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Authors: Jack Skillingstead

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Are You There and Other Stories

Table of Contents

Are You There

& Other Stories

Jack Skillingstead

FAIRWOOD PRESS

Bonney Lake, WA

Where has Jack Skillingstead been all our lives?

The answer is that he’s been toiling away for years—decades!—without getting published. When he finally broke into publication, it was to the acclaim of his new peers: Stephen King selected a story to appear at King’s Web site; Harlan Ellison was ready to collaborate with Skillingstead on a tale (in the end, Skillingstead completed the story, or at least the version that is included here, on his own); Gardner Dozois published the story “Dead Worlds” in
Asimov’s
magazine, and Nancy Kress provides the foreword to this collection of 26 dazzling tales,
Are You There and Other Stories
.

“Are You There” is a fitting title for yarns like these. It’s the sort of question a fearful wanderer through a dark forest asks of a companion who has suddenly gone quiet; it’s the tentative query someone casts out to air gone electric with presence in the recesses of a haunted house. Getting an answer might be worse than no reply.

There’s strangeness and trepidation to spare in these two-dozen-and-change tales. Many concern men who are trapped in securely locked emotional vaults of their own devising—there’s no need to travel to strange new worlds for a storyteller of Skillingstead’s persuasions, because he’s a dab hand at finding the alien aspects resident in the human psyche, the eerie aspects of mood and tone . . .

These 26 stories could have been dictated by demons from
The Twilight Zone
, they’re so odd and so distinctively uncommon. They’re also that good, that funny, and that outrageous.

Skillingstead has arrived, and there’s no putting his genius back in the bottle now. That’s the happy ending we’re left with as we shut this collection with wide eyes and a big, stunned grin.”


Edge Publications
, Boston MA

Are You There

A Fairwood Press Book

July 2014

Copyright © 2009 Jack Skillingstead

All Rights Reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or

by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording,

or by any information storage and retrieval system, without

permission in writing from the publisher.

Fairwood Press

21528 104th Street Court East

Bonney Lake, WA 98391

www.fairwoodpress.com

Cover illustration by John Picacio

Book design by Patrick Swenson

ISBN13: 978-1-933846-45-3

First Fairwood Press Edition: July 2014

Printed in the United States of America

eISBN: 978-1-62579-322-5

Electronic version by Baen Books

For My Parents

Copyrights

“Reading Jack Skillingstead,” 2009 by Nancy Kress.

“Introduction,” 2014 by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

“The Avenger of Love,” first appeared in
Fantasy and Science Fiction
, April/May 2009.

“Dead Worlds,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, June 2003.

“Life on the Preservation,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, June 2006.

“Double Occupancy,” first appeared in
Polu Texni
, September, 2008.

“The Chimera Transit,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, February 2007.

“Overlay,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, October/November, 2005.

“Scatter,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, October/November 2004.

“Bean There,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, April/May 2005.

“Girl in the Empty Apartment,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, September 2006.

“Rewind,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, February 2004.

“The Apprentice,” first appeared in
Whispers From The Shattered Forum
, Fall 2003.

“Everyone Bleeds Through,” first appeared in
Realms of Fantasy
, October 2007.

“Reunion,” first appeared in
On Spec
, #56 Spring 2004.

“Free Dog,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, October/November 2011.

“Thank You, Mr. Whiskers,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, August 2007.

“The Tree,” first appeared in
On Spec
, #62 Fall 2005.

“Are You There,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, February 2006.

“Transplant,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, August 2004.

“Here’s Your Space,” first appeared in
Are You There,
first edition, 2009.

“Cat in the Rain,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, October/November 2008.

“Alone With an Inconvenient Companion,” first appeared in
Fast Forward 2
, Pyr, October 2008.

“What You Are About to See,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, August 2009.

“Rescue Mission,” first appeared in
Solaris Book of New Science Fiction
, Vol 3, February 2009.

“Two,” first appeared in
Talebones
#35, Summer 2007.

“Scrawl Daddy,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, June 2007.

“Human Day,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, April/May 2009.

“Strangers on a Bus,” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, December 2007.

Contents

Foreword
, by Jack Skillingstead

Reading Jack Skillingstead
, by Nancy Kress.

Introduction
, by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

The Avenger of Love

Dead Worlds

Life on the Preservation

Double Occupancy

The Chimera Transit

Overlay

Scatter

Bean There

Girl in the Empty Apartment

Rewind

The Apprentice

Everyone Bleeds Through

Reunion

Free Dog

Thank You, Mr. Whiskers

The Tree

Are You There

Transplant

Here’s Your Space

Cat in the Rain

Alone With an Inconvenient Companion

What You Are About to See

Rescue Mission

Two

Scrawl Daddy

Human Day

Strangers on a Bus

Author’s Notes

Thermalling

How to Stay Original

Foreword

This is a reprint of my first short story collection. Golden Gryphon did a wonderful job with the original edition. It was a hardcover, archival quality, acid free paper, sewn binding, a cover by John Picacio—a beautiful, nearly indestructable book. But it was not particularly affordable. When Gary Turner returned the rights to me I approached Patrick Swenson about doing paper and ebook editions through his Fairwood Press imprint. I wanted to keep the book available and, finally, at a reasonable price. Maybe it would reach some readers who had passed on the first round. Patrick readily agreed, and so here we are.

These stories represent my first professional expression as a writer. Many of them are what I call
wound
stories. As such, they form a picture of a particular type of character. I call him an outsider. My wife refers to him as “tortured lonely guy.” Well, you get the idea. Anyway, this book means a lot to me. The writing of these stories preserved my sanity and led me to the far shore. It is no exageration to say
Are You There and Other Stories
changed my life. May you discover your own far shore.

—Jack Skillingstead

January 2014

Reading Jack Skillingstead

Why does anyone write science fiction? Or read it?

There are probably as many answers to that as there are writers and readers. Some like the wide-lens adventure of zipping around the galaxy, free of gravity and Terran law. Some like all the nifty gadgets, from smart clothing to doomsday machines. Some like the Cassandra role, peering into the future of science and crying, “If we go
there
, we might end up
here
—Beware! Beware!” Some like comforting tales of clashes between Good and Evil, in which Good eventually wins and everyone can draw a deep breath, close the book, and say, “Now
that
was a rattling good yarn!”

Other writers, however, have different motives. Jack Skillingstead, for one. Skillingstead is a terrorist.

Not, of course, that he will say that, if you should happen to ask him why he writes. He blinks his eyes and says slowly–to a New York ear, Jack says everything slowly—“I always wanted to be a writer. Since I was about twelve years old.” He first succeeded in 2003, and has been publishing steadily ever since. If you push on and ask him why he chooses to write science fiction, he says, “The question presumes it was a choice. But actually, I’m just attracted to the weird and strange.”

Well, all right—most SF writers are attracted to the weird and strange. (If they weren’t, they’d be writing about suburban angst or growing up in Iowa or suburban angst in Iowa.) But not all SF writers are terrorists. What Jack does is set up a situation—plausible, interesting, sometimes even conventional—and then throw an emotional and philosophical grenade into the middle of it. When the dust settles, situation, characters, and reader are all shattered.

How, exactly, does he accomplish this?

Most often, it is by peering around the edges of reality, staring unflinchingly at what lurks there, and then making us peer at it, too, with the kind of mixed fascination and horror of witnesses at a train wreck. The scene thus illuminated isn’t what usually passes for reality. It’s what lies below the surface, behind the veil, in the closed trunk of the mental attic.

*

“I was gradually becoming an Eye again, a thing of the Tank. But no matter what, I was through with pills. I wanted to know if there was anything real left in me.”

—from “Dead Worlds”

Skillingstead characters are always looking for the real, even when they would really prefer to be doing something else. (Sometimes, anything else.) They find it in places both expected and unexpected, welcoming and horrific. And when they do find it, or it finds them, the Skillingstead reality is not the sentimental, one-dimensional, comforting reality of inferior fiction. Jack is after truth, and truth is never simple.

“I noted the flavor of lemon and the feel of the icy liquid sluicing over my tongue. Sensation without complication.”

—Robert, in “Dead Worlds”

Robert doesn’t get to keep his simplistic sensation without complication. His creator knows better. Skillingstead characters know—or must learn—that there are
always
complications. For Robert, who thinks he wanted to explore distant planets but learns that interstellar exploration is more complicated than he thought. For Kylie (“Life on the Preservation”), who thinks she wants to destroy Seattle but learns that destruction is more complicated than she thought. For John (“Everyone Bleeds Through”), who wants to end his affair with a married woman but learns that love is more layered than he ever imagined. For Brian (“Are You There”), whose job is to solve murders but who learns that not even death is a simple binary state.

“We were all bigger than what we appeared.”

—“Everyone Bleeds Through”

However, I don’t want to give the impression that these stories merely uncover complicated anguish. They do that, certainly, but they also do much more. After my sister Kate read a selection of Jack’s stories, I asked her for her opinion. She said, succinctly, “Not an easy writer. His specialty is pain. But do not be afraid!”

She was absolutely right. Unlike most terrorists, Jack has a redemptive side.

Nearly seventy years ago, Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

“She punched through, and the sudden light shift dazzled her.”

—“Life on the Preservation”

These are pretty dazzling stories. Not always easy or comfortable; the sudden light shift can be disorienting. But your eyes will get used to it, and you will see things you never expected to see, and you will be very glad you did, in fact, let Jack Skillingstead punch you through.

—Nancy Kress

December 2008

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