Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

Prompt: Write a story beginning with “We are the children of stardust”

I had no idea where this one would end up when I started. This turned out to be one of those things where the characters just took over my brain, and I became more conduit than author. I want to know what happened in Chicago.

“We are the children of stardust,” she said.

He cocked his head quizzically. “You mean the David Bowie character? Because at the risk of sounding contrarian, I’ve never understood the whole…” He waved his hands in the air. “Thing with David Bowie. Maybe I’m just the wrong generation, I don’t know, but it seems like—“

“No, no, no.” She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean at all. I don’t mean Ziggy Stardust, I mean literal stardust. Stellar nucleosynthesis, you dig?”

“‘You dig’? Does anyone still say that?”

“I do. Now, listen,” she went on, clinging to the thought as doggedly as a drowning man might clutch a life preserver. “All the elements in the universe, everything except hydrogen and helium and a little bit of lithium, they all come from stellar nucleosynthesis, see? What are you made out of?”

He leaned back, watching her as he raised his glass, filled with something fruity and frozen she’d ordered for him, with a little paper umbrella in it. A burst of laughter from the end of the row of rickety wooden tables, where a small cluster of middle-aged men played pool. From the other end, smell of hot oil and grilling burgers, occasional snippets of rapid-fire Spanish. “If you listen to my ex-wife,” he said, “bile and laziness.”

“Nope. Carbon, mostly. Hydrogen, oxygen, potassium, calcium, some other stuff. Iron, too, of course. Iron’s interesting because it’s the end of the line. You see iron in a star’s spectral signature, the end is well and truly nigh.”

“Your point?”

“My point is, none of this stuff was here when all this began. Stars, they fuse hydrogen, right? The hydrogen turns to helium, oxygen, nickel, iron, everything. Well, everything lighter’n iron, anyway. Supernovas make a bit of heavier stuff there at the end. Then blooie!” She spread her arms wide. “They spread it all over when they blow up. Spread it all through the universe. Enough so that new stars and planets are born, and oh look! Now there’s carbon and oxygen and all that other stuff. Star. Fucking. Dust. That’s what you’re made of.”

“And this is important why?”

She leaned forward, eyes shining, face intense. “Because it proves I’m right.”


“The universe. Everything. Everything begins and ends with unimaginable violence. Violence is the ultimate creative force.”

“And that’s how you started working for Karl?”

“Yes. Karl gets it, dig? Like, really gets it. It’s easy to be violent. Any schoolyard bully can be violent. But truly creative violence, see, that’s an art. And Karl, man, dude’s fucking Picasso. I was there, when it all went down. The thing with the Russians, you know? I was still young, didn’t know shit, got caught up in all that unfortunate lack of clarity about proper boundaries, all very bad for business. But Karl, he brought the fucking clarity. Man uses violence the way a doctor uses a scalpel. Precise, dig? And when the stardust settled, he called the shots, and the Russian gangs…” She made a dismissive gesture, fingers spreading wide. “Poof. Gone.”

“So you’re working for him because he gets shit done.”

“No, I’m working for him because the man’s an artist, a genius with his chosen form. I’m his understudy. Rule of two, dig? Like in those movies.”

“Star Wars?”

“Whatever. Yeah. Never saw them.”

“You’ve never seen Star Wars? Seriously? Everyone’s seen Star Wars!”

The gesture again, quick flick of her fingers. “Not me.”

“Okay, so we’ve established you work for Karl, and I maybe have a bit of an outline on why, but I can’t say I really see how this stellar nuclear-whatsit figures into all this. So why me? I mean, why are we talking, you and me, right now?”

“You heard about the thing in Chicago, right? Sammy and Vince and them?”

“I heard something about that,” he said, choosing his words with care. “Some kind of falling out over drug money, the way I heard.”

“God, you cops are so dense.” Exasperation on her face. “I didn’t think you lot’d actually buy that cock and bull story, but you never cease to disappoint, do you? No wonder they call you plods. Never looking any deeper than the end of your noses. No offense.”

“Offense definitely taken. So what, then? And remember, you called me.”

“Yeah, well, I know you lot have been wanting to sink your teeth into Karl since forever, and today’s your lucky day. Like Christmas and Halloween all rolled into one. It’s time for him to go.”

“What? Your mentor? Your muse? The understudy turning on the maestro?”

“Something like that. Karl, he’s lost the plot, see? Take another look at Chicago. That was all him, top to bottom.”

“Yeah?” He leaned forward. “Go on.”

“Fuck you. I’m not doing your work for you. Just pointing out something you missed. Go back, take another look at Chicago. Show me you’re smart enough to talk to me. Not just another plod, dig?” She fished a slip of paper from the pocket of her battered Army jacket, slid it across the table to him. “Call me when you figure it out. Then we’ll have a real conversation.”

He looked at the paper, a number scrawled in blue ballpoint. When he looked up again, she was gone.