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aweinback




 
 
 
 

Post Thu, May 19 2022, 8:36 pm
I was told the following short story (2K words) is too creepy by 3 frum magazines I submitted it to. (They didn't all use the word "creepy" in their rejections, but something along those lines...)
Does anyone have a few minutes to read it and tell me why?
What about it is such a turn off for standard frum publications? There is a bit of a sci-fi twist at the end but nothing too disturbing... Thank you in advance!

The Doughnut's Song

“Mrs. Arbon?”
The loud voice jolts her awake and she blinks, confused.
“Mrs. Arbon, we are ready for you.”
A young man comes into focus in front of her, his brown eyes smiling. She breathes deeply, shaking off the last of her sleep.
“Alright,” she says, straightening in her wheelchair.
The young man leans over her for the handlebars, and she sees his badge swinging in her face. His smile beams at her over the words ‘Maurice Snow, RN’. He looks even younger there.
“You feeling OK?” Maurice asks her, as he releases the brake on her wheelchair.
“Yes, I’m feeling fine, thank you,” she answers, as the grey walls flit past her, the narrow artwork adorning them flashing garishly.
“Here we are,” Maurice announces cheerfully, coming to a stop before two very large doors. He brakes her chair and walks forward to hit the button on the wall. The doors swing open releasing a flood of light. Her eyes squeeze shut, momentarily.
She feels the chair being pushed forward, and as her eyes adjust to the bright light, she could make out the giant machine.
It is as big as she remembers it, bigger.
The round part they call ‘the Doughnut’. It is nothing like a doughnut. Doughnut’s are soft, warm, comforting.
This is hard, cold, jarring.
“OK, Mrs. Arbon, you know what to do. You’re an old pro at this, aren’t you?” Maurice smiles warmly. She assumes he smiled, as his eyes twinkle and crunch ever so slightly. But the blue mask he wears hides his smile, so she cannot know for sure.
“An old pro, indeed,” she murmurs.
A memory crosses her mind, she sees herself as a child of 5 yanking her mother’s skirt, demanding her attention.
“What?!” her mother had finally snapped.
“Are you only good at things you like, Momma? If you do something you hate over and over till you’re good at it, will you like it better?”
“If you what?!” her mother had turned to face her, frazzled, her forehead wrinkled in astonishment. “I have no idea, honey. Now go play, so Momma can finish getting dinner ready.”
She looks now at the white machine, the bed pulled out before it waiting for her repose so it can begin it’s journey through the large circle as it spins and whirs and scans.
So many scans.
She wonders how it did not recognize her by now.
For she certainly recognizes it.
She knows every sticker, every label, every scratch on it’s surface. Shouldn’t it know her just as well by now? Shouldn’t it give her a glance and nod, recognizing every inch of her body, every twist, every turn? Every band of cancerous cells that refused to disappear no matter how much poison they injected into her body to destroy them without mercy.
Maurice is taking her arm now, gently but firmly. She allows him to pull her, validates him for it, even.
“Thank you, Maurice.”
“You are so welcome, Mrs. Arbon. I’ve got some warmed blankets right here for you, let’s make you nice and cozy.”
She nods, although she hates the warmed blankets. They make her skin feel as if it were on fire.
But she is not one to complain. No matter the pain she is in, the discomfort she feels, she does not voice it. Not even as the poison wounds it’s way throughout her body, filling her mouth with sores, setting her gut aflame, lodging itself in her head like a steel pendulum swinging carelessly from side to side.
She would not admit it, even to herself, but she would rather the debilitating nausea and weakness in the throes of chemo than this.
This, to her, was the worst.
She doesn’t know why, perhaps it had something to do with her fear of being trapped in the lonely white circle.
Or perhaps it was the feeling of being judged, the machine raking across her body with it’s watchful eye, noting with disproval every fluke in her DNA, every mishap that it inflicted on itself foolishly, killing itself from within. As if the machine alone knew her failure at keeping this fluke at bay.
The ‘Doughnut’ was the first one that saw it, after all.
She lay back on the bed now, refusing to think more of it, knowing it will only aggravate her further. The warm blankets are placed atop her, around her, above her as she stares up at the even tiles of the ceiling.
She wills herself to relax.
“What time was she given the Tracer?” The technician asks.
“2:30,” Maurice responds. “Exactly one hour ago.”
The radioactive Tracer injected into her IV line would be circulating her body by now, illuminating the cancer for the Doughnut to see.
The technician glances at the small clock on the wall. “Perfect. You ready, Mrs. Arbon?”
“I’ll see you later, Mrs. Arbon!” Maurice calls out before she gets a chance to respond. Then he steps through the large doors and they swing shut behind him.
The room is humming eerily with the sound of machinery.
“Alright, here we go,” the technician comes into view, focusing on the switches of the machine. “No talking, no moving, you know the drill.”
“Yes,” she says, as the bed slowly begins rolling back. She can’t see the circle from her vantage point yet, but she knows it is coming up.
Relax, just relax, she tells herself. It’ll be over soon.
“My name is Kathy,” the technician says suddenly, as if remembering she ought to introduce herself. She appears in her line of vision- a thick head of curls over a heart shaped face- and smiles- or crinkles her eyes, anyway. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, Mrs. Arbon. You’re in good hands.” Kathy must’ve sensed her unease.
She feels a flash of annoyance at the technician’s assumption that her fear was that somehow Kathy would do her job incorrectly and she would die because of it.
“20 years?” she repeats politely. “Here in this hospital?”
“Oh yes,” Kathy nods. “Right here in this room.”
“I have never seen here you before…”
Kathy laughs. “Yes, we must’ve missed each other. I am usually put with the pediatric patients for their scans.”
“The kids? I didn’t realize there were separate technicians for the kids.”
“There aren’t officially,” Kathy tilts her head and Mrs. Arbon wonders for a wild minute if she could drag out this conversation long enough that they would be forced to postpone the dreaded scan for another date. “But I am good with the kids…they like me.” She smiles again.
“Oh…I have never been very good with kids,” Mrs. Arbon says honestly. “They don’t like me much.”
Kathy laughs, the sound of it so incongruous to the whirring of machinery.
Kathy thinks she was joking, but she is not.
“Alright, you ready? You are lucky, Mrs. Arbon, you can use your head to keep yourself calm. You know this won’t hurt, you know it’ll be over soon. Not like those little ones that are convinced we are about to send them into a tube of torture- and nothing we say or do can change their minds.”
She nods, she’s seen those little ones. Heard their screams through the closed double doors as she waited her turn. Frantic screams, echoing with desperation. It was true, to them there was no assurance, no logical explanations. There was only irrational fear. The screams made her uncomfortable, sure.
But she did not pity them.
For invariably they were showered with comfort. Through the walls she could hear the warbling voices singing softly into the child’s ear, soothing, calming. She could hear the love. And there was always a burst of cheers at the end of it when they were done. The promises of treats and toys, the affirmations of strength and bravery, as if the child had won a marathon.
They deserved it, those children, of course they did. Every song, every squeeze of the hand, every treat.
Heaven knows, they deserve it.
But what about her?
She shakes the thought, almost reddening at the idea that she is envious of a child, that she shares his irrational paranoia.
“Alright, no more talking.” Kathy winks as the bed rolls further along, edging closer and closer.
She seals her eyes shut, knowing soon it will flood her senses. She hears the whirring pick up speed, like an airplane about to take off. It rushes now, and as she tentatively opens one eye. She can see the white all around her, spinning.
She quickly pulls her eye closed again, digging through her mind and imagining the white in front of her transformed into a rolling beach of glistening sand, the rushing in her ear becomes the waves lapping her feet, the seagulls soaring overhead.
The machine rattles and clinks and jolts her out of her reverie.
She takes a deep breathe, trying again.
Suddenly, she hears it, faint at first, growing in momentum.
A soft voice singing.
The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…
Her eyes fly open and she looks around her suspiciously. She sees nothing but the white.
But she hears the voice, louder now.
…All around the town.
I don’t like that song. The thought crosses her mind, unbidden.
Well, what song, then? the voice asks.
She feels her heart constrict, sure she has lost her mind.
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. She could hear the smile in the voice as it sings, a double clap echoing in her ears at the end of each verse.
I am not happy. And I know it.
The singing pauses and she is almost regretful for her outburst.
What song, then? The voice demands. The machine is spinning faster now, the clanging getting louder.
Anything.
Oh say can you see? By the dawns early light. What so proudly we hailed, by the twilights last gleaming…
She forces back a smile.
She is sure she has lost her mind.
But she doesn’t care.
The Star Spangled Banner is a lot more pleasing to her ear than the roaring machine. She let’s the voice wash over her, losing herself in its melody.
Almost finished, Supergirl. You’re doing it, you’re almost there.
Her eyes open again in shock, the voice so clear in her ear she was sure she could not have imagined it.
But there is no one in front of her.
Kathy is behind a glass wall that shields her from the radiation, her face hidden from view, bent over a large screen.
Mrs. Arbon closes her eyes, searching for the voice again, craving the comfort it brings. It does not disappoint her.
It sings in her ear, it’s melodies interspersed with declarations of her bravery.
You got this, Rockstar. You’re doing great!
As juvenile as it may be, it fills her with a warmth that the weighted blankets could never give.
And then it’s over.
The whirring comes to a stop and the bed is still.
Kathy reappears, her mask slightly askew.
“Alright, Mrs. Arbon. I believe we’re done here.”
She helps her back into her chair and she can not meet Kathy’s eye, wondering if she somehow knows of her insanity, if she could see the smiles that crossed her lips, hear the voices in her head.
She settles back into her chair and the doors are opened once again, admitting Maurice.
“Ready, Mrs. Arbon?”
She throws one last look at the white circle, now not quite as formidable as it had seemed before. Almost as if it had shrunk in size.
She feels none of the fear, none of the hatred she had felt an hour ago when she was wheeled into this room.
She smiles to herself.
Losing your mind can have its perks.
“I’m ready, Maurice.”
He grips the handlebars on her chair and pushes her through the doors. She turns at the last minute, “Have a good day, Kathy…Thank you.”
The doors closes before she has a chance to respond.
Kathy only smiles.
She fingers a small syringe in her pocket and whistles to herself.
She had been right, she thinks with satisfaction.
The pediatric Tracer works just as well on the geriatric patients, too.
You are welcome, Mrs. Arbon. Anytime.
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amother




Steel
 

Post Thu, May 19 2022, 9:26 pm
The idea of planting a voice in someone’s head, especially a child’s head, is creepy. One would imagine the voice would soon gain power and control over the mind.
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amother




Leaf
 

Post Thu, May 19 2022, 11:05 pm
It is creepy, but I assume that's your intent. It sounds like the editors of frum magazines aren't looking for that right now.

Not only is this story menacing, but the reader doesn't know why Kathy made the switch. Who gains? Is this part of a larger game? We're left without any sense of resolution. I think frum magazines prefer stories where all the loose ends are tied up at the end.

There's nothing particularly frum about the story, so why not send it out to other magazines? Look online to see who publishes short stories like this. It has a fun O. Henry kind of twist.

Also - All right, not alright.
And "it's" is a contraction of "it is."
"Its" without an apostrophe means "belonging to it."
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amother




Magnolia
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 1:05 am
I think you write really well! I think you should send it to a science fiction magazine or something like that. The issue a Jewish magazine might have with this is:
1. medical ethics
2. biological weapons
3. what positive message it there?
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amother




Honeydew
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 5:23 am
I liked the vivid imagery and enjoyed the story-you painted the picture really well op. As others have said there's a lot unsaid. As a prologue to something longer, I would be fine with that, but we're just left with too many questions.
I think there's not so much Jewish Sci-fi and magazines will be reluctant to take on such. If it was extremely upbeat and happy, then maybe. But then it will lose a lot of its impact.
But tbh I never really understand short stories. Whenever I read the yom tov supplements, I'm often scratching my head. There's a lot of emotion and feeling and the plot is either a longer one condensed, or it's something so small that's blown up.
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ora_43




 
 
 
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 7:32 am
Like other posters said it's not necessarily something wrong about the story, more like a mismatch between story and magazine.

If I had to assign this a genre I'd say sci-fi. Nothing about it says that it's specifically frum. So nearly all frum magazines will reject it for that reason. Nothing to do with how well-written it is.

About the story itself:

There's a lot that's really good here. There's a background tension that builds really nicely, a sense of unease that comes on so slowly it's hard to say where it's coming from. In general, the language is very rich and descriptive. It's a nice use of "close 3rd person" - Mrs. Arbon lets us see the room and feel the sensations; she's "there" (we see her opinions, hear about her sensations) but not really in the way, if that makes sense.

There are a couple things I'd change, but this is all just my opinion:

I'd answer more questions about the technology itself. This story is really "about" the Tracer, so... what is it? Why do children scream during this procedure? How did Mrs. Arbon hear the songs being sung to younger patients - or are there actual people singing to them, in which case, why the Tracer? In general, what's the deal with this technology - good? bad? It seems like a technology that helps cure cancer while also singing encouraging songs in your head would be a good thing, but there's also something creepy about it, and the story itself feels ominous.

To clarify, when I say "answer more questions" I don't mean the technical stuff so much as the big-picture stuff. And I don't mean explicitly, more like implicitly. Basically make the story full-on sci-fi and leave readers with a stronger sense of how the world you've created is different from our world, and why it matters.

One other very minor thing - I'd make Mrs. Arbon's memory of her mother a bit more significant, and/or tie it into the story a little more clearly. Why is she remembering that specific thing, at that time?

Second minor thing - I almost misunderstood the end of the story because the sudden switch from "she" being Mrs Arbon to "she" being Kathy threw me off. I think that with spacing that would be clearer, though.

Anyway. I hope you don't mind all my thoughts Smile it's a nice story, and I think you'll find an audience if you look outside frum magazines.
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amother




Steel
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 8:29 am
OP, what is your feeling, as the author, about the Tracer? Is it good or sinister?

Because you seem to see it as good, while readers seem to universally see it as sinister. Maybe that’s why you don’t understand why the story is considered creepy.
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aweinback




 
 
 
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 10:17 am
Thank you so much for all the responses, you’ve really give me a lot to think about.

I just assumed that everyone would know what I’m referring to with the “Doughnut” and the “Tracer” and all that, but it seems like (bH!) most people do not.
The main character is a cancer patient undergoing a routine PT scan. The Doughnut is the part of the machine that is shaped like a tube which she passes through that does the scanning. The Tracer is a radioactive substance that is injected in the patient’s bloodstream before the scan, which causes the cancer to appear lit up on the imaging, so its easy to see. This isn’t sci-fi, this is standard medical technology.
Kids hate this, because the machine is loud and scary and they need to lay very still otherwise the imaging will not be clear.
But mature, rational adults are expected to handle the scan like a walk in the park.
What I was aiming for, was a scenario where we have a mature, rational adult who hates PT scans and experiences fear and anxiety which are not validated at all by the people around her.
The sci-fi part kicks in when it turns out that the Technician (Kathy) has some sort of telepathic capabilities which helps her get into the minds of her patients to calm them down. Kathy usually uses this rare gift with the pediatric patients who need soothing. But here she is using it on an adult and she sees it is just as effective...sometimes adults need soothing too, even if its silly or irrational.

Apparently, I did a terrible job explaining the story line LOL Hiding

I don’t know anything about pitching to non jewish mags, but maybe it’s worth looking into, I hadn’t thought of that.

Thank you so much for showing me how you read it, and all your insights, I really appreciate! Good Shabs!
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amother




Quince
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 10:44 am
aweinback wrote:
Thank you so much for all the responses, you’ve really give me a lot to think about.

I just assumed that everyone would know what I’m referring to with the “Doughnut” and the “Tracer” and all that, but it seems like (bH!) most people do not.
The main character is a cancer patient undergoing a routine PT scan. The Doughnut is the part of the machine that is shaped like a tube which she passes through that does the scanning. The Tracer is a radioactive substance that is injected in the patient’s bloodstream before the scan, which causes the cancer to appear lit up on the imaging, so its easy to see. This isn’t sci-fi, this is standard medical technology.
Kids hate this, because the machine is loud and scary and they need to lay very still otherwise the imaging will not be clear.
But mature, rational adults are expected to handle the scan like a walk in the park.
What I was aiming for, was a scenario where we have a mature, rational adult who hates PT scans and experiences fear and anxiety which are not validated at all by the people around her.
The sci-fi part kicks in when it turns out that the Technician (Kathy) has some sort of telepathic capabilities which helps her get into the minds of her patients to calm them down. Kathy usually uses this rare gift with the pediatric patients who need soothing. But here she is using it on an adult and she sees it is just as effective...sometimes adults need soothing too, even if its silly or irrational.

Apparently, I did a terrible job explaining the story line LOL Hiding

I don’t know anything about pitching to non jewish mags, but maybe it’s worth looking into, I hadn’t thought of that.

Thank you so much for showing me how you read it, and all your insights, I really appreciate! Good Shabs!


I'm not going to critique your story because I'm not a writer and I dont feel qualified to.

Saying that, I just want to say to you that I understood immediately what the doughnut and tracer was referring to and the idea you were trying to convey and I very much enjoyed reading it.

(I was confused when the other posters mentioned scifi)
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dena613




 
 
 
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 11:04 am
I totally understood what the donut and tracer it was pretty clear.

I would have assumed that kathy was just talking in the machine to the patient, just like you can have music...

Not sure why there has to be the idea that she injected baby songs into the patient.
Don't get that
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amother




Steel
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 11:20 am
Maybe just take out the sci fi element and have the ending be about how it takes a pediatric nurse to see that everyone at every age needs comforting.
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amother




Mulberry
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 11:32 am
amother [ Leaf ] wrote:
It is creepy, but I assume that's your intent. It sounds like the editors of frum magazines aren't looking for that right now.

Not only is this story menacing, but the reader doesn't know why Kathy made the switch. Who gains? Is this part of a larger game? We're left without any sense of resolution. I think frum magazines prefer stories where all the loose ends are tied up at the end.

There's nothing particularly frum about the story, so why not send it out to other magazines? Look online to see who publishes short stories like this. It has a fun O. Henry kind of twist.

Also - All right, not alright.
And "it's" is a contraction of "it is."
"Its" without an apostrophe means "belonging to it."


Alright is correct but you're using it too often to have authentic voice
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Rosemarie




 
 
 
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 11:47 am
dena613 wrote:
I totally understood what the donut and tracer it was pretty clear.

I would have assumed that kathy was just talking in the machine to the patient, just like you can have music...

Not sure why there has to be the idea that she injected baby songs into the patient.
Don't get that


Yes exactly, I thought all along that Kathy was singing to the patient through the machines intercom, and because she is usually with the pediatric patients she sang the songs she normally sings to them. Which is why that last line really threw me. I couldn't figure out what had happened, thought I completely misunderstood the whole story all along. I really liked the story till there, really got us into her mind and emotions, and I thought, wow, the pediatric tech really sees her patients and cares for all their needs, not just the test...
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aweinback




 
 
 
 

Post Fri, May 20 2022, 12:25 pm
Rosemarie wrote:
Yes exactly, I thought all along that Kathy was singing to the patient through the machines intercom, and because she is usually with the pediatric patients she sang the songs she normally sings to them. Which is why that last line really threw me. I couldn't figure out what had happened, thought I completely misunderstood the whole story all along. I really liked the story till there, really got us into her mind and emotions, and I thought, wow, the pediatric tech really sees her patients and cares for all their needs, not just the test...


I hear what you’re saying. That would make sense. I think the telepathy is the creepy part. Maybe if Kathy says that last line to herself instead of it being an unspoken telepathic message it would be less weird. Or I could just leave out that last line altogether.

Thanks!
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ora_43




 
 
 
 

Post Sat, May 21 2022, 1:07 pm
I understood that the "donut" was a machine, and the tracer helps it scan for cancer.

I didn't understand why Mrs. Arbon seemed to feel so apprehensive about the scan, and why children would be screaming. Just my experience, but when I've taken kids to medical tests (xrays, MRI) they were a little nervous but nowhere near frantic. So to me that felt like maybe the kids were in pain, or like something about the test was unusually frightening - and then the whole "voices in her head" part made it seem like maybe the kids were screaming because of the intrusion into their mind?

I definitely didn't get that the nurse had psychic powers, I though the effect was caused by her using a different type of Tracer/medicine on the patient. (this mostly because she fingers the syringe at the end and thinks of how the pediatric Tracer worked; also because of the choice of songs, which to me makes more sense from a computer-like technology than a person.)

I also didn't get that the "donut" was referring to current technology. The character mentions the donut seeing flaws in her DNA, so I thought that was talking about something more advanced.

Like I said I don't think the technical details are so important, just sharing the parts that were more/less clear for me personally.
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ShaindyShushan




 
 
 
 

Post Sat, May 21 2022, 7:14 pm
Not, thank G-d, having experience with such treatments, I sort of understood what the Doughnut and Tracer were supposed to be, but was also prepared for them to turn out to be more advanced or "speculative" versions of today's equipment/meds.

What I found confusing was the next to last line where Kathy says to herself that the Pediatric Tracer works just as well on geriatric patients. Made me think it wasn't telepathy after all, but some kind of hallucinogen that she personally would add to the tracer when working with kids. The fact that she fingers the syringe supports that idea. Up to that point, I wasn't entirely sure whether the singing was telepathy or induced hallucination.

The creepy bit is the lack of consent, or maybe the possibility that Kathy is illegally tampering with the tracer.

I agree with earlier commenters that it's a well-paced and interesting story that seems a lot better suited to the sci fi or speculative fiction world than to the frum mags. Also what someone mentioned earlier about the memory of the mother - a little more could be made of it. Maybe a brief mention about what's worrying little-girl Mrs. Arbon (the thing she doesn't want to do over and over).
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