on it here today. This one’s about this kid named Sam who’s in high school, working his way to engineering school as an inventory specialist, assigned to different stores to count their shit for them. The story begins in a Home Depot where he and Carla—an older, pregnant woman—are counting nails in the nail aisle. Could be that they count hundreds of thousands of nails in a day, then move on to count toilet seats or glue guns or whatever the next. I love this scene, as it sets up such an absurd premise and theme, so ridiculous that humans do this, get paid for it, that we live in a world where this job exists.

Anyway, Sam feels bad for Carla because she’s been doing this for years, likes doing it, and doesn’t have any ambitions other than being a counter-for-hire for life. She’s got this baby coming, little Rico, who kicks all night and keeps her up. The baby daddy is a loser who lives with his mom and can’t hold down a job, so Carla cuts him out and just plans on it being her and Rico and inventory from here on out.

Carla and the inventory job are just one storyline here, however, as there’s also Sam’s parents, Leonard and Bonnie—he calls them by their first names, in his narration and to their faces. They used to be a happier family until Leonard got canned from his job, well over a year ago, and now he lies around on the couch and watches movies. Bonnie, who used to be the more cheerful mom in the world, now resents Leonard, having to bear the burden for the whole family. As a result, Sam couldn’t go to space camp for six weeks like he’d planned—he goes one week instead—and it’s going to fall on him to pay for that engineering degree. He’s mostly okay with this—Sam’s not sentimental about his family—and you get the idea that once Sam leaves for college, he might never come back (something we see in other characters in the story, cutting and running where family’s concerned).

The third storyline involves Alex—Sam’s best friend—and Janelle, his girlfriend. This thread exhibits more of Sam’s indifference toward other humans, even those close to him, as he acknowledges that Alex isn’t the type of guy he ever saw himself hanging out with. Like with his parents, Alex is just there, and in a small town, it’s the best Sam can do. For example, when Sam gets back from space camp, he runs into Alex and Janelle on an overpass, dropping eggs on passing cars. These kids are young, it’s summer, their whole lives ahead of them, and that’s what they’re doing. But they’re who Sam has to choose from, kind of holding-pattern friends until he can get the fuck out of Dodge and start his real life. Did I mention that later in the story, Sam fingers Janelle while the three are driving along, Janelle in the middle of the bench seat, Alex knowing what’s going on the whole time and not caring?

I also almost forgot about a fourth storyline, or perhaps more of a motif, that Sam has this crooked pinky finger—he broke it once—and he can bend it out and away from his other fingers an unnaturally long way. It’s kind of super-grotesque in that Sam thinks this pinky is a transmitter to an alien race—his alien eye—that the aliens use it as a microphone and camera to spy on the earthlings (but only when Sam has it extended). Is is the finger he uses on Janelle, wondering the whole time what the aliens are thinking as they get that that footage? Yes, it is.

Somehow, all of it comes together and Sam—who’s basically lonely as all fuck—throws together a last-ditch plan at real human connection. I won’t reveal what that is, what character it involves, but for a story with so much going on, so many possible endings, Ross really nails this one, making this a truly satisfying and fabulous read.

“If You Were a Serial Killer”—fitting, given today’s lead-in—is about a guy who’s trying his damnedest to leave his wife. The wife, Marina, simply won’t accept what he’s telling her, and to save their union for the benefit of their daughter, Gretchen, perhaps, she decides they will soldier on.

“Taxidermy Q&A” is about Sylvie, a woman who’s pretty directionless, but seeks counsel from an unlikely source: the local taxidermist, Chester, who writes a taxidermy advice column for their small-town paper. Ross doesn’t get there for a while, as we see Sylvie toil a bit in her aimlessness first. She tries a few careers, including dominatrix, which she messes up, pitting herself as the slave instead of as the master (Ross has some fun with those scenes). And that’s probably the theme of this story, if we’re seeing the forest part of the forest, how Sylvie can really only play that one part, what holds her back. She, for example, lives with Anna in a house that Anna won in a game show—the crappy part is the house is in a nowhere, shitty town and the women had to move across the country to claim their prize. Sylvie does eventually track down Chester, who has no idea what this strange woman wants from him—it’s certainly not taxidermy related—even when Sylvie shows him her messed-up foot, which she intentionally shoved under a bus tire right after getting fired from the dom gig. Good thing the taxidermist’s handsome young assistant is there—getting a haircut from Chester at the taxidermy place—when Sylvie comes a calling.

It’s to be expected that I’m having a blast this week, rereading and writing about these stellar Moon City Press story collections. I mean, of course I’m loving them. In fact, it’s been hard, every day, to put each of these books down, and Michelle Ross’s There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You is no exception. I spent a lot longer reading these books these past few days than I normally do, as I just want to reread the whole thing, seeing a title in the table of contents and yearning to revisit, to experience that story again, a few years later, with some slightly objective eyes. I find it so fascinating how some of Michelle’s stories, particularly the longer ones, don’t have an easily identifiable plot, that they’re more or less just about their protagonists. If you would have asked me what the plot of “Alien Eye” is when I was halfway through today, I don’t think I could have come up with a reasonable answer. Same thing with “Taxidermy Q&A.” The thing that makes Michelle’s stories so great is her precise yet chaotic characterization—it’s rare that I meet characters in a story that are as greatly (and creatively) detailed as Sam or Sylvie. Every one of these tales is an adventure, and maybe I don’t exactly know where I’m going, but when I get there, I tend to say, “Wow, that’s really something,” the motives and the plots suddenly becoming so clear. That’s what attracted me to this author’s work years ago, what keeps me reading everything she puts out, everything ever will.