Garota Exilada 1 – The Big Ask (Diya y Xio)

woman killer

The moon, merely a crescent in the cloudless night sky, shines brightly on the car parked at the corner of Acorn and Walmer Streets. It is a 1968 cherry red customized Mustang GT convertible with an ornate sugar skull painted on the bonnet and intricate, colorful dia de los Muertos designs running on the sides, that rides on white wall tires with twenty-inch wire-spoked rims—and it has a name, Sangriento Asesinato, which translates as Bloody Murder.

Despite the car’s garish appearance, to the casual mundane observer, it goes virtually unnoticed because of the obfuscation spell it employs, low-level magicks weaved into the Day of the Dead designs that causes the eye to notice the car but immediately slide off it like July rain off a duck’s back to find something a little more interesting to view.

In Sangriento Asesinato’s passenger seat, Xiomara sniffs the air as her autumn-orange eyes shift left and right down the unnaturally dark and empty street just beyond the intersection.

“Sight doesn’t match the scent, Diya, so this must be the place,” she says. Xiomara is a red fox no bigger than a small dog but should anyone ever be foolish enough to call her a fox, she would rip their throat clean out. She prefers to be called a Vulpes vulpes because it makes her sound like an animal that is all business at all times. Xiomara’s fur, much like the car she rides in, is red, flame red, with a white underbelly, black paws and ear tips and her bushy tail is tipped in white. “And the street is crowded.”

Gennadiya Rodrigues drums her fingers on the chain steering wheel and says, “I’d expect no less. Hopefully, none of them are drunk, high, stupid or trigger happy. I’d rather this be a friendly visit.”

Gennadiya checks her face in the rearview mirror. Eyebrows penciled on, thin, arched and menacing. Winged black eyeliner. Black lined lips with blue-based red lipstick. Cheeks sculpted with a bronze based blush. Jet black shoulder length hair teased to sit off her face, secured by a red bandana with white sigils replacing the standard paisley design. The two studs on her forehead, her third eye piercing, centered between and just above the eyebrows sparkle as they catch the overhead street lamp, as does the moon phase—two gold crescents bookending a full moon—septum piercing. Large gold hoop earrings swing as she turns her head left and right. The look isn’t perfect, not up to her usual standard, but she is in a rush so it will have to suffice.

Reaching past the red fox, Gennadiya opens the glove compartment and places her twin Glock 19 9mm pistols along with a karambit knife, Kubotan keychain and brass knuckles inside before closing the box.

“You’re going in naked?” Xiomara cocks her head to one side, confused.

“No choice, Xio. It’s a sign of respect and I can’t have them thinking there’s any hostile intent behind my visit.”

The driverside car door swings open and Gennadiya steps out into the night air which is cool and dry, smoothing her flannel shirt—just the collar buttoned—with her hands so the open shirt frames the white bustier that accentuates her cleavage. Normally she would hide her breasts under layers of gold jewelry but all the accoutrements associated with this aspect of her persona are back at her apartment and as stated before, time is of the essence. Luckily, she tossed all this stuff inside the trunk along with a pair of dress pants and high top Converse sneakers after she finished the Hell Jockeys gig, so the ensemble is at least ninety percent passable.

She leans on the open door. “You can sit this one out if you want. I’ve got it covered,” Gennadiya says to the fox who raises on all fours. She can tell Xiomara is nervous about being here and wants to give her friend an easy out.

Xiomara snorts and trot-hops off the car seat onto the pavement past Gennadiya. “When have I ever not had your back, Diya?”

“Never,” Gennadiya admits and slams the car door shut.

Acorn Street runs the width of the city from river to river and is widely considered a boring thoroughfare as it lays no claim to fame to any unique or interesting shops, theaters or any other sites that attract tourism and if truth be known, it is fairly boring, which makes it a perfect hiding spot.

Every city, town and community in the world plays host to its fair share of ghost stories, urban legends and unexplainable occurrences and the tiny patch of Acorn that runs between Walmer Street and Readly Avenue is purported by the superstitious subculture to house the legendary Jecrossi Embassy.

The mystical and harmonious city neighborhood gently governed by the Grey Folk—first appearing in the 1944 novel Know No Home by Syrian author Miran Mansour—has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, a permanently happy land, that chooses to isolate itself from the world.

It is said that the Embassy exists within a pocket dimension—a space too small or too easily accessible to be truly considered a separate dimension—which is fine for things like a bag of holding which can contain numerous cumbersome items because it is larger on the inside but becomes unstable when trying to hold a small, secluded world complete with its own ecosystem and lifeforms.

As it turns out, the internet theories are correct and the Embassy is actually situated at this location but it isn’t visible or accessible because the single city block has been magickally shifted left of center one second out of sync with time and space. On her own, Gennadiya doubts she would have been able to sense this place, fortunately for her Xiomara, being a creature of enchantment gifted with an extraordinarily sensitive nose for magick, can smell the displacement.

Xiomara crosses the street, stopping at the curb and sniffs her way in a straight line from the east to west and stops at a point just before the curb on the opposite side of the street.

“Got it!” Xiomara smiles. “Follow me and stay close in case there are any twists and turns along the way. Some of these things can be like mazes and you can get caught up in them for hours until your air runs out. Others just boot you out but trust me, suffocating feels a whole lot better than having your atoms forced through a sieve.”

Gennadiya is surprised and a little embarrassed at the sense of growing unease, mostly because she imagines all the horrible things that can go wrong, even though she watches as Xiomara trots into the invisible entryway with apparent ease.

The mystic sigils dyed onto her bandana begin to glow as Gennadiya takes her first step and she experiences a sudden dropping sensation, the tarmac beneath her feet seems to fall away as if she is in an elevator, and her next unsteady step is like walking on a boat in choppy waters. She realizes it’s just her internal body clock adjusting to the one second time displacement which on its own would have been manageable if not accompanied by the feeling that she is passing through a veil of nematocysts, jellyfish stingers, a sensation she is all too familiar with after being stung at the beach as a little girl. Despite the sigils allowing her to step into sync with Jecrossi, she feels the nettles firing warnings into her body, thousands of needle pricks that urge her to turn back and leave.

She does her level best to remain upright and follows her friend, who stops at the tricky bits where the invisible entryway breaks into a sharp turn or bends in an odd fashion, and when they eventually pass through to the other side, Gennadiya notices the shift in reality almost immediately. The street beneath her feet is compacted soil instead of tarmac and the sidewalk is leveled natural stone instead of concrete. The air is different, too, nearly dense enough to be liquid and tasting of ozone just after a lightning strike and the scents of this neighborhood are somehow foreign, differing from the rest of the city. She commends Xiomara under her breath at being able to detect anything by smell alone amidst the chaotic fragrances.

“So this is what paradise looks like, huh?” Xiomara says. Sarcasm takes on a whole new flavor when coming from a fox.

But she is right. The Jecrossi Embassy, the fabled inner city Shangri-La, is little more than a magick ghetto. Visually, the street which seems deserted only a block away is bustling with activity and not only because of their arrival. Street vendors exchange their wares, foodstuffs, clothing, home essentials and yes, some enchantments and drugs for odd trinkets that bears no resemblance to any sort of currency on the planet to pedestrians who give Gennadiya and Xiomara strange and untrusting sideways glances.

There are magicks in these streets that emanate from the cracks in the sidewalk and the graffitied tenement walls. Animals that might be mistaken for rats, cats and dogs dart from in between the apartment buildings and the back alley of the restaurant on the far corner. Yet, despite the enchantment that crackles against her exposed skin like static electricity, life is no different on this block than the rest of the city. Dejection and starvation and cruelty exist here, evidenced by the diseased bodies and damaged minds that abandoned dreams of a better life in order to simply survive on garbage scraps and sleeping in cardboard boxes amongst the vermin that are not rats or cats or dogs. Street preachers deliver sermons to these wretches from tattered grimoires that pass in looks but not content to holy scriptures.

“Look at the gaunt faces, Diya,” Xiomara says, her fox voice cracking. “The stories etched on them, stories enough to snap your heart in two.”

If Gennadiya hears her friend, she gives no indication. “We have eyes on us, Xio,” she says, pointing at the stoop of the nearest brownstone where three rail thin and heavily tattooed men turn their faces and whisper to each other. One of them whistles up to one of the brownstone’s windows and makes a sound like a crow’s caw.

“It’s showtime,” Gennadiya says, picking up her pace as she walks in their direction.

Xiomara doesn’t match her friend’s speed, preferring to hang back and assess the situation.

Gennadiya looks over her shoulder and says, “No shame in heading back to the car.”

“Shame’s got nothing to do with it,” Xiomara snaps. “I’m afraid because I’m smart enough to know that we’re walking headlong into trouble.” The red fox quickens her steps to catch up with Gennadiya.

From the brownstone’s main entrance, ten more wiry men with matching skin ink join the lookouts, making it a baker’s dozen. They approach, affecting that badass stroll wannabes wear like a tough guy accessory, pistol grips protruding from the top of their skinny jeans waistbands and for the first time she realizes they’re barefoot and now that she notices it, everyone on the street except for her isn’t wearing shoes. The fingers on all of their hands twitch as if they’re throwing gang signs but Gennadiya recognizes it as the actions of low-level magick users, apprentices, in order to prime the pump—in the same manner that a suction valve in an old water pump needs to be primed with water so that the pump functions properly. The Jecrossi specialize in earth magick and apprentices need to prime their bodies in order for earth energies to flow up into and through them.

Gennadiya holds out her empty hands, carefully lifts the sides of the open flannel shirt and does a slow turn to show she isn’t strapped. “Take it easy,” she says, in as disaffected a manner as she could muster. “Bringing no ruckus. Just need to speak with Ekaterina.”

Because they are all bald and thin and are marked by the same tattoos, the goons look like they come from the same mold with the one out in front being the first cast and the others appearing to have increasing degrees of degradation with each successive pressing. They cautiously fan themselves out until they form a circle around Gennadiya and Xiomara.

“You expected?” asks the lead goon.

“No, but she’ll see me,” Gennadiya says, her eyes locking onto the penetrating gaze of the lead goon standing immediately in front of her.

“Tell them who you are,” Xiomara says.

“Shut your mouth, little doggie, people are talking.”

“Vulpes vulpes!” Xiomara snarls.

“What?”

“I’m a Vulpes vulpes, not a damned doggie!”

“You’re gonna be dinner if–“

The index and middle fingers of both Gennadiya’s hands go into her mouth. The goons raise their hands ready to cast on her and bring her down to the tarmac. Pushing back her tongue, she whistles six notes sharp and loud in a very distinct pattern, a pattern that halts the goons in their tracks. It is the Six Tones of Order Within Chaos, the call of the Jecrossi.

The goons stare at Gennadiya, disbelieving what they just heard. Then their expression shifts to suspicion.

“How do you know the call?” asks lead goon.

“Like I said, Ekaterina will see me because we go back, long before the likes of you or before she came to this neighborhood,” the sadness in her eyes mirrors Xiomara’s own upon first seeing the state of the people who seek refuge here.

Before the lead goon can respond, one of the middle windows on the top row of the brownstone opens and a brown-skinned woman pops her head out. “What’s going on?” she demands.

Lead goon is about to tell the woman it was Gennadiya who whistled but thinks better of it and opts for, “Someone here to see the boss.”

“Someone like who?” asks the woman.

Gennadiya brushes past the lead goon to step into the street light and calls up to the woman, “Someone like Garota Exilada!”

“And Xiomara!” the red fox barks.

Gennadiya shoots Xiomara a baleful glance but can’t maintain it. “And her companion, the Vulpes vulpes, Xiomara!” she echoes and her scowl becomes a smile.

***

They are escorted by the lead goon and four of his cronies up to the common room which is uncomfortably larger than the exterior of the brownstone. It reminds Gennadiya of a museum, not just in the space but in all glass-encased artifacts, as well. The floor is tiled in polished sandstone, the walls are travertine stacked stone and the furniture appears to be Mesopotamian in design but she can’t be certain on the accuracy of her assessment. Although artwork decorates the walls there are no personal photographs. There is enough room here to house dozens of the homeless outside but this seemingly perfect place is far too cold in its tranquility to feel in any way homey.

In the center of the room stands the brown-skinned woman who introduces herself as Serilda. She, a full foot taller than anyone in the room, points at Gennadiya, “You follow me, the Vulpes vulpes remains here.”

Xiomara begins to argue but Serilda remains firm and insists there will be no audience with Ekaterina if the Vulpes vulpes refuses to remain in the common room. Gennadiya tells the red fox it will be all right and repeats that she and Ekaterina go way back so there shouldn’t be any danger.

Xiomara ponders for a moment before reluctantly saying, “Okay, but if things go sideways just holler and I’ll tear through these clowns like field mice!” She stares directly at the lead goon when she says it and he replies with a mocking growl which makes the red fox’s fluffy tail twitch in anger.

Gennadiya is shown into the adjoining room which is somehow larger than the impossibly large common room, with Serilda in the lead and the goons bringing up the rear. The walls are lined with books stacked in a chaotic fashion on recessed wooden shelves and this indoor library smells of petrichor, the scent of rain on dry earth, which would explain the moisture that dots the spines of all the books. In the exact center of the room is a reading chair that is nothing more than a series of interwoven vines that grow directly from the lush green carpet of dewy grass and in the chair sits Ekaterina, positioned perfectly with a book open to a blank page on her lap, graphite stick firmly in hand and at the ready.

“I’d like to say something clever like all the chickens, even the headstrong independent ones always come home to roost but the fact of the matter is you’ve never been here, isn’t that right, Exilada?” Ekaterina says in a warm but measured tone.

The woman’s alabaster skin and albino snakeskin dress are almost a perfect camouflage within the silky white mist that rises from the grass and snakes around her. She appears to be in her sixties—but Gennadiya suspects she’s much older because she looks the same as when they first met almost two decades ago—and wears absolutely no makeup because only an insecure fool applies foundation on natural beauty. Her pearl hair is oiled back and plaited in a style that should have looked ridiculous on someone her age but she carries it off with authority.

“You always did know how to strike a pose, Kat,” Gennadiya says, attempting a for old time’s sake grin that simply will not come.

“That’s Ekaterina to you,” Ekaterina says as she takes in the sum of her unexpected visitor. “So, tell me a story.”

“What?” Gennadiya shifts uncomfortably in a small puddle on the carpet grass. Ekaterina has caught her off guard, a feeling she never appreciates. “I don’t have any stories.”

“Nonsense, everyone has stories and I collect them, you see,” Ekaterina says, gesturing with a nod for Gennadiya to sit. “Everything is present for a story to exist: a teller, that would be you, and an audience, which would be me.”

The offered seat—a normal metal folding chair with padding—is as much out of place with the room’s décor as she herself is. A reminder, no doubt, that she is considered an interloper. The fact that the chair is bone dry despite the moist surroundings is of small consolation. Gennadiya squirms until she finds the position that affords the least amount of discomfort and says, “Thanks for the seat but still…no stories.”

“No reunion catch up? No explanation as to why you disappeared on me in the middle of the night? Nothing that covers your whereabouts and activities over the years, things we might have discussed had you bothered to remain in contact?”

“I’m not the keep in contact kind of gal, you know that.”

“Well, if you’re not here to apologize, justify your actions and perhaps reminisce a bit, then what brings you to my home?”

“I’m on a case…” Gennadiya pauses because she feels unsure of how to phrase the next bit. “And I need your help.” She expects to be scoffed or laughed at but is instead greeted by nothing but silence.

“It’s a girl,” Gennadiya continues when it becomes clear Ekaterina is waiting to hear more details. “A little girl and I know who took her so I need to do an extraction.”

“Is she here?” Ekaterina asks. “Are you asking my permission before you steal someone from the Embassy?”

Gennadiya shakes her head. “She’s in Megorum. The Clanarchists have her.”

“Again, I ask, what brings you? Your target is a little girl, easy to transport. This should be a cakewalk for the legendary Garota Exilada,” the insult in the way Ekaterina says her business name is plain as day and it cuts slightly.

“Megorum is shielded against me, I can’t get in. I’ve tried.”

Ekaterina shrugs, “Cast a piercer. Why darken my doorstep?”

“I don’t magick.”

“What? After all these years I would have thought you would have picked up something,” Ekaterina says then recalls something. “But they tell me you have a familiar?”

“Xiomara isn’t a familiar. She’s my friend—”

“Best friend!” the fox interrupts.

“…best friend with excellent hearing who should be minding her business and letting me handle mine,” Gennadiya shouts over her shoulder before turning her attention back to Ekaterina. “Xiomara caught the tail end of an enchantment meant for me and got transmogrified into a—” she is about to say red fox but catches herself in time. “—Vulpes vulpes.”

“She was human?”

“Still is, to me, and I’m working on tracking down the slippery bastard responsible for it.”

“Wait,” Ekaterina says. “You said Megorum is shielded against you. Not merely shielded, but against you in particular, that would make it—”

“A blood shield.”

“You can’t cross the barrier because traces of your blood have been intertwined in the incantation but why go through all that trouble, unless—” Ekaterina cuts the sentence short and dismisses Serilda and the goons, who go through the proper etiquette of voicing their objections and citing the possibility of an attack before complying with the request when it is restated as a command. When they are gone, Ekaterina asks, “Who is this girl?”

“She’s my daughter, Kat. Those hijos de putas kidnapped my baby girl and I aim to get her back and put every last one of them in the ground!”

Ekaterina shakes her head and glances over at Gennadiya before turning her sorrowful gaze to the ground.

“That is terrible news, it really is, and I realize how difficult it must be to come to me asking for help but I can’t help feeling like I’m being played here.”

“Played?”

“Not so much as a single hello exchanged between us in years, yet you knew to find me in this hidden part of the city so you’re obviously aware of the beef I have with the Clanarchists. If I get a sudden twinge of compassion and decide to help you pierce their blood shield—and I’m assuming the same barrier that stops you from getting in, also prevents your daughter from escaping, correct?”

“I’d imagine so.”

“Then the spell we cast would have to remain in place long enough for you to enter Megorum, locate your little girl and escape with her, which means the magick can and will be traced back to us, bringing a war to our doorstep. Where will you be when that happens? Standing at our borders fighting side by side with us?”

“If needs be, then yes.”

“If-then-yes isn’t a definitive yes, which is the problem I have with this situation because if by some small miracle this thing goes to plan and you’re able to get your daughter back, you’ll be grateful, I’m sure of that, but there’s a difference between feeling gratitude and showing gratitude.”

“You’re not catching me at my best here so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t answer with the precise words you need to hear in order to help me, but I’ve got a lot going on in my head at the moment. Allow me to answer the question again: Yes, once my daughter is safe, I will return and help you defend your borders.”

Then the conversation stops and the long silence that replaces it is loaded with the dread of possibility that somewhere along the way Gennadiya said the wrong thing or the right thing in the wrong way and totally ruined her chance to recruit the aid of the Jecrossi leader who was once her friend.

Ekaterina stands and paces around her seat, her eyes cast downward and never making contact with Gennadiya.

“This place used to be the paradise you hear about in the urban legends,” Ekaterina says in a low, almost under-the-breath voice as if she is talking to herself. “Built by the Grey Folk, it was meant to be a safe haven for enchanted beings and its doors were open to all, even the likes of me. And as bad as I was, I wasn’t the worst person to gain entry. There were people hungry for power, in love with destruction, nasty killers who didn’t care who or what they slew. And they tried to gut this place. But I and the last of the remaining Grey Folk stood against them and forced them into exile. The effort cost us. We depleted most of the magick within this place, the most powerful earth energy source on the planet. And I’m working with the strongest remaining earth mages to heal it, to return the land to what it once was, but the progress, the healing, is slow. So, you see, this thing you ask of me is no small matter.”

“Kat, I could scream I’m sorry for not keeping in touch, for not being there when you needed me until I’m blue in the face but that’s not going to change the reality of what’s done is done. And there’s no way of me convincing you of the truth that if I did actually have some magick, I would help you restore this place. As it stands, the only thing I have to offer is my life and I would gladly give it to save my daughter but I swear on my little girl’s life that if you help me and pledge to keep her safe in case I don’t come out on the other side of this alive then my life is yours to do as you see fit.”

Ekaterina taps her lips with an index finger. “And you would enter the unbreakable pact of a blood oath?”

“Do you have a blade?” Gennadiya asks. “I’ll slice my palm right here and now.”

***

Xiomara goes through the motions of conducting an inspection of the room, sniffing this and that, but what she is actually doing is marking everyone’s location in the room and judging distances in the enormous space in order to formulate the best plan of attack and escape should she and Gennadiya need to beat a hasty retreat. Her attention snaps from the foot of a bronze statue of a naked man to the door of the antechamber as Gennadiya and Ekaterina enter. A piece of cloth is wrapped around each of their right hands and a bud of blood blossoms in their palms.

Xiomara races to Gennadiya making a series of brief clucks, her concerned gekkering as she pushes her snout into her friend’s bleeding palm, sniffing and biting at the cloth to remove it.

“Are you okay? What happened in there? Let me see the wound! Is it deep?”

“It’s okay, Xio,” Gennadiya strokes Xiomara’s head attempting to calm her. “I did this so we could get what we came here for.”

“Although the world outside the Embassy is of no concern to us at the moment,” Ekaterina addresses the room in a cool, even tone. “Garota Exilada has sworn a blood oath to aid us and in exchange, we will help her retrieve her daughter who has been stolen by the Clanarchists.”

A grumbling begins to stir amongst Serilda and the goons, one of anger mixed with apprehension.

Ekaterina points at Serilda and the lead goon as she continues, “Serilda and Ozias, you will accompany Exilada and her companion to cast a piercing spell and return them safely to us. Their lives are your responsibility now.”

Serilda nods acceptance. Ozias does as well but it takes him a little longer and he looks none too pleased.

Not The End…

Duchess and the Anecdote

Duchess

They come from miles around, my characters do, traveling the great distance from the fringes of my mind’s eye, some even making the long and arduous haul from my childhood, just to sit and talk. They do this whenever I’m alone.

As they gather ’round, I cast an eye upon their many and various faces and can’t help but feel the slightest twinge of remorse. Being in my company, locked within the confines of my imagination, is not wholly unlike a purgatory for them. A holding pattern, a waiting room, where they converse amongst themselves in voices audible only to myself, trying to catch my attention in the slimmest hope of being set free. Birthed into a story.

Some are fresh meat, the rest lifers, each easily spotted by the differences in their appearance and the strength of their voices. Fresh meats are gossamers—newly formed characters, little more than a stack of traits—who shout in whispers. Lifers, on the other hand, are as fleshed out as you or I, perhaps even more so, who have acquired the proper pitch and turn of phrase to catch me unawares during the times when my mind idles.

Before the talks begin–serious conversation, not the normal natterings they engage in–a flying thing the size of a butterfly, jewel-toned blue stripes, greenish-gold spots, with flecks of silver on the wings, lands in the palm of my outstretched hand.

“What is that then?” a childlike voice asks from somewhere deep in the crowd, low to the ground. I recognize it instantly.

“It’s an anecdote, Duchess. Come see for yourself.” I reply as the creature’s wings beat softly on my palm.

The throng–my personal rogue’s gallery whose roster includes reputables and reprobates alike–part like the Red Sea, making way for the noblest of all serval cats, The Duchess.

“An antidote? Have you been poisoned?” The Duchess queries as she saunters into the open space, a dollop of concern gleaming in her vivid blue eyes.

I try to not laugh, partly out of respect, but mostly due to the fact that though she is the eldest of my unused characters, she is technically still but a kitten. “No, Duchess, it’s an anecdote, as in a short, amusing, or interesting story about a person or an incident.“

“I know full well what an anecdote is, thank you kindly. I was merely attempting to lighten the dreadfully somber mood with a bit of levity.” Not her best faux pas cover, but it was swift, which should count for something. As casually as she could manage, the kitten turned to see if anyone found amusement at her expense. No one did. They knew better. “May I hold it?”

I hesitate and stare at the leapling. Created on February 29th all those many years ago, it was my rationale–on paper–for keeping her a kitten, seeing as she had fewer birthdays, she would naturally age at a decelerated rate. The actuality is I have an affinity for kittens. For full-grown cats? Not so much. And now the dilemma is if her kittenish nature should come into play, and without meaning to, cause injury to the anecdote, then all this would be for naught.

Her eyes plead with all the promise of being good and I have no choice but to relent. “It’s fragile, so be gentle. Take care not to crush it.” I gently place the anecdote in her cupped paws.

“Why does one need an anecdote?” The Duchess of Albion asked, her nose twitching whenever the creature moves its wings.

“To tell a proper story,” I answer. “More than just a sequence of actions, anecdotes are the purest form of the story itself.“

“But I thought characters are at the heart of every great story?“

“They are and anecdotes connect the hearts and minds of those characters to a story.” I try to feign calm but I can see the kitten’s body tensing up. Her eyes, those glorious baby blues, are studying the creature closely. Was I wrong in my decision to trust that she rules her instincts and not the other way around?

“They also add suspense to your story, giving the audience a sense that something is about to happen. If you use them right, you can start raising questions right at the beginning of your story—something that urges your audience to stay with you. By raising a question, you imply that you will provide your audience with the answers. And you can keep doing this as long as you remember to answer all the questions you raise.“

The kitten’s breath becomes rapid and her paws close in around the anecdote and I want to cry out, urge her to stop, but it’s far beyond that point now. She is in control of her own fate. Canines bare themselves, paws pulling the creature closer to her mouth.

“No!” she shakes her head violently. Her ears relax and her mouth closes as her breathing returns to normal. Then, the oddest thing happens…

The Duchess begins to vanish. All the characters look on in dazed silence, uncertain how to react.

“What is happening to me?” she shoots me a panicked glance as cohesion abandons her form.

“Haven’t you sussed it out yet?“

“No… I’m scared!“

“Don’t be,” I smile. “Look around you. You’re at the heart of a story. You’re free.“

“Truly?” she is suddenly overwhelmed with delight, her expression priceless. “But — but what do I do with the anecdote now?”

“Open your paws, let it fly off.”

She unfolds her paws. Tiny wings beat their path to freedom. Then someone from the back of the crowd gives The Duchess a slow clap. Soon, others join in, building into a tidal wave of applause.

The now translucent Duchess waves a tearful thank you to the crowd, before turning back to me with a request, “Say my name.“

“Why?“

“Because you always simply address me as Duchess and I want to hear you call me by my full name one last time before I g– —“

And just like that, she was gone.

I bid you a fond farewell, Your Grace the Duchess of Albion Gwenore del Septima Calvina Hilaria Urbana Felicitus-Jayne Verina y de Fannia. Enjoy your journey. You will be missed.

 

Maurine, Maureen, Part 1

two sisters twins posing, making photo selfie, dressed same white shirt, diverse hairstyle friends, lifestyle people concept

Maurine hadn’t thought of herself as a narcissist, who would, really, unless someone went out of their way to mention the possibility, which is exactly what Shelly McIntyre did. In front of her coworkers and the rest of the staff, Shelly, her supposed office bestie (a title Maurine never laid claim to at any point in time) denounced Maurine as a narcissist, among other things that stung a lot less, in order to step over her shame-ridden corpse and into a corner office promotion. Maurine hadn’t known how to reply, so she remained silent, letting the accusation register properly, which she supposed could have appeared to her superiors as an admission of guilt. Guilt? Over what? Truth of the matter was she had no idea what the word narcissist actually meant.

At home, she looked up the word online and found to qualify as a narcissist, an individual needed to possess:

  1. A pervasive pattern of grandiosity
  2. The need for admiration; and
  3. A lack of empathy

which surely did not apply to her, but she called her mother, just to be on the safe side. After the requisite pleasantries, Maurine asked the question.

“What a bizarre thing to ask,” her mother said. “Did someone tell you you were?”

Maurine didn’t feel like rehashing the events of the day, so she simplified it by answering, “Someone made an off-comment in passing and I became curious to learn if people viewed me that way, that’s all. Like, am I giving off some sort of vibe or something?”

“Well, I may not be the best person to ask…”

“Why? Are you a narcissist, too?” the words slipped past Maurine’s lips before she could catch them.

“No,” her mother chuckled, sounding confident in her answer. Far more confident than Maurine herself felt. “I may not be objective, is what I’m trying to say. As a parent, all children seemed to be filled with a grandiose sense of self-importance, which is a beast we feed, I suppose. As a young girl, did you exaggerate your achievements and talents and fantasize about unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, and ideal love? Of course, you did, all children do.”

Even though she could see her mother’s point, Maurine knew this conversation was not going to lead her in the direction she needed in order to confront her office bestie in the morning. So, she thanked her mother, made her excuses for cutting the conversation short, and promised that she’d call more and visit more often and would definitely make the trip down to the coast to celebrate the holidays with the family this year. Most of which she knew to be a flat-out lie.

Maurine didn’t feel much like cooking or eating for that matter, so she slipped on a comfortable pair of flats and went for an evening constitutional to air out her thoughts. So lost was she in the events of the day, she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going and bumped into a person walking the opposite way. When she looked up to apologize, the words wouldn’t come. And the other person, to her surprise, was equally dumbstruck…for they looked exactly alike. Not similar in the way that people with the same hair and eye color and facial bone structure reminded you of the other person. These two women were identical. Mirror images sans glass. The only differences were the hairstyles, Maurine wore her shoulder-length hair up while her twin stranger’s hair framed her face, and their outfits were roughly the same style business skirt suit but in different colors.

Maurine, still mute, slowly lifted her hand to the other woman’s face and touched it gently. The other woman hadn’t flinched but Maurine, for a split second, swore she felt her fingers on her own face. Then she was overwhelmed by the urge to kiss this woman, this stranger, so she did. She nervously pressed her lips to the woman’s mouth and it was soft and warm and somehow strangely familiar and before she knew it, her tongue was slipping into the other woman’s mouth, probing, exploring. And when her poor thrumming heart couldn’t bear the passion any longer, Maurine broke the kiss and felt instantly ashamed.

“I—I’m sorry,” Maurine said, finding that she could no longer meet the woman’s eyes. “I don’t know what came over me. I just…”

“I wanted to know what I tasted like,” the other woman said, which was exactly what Maurine was feeling. “It isn’t every day you run into your doppelgänger.” The woman extended her hand, which seemed so silly and formal after they had just frenched. “My name is Maureen, by the way.”

“This—no, this can’t be happening. I’m Maurine, that’s my name.”

Maureen dug her ID out of her clutch and held it up for Maurine to examine. Maurine laughed and presented her ID as well. “Same name, different spelling. How Twilight Zone is this?”

“The better question is how much more Twilight Zone will it get?” Maureen reached out with her thumb, wiping away the lipstick smudge around Maurine’s mouth.

Maurine returned the favor, saying, “I don’t live too far from here. Care to head back to mine for a coffee and a chat? Promise I’m not an ax murderer.”

“But what if I am?”

“You know, I think I’ll take that chance,” Maurine smiled and took the hand of a stranger who wasn’t quite so strange at all and led her home.

Over coffee, they compared life stories trying to spot as many similarities as they could to keep the fascinating coincidence of a single entity living parallel lives in the same reality alive for as long as they could and there were many. Choices that one made that the other hadn’t that took them in different directions. And when they were satisfied they were the same person that had somehow branched off to live separate lives, the conversation stopped and the pair sat on the couch until the wee hours, silently touching and exploring each other’s bodies. Neither spoke the words because it wasn’t necessary. They felt an instantaneous attraction for one another the moment their eyes met.

When they awoke the next morning, Maurine mentioned her apprehension about going to work because of Shelly’s accusation.

Maureen took the nervous woman’s face in her hands and with a look of fierce determination said, “Maybe this Shelly-person is right.”

“What?” Maurine almost said more and stopped herself because she realized it was far too early days for her to be appearing vulnerable and overly sensitive.

“What I mean is even though we just met, I believe you are special and should only associate with high-status people or institutions! You should demand excessive admiration and have a sense of entitlement that demands favorable treatment and automatic compliance for everything you do! Shelly, who I must point out was interpersonally exploitative and took advantage of your kind and trusting nature, must be placed at the very top of your To-Do list as you give as good as you’ve gotten and absolutely lack empathy when you crush her like the bug she is. In fact, you should quit your job, right now!” Maureen reached over to the nightstand and snatched up Maurine’s smartphone, shoving it at her. “Do it! Show them who’s in control of your destiny!”

“But…” Maurine started, taking the phone but not dialing. “But I need my job. I need the money.”

Maureen shook her head and laughed, “Oh, honey, no you don’t. I have more money than you can imagine and if you’ll have me, everything that’s mine is yours.”

Have her? There was nothing more that Maurine wanted than to have this magnificent woman in her life from now ’til forevermore. “I—I can’t take your money like that.”

“You’re not taking anything. I’m giving it to you. You know what? Hand me your phone,” Maureen put out her hand.

“Why, what are you going to do?”

“What needs to be done,” Maureen gently plucked the phone from Maurine’s loose grip and scrolled through the contact list, stopping at the entry marked Michele McIntyre. “Shelly, I assume?”

Maurine nodded and started to object but Maureen pressed a finger against her lips as she tapped the Call button. After a moment, “Shelly? Hi, this is Maurine,” Maureen’s tone was so over the top sweet it nearly gave Maurine a toothache. “I don’t remember if I did it or not yesterday but I just wanted to congratulate you on your promotion. There is one thing I need you to know, though I absolutely forgive you for the underhanded way you backstabbed me in front of the entire company and I wish you nothing but the best, I am subject to caprices. Since we’re such office besties I wanted to advise you to keep looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life just in case I decide to change my mind and be less forgiving. Oh and don’t worry about taking any disciplinary action against me at work because I quit. Byeeeee, bitch!” Maureen tapped the End Call button and tossed the phone on the bed.

“I—that…” Maurine struggled to get the words out.

“Yes?”

“That. Was. Incredible!” Maurine leaned forward, throwing her arms around the smiling woman. But she broke the hug and held Maureen at arm’s length, a worried expression playing on her face. “Wait. Did you mean what you said…”

“About the money?”

“What? No! About us being together.”

Maureen took her face by the chin, “I’m yours, honey. And whether you want it or not, the money is too.” They kissed and fell back into the bed. It would be hours before they rose again.

Maurine mentioned how much she liked her house, so Maureen arranged to move in with her and despite all the odds for a love at first sight relationship lasting and remaining healthy, they were happy. Any arguments or disagreements were minuscule compared to their love and were resolved almost immediately. Both their parents had raised them not to go to bed on an argument and they both had the marvelous knack of talking things out to the minutest detail until clarity existed on both sides.

When the laws changed and same-sex marriage had been legalized in both their city and state, they both took turns in proposing to one another. Neither Maurine nor Maureen considered themselves lesbian or bisexual because gender wasn’t an issue in their relationship. They weren’t sleeping with another woman, they were one person sleeping with themselves, a point that made its way into their wedding vows. To their surprise, Shelly showed up at the service, contrite and presenting them with the most expensive gift from their bridal registry as a peace offering.

Married life hadn’t dulled their affection for one another but a few years in, Maurine felt as if something was missing. During one of their nightly pillow talk sessions, an idea formed and turned itself into a desire which slipped past her lips before she realized what she was saying.

“I want a baby.”

Not The End…

Fending Off Them Pesky Writing Demons

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There will be days, despite all the brilliant advice you’ve collected up to this point and your very best intentions, when you will not be able to write a single word. I just need you to realize:

You. Are. Not. Alone. In. This.

Every writer falls victim to these pesky writing demons at some point, but what marks your ability as a serious writer is how you rise to the challenge and get your writing back on track, secure in the knowledge that you have the power to keep the negative mental beasties at bay. As always, I offer a few tips for you to stuff inside your writing rucksack for a rainy day:

  1. When you pluck an idea from the ether, jot it down immediately. Ideas arrive without warning and evaporate from your mind like a dream upon waking. When you’re hit with an idea, you’re always sure you’ll remember it. Foolish mortal. How many story ideas have you lost relying solely on your overtaxed memory? When an idea hits, take a moment to put it in writing—we tend to remember things we physically write down—or carry around a digital voice recorder or use that recording app on your smartphone that you forgot you have.
  2. Don’t start on a blank page. La página en blanco. La page vierge. Die leere seite. La malplenan paĝon. Den tomma sidan. Built entirely of writers’ blocks, the blank page is the fire in which writers burn. The abyss that stares back and makes us overthink committing words to the page. The way to combat it? Don’t start with a blank page. Put something at the top of the page. Anything. A random sentence, the story’s mission statement, or ask a question. Better yet, have a character ask a question and then set out to answer it. Whatever you put there isn’t set in stone and can be altered or eliminated entirely once you work out what you truly want to write.
  3. You don’t always have to begin at the beginning. Sometimes you’re hit with a juicy dialogue exchange, a powerful scene, or an intense interaction…but it belongs somewhere in the middle of a story that you haven’t quite sussed out yet. That’s all right. Take what you have and get it down on paper without worrying about the order in which scenes are written. Once you have that, you can begin fleshing out other connecting scenes and when your basic draft is done, you can go back, reshuffle the order and polish it.
  4. Stop waiting for the perfect word. When you sit down to write, write. Flipping through your mental thesaurus is not part of the creative process of capturing your ethereal ideas and solidifying them on the page. Keep writing. Don’t let anything take you away from the act of committing words to the page. Write first, and show your brilliance later.
  5. Cheat on your favorite writing spot. Yes, yes, cheating is a bad thing and I would never condone it anywhere else, for any other reason (honest), but sometimes you can become so comfortable writing in one particular place that it ends up being the only place you can get your writing done. By venturing out and writing in new locations—the park, public library, coffee shop, public atriums—you’re training yourself to put words on paper wherever you are. The ideal location doesn’t make you a writer, your ability to write no matter where you are situated does.
  6. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. There’s only so much revision, re-editing, and perfecting a story can take. There comes a time in each story’s life when you’re going to have to accept that your baby is all grown up now and it’s about as perfect as you can make it. Also, continuously reworking a story is a little mind game you play with yourself. It’s an excuse for not starting on the next story, the one that really needs your attention. Stop holding yourself back. On to the next one.
  7. Develop agitation towards procrastination. It’s not your friend, really, it’s not. Despite how clever you think you’re being by justifying your reasons for not writing, you’re only hurting yourself because writing doesn’t get easier the more you fob it off. It simply means you have less time to do it. Writing isn’t the enemy here, time is. Make time to be heard.

There are many other writing demons and sometime in the future I’ll address the more serious ones—insecurity, self-doubt, jealousy—but I will leave you with two parting thoughts: 1) Part of maturing as a writer is coming to the realization that your writing will never be the perfect little darling in the real world as it is in your mind, and 2) Writing something that’s acceptable (but not quite perfect) is a damn sight better than not writing anything at all.

Sally forth and be demon fend offingly writeful.

Joey Mac and the Pearlescent Unicorn Uniform (Part 1)

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His job made Joseph MacDonal II, Joey Mac to his pals, the enemy of the world and a target for assassination. He was one of the few people on the planet trained and licensed to butcher unicorns and prepare their meat for consumption. This also put him at odds with PAUTU (People Against the Unethical Treatment of Unicorns) who accused him of unicorn genocide.

The thing that stuck in everyone’s craw, more than selling unicorn steaks, chops, and burgers, was the butchery aspect, though that was the bit they all had gotten wrong. Yes, Joey was technically a unicorn butcher, but the proper definition was:

/ˈbo͝oCHər/ – NOUN
A person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.

which he did. What most folks failed to understand, though it was a matter of public record, was that his license hadn’t included or even allowed the hunting or slaughtering of unicorns or any other animals. In fact, Joey never killed a thing in his life. Insects that crossed his path were the subject of a strict catch, relocate and release system.

At this moment, Joey sat across from a field news reporter undergoing makeup in preparation for the live broadcast. He found her cute in a cable news presenter sort of way, and probably would have been more attracted to her if she hadn’t had that I’ll-make-my-bones-off-this-story hungry look in her eyes.

She ignored him completely, even brushing off his initial “Hello” until the cameraman counted her down. When the station anchor threw to her, the field reporter beamed a smile so unnaturally white, that it would have stood out in a blizzard.

“Thank you, Sylvia. I’m here with noted unicorn slaughterer, Joseph MacDonal,” the field reporter said, finally locking her predatory eyes on him.

“Actually, I’m a unicorn butcher…”

“Same difference, isn’t it?”

“Actually, there’s a big dif–‘

“What made you decide to embark on this horrible profession?” she interrupted.

***

The economy had been in the crapper since before God talked to Moses and Joey hadn’t worked in forever. And even though he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to do what analysts suggested and set aside six months’ worth of salary in a high yield account before he was made redundant at the meatpacking plant, now going on his tenth year, all that money was little more than a distant memory.

A Christian in name more than practice, it had been years since the soles of his shoes touched the floor of a church and that time was his best friend’s wedding, a wife twice removed. To say Joey was out of practice with the proper act of prayer would have been an understatement. His first attempt came off as more of a bitch session, with him blaming his parents for his rotten upbringing and lambasting society for its prejudice of gingers, which, he reckoned, was the chief reason for his being kept down by the man. Surprisingly, he saw no results.

His second attempt at prayer was akin to a letter to Santa, in which he listed all the positive things he’d ever done in life and expected a little compensation for his good behavior. Again, results were not forthcoming.

Third time was the charm, however, when he realized that he should have admitted his sin, expressed thanks for the things he had, and humbly requested the one thing he needed most: a job.

He put no expectation on the prayer and went about his normal daily existence, when, a week later, he received a phone call. Seemed that a friend of a friend knew a guy who knew a guy who had a roommate who was related to a woman who owned her own business was looking for someone in his line of work.

Joey arrived at the interview, résumé in hand, and launched into his well-rehearsed spiel when the businesswoman waived him off and ushered him into a small kitchen area.

“Show me what you can do,” she gestured at a section of the animal carcass, a shank, by the look of it, that rested atop a butcher block countertop.

Joey inspected the meat before touching a utensil. Not beef, pork, nor lamb, the texture was something he had never encountered before. A grain-like beef, yet soft to the touch like flan, and it shimmered without a light source as if it were bioluminescent.  “What is this?” he asked.

“Are you interested in the job or not? I don’t have all day,” she drummed her fingers on her crossed arms.

Joey sighed, selected a knife from the butcher block and approached the slab of meat, much in the same manner a sculptor would a block of marble, envisioning the cuts before blade touched flesh. With no idea what type of animal he was dealing with, there was no way of telling how this woman expected it to be prepared, so he simply followed his instincts and let the meat talk to him. And in a way, it did.

Every time the stainless steel edge portioned the strange meat, Joey thought he heard a high-pitched tone, like the sound of a moistened finger running along the rim of a crystal goblet. A sound that broke his heart. But in the aftermath, when the tone was just about to become inaudible, he heard a voice inside his head. It said two words:

forgive you

and he felt a permission was granted. This had not relieved the wave of guilt that flooded over him but it gave him the desire to do something with his own life worthy of this unknown animal’s sacrifice.

When he was done, the businesswoman nodded her approval, “Every bit the professional you claimed to be.” And it was a professional job. Every cut was perfect, none too generous, nor too small, and there were absolutely no scraps. He utilized every last bit of the meat.

“I’m curious, what type of meat is this?”

“Unicorn,” she said very matter of factly.

“Uni-excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“I don’t get the gag,” Joey inwardly chastised himself on his tone. If his dumb mouth cost him the job, he’d…

“I’m quite serious,” the woman took him by the upper arm in a grip tighter than he was comfortable with and led him through a maze of stairwells and corridors, down, down, so far down beneath street level that he expected to see passage markers scratched into the walls by Arne Saknussemm.

Their destination was a room designed to look like a field, complete with grass, trees, and rocks. Had he been blindfolded and dropped here, Joey would have sworn he was outside. The room was so vast, he couldn’t see the far wall. The only telltale sign this was, in fact, an indoor facility were the track lights that provided sunlight, positioned incredibly high overhead, but even they were mostly obscured by the clouds of the room’s self-contained weather system. But as fascinating as all this was, by far the most mindblowing thing were the unicorns grazing in the field.

“They’re real?” Joey asked.

The woman couldn’t suppress her chuckle, “Our organization, as advanced as it is, isn’t able to manufacture live unicorns.”

“But how is this possible?” Joey took a cautious step into the room and felt the spongy grass beneath his shoe. He moved slowly as not to spook a unicorn no more than ten feet away. The unicorn paid him no mind.

“Some trapper with an overabundance of dumb luck caught the last pair in existence by accident. Fortunately for him, and us, they were a stallion and mare. We made him a very wealthy man in order to breed them in captivity.”

“For food?” there went his tone again, but this time he didn’t care.

The woman shrugged. “There’s nothing else we can do with them. You can’t ride them. Young, old, virginal, virtuous… it doesn’t matter. They simply won’t allow it. Utilize the horn for its magical properties? It’s only magical for the unicorn, there’s no transference of power. Grinding down the horn and ingesting the powder for immortality? Turns out the human body is unable to digest the powder.”

“Then why not let them go?”

“Not until we recoup our investment. And we can’t risk one of our competitors getting hold of them and creating a revenue source we haven’t managed to think up ourselves… yet.”

“This is going to sound strange,” Joey said. “But I don’t know if I can do this.”

Not The End…

Climbing The Freytag Pyramid (or getting on top of dramatic structure)

ImageScholars have been analyzing the structure of drama for nearly as long as it’s been written or performed. One of the more notable studies belongs to nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag and his “Die Technik des Dramas” (Technique of the Drama).

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He didn’t originate the concept, mind you, Aristotle introduced the idea of the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe—beginning, middle, and ending—three-act plot structure, which was later replaced with drama critic Horace’s five-act structure.

But creators are never satisfied with the status quo, so when playwrights began toying around with three and four-act plays, Freytag wrote a definitive structure study—referred to as Freytag Pyramid—that explained the necessity of dividing a standard drama into the following five acts:

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Stage 1: Exposition—as discussed in an earlier post—introduces the setting of the story, the characters, their situation, atmosphere, theme, and the circumstances of the conflict. Traditionally, exposition occurs during the opening scenes of a story, and when expertly executed background information is only gradually revealed through dialogue between major and minor characters.

Stage 2: Rising action—sometimes called complication and development—begins with the point of attack that sets a chain of actions in motion by either initiating or accelerating conflict. Difficulties arise, which intensifies the conflict while narrowing the possible outcomes at the same time. Complications usually come in the form of the discovery of new information, the unexpected opposition to a plan, the necessity of making a choice, characters acting out of ignorance or from outside sources such as war or natural disasters.

In this stage, the related series of incidents always build toward the point of greatest interest.

Stage 3: Climax—is the turning point, where the protagonist’s journey is changed, for the better or the worse. In comedies, the protagonist’s luck changes from bad to good, due to their drawing on hidden inner strengths. Drama is the other side of the coin, where things take a turn for the worse and reveal the protagonist’s hidden weaknesses.

Stage 4: Falling action—during this stage, the conflict unravels and the protagonist either wins or loses against the antagonist. This is also where a moment of final suspense might be found, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

Stage 5: Dénouement—also known as resolution, or catastrophe— in drama, brings the events from the end of the falling action stage to the actual closing scene. Conflicts are resolved in a manner that either creates normality and a sense of catharsis for the characters, or release of tension and anxiety for the audience. In comedy, the protagonist is always better off than they were at the beginning of the story. And in tragedy, the protagonist is worse off in the end—hence the alternate title for this stage, catastrophe.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, Freytag’s analysis wasn’t meant for modern drama. For starters, front-loading your story with exposition is usually the kiss of death for your audience’s declining attention span. If exposition is truly needed, it should occur naturally within your story in the smallest fragments possible.

Also, modern storytellers tend to use falling action to raise the stakes of the climax for dramatic impact, having the protagonist fall short of their goal, encountering their greatest fear of losing something or someone important to them. And when they’re at their lowest point, they’re struck with an epiphany, giving the protagonist the courage to take on the final obstacle, resulting in the classic climax.

And there you have it.

Sally forth and dramatic structuringly writeful.

Busker For The Dead (Part 1)

I don’t have that look. Some people do, but I’m not so lucky. I don’t look like my profession. I’m a busker. Don’t laugh, it’s a living. Problem is, when you shut your eyes and picture a busker in your mind, be they small or tall, slight or portly, I will never fit the bill. I have the unfortunate appearance of someone whose job title is preceded by the word man. Milkman. Mailman. Garbageman. Just not a streetmusicman.

You may be asking why this is important. Fair enough question. When you’re panhandling for money—come on, let’s face facts, street performing is begging with a musical accompaniment—having the look of a starving artist plays as much a part in getting people to part with their hard-earned cash as talent.

“Oh, look at the poor wretch having to sing for his supper, let’s toss him a pittance, shall we, dear?”

Some of the others have nailed the look down from the hair that refuses to be tamed to the ragged clothes just over the borderline from being hip and trendy. Me? I look like a well-fed blue-collar worker trying out a new hobby. That’s why I have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as my compadres. My audiences tend to be tight-fisted, self-absorbed philistines that expect blood for the bits of copper they toss my way.

Oh, I should probably mention that I busk for the dead.

Not the kind of job you rush out and apply for. Me? I kinda just fell into it. Turns out a friend of a friend knew a guy who used to work for the cousin of a woman who lived next door to a guy who was complaining that his employee just up and quit on him. Seems he couldn’t handle the stress of performing in Perdition, which I can plainly understand now.

What? No, I’m very much alive, thanks for asking. My work ID acts as a sort of day pass and allows me to mull about in Hell without experiencing any of the torment and damnation. Kinda cool, but it takes some getting used to.

Although it’s a paying gig, it ain’t enough to cover rent and bills—minimum wage in Hell is murder, no pun intended, so I rely heavily on the gratuity chucked into my hat. And yes, the dead have real money. Don’t ask me how that works. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the day pass into Hell thing.

My spot is the corner of Abaddon and Wretchedness, and while a part of the overall design of Hell, it’s technically Limbo, the waiting area where souls are processed and dispatched according to assessment. And as time moves differently in Hell, the wait can be an extensive one, so you figure folks would jump at the chance to experience anything that takes their minds off the situation at hand. That is so not the case. When facing damnation, the furthest thing from their minds is to listen to anyone sing. This is made evident from the contents of my hat. Today’s take so far consists of three dollars and eighteen cents in coins, a stick of chewing gum, a balled-up snotty tissue, and a punch card from some boutique java spot with one punch away from receiving a free coffee. The coins stay in the hat, the gum in my mouth, the tissue—ick—in the trash, and the punch card in my pocket. I’m not one to go in for designer coffee but like The Police sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”

“Not what I expected,” a voice says from behind, nearly startling me out of my skin.

I turn to see a woman in her sixties, seventies, maybe—I’ve never been good at guestimating people’s ages—all done up as if for a night on the town. “You’re not the first person to say that.”

“And is it just me or is it chilly here?”

She was right, you’d figure being so close to Hell there’d be some sort of radiant heat, but there was a constant wind that blew shivers down the spine. “Not just you.”

“You’re not half bad, you know.” the woman said, looking into the hat. “You deserve more than that.”

I look up and down the avenue, We’re the only two people on the street at the moment. “It’s like they say, it all comes down to location, location, location.”

The woman opens her purse, a small clutch bag that’s a throwback to a classier time, and produces a two-dollar bill. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of carrying cash, so this is all I have.”

“It’s the biggest tip I’ve received in a long while.” I smile as she places the bill into the hat.

“Not that I’ll have much need for it anymore.”

“Not unless you were crossing the river Styx.”

“You mean the ferryman doesn’t accept the card?” the woman pulls out an obsidian credit card. “I was told never to leave home without it.”

It’s an outdated reference, but we both chuckle at it.

“If you’ll pardon the intrusion,” the woman asks. “How did it happen?”

“How did what happen?”

“How did you die? Peacefully, I hope.”

“Oh, no. I’m not dead, I just work here.” I show the woman my day pass.

“How interesting.” and she appears to actually find it interesting but her expression drops.

“What’s the matter?”

“It would be my luck that the first conversation I strike up in the afterlife would be with a living person. I was sort of hoping to find a travel companion for what lies ahead. I’ve always dreaded doing things by myself.”

“I’m not sure that’s how it works here. I think isolation is part of the torment process.” I realize what I’m saying just a smidgen too late to pull it back.

“Torment. I hadn’t considered that.”

“Sorry.”

“Not your fault. You’re not responsible for my sins.”

“I know I’ve just met you but it’s hard to believe you’d have anything to worry about.”

“Kind of you to say, but we’re all sinners in one fashion or another. I just wish there was a way for me to plead my case. I believe my sins were righteous.”

“You can always try.”

“No, no. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”

“Maybe if you practiced, rehearsed what you want to say? You can try it out on me and I’ll give you my honest feedback.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“What have you got to lose? If you botch it up, you’re still being condemned anyway, at least this way you’ll have had your say.”

“Like my final words?”

“Exactly.”

She contemplates it long and hard. “All right then, if it wouldn’t be a bother.”

I gesture up and down the block. “Not like I’m doing anything else. Ready?”

“No, but go on.”

I straighten my posture and assume an authoritative voice. “You stand here accused of the sin of…”

“Murder,” she adds, sheepishly.

“Murder,” I repeat, stunned. “What say you in your defense?”

“I don’t deserve to be here. I was sent to the wrong place. I did what needed to be done, what no one else had the courage to do and now I’m being punished for my actions.”

“And whose life did you take?”

“My own.”

“Why?”

“Others would have died if I didn’t.”

Not The End…

Do You Blindside Yourself With Your Writing? If Not, Why Not?

“Surprise yourself.  If you can bring the story—or let it bring you—to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader.” — Chuck Palahniuk

Has your writing ever blindsided you? Have your characters ever caught you off guard by saying or doing something clever or revealing a bit of information that you yourself didn’t know? When re-reading a piece that you set aside to cool, have you ever wondered where the ideas, voices, and speculative elements came from and if you have any more of that inside you?

The answer is: Of course, there’s more.

Writing is a journey of discovery, and one of the great pleasures of storytelling is that you discover the amazing things that dwell in your brain, things about yourself and your thought processes that you might not otherwise uncover. And besides self-expression, isn’t that the major point of writing?

So, how do you blindside yourself with your talent? You simply let go.

Get out of your own head and write on instinct. Park the perfectionist on the soft shoulder and write your ever-loving heart out. This is part and parcel of learning to be kind to yourself as you write. Your genius can’t flow steadily with someone backseat editing the entire trip. You can always swing back around and pick up the bugger when you’re ready to begin the rewrite.

And don’t begin your story fretting about how it will end. Your story is smarter than you give it credit for. When it’s done, you’ll see the pop-up timer.

It’s essential to keep in mind whenever you pick up a pen or touch fingertips to keyboard that you’re doing it from a position on the shoulders of the literary giants who came before you, the ones who surprised you with their words, so every time you write, you should follow their lead and surprise yourself.

Until next time, sally forth and be surprising yourselfingly writeful.

PS. If you have roughly an hour to kill—I know, it’s the internet and you’ve got memes to see and threads to troll—you could do a lot worse than lending an ear to Ray Bradbury’s 2001 “Telling the Truth” keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea.

Not only does he counsel aspiring writers to spend their time writing lots of short stories—even if they’re mostly bad, there’s gotta be a couple of good ones in the bunchbut he also suggests to write with joy and for fun, and to let yourself be surprised by your writing and by life.

Tiny Stories: The Million Dollar Choice

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

The cloth bag placed over her head not only prevented her from seeing where she was being taken but also blocked out all sound. Erica had no idea technology like that even existed. When the bag was removed, she found herself seated in a small nondescript room with a high-end tripod-mounted camera trained on her.

On the table before her sat an open attache case filled with twelve stacks of $100 dollar bills, eighty-three used and non-sequential notes to a stack. Beside the case were two glasses of red wine, one untampered with and the other laced with a deadly toxin.

Erica heard about things like this, private rooms on the dark web where people with money, people to whom a million dollars wasn’t life-changing like it was for her, but merely pocket change, wagered on the lives of the desperate and destitute. There were Russian roulette rooms, perverse puzzle rooms, and deadly escape rooms. She had gotten off lucky, she supposed. Hers was a simple fifty-fifty choice.

If she chose correctly, Erica stood to walk away with enough tax-free money to pay off her debts and do things the right way this time around. The smart choice would have been to ignore the invitation in the first place and find some other way to repair her damaged life, but she was inflicted with a serious gambling disease, something she inherited from her mother, and the opportunity was simply too good to pass up.

The catch? She was a lousy gambler, notorious for making bad choices even when she second-guessed herself, and her fatal flaw was that she could never pass up a dare or a bet.

Erica wasn’t allowed to touch the glasses before making her choice, so her eyes darted left to right, from one to the other, looking for the slightest discoloration between the two, and she even sniffed the air above each glass, which was pointless. These people were professionals and whatever lethal venom they used was no doubt undetectable by sight or smell.

She had a feeling in her waters that the one on the left was the dead cert unpoisoned wine glass, but was it strategically placed just a half-inch closer to her to make her select it subconsciously? Then she opted for the one on the right but suspected she was outfoxing herself. Then there was the possibility that both glasses had been tampered with. No, she couldn’t allow herself to think that way. Morty, the guy who set up this bet, had always been a straight shooter. He looked out for her whenever he could. Even when you made a habit of dealing with less than reputable people, you had to place your trust in someone. So Erica girded her loins and went with her initial instinct.

Was it her overactive imagination playing tricks on her or did she feel a static shock of electricity as she lifted the glass on the left by the stem? She tilted the snifter slowly, praying to the gods of luck and good fortune, and the moment the chilled wine touched her trembling lips, she knew…

The Island of Misfit Posts #2: No Enemy But Time

Like its predecessor, Discouraged by Discouragement, this pesky fella here is another one of those posts that didn’t quite turn out as expected and ended up on the cutting room floor (though a part of its sentiment made its way into You’re Where You Are). Caught somewhere between my musings of growing older while still struggling with the craft and my intent of advising impatient writers to slow down, the post started taking the shape of something neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring:

“Do you think, I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable!” — Julius Caesar

When you reach a certain age, you become acutely aware of time, how much you’ve squandered on things you swore were important at the moment, and how little you still have left in your account. Whenever I get the time brain bug, I’m always brought back to the line from Delmore Schwartz’s poem, Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day (quoted in that horrendous film Star Trek: Generations), “Time is the fire in which we burn.” I love that line. It resonates within me.

But I digress.

Many aspiring authors feel the pressures of time, either believing because of their age that they’ve gotten a late start in the writing process and need to play catch up, or simply haven’t got the proper time to devote to a writing regime, so they attempt to bang out herculean writing tasks without bothering to first learn the rules. They assume because they’ve taken on board the advice to write everyday that their skill set automatically improves and mistakes auto-correct themselves. They read, as instructed, but fail to apply storytelling rules—plotting, story goals, scenes and sequences, the purpose of characters, effective use of dialogue—to their own work.

That’s not to say their writing is bad, it simply lacks a consistent quality. A beautiful bit of prose or a dynamic character can easily get lost in the quagmire of weak grammar, poor pacing, and a meandering plot. Recognizing it can sometimes be hard to turn an objective eye on your own writing, here are a few questions to ask yourself, to see if you need to go back to writers boot camp:

1. Do you tell a story?

I assume you’re familiar with the phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” This applies to your writing as well, especially when you’re concentrating on your piece at the word choice and sentence structure level. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and get a big picture view of what you’re attempting to do, what it is you’re really trying to write about. The answer isn’t always as clear cut as you’d imagine.

2. Is your writing concise?

This one’s a toughie, because it calls on you to chuck out everything you learned in school about the proper way to write an essay. Well, this ain’t about writing essays, bub (or bubette, no gender discrimination here) and the rules of pacing language are different in fiction. The first rule you need to learn is: Never use a long sentence when a short one does the same job.

3. Are you addicted to adjectives and adverbs?

Adjectives and adverbs are among the more hotly debated issues in the writing community, and while opinions vary, the common rule of thumb is less is more. It can be hard to spot over usage while writing so when you’re done with your piece, look for chains–a string of adjective and adverb two or greater—and whittle it down until you’re left with one or two essential ones. Also worth bearing in mind, when you feel the need to modify a noun or a verb, make sure they need to be modified. If they do, select the best word to convey your meaning.

4. Are you familiar with the word “subtle?”

Your audience is smarter than you realize. There’s no need for you to spell everything out in exacting detail. And, believe it or not, some folks actually enjoy interpreting things for themselves.

5. Should you be shifting viewpoints?

Hopping from one character’s head to another without causing audience confusion requires a certain level of skill, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t be doing it (and if I told you not to, you’d rush out and do it anyway) but why not baby step your way towards it? Work on mastering the one character viewpoint first.

6. Do you show too much?

Yes, the standard rule is “show, don’t tell” but you don’t need to show everything. When in doubt, refer to Elmore Leonard’s rule,”Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

7. Do you create apathetic characters?

You’re an artist, your work is all about the truth, even in fiction. I get it. I’ve been there. But creating a realistic character based on your current bout of apathy, depression, or (heaven forbid) suicidal thoughts, often doesn’t make for good reading. Your characters must have wants and needs to push the plot forward. Audiences have no need to read stories where the characters have no desire to live or accomplish something.

8. Is your antagonist one dimensional?

Villains that are evil for evil’s sake are boring. Flesh them out with wants and needs like you would your main character. And remember, every villain is a hero in their own mind.

9. Does your dialogue matter?

Yes, leaving white on the page is a good thing as no one like slogging through dense blocks of description, but are you breaking up paragraphs with bits of meaningless chatter? Dialogue should be used as a communication between characters that evokes reaction. One characters says something that another character reacts to, which sparks a reaction, and so on, until the scene concludes. If you have no idea what your character has to say, then you don’t know your character well enough.

10. Can you write an ending?

Some people excel at writing beginnings, and that all they’re good at. Each chapter is a new beginning, with no middle to be found and as for an ending? I’m sure you can work out the answer to that. Other people get off to a slow start in the beginning, come into their own in the middle and peter out at the finish line. Let’s face it, endings are tough. Not only must you keep it clear and simple while you deliver on the promise of the premise (without being didactic), but you have to tie up all your story’s loose ends, and if you’re planning to surprise your audience, it shouldn’t be with an inappropriate twist, added for shock value. Keep in mind that writing the words “The End” doesn’t finish a story if it has no resolution.

In truth, I couldn’t finish it because I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind at the time. Although it might not be visible in the post, that damned time brain bug kept nagging at me, not with words, but with a feeling — the feeling of being left behind in the race for achievement. Before you say a word, I know better. In fact, one of my favorite quotes on this matter comes from the now-famous commencement speech, Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

“The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

But we’re human, aren’t we? And sometimes knowing a truth doesn’t prevent you from feeling the exact opposite.

Sally forth and be time-ignoringly writeful.