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Based on a True Story

15 September 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Kevin Ikenberry.

Over the last twenty or so years of military service there have been certain words that do not strike a good chord with me. Warrior is one. All soldiers are not warriors, nor are all warriors soldiers. Operator is another. Every time I hear that word, I see Mable from The Andy Griffith Show. Survivor was another, but not from a military perspective. When I would heard “survivor,” – particularly in stories of cancer – it hurt. I lost my Mom in 2011 to lung cancer. From diagnosis to death was less than nine months. And she gave it hell. Hearing “survivor” hurt a lot, until it happened to me.

Not cancer. Something stranger and less understood.

On Sunday, February 17, 2014, my family had several errands to do. We decided to divide and conquer. My wife and our oldest would go one way, and me and our then-fourteen month old would go another. It was about 4:30pm when I felt something familiar.

I grew up in the South, and spent time all over the southwestern United States. I know what a fire ant bite feels like, and at that moment, I was sure what had happened on my upper right thigh. When I checked myself, and my jeans, I found nothing. No ants, no spider, no scorpion. Nothing except a spot of red, swollen skin the size of a quarter. I did what any reasonable adult would do. I assumed it was a bite of some kind, took a Benadryl, and went off to do errands.

Four hours later, I felt exhausted and decided to go to bed. An hour after that, I began to vomit. That phase lasted until about 2:30am on Monday, when it switched directions and I developed a fever. At 5:30am, weak and dehydrated, I told my wife that something was very wrong and I needed to go to the emergency room. Food poisoning doesn’t come with a fever, and I was scorchingly hot. With our kids, it was a difficult proposition so I called my neighbor. He didn’t answer. Now beyond exhaustion, I fell asleep.

When I woke up two hours later, two things had happened. My wife had arranged for play dates and babysitters so she could get me to the hospital as soon as I woke up. That was the good news. The bad was that something was seriously wrong with my leg. The red area was now black in spots and the swelling had worsened. My fever was somewhere north of 103 degrees and I was in pain. Serious pain.

We arrived at the Emergency Room to find it empty (Hallelujah!). The nurses took me back for triage, took a good look at me and sent me straight back to treatment. The attending physician came in, looked at my leg, and left shaking his head. He returned with the on-call surgeon.

The surgeon said, “That presents (looks) like a rattlesnake bite.”

“I can damned well assure you that’s not what happened,” I said between grimaces of pain. They started a morphine drip, told me my kidneys had virtually shut down, and placed a cardiac monitor on my chest. My heart was going crazy. They started pushing a lot of fluids (four liters!) as well. Unbeknownst to me, they had also done one very critical thing – they called an infectious disease specialist.

The man who saved my life.

When Pete arrived, he looked at my leg and told the surgeon he was wrong but said that he didn’t know what it was, but he wanted to throw multiple strong antibiotics at it to see what took. They admitted me straight the to Critical Care Unit, and things got worse.

Within about twelve hours after admission, my temperature kept rising and the swelling on my leg took off. I won’t detail what it looked like, except that any picture you can find of necrotizing fasciitis will show it pretty well. My right thigh was almost three times its normal size. The skin blistered and cracked, turning more black and impressively swollen that you can imagine. I’ll stop there.

When I woke up Tuesday morning, another doctor stood at the end of my CCU bed and told me point blank that they recently had someone younger than me die of something similar. A few hours later, my temperature crested above 105 degrees. The nurses packed me in ice, and tried their best to smile. I held hands with my wife and promised that when I was out of the hospital, we’d do things better. Parent our kids with more grace, be nicer to each other, and do all of the things we loved to do together. The things that get lost when there are two kids in the house. We were scared to death. My father was out of the country and nervously waiting for word. We weren’t sure what to tell him.

To this day, I’m convinced that a majority of my medical team did not think I would make it through the night. But Pete did. My fever came down to 103, and then all the way down to 99 as the antibiotics took hold. The team ruled out MRSA when they drained a massive water blister on my leg, but all of the blood cultures taken showed something very unexpected.

Absolutely nothing.

To this day, nothing has grown from those cultures. The infection responded to the drugs that treat a Group A Streptococcal infection. This is a good thing, because as Pete put it “Even Lysol still kills Group A Strep.” I came off the drugs for a staph infection and they moved me up to the medical ward to see if my leg would begin to knit itself back together.

Cleaning and debriding the leg was pure hell. The wound nurse would come for an hour at a time and just remove skin. Where my leg blistered and swelled is discolored and bruised to this day, and probably will be for life. I spent a total of ten days in the hospital before they released me to home care for another two months. I had IV antibiotics for part of that, and three times a week wound care to treat my healing skin. I joked that I could have been a leg model for “The Walking Dead.”

At one point, in the CCU, they asked me to step onto a scale. I weighed over 240 pounds from the swelling and the pushed fluids. That’s about forty pounds over my normal weight. It was terrible.

But I began to heal. Physically, my leg started to heal quickly with expert treatment. Mentally, I was shot. I spent a lot of time looking out the window on the Colorado winter wondering what in the hell had happened to me. I tried to write, but the words would not come. I tried to play video games, but lost interest within minutes. I watched movies with a grudging interest for a few weeks until I felt a little better.

What got me through that low time were my friends. My writing group moved our March meeting to my house. Visitors came to hang out with me almost every day. I had emails from all over the world. A strong note of encouragement came from Clarkesworld editor Neil Clarke (who survived a massive heart attack a couple of years ago). Writing fiction was a slog. The words finally began to come. Before this infection, I completed two separate first draft novels in about nine weeks. Roughly 120,000 words. Since my infection, I’ve written about 60,000 words.

It’s still a challenge, but the focus is returning and I’m feeling better every day. I returned to work in May, and despite a 24-hour relapse and night in the hospital, I’ve been healthy ever since. I’m still taking antibiotics and trying to gain strength and flexibility in my leg. It’s a long process, and I’ve returned to swimming for most of it. The solitude and focus of swimming has helped me turn the corner creatively. The ideas are flowing again, almost too fast to get down on paper. That’s a really good thing. The work is paying off.

At the end of my recovery period, I caught wind of an upcoming horror anthology themed against viruses and bacteria called “Pernicious Invaders” by Great Old Ones Publishing. Taking my copious experience to heart, I wrote a story over the course of a day and a half and sent it in. There’s nothing like writing in a query letter that this horror story could have been subtitled “based on a true story.”

My story was accepted before the submission period was closed. The editor asked to lead the anthology with my story, and I asked if I could add an author’s note. In the story, the specialist shares a first name with my doctor, Pete. It was the least I could do to thank him. He’ll argue that he at least saved my leg, but that the rest was up to me and God.

I still disagree with him. Without his care, I contend that might not have survived. We’ll never really know. What matters is that a word I detested, and struggled against, now applies to me. I’m a survivor of necrotizing fasciitis, or skin-eating disease. There are others like me. This strange bacterial illness strikes one in every couple of hundred thousand people. Others are not so lucky. I still haven’t processed that. I’m not sure that a part of me will ever be able to.

On the bright side, I always labeled myself as science fiction author. I still haven’t achieved the professional membership requirements for SFWA, but I’m a member of the Horror Writer’s Association now (or will be in the next few weeks once that contract is signed). This will be my second anthology appearance, and I’m humbled and honored to lead it off. I hope my tale is scary enough for the reader. What happened to me sure as hell was.

All in all, the most profound changes are still taking root. A lot of the things I cared so deeply about before the infection have taken a backseat to more important things. Family. Life. Happiness. While writing has been difficult, it’s getting easier. In this case, you could say that I wrote what I knew. I wish I didn’t know what this was like, but I cannot change it. My leg will be scarred and discolored for the rest of my life. It’s a reminder to me. Everyday life is not found in living every day. Do the things that really matter and let the rest go. This life is too short, and too precious, to be squandered. Before the infection, I was going through the motions. Yes, I wrote faster and without as much care, but I carried way too many burdens. It’s amazing what a few days in the hospital and a brush with mortality can do.

Writing about the infection was cathartic. By taking the infection to an unimaginable extreme, I helped put some of the fear I felt behind me. The lesson for me in all of this was very simple. Sometimes life is indeed stranger than fiction, or at the very least makes it an even better story. Whatever happens, keep writing.

KevinIkenberry.smallGuest Writer Bio:
Kevin Ikenberry’s head has been in the clouds since he was old enough to read. Ask him and he’ll tell you that he still wants to be an astronaut. Kevin has a diverse background in space and space science education. A former manager of the world-renowned U.S. Space Camp program in Huntsville, Alabama and a former executive of two Challenger Learning Centers, Kevin continues to work with space every day as a lieutenant colonel in U.S. Army Reserve. Kevin lives in Colorado with his wife and two daughters. His home is seldom a boring place. Kevin’s short fiction has appeared internationally through Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Mindflights, Twisted Dreams Magazine, AntipodeanSF, and most recently in the anthology Extreme Planets, available from Chaosium. He has completed four novels to date and is actively working to find them a home. Kevin is a member of Fiction Foundry, Pikes Peak Writers, and an alumna of the Superstars Writing Seminar. He can be found online and on Twitter @thewriterike.

The Longest Ten Minutes

11 September 2014 | No Comments » | Evan Braun

About a decade ago, I worked for a short time at a small Bible college in Huntsville, Alabama. My main job was to film the various classes, then edit them so the courses could be made available for online correspondence. I intermittently worked on this project through three school years. During this time, I lived onsite at the school’s dormitories, and as a result I became friends with a lot of the students who stayed in dorm.

Around the time, a very strange incident happened to me which I’ve tried several times since to figure out. I’ve even tried to purvey the details into various stories and books. Every time I’ve done so, an alpha reader ends up scoffing at it: “Ridiculous. That’s so implausible.” Somehow the fact that it happened in real life doesn’t make it any more plausible. As a result, the following anecdote has yet to actually be immortalized in the written word, until now.

One evening, after dinner, I accepted an invitation from a group of students to join them at a favorite park of theirs. First, we stopped for some smoothies and milkshakes, and then we started to drive. The park was near one of the students’ home, about twenty minutes away, so it necessitated a short drive. The sun was already down at this point, so the only illumination was the street lights. In the near-dark, I sat in the back seat next to a friend of mine—a male student—while two women sat up front. We exchanged some quiet chatter, but we were mostly kind of tired from a long day, content to listen to the music playing over the stereo.

Suddenly, I felt a hand land on my leg, just above the knee, and rest there. At first, I thought this was an accidental grazing. Maybe this friend had meant to lower his hand onto the seat beside him, and somehow missed. Maybe. The strange thing was that the hand did not pull away. It stayed… and stayed.

I was fairly speechless at this point, but also kind of terrified of what it might mean, so I resisted the urge to turn to him and very politely say, “Excuse you, but your hand is resting on my leg.” I mean, what if this was real, intentional? I didn’t want to embarrass him, but in retrospect I obviously should have said something right away, because my silence only seemed to encourage the behavior.

Because it didn’t stop. One minute passed, then two. To my shock, the hand inched up, up up up, until it found my inner thigh. This was clearly no accident! And he did not move his hand. If anything, he groped tighter.

This went on for an agonizingly long time as my mind raced to find the perfect, tactful solution. Five minutes. Seven, eight. Ten? Yes. Ten minutes. This is the part people can never believe, because ten minutes is an insanely long period of time in this context. But I distinctly remember checking the time at least three times. And I’m sure it can’t have been much less than ten minutes, because I later drove that route many times. The timeline is not in dispute.

“Excuse me,” I finally whispered as we neared our destination. “Your hand’s on my leg.”

His hand lifted immediately. “Oh, sorry!”

And we never spoke of it again.

The $80 Million Bank Heist (you’ve probably never heard of)

9 September 2014 | No Comments » | Jace Sanders

I’m a sucker for a good bank heist flick and I enjoy crime drama television, though I started to notice that many shows reflect similar stories to those in the news. After Bernie Madoff, a number of series had an episode about a billionaire hedge fund guy screwing over an everyday Joe in some sort of investment scheme. There have been other examples where these series use popular and current news in their episodes like a kidnapping, a missing spouse, a serial killer, and so on.

I enjoy reading and watching fiction that is based in reality. I like it when a story takes me to the uncomfortable edge of “what if”.

And so I keep a look out for those fantastical stories that only reality can tell, vested in irony and karmic justice, or those dramatic tragedies superseded by the ultimate protagonist. Reality is awesome and I’m grateful to be a part of it. But sometimes it can be too strange to be believable.

BanditsI love heist films like Ocean’s 11 or Bandits; Inside Man was awesome. Maybe it’s because I can imagine just for a moment, the “what if.” Not that I’d ever rob a bank, but what if I tried, could I get away with it?

I was asked to spend a couple years researching and helping with a case involving an $80 million dollar bank robbery. Yes, million and that figure alone puts the story into my NOT very realistic category.

Well it wasn’t one bank; it was actually more than two dozen banks. Believable now? What if I were to tell you that this bank heist didn’t involve guns or hostages? It didn’t involve get away vehicles or hideouts or even a crew of specialized talent. Boring?

It was one guy that exploited a connection. From what I could tell, the “robberies” happened from 2002 through 2009 when he was eventually arrested by the FBI.

To make the story even more unbelievable, the banks wired him the funds. You see, they thought they were participating in loans made to a billionaire and other landowners.

As an example, one gentleman borrowed from our bank-robbing friend, roughly $6 million using some property in Hawaii as collateral. The heist involved oversubscribing the loan, meaning that this bandit reached out to four different banks to subscribe the loan that he had made to the land owner, indicating that each bank would be in first position (and of course he failed to disclose that three other banks would be just as involved and just as clueless to his scheme). The four banks wired some twenty four million combined unaware that this same individual had transacted with many other banks on many other properties in the same manner. He used some of the funds to make payments on older fraudulent loans so that he could keep the Ponzi scheme going.

He lived large for a number of years and I imagine that there are still some funds yet to be accounted for. I’m sure he’ll be watched closely when he’s released, but the writer in me wonders if there isn’t a closing twist in this tale involving a cache of money on a private island somewhere. What if?

I’ve read numbers as low as $60 million and as high as $135 million, but the court documents and FBI seemed to settle on $79.9 million. What’s a few million among friends?

At the end of it all, he was sentenced to 72 months in prison, I believe half of which was due to not claiming some of the monies on his income taxes that he transferred to his personal accounts. You don’t want to mess with the IRS. They expected their piece of the heist totaling more than $500,000.

I find it interesting that a man who robs a bank of $5,000 could easily spend a couple decades behind bars while someone that defrauds institutions of $80 million might serve just a couple years with good behavior assuming he pays taxes on the money he’s embezzled.

So I’ve thought about writing the tale but it seems to be stranger than fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

A Hangman’s Tale

8 September 2014 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by Karen Dudley.

In 1999, I was nominated for the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel for my book Hoot to Kill. The award is named after the pseudonym for Canada’s first official hangman, who served in the job between 1912 and 1935 (several of his successors also adopted the pseudonym). The Arthur Ellis award itself is a stylized wooden statue of a hanged man. The arms and legs jerk around when a string is pulled.

I had never been nominated for an award before (Hoot to Kill was, after all, my first novel), so I flew out to Toronto for the awards ceremony. There were drinks and dinner, and I met a number of other crime fiction writers, which was fun. And then came time for the awards ceremony. The Master of Ceremonies that year was Peter Robinson, one of Canada’s foremost crime fiction writers and a truly great storyteller. And he had a fantastic story for us that evening.

The Arthur Ellis award statues, he informed us, were not made in Canada, but rather were manufactured somewhere in the United States and then shipped up here. That year the statues had been duly assembled, boxed up, and shipped off, but somewhere between there and here, they had been lost. As the date for the awards ceremony drew closer, the CWC committee started frantically digging around to find out what had happened to them.

It turned out that Purolator had, in fact, brought the box into Canada, but they’d accidentally delivered it to the wrong house. Under ordinary circumstances, not a big deal. Unfortunately, these were not ordinary circumstances. The house that Purolator delivered them to belonged to a man whose business partnership had recently dissolved due to some rather shady business dealings. These dealings were so shady, in fact, that the man had been receiving death threats. Imagine his reaction then when he opened up the box that had been left on his doorstep and found it filled with ominous little statues of hanged men!

The police had seized the box of awards and Peter Robinson and the other members of the CWC awards committee had to do some very fast talking to get the statues released in time for the awards ceremony. As Peter remarked that night, if any of us had written that in a manuscript, our editors would have taken it out as being too unrealistic.

I’m no longer writing crime fiction. I moved into the fantasy genre a few years back. And although my first historical fantasy, Food for the Gods, was nominated for five different awards, I have to say, none of these awards ceremonies could boast the same stranger-than-fiction story as the Arthur Ellis awards of 1999.

Karen Dudley pic1Guest Writer Bio:
Karen Dudley wrote wildlife biology books and environmental mystery novels before she had an epiphany… she wanted to write historical fantasy. So she did. Food for the Gods and its sequel, Kraken Bake, are quirky sort of books, a bit like Xena meets Iron Chef. Food for the Gods was nominated for several awards, including a High Plains Book Award in the Culinary Division. Karen lives in Winnipeg with her husband, daughter, and the requisite authorial cats. You can read more about Karen and her books at www.karendudley.com.
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