Friday, June 8, 2012

Don't Be Afraid by JC Piech : Guest Post & Excerpt

Metaphysical Fiction

New Mexico, July 1945: Chain-smoking English Scientist, Jason Stone, dies moments before the first test of the atom bomb.

Later, when the bomb he helped create is dropped on Hiroshima, Jason begins work as a Reaper: a collector of the dead.

Leaving behind all he thought he knew (except cups of tea and packs of Chesterfield cigarettes), Jason becomes as much a student as a guide: Learning that each soul – whether it be an American marine in Vietnam, or a teenage suicide in 1980s West Berlin – will be taken to the same place when they die. It’s only their journey that is different.

But what happens when a Reaper’s heart becomes too full of the joys and sorrows of the world? And when Jason meets an old friend, who shares a long forgotten guilt, will Jason’s soul survive the burden?


Monday 16th July 1945

Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico, USA

Jason Stone never anticipated that his life would end with him kneeling in a puddle beside a soggy pack of Chesterfields. Or that the most important event of his scientific career – perhaps the most important scientific moment to date – would happen without him. If he had, he certainly would not have spent the past three years in the desert heat of New Mexico, over 5000 miles away from the nearest cup of decent tea.

Twenty minutes earlier, he’d emptied his second pack of cigarettes that night, sliding the last one out with trembling fingers and placing it between his equally tremulous lips. Letting the pack drop to the ground, where it fell into a shallow puddle, he reached into his inner jacket pocket for a light.
Over a dozen scientists cram into the twenty by twenty foot concrete control bunker, along with a myriad of instruments and gauges, oscilloscopes, racks of fuses, boxes, panels, dials and cables. It all sings an electrical buzz, while five miles away, an atom bomb sits atop a metal tower, nestled in the silence of the desert.
Shoulder to shoulder, between a scientist and an engineer, Jason realises his lighter is not where he thought it was. He checks his outer jacket pockets, then the pockets in his trousers, trying not to brush his hands against his neighbour’s thighs.
“Bloody hell,” he mutters, causing the cigarette to bounce gently between his lips. He raises his hand to clamp his index finger and thumb on the bridge of his nose in a bid to steady himself against his own raging pulse. From the corner of his eye he notices a billowing of blue smoke and turns to see the thin and wide-eyed Dr. Oppenheimer chain-smoking in the open doorway. Jason contemplates whether he needs to smoke badly enough to disturb Oppenheimer for a light. A tangible aura of anxiety shifts around the man. His fragile frame jitters in his suit as he looks up at the sky, his eyes hawk-like on the lingering mist of an inopportune storm. No one could blame him for being on edge; the test detonation of the most powerful weapon ever made – the world’s first atomic bomb – is only twenty minutes away. Only ten minutes earlier, this new time of 0530 had been decided. The storm had scuppered original plans of 0400 and filled the bunker with puddles.
Jason decides to take his chances disturbing Oppenheimer; the thought of having to cope without smoking seems more stressful. He squeezes out from between the men on either side of him and shuffles over to the door.
“Sir?” Jason takes the cigarette from his lips and clears his throat. “Do you have a light?” He shivers as if he was cold, yet in the overcrowded bunker in the early hours of a July morning he is anything but. Beneath his jacket, the damp back and underarms of his shirt cling to his skin. The entire bunker smells of sweat and cigarette smoke.
It takes a moment before Oppenheimer notices him. When he does, he fumbles into his shirt pocket and hands Jason a box of matches.
“Oh, bless you,” Jason says. He strikes a match and holds the flame to the tip of his cigarette. It illuminates with a heartening glow in the dingy bunker, and brightens with his first drag. He hands the box of matches back, but Oppenheimer waves it away.
“Thank you,” Jason says, before turning away to squeeze back into his place.
Outside, loudspeakers buzz into life as physicist, Sam Allison switches on his microphone, ready for the countdown. Almost immediately his voice is accompanied by a loud rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Jason glances at the engineer next to him – a fellow Englishman – and the pair exchange a raised eyebrow. The American scientist on Jason’s other side catches them looking at each other and says, “It’s interference from a radio station!” Jason nods, not entirely convinced.
Allison’s countdown and the American national anthem mingle and echo across the empty desert basin in an eerie tribute. Jason takes a deep drag and closes his eyes. A tiredness has plagued him over the last few days. He feels a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you quite well?” asks the engineer, his red-rimmed eyes studying Jason’s face.
“I’m fine,” Jason says, straightening up. Goodness, if ever there was a time for a well brewed tea, now would be that time. “Just nerves getting the better of me.”
“It’s awfully stuffy in here too,” the engineer says. “I dread to think what it’ll be like once they close the door.”
“I’ll take stuffy over being out there on the hills,” the scientist says. “I hear all they have is sunscreen and sunglasses up there.”
“Poor sods,” Jason says.
Jeeps full of armed guards wait with their motors running outside the concrete bunker, ready to evacuate the scientists and engineers at a moment’s notice. Beyond the bunker, radiation monitors sit in their trucks and shelters, listening to Allison’s countdown. Cameramen and photographers make final adjustments to their equipment, waiting to document the event. And soldiers watch over the surrounding desert towns, studying possible evacuation routes while the populations rest in ignorant sleep.

Five minutes before detonation, a siren wails across the Jornada del Muerto and a green rocket flares up into the dawning sky. Jason is into his next pack of Chesterfields.
Don Hornig, the Harvard-trained chemist who designed the bomb’s electric trigger, turns from his control panel to Oppenheimer and jokes, “What’s likely to happen, Oppie, is that at minus five seconds I’ll panic and say, ‘Gentlemen, this can’t go on,’ and then I’ll pull the switch.”
A laugh stifles in the damp air. Oppenheimer stares at Hornig. The tension in the bunker builds a little more, thickening with the wall of smoke. Jason wobbles and steadies himself on the engineer next to him.
“Now is not the best time to need some air,” the engineer warns. “Not unless you’ve packed some sunscreen.”
“I’m fine,” Jason says, more to convince himself than anyone else. He flicks his cigarette butt to the floor where it sizzles. It’s little wonder my nerves are making me unwell, he thinks, as the instruments whir and sweat seeps from every man. None of them know exactly what will happen when Allison gets to zero and Hornig sets off the bomb. The possible outcomes range from nothing happening at all, to the bomb igniting the earth’s atmosphere, killing every living thing on the planet. Not many fare well with such a scope of possibilities. Jason looks over at the scrawny, quaking wreck that is Dr. Oppenheimer, and feels a sliver of consolation from knowing that if anything does go wrong, at least it won’t be his name going down in history as the man who destroyed civilisation. Assuming there’s anyone left to record it.
With hands trembling considerably more than they were ten minutes ago, Jason attempts to take out another cigarette but, as he does, his hands lose all strength and he drops the packet, watching it fall to the ground as if in slow motion. He stares down at it, unable to understand how it got there. His legs give way and pain shoots through his thigh bones as his knees collide with the coarse concrete floor. The engineer bends down to help him as another siren howls across the desert to mark zero minus two minutes.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Jason says again, shaking his head, angry at himself. As the puddle soaks through the shins of his trousers, his grazed knees sting, but the fresh dampness is also soothing, offering some relief to the sticky, anxious sweat contained within his suit. “I am not missing this,” he whispers to himself as he clutches at the floor, unable to imagine how he’ll ever have the strength to stand up again.
At zero minus one minute, a red rocket bursts into the sky and the entire bunker, the entire desert is holding its breath. Allison’s voice still counts down over Radio KCBA’s early morning classical music show; while in California, confused KCBA listeners have heard a man counting backwards, just underneath the broadcast, for the past nineteen minutes. 
Back in the bunker, irregularities of electrical impulses within Jason’s body disrupt the natural rhythm of his heart. Thick white splodges fill his vision, obscuring the clutter, colleagues and contraptions, merging with the haze of chain-smoked emissions, until the bunker and all its contents – and all importance they previously had – fades away around him.
His thirty year old heart is failing. He will die in three… two…
Images from Jason’s life speed through his mind: He’s eleven years old and choking on his father’s tobacco pipe; his wife, Alice, ties her apron strings behind her back on their first Christmas morning together; his younger brother is born and his five year old self ponders on whether he can push the wailing baby back into his mother; Alice cries after the first time they make love; his daughter, Ruby, blows out three candles on a cake and turns to him with an accomplished grin; he arrives late for school one windy autumn morning in 1924; he dumps a Gideon Bible in the waste paper bin of a New York hotel room; he shares cigarettes and philosophical chitchat at a bar with a Japanese colleague named Koji; he takes a different route home on his bicycle to his apartment in Los Alamos and notes all the things on his journey he’d never noticed before.
His mind fires more random memories into his consciousness, while Allison reels off the last few seconds of the countdown. As Jason dies, Oppenheimer grasps hold of a beam to steady himself and murmurs, “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.”

Encouraging Children’s Natural Storytelling Skills
By JC Piech

Most kids are natural storytellers. In fact, sometimes it can be hard getting them to stop talking about all the fantastical ideas they’re constantly dreaming up. But how can we better facilitate children’s innate storytelling abilities? And what are the benefits of doing so?

Stories & Brain Development

Whilst on the surface our children’s inclination to play and daydream may seem like nothing more than sweet, innocent childishness, the process of creating, exploring and discovering is actually vital for their cognitive development.

Research has shown that being told stories helps with cognitive skills like problem solving, understanding themes and threads, and seeing how they link together. Children who were told three or four stories a day when young were noticeably more advanced in their academic abilities later on in life.

Telling stories enables us to take our emotions and process them in such a way that we are then able to relate them to others in a coherent manner. This does two things: it helps us understand ourselves better, and it lets us express ourselves to other people. In children, this process is highly important. We aren’t born with the ability to talk about our feelings, or even with the awareness of what it is we’re feeling. This is why young children will often have tantrums or ‘misbehave’ – they’re experiencing emotions but don’t have the vocabulary or understanding to express it directly. Anger, frustration, disappointment, confusion and just plain tiredness can become a raging fit of screaming, kicking and crying. Some adults have difficulty putting words to their emotions, so it’s little wonder children have such a hard time with it.

Stories of heroes and villains, princesses and evil step-mothers, dragons, unicorns, fairies and monsters can all help a child become more familiar with the complexities of the human experience. It acts as exercise for the left side of the brain, giving it necessary practice of taking the enormity of emotions and inner experience and using communication skills to tell others about them.

It also helps the child see how to work through life challenges. As they listen to the adventures of the hero or heroine, and see how they handle and overcome the struggles and dangers they face in their make-believe world, the child grows in confidence that such things can be surmounted, and so develops belief in their own ability to do so. Few gifts can be more valuable for a child to gain.

Embracing Creativity Helps Self-Esteem

Not only is storytelling important for cognitive abilities, it’s also good for confidence. When we give our children the space to be creative, without judgment, we’re also setting them up well for future success.

Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that creativity is key. Without it, Bill Gates would not be one of the wealthiest people in the world. It’s a mistake to think of imagination as a ‘waste of time’, because academics aren’t everything. A person needs to have both creativity and knowledge in order to be inventive and skilled in what they do.

However, without nurturing, a child can lose faith in their imagination. All too often adults tell their kids not to make up ‘silly’ stories, or that time spent playing isn’t productive. In actual fact, a person’s ability to ‘play’ with ideas will make them more likely to have fresh ideas in the work place, or will enable them to dream up concepts that no one else has thought of before. Of course, a child needs structure in their life, and none of us can play all the time, but playing is most definitely a form of learning, and this should be acknowledged and valued.

Sharing Stories

A great way to support your children with storytelling is to get involved in it with them. Reading or making up stories together can be a wonderful experience. When reading from a book, you can discuss the characters and the issues they’re faced with, and if you’re making up a story, you and your child can both add elements to the plot together.

Stories aren’t just a form of entertainment: they are a complete and necessary learning experience for us all.

JC Piech is an author and creative confidence mentor who lives in southeast England with her husband. Since 2002 she has had a number of non-fiction articles and short stories published. 'Don't Be Afraid' is her debut novel. She loves working from home because it means she can stay in her pyjamas.

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