Free fiction friday: Reinterpreting an award-winning story for fun and (no) profit
The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere won a Hugo Award for short science fiction & fantasy in 2014. The story is about Matt “coming out” to his traditional Chinese parents in a world where water falls on you when you lie.
I loved the fantastical idea of water falling on you when you lied, but felt author John Chu didn’t do enough with the concept. I challenged myself to rework some of the main ideas into a new story. These were:
- Cold water falls on you when you lie;
- Love causes a warm perfumed breeze (or similar);
- A guy is worried about coming out to his parents.
The result is below. If you enjoy writing, why not try it for yourself? Pick a story that you feel could be taken in a new direction and be inspired![My comments at the bottom].
We Need to Talk About Christmas
“We need to talk about Christmas,” Matthew says suddenly.
“Christmas?” Danny feels a hot spike of terror down his back, despite the cold. He jerks the mobile away from his ear and blows into the mouthpiece, feigning static, buying him time to think.
Tiny flecks of snow prickle his fingers, left bare by his fingerless gloves. He feels like a wild animal, caged by the spiralling implications of the word ‘Christmas’. He finds himself glancing wildly to and fro across the wide plaza. A blizzard of white flakes dances like radio interference and turns the low bulbous shape of the city hall fuzzy and uncertain. The flagstones at his feet are damp, the snow isn’t settling, but he decides it’s too cold to tell a lie. The blast of icy water would freeze him like a popsicle.
Matthew’s voice sounds tinny, inaudible over the bitter wind. “Look, darling,” Danny interrupts, pressing the phone back against his numbed ear. “I’ve got a meeting in the mayor’s office in five minutes,” he says, carefully, reciting an undisputable fact. “Let’s talk about this… later.”
He thumbs the ‘end call’ button before Matthew can reply.
Leaning against the curved glass wall of the city hall is an old tramp, combing his scraggly white beard with black, fingerless gloves. The ghetto blaster on the frayed grey blanket beside him is belting out, ‘All you need is love’. Danny passes through the sliding doors, signs in at reception, and takes the lift up to the third-floor conference room, all the while thinking of Matthew.
Danny prides himself on being a good liar. No, he corrects himself, a professional liar. He works for liars. He palls around with liars. His job, as a humidity consultant, is to understand truth and – moreover – every technicality for weaselling out of it. In which case, he ponders, why can’t he lie to his own boyfriend?
The open-plan office on the third floor is eerily empty, but the air is parchment dry, which is not what he expected. The desks are unattended, the computer screens dark. A phone rings off the hook. As he enters the conference room, a blast of cool, wet air greets him. This is the right place. His feet crackle on plastic sheets – the first thing he notices. The second is the huge window looking out over the Thames, currently misted with condensation. There’s no furniture; the sheeting covers the bare walls and floor.
The mayor stands beside the window, slim hands folded behind her back. She is as he knows her from the court case. Floral shift dress, professional fit and below the knee. Sensible flat black shoes. Dyed auburn hair cut into a severe bob, but shot through with blond highlights – a business woman trying for approachable.
He takes a step into the room and immediately kicks a yellow children’s bucket, placed as though to catch a water leak. As if that would do any good, he thinks. The dull plunk causes her to turn around.
“Good… morning,” she begins. Danny hears the uncertainty in her voice and glances at the window, where the snow is falling. He knows it’s not a good morning. The catch in her voice suggests she knows it too. “Morning,” she repeats weakly. A moment later, a cold, wet wind blows in through the door, rippling her dress.
“Two plus two equals four,” he shouts, dropping into a crouch and throwing his arms across his head, but it’s too late. There’s a hissing, gurgling sound like an exploding tap. Freezing water splashes across his raised arms and cheek. The mayor shrieks, surprised. When he looks again, her dress is clinging to her, dripping onto the floor, as though she’s been doused.
“Dr Danny Fontana,” he says, getting up and sticking out his hand. “You need some humidity training.”
She looks up at him, cold-eyed.
“I’ve had humidity training.”
Lesson one of humidity training is ‘truthful greetings’. Danny decides not to point this out. He needs this job. He thinks about Matthew again, and then his waterlogged kitchen. Five thousand quid to replace the kitchen. Five thousand and thirty pounds, and a confidentiality agreement, to do… whatever the mayor’s aide wouldn’t tell him when she’d called.
The mayor is watching him. To hide his awkwardness, he straightens his back and pretends to inspect the room. He notices the tall black tower of a WetTech V10.0 industrial dehumidifier, hidden behind the door. The top control panel is dark. Switched off.
“Humidifiers not working?” he guesses.
She shakes her head.
“No, Dr Fontana. I turned them off.”
He raises an eyebrow, quizzically.
“I thought you’d had a flood.”
“We have. Several floods, in fact.”
Danny frowns. He knows the signs of uncontrolled lying. Ruined upholstery. Soaked carpets. Rotten furniture. Watermarks on the walls. He thinks about the absence of furniture. The plastic sheeting. The depopulated, but dry, office outside. He opens his mouth to speak, but she waves him quiet. “I’ve prepared the room and sent the staff home, in preparation for our little experiment.”
“I thought…” he begins, feeling stupid.
“Why you’re here, Dr Fontana,” she says, exasperated. “Is not to give me basic humidity training. It’s to teach me to lie.”
He learned what the mayor, Sadira, meant about lying while she was towelling down her hair in her office. It was not that she couldn’t lie; rather that, like everyone else, she couldn’t tell a lie without getting wet.
“I’ve heard,” she concludes, “That God only punishes the guilty. Those who know they lie.”
Danny crosses himself instinctively. He’s not big on theology, but the idea of divine agency is hard to ignore. He’s sat across the heavy polished desk from her, in a black executive chair, with a plastic cup of coffee on a coaster in front of him. He leans forward to tear open a sachet of sugar, mentally pulling himself back together. She watches him beady-eyed.
“Well, the water knows your heart,” he says, with airy authority, making air quotes with his fingers. “But it has rules like any physical phenomenon.” He likes the technical sound of the words ‘physical phenomenon’; his doctorate was in modern history, not meteorology. He tips the sugar into the coffee, stirring it with his index finger. “The humidity rises with your guilt and uncertainty. Vis-à-vis, it possesses no objective knowledge of truth, as you would expect from God – or, indeed, any other Earth deity, past or present.
She finishes with her hair and drops the towel onto the desk. As she pulls her chair back from the desk, he thinks about the water. How it reflects the human condition back on itself. Psychopaths, who are without guilt, lie as they ever could. The world revolves around us; there is no wider reality.
She steeples her fingers. “But there are ways of lying?”
“They’re advanced techniques. I tell clients to hire a philosopher to recite –“
“A philosopher is no good,” she cuts in, swiping her hand in dismissal. “I need to lie without detection or evasion.”
Now he understands what she’s getting at. The court case against her. He has a vague impression it’s a corruption scandal. Embezzlement or something. He’s fuzzy on the details. Abruptly he wishes he’d paid more attention; boned up on the subject before he took the job. “You need me to do something illegal.”
She leans forward, staring directly into his eyes. “I want my husband not to know I was having an affair.”
A dry, warm breeze is blowing out of a ceiling duct somewhere. He holds his breath. Abruptly, an image of Matthew flashes into his mind. He’s hunched over, crying, ankle-deep in water. Far below the window, a police siren passes. Wooo-Hoooo-Wooo-Hooo. The air stays dry. He lets out the breath. She’s evading him, of course, but at least she believes it. “Fine. Let’s lie.”
Back in the conference room, Danny zips himself into a disposable yellow coverall and ties the plastic cords tight at the collar. The trouble, he knows through long practice, and now thinks again, is how to lie without guilt. The mind chews over guilt with the persistence of a cow on tough grass. Even if the truth is long buried, inventing a lie will bring memories bubbling into conscious thought. The trick, he explains to Sadira, is to write fake memories over the real ones, as though recording over a music track. The lie, in effect, becomes the truth.
An hour later, Danny has taken up position beside the window facing Sadira who sits in the centre of the room. He has told her that they will practice lying. He raises a finger for her to begin.
“On Wednesday 5th August, at 10pm, I was with a female friend in a wine bar.”
She glances up at him, looking for guidance. He nods, encouragingly. Abruptly, the door bangs. He watches, fascinated, as beads of water begin to form, as if by magic, on her coverall. They explode into rivulets, and then – for a second – the outline of her blue coverall is blurred inside a rippling bubble of water. This time he doesn’t bother shouting a proof. He covers his cheek with a sleeve that smells of damp rubber. A gust of cold, wet wind brushes the back of fingers, and there’s a wet popping sound. Water rattles down onto the sheet beside him.
Ten minutes later, Sadira stands in a puddle of water. Danny nods to her. “Try again, adding more details, deepen the lie.”
She nods, biting her lip. “It’s 10pm on Wednesday 5th August. I’m in a wine bar called The Meteorologist, near Bank tube station. I’m sat on a sofa beside the window, opposite my friend Helena – “
Two hours later, water is flooding out of the door, into the office. Sadira has invented a red leather sofa and a conversation about cult TV boxsets, but there’s no veracity to the invention. This, he thinks, is a woman without imagination. A woman who will never have imagination.
Sadira stands in the centre of the room, frowning with suppressed fury, dark strands of hair clinging to her forehead. Her plastic coverall is slick with water. Behind her, through the window, the clouds have narrowed to thin wisps and the skyscrapers are silhouetted against a violent orange-red sky.
“Perhaps,” he says, carefully. “We should try again tomorrow. Bring a philosopher this time.”
When Danny gets home at 6pm, Matthew’s waxed duster coat is still missing from the hook behind the door. He flips open his phone and reads the text, ‘Trapped in the lab. Back at eight. Love you, Matt’.
Upstairs in the bathroom, he steps into the shower and slides shut the frosted glass door, running through the lie in his head. You can’t meet my parents for the first time this Christmas. They’re holidaying in Key West in Florida.
He builds a picture in his head of palm trees, white sand, turquoise water. At the tideline, where the surf meets the shore, Matthew is picking up a rock, the sun beating down on his long duster coat, foam lapping against the toes of his trainers. The guilt rises into his throat like bile.
“Matt…” he begins.
The shower cubicle is abruptly cold and damp. Water droplets bead the glass door. He drops into a crouch, hugging himself against the inevitable downpour. As his bare flesh begins stinging with icy needles , he repeats the lie under his breath, louder and more certain with each attempt.
An hour later, his teeth are chattering. He turns on the showerhead and sluices himself down, watching the warm water spiralling into the plughole. He knows the lie isn’t complete – the lie can never be complete. In the bedroom, sat behind the computer table, at the couples’ PC, he finds himself mesmerised by the harsh white light of the screen flickering across tears, glistening like rainbows on his hands. In his open inbox:
Hope you are well and your housemate Matthew is well too. I worry about you with your kitchen being in such a mess. You did not tell me what you said to flood the kitchen. Perhaps it is not my business.
I haven’t heard about Christmas and it is now December. Are you going away again this year with Matthew? I still have your present from last year. You told me to wait and you’d pick it up when you visited.
Well, it is all quiet here. Dad and I went shopping for Christmas presents last Thursday. We met Eva’s mum in town. That girl you were friends with in college. Eva has a good job now in London, working at a bank. Eva has just broken up with her boyfriend. I said it was a shame because she was such a pretty girl. Her mum was pleased to hear about your news. I said that was London. You are 27 now and don’t have much success with girls either. Well, that’s just my opinion.
Anyway, it was lovely for you to call me. I have put £1,000 in your bank for the kitchen. I know you told me not too because I am on a pension. I don’t like you both living in a house with rising damp. You will get ill.
I do hope you are ok with your work.
Love you, mum
“I love you mum,” he whispers. A warm breeze brushes against his damp cheek, and he smells fresh grass and spring flowers. He finds his gaze shifting to the photo frame on the table. He and Matthew, arms thrown around each other, on a clifftop in the Canary Islands with the jewel blue ocean behind them. Matthew is shielding his eyes with his hand; his grin is wide and white in the bright sun.
The grin was the first thing Danny remembers about Matthew. They had met two years before, in a bar near Waterloo, shortly after Danny had extricated himself from a particularly boring (and duplicitous) client. He remembered a soft voice asking permission to sit down and, as he glanced up, a slim Asian guy with large dark eyes flashed him an apologetic smile.
They had moved in together, six months later, first into Matthew’s apartment and then – a year later – into their own place. Shortly after that, Danny’s parents had wanted to visit and Danny – not wanting to, or expecting to – had found himself lying, first to Matthew and then to his parents.
He goes to draw the curtains. The window looks over the row of Victorian brick terraces across the street, the bay windows lit by the flickering glow of wide-screen TVs. A car has drawn up in the street and the radio is blasting away.
Danny thinks back to himself at fourteen, sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the Labour party’s abolition of Section 28, the law to stop local authorities portraying homosexuality in a positive light. That was the first time he’d argued with his father about politics. He’d had a hopeless crush that summer, on a lanky boy with tousled brown hair who played winger in the Under-16s rugby team. His father had shouted, “Stop defending queers.”
Now that he thinks about it, he can’t imagine his mother rejecting him. A light goes out in the bay window opposite. He stares, fixedly down at the lightless window and the now empty road, flakes of snow drifting into the light of a Victorian streetlamp. An image flashes into his head – Matthew pulling his battered leather trunk down the road, the hood of his duster coat over his face, like a cowl. He imagines his lover glancing back, dark eyes narrowed with judgement and betrayal. Long ago, Danny realised his real fear was of Matthew’s reaction, of his sweet tolerant partner discovering that his parents were raving bigots.
“I love you, Matthew,” Danny says and, for a moment, the unnatural warm breeze smells of red dust and eucalyptus. Apart from logic, love – he knows – is the greatest truth.
Matthew comes home at eight and microwaves a Waitrose spiced lamb tagine. They sit on the scuffed brown leather couch that Danny’s mother bought them, watching the meteorology reporting on Sky News. The African Sahel is having a drought and a group of women from Suffolk have gone to Chad to lie for rain. The news report shows them standing in the desert beside a jeep, shouting, “I am wearing a hat,” “I am a dog,” “The Phantom Menace was the best Star Wars film.” Water plasters their clothes to their chests and legs, and dark threads begin to spread out across the sand. The voiceover reports that most water evaporates instantly, and the women are organising a mass lie-in for the 29th of January. Above their head, the sun burns down like an angry eye.
“What are we doing about Christmas?” Matthew asks thoughtfully, sliding the tagine packet onto the coffee table.
“Tunisia? Morocco?” Danny says, unable to take his eyes off the screen where the women stand ankle-deep in sand with droplets of water trickling down their thighs.
“Can I meet your parents this year?”
Danny feels himself stiffen against the armrest of the sofa although, by now, he can’t remember why. With the cadences of a robot, he says, “Oh, darling, but I spoke to my mother. She and dad are going to Florida, touring Key West and Miami, flying out on the 22nd and coming back on the 4th January. They want me to visit after that – for my sister’s birthday.” He pauses, holding his breath, somehow expecting the door to bang with an icy wind. The news report has moved onto flooding in the North of England. A flow chart pops up to explain global sea level lies; the oceans expanding from the constant influx of water. As Danny lets out his breath, he realises he feels nothing, just a cold dead blankness.
Matthew places a slim warm hand on Danny’s thigh. “Dan…” His dark eyes are sad and searching. “Dan, you know you lie? I mean, not you lie, but you teach people how to lie.”
A niggling sense of unease trickles between his shoulder blades. “Yeah, baby,” he says, feeling a stupid smile creeping across his face.
“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” Matthew asks.
He places a hand on Matthew’s shoulder. Beneath the thin cotton t-shirt, it feels painfully fragile, the bones as breakable as bird’s wing. A guilty panic grips his windpipe. He wants to look at the flickering TV, the crumpled tagine packet on the table, anywhere but at his lover. He takes a deep breath and forces himself to look back deeply, sincerely. “Matt, I’d never hurt you, you know that.”
Matthew flashes him a thoughtful look, as though he’s a biochemical puzzle to be solved. In the sullen silence, he picks up the tagine packet and worries the tattered film with long elegant fingers. “I didn’t ask that.” He shreds a sliver of plastic between his nails; a stand-in for their relationship. “I’m worried I can’t trust you… I’m worried you’ve… you’ll learn to lie.”
Danny laughs. He thinks about the black mould growing on the door handle downstairs and the absurdity of it, “Remember the kitchen?”
Now Matthew laughs too, his eyes widening. “I love you, Danny,” he says, and – a moment later – the living room door rattles and Danny feels the reassuring warmth of a breeze against his face that carries the promise of spring.
The humidity philosopher, Frank – a slim skinny man, with the bushy ginger beard of an academic – is due to arrive at 10am. When Danny finds him in reception, he is talking to a twenty-something woman in a heavy black coat with a baby carrier who, as it turns out, is Sadira’s aide Grace. As they ride up in the lift together, Frank pulls funny faces at her three-week-old boy Kai.
Back in the conference room, Frank sets up while Danny describes the plan to Sadira. The philosopher will recite carefully-selected truths – as he believes them – while she tells her story. “It relies on what’s called the coherence heating of truth,” he says. “Say I tell you, ‘the sun always rises’. I must also believe ‘the Earth orbits the sun’ and ‘the laws of physics stay constant over time’.” He pauses, feeling a hint of dampness against his cheek, and realises – belatedly – that he hasn’t believed in the laws of physics since the water began. “A humidity philosopher makes those beliefs… well, internally consistent, thereby creating a stronger truth. “
“Can he do that in court?” she interrupts, turning to Frank, who is tapping on the rubber-coated keys of a thick yellow waterproofed laptop.
Frank looks up, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Danny answers for him. “His truths have a range of a hundred metres, depending on the proposition.”
Danny sends Frank into another office. When he returns to the conference room, Sadira has shrugged off her coverall, her legs straddling the heap of crumpled blue plastic. Water trickles down her face as though she’s run a marathon.
“Take a few hours break, Dr Fontana,” she says, looking past him to the door. “My aide, Grace, will show you out.”
Danny turns his head slowly. Grace – now without her baby carrier – is waiting beside the door. He looks back to Sadira, noticing for the first time the stiffness in her folded arms. A stiff finality, he thinks, feeling his heartrate accelerating. “When should I… come back?”
She turns away from him, towards the window. “The philosopher is no good. Come back when you’ve thought of a better plan.”
His mobile rings while he’s queuing at the coffee stand in the plaza. Danny peels off a fingerless glove, spurred by a warm wind blowing off the Thames, and thumbs the ‘answer’ button with the other hand. Matthew’s number pops up on the screen.
“I found an email on your computer last night,” he says.
Danny’s mouth is instantly dry. “An email?”
“You didn’t tell me about your parents.”
Danny blinks, his eyes filling with tears. “Baby. I’m sorry, alright. I’m sorry, I can explain…”
“You lied to me,” Matthew interrupts.
“Matthew…” Danny begins, before realising the phone has gone silent. Pulling it away from his ear, he sees the screen display a faded ‘call ended’. Then it flashes back to the menu.
For close to half an hour, Danny leans against the concrete wall overlooking the river, staring out over the churning grey water. So many lies. The Thames is rising year on year; within a decade, he’s read, they’ll need a bigger barrier to keep back the tides. He walks back across the plaza beneath a sky that feels to press down with heavy black clouds.
Outside city hall, beside the entrance, the old tramp is sitting on his grey blanket. The edges are frosted with ice. With a strange feeling of déjà vu, Danny realises the ghetto blaster is still playing ‘All you need is love.’
The sliding doors open. A wind, as hot as a desert, blasts out from inside. As he walks into the reception, he sees Grace pacing beside the lift, bobbing the baby carrier up and down. She looks oblivious to the world, her long dreadlocks dangling around her face. Just before he reaches her, before she looks up to greet him, he makes out her words, ‘I love you.’
“I love you,” Danny murmurs, thinking of Matthew leaving the house that morning. He remembers the warm breeze melting the icicles around the door, as he whispered, “I love you.” He remembers whispering again, and watching the damp footprints on the doormat fade to nothing.
He looks back for a moment, outside to the old tramp, and his fingers rub the cool glass screen of his mobile. ‘All you need is love,’ he thinks. He nods for Grace to follow him and steps into the lift.
I’ve had some ‘interesting’ feedback on this story. One person loved it, one person hated the original and my reinterpretation, and it came 7 out of 10 entries in a short story competition (so they didn’t like it either).
I personally don’t think it works and I’m going to blame the original concept. The conceit of the story is that the world revolves around Danny (literally). He is God. His mood states can defy the laws of physics, bring rain to deserts and melt the coldest of ice. I’ve written about this before with reference to The Day The World Turned Upside Down. That won a Hugo Award in 2015 and, in that story too, reality is a gigantic metaphor for the main character’s worries.
Writing about water falling when you lied wasn’t as fun as I expected. Trying to combine it with a (sort-of) coming out tale created two badly-joined story arcs, one emotional and one speculative. Both could have done with more space and time to develop.[Incase you’re wondering, my ‘Matt’ isn’t Chinese-American because I didn’t want to make a hamfisted mess].