Just Breathe

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Breathe; all she had to do was breathe.

If she could will her muscles to respond and catch one more breath, just one, the pressure in her chest might ease enough to tell him.

She thought, “All I need…” but before she could finish it, she looked up through her fallen locks and saw him standing there above her.

And as he bent down, the band around her chest tightened and every tiny hair on both arms stood up.

She knew then, it was too late.

He kissed her.

News Update: CampNaNoWriMo Part 2!

2014-Participant-Facebook-Profile

Camp NaNoWriMo – April 2014 Session

That’s right folks, I’ve signed up another month of Camp NaNoWriMo!

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular camp, Camp NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge billed as “An idyllic writers retreat, located smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” It is a completely voluntary online writing challenge where the “Campers” set a goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. Yes, that’s only ONE month.

But wait! I already won Camp NaNoWriMo! And the 50,000 words I wrote during the August 2012 session completed my third book, Blinded. What a bonus – make goal AND finish my book.  And here’s where it gets good: Blinded was released in December 2013 and the trade paperback will be available from Amazon.com on April 1st.

What’s the plan this time around? I’m going to throw down 50,000 words on my fourth book, a Sci-Fi Thriller tentatively entitled Slipping Off The Grid. Here’s the working blurb:

It’s January 2030 and there’s a war taking place over privacy rights. It’s bloodless combat waged across net connections between governments and the citizens who fight to remain anonymous.

In the fight to control the world’s data, there are winners and losers. A survivor of the Moral Monday Riots, Derek Reynolds is both. He’s won the war, obtaining an elite position with the Security Ops Group, yet a year ago, he suffered loss when his sister slipped off the Grid. Using the tools at his command, Derek begins a search to find Gemma and bring her home under Amnesty. That’s when he meets Callie, an Off-Gridder hiding from her abusive political family. Callie has everything to lose – including her life. Can Derek convince her to take him to his sister?

In a culture where every statistic is quantified, every behavior predicted, the metadata of life itself cataloged and indexed, Derek has to know, will the probabilities prove correct? Will Callie defy the odds and risk her own freedom to help him? And when he finds Gemma, will Derek be able to leave Callie behind? For despite data to the contrary, Derek cannot deny his feelings for Callie…

Exciting, right? I can’t wait to see how it turns out! To stalk my wordsmithing progress, follow my daily progress here.

News Update: CampNaNoWriMo Winner!

Camp NaNoWriMo, August 2012 Session

I have done the unthinkable. I signed up for the Camp NaNoWriMo August 2012 Session the day before it started yesterday, I met the goal of writing 50,000 words in less than thirty-one days. I finished with a day to spare. Yay, me!

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular camp, Camp NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge billed as “An idyllic writers retreat, located smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” In other words, it is a completely  voluntary online writing challenge where the “Campers” set a goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. Yes, that’s only ONE month. And I signed up on July 31st, silly me!

Nifty writing stats? They’re right here.

And best of all, I hit a secondary goal I set for myself. With the exception of one technical fencing scene to be completed (you knew there had to be at least one, right?), the rough draft of book two of The Tenderfoot Series, Blinded, is complete!

I have one more surprise to add. Because I started the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge with 30,000+ words already down, and the rough draft came to 74,000+, I was short words. To meet the full 50,000 word goal, I took the liberty of beginning book three of The Tenderfoot Series, which is titled Riposte. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about the conclusion to Jules and Andrew’s story. If that’s whose story it is…

*****

News Update: The CampNaNoWriMo Halfway There Update

Camp NaNoWriMo, August 2012 Session

Remember that crazy person who signed up for the August Session of Camp NaNoWriMo? She’s still here and on her behalf, I am checking in with a status update report on her progress.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular camp, Camp NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge billed as “An idyllic writers retreat, located smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” In other words, it is a completely  voluntary online writing challenge where the “Campers” set a goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. Yes, that’s only ONE month. And I signed up on July 31st, silly me!

Yesterday was Day Sixteen of the Thirty-One month challenge. So where do I stand at the halfway mark? A pretty good place it would appear! According to my daily progress here, I am ahead of target. When I started on August 1st, Blinded stood at 30, 367 words. As of today, 61,017 are down, which means I have written a grand total of 30,380 words since August 1st. Yes, that’s write, I wrote 30,000 words in sixteen days! I’ll let you do the math on that, although the link above breaks out some pretty nice stats.

I feel pretty good about the challenge. I’m not surprised the words are coming – they came like this for Tenderfoot – I just find it remarkable that the house is still standing and the kids have made it to school, with lunches even. Sure, we’ve all had to make sacrifices. For example, I have given up cooking for the month of August. Oh, wait… that’s not a sacrifice! My family prefers take out or frozen/pantry dinner, not that you’d believe me now when I say I am a great cook. Meh! Meh, I say!

And that’s the latest. There’s a quote from my favorite vulgarian author (I warned you!) Chuck Wendig that I like to keep in mind: “I am a writer, and I am done fucking around.” 

Bring it August 31st! I’m ready for you!

Short Fiction: A Fair Virus

A FAIR VIRUS

A short story of 2,300 words.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Sure, we thought there would be riots, but only in Afghanistan, until things blew over. Not in Washington D.C., New York City, or Raleigh-Durham, for pete’s sake. No one predicted this outcome.”

To titters from the audience in the gallery, he drew a deep breath. The world was watching.

“The solution to forty five years of war in Afghanistan was within grasp. After twelve years on the ground, here was our reality: Afghanistan was fifteenth in the world in underdevelopment, the population could barely expect to live to fifty years of age, and ten percent of them were involved in illegal drug trade. After twelve years of American involvement, something needed to be done. Afghanistan was the worst kind of pit. It sucked in soldiers, careers, and money. And what did we, the West, have to show for our commitment?”

His fingers reached inside his heavily decorated jacket by force of habit. For the millionth time, they came back empty. It was a nervous habit, reaching for his cigarettes, as he was on government property, where smoking was not allowed. His empty fingers reached forward to the microphone to bend it a hair closer. He spoke again.

“You want to know how it started? Do you remember that article published in The Atlantic magazine in 2012? The one about a cat virus that changed the behavior of mice? It was a remarkable article about a remarkable virus. Of all things, this virus, Toxoplasma gondii, makes mice want to be near cats, cats that would gladly kill them! But what if? What if it could be used as a weapon? It was then, in April 2012, that I formed a team. We discussed it for hours, arguing the pros and cons as my team combed through scientific papers. Was it possible? We thought so. The real question was, could a tweaked Toxoplasma parasite do what guns, bombs, and new infrastructure funding couldn’t?”

He stood up and lifted a black briefcase onto the table. With two clicks, the old-fashioned clasps flipped open. He raised the lid. The Lieutenant General lifted two dozen copies of the magazine article and carefully set them on the table. An aide stepped forward. He put the briefcase on the floor as the aide began to distribute the article among the Senators serving on the United States Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. He was careful to keep his eyes on the man on the left, the one who headed the Investigation.

“After twelve years on the ground in Afghanistan, there was only one way to find out. We gave the project to a university down South along with funding. Ample funding. With financial motivation, it didn’t take long until they figured out how to alter the enzyme activity. We named it Toxoplasma democracii.”

The woman on the right spoke.

The Lieutenant General nodded, ready to answer. “Testing? You want to know about testing? We tested it. And it wasn’t hard to find someone willing to help us. A corrections company that fudged prisoner rights all over the place caught the eye of the Justice Department. We went right to them, and boy, were they glad to see us. They were having unresolved problems at one particular prison. We went down there with the virus in a liquid solution and distributed it in the soap. Worked like a charm. You can check the record – they haven’t had any problems since then. It’s a model prisoner population.” He paused, then added, “The prison book club went from a dozen prisoners to everyone in the prison. The literacy rate jumped from 46% to 99%. The prisoners are not only literate, now some of them write the books they review in the book club.”

His lawyer leaned over and whispered as several Senators on the Subcommittee laughed. The Lieutenant General waved him away.

“In answer to your question, yes, we tested it. And then we deployed the solution. It was easy enough to make the live particulates, and with test results better than projected, we rubber-stamped a factory we’d put on standby to start production around the clock. Then we dusted stacks of freshly minted U.S. dollars and Afghanis in smaller denominations with the live particulates. We called them Fairbucks. We targeted the smaller denominations in hopes that the less advantaged Afghans would have just as much opportunity to come into contact with Toxoplasma democracii.”

He continued, “This is how we projected it work: Afghans would get paid with Fairbucks. They handle it, wipe their eyes or touch their mouths a few times, and before you know it, the war is over. One by one, Afghans would wake up and want more for themselves and their families. They would demand fair treatment from the Taliban. From their government. From the United States. This virus would change the behavior of millions of Afghans. Not only would they want a better way of life, they would want democracy, true democracy, not some phony government propped up with local level bribes. And each individual would do their part: treat their neighbors with respect, dig up land mines, stop sowing their fields with poppies, acknowledge women’s rights. Then they would put their guns down and come to the table to work out a solution. And the Taliban would stop stealing our cheese. The Taliban would either disband as they all went home to their families or become a humanitarian organization.”

There were murmurs throughout the gallery but the Senators’ gazes had softened. Except for that of the female Senator from Wisconsin. She was frowning. She obviously didn’t appreciate the cheese joke.

She asked, “But Lieutenant General, what did your office do when it received the first requests to immigrate to the United States two weeks after the Fairbucks went into circulation?”

“Requests to immigrate? We’ve received those since the first day of Operation Enduring Freedom. Did the amount increase once we started handing out Fairbucks? Yes. Did it mean anything other than the program was going as planned? No. It wasn’t until late 2014 that the metaphoric waves of immigrants began crashing up against the Statue of Liberty. We knew we might have a problem in early 2014 when reports of Afghans wanting to join the U.S. Military were received. We didn’t think much of it. We figured it was just a matter of education and time until they could join their own army, and serve their own country while things sorted themselves out.”

He looked from face to face. Any levity was gone from their expressions. They stared right back.

“And on what date did you know the Fairbucks program had truly gone awry?” The younger Senator from Texas smelled blood.

“September 22nd, 2014.”

“What happened on that date?”

The Lieutenant General glanced at his very expensive counsel. They nodded. The room was so quiet he could hear individuals in the gallery shifting in their seats.

“The Afghan Treaty Conference in Kabul.”

The Texas Senator leaned forward. “And what happened at the Afghan Treaty Conference?”

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan asked to become a territory of the United States.”

There was a stifled cough from the back of the silent gallery.

“And was that the purpose of the treaty the United States proposed?”

The Lieutenant General swallowed. He knew the bead of sweat forming on his brow would appear life size on TV under the bright lights. “No, Senator.”

“What was the purpose of the Treaty?” The Senator asked.

“It was a resolution to cease hostilities between Afghanistan and the United States, proposing a plan with projected target dates for establishing a democratic Afghan government and removal of American troops from Afghanistan.”

“And when the Prime Minister of Afghanistan declined to sign the treaty and instead proposed becoming a territory, what happened?” Out of the corner of his eye the Lieutenant General saw the lady Senator pick up her copy of the article.

“The United States declined the request.”

The Senator from Rhode Island said, “Lieutenant General, how many Afghans demonstrated in front the United States Embassy in Kabul the next day?”

“We estimated two million.”

“And how many throughout the country?”

“Another fifteen million. Half the population.”

“And how did the U.S. forces respond?”

“In various ways.”

“Why is that, Lieutenant General?”

“They were confused, Senator.”

“Why were they confused?”

It was like his lawyer said. Each member of the Subcommittee had an agenda, none of which coincided with ending the war in Afghanistan.

“Well, Senator, excuse my French, but it really trashed the mission. Our forces were used to having RPGs shot at them. When Toxoplasmosis democracii spread through the country, our forces on the ground began receiving a high volume of invitations from high ranking assets crucial to winning the war of Afghan hearts and minds. Then we received invitations from resources less crucial to winning the war of Afghan hearts and minds. Wanting to make the most of every opportunity, almost every team on the ground went from house to house, village to village, drinking tea until their bladders almost exploded. After three months, there were no enemies left to target. So when the demonstrations started, our guys, well, the mission for the troops was unclear. We wanted to be their friends. They wanted to be our friends. Only they wanted something the military is not in the business of providing. Citizenship. So they surrounded our installations to demand visas.”

“And what was our response?” The lady Senator obviously knew the answer but asked it anyway.

“We got the hell out, Senator. Full scale troop evacuation.”

“And why was this chosen over other options?”

“Shooting your friends looks bad. Plus, most of the important military assets had already been moved out of the country.”

The Senator on the left chuckled. “Sounds like a rout to me!” The gallery laughed.

The Lieutenant General took a sip of water. His throat was dry and he knew they weren’t done yet. A few more Senators were handling the articles.

He felt it now, courage. It began to well up and his anxiety vanished.

“The disorderly withdrawal was necessary.”

“And why is that? Because we looked like damned fools!” The Senator from Texas had an election in two months time.

The lady Senator added, “So let me get this straight,” she paused for a moment to peer down at him. It didn’t matter. His work was done here. “- the Fairbucks program had the unintended consequence of forcing the mighty U.S. military to pull out of Afghanistan almost overnight, and you believe it was necessary?”

“My apologies Senator, but where I come from, we have a saying. If you break it, you buy it. Once we saw that the demonstrations would continue until we acceded to their demands, it was the only humane thing to do. Well, that, or accept their request.”

Now the elderly Senator from Oregon spoke up. “Accept their request?”

The Lieutenant General could hear the whirl of lens zooming in. “To grant them the right to become a territory of the United States of America.”

There were gasps throughout the gallery.

“Lieutenant General, are you proposing that the United States of America should admit Afghanistan as a territory?”

“No, Senator. But I believe that is what this Subcommittee will do in two weeks’ time.”

The lawyer closest to him gripped his elbow. The Lieutenant General moved to lay his hand on it. Spreading a little extra particulate couldn’t hurt.

The Senators were all speaking at once. The Lieutenant General decided it was time. He stood. He waited. A few minutes later, the most powerful Subcommittee of the most powerful government body quieted as they waited for him to speak.

“We broke Afghanistan. We own it. And it is not the only country we broke. We’ve meddled with almost every country on the Earth. So here’s what’s going to happen. In two weeks time, this body will propose a World Treaty of Peace and the armies and navies and air forces around the globe will disband when their nations become part of the United Nations of America.”

In the moment he dreamt of night after dark night, he gestured to his own personal copy of the article on the table in front of him.

“Those articles about Toxoplasmosis are covered in democracii as were the ones sent to the Washington D.C. office of every Senator and Representative last week. Very fitting, don’t you think? To share the virus that brings humanity closer to one another? For we are no longer the cats. We are all the mice. I understood that when the Pakistanis flooded into Afghanistan a week after we pulled out. Inadvertently, the Fairbucks spread democracy to Pakistan. Soon, Toxoplasmosis democracii will spread to every corner of the Earth. War as we know it will cease to exist. Humanity will know true peace for the first time.”

He turned directly to the cameras. “On behalf of the United States of America, I apologize to our friends in Afghanistan for not accepting your request to become a territory. To the world, I say, the greatest moment humanity has ever dreamt of will arrive soon. We welcome and value your friendship. And to the citizens of this great country, the United States of America, you can leave your xenophobic demonstrations. Return to your homes to care for your families. The people of Afghanistan will have no further need to sail to our shores, for they will soon be Americans, as will the rest of the world.”

In one final gesture, the Lieutenant General reached up to his shoulders and unbuttoned the three stars from each epaulette. To a chorus of chaos, he set the stars on the table.

***

News Update: CampNaNoWriMo!

Camp NaNoWriMo, August 2012 Session

I have done the unthinkable. I signed up for the Camp NaNoWriMo August 2012 Session the day before it started. Am I motivated? Am I ambitious? Did I watch wayyy too many hours of the Summer Olympics last weekend? Yes, yes, and yes!

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular camp, Camp NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge billed as “An idyllic writers retreat, located smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” In other words, it is a completely  voluntary online writing challenge where the “Campers” set a goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. Yes, that’s only ONE month. And I signed up on July 31st, silly me!

That’s why I am writing this post AFTER I have met my daily goal of 1,620 words a day. Naturally, I will have to write more than that per day given the “crazy life” obstacles each day will present. Tomorrow’s goal shouldn’t be hard to meet, but various weekend commitments will pose some nice hurdles. You know, just to get me warmed up for the challenge of making my goal the three days my family will be out of town at a water park. Sploosh.

My plan is to draw on inspiration and caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine. I will be sucking downs barrels o’ Diet Coke. As added incentive, when I have 30,000 words in the bank, I get to order Camp swag from the store to hang on the inspiration board that resides above my home pc. One nice thing is that I was assigned to a cabin of six other “Campers.” So I can see how they are doing and meet some new people while foregoing a daily slathering of sunscreen and mosquito blood donations.

So wish me luck in my endeavor to add 50,000 words to the existing 30,687 that currently make up the manuscript that is Blinded! You can check my daily progress here.

News: Short Story Anthology

New: one of my short stories has been included in a short story anthology of independent authors put together by the Indie Book Lounge, called fittingly enough, Short Story Anthology. It is available in paperback for $5.95 at Amazon.com. As you can see from the cover, the short stories cover sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal genres.

That short story, The Backahasten, was also posted on my blog if you’d like to read it for free.

***

Ugly American: In Memory of MCA of The Beastie Boys: A True Story

Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys

UGLY AMERICAN: IN MEMORY OF MCA OF THE BEASTIE BOYS

A TRUE STORY

A memory inspired by the passing of MCA.

True Story: I once pissed off every one of my French neighbors in an apartment complex.

A year after it was released, I discovered Licensed To Ill. In the summer of 1987, I was fourteen years old and an American abroad. My family had moved to the suburbs of Paris, France a year prior. I had survived seventh and eighth grade but ninth grade loomed on the horizon that summer. I was nervous about navigating another culture where my ability to speak the language did not match my comprehension, a comprehension founded on French classes at my school and watching reruns of a dubbed version of The A-Team. Stuck in the awkward teenage phase, I avoided dressing like a tourist, of being judged yet another ugly American.

You would see them on the subway sporting fanny packs, shorts, and white sneakers, with a camera and a guidebook. But really, you heard them before you saw them. They were loud. They made direct eye-contact. They broke the rules. Trying to adapt to this new culture, my friends and I stood as far away as possible. We’d turn our jean-jacketed backs to them. We made it very clear: we were most definitely NOT TOURISTS.

I feel it is necessary to point out that there was no Internet back then. (Tragic, I know.) French Radio left much to be desired, since I had zero desire to sing about some taxi driver named Joe. My only option was to buy cassettes on a monthly trip to an American military base in Belgium. But what great luck that I chose this album based on the cover art of a fighter jet because the Beastie Boys’ music blew the top of my head off!

Thanks to MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D, I embraced my true inner ugly American. After rewinding seconds of tape over and over until I had sussed out all the words to “She’s Crafty”, I made the leap. I threw open the windows to my bedroom and blasted “Fight For Your Right” out into the apartment complex, as loud as my boombox would play, subjecting all of my French neighbors to some radical American rap. The Beastie Boys were so rad. Like totally raaad. And all five multi-story apartment buildings heard the entire album.

Today, while the world mourns the passing of MCA, an incredibly talented rapper, I remember him in my own way. I remember him in that moment when I threw open the windows to the same world, a strange world, and owned my American culture.

Because it was time for me to “Drrrrr-op!”

R.I.P. MCA.

*****

The Button: A Bedtime Story

Drawing By Emily Tupper, age 8

Flash Fiction

This is a bedtime story I told my daughters one evening. My eldest daughter asked for a story set in Hawaii about a ten-year-old girl. It was rewarding to watch her eyes grow wide upon hearing the a story about the simplest of possibilities – that something lost might be found.

*****

Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in Hawaii. She was ten years old. She liked living on an island because it always seemed like there was something new and beautiful around the corner.

One day, there was no school. The little girl decided to go for a walk. Before long, she walked down the street and out of the neighborhood to the wild garden. Every day when she rode the school bus, she would look at it through the dirty windows and wish the bus would stop right there.

Now this garden was no ordinary garden. It was wild. There was no house nearby where someone might come out and tend to all the trees, plants, and flowers. So they grew tall, crooked, and as colorful as they might. The garden became a jungle.

The little girl walked through the garden, stopping here and there to smell the flowers. Then she came to a large pink flower that swayed at eye-level. When she bent down, something shiny under it caught her eye. It was an old-fashioned metal button. She was excited to find such a pretty treasure and put it in her pocket.  The little girl continued exploring the garden until the sun began to set and she went home.

A few days later, her mother came to her. “Where did you find this?”

The little girl recognized the silver treasure in the middle of her mother’s outstretched hand. “I found the button in the overgrown garden.”

Her mother’s eyes grew large. “Come with me.”

The little girl dutifully took her mother’s other hand and they walked to the closet. Inside, her mother removed a very old sweater.

“Do you see? You found the button to my baby sweater!”

While it showed more wear than the others, the button matched. They marveled at it for a moment.

“Momma, I will make sure you never lose it again.” And the girl ran to get her sewing kit.

*****

Drawing By Allison Tupper, age 6

Flash Fiction: Drama Sandwich

Drawing by Allison Tupper, age 6

Flash Fiction

This bit of flash fiction didn’t quite meet the criteria for a challenge I tried this week but it was fun to crawl inside Jade’s head and discuss Jules from her point of view. And who doesn’t like a little extra glimpse inside the Tenderfoot world?

*****

DRAMA SANDWICH

Just this once, I’m doing it – I’m breaking the don’t-eat-your-roommate’s-food rule.

At least I have a good excuse. Cheerleading practice ran late and I missed dinner in the cafeteria. That pissed me off to no end because dad-burn-it, it was Chicken Fried Steak night! Wouldn’t you know, I ran extra laps before practice just so I could smother my dinner in gravy. Now instead of pouring it on, I’m in our dorm room rifling through Jules’ stash. At least she has one. All I have is skunked beer.

On top of her fridge, I find half a loaf of bread. I grab that and open the small black door to her cube-sized fridge. I don’t need to dig much to find something to put on the bread; there’s a pouch of deli meat on top of several bottles of water. There’s also something that looks like cheese but it’s not the right color of orange. Hastily, I put it back, next to a jar of something called lingonberry jam. Jules is always eating weird-looking cheese. For an American, she eats some seriously strange stuff. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up some place else. I rummage around and move some deli packages to the side. There’s no mayo.

Butter it is then. I grab it and shut the door. I carry everything in my arms over to my desk. I push some stuff out of the way and drop the ingredients on it. Now I need a knife. There’s a clean one in a plastic cup on top of Jules’ fridge but if I use it, I know I’m going to have to clean it. It’s one thing to eat her food, it’s another to leave her a dirty knife. In my catch-all basket, I locate a plastic one in a mess of napkins. After a quick swipe on my pants, it’s good.

You can tell Jules grew up somewhere else just by looking at her clothes. For instance, half of them are black. And the other half? They’re running clothes! Jules doesn’t look bad, she just doesn’t wear the right ones. This is a competitive campus. She’s got to kick it up a notch.

I untwist the tie from bag and take out two slices of bread. I frown. It’s whole wheat bread. I really wish it was white but I guess beggars can’t be choosers. My uncaring stomach growls.

One day I took Jules shopping at the mall and she tried on a heap of clothes. She was a good sport, and even bought a few of them, but I knew she was uncomfortable. She got that look of hers, the one where she’s smiling yet her eyes are telling ya something different. To be honest, Jules did look kind of odd in most of them. I think her style is just as different as she is.

I unwrap the cold chunk of butter. I realize it is in no way softened when I try to spread some on the knife. I struggle but eventually I have an ungainly hunk carved off and on the bread. By the time I give up, there’s bits and pieces not only on the bread but on my desk and the floor. I smooth the bread out to hide the hole where the bread tore. Still, a bit o’ butter is better than none.

And yet. This roommate of mine landed herself a total hottie – and then dumped him! I didn’t even know for the longest time that they’d broken up. Like seriously, right? I reach for the meat and open the pouch. It’s roast beef. I shake my head. It sucked that she didn’t tell me. It sucked that I didn’t even know they were fighting or whatever. And she’s my roommate! She’s supposed to tell me this shit! Worst of all, it continues to suck because she’s obviously still in love with him. For reals, on Halloween they kissed in the middle of the street like nobody else even existed. I should have known something was up when she started studying all the time. I pull several shaved slices out. It’s way more than I intended at first, but the smell of it is so good, I drop what I have onto my sort-of-buttered bread except for one, which I stuff in my watering mouth. I chew. “Studying” my ass. I saw her eyes. Jules was crying them out wherever the hell it was she was hiding.

I wrap the meat and butter up but I can’t find the twist tie for the bread bag. I turn around to check the floor and my eyes light on the flowers Andrew sent Jules. They are gorgeous, just gorgeous. He clearly wants her back. God, what is her deal? She likes him, he likes her, why the heck aren’t they together? I find the twist tie on the floor near her bed.

I like Jules. She puts up with my mess, listens to my boy problems, and we rock out together at concerts for her “friend” Nick’s band. He’s just dying to get into her pants, I don’t understand why she doesn’t see that. She’s just so different. And sometimes, a little creepy. I would swear she knows when I’m lying, and I’ve caught her watching me. I’m not sure why she does that but it makes me feel like a bug. She’s my friend but I just don’t know where I stand with her.

I slap the bread together, pick the sandwich up, and take the biggest bite ever. It’s delicious. I chew, ravenous. After another bite, I take it with me in one hand as I put everything back with the other.

I realize Jules is like this sandwich. At first glance, it’s exactly what you expect it to be but like her, it turns out to be something different. Something a little damaged.

I take another huge bite. The door to the dorm room opens.

*****

Flash Fiction: Champion

Drama Sandwich

Drawing by Emily Tupper, age 8

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment was to write flash fiction where a character makes a “drama sandwich,” as I came to think of it. In other words, write a compelling story where a character makes a sandwich.

This is my second attempt. The first attempt turned out to be a more nuanced story with less drama, less conflict. Since that story does not technically meet the criteria, I will post it tomorrow.

Both stories take place in the world of my book Tenderfoot. Bon appetit!

*****

CHAMPION

There’s a story I haven’t told Jules. At the time it happened, I thought I might fill her in as things went along. Jules has this mistaken idea that I, Nick, don’t like her boyfriend. She makes assumptions like this all the time. Like everything is black or white, yin or yang, oil or water. You would think that by now she would see all the nuanced shades of gray but she doesn’t. Her thinking is stuck. The reality is, I like Andrew. How can you not like a guy who takes care of his girl?

I was impressed when Andrew walked Jules back to her dorm after some asshat trolling for college girls on Franklin Street tried to rough her up in a bar room full of people. Having seen it time and time again with these star-crossed lovers, I knew Andrew would stay with Jules as long as possible. That’s how it’s always been – two magnets circling until they come close enough in proximity and they snap together, just like that. What I didn’t expect was for Andrew to come back after he safely saw her home. I thought they’d spend the whole night together. But once I realized he was down below on the street, I quickly grabbed a pair of boots and ran down the stairs. I caught up with him around the corner. He was easy to track – he practically glowed from the contact high. What worried me was the whiff of adrenalin that lingered on his trail. And I was right. When I catch sight of Andrew he’s standing next to the asshat in a sandwich shop.

So there they are, predator and prey. Fascinated, I walk in and get a front row seat, which is to say, I join them in line for a sandwich. It’s a shame the place didn’t sell popcorn.

The troll shifts his weight from foot to foot as some college girl makes his sandwich on the other side of the counter. She pulls a long sub roll off of a tray behind her and places it on the cutting board. Then she picks up a knife. That’s when Andrew steps into the troll’s personal space. I watch out of the corner of my eye as the troll looks up. His eyes widen. The troll steps away to the side, and hastily aligns his body forward. I hide a grin. Andrew’s watching the girl. When she has the sub cut open, she looks up. First at me, then Andrew, then the troll. I smile.

“What do you want on your sandwich? And do you want cheese with that?” She asks the troll. Her nametag says “Amanda.” How Americans love their informal formalities. The troll was concentrating so hard on Andrew, he seems a bit startled when she speaks to him.

“Buffalo Chicken, with that cheese there.” He points beyond the glass.

“The provolone?” She asks. The troll nods.

Amanda’s busy now, taking a portion of chicken out of a fridge behind her so she can put it in the microwave. While that’s heating up, she picks up a portion of pre-sliced cheese, discards the plastic paper around it and peels back the slices. As she lays the neat little triangles on the bread, Andrew turns to stare straight at the troll. The troll fidgets a bit. I don’t think he’s drunk enough to cushion the freight train that’s coming.

“What would you like on it?” Amanda asks.

The troll mumbles his reply, clearly unnerved. Amanda’s eyes shift from the troll to Andrew and back. She makes a good choice – she puts her head down and begins to sprinkle lettuce, onion, and green peppers onto the sub.

All at once several things happen: the microwave beeps, Andrew steps closer, and the troll returns his stare. They stand eye-to-eye. This is starting to get interesting.

Andrew’s shoulders have risen a smidge and I notice his fencing hand is absolutely still. The only question is when he will use it. The girl pulls the chopped sauced chicken from the microwave and begins laying it across. She puts a hand on the bottle of mayo.

“Would you like anything else?” From the way her eyes shift between them, she realizes there really is a problem.

The troll narrows his to a squint at Andrew as he replies, “I’m good.” And then he steps right up to him and says, “I’d like this to go.” Amanda wastes no time. She wraps that sub up, bags it, and asks for his money lickety-split. As the troll hands her the money, he asks her, “When do you get off work? We could go get a drink.” And he leers. Her eyelashes flutter as the poor thing looks down and makes some excuse. This is followed by the distinct sound of one of Andrew’s knuckles popping. The troll cocks his head at Andrew with such a smirk that now I’m ready to deck the guy.

Moving right along, Amanda asks Andrew, “Can I help you?”

Ever so politely, Andrew replies, “No thank you, I got what I came for.” The troll leaves, sandwich in hand, and Andrew follows him out. I didn’t bother to follow them. There’s only one way this will go down. By the time I leave the sandwich shop, chewing black forest ham on oat with mayo and black olive, Andrew’s already hit him a couple of times and is delivering a lecture on treating women right in the alley around the corner.

I pause for a moment and watch. It’s always heartwarming to see a champion in action.

*****

Flash Fiction: Management Tool

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment was to write flash fiction using an unlikable protagonist in less than 1000 words. The TV show House was the first time the idea of an unlikable protagonist ever resonated for me. The character was such a revelation, it felt much like being punched in the face. Only, in a good way.

*****

MANAGEMENT TOOL

Monday

The day is off to a good start. I hang around the entryway until Joanna arrives. I step onto the elevator behind her so she can only see me out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, Jo.” Her brow wrinkles. She reports directly to me yet I haven’t spoken to her in six months.

“Good morning.”

I note she doesn’t have enough balls to correct me on her name and she smells like my grandmother’s basement. “Are you ready for the meeting this morning? I heard it’s going to be one hell of a presentation.”

She shifts her insulated lunch bag to the other hand. The dark green of the bag matches the color of her coat. They’re so ugly, I want to burn them both. “I’m not going to be there. I’m in that new workgroup.”

“Too bad,” I remark. The elevator comes to a stop. I head in the opposite direction.

Tuesday

I open the spreadsheet. Damn it! How many times do I have to tell Ben how to fill this out? I might as well as just do it my damn self, right after I pick up his dry cleaning and fuck his wife. For a moment, I muse about the wife but then I remember his car. Ben drives a piece of shit. There is no way he has a pretty wife. I slug back half a can of Rockstar and watch the traffic around the break room. Several people come and go while Jason stands off to the side with Joanna. He checks out her tits while she talks to him. Nice.

I turn back to the screen. The spreadsheet is still a piece of shit. I print a copy. The fresh ink smears as I circle several columns with a big red pen. For a finishing touch, I scribble “Ben, WTF?!” at the top of the paper. I check the time. It’s 11:05am, not too early for lunch. Ben isn’t at his desk. I tape it to his screen where everybody walking by will see it and head to the elevator.

Wednesday

Candi passes my office on her way to the break room. I hastily grab my mug and follow her. As usual, she goes straight to the coffee pot. She greets me and we make small chat. The black skirt she’s wearing needs to be about 8 inches shorter but still, I get a good look down her blouse when she dumps the old stuff down the sink. Candi drones on about the specs of the new product line while she fusses with the coffee. I manage to lean in and get a whiff of her perfume before she catches on.

“Oh, would you mind doing me a favor?” I ask.

“Sure, what is it?”

With a big smile, I raise my coffee mug. “Would you bring me some fresh coffee with the pot is ready?” Grudgingly, Candi takes it. She may be a Senior Engineer but I outrank her. “Thanks, you’re a doll!” I head to the elevators for a smoke.

Thursday

I enter the bathroom behind Ted. He’s short. I notice his balding head as we step up to the urinals, which is unusual. He tends to lock himself in a stall when I encounter him in the bathroom. Taking advantage of the moment, I start up a conversation about local college sports. Ted excitedly recounts the bad calls from the night before. I take my whizz, shake twice, and zip ‘er back up. Ted finishes after me, but not before I notice he has an incredibly tiny johnson. As we wash our hands in adjoining sinks, I remark, “Tell me something. Do you have a girlfriend?”

He says, “Tristan, I’m married and have four kids.” I shrug.

Friday

I get lucky after lunch. There’s an email from Jason. The marketing team is jonesing to get their sticky paws on the test unit. It’s not even due for another two months from Hong Kong but he wants to send them a mock-up. It sickens me how well Jason works with others. If he didn’t report to me, he’d make me look bad. Just last week, he fixed a fuck up – Ben’s of course – that would have cost us a week of production time. I’m halfway tempted to send Jason to India to lead the setup of the new call center but frankly, the idea of Ted’s wife fending with four kids for three months on her own is tantalizing. If only I had an excuse to send Ben. Then again, I doubt the guy could find the airport much less another continent.

I head to Connor’s office, and breeze by Jerry, the C.E.O.’s pink cardigan-wearing admin. She looks up briefly then returns to her online gossip column. I walk in his office.

“I got your email. Have a seat,” Connor says.

I casually sit down in one of the bank chairs in front of his desk.

Connor leans forward. “I’m glad you stopped by. I’ve been wanting to discuss something with you. You know we have some new opportunities.” Instantly, I sit up in my chair. Where is this conversation going?

He continues, “I think it’s about time we took advantage of all your experience and I have just the thing. I’ve made a decision on the call center. I want you to run it. I’ve seen how you handle your people. You keep them in line, make your deadlines, and hit your targets. I want you in Bangalore and I’ll make it worth your while. Tell me you’ll do it.” He stands up and offers me a hand.

Fuck, I’ve been promoted to India. I jumped up, dazed. I thought they were sending that jerk Pentowski who sneers at me in the hallways.

 “Tristan, I won’t take no for an answer. You’re the best man for the job.” His words ring in my ears. My hand rises of its own accord.

 “Okay,” I mumble.

*****

Flash Fiction: Government Issue

teddy bear, guardian, government issue, red bow

A Drawing by Emily Tupper, Age 8

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment was to write a short story in seven acts in 1000 words. When I began, this felt like scaling Mount Everest. Luckily, the air grew thin and I stopped overthinking it. I just put one foot in front of the other.

*****

GOVERNMENT ISSUE

They said it would be an easy assignment. Theodore wasn’t sure if anything was easy, much less an assignment, but he let it slide when they tied the military-issued bow around his neck. The color was old-fashioned. Gazing at his reflection in the mirror, he had to admit it suited his looks. Theodore straightened one corner. He was ready.

And so it came to be that Theodore found himself at a birthday party. His General had allowed as her name was Madison. What a lovely name, he thought. The way she threw her skinny four-year-old arms around him, it was like to push the stuffing right out. Then she gave him a big chocolate kiss.

The chocolate was still on Madison’s face when the Mother put his Charge to bed. Theodore won a place of honor against the pillow, tucked beneath the purple and blue quilted coverlet. Madison slid in under the covers. Her little body was warm against his fur. It wasn’t long after the lights were turned off that her breathing calmed. Theodore waited until her tiny body shuddered. Only then did he pull himself from her grasp and give himself a good shake to restore the fluff to his fur. Then he paced the room. He investigated until he was completely familiar with everything in it. To his relief, the closet remained closed. He’d investigate it during the day.

A week went by, then a month, as Theodore settled into a life of domesticity. He slept by day and kept watch over his Charge by night. He had yet to see any sign of a Glorax. But as they said at The Factory, every night we keep vigil. And he did.

One night, during the quietest moment of the Long Dark, Theodore caught a whiff of something sour. The closet door was closed. He sniffed quietly, trying to coax out the source. Would a Glorax attack if the door to its portal was shut? Nevertheless, he slowly rose into position on the pillow beside the head of his Charge. As she dreamed the sweet dreams of little girls, he pulled on the end of his red bow. It unwound into a pool of ribbon. And when the beast showed itself, Theodore struck it smartly across the snout with the razor-sharp edge of his red whip. It jumped away with a hiss. Theodore jumped to the edge of the bed, just in time to watch the green reptile slide under. A Parveka! Even with ninety years of service, his General had fought the vilest of nightmare monsters but a single time.

Theodore ran back to his station to prepare for the next assault. A Parveka wouldn’t give up until the break of dawn sent it packing.

It came quickly. The Parveka sprang from the end and raced up the coverlet to meet Theodore. The galloping knocked Theodore off balance but he managed to jump up and deliver whistling  ribbon knives. Only two of the six found home between the edges of the Parveka’s tough scales. Theodore raised his paw and four flew back to him. They joined together into ribbon. He raised his other paw and the two began to dig deep into muscle and sinew as the nightmare roared in pain. Its shifty snake eyes glinted as it pulled the wiggling knives out with gnarled claws. Theodore gave a running kick and knocked it off the bed and onto the floor. The larger creature hissed a mouthful of teeth as it landed with a thump. Dark green blood dripped from the cuts. Eventually, it removed the sharp knives. Theodore summoned them back. Then he formed a new weapon.

They fought in this manner for hours. The Parveka would attack from one side then another. Each advance was thwarted. Time and time again, Theodore sent it scuttling off. His arms and legs grew tired as cuts and tears marred his own fur. It devolved into a contest of endurance. Theodore tried new transformations with his weapon. Knives, a whip, a long-handled hammer, a scythe, yet none of them were sufficient to drive it off.

Theodore kept an eye on the clock. May the Sun rise quickly this dark morn. It seemed his prayers were answered when the Parveka stumbled out of reach of the red hook and slid back under the bed. Was it gone? It seemed too good to be true. Then Theodore realized his error. During the long night, he’d kept his Charge safe. Yet, had he removed the danger? Did I prevent more children from dying? He smoothed the wet ribbon between his paws, wondering.

With a leap, Theodore threw himself on the floor and slid under the bed. On the other side of the spinning portal was the nightmare. It stopped licking its wounds with a forked purple tongue. It watched him warily. The Guardian Bear toyed with the ribbon. Time grew short until he feinted to the left and threw the ribbon forward. The lasso flashed forward to settle around the neck of the Parveka. Theodore yanked. The jolt sent the Parveka skittering forward, claws scrabbling against dusty hardwood. It fell into the portal until only its tail remained. Step by step, Theodore slowly hauled the thrashing Parveka out of the portal. Then he stood his ground.

The Sun finally rose. There was a flash beneath the bed as the portal closed on the raging, injured Parveka. The beast was instantly cleft in two. With a blast, its guts sprayed outward. The viscera fell to the floor as sparkling dust and vanished.

With aching arms, Theodore tied the almost-new ribbon in a jaunty bow around his neck. It was agony but he jumped onto the bed and crawled to his spot on the pillow. Maddy turned over. As she did so, she threw an arm around him. Her embrace was welcome as a wave of fatigue swept over him. In the early dawn, the soldier let go and slipped under.

*****

Flash Fiction: From The Sun

Drawing by Emily Tupper, age 8

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment was to write no more than a thousand words in the present tense. Voila!

My main idea came from an article I read in an issue of The Atlantic. Global warming, nuclear accidents, killer asteroids, and vampires… these apocalyptic scenarios get plenty of attention. Why is everyone overlooking  that big glowing thing in the sky?

*****

FROM THE SUN

Alanna rolls over. The smartphone is buzzing on her bedside table and she’s too tired to open her eyes. It buzzes a second time. With a huff, she reaches out. Her fingers taps across the top of the bedside table but she’s unable to find the damn thing. With a huff, Alanna sits up. She gropes until she finds the grooved peg on the neck of the lamp. With a twist, the light comes on. In the moment of blindness as her eyes adjust, she thinks, who could be calling after midnight?

It’s a text message from Blake. “Turn on the TV, love.” Ten years rewind in a split-second.

Curious, Alanna reaches for the remote control as she leans back into the pillows. The screen moves from tranquil black to a scene of chaos. It’s CNN. A female broadcaster narrates a scene of terrified people, fires, explosions. “This is the last live feed sent from our studio in Tokyo, Japan, one of the world’s most populous cities. As you can see, the population appears unprepared for the rising sun just hours ago. It appears we are experiencing a solar flare from the Sun. Extremely high amounts of electromagnetic energy are striking Earth and temperatures have risen three times higher than normal. These temperatures are higher than most life can withstand.”

The view changes as the horrifying scene is inset and the announcer in the studio comes to the foreground. The broadcast loops. The woman taps her ear, as if adjust her earpiece. Alanna can’t believe her eyes. “Our sources at the Pentagon report the situation is dire. As the sun rises, time zone by time zone, the temperature on Earth will rise as high as 300 degrees Fahrenheit. There appears to be little chance of survival, short of taking shelter underground. Scientific sources believe most electrical grids, nuclear installations, and communications equipment, along with modern infrastructures, will not survive the extreme heat. I am sorry to report that it appears hundreds of millions of people are dead and more will join them.” The announcer audibly swallows.

“Oh my god!” Alanna whispers in her empty bedroom. The screen fills again with fire, flood, and explosions as the ticker runs reports of death steadily across the bottom.

She grabs her phone. As she waits for the call to go through, she mutes the TV. Alanna flips through the channels. The scenes of horror are different from place to place but in the end they are the same; the broadcasts end with static.

He picks up on the third ring.

“Blake?”

“I’m glad you called. I wanted to talk,” he says. His voice is still as she remembers – warm and comforting.

Nervously, she stammers, “Hi. Where are you?” It would be unusual for him to be in the same city two days in a row.

“Somewhere in Kansas. I’m as lost as Dorothy ever was. Tomorrow, I’m supposed to head back to the city…” They both understand there will be no tomorrow but the mention of it is like glass shattering. In the silence, reality breaks into a million jagged pieces.

Finally, he says, “I wish I was there with you.”

“I do too.” The words slip out.

He sighs. “How did we get here? Where did we go wrong?”

Alanna draws her legs up to her chin. She knows. “I shouldn’t have taken my frustration out on you. I’m sorry, so sorry. It was hard for both of us.”

“The fault was mine. I wasn’t there for you, or for Avery.”

How long has it been since she’s heard her daughter’s name aloud? Alanna imagines there is yet again a small warm body snuggled under the covers beside her. The memory defies ten years of sleeping alone. Life is cruel. When she lost one, she lost both. “I wish I made a different choice. Every day I wonder what life would be like, to be with you. I miss you.”

“We both made choices. I only wish we had the chance to make new ones today. You’re still living in our house?”

“I looked at some smaller places but it just didn’t work out.” In truth, the search was a complete failure. In one condo, the bare walls reeking of fresh paint threatened to close in any second, and in another, a swing set in the backyard stared back forlornly. Then she understood. To sell, she would have to paint over the soft pink color of Avery’s room. How could Alanna do that? Pack up and erase every sign of Avery’s existence?

Something moved on the TV. A suit with a clipboard was talking silently to the camera. Were his hands trembling? He was reviewing a series of bullet points on the screen. Seek shelter underground before sunrise. Bring as much survival gear, food, water, and medicine as possible. Appropriate shelter would be deep underground. Underground U.S. Government installations will allow civilians inside until sunrise. Be prepared for floods, fires, and explosions. The initial event may last several days. Sunrise charts are available by city at http://www.sunrise.gov.

“Oh, it’s really happening!” Alanna begins to sob. The tears burst from her eyes. She tried to swipe them away but one or two ran down her neck to the prim neckline of her grey cotton t-shirt.

“I’m afraid it is. And like most nights, this will be one where I wish I was with you.”

Alanna gasps.

“Really, are you that surprised? You really were the only girl for me.”

Swiping fiercely at her face, she can’t stand it anymore. “I’m turning off the TV. Turn off yours and talk to me.”

“Okay,” Blake said. “It’s off.”

“What would you do differently if you could do it over again?”

 He didn’t hesitate. “More children. We should have six more children, all as beautiful as their mother.”

 “Still a charmer! And as smart as their father. What should we name them?”

 They talked until the sun came up.

 *****

Flash Fiction: Cotton Candy Color

  Flash Fiction

*****

It’s been a few weeks since I had the spare moments I need to cobble together a story in my head. I use the word “cobble” because that’s how it felt to get my family ready for Christmas this year. Other applicable words would be “triage”, “minimize”, and “damage.” This story started slow. It took three weeks to marry the two main plot elements together in a fashion suitably holidayish after starting with an alliterative title.

I would like to thank a band named The Airborne Toxic Event for their wonderful song, “Something New.” I listened to it a couple hundred times as I wrote this story. Even now, it still provokes chair dancing.

In good fashion, it is also a response to a challenge set out by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

And so, happy holidays. I hope you enjoy this tale.

*****

We were in my mother’s attic when the roof cracked a thousand times and peeled away.

Only a minute before, we were searching for a misplaced box of childhood Christmas ornaments. I’d glanced at Jon’s face in the flickering light. The wind was so loud outside. Somewhere nearby, a tree cracked like it had fallen over. We quickly came to the same conclusion.

“Run, Janie!” Jon shouted.

 e only made it halfway across the dim space. The next thing I knew, I fell. Jon threw himself across me, his weight anchoring me to the tenuous sheets of dirty plywood laid across the beams as the pressure shifted. The deafening roar gave way to a cacophony of splintering wood and the light went out. Was this how it would end?

*****

For days, he’d dared me to pick a fight. Abandoned coffee rings and dirty socks, his leather jacket shrugged onto the floor by the front door, a bag of toiletries bypassed every trip up the stairs. Neglect. It was all too much.

I set the grocery bags down in the kitchen. Jon was eating a Christmas cookie. “Hey.” He took another bite. Red and green sugar fell from his lips.

A discarded sticky note sat beside the red tub decorated with candy canes. “Did you not see this?” DO NOT TOUCH was clearly visible in black sharpie ink.

“This is a damn good cookie.” He popped the last of it in his mouth.

“They were for work! How many gingerbread men did you eat?”

“A few. I couldn’t stop eating them once I started.” Jon brushed the stray crumbs from his t-shirt. He sidled up behind me and began to massage my shoulders. “I bet you taste just as good,” he whispered.

I stepped back. “Not now.” Beyond him, the milk rested on the floor, warming up. I picked up the groceries.

“Oh, baby. Don’t be like that.”

After I put the milk on the refrigerator shelf, I found Jon eating the pink marshmallows I bought to make treats with, straight from the bag!

“Janie, come back.” Jon followed me into the living room. The lights on the Christmas tree twinkled behind him as he popped another marshmallow in his mouth.

“You see this?” I gestured around the magnificent room to the tree with twenty strands of lights and glass ornaments, the stockings hung by the fireplace draped in holly, the coordinated holiday pictures of us from years past among miniature red poinsettias on the book shelves. “I did all this by myself.”

He swallowed. “It looks great, sweetheart. You really knocked yourself out this year.”

I grabbed the bag from his hands and emptied it over his head. The soft pink globes bounced off his shoulders in slow motion, then fell to the hardwood floor. A single marshmallow peeked at me from the collar of his shirt. I plucked it out and pushed the squishy pink globe into his mouth. His eyes widened.

“We’ve talked about this. I’m done.” I turned on my heel. Stepping onto the first stair, I reached forward to pick up the bag of toiletries.

It was a peaceful hour before Jon came into the bedroom. I continued typing on my phone.

“Are we going over to your parent’s house tonight?”

Sigh. Mom asked me to search for a box in the attic tonight. I looked away from the list. I turned the phone off.

In the car, I didn’t say a word. It was a relief not to have to speak.

My father welcomed us in. We climbed into the musty attic. Jon pulled the cord of the jerry-rigged switch. Dull yellow light spilled across stacks of partially labeled boxes. Rusty nails protruded several inches through the roof. Pink insulation laid in-between the floor beams like unsettled snowdrifts.

I started at the far end of the attic since the box of gold spray-painted pasta and cheerio ornaments would have been found if it was close to the pull-down stairs. The wind picked up outside as I settled on one stack. I gingerly opened the flaps to find old family photos. I moved it to the floor and opened the second box. It held old clothes. Good gravy, what else was up here? The box on the bottom was larger. It was full of paperback books, Dad’s science fiction collection from the 1970s. Did they get rid of anything? Wind whistled through the soffits. It was so loud I couldn’t hear Jon behind me.

“Was it supposed to storm tonight?” I yelled above the noise. He shrugged and held up a Fisher-Price toy. Then the tree cracked and the sucking wind stole the breath from my lungs. The world shifted.

Silence. Jon’s grip loosened and he lifted himself off of me. I sat up and took in the sight around me. Weak green winter daylight lit what was left. Most of the roof was gone. The floor of the attic remained, perhaps held down by all the boxes. Bits of pink insulation the color of faded cotton candy floated down. They settled like snow on everything.

Jon picked a piece of insulation out of my bangs. He held it between his fingers, turning it this way and that. Jon smiled that mischievous smile I fell in love with. With exaggerated chewing motions, he pretended to eat the puff of pink insulation. Sirens wailed in the distance.

“Make snow angels with me.”

We laid back into the drifts and moved our arms and legs back and forth. How crazy was I? It didn’t seem to matter. Neither did the list. Daily life was just that. Daily. All that mattered was Jon.

“Up you go.”

He pulled me with a hop to my feet. His arms slipped around my waist as he laid his chin on my shoulder. We stared at the clumpy snow angels until I noticed a box marked “ornaments” above them.

I laughed until I cried. It was almost Christmas.

*****

Writers And Their Chosen Settings – Nicole Wolverton

“So much of who we are is where we have been.” – William Langewiesche

On Tuesdays, I post a guest blog by a writer about a special setting, real or imaginary, they chose for their work.

Today’s guest blog is by Nicole Wolverton, author of Feast Of All Fools

*****

*****

“No more than five minutes after she’d retrieved her car, Varda spotted Anthony Carluccio’s ludicrous monstrosity of a vehicle – a hint of mint green paint swimming among the rusted body of a Buick Centurion – in her rearview mirror. The high-pitched humming of I-95 under tires grew louder as she passed over the double-decker bridge. She maneuvered toward the agreed-upon meeting place — a quiet enclave amid the gray, industrial buildings off the Broad Street exit perfect for clandestine business meetings and body drops — not appreciating the likely armed guard.”

*****

Think of South Philadelphia, and chances are you picture Rocky Balboa running through the streets. Or if you’re from Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Mummer’s* might come to mind. For me, I think of food and the mob, which is why South Philly is the setting for a novel I wrote this year titled Feast of All Fools, which plays off the world of underground dinner clubs.

However, it’s more than just eating and the mafia – as you can see from the excerpt, there are very industrial, lonely parts to South Philly, but there are also parks and trees as well as concrete enclaves of brick row homes. You might see an entire container garden of flowers and vegetables butted up against an apartment building shoved in next to a home that grows generations-old grape vines or fig trees.

I lived in South Philly for many years – the possibility of running into a Varda Adler (my main character) or an Anthony Carluccio (the villain) in the neighborhood is, well, large. Yes, South Philly is a great area for food — home to the great cheesesteak wars (I’m a Pat’s Steaks girl myself); the fantastic Italian Market, where you can buy nearly any vegetable, spice, meat, seafood, cooking utensil, or ingredient you want; and a sizable collection of Italian restaurants as well as newer additions of nearly any ethnic cuisine you can think of. It fits the novel. But so do the people.

All the characters in Feast of All Fools are partially inspired, either by looks, mannerisms, or accent, by old neighbors or acquaintances of mine. Anthony – oh, sorry: Ant’ney – is a combination of an old landlord and a guy who lived next door to me for a while. Flora Morelli (Varda’s boyfriend’s mother) is the woman who ran the corner store. Nana, Flora’s mother, is the frail old lady who sat on a chair in her front window and watched the small street I lived on like a hawk. Renee, Varda’s best friend, is a good friend of mine who lives in the cutest row house in the city.

South Philly is traditionally very Irish/Italian and Catholic, but over the last few decades or so it’s really developed a rich cultural and ethnic history. Because of this, the neighborhood (which is really a large area made up of at least three or four – or more— smaller neighborhoods) is an ideal option when you need a setting with flavor. There’s a very stereotypical patois to the local language, which also happens to be true – youse instead of you, warter instead of water. And yet you can easily find Cambodian accents, accentless yuppies, and emo artists.

Feast of All Fools isn’t published as of yet. I’m exploring my options and hoping to come up with a great home for the novel. I have to say that knowing South Philly so well and have a real passion for the neighborhood – in all its diversity – makes it easier to speak about the novel with enthusiasm. I have a real fondness for all the characters, in part because of their South Philly-ness.

*The Mummer’s Parade is a uniquely Philadelphia experience that takes place on New Year’s Day and features plumbers, construction workers, and plenty of other blue collar workers fancied up in sequins and feathers to march down Broad Street. There are different divisions: string bands, fancy brigades, comics, and fancies. Many of the clubs are headquartered in South Philly.

*****

A big thank you to Nicole Wolverton from Philadelphia, author of Feast Of All Fools for sharing this guest blog about the use of setting. To find out more about Nicole and her writing, visit her website www.nicolewolverton.com.

Flash Fiction: The Tower

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment was to write 100 words or less referring to one of five words. I chose “tower.” And here is my tale:

*****

They each thought I knew nothing. That I was naught but an innocent girl, whistling sweetly from my innocent perch. I saw him below, lurking about in the garden day after day. The Prince was there one morning when Mother called out to let down my hair. So when he called out, I knew what came next for hadn’t my mother warned me time and time again? And come he did.

I got what I wanted. Now my children and I roam, free from them both; stalker and witch.

*****

Writers And Their Chosen Settings – Kathleen S. Allen

“So much of who we are is where we have been.” – William Langewiesche

On Tuesdays, I post a guest blog by a writer about a special setting, real or imaginary, they chose for their work.

Today’s guest blog is by Kathleen S. Allen, author of Aine and Faerie Folk

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Hi, I am Kathleen S. Allen. I write Young Adult fantasy. My favourite setting has to be Ireland, where I set both of my faerie books, Aine and the sequel, Faerie Folk. I am enamoured of Ireland. I have never been there but I feel a connection to the country.

I began researching my family’s history and found out my great-great grandmother came from Ireland. She was sent to America at the age of sixteen on a ship during the potato famine and met and married a Bavarian man on the ship. The captain of the ship married them and she ended up settling in Ohio and had eleven children. She had a younger sister who stayed in Ireland and parents who also stayed. That’s all the information I could find out about her. I wondered, why was she the only one to leave Ireland? Why not the younger sister, too? I thought maybe the younger sister was ill or had died. I have no idea what happened to her parents.

For Aine I researched Irish legends and came across the Iegend of the Irish Goddess, Aine, I talk about it in Aine. The legend fascinated me so I decided to write a story about the legend and incorporate it with the legend of the Irish banshee. I have always loved the coast and the ocean, so putting Aine and Faerie Folk on the coast of Ireland was a given. I used the legend of Merlin bringing the Stonehenge stones–called the Giant’s Dance or the Great Stones of Ireland to Stonehenge–in a more recent book.

Let’s take a tour of my ideal setting. First I travel up the coast of Ireland just outside of Galway–where I teach creative writing at the National University of Ireland in Galway–to a small thatched roof whitewashed cottage off the main road but accessible. There are emerald green fields surrounding the cottage on three sides, one of these leads to a cliff above the sea. There is a small garden out front filled with vegetables and at least two cats roaming around. Inside the wooden floors gleam as I walk into the living room. There is a working fireplace, comfy chairs and along each wall are built-in bookcases filled with books. An old fashioned wooden desk sits under a window where I do my writing. On one side of the desk is my laptop, and on the other is a teapot under a tea cozy. Continuing to the kitchen I find a spacious kitchen with a white farmhouse style sink, cupboards and a breakfast nook that overlooks the garden where a small wooden table with four chairs sit waiting for my next meal. Down the hall is the loo with a working hot shower, and I come to the bedrooms at the back of the cottage. The guest bedroom is small, big enough for two single beds and a dresser with a small wardrobe. The master bedroom is slightly larger with room for a queen-sized bed, a dresser and a wardrobe. There is a cozy window seat that overlooks the side that faces the sea and the blue water sparkles as the sunlight glints off of it. It is my favourite place to read, if I can get the cats off of it! The laundry room is also in the back with a full size washer and dryer. Out the back door I walk to the cliff to look out over the sea and spy stairs leading down to the beach below. As I go down the stairs I begin to hear the cries of the seals that populate the coast. Their sound goes right through to my heart and I catch my breath. Taking off my shoes I wade in the still cold water, watching the waves as they wash over my feet. The seals float off shore watching me as I walk the beach but they are not afraid because I do this nearly every day and they are used to my presence. There is no place lovelier on earth than the coast of Ireland and I rejoice that I have found my paradise, at last.

*****

A big thank you to Kathleen S. Allen for sharing this guest blog about her ideal setting. To find out more about her and her writing, visit her website www.gaelicfairie.webs.com, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter as @kathleea. Kathleen’s next book, Lore Of Fei, will be published in April 2012.

Flash Fiction: Dirty Job

Flash Fiction

This is flash fiction but it felt more like spontaneous fiction. Sat down to write one thing, ran across an article regarding the thesis work for a friend’s husband, and the story took off in a different direction. Enjoy.

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The man brushed at the tiny grains that covered his shirt. No matter how brushed at them with tough callused fingers, they clung. But every job was a little dirty. The truck bounced over the uneven back road through the mountains and the added weight of the cargo shifted from side to side.

Around a great bend, the truck pulled into the dead brush by the side of the road. The man got out. The door shut. Tan netting rose over the vehicle. He took care in covering it. He checked. It would hide the entire truck until he left tomorrow for the drop off point. He nudged one corner under. No mistakes.

It was then he got a closer look at his shirt in the light of day. The sand would not come off. The tiny grains were strange. They weren’t the color of actual beach sand. They were more like bits of graphite or gunpowder. He thought back. The cloud of dust blew out of nowhere when he picked up the cargo at the airport. And then there was that strange model airplane. It passed by a few times before disappearing. Had it disappeared after the cloud of sand blew over?

The man threw open the door of the truck and grabbed the modified tablet from the seat. After a moment to update, the GPS app indicated a plane nearby. It was way up in the sky, closer to space than Earth.

He’d been made.

Frantically, he ripped his hat off. It fluttered to the ground beside the truck as his arms slid from the open camo shirt. He pulled the desert t-shirt over his head. The boots were tougher. He cursed when his knuckles raked over the ground. The cuts stung as blood welled. The metal zipper tore open. He frantically shoved his pants down. He had to get to the bunker two hundred yards away. Wearing nothing but faded cotton underwear, he ran for his life. The rocks of the mountain were supposed to be protection. Barefoot, they were just one more obstacle.

The man didn’t make it to the opening of the cave before the blast from the bomb blew him off his feet into guided flight. The seconds of terror stretched into eons before his body crushed itself against the mountain.

*****

Flash Fiction: Ghosts Of The Past

Drawing by Emily Tupper, Age 8

To celebrate Halloween, I wrote some flash fiction!

In the past month, I wrote one story with a vampire, and another with a zombie, so here’s one with a ghost.

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GHOSTS OF THE PAST

He would never be rid of her.

It was all he could do not to grind the enamel right of the tops of his capped teeth. Jenny appeared any time she wanted. He’d get home from work, grab a beer, and turn the television on for a little r&r after dealing with bullshit at the office all day and the next thing Hunter knew, there’d be Jenny on the couch beside him yammering about something or other.

Today she’d surprised him in the kitchen when he was warming up leftover pizza. Naturally, she’d offered her unwanted opinion about the pizza. It would make Hunter fat. It would make Hunter sick. Hadn’t Hunter heard about carbs? Everyone these days was skipping them. It was enough to make him want to get a restraining order but what the hell good would that do with a ghost? It’s not like the ghost police would come and drag her away. She wasn’t eating the carbs, couldn’t she leave his damn well enough alone? He had to settle for the strategy that got him through his marriage while it lasted: a few “uh-huhs”, “nopes”, and “wows” strategically placed.

If only he could go back and undo any number of bad choices. In the first damn place, the cockamamie idea to get married. Then to marry her of all people. To not adopt children. To not get divorced sooner. Stupid lawyer.

The money. That’s where he’d really screwed up. It took Jenny all of ten seconds to plunk down a cool hundred grand of his money for the new fountain of youth, Eternavitas. Sure, Jenny recovered that rockin’ bod she used to have before she crawled into a giant potato chip bag with a tub of chocolate frosting. But who cared if those perfect lips were exactly the shade of a luscious red apple when they wouldn’t ever close. Hunter couldn’t even make jokes about taking a breath like he used to when he still looked forward to seeing her. Near as he could figure out that was over a decade ago – long before her death.

He’d considered suicide. About half an hour into plotting a painless death, it hit him. What would happen when he died? Would he be trapped in Hell with her for eternity? Hunter couldn’t take the risk.

Early into her visits, Hunter stayed away once. Drove to a bar and threw back a few. He commiserated with some sap next to him about being unable to tell the difference between an actual twenty year old and someone who’d lived through World War II. The pill had amazing results, no question. Certainly added a new level of risk to dating. But Hunter forgot about all of that when he walked out of the bar to drive himself home. There she was, waiting by the car. She frowned. It was not a pleasant ride home. That was when Hunter stopped thinking about running. Stopped thinking about anything really.

The government pulled the drug almost immediately. There were whispers on the nets. That your body wasn’t the only thing it changed. You really would look your best forever. But it was too late by then. Jenny came over to cry on his shoulder when the official statement was made. He should have moved to Alaska the next day.

Funny thing then that he would run into Sarah at the pizza place. Sarah, his fifth grade girlfriend. What could he say, he was advanced for his age. Picking up a piping hot pie, he recognized her on the bench out front. What luck, Sarah remembered him! It didn’t take long for Hunter to realize the cold breath as she whispered in his ear was the answer to his problem.

A week later, Hunter followed his usual routine. A crappy day at work, take-out bought on the way home, his favorite spot on the couch with a beer in front of the TV. For the first time in months, he smiled. When Jenny materialized and saw Sarah sitting next to him on the couch, she lost it. It made Hunter wish he’d thought far enough ahead to make a bowl of popcorn. It took some persuasion on Sarah’s part but by the time the ghost of his fifth grade girlfriend, she of the championship high school lacrosse team, got through with Jenny, he knew she wouldn’t be coming back. Honestly, he’d never been happier.

In return for the favor, Hunter promised to stop by Sarah’s Halloween party. Seriously, what was the worst that could happen at a party with a bunch of ghosts? As long as Jenny wasn’t there, he was game. Surely, that rumor on the nets about the Eternavitas ghosts keeping humans as slaves wasn’t true?

Flash Fiction: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

Drawing by Emily, Age 8

For the fun of it, I decided to enter a little short story contest Mozy threw. If you haven’t heard of Mozy, they are a company offering data backup services to the cloud. It goes without saying but I will say it anyway: backing your data up is very important! Truth in advertising: I am not a customer of Mozy.

I chose one of four pre-written starts for the story which I have put in italics. The story had to be 200 words or less and seasonal. Entries were to be judged on creativity, originality, scariness, and Mozy-ness.

The winners will be announced on Halloween.

*****

She was in the middle of reading her friend’s blog when she heard a sound… and Jane jumped. There was something scratching on the glass of the back door. Jane screamed. It was a zombie!

Grabbing her smart phone, Jane ran up the stairs. She slammed the door to her bedroom and shoved the dresser in front of it.

Heartbeat racing, Jane turned off the light and crept to her window. The zombie staggered around the backyard moaning. To her surprise, it stumbled against the house. Everything went still. It must have hit the power box. Then Jane really freaked. Her dissertation changes were unsaved on her laptop!

Below, the zombie cursed loudly. Jane watched as it sat down on a lawn chair and rubbed one knee. A moment later, it peeled off a mask.

John! Jane was going to kill him for real.

Then she remembered. Jane swiped at the screen of her phone. Seconds later, the Mozy app opened. There it was! The dissertation file was last backed up ten minutes ago!

Jane turned a light on and stared at the barricaded door. As she picked everything up, she plotted her revenge.

*****

Six Sentence Sunday 10/23

Welcome to Six Sentences on Sunday!

This excerpt is taken from Chapter 17 of my book, Tenderfoot.

I knew he wouldn’t give up easy. A guy like him would need an explanation, a reason, something firm to wrap in pretty, shiny, logic. I hurried into the bathroom. Andrew came onto the hallway while I was in the shower. I wanted to reach with my arms through the wall and pull him to me. Instead, I increased the temperature until my skin turned pink as I sobbed.

Six Sentence Sunday is graciously hosted by Sara at SixSunday.com. You can check out other author entries at her website or follow along on Twitter, searching by #SixSunday.

Flash Fiction: Father To Son

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment, “Bullies And The Bullied,” was to write 100 words on the motif of bullying. I wrote a scene from the backstory of one of the main characters in my book, Tenderfoot.

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FATHER TO SON

His father found Andrew where he shielded his little sister in the closet. Burly arms pulled him free. Andrew stiffened. He could hear his mother crying downstairs. What now?

His father thrust an old catcher’s mitt into Andrew’s chest. One hand tightly gripped his upper arm.

“C’mon, Son. Let’s go play some ball. You need to play a real sport.” He pushed Andrew toward the door.

The slight fencer stood his ground. “You leave us alone or I’ll tell my teachers.” The backhand sent Andrew to his knees. No more, he vowed. He stood back up.

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Flash Fiction: Predator

Drawing by Emily Tupper, Age 8

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment was to write flash fiction of 1000 words or less using 3 of 5 random words: box, fountain, tax, bottle, and cockroach. And a vampire.

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PREDATOR

Nicholas thought he’d seen it all. Then they sent Jean-Michel.

Jean-Michel floundered fully clothed in the dark water of the fountain as he tried to locate the bottle under the icy detritus of decomposing leaves. A bottle hidden inside a safe box in the church. For a Vampire of four hundred years, Jean-Michel still had a lot to learn. Starting with sleight of hand.

The damn Vampire really was an idiot. Most of the French Clan were. They averaged IQs slightly higher than a cockroach and therefore should have been easy to put down. Yet like the insect, they persisted. Nicholas would not underestimate a man who tracked him into Sweden. The Vampire wouldn’t stop until he had what he came for.

A few kilometers into the forest, Nicholas knew. Out for a walk in the quiet night, the empty void that followed quickly drew his attention. One of the Undead. Nicholas found it curious. And alarming. He circled around until he came to the front of the church. Then he waited.

Not long after, the creature stepped out from the cover of tree boughs. Nicholas didn’t need the faint light from the parking lot to know he had guessed right. Only a Vampire would tromp through the forest in a suit and expensive dress shoes.

The Troll King forged a pact with the Clan to stay out of Scandinavia. For the most part, the Vampires had. The French Clan was intelligent enough to foresee the consequences: a visit from a conquering army of Trolls, Dwarves, and Fae to hunt the dark nooks where Vampires rested by day. What did the Vamp want badly enough to risk breaking the Continental Pact?

It stopped at a slight distance. “What do you want, Vampire?”

“Pardonnez-moi the intrusion. My name is Jean-Michel Clerselier.” He gave a faint bow as he said his name. “I have come to ask for something.”

Nicholas shifted his weight back. He knew of this creature. And it knew about the bottle. Jean-Michel tilted his head. It’s charm wouldn’t work on him. He allowed himself a faint smile. He always enjoyed the odd fight of predator versus predator. It was infinitely more satisfying than outwitting teenage girls.

“The bottle. I have to come to beg, Monsieur Grimm. S’il vous plait, name your price.”

“You have nothing I want.”

The Vampire stiffened. The answer could not have come as a surprise. “I see. I suppose an explanation of my predicament would be a waste of breath, non? You have no interest in Clan disagreements. ”

“You are correct. I see no need to take sides on Continental matters. They must be bad if they bring you here.

Jean-Michel’s eyes flashed. “Oui.” He smoothed the lapel of his suit. “What if I were to tell you a story about two gay maidens who live in Paris with their parents. Every morning they skip down les grand boulevards to school. They do not suspect a monster shadows them from afar. Alas, it would be a terrible tragedy if something were to happen.” Jean-Michel stepped forward. “I could assist you in their care. Perhaps you would reconsider?”

And that was that. Vacation was over. Nicholas reached out. Satisfied no humans were nearby, he shrugged.

With a click, fangs split the line of Jean-Michel’s lips. “Allons-y. Now we dance.”

A moment later the Vampire was upon him. The Fossegrim shifted forward, forcing the Vamp to pass him. Jean-Michel turned quickly but Nicholas was just as quick. They turned as the Vampire sought caught Nicholas by his upper arms. He couldn’t bite Nicholas like a human, but there were other ways to break a body. Nicholas leaned back and kicked. His worn black boot caught the Vampire beneath the chin. The impact forced Jean-Michel to stagger back, hissing. Again, Jean-Michel lept forward. His arms sailed forward as he threw his body over Nicholas. Nicholas struggled. He swung his arms to throw the thrashing creature off. Nicholas fell to the ground, the stink of Jean-Michel’s foul corpse upon him. As the Vampire reached for his neck, Nicholas punched forward, finding the very center of the dead spot. Jean-Michel flew back into the air.

Nick was satisfied. When the lunge came, Nicholas allowed the broadside. He felt the wind first. Then the impact. Together they toppled against the rough cement of the fountain. Chunks of rock flew through the air. Nicholas didn’t need them. He had the one in his hand. As the pain transmitted wildly from all bones, he stood. He threw the rock from the forest. It landed with a splash a dozen meters away in the still sloshing water.

“You want the Nettle Elixir from the Tree of Life? You’ll have to get it yourself!”

Nicholas threw his head back and laughed as the Vampire scrambled over the wall into the water. Frickin’ Vamps. Every time, they underestimated the ones who taught war to the Vikings. This one wasn’t close to worthy of the blood-free immortality enjoyed by Nicholas’s kind.

As Jean-Michel floundered, his rage grew. He found the rock a minute later. That was the last time he flew. Nicholas clinically noted the terror Jean-Michel expressed as he impaled himself upon the fresh stake. What he forgot was how the cloud of Vampire dust got into every open orifice. He limped to the pool and peeled the torn cotton shirt from his bloodied body. As he wiped his face, he considered the future. It was time to evacuate the family from France and bring them to safe ground.

For the first time, he noticed the statute of St. Bridget. Such delicious irony. On a day far from today, Nicholas might find himself in the purgatory she described as he awaited burial in the roots of the Tree. Until then, he would escort those who threatened him to Hell.

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